2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize shortlist and reviews

May 31st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

On June 6, the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize for fiction originally published in English/translation in 2011 will be announced.  There are 10 shortlisted works, listed below.  Over the next week or so, reviews of each of these books will appear here (two have already been posted, including one from well before the shortlist was announced) and this post will also serve as a links page for those reviews:

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur

Kjersti A. Skomsvold, The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory

Andrew Miller, Pure

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

Tommy Wieringa, Caesarion (Little Caesar in the US)

 

 

Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur (2011)

May 30th, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

Meta-narratives are tricky beasts.  Author-as-pseudocharacter so easily can fail on a number of fronts:  lack of intrigue in the metacharacter; stilted, artificial prose that renders the narrative as only a technique and not one that “breathes”; plots that collapse under the weight of the levels of narrative and theme.  Yet when an author manages to pull it off, it is something to behold.  In his 2011 novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips has created a dual-level narrative that first entrances the reader before entrapping her within its web.

Desire lurks at the heart of The Tragedy of Arthur.  It is only fitting, considering how desire (for self-improvement, power, lust, love, zealous faith) occupies the center of so many tragic narrative webs.  It is a tale of Arthur, who shares many biographical details in common with the author, who has a long, complicated relationship with his father, a master forger.  It is a story of a reader’s befuddlement regarding William Shakespeare and the enduring power that this playwright and poet has had for the past four centuries.  It is this and much more, as the story feels so brutally direct and “human” that it is easy to overlook in the beginning Phillips’ narrative sleight-of-hand that makes the direction of this tale so fascinating to read even when the “tragedy” becomes apparent to readers.

The core narrative deals with Arthur’s decades-long relationship with his father, his sister, and their lionizing of Shakespeare.  Shakespeare’s themes, quotes, and literary approaches are thrust at Arthur at a young age.  He wants to rebel against this overwhelming project of first his father and then later his sister, but he is weak, easily succumbing to these two stronger-willed individuals, with some self-loathing resulting from it.  As Arthur develops his love-hate relationship with Shakespeare after his father’s lengthy absences due to his prison terms for forgery, a complex portrait emerges of the father:

“I will not try to excuse my father’s acts.  His acts were his own.  His mistakes, crimes, defeats:  these were his own.  As Shakespeare wrote, I would not have it any other wise, and that is surely how my father felt.  But I will say this of his life:  he believed that the world could be transformed completely, if only occasionally, if only for one person at a time, but that was something, and that was worth it.  There are times when I consider some of his greatest creations, his most selfless creations, and I feel cowardly in comparison when I think of what he hoped to achieve in his work.

“A novelist tries to capture a person in a phrase (a walk-on character), or a paragraph (a minor character), or a page (a major character), or a whole book (for the protagonist), but how to describe an entire life of a real person?  Not in snatches of action or frame-frozen descriptions, but over a whole life?  My father eludes my abilities.  I can write a paragraph about him for you, but it seems to miss everything, even though it’s all true:

***

“As far as an accurate portrait of my father, I don’t know if that paragraph is him or not.  This writerly method fictionalizes him, cuts off so much of him – so many contradictions, extenuations, annexes, chapters – that what remains is only a shadow of him, a shadow of his hopes, and a shadow of his griefs.  It seems impossible to descend through all the layers of him at even a single moment or at a single decision.  I consider even one of his pedestrian crimes, and I ask myself, What motivated him?  His worst moments can be explained by:  his wonder-lust philosophy, bitterness, pride in his craftsmanship, mere habit, inevitability, simple greed and thoughtlessness, genetic selfishness bordering on criminality, love.  I can hardly pull the burrs away to find the man underneath…” (pp. 218-219 e-book edition, Ch. 37)

Arthur’s father certainly looms large over this complex narrative.  He has not only shaped, willy-nilly, both Arthur and his sister, but he has willed to Arthur something that is either the find of the century or his greatest forgery ever:  a weathered, battered copy of a “lost” play of Shakespeare’s, The Tragedy of Arthur.  It is within this play, which is reproduced in whole as the second half of the book, that Phillips explores so many issues:  the influence of Shakespeare’s diction on our own; the ways in which readers idolize writers and raise them above the level of mere mortals in the case of Shakespeare and a rare few others; human desires for things to be good even when they are not “true” or “just”; the power that myths have even in today’s more secular age on motivating us; and the binds that tie us together may chafe us to the point of distraction.  It is almost surprising that Phillips manages to weave these weighty and sometimes disparate elements into a cohesive whole; by every right, this novel should have collapsed under the weight of its pretensions.

Yet it succeeds and it does so in spectacular fashion.  In Arthur and his sister we see not just the parallels with Shakespeare’s characters, but also of our own lives.  In the father is a mirror of not just Iago but also every storyteller.  The details of Arthur and his family’s lives are well-drawn and the foibles and ruinous relationships resound with readers because they echo, without full replication, themes explored by other talented writers such as Shakespeare.  Yet Shakespeare himself is not the origin nor the terminus of these recastings of human dramas in written form, a point that Phillips-as-Arthur makes several times in the narrative.  Shakespeare is but an embodiment of our own steaming mess of emotions and actions; the English-speaking nations needed a figurehead for these and Shakespeare fit the bill admirably.  In the play itself, so many narrative quirks of Shakespeare are used to create a version of the Camelot tale; it feels “authentic” because of the weight of accumulated cultural inheritances despite our knowledge that it must be “fake.”  This dissonance itself recasts the narrative in a new way, one that makes the details of Arthur’s family and their lives all the more meaningful, because even artifice can serve nature despite itself.  The Tragedy of Arthur ultimately is one of those rare novels where the layers of deceit and metacommentary feel “authentic” and “real” and that even in the (belated) realization that our culturally-trained reader preconceptions have been turned against us the story still possesses a gravitas to it that makes it a memorable reading experience.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night (1934)

May 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

He went back into his house and Nicole saw that one of his most characteristic moods was upon him, the excitement that swept everyone up into it and was inevitably followed by his own form of melancholy, which he never displayed but at which she guessed.  This excitement about things reached an intensity out of proportion to their importance, generating a really extraordinary virtuosity with people.  Save among a few of the tough-minded and perennially suspicious, he had the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love.  The reaction came when he realized the waste and extravagance involved.  He sometimes looked back with awe at the carnivals of affection he had given, as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust.

But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience:  people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years.  He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect.  Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world.  So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done. (pp. 27-28).

For many, the 1920s is an age of carefree revels and rebellious hedonism before the sobering crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.  In literature, it saw the debuts of several talented American writers, from William Faulkner to Sinclair Lewis to Ernest Hemingway to the Midwestern-born but Princeton-educated F. Scott Fitzgerald, each of whom blazed their own path to fame while articulating elements of American society in their stories.  Yet there was a downside to their fame, as three of the four turned to drink to stave off depression and the mounting pressure from readerships that expected more from them.  But it was Fitzgerald who managed best to capture this inebriated-fueled dilemma in his fourth and last-completed novel, Tender is the Night (1934).  Nine years in the making, Tender is the Night has long been overshadowed by the posthumous success of his third novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), but a strong case could be made for Tender is the Night being Fitzgerald’s deepest, most accomplished work of fiction.

Set mostly in the mid-1920s, Tender is the Night revolves around a set of American expatriates living on the French Riviera.  Among these are a young glamorous couple, Dick and Nicole Diver.  In the opening scenes of the book, we witness a key moment in the lives of the Divers.  A young American actress, Rosemary Hoyt, has come with her mother to live in the area and she is immediately attracted to Dick.  A young, talented, and ambitious psychoanalyst, Dick seems to have it all, as between Nicole’s wealth and his charm the two have succeeded in creating a glamor that bedazzles not just Rosemary but others in the Divers’ company.  Yet not all is what it seems.  After a horrific turn of events that involves an accidental death and a nervous breakdown by Nicole, the carefully constructed world that they Divers have created begins to unravel.

Fitzgerald uses extended flashback sequences to show how Dick and Nicole came to be together.  Nicole’s fear of men, the apparent result of a likely incestuous relationship with her father, is a challenge to the young Dr. Diver and despite the opposition from Nicole’s sister, the wealthy heiress Baby Warren, the two marry about five years before the opening events of Tender is the Night.  The narration of Nicole’s initial neuroses and her subsequent breakdown after the death on the Riviera contains some of Fitzgerald’s finest writings.  Although it is easy to see within the text some rather strong and direct autobiographical details (Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda and her battles with mental illness and Fitzgerald’s own battles with alcoholism), Tender is the Night succeeds as a portrait of decline/recovery on its own merits, although a cursory knowledge of the Fitzgeralds’ situation in the early 1930s certainly adds to the power of these scenes.

In the third part of the novel, after Book II’s flashbacks to the early 1920s, there is a role reversal that can be seen.  As Nicole recovers from her relapse, she becomes stronger and less dependent upon Dick.  Dick, on the other hand, has become to drink heavily and he finds himself alienating his partner and clients with his erratic behavior.  Into this maelstrom Rosemary re-enters Dick’s life and the aborted romance of Book I is resumed.  This, however, serves to hasten Dick’s decline and he succumbs to his personal demons, becoming weaker and less respected with each passing scene until finally Nicole leaves him for another man, Tommy.

Such a summary does little justice toward describing Tender is the Night‘s true power.  In passages such as the one quoted at the beginning of this review, Fitzgerald eloquently captures a sense of person and place.  It is easy to view the younger Dick Diver as a metaphor for the then-recently-passed 1920s:  full of vim and vigor, with a ringing headache and horrific hangover to follow.  But this is a simplistic interpretation, as fraught with potential misunderstanding as the view of Dick being an avatar for Fitzgerald himself.  No, Dick Diver is a memorable character for those two reasons and others beyond them.  He embodies not just the author or his age, but also a more universal conundrum that men who succeed early in life often experience:  what to do next?  Dick fails to remain relevant in his wife’s eyes and in those of the community he once served because he has given up on the dreams that he once had and has now settled for a dissipated life that is hollow of meaning and purpose.  His decline, mirrored in certain facets by the ex-pats, particularly Abe North, around him, resonates with those of us who have ever felt that it is “hopeless” to try to push back the obstacles that face us.  For Dick, his constant tending to Nicole during her relapses has drained him of his vitality.  He turns to drink and (briefly) Rosemary in order to forget for a spell the wasted promise of his youth and the dreary future that seems to lie ahead.  His end is small, diminishing in front of us, an appropriate denouement for such a squander of talent.  Yet this conclusion speaks to those of us who have not experienced the particulars of Dick’s recent life:  we may not experience a leisurely life, but many of us can certainly relate to the pressures of caring for another and the energy sapping that this entails.

Tender as the Night succeeds because it is raw, visceral, emotion-laden.  It takes no prisoners and gives no quarter when it comes to characterizations.  No one is spared here and the changes, minute and grand alike, that we witness in not just the lives of the Divers and Rosemary, but also in the other ex-pats who interact with them, are moving because they possess a dark, unsettling truth to them.  This, combined with some of Fitzgerald’s best descriptive writing and deft characterizations makes Tender is the Night a poignant, elegantly-crafted tale that speaks just as clearly to us in the early 21st century as it did when it was first published in 1934.

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874)

May 20th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Before I begin looking at the book itself, a few words as to why I chose to review this instead of the half-dozen others I had recently read. Recently, I had an email conversation that dealt with, among a great many other things, works of fantasy that were challenging and which showed some daring to go away from a now “conventional” model. Afterwards, I started to look through my bookshelves and chose a book that I had bought a few months ago at the urging of a very dear friend of mine. It was Gustave Flaubert’s 1874 classic, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Throw out whatever preconceptions of Flaubert’s work you may have garnered from a read of Madame Bovary or Sentimental Education. This is not a Realist work. Far from it. The book reads like a hallucinatory drama/prose work and its language is extremely vivid. The book has a blurb from Sigmund Freud that I think will set the stage nicely for the quotations to follow:

“[The Temptation of Saint Anthony] calls up not only the great problems of knowledge, but the real riddles of life…and it confirms the awareness of our perplexity in the mysteriousness that reigns everywhere.”

The English translation of this book is contemporary with the book itself, done by Lafcadio Hearn (himself a rather interesting figure) around 1876, and is written in a style which will appear to be rather ornate to the modern reader, but which contains some excellent renderings of Flaubert’s own high style. The story, based on the legenda surrounding the monastic hermit St. Anthony (who lived during the second half of the third century AD) and the various temptations that he faced, has been the subject of Western art for over a millennium now. Flaubert spent over thirty years crafting this story, tossing out elements and altering scenes to fit his own changing opinions regarding what constituted the proper vehicle for approaching this legend steeped in misteria. In the end, Flaubert went with a prose-play form, where in italics, the reader has the “scenes” described at length, before the prose dialogue hits like a thunderclap. Below are some excerpts:

It is in the Thebaid, at the summit of a mountain, upon a platform, rounded off into the form of a demilune, and enclosed by huge stones.

The Hermit’s cabin appears in the background. It is built of mud and reeds, it is flat-roofed and doorless. A pitcher and a loaf of black bread can be distinguished within also, in the middle of the apartment a large book resting on a wooden stela; while here and there, fragments of basketwork, two or three mats, a basket, and a knife lie upon the ground.

Some ten paces from the hut, there is a long cross planted in the soil; and, at the other end of the platform, an aged and twisted palmtree leans over the abyss; for the sides of the mountain are perpendicular, and the Nile appears to form a lake at the foot of the cliff.

The view to right and left is broken by the barrier of rocks. But on the desert-side, like a vast succession of sandy beaches, immense undulations of an ashen-blond color extend one behind the other, rising higher as they recede; and far in the distance, beyond the sands, the Libyan chain forms a chalk-colored wall, lightly shaded by violet mists. On the opposite side the sun is sinking. In the north the sky is of a pearl-gray tint, while at the zenith purple clouds disposed like the tufts of a gigantic mane, lengthen themselves against the blue vault. These streaks of flame take darker tones; the azure spots turn to a nacreous pallor; the shrubs, the pebbles, the earth, all now seem hard as bronze; and throughout space there floats a golden dust so fine as to become confounded with the vibrations of the light.

Saint Anthony

who has a long beard, long hair, and wears a tunic of goatskin, is seated on the ground cross-legged, and is occupied in weaving mats. As soon as the sun disappears, he utters a deep sigh, and gazing upon the horizon:

Another day! another day gone! Nevertheless formerly I used not to be so wretched. Before the end of the night I commenced my orisons; then I descended to the river to get water, and remounted the rugged pathway with the skin upon my shoulder, singing hymns on the way. Then I would amuse myself by arranging everything in my hut. I would make my tools; I tried to make all my mats exactly equal in size, and all my baskets light; for then my least actions seemed to me duties in nowise difficult or painful of accomplishment.

Then at regular hours I ceased working; and when I prayed with my arms extended, I felt as though a fountain of mercy were pouring from the height of heaven into my heart. That fountain is now dried up. Why?… (pp. 9-10)

In this opening scene, not only does the reader get a very detailed (almost too detailed, perhaps) picture of the desolate desert, but the careful reader can see in Saint Anthony’s opening “monologue” some of the disaffection that will serve as the conduit by which the various temptations sent by Satan shall reach him during the course of the night to follow.

Continuing a bit further, this dissatisfaction with his solitary life and his straining against the yoke of holy servitude that he placed upon himself becomes even more apparent:

Laughing bitterly:

A happy life this indeed! – bending palm-branches in the fire to make shepherds’ crooks, fashioning baskets, stitching mats together – and then exchanging these things with the Nomads for bread which breaks one’s teeth! Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! Enough! (pp. 14-15)

But in this moment of frustration, an interesting act occurs that will play an important symbolic foreshadowing role for later in the book:

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

The night is calm; multitudes of stars are palpitating; only the crackling noise made by the tarantulas is audible.

The two arms of the cross make a shadow upon the sand; Anthony, who is weeping, observes it.

Am I, then, so weak, O my God! Courage, let me rise from here! (p. 15)

Anthony, inspired by this perhaps natural occurrence, goes back into his hut and reads passages of how the Most High exalted his believers upon even the most puissant of monarchs. Stories of how the faithful overcame great obstacles and temptations, from avarice to lust to hubris to each of the other Seven Capital Sins. As Saint Anthony falls asleep, Satan himself materializes out of the desert air and his devils begin a bit of mischief that leads to Anthony awakening and being confronted first by the lust-filled “Queen of Sheba,” whom he can barely resist. In the following passage, Satan has assumed the form of a fellow hermit/saint, Saint Hilarion, in order to tempt Anthony to committing the grave sin of heresy:

Hilarion:

Hypocrite! burying thyself in solitude only in order the more fully to abandon thyself to the indulgence of thy envious desires! What if thou dost deprive thyself of meats, of wine, of warmth, of bath, of slaves, or honours? – dost thou not permit thy imagination to offer thee banquets, perfumes, naked women, and the applause of multitudes? Thy chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption, and thy contempt of this world is but the impotence of thy hatred against it! Either this it is that makes such as thyself so lugubrious, or else ’tis doubt. The possession of truth giveth joy. Was Jesus sad? Did he not travel in the company of friends, repose beneath the shade of olive trees, enter the house of the publican, drink many cups of wine, pardon the sinning woman, and assuage all sorrows? Thou, thou hast no pity save for thine own misery. It is like a remorse that gnaws thee, a savage madness that impels thee to repel the caress of a dog or to frown upon the smile of a child.

Anthony:

bursting into tears.

Enough! enough! thou dost wound my heart deeply.

Hilarion:

Shake the vermin from thy rags! Rise up from thy filth! Thy God is not a Moloch who demands human flesh in sacrifice!

Anthony:

Yet suffering is blessed. The cherubim stoop to receive the blood of confessors.

Hilarion:

Admire, then, the Montanists! – they surpass all others.

Anthony:

But it is the truth of the doctrine which makes the martyrdom.

Hilarion:

How can martyrdom prove the excellence of the doctrine, inasmuch as it bears equal witness for error?

Anthony:

Silence! – thou viper!

Hilarion:

Perhaps martyrdom is not so difficult as thou dost imagine. The exhortations of friends, the pleasure of insulting the people, the oath one has taken, a certain dizzy excitement, a thousand circumstances all aid the resolution of the martyrs…

Anthony turns his back upon Hilarion and moves away from him. Hilarion follows him.

Moreover this manner of dying often brings about great disorders. Dionysius, Cyprian and Gregory fled from it. Peter of Alexandria has condemned it; and the council of Elvira…

Anthony:

stops his ears.

I will listen to thee no longer! (pp. 48-49)

And so it continues, each temptation building upon each other, Saint Anthony assailed more and more with each sharp thrust. Flaubert’s story structure lends itself well to creating such highly charged scenes, imaginative in how these temptations are portrayed in both symbolic and literal forms. By the end of this 200 page book, the reader has seen Saint Anthony brought to the cusp of collapsing into concupiscence, only to be granted a last minute reprieve…perhaps. It is this ending (and for any who know the story of St. Anthony, this is no “spoiler,” as it takes a close reading of how Flaubert presents this well-known end for the full effect to hit the reader) that left me feeling drained, exhausted, and full of questions and images of what would happen in a similar case. This is an effect that most books lately have not had upon me and it is a rather addictive one, I will admit. I can only hope that those reading this may be persuaded into looking at this somewhat-obscure gem of Flaubert’s and to give it a chance. Unsettling works of such a nature as this are none-too-common and perhaps it’ll be an intoxicating read for you as well. Most highly recommended.

The Great Gatsby (1974 movie)

May 15th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

Cinema is a very different medium from literature, no matter how frequently and how in-depth directors appropriate literary works in creating their cinematic adaptations.  Often films labeled “based on the novel” are wretched, turgid affairs not because the directors fail to be faithful enough to the source material but instead because they are too faithful, at least to the letter of the story and not to its spirit.  This is especially notable when the source material is a classic that has the mass readership comparable to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.  In the 88 years since its release, four cinema versions (only three are extant – 1949, 1974, 2013 – with the 1926 silent film version being mostly “lost”) and one television mini-series (2000) have been released.  Of these adaptations, I have seen the 1974 and 2013 versions and over the course of two reviews, I plan on noting the ways that both approach Fitzgerald’s novel and the strengths and weaknesses of each.

The 1974 version certainly had some major starpower.  With a screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola, this film also featured Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan.  With a running time of just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film was very faithful to the scenes and dialogue of the novel.  If anything, it tried too hard to replicate the voice of the novel, instead creating a cinematic experience that is often cold and distant from the vibrancy of Fitzgerald’s tale.  The only two characters who stand out are Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) and George Wilson (Scott Wilson); each of them figures more significantly into the action here than in the 2013 edition.  The rest of the roles are competently if not brilliantly executed by others including Bruce Dern (who played Tom Buchanan) and Lois Chiles (Jordan Baker).

The action mirrors the novel closely; there are very few scenes that do not at least quote parts of the corresponding novel.  At times, the movie feels as though it is close to becoming vibrant and emotional, only to see those traces of livelihood stamped down almost immediately.  Redford, based on his other films of the 1970s, could have displayed a wider range with Gatsby, but instead (possibly directed to do so by director Jack Clayton) his Gatsby is too formal, too polished, too devoid of inner anguish to really engage the viewer.  Likewise, Farrow’s Daisy is an odd character.  While her Daisy at least attempts to speak with a posh Southern accent, there were several instances where Farrow’s Daisy oscillates between capricious love and diffident materialism.  While this oscillation certainly jibes more with the original novel than how the character was portrayed in the 2013 version, it is too jarring here.  Perhaps the point is that Daisy’s vapidness is what makes her character so attractive to some, but Farrow too often overplays it.  Her scenes with Redford feel cold and the emotional lines uttered by both feel as natural as if a Wookie were to start emoting Hamlet.

Yet there are some interesting moments in this film.  Early scenes with Myrtle Wilson and the McKees in the NYC apartment as well as the first seen party at Gatsby’s mansion reveal a more nuanced approach toward the flappers and their rebellion against social mores than does the 2013 version.  Here, there is not the emphasis on spectacle that the recently-released adaptation has, but instead in their dances and in their comments, the young women, major and bit players alike, are not as sexualized here.  Although there certainly are hints of dalliances taking place in this film, the women here are allowed to be slightly more well-rounded than they are in the current release.  Chiles’ Jordan Baker more openly displays her amorality compared to Elizabeth Debicki’s portrayal, as her interpretation of the character is more subtle and yet clear in terms of her refusal to be constricted by rules and regulations.  As noted above, Farrow’s Daisy displays a wider range (albeit a range that sometimes works against the best interests of key scenes) and she is not as apparently besotted with Gatsby as was Carey Mulligan’s interpretation of the character.  The same goes for Karen Black and how her Myrtle Wilson captured more of the class consciousness of the novel than Isla Fisher’s more sex-centered portrayal.

Waterston’s Nick carefully walks the line between being a keen observer and a callow pushover.  His Nick is perhaps slightly better than Tobey Maguire’s simply because Nick plays a more integral part in the 1974 film.  Yet due to his co-stars’ failures to capture the mixture of burning passion and callousness that was present in the novel, Nick’s more memorable lines do not succeed in capturing the depths of his emotional confusion and outrage.  The only character that truly does so is George Wilson.  Scott Wilson’s interpretation captures a man whose simple honesty stands in sharp relief to the capricious games that the Buchanans, Jordan, and others play over the course of the film.  His descent into murderous grief is very believable here because more effort is made to show his inner conflicts.

At nearly two and a half hours, this film felt at times interminable due to the subpar acting performances and focus on showing the glamor of the 1922 Long Island setting at the expense of developing the characters better.  Yet the film suffers not only because it is compared to a great novel, but because its own promise was thwarted time and time again by Clayton’s choice to emphasize the exterior at the expense of the characters themselves.  With few exceptions, the characterizations show glints of greatness that are covered with a thick grime of affected poses and perfunctory nods toward character conflict.  This 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby captures the skeleton and most of the skin of the novel, but its heart and soul are withered in comparison.  Not recommended for most viewers.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

May 13th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.  The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.  Most of the confidences were unsought – frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.  Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.  I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit.  Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.  When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.  Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.  If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.  This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament” – it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.  No – Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (pp. 6-7 e-book edition)

For nearly ninety years, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) has entranced and befuddled readers.  It is simultaneously a narrative of an age and a repudiation of it.  At times elegant and sophisticated in its treatment of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, it also outlines the self-destructions that took place during the Prohibition Era in the aftermath of World War I.  Yet each generation finds something of itself within this narrative.  For the first readers, The Great Gatsby was a portrait of ephemerality, a mere capturing of a helluva party and its blinding hangover.  It is little surprise in hindsight that during Fitzgerald’s lifetime that it sold poorly; it was but one of several “period pieces” and not necessarily the most inventive one (even among Fitzgerald’s own works) at that.  Yet something began to change during World War II.  Perhaps it was the author’s death and his friend (and book critic) Edmund Wilson’s tireless championing of Fitzgerald’s work that led to its rediscovery nearly twenty years after its initial publication.  Whatever it was, for the post-WWII generation, The Great Gatsby read more like a prophecy of their own times, of the period before the deluges of the Great Depression and World War II.  The wild excesses of the speakeasies and the flamboyant daring of the flappers stood out in contrast to the grinding mass poverty of the 1930s and the destruction of WWII.  It is easy to see within The Great Gatsby a condemnation of the extravagance of the Roaring ’20s and a brief hint of the ruinous world to come.  Yet other generations, namely those of the ’60s and ’80s, could see in the hypnotic lure of the period presages of their own riotous rebellions against the parsimonious qualities of the decades before them.  Even today, there is something compelling about that time which Fitzgerald narrates in such detail.  In the wake of the wars on terrorism and human rights (depending upon your outlook, I suppose), there is a paradoxically hedonistic innocence to the Jazz Age.  The rations of WWI were over, women had begun to gain long-overdue civil rights, and the whole country seemed to be in a state of reactive rebellion against the constraints of rationing and the Progressive Era prohibition movement.

Yet within these socio-cultural rebellions lurked something less noble and more threatening.  In the character of Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald presents a modern-day Trimalchio (originally, this was the title to the first draft of the story), a near-innocent who observes the degradations that people put themselves through in order to make themselves believe that they are alive and of great worth.  The opening section, excerpted above, shows the character reflecting back on the tumultuous year of 1922 in the fictitious Long Island settings of East and West Egg.  Through the Midwestern middle-class eyes of Nick, Fitzgerald details not just the glitz and glamor of the bon ton set but also the more sordid lives of the Wilsons and those who lived on the margins of (polite) society during the 1920s.  Overlooked by readers focusing on the love triangles of Gatsby-Daisy-Tom and Tom-Myrtle-George is Fitzgerald’s keen eye for the troubling societal issues of the day.  “The valley of ashes,” while it does not constitute a major part of the story in terms of page count, provides a counterpoint to the decadent parties of the West and East Eggers:

This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the form of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powderly air.  Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. (beginning of Ch. 2, p. 25 e-book)

It is here that the most grievous exploitations are witnessed:  the cuckolding of the auto repairman George Wilson, the casual domestic violence toward his wife Myrtle by Tom, and the casual dismissal of the populace by both the nouveau riche West Eggers and the old money East Eggers alike.  Fitzgerald outlines their plight in short yet sharp strokes; a detailed portrait of the lives of those who did not benefit from the 1920s speculations glints through the narrative.  Yet Fitzgerald’s main concern is not with illustrating the underclasses and how they bear the brunt of providing the services for the idle elites but instead is with exploring the moral lassitude of the business and gentry classes.  In scenes involving the consumption of bootlegged alcohol or the parties at Gatsby’s, the shallowness and corrupted natures of a wide range of characters is shown:  barely is anyone exempt from Fitzgerald’s caustic pen, as police commissioners rub drunken shoulders with crime lords while carousing young men and women dance in a Bacchanalia of frenzied excess.  The overall effect is that of an observer narrating the decline and fall of a civilization into petty greed and self-absorption.

This certainly can be seen in three of the main characters:  Jordan Baker and the unhappily-married couple of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.  Beneath the flash of each of them (golf star, debutante, former college athlete and wealthy heir) lurks nastier traits such as Jordan’s duplicity toward not just Nick but to all that she encounters; Daisy’s reduction of love to material baubles; and Tom’s arrogance toward those who he presumes to be of “lower status” than himself.  Even Nick comes across as a pushover, a semi-willing accomplice to deeds that he publicly professes to despise.  The world of the Buchanans and those who move in their circle such as Jordan is that of callous disregard for those who cannot provide them with what they need.  Fitzgerald not only has Nick voice these opinions but he reveals them through the actions of these characters.  The result is a story version of staring entranced at a cobra, knowing that eventually it is going to strike with deadly consequences.

And so it goes in the second half.  Ironically, it is Gatsby himself, with his mysterious past, who provides a counter.  He moves in the world of swindlers, social parasites, and gangsters and yet no matter how many of their guises he may don, ultimately none of these cling to him.  He is surprisingly noble and optimistic in a society that has narrowed its hopes from the spiritual to the base materialism of money, booze, and sex.  If anything, he is almost too good to be true and it is to Fitzgerald’s credit that he recognized that and created a character with enough foibles to become a flawed yet sympathetic character whose pseudo-requited love and tragic end resonate more powerfully because he is the antithesis of the other characters.

The Great Gatsby flows smoothly from scene to scene, as the reader witnesses the apparent dissolution of the Buchanans’ marriage and the apparent renewed love of Daisy and Gatsby in a detailed yet quick-moving fashion.  Fitzgerald’s dialogues are outstanding, as he masterfully captures the voices of his characters.  There are very few false notes, either in the narrative or in the themes that Fitzgerald explores.  The conclusion is powerful because of the time spent developing the characters and their flaws.  There are no heroes, just only the dead and animated corpses who have shambled throughout the book looking for their next fix.  The Great Gatsby continues to be an important work not because it is required reading for millions of high school and college students but because it transcends its particular time and explores the human condition in a way that makes it feel new for succeeding generations.  It truly is a masterpiece of American literature and one that deserves to be examined and re-examined as its readers grow older and perhaps less wise about the world around them.

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

May 9th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades… She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple of thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape. What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside for no real reason at all.

Yesterday was Thomas Pynchon’s birthday, and thanks largely to the efforts of Bill D, it has become Pynchon in Public Day, where people celebrate their  love of the author’s work by posting photos of the novels in public, and/or discreetly placing Trystero’s muted post horn stickers on post boxes out in the wild. Larry asked if I would write a piece due to his current situation, and I agreed, knowing that as I don’t read as fast as him (and some days I wonder if anyone does) the only novel I would have time to reread was Pynchon’s shortest to date. I didn’t mind though, as The Crying of Lot 49 holds a special place in my heart because it was the first Pynchon I read, and served as an introduction into just what it what I was getting myself into.

I am loathe to discuss the plot (mostly because, as with any of Pynchon’s novels, I would likely be here all day), but it revolves around typically Pynchion paranoia and conspiracy, with long history related asides, postmodern pop culture references, and psychedelic drugs. It also has a characteristic, for want of a better word, zaniness, that at times is hilarious (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think of Oedipa putting on all her clothes and rolling on the floor or the lawyer and former child actor, Metzger, passed out with his head under the couch and an erection and not laugh). It is also very much a California novel, its fictional locations like San Narciso recalling the state as well as the actual Bay area Oedipa Maas  also visits. Yoyodyne’s defense contracts recall the boom in war industry in the region for defense companies like Douglas, and the research department is doing similar work to the work that was being done at the Hughes Institute. The importance of the freeways to the state is also realised by Oedipa, as it was by Joan Didion, as Pynchon writes;

What the road really was, she fancied, was this hypodermic needle, inserted somewhere ahead into the vein of a freeway, a vein nourishing the mainliner L.A., keeping it happy, coherent, protected from pain, or whatever passes, with a city, for pain.

There’s an absolutism at the heart of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 that makes me, as a failed philosopher, feel rather uneasy. We have followed Oedipa down the rabbit hole in search of the truth about Trystero and W.A.S.T.E, but we are given no indication of how it would be possible to determine reality from falsehood. From the very beginning, it is suggested to us that Oedipa has problems with distinguishing between the two, as illustrated by the opening quote and her interactions with her psychiatrist. We are left then, to make an absolute judgement on the content of the novel that is almost solipsist in nature, either everything is true or nothing is; the secret postal war that has been raging since the days of the Holy Roman Empire, the play within a play, child actors turned lawyers, shadowy mail carriers and assassins. The old, comfortable, instinct that the author is telling us the truth about what is happening comes into direct conflict with outright rejection of such postmodern absurdity, and as to which way the wind is really blowing, Pynchon isn’t telling. We might be awaiting silent Trystero’s Empire for a long, long time.

Zoran Živković, The Five Wonders of the Danube (Пет Дунавских Чуда) (2011)

May 6th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Када му је најзад пажњу заокупила слика, поново је споредно однело превагу хад главним.  Прво је помислио на оно што га чека на рапорту код старешине Обласне управе за мостове.  Свакако ће бити оптужен да је спавао у чуварској кућици, а такав преступ није могао да прође без строге казне.  Можда ће чак остати без посла.  Неће му ништа вредети што ће се заклињати да није ока сллопио целе ноћи.  У прилог му неће ићи ни то што ниједном није заспао за тридесет седам година службе.  Као да је већ чуо громовни глас старешине:  ”Како је, онда, поред вас будног, неко подигао толику слику наврх моста?”

Није имао одговор на то питање.  Збиља, како?  Па још нечујно и неприметно?  Бар он ништа није ни чуо ни видео.  Мост је био осветљен, а ноћ готово без саобраћаја.  У сваком случају, нико се није зауставио.  Уз то, ово свакако није могао да иѕведе само један човек, нити би биле довољне једне дугачке мердевине, а био би неопходан и алат да се слика причврсти.  Горе нема кука, па да се сама закачи. (p. 4)

When the painting finally caught his attention, once again a further consideration prevailed.  His first thought was of what awaited him when he reported to his supervisor at the District Bridge Administration.  He would certainly be accused of sleeping in the guardhouse and such an offence would have to be severely punished.  He might even lose his job.  It would do no good to swear that he hadn’t had a wink of sleep all night long.  The fact that he had not fallen asleep in the thirty-seven years he’d been on the job would also be of no help.  He could almost hear his supervisor’s thundering voice:  “If you were awake, how could someone have hung such a big painting on top of the bridge?”

He had no answer to that question.  How, indeed?  And without being heard or seen?  At least, he hadn’t heard or seen anything.  The bridge was illuminated and there’d been almost no traffic that night.  In any case, no one had stopped.  And this couldn’t have been the work of just one person.  One tall ladder wouldn’t have been enough, plus tools would be needed to attach the painting.  There were no hooks up above from which to hang it. (p. 4)

Zoran Živković’s 2011 novel, The Five Wonders of the Danube, is perhaps best described as a true mosaic, as it is comprised of five sections, each correlating with famous bridges (Regensburg, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Novi Sad) over the Danube River.  With the exception of the final section (the Blue Bridge of Novi Sad), each of the first four sections (the Black, Yellow, Red, and White Bridges) can be read independently of one another, yet when joined together with the final section, each part forms a whole much greater than its constituent elements.  Each section possesses its own sets of mysteries and wonders, with both representing one of the arts.  In them, we see people baffled by mysterious events, some of which are among some of Živković’s most weird creations yet, with each event being associated with an art such as painting, sculpting, literature, or music.

The wonders begin with Regensburg’s Black Bridge.  An elderly bridge night watchman encounters a large painting of a bridge that somehow has become attached to the bridge.  From whence did this painting come and to what could it refer?  A growing number of inspectors, from the watchman’s supervisor to members of the state secret police, try to delve into its mysteries (and into those of the people who have stumbled upon the painting).  As in much of his previous work, Živković’s characters are not quite the non-comprehending people that they appear to be, but instead possess their own little pieces to the puzzle.  As the series of investigators grows, like a set of Matryoshka dolls in reverse, the significance of this bridge painting (attached to a bridge, no less!) grows as well, until it seems that there may be a nefariousness about it.  Then there are some pesky river gulls intruding upon the scene and their own purposes add to the suspense.

Then suddenly, things shift away from Regensburg and go downstream a bit to Vienna’s Yellow Bridge, where there are dreamers and sculptors and even a talking, literate squirrel.  Here time itself seems to be in a state of flux and creatures are not what they appear.  The descriptions feel more detached from “reality,” yet paradoxically there’s more “realness” to the irreal scenes occurring than if the story had been more mundane.  Yet night, like dreams, disperses in the light of day and the strange events of one Viennese night seem to fade like morning mist.

The third section, Bratislava’s Red Bridge, was perhaps my favorite of the five.  Here appear two homeless men living under the bridge and trying to keep warm.  One, Isaac, is a talented carver and his likenesses of people and things that he carves into flotsam and jetsam is marveled at by his new companion, a mysterious man who carries around six printed volumes of Dostoevsky’s fiction and who receives the moniker of “Fyodor” as a result.  This section, one of the shortest in the book, covers Fyodor’s books and his mysterious green folder, which contains a manuscript from which he would read from time to time.  Yet no matter how literate the homeless may be, night’s chills can bring about the need to abandon the material of literature for the ephemeral comforts of fire.  It is in this clash between necessity and art that a marvel occurs, one that baffles later visitors.

If the previous sections consist of arts created by the hands of their creators, then Budapest’s White Bridge is devoted to the dulcet sounds of music.  An old composer returns to the scene of his greatest inspirations and greatest tragedies, hoping for one final symphony before he retires.  The flashbacks between past and present, interlaced with music and tragic events, creates a poignancy here that was largely absent from the previous sections.  The conclusion is perhaps the saddest and most moving of the book and its end sets up thematically the events of the final section.

By the time the story reaches Novi Sad’s Blue Bridge, four mysteries have been established, none of which yet possess any real sort of satisfactory conclusion.  In contrast, this section opens with a very real event, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia’s bridges in 1999.  However, Živković (who incidentally survived a very close call when the infamous bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade occurred) quickly departs from this event in that one of Novi Sad’s four Danube bridges manages to uproot itself and take it and a bird-dog on a magical flight away from the attacking “birds” and up the Danube, visiting each of the previous four sites in succession.  Here the connections between the sections are made explicit and several of the mysteries are solved.  By itself, the Blue Bridge section is not as fascinating as the others, but when read after them, it builds upon the previous four’s wonders, creating something moving and magical.

The Five Wonders of the Danube works well because Živković has carefully developed the situations and the thematic elements specific to each section so that when the final pages of the Blue Bridge of Novi Sad are read, each element/scene flows directly into one another, widening the reader’s understanding.  In a metaphoric sense, it is like a river itself, with tributaries emptying their contents into the main stream, creating something vaster and more awesome to behold.  The same holds true with this story, as the ruminations and mysteries surrounding artists, sculptors, writers, and composers flow into each other, creating a series of dialogues on the arts and the arts’ influences on people.  The Five Wonders of the Danube may be one of Živković’s two or three best works, as it showcases not only several of his thematic concerns but also his ability to weave seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive and memorable whole.

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