June 23rd, 2013 § § permalink
‘Now never again from northern wars
shall Arthur enter this island realm,
nor Lancelot du Lake love remembering
to thy tryst return! Time is changing;
the West waning, a wind rising
in the waxing East. The world falters.
New tides are running in the narrow waters.’
– from Canto II, lines 144-150 (p. 32)
For nearly a millennium, ever since the fanciful writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth gained a wide audience and inspired generations of poets and prose writers to write about the Round Table, the betrayal of Mordred, the Holy Grail, the legend of King Arthur has fascinated listeners and readers alike. No matter the medium selected for the story, the tale entrances readers who already know the basics by rote. Its themes and tragic elements mixed with romance are not just the stuff of which dreams are made, but they are more “real” to us than even ground upon which we trod or the air which we breathe.
I have been a fan of “The Matter of Britain” for nearly three decades now. I have read Arthur’s story in many forms, ranging from Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King to Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles. Each storyteller, great and lowly alike, have explored facets of the legends that most fascinated them, often with good results. Therefore it was with great interest that I look forward to reading the incomplete poem that J.R.R. Tolkien left behind on the downfall of Arthur and his kingdom. Although the unfinished poem runs only just over 950 lines divided over four complete cantos and a partial fifth, there certainly is much to admire about the poem.
Tolkien decided that alliterative verse, traditionally used in pre-Norman conquest England and other Germanic-speaking lands, best suited the tale he wanted to tell. He stripped away most of the courtly romance, focusing instead on the final, tragic part of the Arthurian legends: the news of Guenevere’s tryst and Mordred’s betrayal. The action begins in media res, with Arthur returning from his “Eastern campaign” to surprise Mordred and his Saxon allies:
Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.
Thus the tides of time to turn backward
and the heathen to humble, his hope urged him,
that with harrying ships they should hunt no more
on the shining shores and shallow waters
of South Britain, booty seeking.
– from Canto I, lines 1-9 (p. 17)
There is a sonorous quality to good alliterative verse, the way that “war” and “wage” rise and then on the second half-verse (the spaces denote a caesura or breath break) it descends to “wild.” There is no rhyme nor set metre, but instead a dependence upon a rhythm set by the rise and fall of words whose first syllables alliterate. It is not a poetic form often seen in Modern English and there is a portion of the book devoted to explaining how to read this. Being somewhat familiar with alliterative verse, primarily through some translations of Beowulf, it was easy for me to settle into the rhythm of the poem.
Rhythm is very important here in The Fall of Arthur, as Tolkien attempts to capture a bleaker, more urgent movement of forces. Arthur here is more the hero of an edda than the king in background of the medieval romances. He is driven, relentless in his purpose. Time is changing, all is under assault. This mood might remind some of the tone present in his fantasy writings and there certainly are thematic similarities, such as the passage quoted at the beginning of this review. The west wanes, the world falters, new tides are running. Here the struggle against the forces of Mordor finds its immediate predecessor, as The Fall of Arthur was composed sometime between 1933-1937 according to internal evidence. And yet here are other connotations present: the Celtic west falling before the Saxon east, the world of the Britons changing irrevocably. Tolkien does an excellent job of foreshadowing that calamity throughout The Fall of Arthur. Doom certainly is more present here, with religious imagery used to underscore the differences between hero and heathen:
Foes before them, flames behind them,
ever east and onward eager rode they,
and folk fled them as the face of God,
till earth was empty, and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them in the endless hills,
save bird and beast baleful haunting
the lonely lands.
– from Canto I, lines 61-67 (p. 19)
The overall effect is a melding of the later accruals of Arthurian myth (Lancelot, however, is relegated to a relatively minor role and Gawain instead rises in importance) with the style and imagery present in Beowulf. In some respects, The Fall of Arthur feels like a “lost” work of the 10th century that has been translated into modern English; the metaphors and imagery can apply equally to the invasions of the 5th and late 9th centuries. It is little wonder, then, that one of Tolkien’s fellow academics, R.W. Chambers, wrote to him in December 1934 saying:
“It is very great indeed… really heroic, quite apart from its value in showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English.”…”You simply must finish it.” (p. 10)
But yet like so much of his superior work (The Lord of the Rings I consider to be one of his lesser achievements as a writer), The Fall of Arthur tragically was left undone. If it were complete and published during the author’s lifetime, it easily could have cemented Tolkien’s legacy as a writer. Instead, he is now primarily known for a lesser-accomplished work that influenced over two generations of pulp writers to write fictions that are bereft of the soul of the original masters. But for those who do love Arthurian tales and who do have some knowledge of the various poetic and prose compositions over the past millennium, The Fall of Arthur will certainly be a work well worth reading. For those who are not as familiar with these works, Christopher Tolkien has provided three long essays on the poem’s origins, its connections to his father’s fantasy writings, and how the poem evolved during various drafts. In addition, Tolkien’s 1938 BBC radio lecture on “Anglo-Saxon Verse” is provided as a coda to the work. Some will find these essays to enhance the work, others might find them to be less useful due to their own prior knowledge of the subject. Regardless, The Fall of Arthur, incomplete as it is, I consider to be Tolkien’s best composition and it is a shame that it was left unfinished during the final 30+ years of the author’s life.
June 16th, 2013 § § permalink
Although for the past decade virtually all of my reading have been fictions of one genre or another, there was a time around 15 years ago that the opposite was true. Several times in passing over the years, either in comments here or on the several forums that I have frequented, I have mentioned that my graduate schools studies concentrated on cultural history, with most of my research being on the interwar (1919-1938) period of German history. But I have never really reviewed a work of cultural history ever since I matriculated in May 1998 from the University of Tennessee.
When I was a graduate student, one the authors that impressed me the most was Peter Burke and his work on exploring cultural developments in early modern Europe. Recently, I found myself wanting to refresh my memories of his approaches, so I ordered a copy of his 1997 collection of essays, Varieties of Cultural History. I found it to be a good, if somewhat limited, introduction to my former field of studies. I am not going to analyze this book as if I were still active in researching cultural histories, but instead I will broadly explore its contents and try to tailor this short review for those who are not cultural historians or even history majors, but those who might want to learn a bit more about this field called “cultural history.”
Burke’s book is comprised of twelve essays, eight of which had appeared in various journals and other monograph publications dating back to the 1970s. These twelve essays can be further subdivided into three parts, introduction to the field, case studies, and exploration of various methodological methods. In his preface, Burke notes that his intent is “to discuss and illustrate some of the main varieties of cultural history which have emerged since the questioning of what might be called its ‘classic’ form, exemplied in the work of Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga.’ (p. vii) Burke posits that cultural history, despite the advances done in the related fields of social and cultural anthropology, really has not changed much since the times of Burckhardt and Huizinga, an argument that I find somewhat puzzling, considering how the rise of the New Social History in the 1970s has had a profound influence on the ways that historians have broadened their methodological approaches to the written and oral histories recorded over the past two centuries.
Burke’s introductory essay, “Origins of Cultural History,” provides a good, broad overview of the evolution of the term Kultur and its implications for how people, not just historians, have conceived the connections between language, literature, legal relations, religion, the arts and sciences. Although Burke does acknowledge the influence that Hegel had defining some of the epistemological approaches of the Enlightenment period, he tends to favor a broader, more cosmopolitan exchange of ideas to explain how the spread of Kultur, as an area of emphasis, occurred. This chapter serves its purpose of introducing its readers to the history of cultural history as a concept, but it is incomplete in that there is no immediate followup that explores the various varieties of cultural history that emerged over the past two centuries. For that, the reader has to wait until the final two essays in the book on mentalité and other approaches to outlining concepts of culture over time, space, and philosophical association.
Burke’s second essay, “The Cultural History of Dreams,” is perhaps the best essay in this book. Although I believe it, the chapter on social memory, and the following seven case histories of Italian and Brazilian cultural histories, would have benefited more if the theoretical aspects of this book were concentrated in the first section of the book, there is much in this essay that would appeal to readers. For example, here is a brief cross-cultural dream study that Burke cites:
One cross-cultural study of ‘typical dreams’ showed that the relative frequency of different anxiety dreams varied considerably. Americans, for example, dreamed more often of arriving late for appointments and of being discovered naked, while Japanese dreamed of being attacked. The contrasts suggest what other evidence confirms, that Americans are more concerned with punctuality and with ‘body shame,” while Japanese are more anxious about aggression. (p. 27)
Burke also explores how dreams are interpreted from culture to culture and the similarities and differences that each culture has in processing their individual and collective dreams. It really is a fascinating chapter, easy to follow for the layperson, and it sets the stage for his essays on social memory and how cultures process their shared past and understandings of events mundane and extraordinary, as well as the Italian and Brazilian case studies on gestures, comedies, cross-cultural confusion, differences between the public and private spheres in late Renaissance Genoa, the cultural polarization between learned and popular culture, concepts of chivalry in the New World, and the translation of Carnival from Italy to Brazil. I will not devote much space to discussing these various essays, in large part because of the self-constraints I’m imposing on this brief review, but I will note that Burke uses clear, concise descriptions to set up his arguments and theoretical approaches to each of these topics. Doubtless, a reader who is somewhat familiar with the historical periods but who is largely ignorant of the cultural aspects of those times will find these essays to be fascinating, informative reads.
The final section on mentalité and the various methodological approaches to cultural history was largely a disappointment to me, mostly because Burke barely describes several of the schools of thought before moving on to the next topic. Mentalité in particular gets short-shrifted here, as outside of noting the research that Jacques Le Goff and others of the Annalist School have done, little is done other than to note how the Neo Marxists have developed their own approach toward the study of cultural mindsets in reaction to (and in several cases, opposition to) what Marc Bloch, Le Goff, and others had posited in the late Third Republic and immediate post-World War II eras. Perhaps this is due to the introductory nature of this book, but I felt like Burke could have said much more on the topic. This is also true for his concluding chapters. There really isn’t much said of a substantive nature about the methodological approaches of the various schools, especially that of the E.P. Thompson-influenced Neo/Cultural Marxist school, which happens to be one of the largest and most influential of the various schools of cultural history to develop after 1945. Much more could have been made of the “new cultural history” school, which has adopted principles of the study of semiotics, or symbolic communications, in crafting its own conceptual school of thought on the study of cultural history.
But despite these shortcomings, much of which are related to the introductory approach to the field of cultural history, Burke’s Varieties of Cultural History is well-worth the read. Although several theoretical concepts are treated in passing, Burke’s prose never becomes stilted or weighed down with ponderous explanations. The case histories are interesting and they serve well to illustrate how the quirks and habits of people of a particular time and place can be of great interest to people living in the here and now. Hopefully, there will be some readers who do read Burke’s work and who may go on to explore those historians cited in his footnotes and bibliography. Cultural history is to me the most wonderful, exciting, and challenging of the various historical disciplines and Burke’s essays capture much of that excitement. Highly recommended.
June 11th, 2013 § § permalink
Last year, I wrote two pieces on visits that I made with my father to the Battle of Shiloh and Battles of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson battlegrounds. Although we have yet to visit the Battle of Stones River site yet (despite living only just over an hour’s drive west/northwest from Murfreesboro), we did make the trek this past weekend to the Battle/Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi National Park. Outside of Gettysburg (fought during the same early July 1863 timeframe as the final struggle at Vicksburg), the battle/siege of Vicksburg is perhaps the most singular turning point in the Civil War. In fact, a case could be made that the loss of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 (and Port Hudson in Louisiana five days later) did more damage to the Confederate cause than any single military event in the war. There certainly are a lot of important developments that took place in Vicksburg: one that particularly presages the devastation of World War I just over 50 years later was the early use of trench warfare.
There is a lot about the December 1862-July 1863 campaign that makes Vicksburg an appealing study for amateur and professional historians. There are the technological feats of the Union army (and its failures), including the attempted diversion of the Mississippi River in order for Union gunboats and cargo ships to bypass one of the two remaining Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River, in try to break through the defenses of a naturally fortified town that some then referred to as “The Gibraltar of the Mississippi”; the political maneuverings among the various generals on both sides; the foolhardy charges against redoubts that would put the Charge of the Light Brigade to shame; the trickery employed to get supplies to General Grant’s forces, including a dummy “ironclad” that led to the scuttling of an invaluable captured warship; and the rudimentary use of explosives in an attempt to breach the redoubts. For those wanting to read more about these exciting events, William L. Shea & Terrence J. Winschel’s Vicksburg is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River, is the book I read on my way back from the battleground. It manages to balance historical insight with a gripping narrative to create a non-fiction book that will appeal to both amateur and professional historians alike (or at least this former professional historian).
Below are some of the pictures that I took with my camera phone as my dad, middle brother, and I drove through the site. I should note that I did not take many pictures of the individual monuments, as roughly 1300 memorial/monuments may be a bit overkill even for such an important battle:
The facade that greets visitors as they enter the military park.
Illinois Memorial from a distance.
Inside of the Illinois Memorial. Footsteps echo as the open atrium magnifies all sounds, leading visitors to be solemn as they read the plaques of those who fought – and died – there from the state of Illinois.
The Union campfield, just below the Shirley House, which was HQ during the siege. Notice the broken terrain. Not pictured to the right are the slopes that led up to the Confederate redoubts.
The Pennsylvania Memorial. If I understand my family history well enough, my maternal grandfather’s family was from West Pennsylvania and some may have fought in the Civil War.
The USS Cairo museum. The Union gunboat that was sunk during the weeks leading up to the final battles was raised up and reconstructed. Did not stop to tour it, however.
Park sign that describes the importance of Vicksburg for the Confederates.
View of the nearby Yazoo River just before it flows into the Mississippi. Much of the earlier fighting took place in this region and this is what the Confederate forces under General John C. Pemberton would have been stationed in force.
Park sign describing the Confederate defenses.
Back of the Tennessee Memorial. Although I did not have any ancestors from Tennessee who fought here, I thought I’d include a picture of the memorial that my native state had placed in the military park.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the roads and our desire to get back to our hotel, we were unable to get a good picture of the view of the slopes beneath the Confederate defenses. But I will note that they were impressive to see, as envisioning Union soldiers charging upwards of 300 feet uphill in the midst of murderous Confederate fire evokes a plethora of emotions, including sadness that so many lives were wasted in such suicidal charges. Those slopes might not have the immediate power of Shiloh’s Bloody Pond, but they certainly bring home to those who view them the devastation wrought during this war to determine whether certain states had the legal right to enslave other human beings (and a host of other issues). It should be noted that there were several African American regiments that saw some fighting here, namely the 9th and 11th Louisiana Infantry and the 1st Mississippi Infantry, but that nearly 150 years after Confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered his nearly 30,000 troops, there are still vociferous arguments regarding the role of African Americans in the fighting around the city. But that is part of a complex local history that perhaps this native Tennessean should not touch with a ten-foot pole…ahh, forget it: let’s just say there are still remnants of racial divides that I noticed in my brief time in the city, although nothing really overt as it likely was even a couple of decades ago.
But as a footnote, this trip also included a stop at the local Coca-Cola Museum. In an odd twist of fate, the nephew of the surrendering general, also named John Pemberton, was the founder of Coca-Cola. Turns out that for the first eight years, Coke was sold only as a fountain drink until a Vicksburg retailer, Joseph A. Biedenham, hit upon the idea of bottling it and selling it in the countryside. Here are a few relevant photos for those interested in a history that doesn’t include as many dead people:
Description of the history of the first Coca-Cola bottling plant, established in Vicksburg in 1894.
The first Coke bottles, developed in 1894. The bottles were corked rather than capped.
Hope these pictures and brief descriptions were of interest to readers. More later this year on other sites, once I get around to visiting the Stones River and maybe Lookout Mountain sites.
June 10th, 2013 § § permalink
We had come down to the crematorium in search of remains, nicely shaped bones we could use as medals to decorate our chests, but the village children had collected them all and we came away empty-handed. I would have to beat some out of one of my friends at elementary school. I remembered peeking two days earlier, past the waists of the adults darkly grouped around the pit, at the corpse of a village woman lying on her back with her naked belly swollen like a small hill, her expression full of sadness in the light of the flames. I was afraid. I grasped my brother’s slender arm and quickened my step. The odor of the corpse, like the sticky fluid certain kinds of beetles leaked when we squeezed them in our calloused fingers, seemed to revive in my nostrils (p. 114)
Wildly dissimilar as other elements of their cultures may be, Japan and the United States have a long history of mutual cultural appropriation when it comes to literature. Starting with translations of American writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Raymond Chandler and continuing through to the present, American literature has had a profound influence on Japanese writing (in return, Americans have semi-embraced Hello Kitty, social networking technologies, and Ninja Warrior, among more prestigious cultural swap elements). In particular, for Japanese writers who came of age during World War II, such as the Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Ōe, it was the darker elements that underlay fictions such as Huckleberry Finn that proved to be instrumental in helping them find the narrative voice necessary to express their emotions regarding a world turned upside-down after 1945.
Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is an omnibus of four novellas. In each of these tales, there is an acute crisis facing the protagonists. In the case of the first (and longest) tale, “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away,” the protagonist is a hypochondriac who is convinced that he is dying of cancer, despite no evidence of the disease being present in his body. In the second tale, “Prize Stock,” the narrator is a young Japanese youth who during the last months of World War II encounters a black American soldier whose plane crashed near a remote mountain village, with the crisis coming with the contact of the traditional with the near-mythical. The title story, “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness” concerns a fat Japanese father and his rather idiotic son and the struggles that they endure, while the final tale, “Aghwee the Sky Monster,” is perhaps the most fantastical of them all, with a baby ghost following the narrator.
These short synopses barely hint at the power found in Ōe’s writing. Look at the passage from “Prize Stock” quoted above. Note how direct and economical Ōe is with his wording. Even in translation, there’s this sense of so much being left unsaid between and around the passages read. Why are the children collected bones from the crematorium? Why is a body lying there outside, with nothing shrouding it? How come the narrator/protagonist seems almost indifferent to the sight of a dead body?
These are just a few of the questions that are generated from reading Ōe’s stories. Ōe displays a knack for revealing crushed hopes and dreams, such as in the flashback sequence in “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away,” where the protagonist recalls hearing the Emperor’s voice after Japan’s surrender and remember just how much was destroyed then and there that bombs had never been able to shatter. Throughout each of these four tales, but especially in “Prize Stock,” there is an unspoken commentary on Japan’s new, changing role in regards to its interactions with the so-called West. In that tale, the alternating frightened and inquisitive actions of the villagers toward this downed black American pilot emphasizes without any bald comparisons being made just how the Japanese balance themselves between xenophobia and cheerful appropriation of other cultures’ best traits.
Furthermore, there is a dark, cynical humor that lies at the root of these stories. In many senses, that humor has some of the qualities of Mark Twain’s latter works, which certainly were an influence on Ōe, as the author himself as been known to state. Perhaps it is due to personal upbringing, but in reading Ōe’s stories set in postwar Japan, I found myself noting similarities in the stark, almost blasted backdrops of Ōe’s Japan with the South of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner. While there is no hard evidence that Ōe had read either author, often there is a commonality in attitude among those authors who grew up viewing life through the lens of the defeated and the devastated. This vague, threatening, apocalyptic tenor to some of Ōe’s stories adds a sharp edge to these four stories, making them in turns poignant and bittersweet to read and consider. While these dark overtones may not appeal to all readers, for those who want a touching yet unvarnished look into some of the attitudes in immediate postwar Japan, Ōe’s works, especially Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, are worth reading, especially to see how much of ourselves we can see reflected in these tales that mix in the best of traditional Japanese and American literary influences.
June 10th, 2013 § § permalink
Of course it’s all just a hypothesis, Aomame told herself as she walked. But it’s the most compelling hypothesis I can produce at the moment. I’ll have to act according to this one, I suppose, until a more compelling hypothesis comes along. Otherwise, I could end up being thrown to the ground somewhere. If only for that reason, I’d better give an appropriate name to this new situation in which I find myself. There’s a need, too, for a special name in order to distinguish between this present world and the former world in which the police carried old-fashioned revolvers. Even cats and dogs need names. A newly changed world must need one, too.
1Q84 – that’s what I’ll call this new world, Aomame decided.
Q is for “question mark.” A world that bears a question.
Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along.
Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them. (pp. 158-159 e-book edition, Ch. 9)
I first read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 soon after its US release in late October 2011. At the time, I found it difficult to summarize my thoughts on this sprawling book (it is nearly a thousand pages in hardcover and just over 1200 e-book pages on my iPad), as it covered so many things, some that I thought were done excellently, others that I thought were underdeveloped, and a few that just flat-out baffled me. So I eschewed writing a formal review then, thinking that a re-read might provide a clearer picture of the story (stories?) being told. Now that this novel is up for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, it was a good time to re-read the book and see if my initial impressions had changed.
1Q84 is the most “speculative” of the shortlisted books. It transpires in 1984 Japan and then in a place, pointedly noted as being non-parallel, of two moons, Little People, and a story that seems to travel through a semi-permeable membrane that separates the two worlds. It is the story of a former child member of a religious cult-turned-assassin of abusive men, Aomame, and her search after twenty years for a man, Tengo, who once shared a mysterious moment with her when they were ten. There are events such as a mysterious pregnancy, an Exxon Tiger billboard, and an unusual murder-mystery that make 1Q84 one of the most visible weird fictions to be released in the past five years.
The novel is divided into three chronological sections that span roughly the Spring through Autumn of 1984. There are alternating chapters presented in limited third-person PoV that focus on Aomame and Tengo’s experiences in both the “real” world and in the world of 1Q84. Murakami makes copious use of literary and cultural symbols to make symbolic and (mostly) literal connections between the worlds. One particular reference that may be more obscure to Anglo-American reasons is the “town of cats.” Seen from Tengo’s perspective, the alternate world is not Aomame’s “1Q84” but instead a place that reminds him strongly of pre-World War II writer Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “Town of Cats” (readers wanting to read this story can find it in the anthology The Weird, which incidentally lists Murakami as being influenced by his work. That note coincidentally was written some months before the US publication of 1Q84). For Tengo, this “cat town” world was a strange, alienating place in which the “Little People,” who are mentioned in the novel Air Chrysalis that he has ghostwritten for a 17 year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, lurk behind a series of mysteries.
There is certainly an aura of menace in the novel’s last third, as Aomame and Tengo come closer to identifying the mysteries that have invaded their lives. Murakami ambitiously attempts to meld a weird, metatextual setting with elements taken from thrillers and for most of the time, this unusual pairing succeeds. The slower, more contemplative pace of the first two parts gives way to a quicker-tempo, more action-packed final section. Although not all of the mysteries are explained (if anything, explanation in a story such as 1Q84 would serve to dampen its appeal), there certainly is a nice tying-together of several symbolic objects within the course of Aomame and Tengo’s eventual reunion. Yet it is almost too little, too late, as there are some lengthy longeurs in the middle chapters that almost derail the novel.
1Q84 is one of those “too much” novels, at least for sections lasting sometimes longer than a hundred pages. There are too many interesting and quirky characters for each individual one to have the impact that similar characters had in some of Murakami’s earlier work. There are a plethora of mysterious objects whose symbolic purpose in regards to the plot remain to be deciphered, perhaps too many for the narrative to handle adequately. The pasts of both Aomame and Tengo are intriguing, but sometimes too much backstory had to be introduced for it to be as effective as it otherwise could have been.
Yet despite this sense that there is a surfeit of things that in moderation would made for great narrative elements, 1Q84 is a very good work. Although at times it labors under the weight of its massive narrative, ultimately the reading experience belies that earlier sense that it is at times bloated and turgid. Murakami manages to strike a precarious balance between exposition and leaving tantalizing mysteries for the readers to puzzle out at their leisure. Although it is not quite at the level of his best-known works, 1Q84 is one of the better 2011 releases and its inclusion on the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize shortlist does not stick out like a sore thumb. If this is damning with faint praise, there are a whole host of fictions that could wish to be so damned.
June 6th, 2013 § § permalink
One interesting trend that I’ve noticed when (re)reading the ten finalists for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize is the large number of non-standard narratives. In the books already reviewed, one can see a first-person plural point of view (Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic), a multi-level literary forgery/fictional family tale (Arthur Phillips’ The Tragedy of Arthur), and a narrator who may or may not be suffering from dementia (Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I am the Smaller I Am). Even the other work already reviewed, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, utilizes character dialectic speech in a fashion not often seen in contemporary novels. Therefore, it was little surprise to see that Icelandic novelist Sjón’s novel, From the Mouth of the Whale, adds to the diversity of the shortlist’s narrative styles with its mixture of the historical and the feverish, quasi-fantastical worldview of early 17th century Iceland.
From the Mouth of the Whale moves back and forth in time, from the exile of Jónas Pálmason to his recollections of his education, exorcism of a walking corpse, and the massacre of visiting Basque whalers. Told in first-person point of view, From the Mouth of the Whale derives much of its narrative power from its deceptively unreliable narrator. In using “unreliable” to describing Jónas, it is not to denote that he is being purposely deceptive, but rather that Sjón is exploring a worldview that would be remotely alien to us, as “science” and “magic” were not seen in the 1630s Iceland as being true/false opposing entities but rather as complementary disciplines between which Jónas maneuvers during his life. Take for instance this scene about a quarter into the novel:
“That’s the sort of nonsense that landed us here in the first place.”
What she says is true, though she should know better than to call it nonsense; it would be more correct to say that it was my intellectual gifts that marooned us here. Or rather, exiled me here; it was her decision to make them row her over to share my fate. Poor woman. But it is probably the lesser of two evils to be the wife of Jónas and share a barren rock with him than to live among strangers. Or so I gathered form the way people spoke to her on the mainland. The saddest thing for me is that her loyalty is misplaced. I have done this woman nothing but harm. She was opposed to my heeding the summons of Wizard-Láfi Thórdarson, alias the specialist and poet Thórólfur, when he asked me to go out west with him and exorcise the troublesome ghost. For that was the beginning of my misfortunes. That is how we came to lose everything. How did our paths cross? It was during the eclipse of the sun, if I remember right. I do not dare ask her; women think men ought to remember that sort of thing. Last time she was scolding me for my madcap ideas, I asked her why she had come back to me if not to take up the thread where we left off when I had to crawl alone into hiding due to the persecution by the Nightwolf and Sheriff Ari of myself Jónas the Learned and my son Reverend Pálmi. Indeed, why was she here if not to assist me in my investigations into the workings of the universe? For that is how it used to be. Now it is as if my enemies have given her the task of “bringing me to my senses,” as more than one, indeed several, of my tormentors call it. Yet that is not fair, for when I hinted as much the other day, she responded:
“If anyone knows there’s no chance of bringing you to your senses by now, Jónas Pálmason, it’s me.” (pp. 76-77)
For most of the novel, Sjón adroitly mixes this combination of science and superstition to create a vividly-drawn 17th century Iceland that is fascinating. Of particular interest are the stories of Jónas’s exorcism (in which it is difficult to discern if he is lucid or experiencing a hallucination) and of the tragedy of the Basque whalers who suffered a horrific fate at the hands of the locals. Sjón manages to narrate these stories with aplomb, as Jónas’s recollections of each smoothly transition from the literary present back to these events and then forward again in time without there being a noticeable change in tone. It is a narration of an extraordinary life combined with a cultural history of a true BFE backwater, with each informing the other, ultimately leading to a tale that insidiously grabs the unsuspecting reader’s attention until she is quickly reading the pages.
Yet there are some flaws here. Jónas’s character, fascinating as it is for much of the novel, sometimes disappears too much into the narration, particularly later in the novel. The carefully-maintained balance between the real and irreal breaks down toward the end as well, making for a more difficult discernment of the narrator’s lucid thoughts compared to what appear to be flights of fancy. Normally this would not be a major criticism, but it does destroy the tone established for the majority of the novel. From the Mouth of the Whale is not a bad novel; for the most part I did enjoy reading it. But it is a flawed novel and compared to the other nine finalists for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, it, along with two others, are noticeably weaker in terms of structure and execution. It is a novel worth reading, but it is not as good as the majority of the ones on this strong shortlist.
June 5th, 2013 § § permalink
Often, reviewers will settle for analogues whenever they are unable to devise an explicit explanation for what a particular story contains in its form and content. For example, “Kafkaesque” and “surreal” are often used to denote works in which the inexplicable is occurring, often in ways that seem to indicate a fatalism that underlies complex and often fractured narratives. It is a handy catch-all, as it allows the reviewer to say with a straight face and with some gravitas that “this shit is weird, fo’ sure.” Yet there are times where such catchphrases are useful shorthands for describing works that defy traditional description. Japanese author Yumeno Kyûsaku’s 1935 novel, Dogra Magra, is one of those novels.
Describing the premise for Dogra Magra will illustrate the problems reviewers have had in attempting to distill its essence in a few pithy comments. Ichiro, the protagonist, wakes up one day suffering from amnesia. He is in a psychiatric ward. He comes to learn, through the eponymous “Dogra Magra,” that he has attempted to kill his fiancée. Yet there is much more to this than just a psychological portrait of what leads one to kill what one loves. Turns out that much of the writing in the middle section is in the form of psychiatric reports written by two doctors who may or may not be characters in Ichiro’s narrative. Furthermore, the narrative fractures into an exploration of Buddhist concepts surrounding karma, particularly how it applies to Japanese culture in the period immediately following World War I, two generations removed from the beginning of the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s rapid industrialization. And if this does not sound complicated enough, Ichiro and a female character may or may not be reincarnated souls that are experiencing the memories and mental anguish of their ancestors.
Yumeno’s novel easily could be a mess, given the elements listed above. Yet it is a strangely coherent novel in which the narrative fractures reflect off of each other to create a fascinating detective novel in which the detective is an apparent criminal (or perhaps a victim of fate) and his search (a word often repeated in the narrative) for understanding leads him further and further down the rabbithole of madness and despair. Ichiro’s entrapment may remind readers of the mysterious imprisonment and trial of Joseph K. in Kafka’s The Trial. There are certainly some parallels with how Ichiro’s search for his forgotten past resembles Joseph K.’s trial, particularly in how the damning information is revealed and the effect it has on the reader. Yet there are key differences, namely Yumeno’s narrative is even stranger, more weird, than Kafka’s, particularly in how the mechanics of the psychological reports are employed within the novel. These long, oddly clinical accounts, heavily dependent on the then-current Freudian theories of the mind and its impulses, provide a sharp contrast to the portions of the novel told through Ichiro’s perspective. Here we see ideas on how the psyche works clashing with the more metaphysical, philosophical notions expressed by Ichiro and a woman he comes to meet in the psych ward who talks of how ancestral memories may be transmitted through generations to affect (infect?) the descendents. This alternation between the scientific and the Buddhist-influenced folk belief creates a narrative tension in which the boundaries of the “real” become stretched and one is left with a sense of estrangement occurring, as if one is stepping outside the bounds of a traditional plotted novel and into something that is odd, off-kilter, not “true” or “false,” but lying somewhere beyond them.
It is in the latter half of Dogra Magra where this sense of surrealness occurs most often. Before this midpoint, the story does resemble in form and structure a detective novel, albeit one that is odd in that the protagonist seems to be either truly amnesiac or insane. Once the reader manages to process the contents of the psychiatric reports, one begins to question as to whether or not everything is as it seems. Yumeno’s digressions into the ancestral memories, into the repetitive nature of certain memorable (and perhaps infamous) actions, causes the narrative to careen sharply away from earlier reader expectations and toward something that is inexplicable for the reader. Furthermore, there are hints that even those reporting on Ichiro may not be what they seem. This results in a conclusion that loops back, creating what appears to be an infinite loop that alters slightly at its end what it had begun narrating.
Dogra Magra succeeds in creating a sense of alienation and purposeful confusion. The reader, unlike in many detective novels, is no “smarter” than the characters and if anything, they (especially Western readers reading this in French translation – it is not yet available in English translation) are perhaps even more perplexed by what is transpiring than the characters, who seem to take the incipient weirdness in full stride before the narrative almost completely fractures in the latter third of the novel. For those readers who love weird fictions and who can read Japanese or French, Dogra Magra may be one of the best examples of 20th century weird/detective/psychological literature available. It is certainly a novel that will need several re-reads before I am certain that I have gleaned everything essential from it, which perhaps is the greatest compliment that can be paid to this seminal work.
June 4th, 2013 § § permalink
“Then you are so convinced by these new theories that you plan to jettison all the clichés of the modern novel – adultery, love, ambition – in order to write a biography of Gilles de Rais!”
After a pause, he continued:
“It is not the obscenity of Naturalism I detest – the language of the lockup, the doss house and the latrines – that would be foolish and absurd. Let’s face it, some subjects can’t be treated any other way – Zola’s L’Assommoir is living proof that works of tremendous vision and power can be constructed out of the linguistic equivalent of pitch and tar. That is not the issue, any more than the fact that I have serious reservations about Naturalism’s heavy-handed, slapdash style. No, what I really object to is Naturalism’s immorality on the intellectual plain – the way it has turned literature into the living incarnation of materialism, the way it promotes the idea of art as something democratic!” (p. 3)
French author J.K. Huysmans wrote during one of the more fascinating eras of modern Western literature, that period from the late 1880s to the turn of the 20th century known as the fin de siècle. Literally “end of the century,” this term carries the dual connotations of decadence and anticipation a little over a century later. During the 1870s and 1880s, the Naturalist school of art and literature, represented by Monet, Manet, and Zola, challenged prevailing opinions on the role and purpose of Art. Their emphasis on showing things as they were rather than in an idealized state went against the core Romantic ideas that had influenced French (and by extension, much of Western Europe due to France’s continuing cultural influence on its neighbors) Art for most of the 19th century.
Following the Naturalists were the Decadents, a loosely-associated group of artists and writers who had perhaps as much (or little) in common with each other as would any other ephemeral association. However, these Decadents, seemingly fixated (according to their critics) on the notion of decay and ruination of the “natural order.” In several works of the period, including those of Remy de Gourmont in France and Oscar Wilde in Great Britain, there was a much greater focus on the nasty, secret elements that underlay society. To progress was not to pro-gress, in the eyes of these artists. The old order of the Positivists and their Naturalist heirs was coming to an end, but what would replace it? For several of these writers, there were few, if any, positive expectations. Several stories tell of depraved souls, of societies falling into ruination, of primal forces being once again unleashed into the world.
Huysman’s 1891 novel, The Damned (Là-Bas in the original French), is at its core a conversation between the two. He opens the novel with the quote provided above, devoting several pages to expounding upon his beliefs (given only a thin veneer of fictionalization by the authorial stand-in protagonist, Durtal), before returning to the main focus of the novel, the mystery surrounding the life, change, and death of one of the most infamous serial murderers/pedophiles of the past 1000 years, the 15th century French knight and nobleman Gilles de Rais, who is believed to have killed (and in many cases, raped beforehand) somewhere between 80-200 children of both genders (with some estimates ranging as high as over 600) between 1435 and his trial and execution in 1440. In particular, Huysmans focuses on the traditional account that de Rais may have become a Satanist during this time.
Over the course of this 266 page novel, Huysmans begins with his general overview of the French literary scene and its treatment of such people as de Rais (who incidentally has been one possible influence on the fairy tale “Bluebeard”) and then deepens his investigations into the secret, nefarious world of Satanic worship in 19th century France. For modern-day readers, Huysmans’ slow build-up may seem a bit antiquated and the pace a bit too glacial, but for his contemporaries, Là-Bas was likely one of the more horrific novels of its era. Huysmans explores vividly what happened to de Rais’s victims, laying out in what then would have been considered near-pornographic terminology just what transpired in a Black Mass. The overall effect is still somewhat chilling, considering how the story progresses.
However, The Damned is not explicitly a horror novel. While it contains elements of the horrific, its main intent is to explore the decay and alteration of material culture. What would influence people to experiment with the occult? Can such temptations still be taking place? These are the questions that interest Huysmans the most and for the most part, he created a story that unfolds methodically into a tale whose implications go far beyond what is printed within its pages. It is not a perfect novel by any stretch of the imagination. The author is prone to digressions and at times the thrust of the narrative appears to be blunted. However, these flaws are more than offset by the fascinating mystery presented through the symbolic (and sometimes very real) references to Gilles de Rais and to other periods of French history. In addition, even when he digresses, Huysmans’ critiques of the Naturalists (and through implication, the emerging Decadents and Impressionists) adds extra layers of interpretation to the text, creating a rich narrative that certainly will reward the patient, reflective reader.
June 3rd, 2013 § § permalink
It may sound trite, but language is the linchpin upon which all elements of a story depend for their structure. Without appropriate language, even the most elegantly-plotted tales can end up as flat as a soda bottle left open for a week before anyone sips from it. Language is intricately tied up in prose, yet it inhabits more media than just prose. The musicality of the words, the lilt and tilt of phrases, these can make the reader think of music or poetry even when the words are printed and there is no discernible rhyme nor line pattern. Great language makes even the most clichéd works enjoyable to read because there is something beautiful being told that entrances us. Our oldest recorded stories depended heavily upon the spoken language and its tones and rhythms to aid the stories being told; many listeners knew the basics, but a skilled troubadour added nuances of voice and inflection to the tale that made all things new again.
The basic premise of Irish writer Kevin Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, should be familiar to those who’ve read many (or any?) stories of love triangles and of the romances of gangsters. The plot of a feared/respected gang leader and his quarter-century hold on the fictional western Irish city of Bohane seeming to slip due to the intrusion of a new rival gang, not to mention this “Fancy’s” apprehensions regarding his beautiful wife, is a solidly-constructed tale but it is nothing special by itself. These sorts of tales, whether you read (or watched) The Gangs of New York or other stories of its ilk, are commonplace in recent literature.
Yet City of Bohane mostly transcends these generic elements. This is one of the most evocative, “beautiful” novels that have been published in recent years. Barry has such an ear for dialogue that his reproduction of working-class Hibernian English feels alive, full of vitality and teeming with imminent violence. Take for instance this passage from the beginning chapter:
Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.
He walked the docks and breathed in the sweet badness of the river. It was past midnight on the Bohane front. There was an evenness to his footfall, a slow calm rhythm of leather on stone, and the dockside lamps burned in the night-time a green haze, the light of a sad dream. The water’s roar for Harnett was as the rushing of his own blood and as he passed the merchant yards the guard dogs strung out a sequence of howls all along the front. See the dogs: their hackles heaped, their yellow eyes livid. We could tell he coming by the howling of the dogs. (p. 9 e-book edition)
Barry does an excellent job establishing the decrepitude of Bohane. Despite it being mentioned on a few occasions that the action transpires in the year 2053, there is no sense of the “future” in this setting: no phones, no social media, nothing that would made the reader think of 21st century bourgeois society. Instead, there is a focus on intimate human relations, from how people dress to conform to certain social types (at times, the gangs of Bohane come perilously close to being a bunch of dandies on the prowl, although this certainly is not a defect of the story) to how people walk and talk. This last element in particular showcases Barry’s talents as a writer, as his dialogues are simultaneously hilarious, threatening, and possess a verisimilitude that very few fiction writers ever manage to achieve. Below is a sample taken from near the end of Ch. 6, as to secondary characters, Fucker and Wolfie, are gabbing in a pub:
Fucker sat on his hands and bit his bottom lip. Wolfie, more the diplomat of the pair, changed tack.
‘You’d be a fella who’d take a turn ’round Smoketown the odd time, sir?’
‘Now,’ said the spud-ater, ‘we are talkin’ decen’ cuts o’ turkey.’
‘An’ what’d have an interest for you cross the footbridge, sir?’
The old-timer’s eyes sparkled.
‘I’d lick a dream off the belly of a skinny hoor as quick as you’d look at me.’
Wolfie nodded soberly, as though appreciative of the spud-ater’s delicate tastes.
‘Draw a bead and you’ll have your pick o’ the skinnies,’ he said. ‘Could have a season o’ picks.’
‘Cozy aul’ winter for ya,’ said Fucker. ‘Buried to the maker’s name in skinnies and far gone off the suck of a dream-pipe, y’check me?’
The old tout sighed as temptation hovered.
‘Oh man an’ boy I been a martyr to the poppy dream…’
‘An’ soon as you done with the dream-pipe,’ Fucker teased some more, ‘there’d be as much herb as you can lung an ‘ ale to folly.’ (p. 46 e-book edition)
The tone is that of two friends, or at least two friendly pub acquaintances, shooting the bull. This feels very naturalistic, but this frequently is not an easy thing to accomplish in fiction. Yet here and throughout the narrative the characters’ voices are distinct yet they contribute greatly toward creating a vivid landscape upon which the action unfolds. This quality cannot be overstated here as there are times where the plot is relatively weak and it is mostly due to the strongly-drawn characters and their distinctive points-of-views that the action is as memorable as it can be.
Unfortunately, the beautiful, lush language and the well-drawn characters can only carry a story so far. While the concluding part of City of Bohane is not “weak” per se, it is not as strongly-developed as the other sections of the novel and the conclusion feels as though the narrative engine ran out of gas making the last turn, as it sputters and wheezes its way to a denouement that is merely adequate. Perhaps this is the flipside to Barry’s accomplishments with narrative and characters: the reader may find herself wishing at the end that its power could have been sustained for just a couple scenes longer. As it stands, City of Bohane is a very good novel with memorable prose that finds those elements ultimately betrayed by a plot that just cannot sustain the energy of its first three-quarters.
June 2nd, 2013 § § permalink
It’s getting dark, I’m trying to concentrate on something useful, and the only thing that matters now is to figure out what my last words will be. “The probability that we’re going to die is smaller than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity,” I told Epsilon. It wasn’t like me to say something like that. I wish I’d said something different.
I want to say something meaningul, make my last words rhyme, so I lay awake the whole night trying to think up something appropriate. I know I’ll never get out of bed again. But then morning comes and I feel so hungry.
Epilson says that, statistically speaking, a given person will probably die in bed.
Maybe I should get up now. (p. 12)
Death is one of life’s great mysteries. We, even those who long for it, never quite can grasp it as being anything much more than the absence of life. It is the exclamation point for some, for others it merely is a period or even a question mark to punctuate their lives. It looms large for some of us, while for others, it is a distant cloud on the horizon, one that seems forever far from our daily routines. But yet it still lurks out there, wherever “there” might be. Will death find us content and happy with our lives, with children gathered around us, marking a life well-lived? Or will it discover a broken, despairing soul, fretting over things not accomplished, achievements never done? Who will find our corpses and what will be remembered about us? Will there be a monument to our deeds or are we doomed to oblivion? And when found, will the body be laid to rest quickly, or will it take days, weeks, or even years before our remains are encountered by others?
In Norwegian writer Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s debut novel, The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am, the elderly Mathea finds herself obsessing over these details. She is lost to memory, it seems, as the past converges with the present so seamlessly that it is wonderfully difficult to decipher at first which is which. She muses on her life with her statistician husband “Epilson,” pondering the improbabilities that make up each life. She is childless and nearly friendless and these developments disturb her, but her narrative is more than just the sum of her fears:
I can be a lot of fun. I remember a joke I once made up: “Have you heard about the man who was so thin his pajamas just had one stripe?” I asked Epsilon. “Yes,” Epsilon said. “Impossible,” I said, “I just made him up.” “No, I’m sure I’ve heard of him before, Mathea,” Epsilon said. “Oh, yeah, you’re right,” I said. “Come to think of it, I remember a whole article about him in that senior citizens’ magazine Over Sixty.” Typical, you think up a good joke and it turns out you’ve heard it before. But I laugh anyway, and I tell Epsilon that I’m the funniest person I know. “You don’t know anyone besides me,” he says. “But still,” I say.
How sad it is for the world to have missed out on lively Mathea. But it’s sadder for me. So I’m sad for a moment, but then I decide to bury a time capsule. I push back the covers, haul my legs out of bed, and put my feet into Epsilon’s worn felt slippers. Then I walk into the kitchen and look under the sink. Back behind the buckets and rags is an old cardboard box that used to hold bottles of detergent. Epsilon always buys in bulk, I have no idea why. The box says “Bulk,” and I guess that’ll have to be my legacy. I plop it on the kitchen table and think about it a while. Finally, though, I decide it won’t work. I need to bury something meaningful. I know what I have to do. (pp. 32-33)
Skomsvold has created in Mathea a sympathetic character whose musings reflect so many of our own fears and reflections. She has said in the past that the idea for The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am was conceived when she was bedridden following an illness. The thoughts that occurred to her as she laid in the bed was the genesis for Mathea’s own cyclical thoughts on life, death, disappointment, and frustrated hope. There is a quality to the prose that makes it difficult to tell when the author’s experience leaves off and the character’s fictional thoughts begins. Mathea’s struggle to make sense of her life in the midst of her impending death (or so it seems to her at the time) resonates with readers because she voices concerns that many of us have tried to bury underneath the minutiae of our quotidian lives. William Faulkner once remarked in Requiem for a Nun that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In Mathea, we see evidence for this, as she recollects little moments shared with her husband, as well as events from her childhood that still affect her in the present. These recalled episodes are poignant, touching artifacts of a life that later had etched into it fear, loss, and anxiety. They could be snippets from our parents’ lives or from a neighbor down the street. They feel “real” because Skomsvold never takes the reader out of Mathea’s viewpoint. We do not see if she is senile or sane, demented or brutally honest with her thoughts and actions. One moment flows into another, the past swirling like an eddy in the current of time, occasionally spilling over into the present. This is what Skomsvold apparently wanted to explore in her novel and if so, she did an outstanding job in capturing a narrative voice that is at once distinctive and yet universal in tone and rhetoric. The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am is a quiet, understated story at first but by novel’s end it has become one of those rare works of fiction that move us to think of the ways in which we are akin to Mathea in her waning days. That is the hallmark of a great novel and this debut certainly deserves to be read and re-read as we pass through our own Shakespearean “ages of man.”