Monthly Archives: July 2011

Spurious

To give you a sense of what Lars Iyer’s novel Spurious is like, here is the opening paragraph:

I’m a terrible influence on W., everyone says that. Why does he hang out with me? What’s in it for him? The great and the good are shaking their heads. Sometimes W. goes back to the high table and explains himself. I am something to explain, W. says. He has to account for me to everyone. Why is that?

Even though the novel opens with a statement of what “everyone says,” it’s quickly obvious that this is really what W. alone says and that it’s W. speaking from the start. The novel is a story of a friendship of sorts between W. and the narrator, Lars, a very odd friendship where W. insults the narrator but seems to like hanging around him anyway, and the narrator simply reports the insults and doesn’t seem to mind them. Insulting the narrator seems to be mostly a way to fill the time, something to do when life isn’t very interesting.

The entire novel (which, I have to say, is about right at 175 pages — any longer and it would get dull) continues on much like the opening paragraph: the narrator describes his not-very-exciting doings but mostly reports what W. says to him. They are philosophy professors in England, and they travel around together to conferences when they can and struggle along with their work when they can’t. They are desperately searching for an idea to make their names as thinkers, but it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen. W. is forever reading a book he can’t understand and the narrator spends too much of his time on administrative work. As nasty as W. can be to the narrator, he’s equally hard on himself:

‘When did you know you were a failure?’ W. repeatedly asks me. ‘When was it you knew you’d never have a single thought of your own — not one?’

He asks me these questions, W. says, because he’s constantly posing them to himself. Why is he still so amazed at his lack of ability? He’s not sure. But he is amazed, and he will never get over it, and this will have been his life, this amazement and his inability to get over it.

The narrator moves seamlessly back and forth between quoting W. and taking on W.’s voice to report what he says (as in the first paragraph above), and pretty soon it comes to seem like they are actually the same person. It takes a while to catch on to what the pronouns mean, but soon enough you get it straightened out, and then it’s like living in both the characters’ minds at once.

Which is kind of a scary thing. They are obsessed with apocalypse, convinced the world is falling apart around them. They also talk a lot about messianism, their crazy hope that something will save them, although this seems highly unlikely. Much more concrete and believable is the apocalypse that is coming soon to the narrator’s apartment: it has the worst infestation of damp and mold you can imagine, and it gets worse as the book progresses. The narrator has carpenters and plumbers and everyone he can think of come and try to figure out the source of the damp, but they can’t. So he lives with crumbling plaster and mold spores and tries not to get too sick from it. All the attempts to work, the conferences, the trips and conversations with W. are a distraction from the mold, a symbol, of course, of everything going wrong with the world.

This is a strange book, but it’s fun: the conversations are entertaining, even as they are kind of sad. It reminds me of a Beckett play where two warped characters have warped conversations in order to distract themselves from their painful lives. And what’s not to like about that?

Spurious began as a blog, which Iyer adapted into the novel. I haven’t read many of the blog posts, so I’m not sure about the differences between the blog and the novel, but I like the idea of using a blog to develop ideas to turn into a book. The blog says there’s another novel coming out in 2012, Dogma, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

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The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson is not exactly a traditional biography. It does tell Dorothy’s life story, but it doesn’t try to include all the details or treat all the times in her life equally. Instead, it moves through her early years quickly, rushes through the last five decades at breakneck speed, and spends most of its time on the years of the Grasmere Journals, four journals she kept from 1800 to the very beginning of 1803. In this section, she spends a lot of time discussing the journals themselves, reading them closely for insights into Dorothy’s life at this time, and also using details from Dorothy’s life to illuminate the journals. It was the most exciting, most famous time in her long life: the time when she and William Wordsworth collaborated on their writing and tramped all over the Lake District, with Coleridge as their frequent companion.

The picture Wilson creates of Dorothy is different than the one I had in mind and the one painted by her letters (which I wrote about here). I had always thought of her as an avid walker, which she was, and also a dreamy, melancholy type, a person who thought and felt deeply, moody and brooding, a woman of sensibility, full of Romantic longing. The letters portray her as a quiet family woman, a person devoted to her brothers, nieces, and nephews and concerned above all else for their welfare. She was at least some of those things, but in Wilson’s biography, she is also very charismatic and full of energy and life:

Those who knew Dorothy in her hot youth describe her as possessing all the wildness of the Brontë heroines she helped to inspire. It was the quality of her gaze they noticed first. For John Thelwall, the radical, she was “the maid of ardent eye”; Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey,” famously praised “the shooting lights” of her “wild eyes,” which were a clear and light gray-blue, and Coleridge, taking his cue, wrote of “the wild lights in her eyes.” De Quincey described her eyes as “wild and startling” and Dorothy as “all fire, and … ardour,” the “very wildest (in the sense of the most natural) person I have ever known.” She had something of the “gipsy” to her, De Quincey said…

It’s this wildness that’s intriguing, and also her anxieties and what Wilson calls her neurotic personality. At the center of Wilson’s biography is a very strange scene from Dorothy journal, which takes place on Williams’s wedding day. She is devastated by the wedding, completely undone, although she has known it would happen for many months and sees William’s wife Mary as a close friend whom she is very fond of. But she had had William all to herself for several years and now, although she will continue to live with him, she will have to share him. Here is the scene from Dorothy’s journal:

On Monday 4th October 1802, my Brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson …William had parted from me upstairs. I gave him the wedding ring — with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before — he slipped it again onto my finger & blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara [Mary's sister] prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer & threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing anything, till Sara came upstairs to me & said “They are coming.” This forced me from the bed where I lay & I moved I knew not how straight forward, faster than my strength could carry me till I met my beloved William & fell upon his bosom….

This is a bizarre scene for a lot of reasons — the exchange of the wedding ring that mimics a wedding ceremony, her loss of consciousness when she realizes the wedding is over, her propulsion into William’s bosom at the end. Her relationship with William was the defining factor of her life, and readers have long speculated on its nature. Could it have been incestuous? Or haunted by unfulfilled sexual longing? Or of a more ethereal, spiritual nature?

Wilson handles all these questions well and other tricky ones such as the nature of Dorothy’s mental illness in her later years (a very sad story). She weaves Dorothy’s words into her text, using italics for language from the journals, with no quotation marks. This could come across as presumptuous, perhaps, implying that Wilson’s mind has somehow melded with Dorothy’s, but instead it comes across as intensely devoted and sympathetic while at the same time, somehow, not losing a feeling of objectivity.

Another aspect of Wilson’s biography that surprised me is her description of Dorothy as not given to self-reflection or self-awareness. She is a creature of surfaces, not at all, as Wilson says, like Mary Shelley who wrote in her diary, “Let me fearlessly descend into the remotest caverns of my own mind, carry the torch of self-knowledge into its dimmest recesses.” Dorothy prefers to stay on the outside, observing the natural world or writing accounts of actions rather than thoughts. It’s true that self-revealing moments in the journals are rare and Dorothy rarely tells us what she is thinking, but I wonder whether it’s right to move from the evidence of the journals to making a claim about what goes on in Dorothy’s mind. Her record of her life is very incomplete, after all. But it’s fascinating to think of this woman surrounded by Romantic poets, living out what seems to be an intensely Romantic life, and not being terribly interested in exploring the movements of her own mind.

As I said in my previous post, Wilson’s biography made me want to pick up the journals again, which I have, and I’m now reading through them very slowly. It’s easy to skim over her entries and feel like you’ve gotten the gist, but Wilson’s book makes a case for taking one’s time with them and treating them more like poetry than prose, so that’s what I’m trying to do.

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A list!

It’s been a while since I’ve done a listy, meme-type thing, and maybe the depths of July when I’m lazy and tired are good for that. I found this at Musings from the Sofa and My Porch (the sofa and the porch — perfect!). It’s the Sunday Times list of “The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945.” Let’s see how I do.

1. Philip Larkin - read him in college, not since.
2. George Orwell - his most famous novels, plus some essays. The essays are best and I want to get back to them.
3. William Golding - in high school, I’m pretty sure.
4. Ted Hughes - yes, he’s awesome.
5. Doris Lessing - no. Need to get to my copy of The Golden Notebook.
6. J. R. R. Tolkien  – read The Hobbit as a kid, but never got farther. This is probably a shame.
7. V. S. Naipaul - not yet.
8. Muriel Spark - three novels so far.
9. Kingsley Amis - yes, Lucky Jim.
10. Angela Carter - read in grad school. Don’t remember much.
11. C. S. Lewis - Narnia, plus some of his nonfiction.  Have probably had enough for one lifetime. Used to like him, don’t anymore.
12. Iris Murdoch - read in college and read another novel later. Don’t think I’ll go back, though.
13. Salman Rushdie - Haroun and the Sea of Stories in college and Midnight’s Children in grad school. Plus I’ve seen him give talks at least twice now.
14. Ian Fleming - no, not really my thing.
15. Jan Morris - who?
16. Roald Dahl - read as a kid.
17. Anthony Burgess - nope.
18. Mervyn Peake - who?
19. Martin Amis - read London Fields in grad school, Time’s Arrow later, probably enough for me.
20. Anthony Powell - not yet, not terribly high on the list.
21. Alan Sillitoe - who?
22. John Le Carré - read recently for book group and liked it, although it’s not quite my thing.
23. Penelope Fitzgerald - read The Bookshop and didn’t take to it, but will try again at some point.
24. Philippa Pearce - who?
25. Barbara Pym - read and like very much. I have several of her books on hand I haven’t read yet.
26. Beryl Bainbridge - read one book and didn’t really take to it.
27. J. G. Ballard - nope.
28. Alan Garner - read one book for The Slaves of Golconda book group; pretty good.
29. Alasdair Gray - who?
30. John Fowles - read The French Lieutenant’s Woman in grad school.
31. Derek Walcott - don’t think so, except maybe a random poem here or there.
32. Kazuo Ishiguro - he’s awesome.
33. Anita Brookner - she’s awesome.
34. A. S. Byatt - she’s occasionally awesome.
35. Ian McEwan - he’s occasionally awesome.
36. Geoffrey Hill - nope.
37. Hanif Kureishi - read a screenplay in grad school.
38. Iain Banks - nope.
39. George Mackay Brown - who?
40. A. J. P. Taylor - who?
41. Isaiah Berlin - nope.
42. J. K. Rowling - she’s on this list really? Read only the first Harry Potter, and it was okay.
43. Philip Pullman - love him.
44. Julian Barnes - love him.
45. Colin Thubron - who?
46. Bruce Chatwin - the one book I’ve read, In Patagonia, bored me.
47. Alice Oswald - who?
48. Benjamin Zephaniah - who?
49. Rosemary Sutcliff - who?
50. Michael Moorcock - who?

I’m fading by the end of this, I see. Well, there are some names to explore here, if I decide I want to.

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New books!

It’s library sale season here in Connecticut, and today Hobgoblin and I checked out one of the local ones. There are many more that we could go to, if we wanted to, as every library in the area seems to have a sale, but we will probably hit only a couple at most. No need to go crazy. We have run into a bit of a problem with bookshelf space, after all. We were very fortunate to be able to get some new bookcases from Becky — yay! — but of the four she had available, only one would fit up our narrow stairs (old house) and we have space downstairs for only one more. So, believe it or not, we had to leave two bookcases behind. As of now, we have some empty shelves available, but that won’t last long, of course.

So, here’s what I got:

  • Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. An autobiography of the first few decades of his life, including his experiences in World War I.
  • The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq. Michelle’s posts on Houellebecq got me interested in giving him a try. Perhaps once I read this, I will remember how to spell his name!
  • Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. I know nothing about this book, but it’s a Persephone, and they always look so nice.
  • Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. After reading The Transit of Venus with the Slaves of Golconda last winter, I decided I wanted to read more by her.
  • Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I didn’t love Case Histories as much as most people I know did, but I want to give her another try. This one sounds intriguing.

I could have gotten so many more! Hobgoblin came home with a couple Ross Macdonalds, a Sebastian Barry, a few other things I’m forgetting, plus a complete set, a dozen or so books, of mystery stories. The set was published in 1929. I haven’t looked through the volumes yet, but he said there are lots of authors included that he’d never heard of before. It should be fun to explore.

And then there are the books I brought home from the library recently, including Jo Walton’s Among Others, which I’m reading right now and enjoying very much, and The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure. I might start that one tonight. Lots of good books around here!

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Dorothy Wordsworth

I happened to pick up a copy of Dorothy Wordsworth’s selected letters while in London — I have her journals and a biography, so it seemed appropriate to get some letters as well — and on a whim I began reading them while flying back to the U.S. The letters were interesting; I enjoyed the glimpse into Dorothy’s life they gave, and it’s always fun to read about that group of great writers who spent so much time together, Dorothy, William Wordsworth, and Coleridge, with appearances now and then by Thomas De Quincey and Charles and Mary Lamb. The letters are also fairly tame and quiet since Dorothy is being her best social self, although it was fun to see her putting an aunt firmly in her place by insisting that there is nothing improper in going on a long walking tour with her brother:

I cannot pass unnoticed that part of your letter in which you speak of my “rambling about the country on foot.” So far from considering this as a matter of condemnation, I rather thought it would have given my friends pleasure to hear that I had courage to make use of the strength with which nature has endowed me, when it not only procured me infinitely more pleasure than I should have received from sitting in a post-chaise — but was also the means of saving me at least thirty shillings.

As Dorothy is penniless at this point, saving thirty shillings is significant. I love the fact that she is basically running away from home here. She’s not sneaking off exactly, but she has left the aunt and uncle who have taken care of her since her mother died, and her relatives are not particularly pleased with her. This was unconventional behavior. She and William walk for the next two days, the first day to Grasmere, which is where they will live five years later during that famous time William Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote their Lyrical Ballads and she wrote her Grasmere journals, and the second day to Keswick, where they stayed with friends.

This is, perhaps, the point at which she finally grows up. She is 23 at the time, having spent most of her life up to this point separated from her four brothers. Her mother died when she was six, the event that shook up the family and sent her off to live with her aunt and uncle. Her father died when she was 12, but even then, she didn’t see her family. Finally, now that she is in her 20s, she is reunited with her long-lost brothers, and at this point, she is making her dramatic move — leaving her guardians and clinging to William, with whom she will live for decades to come.

She is also establishing her reputation as a serious walker. She will walk miles and miles, most famously in the area around Grasmere. She and William, accompanied sometimes by neighbors and friends, will cover the same ground again and again, getting to know their area intimately, and their walks will inspire the poetry and poetic prose to come. It’s fitting that part of her striking out on her own with William involves a defense of the value of walking: it’s healthy and pleasurable, and it’s using the great gift given to herby nature — her strength.

After reading the letters, I thought I would pick up a recent biography of Dorothy, Frances Wilson’s book The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. I’m nearing the end of it now. I quickly decided that reading the biography meant I needed to reread the Grasmere journals as well, so I’m in the middle of those too. The biography and the journals paint quite a different picture of Dorothy than the letters do. But more on that later.

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Our Tragic Universe, continued

So, what is Our Tragic Universe about? (By the way, I first wrote about this book here.) It tells the story of Meg, a thirty-something writer living in a small English town in Devonshire. She makes a living, or sort of makes a living, writing reviews and formulaic young adult science fiction novels. Based on some early successes, she got an advance a long time ago to write a literary novel, but she hasn’t been able to produce it. She writes and then she deletes, writes and deletes, and gets nowhere. Her boyfriend is looking for a job, although he is extremely picky and not actually looking all that hard. He is so wrapped up in his unhappiness that he has no time to think much about Meg and hers. They live in a damp cottage that makes it difficult for Meg to breathe, but her boyfriend never notices.

What gets the action going is Meg accidentally reviewing the wrong book; it’s a silly mix-up, but it leads in interesting directions: the wrong book turns out to be the kooky science (or “science”)  book I mentioned in my last post, which leads Meg, once she submits her review of the wrong book, to an assignment reviewing a whole bunch of kooky science, health, and self-help books, which gives her interesting fodder for a whole series of conversations with friends. And that accounts for much of what takes place in the book: there are a lot of scenes where people are sitting around having interesting conversations about all sorts of things: end-of-the-world theories, how placebos work, local legends of dangerous but elusive monsters, how to write novels, how and whether to get out of bad relationships, and the relationship of stories to real life. There’s action in the book, too, but it’s pretty desultory and not really the point.

The best part for me, and the aspect of the book that most made me like it (in addition to liking Meg very much), was the conversations about stories and the debates about genre vs. literary fiction, debates that are so serious they almost cost Meg a friendship. Meg’s friend Vi is an anthropologist who has been developing a theory of the “storyless story,” a narrative that resists the typical form of stories: a beginning, middle, and end that add up to some kind of coherent meaning. Storyless stories don’t add up to anything; they might possibly just wander on, going no place in particular, or they might have an ending that seems to come out of nowhere. Zen stories are examples of storyless stories, as Vi explains; they are:

… are constructed to help you break away from drama, and hope and desire. Some of them are funny. All of them are unpredictable. They’re not tragedies, comedies or epics. they’re not even Modernist anti-hero stories, or experimental narratives or metafiction. I lost count of the times someone would say, “I’ll tell you a story,” and then recite something like an absurdist poem with no conflict and no resolution. One of these “stories” was about a Zen monk who, on the day he was going to die, sent postcards saying, “I am departing from this world. This is my last announcement.” Then he died.

Meg feels ambivalently about Vi’s theory, since it threatens the work she does, writing those young adult sci-fi books:

I didn’t pay too much attention to this stuff any longer, considering that my entire existence now depended on me being able to take a good but unhappy character from bad fortune to good fortune in a credible way, and give them a bottle of oil — if that was what they wanted — as a prize at the end. I wanted to make my ‘real’ novel less formulaic and more literary, of course, but if I listened to Vi’s theories, then my only narrative strategy would be ‘shit happens’.

In a way, this forms the fundamental tension of the novel: how will Meg reconcile her success at genre fiction with her desire to write something “less formulaic”? What is at stake when pursuing one form of writing versus the other? What would it be like to have as one’s only narrative strategy, “shit happens”? When Meg and Vi get into a dispute over the value of Meg’s writing, it’s not just an argument; it’s an attack on Meg’s livelihood. She teaches classes in writing genre fiction, after all, covering the “rules” for good narrative arcs and the most fundamental types of plots: the hero overcoming an obstacle, the quest narrative, etc. It takes her much of the book to work through exactly what she thinks of Vi’s ideas about narrative, and this isn’t just a cerebral exercise because her thinking about narrative involves thinking about the relationship between stories and life, her life specifically, and the difficult choices she needs to make.

I still think this is a deeply flawed book — too much going on in it, too much awkwardness as I wrote about last time — but it turned out to be a very enjoyable flawed book, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to read more of her work.

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Our Tragic Universe

I don’t know what to make of Scarlett Thomas’s writing. I liked, but also felt ambivalent about, but at the same time have fond memories of, her novel PopCo. Our Tragic Universe is evoking much the same response, although I had more doubts as I was reading it than I had while reading her earlier book. I often found myself shaking my head over the awkwardness of the writing and the structure, and I seriously considered putting the book down at around page 50. I’m glad I kept reading (this is why I hesitate to put books down — because I do sometimes change my mind!), but I have to conclude that either Thomas is an awful stylist or she doesn’t care about style and is going for something else. I think the latter is true, but the awkward moments do get painful.

For the first 100 pages or so I got annoyed at the way she would move into lengthy passages of back story without giving you enough of a reason to think the back story matters. I found myself wanting to skim these sections. I don’t know how writers do it, exactly, but somehow it seems that if you want to leave the main narrative to move back in time or to tell someone else’s story or explain something or whatever, you need to make the reader see why it’s important and make the reader willing to go there. Instead I thought, okay, when are we getting back to the main story?! I’m bored, and I don’t get what’s going on here! Starting on page five, which is actually the third page of the book, we get a two-page description of a bizarre science book the main character is reading, and it’s unclear why that description is there. It turns out that the book is important to Thomas’s story, but there’s no way to know that at the time, and when I read it, I had no idea why some kooky author’s bizarre theories about the end of the world mattered to the plot. I know getting information across to the reader in a natural, graceful way is difficult, but surely an established literary novelist could do better than this?

And yet I did end up enjoying the book. I became fond of the main character, and I loved the long conversations the characters have where they talk about crazy scientific ideas or the end of the world or how stories work. I love the fact that the main character is a writer who is struggling to figure out how to make the switch from writing genre fiction, which she can do easily, to writing literary fiction, at which she is stalled. She spends a lot of time thinking about differences between the two and why those differences matter and those ideas are great.

But, my god, the dialogue is so awkward! The characters lecture to each other, going on for pages sometimes in a completely unrealistic way. And I was unsure of Thomas’s use of first person. The main character, Meg, tells the story, and is self-aware to a certain extent, or at least her voice is calm and thoughtful, but the boyfriend with whom she is living is clearly depressed and his behavior toward her is emotionally abusive. I found it frustrating and hard to believe that she hadn’t left him a long time ago. She is depressed herself, but I couldn’t quite reconcile her actions with the intelligence and insight of her voice.

I’ve spent most of this post telling you the problems I saw with the book, but the truth is that it won me over, and once it did, I became interested in the question of why I liked it when it’s obviously so flawed. I guess I’m intrigued by the idea that Thomas isn’t interested in trying to follow what we might think of as the rules of good fiction (realistic dialogue, coherent structure, convincing characters). She’s most interested in the ideas the book explores, and since the book explores the question of what fiction is and what its effects are, it’s fitting that she gets a little experimental.

I’ve hardly told you what the book is about, I see. Perhaps I’ll do that in another post.

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