Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Barry Unsworth, _The Songs of the Kings_

IPHIGENIA IN AULIS, in historical novel mode -- operating under the assumption that Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, et al. were every bit as petty, hypocritical, opportunistic, duplicitous, and unwilling to acknowledge their real motives as Bush, Blair, & Co.

And not an assumption you need strain much at, provided you are willing to go along with the premise that these fictional characters are the real scoop on characters who were fictional in the first place.

The Songs of the Kings thus belongs in "twas ever thus" category of historical novels, rather than the Luk√°cs-approved "things were wholly different once" category. Or perhaps the historical-novel-as-oblique-commentary-on-contemporary-events category, like, mmm, Felix Holt the Radical, perhaps, or Wajda's film Danton.

A good novel, but I found myself continually making unfavorable comparisons to Mark Merlis's An Arrow's Flight, one of the great novels of recent decades, to my mind, as well as one of the most compelling contemporary re-imaginings of the matter of Troy, and one which so far as I can discern gets nothing like the accolades it deserves. It's up there with Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, if you ask me. So get around to asking me, won't you? Thanks.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sixth note on _Witz_

6. Cohen likes long, extraordinarily long sentences. Here is what Benjamin encounters as he crosses from New Jersey into New York City via the Holland Tunnel (p. 520):

Landscaped from one of the two mouths of the tunnel, for the many tunnels of this mutated city are monstrous throats that never digest or ever waste what they swallow, without intestine or stomached gargle, how they merely gorge then regurgitate and then gorge themselves again down to the bottom of Broadway – willows groved tightly, their trunks lashed together to prevcnt from being uprooted by the tunneling wind, their boughs hung with many other objects, or forsakings, the harps of the Philharmonic, disbanded since last season’s interruption, and then with their strings, all their sections: their violins firsts and seconds, violas and violoncellos, the occasional weepy, drooping bass, their strings wilting in memory, going loose and detuned in the howl coming up from the bay – trees hung not just with bisbiglissandoing harps and with fiddles gutted and bows but with memories, too, and forgettings, pleas and supplications, signs and notes slipped and tied dire: help me find my father, one says, have you seen my partner? Another, this posted alongside a photo faced grainy from its constant reproduction, a losingly lined courtroomsketch, if so contact Sassoon & Silver LLP., cash reward for information leading to his recovery, all (succor) wanted, need, & offered […]

That’s not the end of the sentence, but let’s stop and take the census so far. We begin with a participial phrase, but have to wait a bit for the noun it modifies (“willows”) because the tunnel’s having a “mouth” triggers a short excursus on its being the maw of this Moloch of a city. The willows get an interesting nonce verb – “groved” – then turn out to be lashed together, which seems peculiar, but even more peculiarly have been festooned with the abandoned instruments of the Philharmonic, disbanded since so many its musicians died (a lot of the orchestra’s members are, indeed, Jewish, but these days the Asian musician might be able to keep it going). The surreal image of the now useless string instruments in the willows shifts suddenly as we next are presented with the kind of notes that appeared all over Manhattan after 9/11, with a striking inversion (‘tied dire”) and another noun-into-verb transformation (“photo faced grainy”). Then there’s the “losingly lined courtroomsketch” – does the hand-drawn image that Sassoon provides of Silver (or Silver of Sassoon) somehow suggest that their law practice has been infrequently victorious?

Cohen often makes use of absolute phrases – “their strings wilting,” “signs and notes slipped and tied dire,” “trees hung etc” – a classic maximalist’s device for adding detail after detail to a sentence, as we see as the catalog of objects left in memory of the dead continues:

…tins of spam dangling from giftribbons, plastic liters of generic soda, empty jars of mayo weeping ornamentally wrapped from these trees, trays of decorative cupcakes and cookies, novelty balloons; these groves nymphabandoned, lining Canal Street west to the Bowery with equity neckties, daytrader suits on hangers commoditized fresh from the drycleaners, high heels, dressy pearls’ strands – this the highest rate of return, a reversion to our natural state, a great comfort unconfined: this season, menschs let out their bellies; womenfolk smear their makeup onto the faces of streets, pink and streaks of red like rainbows trailed by snails, then pray for an innerly inclement weather, asking the cloudfall to cool their lusts, to purify their souls; their kinder pitch pennies worthless into the sewer green and gold, dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow … skyscrapers once new, abandoned to scaffolds; earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying as symbols of an emptiness within; ambition unfinished, thrusts unfulfilled; lorded over by an inutile silence and the holy stillness of cranes. (520-21)

We note the Yiddish – the novel invariably uses “mensch” for “man” or “person,” “kinder” for “children” – and the high modernist touches, the Joycean aversion to the hyphen, for example, as in what may be an allusion to Eliot’s Waste Land: “these groves nymphabandoned”. The plague has laid waste not only to symphony orchestra but to Wall Street, with homely details (drycleaned suits still on hangers) and grimly ironic puns (“highest rate of return”), an image of made-up women collapsing on the street heightened with a simile both beautiful and queasy-making (like rainbows trailed by snails). Next, we have an image of orphaned children, perhaps not long to live themselves, and abandoned dogs in a stunning string of monosyllabic words (‘dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow”) that almost sounds like a William Carlos Williams poems. Then Cohen pulls out all the stops, piling up absolute phrases that read like Whitman-out-of-Ginsberg (‘earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying”) before flipping in a wholly surprising but perfect French adjective and a final image that sounds like Li Bai until you realize it completes the picture of arrested construction.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Joshua Cohen, _A Heaven of Others_

LITERARY HEAVENS, FROM Dante to Mitch Albom, gravitate towards explanation, clearing up the big questions, reconciliations, and the like, but Joshua Cohen's afterlife in A Heaven for Others is if anything stranger, more bewildering, and more abounding in loose ends than ordinary earthly existence.

On his tenth birthday, Jonathan Schwartzstein of Jerusalem is in a shoe store with his father when a suicide bomber crashes in. The explosion kills Jonathan, but due to some cosmic missed exit he winds up in the Muslim heaven, complete with houris, camels, and a K'aba ("Schawartzstein" could be translated "Black Stone"). He sets off on a pilgrimage to find Muhammad and learn how and why he is there, but Muhammad is unlocatable. He does come across a boy his own age who seems be the suicide bomber who crashed into the shoe store.

There is a risk of sentimentality in this scenario (the text is dated "Yom Hazikaron, 2004," an Israeli holiday honoring fallen soldiers and civilian victims of terrorism), and Cohen is not wholly successful in avoiding it (e.g., p. 142). But the book's uniqueness and strangeness prevent one from drawing ready conclusions. Why the occasional shift from Jonathan's first-person narration to that of an omniscient third person? (God? Cohen?) Why the three poems, titled "Alef," "Beit," and again "Alef," prefaced by designs by Michael Hafftka based on those three letters, which spell "ABA," that is, "father"? Why the epigraph from Russian Hebrew poet Saul Tchernichovsky, about a student acquiring a disgust for what his teachers most want him to learn?

And what can we make of Jonathan's gnomic utterances such as "Limitation is what I now understand to be the sole attribute of God [...]"? That the lesson we emphatically learn about God is that God is a God of some (us) but not all (them)? Or what about "heaven must be understood as borderless if it is to have any borders at all" or "an eternal boy matures eternally"? We are far indeed from Albom or Alice Sebold here -- as we are from Beatrice's painstakingly precise scholastic commentaries.

Plenty to ponder, then; fair enough. But I was most taken with the final section, "A 'Metaphor'," in which Jonathan recalls his bath on what was to be the last night of his life in the river-overflowing-its-banks prose of Witz.