Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Helen Macdonald, _H Is for Hawk_

A FINE BOOK, multiply-honored last year, and quite deservingly. Three main strands.

In one, MacDonald, a falconer (also "writer, illustrator, historian, naturalist," and affiliated with Cambridge), recounts how she trained her goshawk, Mabel.

In the second, she works through her grieving for her  recently passed father.

In the third, she ponders an earlier book on training a goshawk, T. H. White's The Goshawk, which leads into a consideration of his life, career, and other books.

The three strands course along in parallel fashion, occasionally intersecting, for a while, but by midpoint they are criss-crossing at higher energy levels each time, an day the closing chapters they have movingly fused.

The book makes a powerful whole--at the same time, any number of chapters could be excerpted for use in a class, which is a nice bonus, from my point of view.

What I really liked, though--I'm over-generalizing, but American women prose writers under forty tend to go for a kind of austerity, a spareness, a slightly-chilled, holding-back-a-bit, Didion-esque tone. I am thinking this partly because I just read Lucy Ives, I think, but Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison (for instance) often seem to be aiming at something similar.

Macdonald's prose has obviously never been near a creative non-fiction workshop, and no one ever told her to dial it down, or prune those similes, or cut back on the description. Not that her style is florid or sprawling...but it is generous. A relatively random sample:

Two days before the service [her father's] something very strange happened on the hill. We'd been walking up a hedgerow running down the edge of a field of undersown stubble. There was a pheasant in the hedge; I'd heard it cluck and run, rat-wise, along the damp and nettly ditch, and Mabel had heard it too. She'd crashed over the hedge and perched out of sight at the top, facing away from me. Her blood was up and mine too. I shouldered my way into the hedge, knowing that any second now the pheasant would rocket out in front of me in a burnished clatter of feathers.

I can imagine that passage getting any number of helpful comments in a workshop, leading to the disappearance of all the touches that constitute a kind of stylistic fingerprint.





Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lucy Ives, _Nineties: a story with no moral_

SOMEWHAT COINCIDENTALLY, I read the first half of this in a club, waiting for a band that first made their mark in the 1990s, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, to take the stage. (They weren't late; I was early.) Different coast, though, and not even quite the same Nineties--the Joe Brainard-esque list that occurs at the book's midpoint begins "Filofax, whippets, Urban Outfitters, snap bracelet," which is not exactly Anton Newcomb territory.

Imagine that the Gossip Girl series was written by Paul Bowles, and you will have a rough approximation of Nineties. It is set in an expensive NYC private school and follows the interactions and transgressions of a small group of girls (á la Gossip Girl) and written in a scrupulously spare style that excludes contextualization, explanation of motive, and moral judgement (á la Bowles). The absence of commentary and interiority is even made visible in the text, as white space.

Quite a different vein from Orange Roses, but complementary in a way, perhaps? Is the unnamed narrator of Nineties the teenaged version of the young writer whose choices and ambitions are contemplated with a certain dry disenchantment in Orange Roses? They seem like quite different people, but no more different than the Kit Moresby of the first chapter of The Sheltering Sky is from the Kit Moresby of the last.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Hannah Tinti, _The Good Thief_

REN IS AN orphan living in a Catholic orphanage somewhere in New England in what seems like the 19th century.  His left hand is missing, and his name is derived from initials embroidered on a scrap of collar that was with him when he was left at the orphanage as an infant.  He does not know who his parents were, or what the initials stand for, or how he lost his hand.

He will get answers to all three questions by the end of the book, after a series of adventures with one Benjamin Nab, who, claiming to be a relative, "adopts" Ren and takes him on as an assistant in his business, which is mainly exhuming recently-buried corpses and selling them to medical practitioners.

Already sounds a bit Dickensian, doesn't it? Orphans, resurrection men?  There is more than a touch of Treasure Island as well, with Ren as Jim Hawkins, and a plot crowded with incident: pursuits, escapes, violent confrontations, nighttime adventures in graveyards, unexpected revelations.

Narratives as self-consciously retro as this one is can grate on the nerves, but Tinti keeps the pace swift and the style spare, escaping the pitfalls a writer can all too easily tumble into in trying to write a ninetieth century novel in the twenty-first. It would be interesting to see what she could do with a contemporary setting.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Elena Ferrante, _My Brilliant Friend_

IF YOU HAPPEN to be looking for someone to splash cold water on this recent enthusiasm, you will have to keep looking.  I was as captivated as everyone else.

I'm at a loss to say why the book is so captivating, though. We have the usual virtues of a well-realized realist novel, certainly: vivid setting (Naples in the fifties and early sixties), powerful just-offstage social forces (the church, organized crime, political differences sharpened by memories of fascism and of the war), multi-generational drama.

The unique thing about the book, though, as you have probably heard, is its portrait of friendship. As the title suggests, the narrator Lenù's friend Lila is as much the focus of the novel's attention as Lenù herself is.  Even though their paths diverge dramatically in adolescence--Lila's parents take her out of school early and she marries while in her teens; Lenù is kept in school and looks to be university-bound--the bond formed in childhood remains strong, and Lenù, far from feeling condescending towards the somewhat less-advantaged Lila, continues to see her as her bright particular star, with a life inexplicably more deep and intriguing than her own.

I've been cudgeling my brains trying to think of another novel that pays as much attention too friendship, male or female, as this one does, to no avail. Some "young reader" books come to mind: Booth Tarkington's Penrod and Sam, Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy, Tom and Huck in Tom Sawyer. Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

Turning to literature for adults, we have to go back--quite a way back. Even then, the examples are relatively underdeveloped. There are Orestes and Pylades, Hamlet and Horatio--but in those cases the friend is mainly someone to whom to make speeches. Achilles and Patroclus? How much do we actually get to see of their friendship, though? Do Don Quixote and Sancho Panza even count as friends, given the master-and-man dimension of their partnership?

Hans and Joachim in The Magic Mountain? Humboldt and Citrine in Humboldt's Gift? I'm really reaching now.

There must be some examples that are simply not occurring to me, but it seems deeply odd that so crucial a dimension of human  experience has left so light a trace in literature, which makes me wonder whether Lila and Lenù will turn out to be a distinctive contribution to world letters.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why no Lionel Trilling biography?

ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH Edward Mendelson's Moral Agents, which is stone brilliant, and about which I expect to be writing shortly, but Mendelson's first chapter on Lionel Trilling got me thinking: why is there no big biography on Trilling?

Now, some of you boys and girls out there may not recognize the name immediately, but Lionel Trilling was the USA's pre-eminent literary critic between World War II and his death in 1975. Edmund Wilson has a valid rival claim to the title during that same stretch, but Trilling, established at Columbia, had an unassailably Ivy academic credibility that Wilson did not have. Not that Trilling was strictly an academic critic, by any means--he wrote what were considered definitive books on Matthew Arnold and E. M. Forster, but also contributed to the NYT Book Review, The Nation, the Kenyon Review, and, most crucially, the Partisan Review--a non-academic intellectual forum the like of which we hardly have today.

Trilling was still alive for most of the time I was in college, and I remember three different classes in which we read essays of his, and his The Liberal Imagination was one of those books you were supposed to read if you were serious about literature, like Auerbach's Mimesis or Abrams's The Mirror and the Lamp.

There are some studies of Trilling, but no biography, even though there are biographies of contemporaries of his, like Alfred Kazin and Dwight MacDonald, who belonged to roughly the same milieu but lacked Trilling's clout.

(One of the studies I turned up is Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch, which sounds like a sly joke someone inserted in a publisher's list as a prank, but is apparently an actual book. Hard to think of a title-and-author combination that would more powerfully give you the feeling that you already know the book's entire contents than "Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch").

Reasons for the bio's absence do suggest themselves. For one, Trilling died just as French post-structuralism invaded U.S. literature departments, and his ponderous earnestness, with its emphasis on renunciation and resignation, quickly began to look unspeakably dowdy. With the rediscovery of the Frankfort School, there was a way to talk about political and moral engagement without Trilling's somewhat ironic Eisenhower-era update of Popular Front tropes.

For another, Trilling's prose aged badly. Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, Mary McCarthy, Dwight MacDonald...they all still sound full of brio, to my ear. I read them and wish we still had critics around who wrote like that. But Trilling---? Here is a sample from The Opposing Self:

But now, when we have touched upon the Wordsworthian quality that is very close to the Stoic apatheia, to not-feeling, let us remember what great particular thing Wordsworth is said to have accomplished.  Matthew Arnold said that in a wintry clime, in an iron time, Wordsworth taught us to feel. This statement, extreme as it is, will be seen to be not inaccurate, if we bring to mind the many instances of spiritual and psychological crisis in the nineteenth century in which affectlessness, the loss of the power to feel, played an important part.

Doesn't really make you want to keep on, does it?  The passive constructions, the clichés, the "not inaccurate" formulation?

But--so what if his reputation has been somewhat eclipsed, so what if his gravitas now just sounds stuffy...isn't he still historically important?  He is.  So there must have been dozens of people who figured they could write the biography, which, given how central Trilling was, would make an extraordinary book if you got it right.

An observation from Mendelson hints at an answer. Trilling kept an extensive journal, and apparently figured (he had every reason to) that it would be published.  He even revised it. Apparently, the Trilling of the essays--wise, learned, balanced, serious--is not at all the Trilling of the journals.  Mendelson writes in a note, "More than one of his admirers has looked through them with the thought of printing them, but was too appalled by their contents to proceed."

Trilling's journals...are appalling? So appalling that even publication-hungry scholars would leave them be?

Well, we really need to have that biography now.



Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Karl-Ove Knausgaard, _My Struggle, Book Two: A Man in Love_

I LIKED THIS one even better than I did the first one. They can't keep getting better--eventually the project will hit its La Prisonniére phase--but I'm in for the long haul, if I live.

This one begins with the children's birthday party sequence sometimes cited by the haters, but having myself attended a few children's birthday parties in the parent-of-guest role, what struck me most forcibly was how perfectly Knausgaard nailed it. For instance, he captures that peculiar relation one has with the parents of the children one's child goes to pre-school with--you're not exactly friends, not exactly colleagues, yet you see each other every day, know each other's names, have one important thing in common…yet usually only that one thing in common. Knausgaard is also excellent on the special vigilance of a parent whose child is at a birthday party. Is my child behaving? Is my child having fun? Is my child being welcomed by his or her peers? The answer to each of these questions can veer from "yes" to "no" and back again very abruptly, so one is in full-on, second-by-second deep monitoring mode.

As its subtitle makes plain, Book Two is about Knausgaard's relationship with his wife, the mother of his children. so the narrative embraces not only parental moments like the birthday party, but also earlier, angst-saturated young writers' retreat moments that end with Knausgaard carving his face with a shard of glass, tense in-law moments, blissed-out urban dérive moments, tears of joy at pregnancy announcement moments--the whole panoply.

As you know if you have even heard about this novel, the moments do not come in chronological order, or even in any obviously patterned way, beyond the narratives having mostly do with Linda. Is the artlessness of My Struggle real or only apparent? Real, I think, but it is the artlessness of someone who had to work hard to become artless. Writing naturally did not come naturally to him, one suspects; he's a mot juste, sentence-wrestling, blood from a stone kind of writer, left to his own devices. He had to relinquish control.

Book Two includes at its end the Proustian paving-stone moment of My Struggle, and that moment is about relinquishing control. A broken collarbone forces Knausgaard into relative inactivity, which becomes a revelation:

I sat still, I was passive, and it was as though I had lost control of my surroundings. So, had I always felt I controlled them and had power over them? Yes, I must have. I didn't need to make any use of the power and control, it was enough to know that it existed, it permeated everything I did and everything I thought. Now it was gone, and I saw it for the first time. Even stranger was the fact that the same applied to writing.

What Knausgaard then goes on to describe writing are scenes we recall from Book One. The trigger for the monumental work we are reading was not a paving-stone or a madeleine, not a memory (though it is full of memories), but a surrender, a letting go.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Shane McCrae, _The Animal Too Big to Kill_

McCRAE'S FOURTH BOOK, but the first I have read, and I read it rather rapidly, as he was in town for a reading. I may have missed some nuances...let's say I certainly missed some nuances...but I did enjoy it.

McCrae often uses a kind of start-stop-start again phrasing, as in the opening lines of the book:

I haven't Lord I haven't You I have-
n't praised enough You Lord although I with or would
With every poem praise You every    breath and [...]

I wonder if this is supposed to re-create the effect of digital sampling circa late 80s and early 90s, but it most reminded me of Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," especially given the religious (even somewhat penitential) cast of the language. Eliot's poem (as you probably remember) begins:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn


The language of prayer persists throughout the volume, but the tonality is elusive. As with Eliot in "Ash Wednesday," the religious turn seems in response to something traumatic, not so much the fading embers of an ecstatic vision as sheer weary amazement at having survived a disaster.

The disaster may have been familial.  Several poems begin "Growing up black white trash," a phrase that gradually acquires a homey familiarity like "It was a quiet week in Lake Wobegon," while also evoking a childhood of unguessable damage and pain. 

Something cathartic does happen, though, in "The Seven Last Words of Christ," a long poem that accounts for most of the second half of the book. Odd though it is that the same book might remind one of both T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg, "The Seven Last Words of Christ" has something of the power of Ginsberg's "Kaddish," a dark tribute from a loving son to a complex mother, marbled with religious language, torqued with the stresses of faith.