Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Alexandre Dumas fils, _Camille_, tr. Edmund Gosse

THIS SEMESTER I debuted a course on literature about illness (Sick Lit, a colleague dubbed it) created in hopes of attracting some of our school's many undergrads contemplating careers in the health care field. (And it did--the class filled promptly.) I put this on the syllabus because its heroine, Marguerite Gautier, the beautiful young Parisian courtesan dying of consumption, became an archetype (cited by, for instance, Susan Sontag and Leslie Jamison, whom we also read). I had never taught it before, and probably never would have taught it at all had this particular course never been proposed. It felt like a gamble, though, not likely to appeal to millennial tastes, archetype though it was. I was actually a little surprised it was even in print.

Well...guess what? It was probably the biggest hit of the semester. The class (80% women) was as keen to discuss the situation, motives, and feelings of Marguerite as they might have been to discuss those of Daenerys Targaryen or a Kardashian. They loved her. Something about a beautiful young woman with a mortal disease living a life of luxury while also being a public scandal finding true love and sacrificing herself to save her beloved's future just clicks, even here in the 21st century.

The novel, published in 1848 when Dumas fils was in his early 20s, was actually not that great a commercial success, compared to the play he turned it into a few years later, or the opera Verdi turned the play into, or the Garbo film of 1936, but it's ingeniously set up. It begins with several chapters narrated by a third party after the death of Marguerite; circumstances bring about a meeting with Marguerite's bereaved lover Armand, who takes over the narration to tell the story of their affair as flashback.  In the final chapters, through letters and journal entries, Marguerite's voice takes over. We have the effect of getting closer and closer to the real Marguerite as the novel proceeds, and it still works.

It seems unlikely that anyone in Hollywood is contemplating the possibilities of reviving something this whiffy of 19th century sentimentality, but to judge from the reaction of my students, it could be a hot property once again.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Ernest Cline, _Ready Player One_

ANOTHER CONVALESCENCE READ. What with Mark Haddon and this one, I guess I'm catching up on my YAF.

Or is this YAF? The Huffington Post, according to the blurb on the back, called Ready Player One "the grown-up's Harry Potter." Mmm...I think not. It is not much like the Harry Potter books, because the "world" the story takes place in is a lot thinner than Rowling's and the relationships among the characters generally static, and I would not say it it really for grown-ups, either.

Our protagonist and narrator is Wade Watts, 17 or 18, who is trying (via his avatar, Parzifal) to win an elaborate contest/game occurring in a vast virtual cosmos called OASIS. The prize: ownership of OASIS. His main competition: IOI, a corporate behemoth with bottomless resources and zero scruples.

It's a bit David and Goliath, a bit Real People vs. the Suits, quite a bit plain old adventure-quest with riddles to solve, tasks to complete, opposition to overcome, and so on. Wade-Parsifal does make friends and fall in love along the way, but the people he becomes friends with/falls in love with are interested in precisely what he is interested in, so not much develops there.

The third section ("Level 3") did appeal to me, though, for a couple of reasons. For one, Wade executes a clever ruse to get inside IOI for intelligence/sabotage purposes, and his sojourn in the beast makes for some good Orwellian satire of the workplace-as-Panopticon. For another, he and his friends discover that the key to winning the game is that they co-operate. They had occasionally lent each other a hand or a tip in Levels One and Two, but insisted on being lone wolves; turns out, though, that the "Crystal Key" only functions if three players collaborate. A nice touch, I thought.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Mark Haddon, _The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time_

I'M CONVALESCING FROM a surgery that involved (among other things) an incision in my abdomen, so I was looking for something brisk that would not make me laugh (or cough or sneeze, all of which hurt), and this fit the bill.

Our protagonist-narrator Christopher Boone lives in Swindon, England, and I think he is in his teens. In the first half of the book, he is trying to answer the question: who killed the neighbor's dog? Once he knows, he has a task to complete: how can I get to my mother's house in London?

Neither mission is extraordinarily difficult. The answer to the question about the dog turns out to lie near at hand, and since Christopher has a bankcard, a railroad timetable, and an address for his mother, finding her should be easy. But Christopher is autistic--he does not tell us so, but from his own description of his habits, circumstances, and turn of mind, we discern that he is--so he has  to accomplish his ends while subject to very particular and unique constraints about interacting with people, eating, and much else. Improvising in unfamiliar circumstances, difficult for anyone, is all the more so for him.

Nonetheless, he succeeds--and even gets back to Swindon in time to ace his maths A-levels. We do not get a full-blown happy ending, as his parents do not reconcile and his future is still one big question-mark, but he has discovered some of his own capabilities.

So we have a modernization of a traditional quest-tale, like "The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear," but with a quester Myshkin-like in his unworldliness, Hawking-like in his ability to crack mathematical puzzles, and willing to wait in a Tube station for several hours so that he can board a relatively  unoccupied car. Christopher is memorable.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Elena Ferrante, _The Story of a New Name_, tr. Ann Goldstein

MAYBE A LITTLE less compelling than the first--longer, more diffuse--but only a little less. I'm still fascinated, and still uncertain what the springs of the fascination are.

A couple of guesses:

(1) If Knausgaard is the Proust de nos jours by virtue of his willingness to look microscopically at a moment, to break down the event of a few minutes into its every component, then perhaps Ferrante is an alternate Proust de nos jours by virtue of her patience and nuance in presenting the longue durée of our relationships over a lifetime. A person's life intersects tellingly with another person's at one time, then their lives diverge, then their lives intersect again, the new encounter both containing the relationship's history but also posing new terms. That feeling in Á la Recherche when a character we haven't seen for perhaps a hundred pages breaks on the horizon again, recognizable but changed... Ferrante is good at that. (This could also be called a soap-opera-like element, I concede, but I am sticking with Proust.)

(2) As far as I have read, the whole heart of the series is just such a relationship, as Lila's and Lénu's lives converge, diverge, then converge again, with each convergence containing its own mix of  reaffirmation of their history and challenges to the assumptions of the friendship. What fascinates me in this relationship is its flipping of the ordinary idea of what living a life is for.   Lénu, in ordinary terms, is the success story--she got out, she got a degree, she saw places, she meet new people, she is starting to gain recognition for her writing--but it is Lila who (to Lénu) is the one living the more spirited, more brilliant, more passionate life...Lila who never got out of Naples and was shipwrecked twice, on the rocks of a bad early marriage and in the whirlpool of a tragic affair. Lena goes from accomplishment to accomplishment, Lila from disaster to disaster, yet it is Lénu who feels she is never catching up.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Sebastian Barry, _Days Without End_

THIS NOVEL IS a bit of a knuckleball. In the first place, it is an historical novel set in the USA of the 19th century, but Barry himself is Irish--don't they have enough 19th century themselves to write about?  (Tóibín's Brooklyn is a precedent, I suppose).

The narrator and principal character, Thomas McNulty, is Irish, a Famine survivor who has managed to get to the United States; Thomas is also gay, and furthermore an occasional cross-dresser. He and his best friend-lover-partner John Cole end up in the army, serving both in the Civil War and in the Indian Wars, the latter (and their brutality) getting a large swathe of the narrative.

So--the other swerve of the knuckleball--I kept expecting that the plot was going to turn on Thomas's being Irish, gay, and an occasional cross-dresser. He and John Cole were going to be discovered, I assumed, persecuted and punished in some way...but nothing of the sort happens. In fact, for the first two-thirds of the novel, the narration is virtually a chronicle, soldiers crossing the prairie, the occasional atrocity, but nothing particularly plot-like emerging at all.

Which turns out to be okay, because Thomas is good company. He is uneducated, his narration not always grammatical, but even so his voice has a lyricism, a homemade eloquence, even a kind of who-knows-how-acquired erudition. Some of the folks in our book club did not quite buy this--that someone who thought the past tense of "know" was "knowed" would nonetheless have in his quiver vocabulary like "conflagration" and "maelstrom" and a few Shakespearean allusions. But, for me, it was as credible as the voice of Ned Kelly in Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang. There was something Irish about it, the kind of elevation a bright kid could have picked up from sermons or political oratory, mixed with the touch of linguistic music that is virtually a national birthright.

The last third of the novel is brisk, as we do suddenly get plenty of plot, about the feud between Major Neale and the Sioux chieftain Caught-His-Horse-First, kidnapped daughters, rescued daughters, courts martial, a certain amount of shoot-'em-up. All pretty exciting, but what I will remember best is Thomas's voice.