Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Any Recommendations

for other book and literary blogs?  Please note your favorite.  I'm still trying to find my way around.

Alice Munro Redux

I continue to read Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  And I don't mind saying that other than the title story, the structure and point of the other stories often leaves me completely mystified. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy them.  I enjoy much of them.  There are moments that I think that looking at the imaginary wallpaper on my living room wall might be more interesting, but they are rare and mostly due to my own inattention.

I set out to chart the course of one of the stories and noted that it was divided into what could be considered 11 distinct sections or, were it a novel, chapters. The first scene seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the main body of the story.  I've read it twice now and I don't know what connection I'm supposed to derive from it to the surrounding material.  Perhaps it's an instance of character development of the two lead characters; perhaps it is some form of oblique play-off.  Whatever it is, the purpose has, for the time, eluded my grasp.  So, rather than fretting over it, I elide it and move on.  The main body of the story makes a sort of sense--although in a rather distant way.  There is an epic journey, a new meeting, a lost-in-the-cornfield, and a stirring climax that seemingly comes out of nowhere.  And perhaps this is where the beginning ties into the end, seeing how such actions are possible.

But even not completely comprehending intent or meaning, I still can enjoy the story.  I can see what the author shows me, I can participate in it with the characters.  While I don't understand all of the actions, none of them seems so outre and bizarre as to be completely inexplicable and outside the realm of the possible within the frame of the story.  So, I surrender understanding to go along with the story for the time being, and realize that this is one of the ways that art can imitate life.  Too often we do not understand the meaning, if any, of all the events that carry us on; however, that does not preclude enjoying the ride and the view from where we are at the time.

So, while meaning and complete sense, for the moment elude me, I enjoy the images and the moments from the story--the sense or lack of it that drives the action forward and the reiteration of theme in different modes that may bind the whole thing together.  And all of this sort of in the back of my mind as I go about my daily activities.  THAT is part of what the enjoyment of literature is--a companion, a background music that adds depth to the foreground action, a system of thought and interaction that perhaps deepens my own thought.  Certainly that isn't all that can be obtained from the proper study of literature, but it is often enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Questions About Reading Ulysses

(1) Should I read Ulysses?

Of course.  Everyone should.

(2) But isn't it really just for college students and people who, like, study literature?


(3) Could you be a little more forthcoming with that last answer?

I could, but I won't.  It's clear enough.  Reading Ulysses is for every reader.

(4) So are you saying I should be able to understand Ulysses?

No, silly person.  Why would you prefer understanding it to enjoying it?  It's a pretty certain bet that even the person who composed it didn't really understand it either at the time and especially not after a few years.  No artist really understands his or her own work, but if they do the job right, everyone, including the artist can thoroughly enjoy it.

(5) Are you saying that I can enjoy it without understanding it?

Obviously if you're in an absolute complete muddle, you'll be miserable reading it.  But you've got to get that English teacher out of your head who is pushing, pushing, pushing you to read every symbol, deconstruct every sign, dive into the "text" and explore its subterranean structures.  Why?  Is that how you pick up a novel you would read today?  Joyce wanted to challenge his readers, certainly he wanted to baffle them, and probably he was being more than a little bit of a show-off so he could lord it over his readers, if only a little.  But the reality is that Joyce wanted you to laugh with him and to listen with him and to even at times sorrow (if not outright cry) with him and his children.  So, you probably won't understand every word of it--some of it may be a long hard haul.  But ultimately if you read it as a novel is meant to be read you can enjoy it without understanding everything about it.

(6) But isn't Ulysses really meant only for a very high-brow audience?

As noted in a previous post, Virginia Woolf found in it a very, very "underbred" novel.  How could such an "underbred and illiterate" novel be meant only for the creme de la creme?  Ulysses is meant for whoever picks it up meaning to read it through and to chat for a while with the author and his characters.  Don't let the nonsense that the critical world feeds to us disuade you from the very useful, very practical, wonderful, and powerful experience of enjoying Ulysses just as Joyce meant for you to and just as you are capable.

(7) Okay, so you've convinced me.  How do I read Ulysses?

With your eyes.  And take your time--as much time as required.  It isn't a race, you don't need to finish it in the time it would take you to conquer the latest John Grisham or Preston and Cloud.  You need to give it time to breathe--and yourself.  You need to give yourself time to absorb what you've read.  It's not a competition, it's a journey and one well worth taking.  And now, for the concluding diatribe:

Ulysses is not a puzzle to be solved, a mountain to be climbed, an impossible dream to be dreamt, a country to be conquered, or anything other than the unique and wonderful invention of its artist/father meant to be shared with an audience willing to bear with him through all of this long, hot (I suppose for Ireland) Dublin day in 1904.  As Burgess tells us so clearly--Re-Joyce!  To which I would add Readjoyce!

Structures--Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf was well known to have little patience with Ulysses.  Joyce Carol Oates, in her book The Faith of a Writer suggests that part of this may have been the jealousy of one genius admiring the aplomb and power of another.  Following is a quotation from Virginia Woolf's diary available from Fathom.

"I have read 200 pages [of Ulysses] so far," Virginia Woolf writes in her diary for 16 August 1922, and reports that she has been "amused, stimulated, charmed[,] interested ... to the end of the Cemetery scene." As "Hades" gives way to "Aeolus," however, and the novel of character and private sensibility yields to a farrago of styles, she is "puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned"--by no grand master of language, in her characterization, but "by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples." No artifact of elite difficulty, Ulysses becomes for Woolf the "illiterate, underbred book ... of a self taught working man," a class-spectacle on which she summons the proper company: "we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating" (emphases added).

Obviously, Ms. Woolf was piqued, or shall we say provoked by Joyce's masterwork.  It is interesting that even within the span that she enjoyed, there is sufficient evidence of "underbred"-ness to put off a great many people. But how such an astute and formidable critic as Ms. Woolf could find Ulysses illiterate is puzzling and provoking (in a quite different way) in itself.

Regardless of a hasty opinion recounted in a diary (often seen as snobbish, but more likely simply piqued, provoked, and annoyed) Ms. Woolf certainly seems to have employed some of the devices and methods that Joyce introduced in Ulysses.  Contrary to the normal course of a novel, both Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway take place in the course of a single day.  In both works we dart in and out of the consciousness of many characters, but reside primarily within two in each.  In Ulysses these are Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and in Mrs. Dalloway they are Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. But the main borrowing I'd like to focus on for a moment is structural.  Because it is her adaptation of one of Joyce's innovations in structure that shows one of the marvelous strengths of Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf as a writer and innovator herself.

The "Wandering Rocks" episode of Ulysses (please note that while Joyce certainly had these designations in mind and shared them with close friends and interpreters of Ulysses [most notably Stuart Gilbert*], they do not show up anywhere in the print editions of Ulysses) Joyce charts the voyages of nineteen (or more) sets of characters in their travels at about the lunch hour in Dublin. Sometimes the paths overlap, other times there are jumps between characters in distant parts of the City.  Interestingly, Joyce keeps you firmly grounded in Dublin, with clear and concise descriptions of where you are.  Also of interest is that this section--at the  midpoint of numbered sections (though not at the midpoint of the bulk of the novel) is more likely extracted from the Argonautica than it is from Joyce's model The Odyssey.  The clashing rocks were one of the tests set for Jason, not for Odysseus. Some sources said that Joyce wrote this section with a map of Dublin and a stopwatch to time the actual sections of the walk.  I haven't been able to verify this, but if so, it is a remarkable case of creating verisimilitude, not equivalent to, but certainly reminiscent of Gustave Flaubert.

So, in this remarkable chapter we follow groups of characters, some of whom we've encountered before and will encounter again, others of whom we may not have met or may only have glimpsed and whom we may not see again in the course of the work.  (I haven't combed through to check this statement--but I'm certain if you're interested one Joyce Scholar or another has tracked all of these people down and can give a blow by blow indication of where and when they appear.) The structure is sometimes overlapping and sometimes leaping.

It is this device, this structure that Virginia Woolf so deftly lifts, refines, and reuses in Mrs. Dalloway.  Or perhaps that is overstating the case.  Perhaps one could argue that the same notion occurred to both writers at different times and was employed to different ends, for after all I can't prove that Virginia Woolf had "Wandering Rocks" in mind when she began composition of Mrs. Dalloway.  Perhaps traces of it, wisps of memory, as it were, shaped the structure of Mrs. Dalloway.  However it happened, Woolf elaborated upon this structure and turned it into the graceful and sometimes startling turns and runs of Mrs. Dalloway.  To see how deftly she employs the device of allowing crossing paths or shared incidents to lead to the exchange of narrative consciousnesses, go to the Dalloway link below and search for "The violent explosion which made Mrs. Dalloway jump. . . ." Read the section immediately prior to it and immediately following, and you'll have a sense of how Virginia Woolf handles the transfer of consciousness.

That she was able to take this one mechanism and turn it into the entire stream of Mrs. Dalloway (I'm sure there are some narrative diversions I'm not taking into account, but for the most part, it is this type of shared incident that allows the consciousnesses to overlap and the story flow to take over) is a demonstration of her strength and her deft handling of difficult material.  Is it the outcome of the struggle of genius against genius?  I can't say for certain.  But I can say that if Ulysses was an influence, it was one that effected another powerful transformation of narrative.  The use of the narrative techniques of Ulysses in other works may have had more ultimate influence on literature than the direct application of Ulysses itself.  And I say this as a profound admirer of Joyce and of Ulysses.  But the truth of the matter is that Ulysses is so crammed full of all sorts of invention that it would be hard to imitate the whole work rather than discrete parts.  Moreover, Ulysses is so overwhlemed with narrative devices and games that it serves almost as a sourcebook of influence, because even in the robust world that is Ulysses not all of the inventions could come anywhere near to being played out.

To refresh your memory, or to become acquainted with it, here is episode 10 of Ulysses (published 22 February 1922).  Mrs. Dalloway is available hereMrs. Dalloway was published 14 May 1925

*Please note, I DO NOT recommend Mr. Gilbert's book for the first time reader unless he or she is on the point of completely throwing the project over.  The use of the book makes reading Ulysses more like solving a problem than reading a novel and can detract from the real and substantive pleasures of encountering Ulysses as a novel for the first time.  I would advise reading the novel first, and then, if so inclined, consulting Mr. Gilbert's opus.

Some Disclaimers

(1) I do not make my living by commenting on literature.

(2) While I do hold a higher degree in English (which supposedly gives you the qualifications to make a living commenting in literature) I have never actively pursued a life that would give me the qualification to be listened to as I pontificated.

(3) If you're hear to read my pontifications, please see 1 and 2, and do not base your term papers, theses, or other important papers on anything you may see here.

(4) I welcome comments.  I welcome disagreement.  I do not welcome personally disparaging comments directed at me or at any member of the group that chooses (for whatever mysterious reason) to read what is posted here.

(5) Any reasonably intelligent person is entitled both to read and to enjoy literature and to make connections between pieces that may, in real life, have no connection whatsoever.  James Joyce may never have read Faulkner--it's almost certain that he didn't before he published Ulysses--that does not stop anyone from seeing a connection between the works and to suggest that elements of Faulkner have entered Ulysses.  (Which can be more a statement about zeitgeist than about influence.)

(6) One purpose of this site is to encourage the average interested reader to tackle things that are "beyond" her or him.  There are very few pieces of literature that are entirely "beyond" anybody.  And a dedicated reader can derive pleasure and wisdom from the active pursuit of reading.  Therefore, I would encourage all to support this goal in their own comments.  More, even if you don't like what I write about a piece, do not be persuaded against the piece, rather go check it out for yourself and see how wrong I was.  It will give you a little victory for the day!

(7) Read, read, read!  And join in the conversation.  It isn't as though I know everything about what I'm writing about.  Often, I'm simply charting my own clueless groping in the dark.  It's okay to have clueless groping in the dark.  Just enjoy it.

(8) Read 1-4 again and internalize them.  I'm not the expert.  I'm not even the advanced amateur.  But I do read works that I once considered "work" for enjoyment now, and I want to share my enthusiasm with those who are interested.

(9) If you're here looking for an argument--read numbers 1-4 and 8 again.  If it gives you some sort of pleasure to rip into those whose opinion differs from your own and to show how very brilliant and cultivated you are, you will be forcibly evicted by the bouncer, Joe Young.

(10)  Read here and then read what is written about here.  Above all, enjoy literature, and encourage others to enjoy it with you.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Purposes of a New Blog

One of the purposes of this new blog for me is to encourage writing--to give me the time and the space that I need to reflect carefully on what I read and share the thoughts with those who are interested as I begin to churn them around into the things that I write.  It is to examine the theory of the agon of the author and to see which influences I incorporate and which I struggle against as I try to put together mny own works.  In short, it is a place to think out loud, and to share with anyone who cares to read some fruits of that thought.  Perhaps the reader will encounter a work that they have not considered reading, or perhaps a reader will have a different insight into a work that I have been interested in--a new key that opens another, previously unseen door. 

That is part of what I want to do here, and it seems better here, in its own place, rather than competing for space and breathing room in a blog that is supposed to be a sustained reflection on Carmelite matters.  By creating this separate space, it will, perhaps force the issue on the other blog, and perhaps I can return to sharing what little there is to share regarding my spiritual life.

Alice Munro

My book group selected a book by Alice Munro to be our next book for discussion.  It was interesting to me in light of our choice to see that Alice Munro is on the Nobel Handicapping list with odds of 25:1.  Joyce Carol Oates (who, I noted the other day in the library has yet another book out--what does that make this year 30?) and Philip Roth are neck and neck at 7:1.  The odds-on favorite is Amos Oz (for a change, someone I've actually heard of, read, and even enjoyed) at 4:1.  But last year's favorite didn't win the sweeps, so I wouldn't put too much trust in the handicapping.


I have too long harried and wearied my main blog with ruminations on literature that really need their own breathing room. So, then, this is that room--named for one of my favorite lines of poetry.

I almost wrote "Let a thousand flowers bloom." But, given that it is both a misquotation and not an auspicious source anyway, it is perhaps better that I did not.

Oh, but then I did.