Sunday, January 31, 2010

Last Post for January--Joyce Carol Oates again

Oh, and one last point--it came as a great relief to me as a member of the Joyce-Carol-Oates-of-the-Month Club to find her latest book.  Last year there was a stretch of three weeks or so when we thought we'd have to find another author lest Ms. Oates should disappoint us by not providing reading material for that month.  I believe she came through--so our book for January  The Fair Maiden--our usual Gothic melange of Oates's obsessions stemming from her earliest short stories.

Second-to-Last Post for January--Miscatologuing

Today went to the library and finally found Orhan Pamuk's Istambul.  It could be justified to place it in biography; however, it was filed in biography under the name of the person who translated the book from Turkish.

A miscatalogued book is potentially a lost book.  It certainly is of no use to those of us who would check for historical books about Turkey and even less to those looking for a biography of Pamuk under P rather than K (I think--Kelly or Kellogg) for the translator.  I'll bring this to the attention of the circulation department, but I rather doubt anything will be done about it.  I recognize the monumental amount of work that goes into correcting this kind of error and given that I'm one of three people in my area likely to want to read it--there is certainly no reason to go through the effort.

William Trevor--"Bravado"

Reading Cheating at Canasta amongst other things and marveling at the way a master can get away with the things every creative writing class tells you not to do.  For example, there is this beginning to the poignant story "Bravado:"

from "Bravado" 
in Cheating at Canasta
William Trevor

The leaves had begun to fall. All along Sunderland Avenue on the pavement beneath the beech trees there was a sprinkling, not yet the mushy inconvenience they would become when more fell and rain came, which inevitably would be soon. Not many people were about; it was after midnight, almost one o'clock, the widely space lampposts casting pools of misty yellow illumination. A man walked his dog in Blenning Road in the same blotchy lamplight, the first of autumn's leaves gathering there also. An upstairs window opened in Verdun Crescent, hands clapped to dismiss a cat nesting in a flowerbed. A car turned into Sunderland Avenue, its headlights dimmed and then extinguished, its alarm set for the night with a flurry of flashing orange and red. The traffic of the city was a hum that only faintly reached these leisurely streets, the occasional distant shriek of a police siren or ambulance more urgently disturbing the peace.

This kind of panning in on a scene is just not the way to start a piece as tightly wound as a short story needs to be.  And yet. . . it works in this story--and it works because the master of the story knows what he is about and knows that this is the way it begins--a survey--a momentary space of detail before we zoom in on the characters we are to follow through the rest of the action of the story.

And the story continues in this subdued and ruminative pace, piling moment upon moment and thought upon thought until it reaches this end (that should be a clue that those who wish to read and enjoy for themselves might better seek reading matter elsewhere--however, it has been my experience that little that I read at blogs tends to stick in my head other than an impression, good or bad--read or dismiss--so I'm not sure the warning is in order--nevertheless, you have it):

from "Bravado" 
in Cheating at Canasta
William Trevor

In a bleak cemetery Aisling begged forgiveness of the dead for the falsity she had embraced when what there was had been too ugly to accept. Silent she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been.

She might go away herself, and often thought she would: in the calm of another time and place to flee the shadows of bravado. Instead she stayed, a different person too, belonging where the thing had happened.

I know I do not speak alone when I note the brilliance of these highly polished gems of William Trevor--their tone, the way history stays with each character to make of the present something neither more nor less but something inextricably intertwined with the past.  This present is not this present without all that had gone before.  It is that profound but simple understanding of who we are as people, as human beings, that pervades his work and makes of the incedental a miracle.

A Motive Force

On revisiting books already read.

If it's worth reading, it's worth rereading.

Another Gargoyle Heard From

Die Fledermaus at Quid Plura

An Enticing Review

I have always been interested in reading the classics.  I have read some, perhaps many of the essay of Montaigne.  I haven't gotten from them what many reliable attest to being there and so I have felt a bit at odds.  However, Nigeness's review of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell increases my desire to reacquaint myself with this master.

Sex and the Novel

D. G. Myers writes briefly about sex and the novel

His comments may have some relevance whenever I may get around to reviewing Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. I finished it as I flew into Dublin and have spent a great deal of time subsequently trying to think through what I could say about it that would cogent, coherent, and fair to the author.  I wrote about a dozen pages yesterday on the flight back, but still came up with an ungelled mass of conclusions.  Nevertheless, the imperative is to review and I will do so.  I was thinking thought that I might want to dip back into "Death in Venice" to make certain I have my pointers right.

More on the Author of this Blog's Title

Fred share's some more thoughts about the magnificent Omar Khayyam.

Back from Dublin

A trip to Dublin, even when it entrails extremely long work days (after all, you work your Dublin day and then there are still five to seven hours left that your American colleagues are demanding your attention) is always a pleasure.  For one thing, the Irish seem to take enormous pride in their writers, artists, scientists, politicians.  If you walk by the houses in the Georgian area of town (I'm acquainted with those in the southwest part of town), you'll see plaques for the houses of A.E., Yeats, Jack Yeats, Oscar Wilde (birthplace and childhood home), Oscar Wilde's father (whose name slips my mind) and on and on and on.  It's wonderful.  I walked along the Canal and could take a seat by Pat Kavanaugh (a little chilly, I did not avail myself of the opportunity.) Ulysses plaques scatter the pavement along O'Connell, Westmoreland, Grafton, and Kildare streets (perhaps elsewhere, I didn't find all fourteen that are reputed to be there.) North of the Liffey on a near side street you can see a statue of Joyce with cane, in St. Stephen's Green you can find a bust of Joyce.  We mustn't forget that Dublin was home, for some part of their lives to  Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift, William Trevor, Maeve Brennan, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Patrick Kavanaugh, Oliver St. John Gogarty, A. E., and probably countles others I am too ignorant to list.

History is alive in Dublin.  Walking through Merrion Square Park, I found a bust of Michael Collins with what seemed like several days offerings of flowers.  Just north of where I was staying, a few step north of the Liffey River, near the edifice everyone seems to call the Spire (the object that replaced the Nelson or Trafalgar monument mentioned by Joyce as Stephen tells a tediously long story about two old women) is the National Post Office--used in 1916 by the rebel forces.

And then there is Irish food, the like of which is simply not readily available outside of Ireland unless one happens to have an Irish  family--from the extraordinary comfort of foods like Cottage Pie, Shepherd's Pie, and Irish Stew, to the exotic delights of boxty and pig's ears, tea ice cream, Gur cake, and brown bread and bailey's ice cream (I had them all--save the last--during this last trip.)  And I was able to eat some mediocre food in Davey Byrnes.  The object wasn't to have good food--but to eat in Davey Byrnes--and I was even able to remotely approximate Leopold Bloom's meal--while they didn't have gorgonzola sandwiches, they did have a ham and cheese and onion.  Yes, I know Bloom may not have partaken--I'm not sure I know how observant he was of the dietary restrictions--nevertheless a cheese sandwich (of sorts).

All of that said, there is no pleasure like that of returning home and resuming routine.  Although the Irish speak English and have many customs that are similar, there were uneasy discontinuities from things as minor as the shape and function of urinals to various rituals involving tea and milk--things I cannot find it in myself to bring together.  I found myself puzzled by the array of menu choices that had been influenced by American tastes--seeing both chips and fries on a menu drove me to ask what the difference was.  And Food Halls, Food Courts and the like--in the States these are aggregations of places to eat, usually fast food kinds of things.  In Dublin they were grocery stores.  Oh, and the wonders of the grocery stores--you could go in and buy prepackaged Haggis.  To the Irish, that is probably not extraordinary, but I had never seen a real haggis, prepared or otherwise, so the wonders of the grocery store were beyond count.  But back to the point from which I digressed--there are just little things that one must adjust to--I never knew when a tip was expected and when it would be considered an insult.

A beautiful, wonderful place.  And while the people with whom I worked were warm and welcoming, I did not find the majority of the city so.  Most were more hurried than any New Yorker I've ever seen--and it wasn't seasonality--this rush and flurry was as much present in summer as in the mostly cool (not frigid) winter.  The shop keepers were not forthcoming, the service people in restaurants, while certainly kindly enough were not particularly attentive.  (I know that is custom as well--while Dubliners hurry on the streets, they seem inclined to relax and really enjoy their meals, and bustling service people always at the table are likely to throw a pall on that.)

So in all--I really love Dublin, I really enjoy visiting.  I equally enjoy coming home to the warmth of family and friends and familiarity--all the comforts of knowing exactly what is expected.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Maeve Brennan Redux

I have to pause in my reading long enough to remark upon what I've read thus far in The Springs of Affection. Maeve Brennan creates stories that are unaccountably powerful.  Unaccountably because taken separately the characters, the setting, the plot are all adequate, reasonable, the stuff of New Yorker stories (which these originally were.)  However, combined with her language and attention to detail these stories are, as William Maxwell wrote, "ferocious."

Fair warning--beyond this point lie "spoilers."  I don't think they will spoil anything, but some readers tend to be more sensitive to others.

What can you say about a man whose attitude toward his son is summarized by the following passage?

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

He had been disappointed when John joined the priesthood, but, to tell the truth, at the same time he had been relieved. John was a poor example of a fellow, weak and timid with no aptitude for anything and no inclination toward anything, and Hubert had never been able to imagine what he would do or could do with himself in the way of earning a living and making a life for himself. For a fellow like that, becoming a priest was as good an answer as any. He would be taken care of, and he would always be told what to do and what not to do. In time, as he rw older, he would probably get to walking and talking with as much authority as any of them, in his black clothes. What happened to John, his fate, could all be laid at Rose's door. She had ruined the boy. She had kept him all to herself all his life, and she had ended up by ruining him. It was a pity about John. Hubert did not like to think about John.
So, we have a lovely little portrait of Hubert--personally, I can't imagine being his son.

Ah, but there's more--of course there is more.

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

But the worst thing Hubert remembered about that unhappy day was the look of terror that had crossed Rose's face when he had spoken roughly to her. He had been shocked by the terror and hurt on her face. He had only struck out at her in natural annoyance and impatience--that is what he told himself--but the effect on her had been trampled. It tooked nothing and she was beaten to her knees.

Naturally, one just lashes out and takes umbrage at the fact that other people are disturbed by it.  Of course, one need not examine one's behavior and apologize.

Ah, but there's more.  Here Hubert meets his wife-to-be (or in the chronology of the story, his wife of 33 years.)

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

"I only wanted to tell you that I have to open the cigarettes for everybody," she said, "not just you."

"I know that," he said. "You told me that."

"I was afraid I had hurt your feelings."

"Oh, no, no. It's not that easy to hurt my feelings," he said, and he thought she seemed too excitable. He didn't like her running after him down the street like that, calling attention to him.

Rather than compassion, concern, perhaps even love--he sees a girl who is "too excitable."  This really doesn't seem the foundation of a good marriage--start with misgiving and irritation?

Ah, but Hubert isn't the only sterling character in the group.  Rose's own mother is a real delight as well.  She cautions Hubert to think long and hard about marrying her daughter and then proceeds to regale him with the following tale.

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

"I finally asked her if there was any excuse she wanted to make for herself, and do you know what she said to me? She said, 'But Ma,' she said, 'they would have been laughing at him if I hadn't turned up.' Did you ever hear the like of that in your life? They would all have been laughing at him, and of course she couldn't have that, oh, no, they mustn't laugh at him, even though she hardly knew the fellow, except to say hello to, and so to save his face, she must go and put herself in the way of being laughed at worse--laughed at and talked about.

Again, compassion is not seen as anything other than weakness, foolishness.  A mother chooses to share this story with a potential suitor.  I'm not a rah-rah self-esteem fan; however, I think there are some lines that probably should be drawn in sharing the shortcomings of one's own daughter.  Or not.

And Ms. Brennan caps her story with this delightful observation:

from "A Young Girl Could Spoil Her Chances"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

Rose left Hubert to read the full account of Mr. Kinsella's life and circumstances, which he had read earlier with less attention, because it had been in yesterday's morning new, and she herself looked idly through the back pages of the old Sunday paper, and found several items that she had missed on her first reading. When she remarked on this to Hubert, he observed that she had never learned to read properly, that she was a careless reader who skipped too often and did not concentrate onwhat she was reading, and it was a ptiy, because it was hard to form a good habit when you were older, and just as hard to break a bad habit once it had taken hold of you.

These meticulous and sharply recorded observers of each interaction help us to see the characters, understand them, sometimes sympathize with them, but more often than not draw back, if not in horror, at least in incredulity at the way they treat one another.

But another wonderful effect of the stories is that they ask you to look inside and see how you are behaving--where are you in the spectrum of character?  They point out the horror that is the relationship of others and then turn the mirror on each of us and say--so how do you compare?  It is a salutary act to look into that mirror long and hard and see how much of Hubert, Rose's mother, even Rose is in each of us.

The Great Odd Bird of the Romantic Revolution

William Blake--Analysis and "The Human Image" and "The Divine Image" from Songs of Innocence and Experience

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reprint: One of My Favorite Nonfiction Titles

Mandelbrot is one of my great heroes--not for the book that I treat below, but for his amazing contribution to the understanding of fractals.  But the book reviewed below is worth a read for anyone interested in understanding chaotic dynamics and one view of the stock market.
When I was doing my graduate work, I hated most statistics. Most particularly I hated "random walk" models and "monte-carlo simulations." Whenever there was an anomalous blip that could not be readily explained, someone trotted out these hoary old creatures and set them to dancing.
How delightful then to chance upon this:
from The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
Benoit Mandlebrot and Richard L. Hudson

With such theories [Bachelier's Analysis, Gaussian Curves (Bell-Curves), and Random Walks] , economists developed a very elaborate toolkit to analyzing markets, measuring the "variance" and "betas" of different securities and classifying investment portfolios by their probability of risk. According to the theory, a fund manager can build an "efficient" portfolio to target a specific return, with a desired level of risk. It is the financial equivalent of alchemy. Want to earn more without risking too much more? Use the modern finance toolkit to alter the mix of volatile and stable stocks, or to change the ratio of stocks, bonds, and cash. Want to reward employees more without paying more? Use the tollkit to devise an employee stock-option program,with a tunable probability that the option grants will be "in the money." Indeed, the Internet bubble, fueled in part by lavish executive stock options, may not have happened without Bachelier and his heirs.
Alas, the theory is elegant but flawed, as anyone who lived through the booms and busts of the 1990s can now see. The old financial orthodoxy was founded on two critical assuptions in Bachelier's key model: Price changes are statistically independent, and they are normally distributed. The facts, as I vehemently argued in the 1960s and many economists now acknowledge, show otherwise.
The financial equivalent of Alchemy! Now there's a delight. I'll be the first to admit that I understand almost nothing of the stock market and its workings. What's more, life is too short, I don't plan to spend a lot of time learning more--I have far more essential things to be spending time with. However, my general theory of statistics and most statistical approaches was shaped, in part by my advisor, who quoting some source, now lost to memory, used to say, "A scientist uses statistics as a drunk uses a lamppost--for support, not illumination."

Yeah. Well, he had a higher opinion of most statistical work than I do. Once I discovered that you could manipulate your statistics by running non-parametrics, I realized that you could indeed make black into white. Didn't like the graphing in eigenspace try canonical cross-correlation, or better yet, run a rank variable analysis and then use a nonparametric correlation technique. I could run the information from my fossil sites through the number cruncher and come up with any environmental model you wanted. Want to prove that there was a gigantic four-hundred mile-an-hour hurricane that lasted most of the Permian Period? Just dump that paleocurrent data you derived from bryozoan analysis into the magic black box and turn the crank. You'd be amazed at what could spill out.

So, I will long cherish the trenchant analysis--"The financial equivalent of alchemy." Oh well, perhaps it's one of those things that you have to have been there.

Following on the previous post (my enthusiasm for this book bubbles over) this bit of analysis:
from The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson

Second, contrary to orthodoxy, price changes are very far from following the bell curve. If they did, you should be able to run any market's price records through a computer, analyze the changes and watch them fall into the approximate "normality" assumed by Bachelier's random walk. They should cluster about the mean, or average, of no change. In fact, the bell curve fits reality very poorly. From 1916 to 2003, the daily index movements of the Dow Jones Industrial Average do not spread out on graph paper like a simple bell curve. The far edges flare too high: too many big changes. Theory suggests that over time there should be fifty-eight days when the Dow moved more than 3.4 percent; in fact, there were 1,001. Theory predicts six days of index swings beyond 4.5 percent; in fact, there were 366. And index swings of more than 7 percent should come once every 300,000 years; in fact, the twentieth century saw forty-eight such days. Truly a calamitous era that insists on flaunting all predictions. Or, perhaps, our assumptions are wrong.
The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
You have seen sufficient excerpts of this book on and off at this blog, so that I need say little more about it except to emphasize how very accessible and interesting this whole study is. Mandelbrot is attempting to define a new science of economics and the stock market and admits that he is far from being there; however, the problems he unearths are significant and should give pause to those who argue loudly (and at length) about the privatization of Social Security. The risks involved in even the most conservative stock/bond/cash portfolio far outweigh the perceived advantages until there is a better way of managing risk.

That is largely what the book is about--how does the market really run and how can you best assemble investments to minimize risk and maximize profits. In the process of this discuss Mandelbrot touches on invariant and scalable phenomena in markets, in language, and in the annual flooding of the Nile. That so many disparate phenomena can be looked at through multifractals and brownian motion is interesting in itself. That the common practice of Monte Carlo simulation based on Gaussian rather than Cauchy distributions is a dangerous misstep is made evident throughout.

The main difference between the simple bell curve (Gaussian) and the Cauchy curve is that in a bell-curve an additional bundle of data will not particularly disturb a heavily weighted center. That is, if enough data has been collected, then additional data will not appreciably affect the "center of gravity" of the curve. Large outliers will not affect averages.

With the Cauchy curve it is these large outliers that define the essence of the curve. It is a better measure of rapidly fluctuating environments with inherent turbulence (at least so Mandelbrot implies, and I certainly am not one with the least ability to naysay). As a result, additional data added to the Cauchy distribution will result in significant differences in the measures of central tendency.

Another interesting idea uncovered by Mandelbrot is that it is not only the fluctuations in prices that are important, but also the order in which they occur. And this extends to the study of floods on rivers as well. He pointed out that if the data is entered randomly and stirred together, you end up with a nice well-behaved bell curve distribution. But if the data are analyzed in order, what you find instead are a series of parallel curves that reveal a scalability in the phenomenon that is otherwise invisible.

Mandelbrot argues that as long as outdated means are used to evaluate the market, events like October 1987, and the entire year of 2001, but particularly 9/11 (we're speaking here only of market effects) are inevitable. Bubbles will arise and burst based on old means of buying, holding, and selling stocks. Portfolios will continue to experience rapid fluctuations, even based on very conservative, very deliberate buying and selling. Anyone who went through 2001 realizes what this can mean in a very, very short time.

Mandelbrot's book is required reading for all of those who will propose a means whereby social security will be partially privatized. It is recommended reading for everyone else. Despite Mandelbrot's annoying, but slight, tendency toward focusing the spotlight on himself, the book is quite good. It is one of those eye-opening works where many phenomena of the natural world are brought together and part of the pattern underlying them revealed.


Adventures in Dublin

Okay,  I'm sure I've thrilled you with the tales of the James Joyce plaques.  I discovered two more today and didn't discover one that I thought would certainly be there.  One was right in the center of western sidewalk of Westmoreland Street just north of the hotel I'm staying at.  The other was in front of the National Museum on Kildare street.  I was disconcerted to note that I found nothing for the National Library.  Given that one of the major episodes of Ulysses takes place within the Library, I was surprised to find no plaque.  Tomorrow I will visit the National Maternity Hospital to photograph it and whatever associated plaque there may be.  I hope to publish a sort of compendium/guide to some of these markers.  (I am more convinced than ever that I have missed more than I found.)  Oh, and today I had a glimpse in the distance of Howth (pronounced Hoath) Hill.  That's for you fans of Finnegans Wake (. . . brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation to Howth Castle and Environs. One of many incarnations of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker HCE)

Romantic Poet Du Jour

Yesterday they picked the utmost in obscurity and today we get an analysis and discussion of Ozymandias.

Given that this is likely the single poem anyone who doesn't read a lot of poetry is likely to have read by Shelley, it constitutes a good choice for a discussion of what makes this a poem by a Romantic Poet and what Romantic Poetry means (hint: it's not all about Valentine's day--although you sometimes couldn't tell it--"She walks in beauty like the night. . . ")

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Really, Really Big Book

The World's Largest Book--neat

Romantic Poet of the Day--Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"Recollections of Love" and commentary on Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Not the poem I would have chosen ("This Lime Tree Bower My Prison" and "The Aeolian Harp" leap to mind among the shorter poems--of course "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Kublai Khan," and "Christabel" among the longer).  But it's always refreshing to hear from sources less obvious/common.

More on Ulysses

Turns out that on Grafton Street I had missed something like three plaques and so I took those, went up to Davey Byrnes and photographed that one again, just in case (has to be photographed off-hours otherwise it's under the tables set up for outside dining).  This morning took a walk along the Grand Canal and photographed Patrick Kavanaugh (see poem from yesterday) sitting on his bench.  Hope to put together a little scrapbook when I get back home and show you some of the literary sites of Dublin--there are a few.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Colm Toibin and the Costa Award

An interview with Colm Toibin on the occasion of his reception of the Costa Awards.

Joyce Notes

Last time in Dublin, I took pictures of the brass Joyce plaques that finally penetrated the densities of my consciousness. I got quite a few--but today, I saw two more--perhaps three--one or two on O'Connell street and one at the corner of Nassau and Grafton that I had managed to overlook last time.  On my way down to the canal tomorrow and can get the one at Nassau and Grafton, and I was thinking of some evening pictures at Tommy Moore anyway, so the other O'Connell/Westmoreland street plaques might join those.

Bookends from William Trevor

William Trevor is a master of the short story.  I would say that even if I hadn't seen it written all over after reading the story excerpted below.  Read this story while sitting in The Pig's Ear looking out over the darkness pressed down around Trinity College--the meal was Shepherd's Pie (by far and away the best I have EVER had) and Gur Cake and Tea Ice Cream.  Truly a wonderful meal though quite expensive by American standards.  Seems to be the going rate around here.

from "Cheating at Canasta"
in Cheating at Canasta
William Trevor

It was a Sunday evening, but Sunday, Mallory remembered, had always been as any other day at Harry's Bar. In the upstairs restaurant the waiters hurried with their loaded plates, calling out to one another above the noisy chatter. Turbot, scaloppa alla Milanese, grilled chops, scrambled eggs with bacon or smoked salmon, peas or spinaci al burro, mash done in a particularly delicious way: all were specialities here, where the waiters' most remarkable skill was their changing of the tablecloths with a sleight of hand that was admired a hundred times a night, and even occasionally applauded.  Downstairs, Americans and Italians stood three or four deep at the bar and no one heard much of what anyone else said. 
                            (p. 61)

Tomorrow what has been lost in recollection's collapse will be restored as she has know it: the pink and gold of Sant Giobbe's Annunciation, its dove, its Virgin's features, its little trees, its God. Tomorrow the silenced music will play in the piazza of San Marco, and tourists shuffle in the calles, and the boats go out to the islands. Tomorrow the cats of Venice will be fed by ladies in the dried-out parks, and there'll be coffee on the Zaterre.
(p. 71)

The first of these is so accurate--how often have I stood around in pubs and other gathering places that are so noisy loud and jostling that I could hear about a third of what was said. And in the second the poignant lyricism of the finale is vintage Trevor. 

Okay, Bragging Time

My 11 year old son loves books.  We went into a Barnes and Noble that was having their classics collection on sale 3 for 2.  We picked up a Jane Eyre for school and he chose an Aesop's Fables.  Well there, we had two, so we may as well get the free one.  He latched on to a copy of The Metamorphosis and Other Stories.  His mother tried to dissuade him, but I said, "If he thinks it sounds interesting, where's the harm."  Recalling the summer experience with some books that were a trifle advanced, I further opined inwardly ("It isn't as though he's actually going to read it.")

Well what a surprise came in e-mail today when Linda wrote to tell me that he had finished the book and delivered an oral report.  The chief result of which was the question, "Would you still love me if I turned into a giant cockroach." Lady-of-the-House reassured him that it would be so, though hugs and kisses might be in shorter supply--which he readily acknowledged. 

But all I can say is wow--are we raising a reader or what.  Age 11 and he's read (if not mastered) "The Metamorphosis."  A little frightening.

Uwem Akpan at Back Bay View

Emily J. reviews Akpan's powerful Say You're One of Them.

Romantic Poet of the Day--William Wordsworth

Commentary and the poem "Nutting"--William Wordsworth

The Gift of a Friend

We're meeting today in an office building near the Grand Canal in Dublin.  I've not been this far south in this part of the city.  If time allows, I may stroll along the canal so that I can find this:

Lines written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin
"Erected in Memory of Mrs. Dermot O'Brien"

by Patrick Kavanagh

O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully.
Where by a lock Niagariously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges -
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb - just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.


Monday, January 25, 2010

From the Other Book I Was Reading

This one over sticky toffee pudding. I do believe I'm becoming quite the expert on world sweets and can say that I've had quite a few different versions of this one and know just where to go to get the best.  But then, that's an uninformed American point of view--what I like may be quite appalling to the average Irish person.  And I'm sure bangers and mash is not a delicacy, but you don't find that kind of thing in the states.

From "The Return"
in Collected Short Stories
Elizabeth Bowen

Mr and Mrs Tottenham were impossible. They were childless, humourless and dyspeptic. They were not even funny. There was nothing bizarre about them, or tragic or violent or farcical. They neither loved nor hated each other, there was nothing they did not know about each other; no mystery or fear between them. In the early days of their marriage they had been actively and articulately unhappy. She had had a lover; he had left her for months together and lived in some drab wickedness elsewhere. Then her lover had deserted her, he had been left more money; they had drifted together again, bought 'The Laurels', spun the shams and miseries around them like a web and lurked within them. They visited, were reputable and entertained; and kept a home for Mr Tottenham's nephew, their expectant heir.

There is an awkward moment in the prose here--a matted knot of unclear antecedents; however, for the most part this is spare and nicely done.  I am much fonder of the short stories than I was of the drab misery of Death of the Heart, which seemed to go on for a great many too many pages.  However, I have discovered that I often need a "leg-up" to read some authors, and Ms. Bowen may be one of those unfortunate few.  So I must go back and try again.  After the short stories.  After I'm back home again.

The Poor Poor Clares

An unexpected moment of hilarity from my reading.  Sitting in a darkened pub eating bangers and mash and reading alternately from the two books I had brought with me, I found this passage:

from "The Barrel of Rumors"
in Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

I had heard that the Poor Clares slept in their coffins, with stones under their heads. I had been told that they were measured for their coffins the first day they entered the convent and that they never knew any other bed afterward. My mother liked to throw cold water on this story, but I could not forget it. I used to wonder if they had separate cells for sleeping, with a coffin in each cell, or if they slept in a dormitory, and if they had sheets and blankets and pillowcases, and, if so, how they made their beds in the morning. Also I wondered, what about the coffin lids? Where were they kept? On the floor alongside the coffin? Or leaning, like hockey sticks and bicycles, against the wall? I knew that the nuns never slept more that a couple of hours at a time and that they arose in intervals during the night, even in the dead of winter to go to their chapel and pray. It was a picture to dwell upon.

The first seven stories in the collection are autobiographical, or at least seemingly so, and have a number of highly amusing incidents--this among them.  The conversation that follows closely after shows her Uncle Matt egging her on in a very amusing fashion.  Difficult though it may be to get, my experience thus far suggests that it would be worth your while to try to obtain it!

Quentin Tarantino

An hour with Quentin Tarantino

An amazingly talented director, I keep waiting for him to make his first film for adults.  All of his films are spectacularly violent in a comic-booky sort of way--but there are moments in each film that are really spectacular.  For example in this last film (Inglourious Basterds) there is a long conversational prelude in a French Country house in which the Nazi bad-guy is getting the owner of the house to admit that he is hiding Jews in beneath the house.  I could have watched that movie, without violence, without any further motion for quite some time--perhaps for the length of feature.  Just ordinary conversation and the intensity builds and builds and builds and then explodes apart in the usual senseless comic book fashion.  Same with Death-Proof--the man has a deft hand at conversation.  But I never feel that I have entered the real world of real people in his films.  The violence is over-the-top comic-book mayhem: witness the moment in the Battle with the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill vol. 1 in which one guy's limb--an arm if I recall is lopped off and we're plunged into the Shakespearian tragedy that Wednesday and Pugsley play for us all in The Addams Family, not an arterial spurt, not merely sprays--but a veritable waterworks of brilliant red water. 

I like his films, but I keep waiting for him to grow up and make a film for adults, not merely an adult film.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Has It Been that Long?

via BooksINQ.

Julian Barnes short story on the 1-year anniversary of John Updike's Death

Yet More Awards

National Book Critics Award Nominees

At least one need not deal with Let the Great World Spin again.  We do have the much overhyped Wolf Hall (some nice writing, some confusing messes, few interesting insights into the life and times of) but it's nice to see both American Salvage (a friend reports this is very fine) and Lark and Termite not to mention several things I have not seen on any other list..

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

A brief review of Child Harold's Pilgrimage (Byron) with an excerpt from Canto IV.

I would have chosen Don Juan if I were to pick the narrative verse.

Random Excerpt from Oliver St. John Gogarty

You know what I'm looking for--and of course I found a double whammy--Joyce and the Poddle redux--

From Rolling Down the Lea
Oliver St. John Gogarty

Yes, Brinsley is the last left of the men of genius whom I used to know in the old town. There was Joyce, who loved the Liffey and wrote about its rolling as no other man could. Ann Livia Plurabelle impressed Pat Colum because (I think he said) 133 rivers mingle with its wave. He said this in America, where Joyce is greatly esteemed for the scope of this sort of thing which his books afford: America, the home of the smoke-signal.

I know only two rivers that run into the Liffey in its course between Guinness's [west side of the city] and the Custom House [east side of the city]. One, I forget the name of it--Bradoge, I think--comes down from under Grangegorman Lunatic Asylum and enters Anna Liffey at the end of East Arran Street. They say that the trout in it think a lot of themselves. This megalomania may be due to their river passing under Grangegorman. The other, and this is the one that matters just now, has 'The Dolphin' disporting by its wave. You cannot see the Poddle because they have put it in a pipe. But it flows under 'The Dolphin'--you can hear it in the cellars--but it never gets into the wrong pipe.

You'll all be thrilled to know that the third volume in this Omnibus contains a chapter titled "Chamber Music" and purports to be the story behind the Martello Tower at Sandycove.  I was just glancing through it now and there is much of interest to those who have not already read it.

Now Officially Out of Synch with My U.S. Friends, And. . .

On Greenwich Mean Time. 

And so today I went to see the Book of Kells--yes, it's overpriced and touristy, but it helps to support the college library and I did get to see two full spreads of the original.  It is a book and it is important.

Afterwards toured Dublin Castle.  As with most of these things, the locals are singularly unimpressed, but I can tell you that I enjoyed it.  The plasterwork alone was worth the price of admission--that and seeing the Poddle River--it was in part the confluence of the Poddle and the Liffey that gave rise to the Black Pool from which the Anglo name for Dublin is derived.  (The Irish do not call the city the Irish spelling of Dubhlinn--they call it something else entirely--I can't even spell it and have no notion how it is pronounced.) 

So after Mass this morning in a Church run by Discalced Carmelites, I finished the day with sung, choral evensong at Christ Church Cathedral.  I was floored both by the beauty of the service and the beauty of the Church itself.

Walking back to the hotel there was a bookfair in Temple Bar--it's not like I can't buy books in the states, but two of these I could not have gotten:

Oliver St. John Gogarty (Stately Plump Buck Mulligan Himself) Sackville Street--possibly dreadful, but it goes into the Joyceana.

Signed Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture

Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen

Very nice haul.  Get back to my hotel and recall that there is a sports network or some such here in Ireland called Setanta--it always amuses me--if I recall correctly Setanta is the name of Cu Chulainn before he became Cu Chulainn.  I said something about this last trip to one of my Irish hosts and she looked at me like I'd just crawled out of a flying saucer.  But when I flipped over the plaques in the street with quotations from Ulysses.  Today I did as I promised and walked under the Rougish Finger three or four times and took a friend for a quick run by Davy Byrnes.

Okay--so this is probably terribly writte and rife with errors.  I doubt even rereading I'll be able to see them all as I'm in my marathon stay-up to get up in Irish time.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Chinua Achebe--What Nigeria Means to Me

An interview with Chinua Achebe, certainly one of the first and most prominent novelists of color from Africa to come to World prominance.  Certainly there were others--Amos Tuotela, among them--and of course, one never mentions the white novelists out of Africa (as though they should not have a voice because of the color of their skin--ironic, isn't it?) Alan Paton, Isak Denisen, etc.  It is not right that these should eclipse the voices of Black Africa, but I will continue to read and support the reading of Cry, the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope.  Just as I will insist to everyone who will listen that The Palm-Wine Drinkard is required reading.

Varanasi Visited and Revisited

I've slipped into the second half of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and the humorous momentum continues.

from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Geoff Dyer

Nothing made any difference, so we rode roughshod over everything.  Everything except a manhole, completely uncovered. We veered round it in the nick of time even though the hazard was clearly indicated--by a half brick placed inches from the rim. Cars, buses and tuk-tuks reeled into view and shrieked past. I've never had any enterprising ideas, but it occurred to me that there was scope for a simulated version of this experience, a computer game called Varanasi Death Trip or simply--in homage to Scorsese and De Niro--Tuk-tuk Driver. The idea would be to travle from the Taj Ganges to Manikarnika without getting crushed, losing a limb or having your nerves shredded.

The book has surprising delights, but I am sometimes appalled at some of the material within it as well.  As I think I've noted before, there are tinges of Philip Roth in his least tasteful, least appealing about some of the scenes in the book.  And this is difficult because I'm not particularly interested in what other people do behind closed doors--in fact, frankly, I'd prefer not to know.

Aren't You All Fortunate

My Airport has free wi-fi and I arrived waaaay too early because my previous experience with an international flight suggested that early arrival was essential.  So, you all get the benefit (dubious though it may be) of me sitting around an airport. 

New Mission for the Faithful

Teach your priest to blog!

Yes, Pope Benedict XVI has asked priests to spread the word through blogging.  Some may need the able assistance of those of us who have been doing this for eons.  A new lay mission--what could be better.

(Thanks to BooksInq.)

Last Minute Update

As a result of a drop by the library and some irresistible remainder purchases, my book list has changed.  I will be taking:

The Appoinment Herta Müller
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi Geoff Dyer
Cheating at Canasta William Trevor
Springs of Affection Maeve Brennan

I'm particularly pleased with this last given how much I enjoyed her short novel The Visitor. By arrival time in Dublin, I hope to be ready to tell you about at least one of these.  Perhaps two depending on how much and how well I can sleep.

One of the Great Sonnets

Keats--On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

A pamphlet on this classic sonnet--abba/abba/cdecde

Keats at his height in the shorter forms--the odes, and others are, perhaps better poems, but this sonnet is difficult to beat post-Shakespeare.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ulysses 2.0

A writing program I simply must own

Off for a Week in Dublin

For all the amateurs Ulyssesites out there I will every day have to walk under the "Tommy Moore's roguish finger. They did right to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters. "  It will stand between me and my destination near the southeast corner of St. Stephen's Green.  Of course this will also take me (daily) by Davy Byrnes:  He entered Davy Byrne's. Moral pub. He doesn't chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once. 

Undoubtedly I will find my way to both the National Museum and the National Library only off by a street or two and perhaps as far as the apothecary that Bloom visits at the beginning of the book--we'll see.  I'm there on business and there will be limited time for touring about--but some time nevertheless and I'll make the best of it.  I can't say what is likely to appear here in the interim but I'm taking with me several slender volumes--Herta Müller: The Appointment, The Land of Green Plums, Imre Kertesz Fatelessness, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (which I hope to finish on the plane) and literally thousands of others as I take my Kindle, but these will probably be my focus for the trip.  Perhaps one of the way, one or two during, and two on the way back--we'll see.

And best of all--sticky toffee pudding--and I'll be able to walk by and stick my tongue out at Oliver St. John Gogarty's--again almost across the street from me.  A tremendous amount of work to be done in a tremendous city.  I'm looking forward to it.

Daniyal Mueenddin

Also from Mr. Atithatkis's blog an interview with Daniyal Mueenddin, Author of the remarkable In Other Room, Other Wonders.

Yiyun Li Interview

In my attempt to leave no Li stone left unturned, From Mark Athitakis's blog, this link to an interview with Yiyun Li.

Reprint: Raising a Child with Soul

I reprint this from my previous blog because I truly feel that this book should be getting much more attention than it is likely to have done.  It was a wonderful book, superbly executed, thoughtful and insightful and. . . well, read below:

Raising a Child with Soul by Slovie Jungreis-Wolff
 on November 25, 2008 7:52 AM

This is going to be a very difficult book to review. I'd rather just quote the entire thing to you--it is simply THAT good. Ostensibly a book on child-rearing, Ms. Jungreis-Wolff uses the occasion to teach all of us some solid Torah wisdom that we would be wise to incorporate into our own lives. Let's start somewhere:

from Raising a Child with Soul
Slovie Jungreis-Wolff

[Speaking to parents who are concerned about taking their daughters to the funeral of their grandfather]
"I appreciate your concerns," I told them, "but life is not Disneyland. Besides the proper honor that is required to be given to their grandfather, your girls must experience life. We cannot protect our children forever. This is a perfect time to teach your children about the body and soul. Spend time putting together a beautiful memory journal about Grandpa. Permit your daughters to observe that sometimes parents cry and experience sadness for those we love. It's okay. Reassure them that we also find comfort with time and don't cry forever. We feel happy again. Memories remain in a special place, deep within our hearts, forever."

A simple enough beginning--although this isn't anywhere near the beginning of the book, but it is followed close on by this passage:

A disciple approached his rabbi, the renowned Baal Shem Tov. "Each time I feel that I am approaching G-d, I find myself farther away than ever."
The Baal Shem Tov replied, "When a father wishes to teach his infant how to walk, he waits until his child is able to stand on two feet and then places himself nearby. He stretches out his arms within a few inches. Even though the child is afraid, his father's presence encourages his child to take a step. After the first unsteady footstep, the father retreats a bit, his arms still beckoning his child. Seeing his father still within his grasp the child moves one foot forward. With each retreat comes one more step.
"'What's happening?" the child wonders. "Every time I try to reach my father he retreats. I move closer but he is farther away.'
"Your situation is quite similar," concluded the Baal Shem Tov. "G-d wants you to travel a distance and grow as you seek Him. Learn how to search for G-d and you fill find that G-d is there, right in front of you."

Ms. Jungreis-Wolff then continues to teach us what this has to say about child rearing, but we would do well to pause and internalize this lesson for ourselves before we try to apply it to our children. And that is the small miracle of Ms. Jungreis-Wolff's book. She teaches us that we must first live what we want our children to learn, and then, learn it they will--by example rather than by words that are often contradictory.

Let me share another moment, earlier in the book:

[referring to getting calls from parents trying to help their children deal with the fallout of 9/11]
I introduced the parents to a most poignant prayer, one that is also part of the bedtime Shema. It is the prayer of the angels. We tell our children that we call upon G-d and his ministering angels to protect them during the darkness of night.
"Beshem hashem . . . . in the name of G-d, may the angel Michael be on my right, may the angel Gabriel be on my left, may the angel Uriel be before me, and may the angel Rafael be behind me and above me is the presence of G-d." These words convey to our children that the angels above along with G-d love them as much as their parents and protect them at all times. Our children never feel alone.

And what better lesson can be found to teach a child.

While Slovie Jungreis-Wolff provides us with sound advice about how to raise our children, she also feeds our souls and encourages us to become better people ourselves--in that way our children receive the maximum benefit.

The book is filled with fascinating insights into Judaism and has a tremendous amount to say to those of us who have also inherited the great traditions of the Jews. That is not to say that we are one in the same, but that we have much to learn from the wisdom and insight that great Jewish thinkers, scholars, teachers, and simple people have preserved from the treasury G-d has given them.

Ms. Jungreis-Wolff is an Orthodox Jew and as such they hold the name of Our Father and Heaven as Holy and not something to commit to a medium as transitory as paper or pixels on a screen. Because I hope that she will be encouraged to do more books like this when she sees this review, I choose within it to honor and respect her great tradition.

I can only hope that G-d continues to raise up such great, wise, gentle, and caring teachers. I can only hope that G-d cultivates the garden of our barren hearts to receive the seed of wisdom and allow it to grow. Only in this way can we preserve a good life for our children--a life that will be a joy despite the hardships and difficulties a life in which we remember always:

Honor and respect are the basic foundations of our homes. Our sages give us guidelines as to what constitutes honor and respect. As parents, we are responsible for setting certain standards of behavior in our homes. Some behaviors are acceptable, and some are never up for discussion.
In Judaism, we call this derech eretz, literally, "the way of the land." It means that there is a spiritual standard of living. It is the proper way to act in life. We establish a fundamental quality of life by which we exist. This spiritual standard of living guides us in our day-to-day relationships in life.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if more people would observe a derech eretz both within their homes and outside of them? Wouldn't we be approaching that kingdom of G-d we claim to want in the world? Wouldn't it be great if our actions in addition to our words inspired our children with love of family, love of neighbor, and love of G-d?

Ms. Jungreis-Wolff does not need me to tell her this, but you do: this book is a great mitzvah a blessing-act for everyone who encounters it. Just in reading it, our hearts are raised to love Our Father G-d. In living it, our lives are made a mitzvah for our children and for countless others we encounter every day.

You must have this book--you really must. You must read it and allow its deep and compassionate wisdom to transform your life. In living these truths, we become not only better people, but better Christians--we reconnect to the roots that give life to the whole tree. G-d grants His wisdom where He may, and we are free to receive from the many fountains He raises. Do not pass this one by--it is too wonderful for a review to make clear. It has the power and potential of a great devotional--a wellspring of love for G-d shared with the whole world, starting with our own families.

Ms. Jungreis-Wolff, if you should happen to read this, thank you, thank you, thank you. What a blessing this book is to all of us. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your compassionate heart with all of us.

This book is due out 6 January 2009, ordering information follows:
ISBN: 0-312-54196-1
St. Martin's Press
Trade Paper $14.95
Slovie Jungreis-Wolff
Raising a Child with Soul

If you are raising children yourself, know someone who is raising children, or need to raise your own spiritual child, you cannot afford to be without this book.


As a reprint I should note that I received a complementary copy of the book, but that in no way impacted my review nor my desire to repost.  This is one of the few complementary books that I felt strong enough about to reprint.

Reprint: On As I Lay Dying

Faulkner is one of my favorite authors for a great many reasons.  And As I Lay Dying is nearly the perfect introduction to Faulkner.  It is simple enough in approach for a High School Student to read it--I did.  But it is deep and complex enough to keep an adult mind ruminating for several says on the Bundren family--Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, Vardaman.

It's also near and dear to me because my family life recapitulates an episode from it.  (Horrifying to think about isn't it?)  When my grandmother died in Florida, my grandfather transported her back to northern Ohio for burial.  He drove the route and stopped by where we were living in Virginia, at which time we were introduced to the woman who would become our new "grandmother."  The story goes on, but I won't regale you with the details.

CAVEAT LECTOR: Please note that these notes consider the book in some detail and may contain elements you'd rather read about after partaking of the book itself.

Some Faulkner Moments
 on January 22, 2008 8:33 AM

Once again, Faulkner's humor, mordant though it is, comes through in this story of the Bundrens.
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

[Referring to Addie Bundren who lay on her bed dying as others are debating doing a lick of work to earn three dollars]
"But if she dont last until you get back," he says. "She will be disappointed."
[And somewhat later]
His folks buries at New Hope, too, not three miles away . But it's just like him to marry a woman born a day's hard ride away and have her die on him.
As I Lay Dying is the story of the Bundren clan Addie (dying), Anse (ne'er-do-well layabout of a husband), Jewel, Darl, Vardaman, and Cash (her four sons, the last of whom is working on her coffin just outside the window and Dewey Dell (her daughter). Told through the voices of all of them, Cora and Vern Tull, and a number of other characters, Faulkner himself thought of it as a tour de force, the one book he would leave behind that would be remarkable and make a mark. However, in his introduction to a later edition of The Sound and the Fury, while he recognized its worth, he noted that when he first set pen to paper, he already knew the last words of the book--an experience that did not satisfy him the way writing The Sound and the Fury did.

I know that I enjoyed this book when I first read it in high school, but I suspect that it is likely to be a very different experience for me now. At least I hope so.

Later:--That famous note may have been associated with the introduction to the 1932 edition of Sanctuary, not The Sound and the Fury. Sorry.

Faulkner Gives Gore a Helping Hand
 on January 22, 2008 1:20 PM
from As I Lay Dying William Faulkner [From the chapter narrated by Peabody the Doctor]
"Me, walk up, weighing two hundred and twenty-five pounds?" I say. "Walk up that durn wall?" He stands there beside a tree. Too bad the Lord made the mistake of giving trees roots and giving the Anse Bundrens He makes feet and legs. If He'd just swapped them, there wouldn't ever be a worry about this country being deforested someday. Or any other country.
Moments. Small moments of real humor along with many other moments. And more than this--perhaps something for tomorrow--Faulkner as one progenitor of magic realism? Consider the case of Darl, narrator extraordinaire. . . or rather, let us consider it together in the near future.

Darl--The Strange One
 on January 23, 2008 8:29 AM

Throughout the book Darl Bundren is typified as "the strange one." Cora Tull thinks he's a darling and the most precious of the group, the one who loves Addie best, but Darl is the agent provacateur whose actions propel much of the book.

Darl is also very odd in this collection of characters. Consider this observation from early on in the book:
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

Jewel glances back, then goes around the house. I enter the hall, hearing the voices before I reach the door. Tilting a little down the hill, as our house does, a breeze draws through the hall all the time, upslanting. A feather dropped near the front door will rise and brush along the ceiling, slanting backward, until it reaches the down-turning current at the back door: so with voices. As you enter the hall, they sound as though they were speaking out of the air about your head.
It doesn't seem particularly remarkable until you've read a little way and realized that there is no other character in this book that speaks with such remarkable clarity, such breadth of vision. The sentences are clear, grammatical, not shot through with the normal difficulties of Faulkner's country folk--ranging from near incoherence to an obsessive-compulsive concentration on the single object of their attention. Darl, in contrast is placid, distant, clear. In fact, he may be among the clearest voices in any of the Faulkner that I have read--preternaturally clear.

This is brought home by the fact that Darl narrates the scene of Addie Bundren's death, even though he is, at the time, several miles away, helping his brother Jewel fix a wheel that has been broken while trying to transport some lumber in order to make some additional money. Moreover, Darl is also privy to the thoughts of several characters. Here he shares Dewey Dell's thoughts:
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

She will go out where Peabody is, where she can stand in the twilight and look at his back with such an expression that, feeling her eyes and turning, he will say: I would not let it grieve me, now. She was old, and sick too. Suffering more than we knew. She couldn't have got well.

Vardaman's getting big now, and with you to take good care of them all. I would try not to let it grieve me. I expect you'd better go and get some supper ready. It dont have to be much. But they'll need to eat, and she looking at him, saying You could do so much for me if you just would. If you just knew. I am I and you are you and I know it and you don't know it and you could do so much for me if you just would and if you just would then I could tell you and then nobody would have to know it except you and me and Darl
And then he continues with a television-like viewing of the events around Addie's deathbed.

Darl knows things that have not been shared with him. For example, he knows about Jewel's parentage, about Dewey Dell's condition.

Distant, cool, and knowing, Darl seems to manipulate many of the circumstances of the novel. He is uncannily intelligent. The words he uses:
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again.
It clucks and murmurs among the spokes and about the mules' knees, yellow, skummed with flotsam and with thick soiled gouts of foam as though it had sweat, lathering, like a driven horse. Through the undergrowth it goes with a plaintive sound, a musing sound; in it the unwinded cane and saplings lean as before a little gale, swaying without reflections as though suspended on invisible wires from the branches overhead. Above the ceaseless surface they stand--trees, cane, vines--rootless, severed from the earth, spectral above a scene of immense yet circumscribed desolation filled with the voice of the waste and mournful water.
Who is this boy? Considering his upbringing and the schooling reflected in his siblings, how does he come to know the words "myriad," "Impermanent," "significant," among others?

Darl is one of the keys to the novel and one of the keys to what Faulkner has to say about family, community, grieving, and living again after grief. I don't know what that key will unlock--that remains to be seen. But he certainly poses a puzzle from very early on. This alien intelligence looks in to the events encompassing the Bundren family, manipulates them, and draws them into meaning and significance. What meaning and what significance remain to be seen.

A Little Knowledge
 on January 23, 2008 9:37 AM

Having read the book before, I'm looking for signs of something different--something that brings Anse Bundren into the realm of the human and humane. And it's here and it's interesting and it is one of those things that makes one pause and go, "Hmmmmm."
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

[Dewey Dell narrating]
Pa helps himself and pushes the dish on. But he does not begin to eaat. His hands are halfclosed on either side of his plate, his head bowed a little, his awry hair standing into the lamplight. He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it no longer alive and dont yet know that it is dead.
But Cash is eating, and he is too. "You better eat something," He says. He is looking at pa. "Like Cash and me. You'll need it."
"Ay," pa says. He rouses up, like a steer that's been kneeling in a pond and you run at it. "She would not degrudege me it."
This from the man who in his own sections says:
from As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
[Anse Bundren narrating]
But it's a long wait, seems like. It's bad that a fellow must earn the reward of his right-doing by flouting hisself and his dead. We drove all the rest of the day and got to Samson's at dust-dark and then that bridge was gone, too. They hadn't never see the river so high, and it not done raining yet. There was old men that hadn't never see nor hear of it being so in the memory of a man. I am the chosen of the Lord, for who He loveth, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be durn if He dont take some curious ways to show it, seems like.
But now I can get them teeth. That will be a comfort. It will.
Addie's death gives him the excuse to drive to Jefferson, a day's cart-trip away to bury her, but also to pick up some false teeth along the way. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.

As I Lay Dying--William Faulkner
 on January 28, 2008 7:47 AM

I finished As I Lay Dying last Wednesday and I've been thinking about it on and off since then. A few simple facts: it is by far and away one of the easiest of Faulkner's books to read; it was written, deliberately, as a tour-de-force, and features the voices/thoughts of some 15 or so characters; while you might wonder why all the voices, it isn't just a gimmick, it really is integral to one of Faulkner's points.

While I enjoyed this book and would recommend it as the second book one steps to in the scaffolded entry into Faulkner's world, I have to admit that most of my thought has been around one place where I felt the book slip out of Faulkner's control--Darl's fate.

Without saying overly much about this important part of the denouement, let's say that Faulkner's propensity for histrionics which would serve him well as a screen writer, shows clearly in Darl's final monologue. There really is no trigger for it, nor any real sense of its inevitability. It neatly rounds out the package of the distant and alienated, somehow supernatural intellect I wrote about last week, but it fails to satisfy because it does tend to be over the top. I hesitate to write this because much of my thought has been puzzling through this portion of the novel and trying to see what Faulkner may have been attempting and what I may have missed. As I've said before, I am not necessarily a very deep or profound reader and so things that are right there on the surface can sometimes elude me. Which is to say, don't take what is said here as a profound critique of the book--it is merely a surface impression.

One of the themes of As I Lay Dying is the mass of contradictions that each person is as a person. Add to that the meaning of grief and the meaning, purpose, and playing out of family life, and you have a robust and sometimes rollicking novel. Despite what may seem to be very down-beat subject matter, there are moments of high comedy--in fact, more than moments. Much of the book is hilarious, if sometimes darkly.

The book begins as Addie Bundren lay dying in her room. Outside the room her oldest son Cash, who might not be the brightest bulb in the Marquis, is plank by plank assembling her coffin, showing her each finished board as it is complete. Addie has extracted from her husband Anse a promise that she will be buried with "her people" in the town of Jefferson, some 8 to 10 miles away and across the river that marks the southern border of Yoknapatawpha County.

Addie dies early on and the remainder of the book is getting her to Jefferson to be buried. The trials start with Darl and Jewel returning late from carting a load of lumber, and continue with a three day delay in the services which results in the Bundrens not beig able to set out until after the river has reached flood stage and washed out several easy passages across.

And so it continues--an almost epic quest to return Addie to the lap of her ancestors. Through it we learn much of the family dynamics and discover that Addie's death is quite convenient for almost all of her family. Cash wants to go to town to buy a gramaphone, Dewey Dell has urgent reasons of her own for wanting to go to town, Vardaman wants to see the red electric train on display in one of the town stores, and Anse wants to get a set of false teeth. All of these ulterior motives drive the Bundrens to Jefferson and through a host of escapades in between, including a stop in Mottston that nearly gets them all landed in jail because poor Addie isn't holding up well. And of course, the trio, quartet, or quintet of winged heralds that accompany them through much of the trip.

Through it we learn about Addie and Anse's relationship. In fact, that is one of the most intriguing juxtapositions of the book. Addie's only narration comes well after she is dead and in sharp contrast to Cora's reflection on some past events that shed light on the family--why Darl so viciously baits Jewel, for example.

I may post more excerpts later, but for now, let this review stand. The book is vintage Faulkner--it is far more easily comprehended than almost any other--a veritable model of clarity compared to either The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! and a nice second step into Faulkner's world after The Unvanquished. I remember reading this in my senior year of high school and "getting" most of it; however, like all of Faulkner, I think it is better visited by an older, more seasoned, more patient, and generally more perceptive reader. The young reader is likely to be more derailed and fascinated by the literary pyrotechnics and tricks. I remember trying to write my own imitation of it after reading it all those many years ago. And in some ways, I am still writing my own imitation of it.

On Divine Simplicity

Plotinus on Divine Simplicity

I can't find the quotation at the moment, but I believe it is from Chesterton and I paraphrase, but articles like this always make me think of the woman Chesterton quotes, "Well, if that's what His simplicity is like. . . "

Via A Reader's Respite

New Apps for the Kindle may be coming!

I'd have to see if these are tempting enough for me to upgrade from my first generation (I can think of a lot more useful things to do with nearly three hundred dollars.  But it is nice to see.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reprint: A Faulkner Diptych

A series in which I treat The Unvanquished (as fine and simple an introduction to the main lines of Faulkner as one could hope for) and Absalom, Absalom! (a book that rose almost to the heights of Ulysses in my estimation).

The Unvanquished
Having already begun the inextricably intertwined premier book of this civil war diptych (Absalom, Absalom), gives some perspective on this work of William Faulkner. This is, by far and away one of the most accessible of Faulkner's works. While there are some subtleties and complexities in the prose, the stream of consciousness approach is filtered through the mind of a highly educated adult, even in the early parts of the book which are told from the point of view of a child between the ages of 10 and 12.

The novel originated as a chain of short stories published during the time Faulkner was writing Absalom, Absalom, and people more knowledgeable about Faulkner as a writer and a person might say that this book is, in a sense, a inner response of Faulkner to the harsh portrayal of the south found in Absalom, Absalom. In The Unvanquished, the South comes out looking fairly good--not admirable in all respects and bearing the brunt of the responsibility for the horrors of the war. The main character, Colonel John Sartoris is, in some ways, the Civil War equivalent of a Mrs. Jellyby--his attention focused completely outwards toward the war and his own accomplishments within it, things at home are left to run more or less on their own, with the disastrous results which often follow when anyone shirks their primary responsibilities.

By turns poignant, touching, sad, hilarious, and horrifying (often within a ten-page stretch), the novel charts the progress of Bayard Sartoris (son of John), Marengo (his friend/brother/slave/servant), Granny, and a host of other characters familiar to those who have dipped into Faulkner's world before. We meet the ancestors of Quentin Compson, even if only peripherally, Colonel Tom Sutpen, and Ab Snopes, progenitor of the generally useless Snopes clan. In the trajectory of the stories we are able to compare and contrast the fates of Grumby (a man responsible for one major moment in the book) and Redmond (the man responsible for another, similar major moment in the book.)

The last chapter, "The Odor of Verbena," is often read as a separate short story and is a moving account of the real coming of age of Bayard Sartoris, made more powerful here by its juxtaposition with the story of Bayard, Ringo, and Grumby.

To get a sense of scope, in this one book, we learn about the Sack of Vicksburg and vicinity, the exodus of the Mississippi slave population with predictably disastrous results, Granny's mule trading--in which she confiscates, sells back, and reconfiscates a number of United States Army Mules through clever forgeries of an original licit document, Drusilla's stint in the Army in Virginia with Colonel Sartoris, her forced marriage to said Colonel as a result of the suspicious minds of the neighbors, and John and Drusilla's interference in the first (monumentally ill-conceived) reconstruction elections, Granny's assistance and support of the poor of Yoknapatawpha County, the utter destruction of the countryside as the Union troops withdraw from Mississippi, and a legion of other events. Most importantly one learns that, in Drusilla's words, verbena is the only scent that can overpower the smell of horses and courage.

The book is short, easy to read (for Faulkner), and powerful. It is the "up side" (and not much of one) of Faulkner's vision of the Civil War South. It provides an insight into how one can still find something to respect despite the fact that the war was fought for all the wrong reasons and for far longer than it need have done. (This point leads to a very interesting turn around in the course of the book in which at one point Bayard sees the wisdom of women as supporting and pushing the war effort forward, and toward the end sees that same wisdom as having given up on the war effort years before the men realized that they should have done so.) Read in juxtaposition with Absalom, Absalom it provides the positive print to the negative that is exposed in the latter work.

But the most powerful thing to come out of the book isn't about the South at all--it is about people struggling to be human and humane in the face of tremendous obstacles, difficulties, misunderstandings, and completely correct understandings. It is about the courage to defy expectations or fulfill them and how, where moral certainty is lacking, the circumstances must help us understand, how our circumstances help us feel the way to the (often incorrect) conclusion. It is a story about how we understand and fail to understand one another and how we can, despite ourselves and our surroundings, learn to understand each other better.

By all means, pick this up and read it. Faulkner is not so difficult as we might have come to believe from premature exposure in high-school or college. He is by no means easy and light reading; however, reading his prose is both a challenge and a deep pleasure and delight. It is a break from post-modernist brokenness and escapist fictional flights (against which, I should note, I have no gripe). Do yourself a favor and read it--not because it is good and classic and expected, but because it is enjoyable in a way that few other things are. There is here the enjoyment of accomplishment (having read Faulkner) and the enjoyment of a good set of stories well told, full of sound and fury, and yet signifying much. The tale told by an idiot is best saved for a time when one has become more acquainted with Faulkner by way of more accessible works.

Compare and Contrast
A couple of days ago, I gave an excerpt from The Unvanquished which serves well to set against this excerpt from Absalom, Absalom!.
from Abasalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

it was a summer of wistaria. The twilight was full of it and the smell of his father's cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper until it would be time for Quentin to start, while in the deep shaggy lawn below the veranda the fireflies flew and drifted in soft random--the odor, the scent, which five months later Mr Compson's letter would carry up from Mississippi and over the long iron New England snow and into Quentin's sitting-room at Harvard. It was a day of listening too--the listening, the hearing in 1909 even yet mostly that which he already knew since he had been born in and still breathed the same air in which the church bells had rung on that Sunday morning in 1833 (and, on Sundays, heard even one of the original three bells in the same steeple where descendants of the same pigeons strutted and crooned or wheeled in short courses resembling soft fluid paint-smears on the soft sumer sky); a Sunday morning in June with the bells ringing peaceful and peremptory and a little cacophonous--the denominations in concord though not in tune--and the ladies and children, and house negroes to carry the parasols and flywhisks, and even a few men (the ladies moving in hoops among the miniature broadcloth of little boys and the pantalettes of little girls, in the skirts of the time when ladies did not walk but floated) when the other men sitting with their feet on the railing of the Holston House gallery looked up, and there the stranger was. He was already halfway across the square when they saw him, on a big hard-ridden roan horse, man and beast looking as though they had been created out of thin air and set down in the bright summer sabbath sunshine in the middle of a tired foxtrot--face and horse that none of them had ever seen before, name that none of them had ever heard, and origin and purpose which some of them were never to learn. So that in the next four weeks (Jefferson was a village then: the Holston House, the courthouse, six stores, a blacksmith and livery stable, a saloon frequented by drovers and peddlers, three churches and perhaps thirty residences) the stranger's name went back and forth among the places of business and of idleness and among the residences in steady strophe and antistrophe: Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen
One long paragraph, and still only half the length of the normal "period" of motion in the book. What is wonderful is the mechanism whereby we are moved from the here and now present of the novel (1909) into the world of 1833 and the beginning of the saga of Thomas Sutpen in the village of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County. We move from the present smell of wistaria into the future (five months later) and then smoothly into the past in one long singing, rolling phrase.

The sentences are not difficult, but they are like Latin--before the real sense of each becomes clear, the entire sentence must be taken in and disassembled and the constituent parts placed in proper relation to one another. It is, undeniably, work. And yet it is a work that has such a fine pay-off--one comes to know the mind of the narrator and one enters the time and the world of Faulkner's fiction in a way that rarely happens in light fiction treating of similar subjects. There is substance here that goes beyond the status of "literature" or "classic" and enters the world of simply satisfying--solid, grounded and grounding, substantial--the author has authority (ever wondered about the similarity of the two words) and the world is authentic. To read Faulkner is to enter a world that is accessible in no other way (the same is true of every author worth his or her salt), but there is a pleasure in reading Faulkner that comes from acquaintance with a master. Too bad our early experiences cause us to shy away, often thinking that the work is beyond us or ill-conceived, or otherwise not available to us. In their enthusiasm and desire to introduce us into these new realms some of our early literature teachers do inestimable harm. But stop blaming them and avail yourself of the wonders of great prose despite those bitter early memories. You'll be glad you did.
While I enjoyed revisiting this classic, and while I would recommend it to almost everyone as a quick and light exposure to Hemingway without some of the trappings that come with The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms, it did not have great resonance for me. Nevertheless, I will think about it for a few days and regard it as a palate cleanser in between bouts of Faulkner. My next read--the remarkable As I Lay Dying.

Wow--Chew on That!
After a break to read Pillars of the Earth and The Undercover Economist (about which, perhaps, more later) I'm back to Absalom, Absalom! and the fragrant (or reeking) climes of Yoknapatawpha County, and the rise, decline, and fall of the Sutpen family, with Quentin Compson and his father (Intrusions of The Sound and the Fury). And here's what I stumble upon:

from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

Yes, granted that, even to the unworldly Henry, let alone the more travelled father, the existence of the eight part negro mistress and the sixteenth part negro son, granted even the morganatic ceremony--a situation which was as much a part of a wealthy young New Orleansian's social and fashionable equipment as his dancing slippers--was reason enough, which is drawing honor a little fine even for the shadowy paragons which are our ancestors born in the South and come to man- and womanhood about eighteen sixty or sixty one. It's just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that's it: they dont explain and we are not supposed to know.
And doesn't that last line explain a good deal of Faulkner?
Nevertheless, I revel in it, in a way that I cannot seem to do with Hemingway, Steinbeck, or other contemporaries (except perhaps Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie).

Faulkner's Humor and Moral Vision
Throughout most of Absalom, Absalom! Thomas Sutpen, a key figure, could hardly be called sympathetic. He seems at time little less than a monster. In the last third, or so, of the book, Faulkner spends some time telling us about Mr. Sutpen and how he came to be who he presently is. What emerges is a man who much conflicted attempts to make his own way in the world by his own constricted and convoluted sense of morality and ends up precipitating the entire action of the novel.
Throughout the book there are moments of high humor even within the tragedy, pathos, or sheer chaos of the action. One of these moments occurs in the passage sited below.
from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner
And then the shrewdness failed him again. It broke down, it vanished into that old impotent logic and morality which had betrayed him before: and what day it might have been, what furrow might he have stopped dead in, one foot advanced, the unsentient plow handles in his instantaneous unsentient hands, what fence panel held in midair as though it had no weight by muscles which could not feel it, when he realised that there was more in his problem than just lack of time, that the problem contained some super-distillation of this lack: that he was now past sixty and that possibly he could get but one more son, had at best but one more son in his loins, as the old cannon might know when it has just one more shot in its corporeality. So he suggested what he suggested to her [Miss Rosa Coldfield], and she did what he should have known she would do and would have known probably if he had not bogged himself again in his morality which had all the parts but which refused to run, to move. Hence the proposal, the outrage and unbelief; the tide, the blast of indignation and anger upon which Miss Rosa vanished from Sutpen's Hundred, her air-ballooned skirts spread upon the flood, chip-light, her bonnet (possibly one of Ellen's which she had prowled out of the attic) clapped fast onto her head rigid and precarious with rage.
The description of Miss Rosa's departure in irate indignation (fully justified) is a marvelous limned-in portrait right down to the last phrase which, while probably modifying "head" can be seen as modifying "her bonnet," in which case we get, "her bonnet rigid and precarious with rage." Even her clothing revolts against Thomas Sutpen.

But encased here is Faulkner's statement about so many of us. And it is a statement wise and true, and most particularly true when we try to operate on our own. ". . . [I]f he had not bogged himself again in his morality which had all the parts but which refused to run, to move." The quandary of modern humanity--we have all the component parts of a morality, all of the right concerns, all of the proper foci, all of the will and the energy, and no ability to implement. The parts are all there but if they are not connected into one smooth-functioning machine, they are useless--they are but spare parts or the old washing machine on the front porch--they identify us as surely as our names or the clothes we wear, they tell something about us, but they don't even serve as window-dressing.

Faulkner makes this point time and again and the downfall of Sutpen is directly related to his inability to get his moral life in order and functioning. And this inability is directly related to the fact that the society he occupies has refused the moral norms of the world in the "peculiar institution" they cling to with such ferocity.

It's interesting--Faulkner loves the South--deeply. He is a true son of the South and yet he can have no truck with the nonsense (on either side) of the War Between the States. The South cannot be justified because it has a moral laxity and a patent offense to natural law. The North cannot because they are not fighting a war to release a people from bondage, but a war that many of them fail to understand at all and so their "bringing freedom" rains down destruction and chaos (see some of my posts related to The Unvanquished.) In a sense Faulkner gets it exactly right and encapsulates the love-hate many of us who are partisans of the South have with our native land.

But I digress--and I digress because Faulkner is one endless digression on matters of such grave importance that it is a pleasure to read and to absorb all that he has to say. Absalom, Absalom! starts out as a kind of mystery and quickly evolves into a complex tale of moral nightmare, evil, delusion, self-determination, and the destruction not only of the person who fall prey to this, but to everyone around him. Thomas Sutpen is a moral cancer in a society that hasn't a firm grasp or understanding of God and His purposes, and as such he is a nexus of destruction and endless unhappiness--perhaps even contributing to Quentin Compson's decision later in 1910 to commit suicide (only after, fortunately, he left us his part of The Sound and the Fury).

And just to seal the point, let me finish the passage quoted above:
And he, standing there with the reins over his arm, with perhaps something like smiling inside his beard and about the eyes which was no smiling but the crinkled concentration of furious thinking:--the haste, the need for it; the urgency but not fear, not concern: just the fact that he had missed that time, though luckily it was just a spotting shot with a light charge, and the old gun, the old barrel and carriage none the worse; only next time there might not be enough powder for both a spotting shot and then a full-sized load;--the fact that the thread of shrewdness and courage and will ran onto the same spool which the thread of his remaining days ran onto and that spool almost near enough for him to reach out his hand and touch it. But this was no grave concern yet, since it (the old logic, the old morality which had never yet failed to fail him) was already falling into pattern, already showing him conclusively that he had been right, just as he knew he had been, and there what had happened was just a delusion and not actually exist.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave. . .

And again, a light touch in a very serious matter: "(the old logic, the old morality which had never yet failed to fail him)."

And so it is with the man who refuses his redemption and attempts to acquire it by his own merits.

More Humor
"He overheard them before he could begin to not listen. . . "
William Faulkner, Abasalom, Absalom!

  One More--Wash Jones on Bravery
Hi all, I'm sorry, I'm just enthralled with the last part of this book and I'd probably post the entire last fifty or so pages I've read had I the time and the right. Because I have neither, let me regale you with one more excerpt:
from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

'. . . Because you are brave. It aint that you were a brave man at one second or minute or hour of your life and got a paper to show hit from General Lee. But you are brave, the same as you are alive and breathing. That's where it's different. Hit dont need no ticket from nobody to tell me that. And I know that whatever your hands tech, whether hit's a regiment of men or a ignorant gal or just a hound dog, that you will make hit right.'
Bravery isn't the matter of a moment but a matter of the heart and mettle.
Is Believing Seeing?
from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner
while one part of him said My brow my skull my jaws my hands and the other said Wait. Wait. You cant know yet. You cannot know yet whether what you see is what you are looking at or what you are believing. Wait. Wait.
Often we see beyond the thing we are looking at and into the inference we are making from it. This is one of the very common problems in science--a scientist can reasonably confuse inference with observation when what he wants is strong enough. In fact, I would accuse some evolutionary scientists of this problem. They want so much to see evidence for evolution that their "observations" cease to be descriptions of the natural world and become descriptions of their inferences from the natural order. Thus we have a plethora of books for agnostic and atheistic evolutionists who leap from the observations of the natural world to the inference of chaotic origin, all the while making a case for it being observation.
Southern to the Core
from "William Faulkner: Heart in Conflict with Itself"
John D. Anderson
Intruder in the Dust presaged Faulkner's speaking out on integration. He argued in several public letters that southern blacks must receive equal rights, which led to harassment and threats by bigoted neighbors. However, his resistance to federal intervention to enforce those rights alienated staunch liberals. Faulkner's moderate liberalism angered everyone.
Found here

I'll have to read a biography to verify this, though I've no reason to doubt it. Faulkner is Southern to the core and this stand is only one of many that demonstrates it. While he wants to do what is right, he wants it to come not from pressure from above but from the hearts of those who need to "get right." No federal intervention, because Faulkner felt the weight of the past and what that weight did to his beloved South. While this won for an oppressed people their freedom, the Federal Government of that time did little to relieve the crushed south and the freed slave population of the plight that had been inflicted upon it by years of war and its concomittant poverty. So much so that the legacy remains with us to this very day, with Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi amongst the poorest states in the union though at one time they ranked with all the others. Faulkner could see no good in this mode of operation (about which one could argue the wisdom). Had the movement risen organically from the people of the South we might still have with us the moderate voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But had there been no intervention would anything at all have changed? One cannot tell, but if what is said above is true, Faulkner felt that the consequences would be more negative than positive, prolonging the agony of racism and bigotry. Who knows. Whatever the case may be--Faulkner shows himself in these opinions a true son of the South.
 Absalom, Absalom!--William Faulkner
I have reached the end and let me from the start make clear how I felt about it. Once upon a time my top five list looked something like this:

1. Ulysses James Joyce
2. To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf
3. The Golden Bowl Henry James
4. Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien
5. Tom Sawyer Mark Twain
6. Portait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce

I don't know I had ever considered much beyond this list. Now, I have a new second place prize holder--Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner. I don't know that anything will ever displace Ulysses for sheer strength of story, prose, imagination, and writing. But Absalom, Absalom! has all of that AND it has great seriousness of purpose.

And today is a remarkably good day on which to review it precisely because of some of the nature of that purpose. Consider for a moment the following: The Absalom of the title, greated in an almost biblical way by his father near the very end of the book, encounters the following moral dilemma: a man he knows to be his half brother wants to marry his sister. With a great deal of effort and thought, he is able to come to terms with this. What he cannot come to terms with is the fact that this man Charles Bon is also one-sixteenth black, and therefore, in the eyes of the south a Negro. And this the man cannot bring himself to countenance.

A stark portrayal of the ingrained class structure and racism of the old South, it is, at once, savage, funny, disturbing, and deeply moving. The story unpeels, layer by layer, you sometimes learn something in a cast-off or aside in a speech of another character--a key clue to what is happening in the novel is just tossed out there. Usually it is developed further, but not always.

Faulkner plays with time, memory, incident, and character in the book. A good third of it is "making up" what really happened because there are gaps that no narrator can cover. So it is with history--we connect the dots we see, but the line connecting them may be missing dots we cannot. And yet, we personalize history by the stories we make up in the interstices--the stories that make history make sense to us. These are not "what really happened," as in many cases we cannot know--but they are the hooks on which we hang what we know and then move on.

Absalom, Absalom! is one of the most difficult books I have ever read--it may even, at times be more difficult than Ulysses. But the difficulty stems only in part from the convolute and involute prose. Another part of the difficulty comes as you try to piece together the past witht he characters and try to come to terms with the issues that have no terms that are acceptable.

Faulkner was a staunch supporter of the rights of African Americans. His language may not seem to reflect his sympathies, but it does indeed, and the compassion and power with which he writes about issues that stain the Old South is remarkable. He manages to explain much about those of us who are fiercely proud of our Southern Heritage and fiercely ashamed as well. How can it be one in the same. Well, read the book as a sympathetic reader and find out.