Round about Midnight (A List of Six)

  1. Despite spending big chunks of my day nodding off & fighting the drowsiness caused by pain medication, I always seem to be wide awake at midnight.
  2. I usually have two audiobooks on my iPhone, one fiction, the other non-fiction. Right now, I’ve got Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture & Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion (fourth volume of The Baroque Cycle).
  3. Wide awake but too tired to do any coherent writing, I can sometimes revise a poem, or a few lines of a poem & sometimes my mind drifts far enough sideways that something interesting happens in the language.
  4. Or sometimes I just surf YouTube for old favorites or oddities. Stealer’s Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You.”
  5. I have been making a series of drawings done after all the lights are out. I lie on my back with a small sketchpad on my stomach & draw with a black marker. Sometimes I draw a subject, other times just a rhythm or bodily feeling.
  6. Occasionally, Oliver, who likes to sleep down by my feet will inexplicably decide to creep up and nestle between my arm & torso, laying his head on my shoulder. Then we both sigh & after that I almost always fall asleep.

 

 

Bad Back (A List of Five)

  1. It’s not the bending over, it’s the straightening up.
  2. Buying a walking stick. (Probably won’t need the little compass embedded in the top, but it’s nice to be oriented. (See No. 3. below.)
  3. Percodan creates a kind of mild fogginess that is not unpleasant, but it’s a fog you want to get to the other side of before you forget how to spell your name.
  4. It’s good to be in the room with the widescreen TV, but I actually like audiobooks of classic genre novels better. Graham Greene, George Simenon, Wilkie Collins (the two great novels1, not the hack work.)
  5. Having a moderately good excuse to be behind schedule grading my students’ essays.

Show 1 footnote

  1. The Woman in White, The Moonstone.

The Red and the Black & The Stranger?

Did Albert Camus find inspiration for his most famous character, Meursault, in the figure of that errant nincompoop Julien Sorel from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black? 1 I cannot be the first to notice this genealogical line of descent, but I can’t remember ever having seen it remarked upon. (Not that I am anything like a scholar of the French novel.) Camus wrote in 1955, “I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” 2 Julien’s problem is that he sees the nature of the game but cannot keep himself from being caught up in it. In any case, both characters face execution by the guillotine with courage, both have been read as modern Christ figures (Sorel is the son of a carpenter!) Both commit their crimes with a pistol & in a state of what we would now I think call derealization.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Looking around the web after writing this, I find that John Leonard, reviewing a biography of Camus in the NY Times in 1979, compared Camus to Sorel, but not to Camus’ character Meursault.
  2. Carroll, David. Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Herman Wouk’s WW2 Novels

I read Winds of War & War and Remembrance three decades ago on the recommendation of my friend & colleague Stanley Hodson. They struck me as good history and good fiction at the time, and I’ve recently listened to the audiobook versions of the novels narrated by Kevin Pariseau–all 102 hours. I still find them so. Does anyone ever compare these novels to War and Peace? Both are panoramic narratives of families & individuals caught up in the tidal forces of historical events, yet I have the sense that Wouk’s books are commonly thought of as “popular” (as opposed to “literary”) fiction. Is this the case? If so, why? I can’t read Russian, so I cannot evaluate the beauties of Tolstoy’s prose, but the translation I’m familiar with, by Anthony Briggs, doesn’t seem qualitatively superior to Wouk’s prose in his pair of novels.

I was particularly impressed, this time through the narrative, with the dialogic inclusion of excerpts from a (fictional) memoir by a fictional German general, Armin von Roon, imprisoned after the war for war crimes, “translated” after his own retirement from the Navy by the novels’ main character Victor Henry, who occasionally responds to von Roon’s interpretation of events in “translator’s notes.” The excruciatingly drawn out tragedy of errors that takes Natalie Jastrow Henry & her uncle, a popular Jewish historian of Christianity, from the Italian hill town of Sienna to Auschwitz functions as a kind of danse macabre in counterpoint to the heroic struggles of the Allies against the Axis.

A Perfect Novel?

I have just finished reading John Williams’ Stoner. It’s one of those books I’ve been vaguely aware of for many years without feeling compelled to read it, but I came across a copy the other day, picked it up & was drawn very quickly into the precision of its language & perfection of its portrayals of stymied disappointment.

Tim Greider’s 2013 New Yorker essay on the novel begins:

In one of those few gratifying instances of belated artistic justice, John Williams’s “Stoner” has become an unexpected bestseller in Europe after being translated and championed by the French writer Anna Gavalda. Once every decade or so, someone like me tries to do the same service for it in the U.S., writing an essay arguing that “Stoner” is a great, chronically underappreciated American novel. (The latest of these, which also lists several previous such essays, is Morris Dickstein’s for the Times.) And yet it goes on being largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti, and its author, John Williams, consigned to that unenviable category inhabited by such august company as Richard Yates and James Salter: the writer’s writer.

I am, then, a belated member, apparently, of the “bookish cognoscenti,” but a grateful one, for this is the closest thing to a perfect novel that I have read: in addition to the qualities mentioned above, the construction of the story–through the use of point of view & especially through the subtle presentation of the movement of time & consciousness–never once falters. Morris Dickstein’s 2007 NY Times essay begins:

Since academic novels usually focus on the nasty rivalries and inflated egos of their characters, they have served as vehicles for broad satire, not serious themes. One great exception is Willa Cather’s 1925 novel, “The Professor’s House.” Cather used the traditional calling of a scholar and the atrophy of his marriage to convey her own growing alienation from the modern world. Her novel has only one successor, another book that invokes the life of learning as a rebuke to the wasteful wars and cheap compromises of the wider world. John Williams’s “Stoner” is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.

All true. The point of view of the novel is easy to describe, but its effects difficult to convey. Written in the third-person, the narrator’s omniscience is limited to the title character’s consciousness; the framing is also retrospective & elegiac–the reader knows that the story is being told after Stoner’s death. And at maybe half-a-dozen points in the novel, the narrator leaps briefly into the future before going on with the largely chronological presentation of a single life, from young manhood to a premature death. That span of time makes the various incidents of William Stoner’s life symbolic. Realistically described, the events of the novel represent the turning points in a human life and–I think this is true–in many, if not all, human lives: intellectual awakening, love & the failure of love, ambition & the failure of ambition, resignation (retirement) without despair. Life is impossible, this novel says, but must be lived honestly, which is to say heroically.