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.

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.

Andrs Neuman’s Traveler of the Century

Just finished reading Andrs Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’sprotagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19thcenturyEurope & the confluence of poetics & politics.

I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.

That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattvawho dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.

By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog areimpostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that isprogrammedto make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.

Hurdy-Gurdy Man

The Time of Quarantine by Katharine Haake

Just finished reading Katharine Haake’s formallyadventurous post-industrial dystopian nightmare, The Time of Quarantine. It’s a genre I’m attracted to, both as reader & teacher — I’ve taught Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and Butler’s Parable of the Sower many times, finding them particularly effective with my first year students at Clarkson. I bought Haake’s book with these ideas in mind, but was quickly disabused of the notion that I could use this book with first-year students: the language & especially the shifting point of view & non-sequential presentation of events would throw them for a loop. It takes training to read this sort of fiction!

Imagine a novel set entirely inside Second Life. All of the characters are avatars, in the sense we now use the word, of actual people who also populate the novel, though the avatars are more “real” than the human beings they represent. That’s how The Time of Quarantine feels & it has interesting & troubling consequences that affect narrative technique & what I suppose I’d have to call fictional ontology. I found it difficult to track the shifts between flesh & blood & avatars, which I think is the point: in the world of the novel the cyberworld has begun to engulf the physical world. Under such circumstances, human agency beaks down & the characters behave like half-conscious puppets.

There are four central characters, Peter, Lyda, Helen, & Will. All but Will (get it?) have implants in their brains that connect them into the network, though how the internet is stiff functioning at a time when virtually all the rest of the world & its institutions have have gone kerflooey stretches plausibility. Peter is the puppetmaster. Removed by his neurologist father to an Intentional Community (IC) during the time of quarantine, he watches everyone in his small community die off of aplaguehe has himself brought in from the outside. After that, he is “raised by computers” that have beenprogrammedby his father to entertain & deceive him. Not sure why. And that’s the big problem here: it is very difficult to track any of the characters’ motives for doing what they do, to the extent that they act on their own at all, for it is Peter,ultimately, from his defunct quarantine community, who goes out onto the net, finds, Lyda, Helen & Will & draws them to himself. They will start over. It’s not exactly Eden, but that’s where the story ends. Peter insists that they must remain in this eden of his making of their own free will, but how can that be, since he has lured them there & made it impossible for them to leave. Peter’s solipsism is quitemonstrous.

The tone of these comments belies a good deal of exasperation, I know. Haake often writes beautifully, but so much of this story is spent inside the characters’ heads — actual events almost always being remembered or dreamed — that the narrative develops virtually no forward momentum. I’m not demanding a page-turner; I can appreciate modernist fiction; but the gravitational force of interiority ultimately causes this fiction to collapse in upon itself.