The Elegance of the Philosophical Novel

On the recommendation of one of my students, I’ve just read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A lovely piece of fiction, I think, filled with great generosity & marred only by an occasional sentimental slip-up. Whether its vision of comity across the lines of class is realistic, I am not at all sure; but certainly, imagining such comity is a kind of blessed work.* The narration is split between a precocious twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a haute bourgeois family, and the fifty-four-year-old concierge who works in their building, an autodidact of startlingly wide reading. The girl Paloma’s contributions are in the form of a pair of journals she keeps that record her alienation from her family and their values and her tone is a sometimes wistful, sometimes viciously satirical in manner; the concierge Madam Michel’s contributions feel more like traditional narrative, though at one point she, too, alludes to the fact that they are a written record of her life. This leads to what, in a traditional novel, would be a point of view problem at the end of the story, but that, here, seems designed to create a paradox for the reader’s contemplation.

The machinery of the interlocking narratives is not terribly subtle, but this is hardly a fault in a philosophical novel, where, presumably, the emphasis is in the reality of ideas rather than the realism of the setting & plot. It is clear from the beginning that the two narrators, living in different worlds in the same Paris apartment building, must inevitably be brought together; the way they come together is, however, both surprising and appropriate to their personalities. I thought the story sagged a bit about two-thirds of the way along, but it recovers itself quickly and rushes on to a surprising and, as noted, paradoxical conclusion. I am perhaps less sanguine than the author about the possibilities for communication and friendship across the boundaries of class and culture, but surely we ought to aspire to such intellectual and spiritual freedoms as this novel celebrates.

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*In this, as in other ways, The Elegance of the Hedgehog reminds one of another European philosophical novel narrated in the voice of a precocious girl, Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder [NY Times Book Review, review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog  by Caryn James; review of Sophie’s World by John Vernon]

The Aesthetic versus the Philosophical

It’s a little hard to take seriously the philosophy of a man who could write a story as bad as “The Wall.” I’m pretty much on Sartre’s side & have been since I was seventeen, but “The Wall,” which I hadn’t read since my first youthful enthusiasm for existentialism, amounts to little more than a philosophical shaggy dog story. I picked up Sartre’s fiction again recently because of my more general reading in the European Philosophical Novel from Then to Now, as you might say if you were making up a course. I realize that the story is supposed to shock the reader with the dark comedy of an absurd world, but the irony falls absolutely flat at the ending. The most delicious irony in the story is the setting, wherein a hospital is reconfigured as a prison for anti-fascists awaiting execution. Hospitals & prisons have much in common, from an institutional perspective, of course, however different their fundamental missions, one of healing, one of punishment. Looked at through the lens of irony, though, both hospitals and prisons are designed to confine those sentenced to death. But the graveyard gambit at the end of “The Wall” is not much more than a piece of sophomoric stage business. Sartre’s short essays are probably his best writing. Among the Existentialists, Camus never said too much, writing with great economy in all the genres he undertook, while Sartre almost always ran on & on. Even a short story like “The Wall” is too long by half for the effect it wants to produce.

As a poet I find it hard to take seriously any philosophical doctrine presented is clumsy or unconvincing language. (Sartre of course wrote effective fiction elsewhere, as in the novel Nausea, so the story being discussed here is perhaps nothing but an aberration.) Despite the aesthetic failures of this story, I remain of Sartre’s party, mostly because it offers a materialist like me the opportunity to exercise a certain amount of self-making within the overpowering historical and material forces that shape so much of human existence.

Certain Things Lyric Poetry Can Do

Rick asks in a comment to the previous post what I think of this poem by Kimberly Johnson. When I read it yesterday I hadn’t seen any of the comments appended since then by readers at Slate. I have to say that the commentary is some of the best and most intelligent about poetry I’ve run across recently on the internet. Not that I spend that much time reading about poetry online–lots of reasons for that, but mostly I got burned out on special pleading (including my own) in the early days of poetry on the web.

I like Kimberly Johnson’s poem because it does with economy & grace one of the things that lyric poetry is especially good at: turning the world inside out for a moment, perceptually, sometimes morally. Lyric moments in longer works such as novels and movies can also do this. One of the people commenting at Slate mentions the movie Patton, which certainly has such moment; so does Apocalypse Now, which makes war look beautiful and exciting, only to then turn the world inside out on the viewer, turning the beauty back into horror. Johnson’s poem does something similar on a small scale.

The problem with the lyric form — and with this poem — is that an ending is required. I don’t think “Catapult” ends very satisfactorily, what with it’s gesture toward the sacred. The beautiful is not always sacred, though lyric poets often pretend it is. I think I would have put a period after “earth” and let it go at that.

A Certain Kind of European Novel. . .

. . . has been drawing my attention lately. Beginning with Hesse’s Steppenwolf, I’ve made a chain of association: Sartre’s Nausea, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge, Woolf’s Orlando, and finally, Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Call them novels of the self in history. I hadn’t read Steppenwolf since I was eighteen, when I remember absolutely and distinctly not getting it, except that it ends with a drug trip. Reading Hesse’s novel again now, about a man trying to survive turning fifty, rang true in every sense for me — philosophically and psychologically — as I try to survive turning sixty in a few months. (Sixty is the new fifty — perhaps literally, given extended life expectancies.) Like poor Harry Haller, I seem to be going through a process of reevaluating everything — imaginatively reliving parts of my past in order to make them come out right, recasting my own fiction. I dreamed a couple of weeks ago that I had decided to give up my teaching job in order to “do my MFA over again” because “I didn’t get it right the first time.” And last night I had a dream — satire, I hope! — in which I gave my my university professorship in order to go to work in industry selling frozen food, with Dana Gioia as my boss! Well, he did and does sell frozen food, first literally and now figuratively. There is that wonderful scene near the end of Steppenwolf in which Pablo shows Harry how to rearrange the pieces of his personality on a chessboard, playing with alternatives that nevertheless remain thematically related. That’s what the last couple of years of my life feel like. A lot like Harry Haller.

So now I have begun the Rilke novel, which I started years ago but never finished — I know this because I can see my marks in the margins — but not much of it registered with me. “The main thing is to live,” writes Brigge near the beginning. Yes.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Because I use the theme of childhood & Innocence / Experience in my freshman writing course, I’m always on the lookout for fiction dealing with those subjects. Emma Donoghue’s novel Room came up recently as a recommendation on Amazon, based, I think, on my purchasing history. I’d read a glowing review in the NY Times, so I ordered the book with the idea that it might work in my class. When it came I read the first twenty pages or so, then set it aside when I got busy grading, thinking that the story ran a serious risk of falling into an inevitable form of  sentimentality, given the subject and the point of view.

The story involves a young woman kidnapped and used for sex by an anonymous man who keeps her locked in a garden shed behind his suburban house that he has converted into the self-contained Room of the novel’s title, which is in fact a very effective prison. The young woman is 19 when she is kidnapped and within a couple of years becomes pregnant and bears a son. The tricky and audacious thing about the novel is that it is told in the first-person point of view of this boy when he is five years old. There are plenty of novels in the voices of children, but five years old is pushing against the downward limit of verbal ability for a narrator; still, Donoghue manages the difficulties with a kind of intelligence and grace one wouldn’t think possible, given the narrative situation she has set up for herself.

The narrator’s name is Jack and he is surely a verbally gifted child, but not so gifted as to seem implausible even to a reader (such as me) skeptical of this particular technical choice. The story develops in such a way that Jack’s verbal gifts seem natural: he spends a great deal of time talking to his mother and reading his five books and they also play a game called Parrot in which they watch TV and then the mother hits the mute button, Jack’s task in this game being to parrot back the whole previous sentence he has just heard whether he understands the words or not. They then discuss the words and their meaning. This game is only mentioned once or twice, but in the huge silence that is their lives (the room is soundproofed) language takes on a nearly magical importance. Continue reading