Sunday, February 24, 2013

Reading List: If on a winter's night a traveler

If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino

Perhaps the greatest literature class I ever took involved a professor who knew not only how to pick the material but talk expansively about it.  Unfortunately he went down about halfway through the course due to illness, and so I never got to read Calvino, at least at that point.  At least I'm pretty sure that's how I ended up with this book in the first place.  Either way, I did read Mr. Palomar on my own a few years ago, because the title shared a name I'd used in one of my own books.  Reading the first few pages of this one reminds me that Calvino is probably as pure a writer's writer as you'll get, which is something of what John Fante achieved in Ask the Dust and what was probably the weakest element of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, both of which I've recently read, and to say that I look forward to reading the rest of traveler.

Blood Meridian

For good stretches of the book, I was convinced that I wouldn't think that much more of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian than his more recent The Road.  Yet the key difference is also what made Road such a disappointment, that McCarthy actually had something to say with Meridian.

Let's start with the maddening similarities first, however.  I began to think that the author would perhaps be a better short story or novella writer, because he spends most of his time with a fairly numbing travel narrative format with both books, and random acts of violence that in pretty much every instance just kind of happen.  In Road it's a fairly routine and uninspired take on dystopian fiction, where some of us seem to take for granted that the future will see humanity degenerate to barbarism...or the very conditions depicted in Meridian, just because we've somehow lost everything we'd built for ourselves over the last hundred years or so (although when put that way it's certainly a humbling thought).  In Meridian, the narrative depends on McCarthy's ability to keep pretty straight descriptions of the shifting landscape interesting...and he doesn't, really.

It's the characters who make the difference, and how they're used.  Meridian has been called a classic of modern literature, and it's very much a classic in a classical sense.  It's probably as close as anyone will get to the spirit of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which seeks to depict humanity in its most basic form, which as both authors decide is pretty barbaric.  Like Melville, McCarthy chooses as the lead character someone other than the most interesting one, who is identified almost exclusively simply as "the kid," becoming something different only in the final pages (and then it's just an upgrade to "the man").  The Ahab of Meridian is similarly known mostly as "the judge," although he's addressed on a few occasions as Holden, and so commentary can address him as such, even if the book makes him so much familiar as an abstract bogeyman, a bald killer who believes that war is a perfect expression of the human condition, and who appears and behaves in mysterious ways throughout the story, and whose last appearance is the same kind of aberrantly jubilant behavior as his introduction, because otherwise he's stoic and functional, like everything around him, even though he always stands out from the elements.

It's the use of the elements that makes Meridian so much more effective than Road, where the elements are defined by the degenerate people who struggle to survive mostly by indiscriminately murdering pretty much everyone around them, sometimes Indians mostly to support a version of an ordinary narrative structure other than a trip to California (and back again).  It's the anti-Western, not romantic in the least sense, and if this is truly what it was like in that time (mostly 1850s), then I don't know how anyone could be proud of that era, because it's horrifyingly inhuman.  Probably McCarthy exaggerates as much as the Western genre does, but reading Meridian you really start to wonder.

The book is written as if it's a direct translation of the opinions and perspectives of the day, which takes a little getting used to, because it's certainly not a part of the modern movement to rehabilitate the image of Indians in America, and not only that, but a lot of grammar rules are ignored.

If you can get past all that, you'll find something that has something to say, and that's what any truly great book ought to do.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reading List: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy

Like everyone else, I got swept up in the hype for Cormac McCarthy's The Road a few years ago.  Unlike everyone else, however, I thought it was a phony failure.  So I kept my eyes out for a possible redemption of the author.  Hollywood seems to love him well enough, and I've enjoyed the movies made out of All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men.  Yet the book that critics had dubbed his masterpiece prior to Road was Blood Meridian, and so far there has been no movie adapted from this one.  I decided that if there was any real way to measure McCarthy's true talent, it would have to be this apparently most challenging of his works.  Based on the opening passages, I think the old boy may be rewarding this strange faith of mine, reminding me of a favorite writer of a more recent vintage, David Maine.  Hopefully the rest pans out...

The End of the Affair

It's hard for me to know exactly what to think of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair.  I first became aware of the story thanks to a movie released more than a decade ago, a movie I instantly loved, for reasons that went beyond the story.  To finally read the book is to learn more about the story, certainly, but it also shades my memory of that story, knowing how the author originally approached it.

As the title in any incarnation suggests, this is a story about the end of an affair.  Simple enough.  And yet it's not that simple.  The affair was apparently winding down, bursting into unavoidable arguments, so that the end itself was coming one way or another.  It's the way it ended that leaves Maurice Bendrix in such unending turmoil, and that's where the strength of the story lies, because the whole book is about how he never really finds resolution because the more he learns the more complicated it becomes, and the less it's simply about the title event.

Bendrix, as most of his acquaintances know him, is a novelist and as such the book is presented as his manuscript, a memoir of his experiences with and related to Sarah Miles, his attempts to reconcile his conflicted feelings on the subject.  He writes from a point where all of it has already played out.  This would work much better had Greene known everything he was going to write, and sometimes it seems like he did and sometimes it doesn't, and this is not simply a case of an unreliable narrator, because Bendrix has no reason to deceive himself, it's that Greene sometimes forgets that he's not writing a conventional novel but rather someone's memories.  It's not a perfect book but it's memorable, filled with memorable set pieces, each of them defined by the relationships Bendrix forms because of Sarah, including her husband Henry, with whom Bendrix forms an unlikely bond; Mr. Parkis, who is the investigator Bendrix has attempt to reveal the identity of the replacement lover years after their breakup; and even God.

There's a certain level of religious thought in the book, the undercurrent of the whole story, Sarah's promise to God during the bombing of London in WWII when she believed Bendrix dead that she would forsake her love in return for his continued life.  It's the start of her journey toward faith, and unbeknownst to Bendrix his investigation is the start of his, as he finally grapples with truths that cannot always be known even when explained.  While Greene appears to have a superficial understanding of Catholic faith, it's not really necessary for faith to be considered so much as how the characters approach it, and on that level it may be the greatest success of the book.  Sarah shares Greene's naive interpretation, but that's all she needs, because before she can go too far in her journey, she's dead.

That may be the best twist of the book, that Sarah dies, that whatever lingering hopes of rekindling their love Bendrix and Sarah share, it is always doomed.  It puts Bendrix in greater perspective than he himself is capable of achieving, his arc defined not by resolution of the affair but rather that he believes he will no longer be able to love because of Sarah, and yet before the book is over he's already toyed with it on a chance encounter that simply didn't pan out.  The way the book treats a massive event like WWII by all but trivializing it is just one indication of the vagaries of chance as human perception.  That's what it's all about, ultimately.

I know a book is good when it frustrates and fascinates me at the same time, when I have more positive thoughts than negative ones at the end, that the latter helps in fact to enrich the former.  That's what The End of the Affair is, one of the finest flawed pieces of literature I've ever read.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Reading List: The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair
by Graham Greene

In my freshmen year of college, I was able to enjoy a world cinema series that showed the 1999 version of The End of the Affair, a breathlessly beautiful romance starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore.  Later I read Sherwood Anderson's "There She Is, She Is Taking Her Bath," which is so completely similar that for a time I thought the movie was based on that story.  Except it's not, it's based on this book of the same name as the film.  Some would choose to interpret such similarities as a form of plagiarism, or a lack of creative thought.  I tend to admire creative ripples, which is how I choose to interpret the relationship between the two stories.  Now I will finally read Graham Greene's book.

Ask the Dust

The thing you can't help but take away from John Fante's Ask the Dust is the infectious passion of Arturo Bandini.

That's something I took away from the story even when seeing it in the form of the Colin Farrell movie years ago.  It's Farrell's bounciest, liveliest role (except perhaps his Bullseye in Daredevil).  And sure enough, it comes from the source material.  Ask the Dust is all about Bandini's quest to become the great writer he's already convinced himself that he is.  In fact, the whole story is about Bandini shaping his view of reality.  His equal is the feisty Camilla Lopez, like him emblematic of an immigrant assimilating into a culture.  Camilla is a Mexican, or Bandini's Mayan goddess.  Bandini himself is a descendant of Italians (Fante has a series of books involving him and his family, starting with Wait Until Spring, Bandini), and although he believes otherwise, his life is every bit similar to Camilla's, whom he torments at every opportunity, when he isn't mesmerized by her.

Fante wrote in the golden age of American literature, the 1930s, surrounded by giants.  He himself has become obscure since then, but his work supports itself, always waiting to be rediscovered (something like Melville several generations earlier).  He worked as a screenwriter, as all the great writers did his day, as well as a novelist.

To read Fante, and Ask the Dust, is to feel as he felt, as Bandini feels in the story.  It's possible to be amused by his experiences even while being thoroughly impressed by them, how they're written, like the embodiment of the ideals every writer aspires to.  It's like Faulkner living up to the hype.  I read As I Lay Dying in high school.  I think I would have appreciated Ask the Dust much more as an assignment.  How is it that teachers don't have fun books in their repertoire?  Fante proves it's possible without being outright comic, although would it be so bad to read that in the classroom, too?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Reading List: Ask the Dust

Ask the Dust
by John Fante

I'm not going to make any bones about this: I'm reading this because of the Colin Farrell movie.  Charles Bukowski has an excellent forward in the book about how he discovered John Fante and Ask the Dust.  His effusive praise for both is pretty much how I feel about Farrell, so it's really good to know that the book is at least as interesting as the movie.  The star of the book, Arturo Bandini, is featured in several Fante books.  This particular one focuses on Bandini's budding writing career.
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