§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: April 2008

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins

Wiggins’ writing dazzles. Characters read and talk about Moby Dick and you know them by their sensitivity to Melville; Wiggins uses epithets from Moby Dick as introductions to chapters; Whitman figures in too. Emily Dickinson and the Scopes trial make cameo appearances. She’s writing an “American” book—I think writers gave up on the idea of writing the “the great American novel” or else just settled on Moby Dick for that honor and pay appropriate tribute. The focus of the novel is unseen energy—both the kind that was developed by the Manhattan Project during WWII and love, the energy that powers real people. Her short opening chapter ties it all together. Here are a few bits of it:

Somewhere in the heart of North America there is a desert where the heat of several suns fused the particles of sand into a single sheet of glass so dazzling it sends a constant signal to the moon. ... One way or another each of us is drawn to this forbidden place. Like a magnet, this glass desert calls our irons the way the whale’s heart used to beckon a harpoon. ... This desert’s name is Trinity. One day the sun rose twice there in a single mourning and Man saw his face reflected on the underside of Heaven…. The creation of the universe, that day, was reenacted. This time God was not the only audience. If birth is fission, then the love we make is fusion….

“The day the sun rose twice” by the way, is not original. There’s a book, The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion, July 16, 1945 by Ferenc Morton Szasz. Wiggins, however, hauls out the metaphor for its human and moral implications as well as the historical ones.

Light infuses the story, from the characters’ names to their fascinations to the novel’s themes. It’s the story of Fos and Opal and Flash, Fos’ army buddy from the trenches in France where they worked together with chemicals and explosives. And Lightfoot, the son of Fos and Opal who falls in love with a girl whose mother’s name was Pearl. Ray Foster (“Fos”) had no formal education but is fascinated by science and travels every August from Knoxville to the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to observe the annual meteor shower from the constellation Perseus. On one such trip he meet and marries Opal who lived with her father, the glass blower, who created his magic in the “glory hole”. It is Flash who suggests he and Fos set themselves up in a photographic studio where Fos can make some money and still pursue his scientific interests. It is not until Opal takes over the books that he learns Flash is really Chance Luttrell, scion of a wealthy family he’s disowned and that Flash put up the money for their equipment and pays Fos’ salary. It’s Flash who reads Moby Dick and gives it to Opal.

There’s also the traveling light show that Fos and Opal take on the road in the good weather, to country fairs and get togethers. Fos has always been fascinated with natural phosphorescence as well as with x-rays and radiation, with Roentgen and Madam Curie. Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of the show is a portable x-ray machine, of the sort that the Buster Brown store had when I was a kid and where the shoe salesman showed your mother how the shoes fit. Feet and hands were easiest to see on Fos’ machine and Opal was always the “subject” though fairgoers were invited see inside themselves as well. If you cringe like I did when you hear of this particular attraction, you’ll be anticipating as I did, one tragedy of this novel.

The plot is complex but every twist is linked with the themes of light and love in their constructive and destructive forms. Opal’s cousin living along the Tennessee River gives us a glimpse of hardscrap rural faming life in the 20s. He has two children who die, one by touching a live wire. Opal and Fos can’t conceive and eventually “find” Lightfoot and raise him. Fos works for awhile as official photographer for TVA (which will bring light as electricity to the farms and stop the devastating floods). During the second war, he and Opal both work at Oak Ridge. Flash falls in love with an underage society girl who comes to Fos for photography lessons and when she dies from a botched abortion, Flash’s brother, Tay Luttrell, the district attorney happily prosecutes him under the Mann Act. And 20 years later Flash is resurrected from prison in time to help Lightfoot, sent to an orphanage after his parents’ deaths, understand the heritage they left.

It’s a grand novel, well worth a second reading. Not one you hear a great deal about….

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

This is not my favorite Dickens. It’s episodic like Pickwick Papers, with relatively few solid threads to hold it together, and, as such, easy to lose interest in. Little Nell, supposedly Dickens’ tribute to his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who died at 17 while living in his house, is, like Mary, characterized as practically angelic and emblematic of the inability of goodness to exist long outside of the heavenly realm. It’s clear from the beginning that Little Nell will have to die and then the death scene description is so long and anticlimactic that it’s not hard to regard it as overdone, even comic. Oscar Wilde certainly thought so: ”One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

What I always remember about the book are the crowds of American readers waiting by the dock for the ship bringing the last installment of the novel to New York carrying signs like “Don’t kill Little Nell” and “Did she die?” Recent comments on bringing the manuscript of the latest Harry Potter novel to New York cited the last time readers displayed such eagerness for an English author as when they lined the pier waiting to find out what happened to Little Nell. And yes, of course she died. She was from the beginning described as too good for this world—dedicated entirely to the comfort and welfare of others—code for “died young” in Dickens time and in our own, though we, like Wilde, are much more likely to scorn the sentimentality. In fact, Nell hasn’t much of a character. It’s hard to imagine what she wants for herself. Esther Summerson of Bleak House is often accused of being too good to be true, but Esther, unselfish and dedicated as she is to serving others, has her own agenda too: she has a passion to understand the story of her lost parents; she falls in love. If Nell had only yearned for Kit to rescue her or for the canary she left behind, she might have been more real, though Dickens, I think was not striving for real but for the pathos of good and evil juxtaposed

Quilp, not Nell, is the memorable character from The Old Curiosity Shop, the dwarf who is possibly not so much smaller than everyone else as notable for the extraordinary size of his head; head and heart with Quilp are extraordinarily unbalanced. As evil as Nell is good, Quilp, like Milton’s Satan, but without his grandeur or heroism, arouses our passions with his words and deeds as Nell cannot with her goodness.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Gathering by Anne Enright

“Being part of a family is the most excruciating way to be alive,” says Veronica Hagerty, the narrator of Enright’s Booker Prize winner. Hers—family that is—included 12 life births and seven miscarriages. Her vague “Mammy” and embarrassingly sexual father (responsible for a number of infidelities as well as nearly 20 conceptions with his wife) were better at reproducing than nurturing. Veronica was somewhere in the middle of the tribe, closest to Liam, one year older, whose suicide and its effect on the narrator and her family is the focus on this novel. Liam walked into the sea Virginia Wolfe style, stones in his pockets while Veronica is married to a successful businessman in an open-plan house decorated in “oatmeal, cream, sandstone and slate”.

Initially I hated the book, not the least in the mood for a self-indulgent narrator wallowing in grief, for her brother and for a family where she—and the others—were mostly lost. The review that made most sense to me (Peter Behrens in The Washington Post) compared the voice to Joan Didion’s “furious, cool grief” and the book itself to Joyce’s Dubliners. Even saw the novel as an updated Dubliners, needed because Ireland has changed so radically in the lifetime of adults like Veronica—born probably at the dawn of the 60ies—that Joyce wouldn’t recognize it.

Veronica is the one who goes to Brighton to reclaim the body and bring it home for burial. The wake, funeral mass and burial are at the center of what action there is in the novel, with all digressions leading expertly backwards and forwards from there, mostly back…. (Enright manages time most skillfully as she manages the narrative voice which, whether or not I like the novel—and I’m not sure about that—I admire.) The rituals of the old Ireland persist, but no one Veronica knows believes them, even the brother who’s a priest in Australia and who participates in his embroidered robes at the funeral mass. It’s painfully obvious that religion does not keep the family together, not so obvious that love does. However dysfunctional the family, and however dispersed, now that all are grown up, even middle aged, the family ties, for better and for worse, are strong. Mammy is still there—fading and out of touch, but not a lot more than she always was; it’s clearly not she who keeps them together, though she does still keep the house where they all grew up, providing the scene for the viewing and wake. What Veronica, who always felt marginal around her mother, remembers most about her from childhood was “Don’t tell Mammy”, uttered by her father or siblings on just about every occasion where anything happened.

A significant part of the novel is devoted to Grandma Ada with whom Liam and Veronica and Kitty live for awhile when Veronica is 8. Her reconstructions of her grandmother’s life tell me about Veronica than about her grandmother, but are based on the fact that there was clearly “another man” in Ada’s life, Lambert Nugent, who wanted to marry her and became her not especially kind landlord. Ruminating on that lost time in her childhood, Veronica remembers walking into Ada’s “good room” and seeing Liam in a sexual act with Nugent. She allows for the fact that she might be mistaken but she’s more troubled by the fact that her concealment may have helped precipitate Liam into a wasted and drunken life and ultimately into suicide.

Joyce wrote of Dubliners: “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life.” That seems not terribly far from what Enright had in mind for this novel.

Friday, April 11, 2008

How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

Ironically books like this are written to help inexperienced readers figure out not only how to read but what to read, but readers get frustrated reading about books they don’t know. So it’s nice to be an old and experienced reader who’s read just about everything Bloom talks about. In my case, the book was a reminder of past great reading experiences, a guide for what to read and reread in the future, but also a chance to pause and think about great books as a whole tradition and to listen to ideas about how great writers influence the greats that follow them and ideas about integrating whole bodies of writing around common ideas human beings have about their lives on this earth.

Some book group members found Bloom an old windbag, but I’ve found that those accused of windbaggery are usually those with large and integrating ideas, the kind I gravitate toward. Bloom has a whole book on how Shakespeare defines what it means to be human. I’d already concluded, having read half his book, that it was time to reread at least some of Shakespeare if only so that I could experience some of those overarching ideas Blooms finds there. I liked his idea that a main thrust of literature in English has been where the main character advances by overhearing himself or herself—the ultimate is of course Hamlet, but it’s very clear that Emma and Dorothea Brooke and Jane Eyre grow that way too. I was also more than a little intrigued by the strain not only of self reliance but of violence he saw in American literature. The novels he picked out to discuss were some favorites (Moby Dick which I never doubted was the defining American novel and Blood Meridian which I absolutely could not walk away from as upsetting as I found the violence) and some I need to reread and think more about (As I Lay Dying and Miss Lonelyhearts). My favorite Faulkner has always been Absolam, Absolam! And my least favorite of the “greats” was As I Lay Dying which I have not reread since college.

I knew, as Bloom remarks, that Faulkner wished he’d written Moby Dick, but I hadn’t thought of Thomas Sutpen in Absolam as Faulkner’s Ahab and that insight may be the most perceptive crumb Bloom has left for me.