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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

This is the first of six political novels that follow the fortunes of Plantagenet Palliser (“Planty Pall” behind his back). Interestingly, though, this one focuses almost exclusively on domestic politics—particularly as money and position in society affect women and families. The main character is Alice Vavasor, a cousin of Palliser’s new wife, Glencora, a very young heiress who was pressured to marry him rather than the handsome drifter Burgo Fitzgerald (who is, if not actually a fortune hunter, clearly in need of her fortune—which is considerable). Alice is engaged to John Grey, a respectable gentleman with an estate in Cambridgeshire, but while she loves him, he seems too perfect for her—and maybe a bit too dull; she’s still drawn to her reckless cousin George Vavasor, having been engaged to him but broken it off presumably because of his unfaithfulness. In addition, her “best friend”, her cousin Kate, George’s sister, is pressuring her to give up Grey and marry her brother. There’s a third Vavasor female, Arabella, the aunt of both Alice and Kate, who figures as comic counterpoint. She’s a well-off widow who moves to Norfolk and is courted by a prosperous farmer, Cheeseacre, and an irresponsible old soldier, Captain Bellfield, both after the money she inherited.

Lady Glencora seeks out Alice, a cousin on her mother’s side, as a friend at least in part because the minders her husband suggests for her, an elderly lady, a somewhat coarse political colleague and two confirmed spinster sisters, drive her nuts. Glencora is unhappy, sees her husband as cold and interested only in politics, not as handsome or as romantic as Burgo. Furthermore, she feels useless because so far she hasn’t even been able to provide a child to occupy her time and secure her husband’s succession—he’s the nephew and heir of a powerful Duke. Glencora is actually thinking of running away with Burgo, but is slowed down by the recognition of the awful penalties to be paid by a Victorian woman who runs away from her husband.

Encouraged by Kate, Alice tells John Grey that she won’t marry him and accepts her cousin George instead, thinking it will be interesting to help him in his ambition to become an MP, though the minute she sees George, she begins to doubt. In addition she’s wracked with guilt for jilting Grey, one of the major sins a woman can be guilty of—of course much worse because she has no “good reason” and because it shows “willfulness”, definitely not a desirable quality in a Victorian woman. It turns out George really only wants her money, though she’s not as rich as Glencora was, she does have a fortune from her late mother and she’s completely independent of her father so can do with it as she pleases—and marry whom she pleases. But she counsels Glencora against running away with Burgo. The women, both with minds of their own, forge a partnership.

The society in which Alice and Glencora live is sexist and elitist. Young girls are not outright given to men as wives; they presumably have a choice, but family and societal pressures are considerable, especially if there’s money involved. For a woman it’s a matter of selecting the best “lord and master”, difficult for women with spirit and will like these two.

Trollope is charming as usual—and funny. He clearly understands women—and I’m not sure most Victorian novelists did.

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

I’ve read this one twice before and always like it more than it deserves. It’s one of two historical novels by Dickens, a distinction many readers don’t make because all his novels have historical settings for us now. But A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Barnaby Rudge were both set before Dickens’ own time and dealt with a similar subject, mob rule: Barnaby Rudge with the No Popery riots of 1780 and A Tale of Two Cities with the French Revolution.

I say I like Barnaby Rudge “more than it deserves” because while the novel has a complex plot that’s not nearly as episodic as his previous novel (The Old Curiosity Shop, reviewed here in April of this year) it’s not as well-developed as later novels (Bleak House in particular). What’s brilliant about the novel is how Dickens follows the rioters, generally disaffected members of society who are ready enough to believe that they are “held back” because Catholics are doing the 18th century equivalent of “taking all the jobs”. Barnaby, raised by his mother and befriended by a talking raven, is described as an “idiot” and is clearly (if not consistently, especially if you consider his speech) somewhat simple. He’s been described by critics as derived from Wordsworth’s “Idiot Boy”, a child of nature who doesn’t understand the wicked world of men. His mother knows that his father killed a man just at the time of his birth and attributes Barnaby’s affliction to that event. She dedicates her life to his welfare.

But Barnaby is drawn into the riots on the side of Gordon’s No Popery bunch, not understanding the issues at all, but seeing himself as brave and true and fighting for a good cause. Dickens makes that believable as he makes the rioting and the violence believable. Clearly he understood crowd psychology and the manipulation of ideas. George Gordon might have come up with the ideas that spawned the riots, but it was his cohorts who used those ideas and used him to appeal to the disaffected.

There's the usual complement of interesting characters, among them a hangman who takes pride in his noble profession, the backbone of the English legal system in his view, and thinks he does the job so expertly that those who are hanged are grateful to him, but who joins the rioters, is caught himself and dragged kicking and screaming to be hanged, not at all grateful to the new hangman. There are a couple of pairs of star-crossed lovers who get together in the end as well as parents and children who are estranged and reunited. Some unrequited lovers and unforgiving parents and children too.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I’ve never been a great fan of Waugh—have read several of his satirical novels and appreciated them, but not loved them, though Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust I don’t think I’ve read since I was a naïve undergrad. Brideshead Revisited is different, focusing as it does on relationships and also on religion, specifically English Catholicism; the theme of religion is both quaint and a reminder of the different—and yet not so different—religious controversies of our own time.

Waugh’s major achievement in this novel is the voice of Charles Ryder—world weary and disillusioned but not cynical, directionless at least until the war is over, recalling his youth not only without regret but able to appreciate its glory now that all glory seems, at least temporarily, gone from life. Like so many others I’ve seen the TV mini-series and can’t help but think of Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, but in this case I don’t think it’s so much a case of an actor appropriating a role as an actor responding fully and accurately to the text of a novel.

Charles goes up to Oxford with no clear educational or career goals. It’s expected of him; life at home with a father who had sealed himself off emotionally was only to be left behind. He’s not uninspired academically, but the life of the mind is not where he needs awakening—his father has shown him the limitations of a purely intellectual approach to life. Meeting Sebastian Flyte opens up the other half of the world for him—that of sensuality and relationship. They surround themselves with beauty: elegant dress, food, wine, objects to dress up college rooms. Charles’ first visit to Brideshead is pure heaven—the beauty of the land and the house with its generations of art work, the leisurely, hedonistic companionship of Sebastian. Charles wants to meet the family; Sebastian wants to avoid them, describes the house not as home but where his family lives. While the relationship between Charles and Sebastian is in many ways a meeting of kindred spirits, the rocks in the stream are clearly visible. Sebastian does no studying at all (while Charles slacks off but does what is required). Sebastion carries Aloysius the teddy bear everywhere. He drinks more than Charles, is affected more by alcohol. And most significant, while Charles’ family has no expectations of him, Sebastian’s has many—that he study and “make something of himself”—his mother dreams of his becoming a priest.

Slowly Charles comes to know the family: the devout Lady Marchmain who attends mass in a chapel built specially for her; Lord Marchmain who lives flamboyantly in Venice with his mistress and refuses to set foot on English soil while his wife lives; Brideshead—the eldest son—stodgy and probably virginal, who wanted to be a priest but has no vocation, Julia—Sebastian in female form, just 18 when Charles first meets her, who wants to reject the religion of her family; Cordelia—still a child, curious and devout; and finally Nanny Hawkins who lives in the old nursery where all the grown children—but especially Sebastian—retreat often for rest and relief from the world of Brideshead and family. Seeing the family through Charles’ eyes, we see both their glory and their shame. Charles would have loved to grow up in such a family and now he “fits in” and is valued by all of them, though Sebastian hates to see his friend appropriated. We also see how Lady Marchmain’s religion tore apart her marriage and engendered conflicts in all her children. Charles has no religion, sees religion as superstition, more likely to stifle than to nourish.

If Charles’ voice is Waugh’s greatest achievement in this novel, his prose is also breathtaking. Descriptions tend to be catalogs of detail, incredibly efficient both condensing detail and in setting scene or mood. In fact the novel starts that way: “”I have been here before,” I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.”

Sometimes the catalogs turn into extended figures like this: “I knew these fierce moods of Julia’s, such as had overtaken her at the fountain in moonlight, and dimly surmised their origin; I knew they could not be assuaged by words. Nor could I have spoken, for the answer to her question was still unformed, but lay in a pocket of my mind, like sea-mist in a dip of the sand-dunes; the cloudy sense that the fate of more souls than one was at issue; that the snow was beginning to shift on the high slopes.” Or this one—here it’s Julia speaking, not Charles: “You know Father Mowbray hit on the truth about Rex at once, that it took me a year of marriage to see. He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory.”

Friday, July 18, 2008

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

This book surprised me. I liked it far more than I expected. It’s a fictionalized account of the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. It’s written in the third person with the narrative voice mostly focusing on Mamah, seeking to understand why a woman at the beginning of the 20th century would leave a wealthy and loving husband and two young children to live with a married lover. It’s most definitely not a romance novel; more a novel about a woman whose life was smaller than her spirit, who was no longer able talk to her husband about the ideas and issues that brought her alive—and who found in Frank Lloyd Wright—the architect who designed her house and whose name was not yet universally recognized—a kindred soul.

The author has talked extensively about her writing process. She became interested in Mamah after touring the Frank Lloyd Wright house and studio in Oak Park where she herself lived on East Avenue—a few blocks from the house Wright designed for Mamah and her husband. Horan researched extensively, wrote a first draft which had multiple narrators and was rejected by publishers, and then researched some more and rewrote it. She said she had to infer Mamah’s thoughts and feelings from the barebones of the story which she’d pieced together from various sources. And then she discovered the existence of letters Mamah wrote to Swedish philosopher and leader of the Woman Movement (as it was called then) in Europe, Ellen Key. Key’s work focused on freedom for woman to realize their goals, on reform of divorce laws and on child welfare. Mamah Borthwick was her translator in the US. Mamah’s letters to Key were not all business, but touched on the issues that caused Mamah to call herself a disciple. The ideas gave Horan an intellectual and emotional framework for her novel, as they had given Mamah a framework and a rationale for her life.

In 1909 Mamah asked her husband for a divorce and took her children on an extended summer vacation to visit a friend in Boulder, Colorado. She contemplated staying in Boulder, but, like most women in her position, despaired that she would not be able to support herself and the children, in spite of her college degree and work experience before marriage—especially when employers got wind of the story that she’d left her husband for another man. Frank Wright was going to Europe to see a special monograph through the press and asked Mamah to go with him. She did, leaving the children with the friend until her husband could pick them up. It was in Europe that Mamah met not only Ellen Key, but a woman artist named Elsa—people who understood her as even her closest friends and family in America did not. Frank and Mamah lived in Italy awhile. Frank returned first and began work on Taliesin, the compound he'd always envisioned for his life and work in Wisconsin. It became their home even though Frank's wife had not agreed to a divorce.

The story ends tragically—history demanded that. I did some Internet searching on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright and discovered it before I finished the book. I had to put it down awhile to process what I knew was going to happen. (Usually I don’t mind “spoilers” but for some reason this one threw me for a loop.)

I’d say Horan’s achievement in this novel is considerable. The issues Mamah faced, not only legal and moral restrictions on woman, the scorn of American society and excoriation by the press, but practical issues of how to balance loving and caring for children with one’s own needs, issues of how woman are blamed for marital irregularities far more than men, from whom some straying is almost expected. I thought the character of Mamah, while idealized to a certain extent, was extremely well rendered and Wright, appropriately, left more in the background except in so far to be made a convincing partner for such a woman.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin

Rankin is probably my favorite mystery writer. I've read all of his John Rebus novels and this is number 17 or 18. (Most series bore me before the end.) Rebus is a contemporary hard boiled detective—these days they are police, not PIs but he's suitably anti-establishment none the less. He drinks too much and smokes too much, has alienated his family, has few friends, lives for his job, takes every chance that presents itself and is, as a result, almost always insubordinate. So he doesn't advance in the force even though he solves all his cases, often brilliantly. In addition, Rankin is a fun writer, connecting Rebus to contemporary Edinburgh and Scotland and to current events. He, like Rebus, loves music and the references are always funny and appropriate.

This one takes place during the G8 conference in Scotland amidst gargantuan security involving almost all the police forces of the UK. Rebus and Siobhan, his best best friend on the force, are investigating what looks like a serial murder with clues from 3 different murders found at a tourist attraction near Gleneagles where the conference is being held. A member of Parliament jumps or is pushed off the walls of Edinburgh castle during a high profile dinner and Special Branch blocks Rebus from investigating. Siobhan's parents, aging hippies who are almost ashamed that their daughter is a police sergeant, come up from London to join the demonstrations—and her mother is hit over the head in a riot, possibly by police. A demonstrator who befriends Siobhan's parents at the campsite turns out to be an undercover cop and the sister of the MP whose death is considered suicide. A local politician is challenging Rebus' nemesis, gangster Cafferty, and ends up dead. And despite the fact that Rebus and Siobhan are told not to investigate till the G8 is over and then are suspended for not obeying, they put it all together, though the murderer, on the train back to London on the morning of July 7th, disappears completely and may or may not have been a victim in the London subway bombings. I suspect Rankin will take that up in his next novel, which I hear is the last, Rebus being already 30 years a cop and eligible for retirement (one way or another). And I almost forgot: Rebus and Siobhan see George Bush fall off his mountain bike and note the band-aids on his fingers when he appears in public. Nice touch.

Restoration by Rose Tremain

A young man, son of the king's glove maker and trained as a physician, gets a post at court and becomes completely enamored of the life of the times (self indulgence, luxury, profligacy—it's interesting that in an interview Tremain said she had fundamental objections to the ethos of Thatcher's Britain but didn't want to confront it directly so picked another period with similar values). Because he actually touched a human heart (in a man who, after an accident, had a hole in his chest that didn't heal—Tremain took that from a real incident) and found that it felt nothing, the King decided Merviel—that's his name—would be immune to real love and marries him to one of his mistresses. Gives him an estate and riches. Of course Merivel promptly falls in love with the forbidden wife and is banished, taking refuge in an insane asylum (a New Bedlam) run by a Quaker physician with whom he want to school. Merivel narrates the story and he's intelligent, sensitive, and basically honest about his own flaws. He made me laugh. Tremain’s primary accomplishment in this novel is Merivel’s voice which she handles beautifully.

Because Merivel is not a Quaker and because he can think for himself he has some new ideas about treating the insane, namely that one should look at what lead up to madness, as one looks at the symptoms leading to physical disease. Tremain has been accused of anachronism in making Merivel have somewhat modern ideas about insanity, but I have always thought that new ideas have been “brewing” for a long time in many different people before finally finding a time and a place and a spokesperson for them. It’s not inconceivable to me that there was a Merivel in the 18th century.

I think Tremain is a novelist whose other work I’ll investigate. She seems to tackle a wide variety of projects and to try new fictional experiences. I also like her sense of history in this novel. She’s obviously researched the period very carefully and rendered its ethos expertly, but like all really good fiction it’s written for her own contemporaries and addresses contemporary concerns.

By the way, I'd skip the film made from this book, though I rather liked Robert Downey Jr. as Merivel. But the script sentimentalized the theme and lost it in the process.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien

One thing this book reminded me of was writing a rag called "The Cuckoo's Nest" when I was in grad school in the 70ies. It was a dittoed paper distributed throughout the English Department and the goal was riffing on "academic style". I wrote abstracts for fake papers, agenda for academic conferences, riffs on footnotes. It was very popular for awhile and I wasted a lot of time at it. (I don't have anything left so maybe it wasn't as funny as I thought.)

I'm not saying of course that I really had a masterpiece going, but I felt that spirit behind At Swim Two Birds. The narrator is a student who drinks and parties too much and spends endless time in his room so that his conventional uncle—with whom he lives—assumes he’s wasting time. He begins by telling us that the rules of fiction—one beginning and one ending, for example—make no sense. He insists that no new characters are needed; that writers should use existing characters—which he does, importing, for example, two cowboys from the American West into his Irish story. Well not so much into his story but into the story of the writer, Trellis ,he writes about. And at the end of the novel, the characters take Trellis to court for cruel and inhuman treatment.

I suppose there’s a sense in which this book—which is difficult to follow and defeats many readers not willing to follow where it leads—as John Updike says to “drunken banter, journalese, pulp fiction and Celtic myth”—is a novelist’s novel, or at least one primarily of interest to those who study/care about the novel as form. That may account for the fact that although it’s been touted as a work of genius since it was published in 1939, it’s not read much, except in university courses in the novel—which is where I first encountered it 40 years ago.

O’Brien’s—his real name was Brian O’Nolan and he also wrote a long-standing column in The Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen—immediate predecessor is of course Joyce. One friend of mine, in fact, calls this novel "Joyce Lite", i.e., likely to prime readers for reading Ulysses and maybe even Finnegans Wake.

Nothing illustrates O’Brien’s writing genius like when he gets hooked on a tale or a topic and runs away with it—until the reader collapses in laughter—innocuous subjects like tea and tobacco (which I remember from near the end). Usually totally out of the context of the story or only tangential, but an individual opportunity for cleverness and humor. Even just lists as when he "characterizes" Furriskey, Lamont and Shanaghan by systematically going through a list of qualities using a word or phrase for each character. Starts out informative and ends up hilarious.

Head: brachysephalic; bullet; prognathic

Vision: tendencies toward myopia; wall-eye; nyctalopia

Configuration of nose: roman, snub; mastoid

Unimportant physical afflictions: palpebral ptosis, indigestion; German itch

The descriptions of Finn McCool in the beginning are like that—the descriptions go way beyond "describing" and into the area of the kind of humor that results from building up of detail upon detail—all that circumference of his body parts—“the neck to him was as the bole of a great oak, knotted and seized together with muscle humps and carbuncles of tangled sinew, the better for good feasting and contending with the bards. His chest to him was wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs.” And so forth, longer and cleverer than you’d think any man could extend the comparisons.

All this would be tedious were it not so outrageous in the detail and so well written. The details are carefully chosen (no matter how random they seem) and if you read it aloud, the sentences are beautiful. There's a blurb by Updike about O'Brien on the back of my book: "Like Beckett, O'Brien...has the gift of the perfect sentence, the art, which they both learned from Joyce, of turning plain language into a lyric pitch."

It also reminds me a little bit of Basil Fawlty when he goes off on one of his very funny tangents. In fact the humor of Monty Python works on a principal which Flann O'Brien uses again and again in this book. It's not so much the subject of Fawlty's raves that provides the humor, but (1) the sheer accumulation of ridiculous detail and (2) his ability to deliver the long speech fast and furiously with physical movements to enhance the humor--the acting equivalent of a perfect sentence.

The title, by the way, comes from the literal translation of an Irish place name.