Archive for August, 2007

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John Hancocks

August 22, 2007

Via Books, Words, and Writing, a fun-to-browse collection of signatures.

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Booklog: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

August 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Read: 7.21.07
Rating: Good

(I’ve been waiting to post this to avoid any spoilers, but by now you’ve had plenty of time).

At a certain point I began to expect too much from Harry Potter, to the point where a letdown was all but assured. I’d say this came in three stages: (1) the day I finished book four in a frenzy, and Dumbledore spoke of a war beginning — clearly this is the moment when the stakes were raised and I realized I was reading something that was already very good and had the potential to be engrossingly wonderful; (2) when most of my best friends caught on as well, and we found ourselves hypothesizing and dissecting and generally getting way too excited about what was and probably still is a children’s book (or, at least, an adolescent’s book), and, more specifically, (3) when I opened Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a few minutes after midnight and saw this epigraph by Aeschylus:

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

Ohmygod! the nerdiest aspect of my being screamed: an epigraph! by Aeschylus! from The Libation Bearers! I love Aeschylus! Surely this book will be magnificent!

But then it wasn’t. It was good, and in different ways than I expected. What happened was that my favorite aspects of the series — “what’s going to happen to my favorite characters?” “how will this mystery be resolved?” “is Snape a good guy or not?” etc — were less than stellar in this concluding book; but its surprising reach, that the arc of Harry Potter would approach that of high tragedy, nearly made up for the book’s other weaknesses. This at least, I told myself for at least two weeks after finishing, was a major success.

Now I’m not so sure. I was willing to convince myself that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the series in general, was serious — certainly not “great literature,” but something close, at least in terms of the Big Ideas of Theme, Message, and Meaning. Written down a level, to be sure, but getting there, reaching for it, and sometimes grasping it. I was crying, after all, at the end of each of the last three books — didn’t this count for something?

Now the backlash has begun, as a result of Book 7’s disappointing conclusion. I’m not a fan who had an ideal ending in mind, and I still don’t, but I wish Rowling hadn’t tried to have it both ways. Sam Anderson, writing for New York, explains what I mean. The whole paragraph is very funny, so I’ll quote in full:

I’m not opposed to happy endings per se — I’m just opposed to an author trying to get emotional credit for both a tragic and a happy ending without actually earning either. Rowling had been gathering storm clouds for ten years; her fictional sky was as purple and lumpy as a Quidditch stadium full of plums, and the whole world had lined up to watch it rain. She owed this ritual sacrifice to the immortal gods of narrative: either the life of her hero or—infinitely harder to pull off—his convincing and improbable survival. With Harry’s death, the series would have graduated instantly from “light and possibly fluky popular megasuccess” to Heavy Tragic Fantasy Classic. Instead, at the last possible moment, she tacked on an episode of Leave It to Beaver. This is roughly the equivalent of Oedipus Rex’s tearing his eyes out, then stumbling across a wise old friend who tells him: “Hey, guess what, buddy? You know how you just killed your dad and slept with your mom, like the oracle predicted? Well, since you did it all with totally innocent love in your heart, it doesn’t count! Go tell your mom to untie that noose! And look, your eyes just grew back! All is well!” Rowling seems to misunderstand the power of catharsis. It’s not simple reassurance, it’s a primal release.

Right on! And about that “Epilogue,” my final, non-tear-stained, analysis is roughly: are you fucking kidding me! What kind of writer deems it a good idea to conclude her seven-volume epic with the worst piece of writing in the entire series? (But apparently, not everyone thinks so: Stephen King finds the epilogue “gorgeous.” For my response to this, see the words in italics just above.)

Really, though, at the end of the day, the Harry Potter series is more in the line (okay, at the front of the line) of a top-tier blockbuster movie franchise or comic-book story-arc. (This is one reason why the movies are so good.) Think Spiderman. There are plenty of awesome characters, some marvelous plot developments, plenty of reference to significance that the form can’t quite hold, plenty of contrivances, and most importantly, lots of things that make you think: “That was awesome!” This is a good thing, but not much more than that. I wish she wouldn’t have fooled me with the Aeschylus.

Recommended further reading:

‘New York’ Book Critic Sam Anderson’s ‘Deathly Hallows’ Reading Diary

The reaction Mr. Anderson reports is very similar, albeit more composed, to what I experienced around 7:30 on Saturday morning (a nap wasn’t really a possibility for me).

Sunday, 6:38 p.m. Page 738. And here’s the cop-out. Harry Potter is actually Jesus Christ. It turns out that, because of the purity of his sacrifice, he doesn’t actually have to die — he gets to go back and kill Voldemort. And just as a bonus, his sacrifice has redeemed humanity

Tetsubo Productions – Wherein It’s Completely Legal Now So Bite Me

Another reading diary, this one much longer and completely hysterical. This gentleman, judging from his story, had a — ahem — hard time getting “a hold of” the book.

Page 7: Voldy: “That Potter lives is due more to my errors than his triumphs.” I refer you to David R. Henry’s old maxim about fiction: when the characters themselves echo common complaints about the plot, there are Issues.

Dispatches: Harry Potter and Hallowed Death

This 3quarksdaily post is everything mine is not: thoughtful, well-written, and fair.

In Deathly Hallows, after five hundred pages of strangely penitent plot starvation comes an emetic span in which the main storylines, and masses of other loose ends, are tied up within a hundred pages: plot bulimia.

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Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote: Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

August 16, 2007

(cross posted on Tilting at Windmills)

Yes, I still plan on reading and posting on the entirety of Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote. I stopped in May because so much of what Nabokov spoke of would have “spoiled” the book for those still reading it, and I would have to take great care not to mention any specific events that occur later in the text. Now it’s September, and quite a few have finished with the novel, and even those yet to finish have read enough so that I don’t have to worry about ruining (quite so much). Onward!

Nabokov does not think very highly of Sancho Panza. His first true lecture, “Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,” begins:

Even if allowance is made for the falling away of the Spanish in the twilight of translation, even so Sancho’s cracks and proverbs are not very mirth provoking either in themselves or in their repetitious accumulation. The corniest modern gag is funnier.

I disagree with this and, judging from what I’ve read, most of the members of this group probably do as well. But this stance fits with Nabokov’s general approach to Don Quixote, namely to highlight the cruelty of the book and not its whimsy. His reading of the book’s two main characters is the first aspect of this approach:

The Knight of the Mournful Countenance is as unique individual; with some reservations, Sancho of the matted beard and tomato nose is the generalized clown.

Let’s consider them each in turn.

The Man Don Quixote

Nabokov first considers the “gruesome details” of the Don’s appearance: he is gaunt and grizzled, with a suit of armor that is “old, black, and moldy,” and a horse that is the image of its master. Despite this less-than-inspiration exterior, Nabokov considers Don Quixote to be “a gallant gentleman, a man of infinite courage, a hero in the truest sense of the word,” even insisting in parenthesis “(This important point should be kept in mind.)” Nabokov’s Don Quixote is “without malice” and “trustful as a child.”

In explaining Don Quixote’s madness, Nabokov reveals a highly amusing anecdote about his choice of food:

At fifty he plunged into the reading of books of chivalry and took to eating heavy suppers, including what one translator (Duffield) renders as “resurrection pie” (duelos y quebrantos — literally, pains and breakage), a “pot made of the flesh of animals who have died accidental deaths by falling down precipices and getting their neck bones broken.”

More important is Nabokov’s insistence that Don Quixote views the world in dual form: “Reality and illusion are invterwoven in the pattern of life.” He also remarks upon the fact that the Don, unlike many epic heroes (Odysseys and Aeneas are cited), does not have any divine support for his mission – he is completely on his own.

The Man Sancho Panza (The Pig Belly on Crane Legs)

Nabokov’s study of Sancho Panza is less than illuminating. After I finished it, my only thought was that Nabokov clearly did not find Sancho funny, at all, and that this is a flaw in his reading of the book. He insists that Sancho is a “product of generalization” who is “never as detailed as Don Quixote.” This is true only in the fact that Don Quixote is the namesake of the text, and Sancho the secondary character. He is remarkably round for a supporting actor, and far from the “perfect bore” that Nabokov portrays.

Near of the end of his lecture Nabokov slips in a nasty attack on readers with different taste than his, claiming that “all readers can be separated into Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas.” You have one guess to determine which one Nabokov thinks that he is.

Nabokov’s determination not to see any humor in the book is a serious shortcoming, and one that will concern me as a read the rest of his lecture series. Read this, and you’ll see why:

Scholars who speak of sidesplitting episodes in the book do not reveal any permanent injury to their ribs. That in this book the humor contains, as one critic puts it, “a depth of philosophical insight and genuine humanity, in which qualities it has been excelled by no other writer” seems to me to be a staggering exaggeration. The Don is certainly not funny. His squire, with all his prodigious memory for old saws, is even less funny than his master.

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Best of On the Web: Number 3

August 14, 2007

It’s been even longer than I thought (two months!) since the last time I did this, so I’ll keep it short, recent and Potter-free.

  • I am planning on letting my subscription to the New Yorker expire, since most of their content is online, but the news that James Wood will be joining the staff is forcing me to reconsider.
  • I’m not very good at finding veiled sex in older novels, so the Little Professor’s “Handy-Dandy Guide to Code Words” in Victorian fiction is most helpful.
  • Best. Post. Ever. from The Existence Machine
  • If you’re wondering what postmodernism is, you could do worse than read litlove’s fantastic answer to the question: What is Postmodernism?
  • I agree with the judgment of this “classic review” of To Kill a Mockingbird which appeared in the Atlantic in 1960.
  • From Larval Subjects, a deep and thought provoking post on existing.
  • And finally, the god-awful results of the 2007 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are in. Here’s my favorite:

The poetry teacher’s bullet-riddled body lay sprawled on the veranda floor like a patient etherized upon a table.

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Greatest Love Story Meme

August 14, 2007

It’s a slow day at work, perfect for a meme. (I got this from Ted).

Legend:

I’ve read it
I want to read it
I’ve seen the movie*
I’m indifferent
I have it on DVD**
I want to marry the leading man/lady!

The list:

  1. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, 1847*
  2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813**
  3. Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1597**
  4. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, 1847*
  5. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936*
  6. The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje, 1992*
  7. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, 1938*
  8. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, 1957
  9. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence, 1928
  10. Far from The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, 1874
  11. My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner, 1956*
  12. The African Queen, CS Forester, 1935
  13. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald, 1925*
  14. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, 1811*
  15. The Way We Were, Arthur Laurents, 1972
  16. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1865
  17. Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne du Maurier, 1942
  18. Persuasion, Jane Austen, 1818*
  19. Take a Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis, 1960
  20. Daniel Deronda, George Eliot, 1876
  21. Maurice, E.M. Forester, 1971 (posth.)
  22. The Good Solider: A Tale of Passion, Ford Madox Ford, 1915
  23. The Goldbug Variations, Richard Powers, 1991
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Booklog: Blood Meridian

August 13, 2007

Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy
Read: 8.4.07
Rating: Very Good

Blood Meridian is a multi-faceted assault on meaning. Certainly, it is well-known for being a deconstruction of the “myth of the Western,” and its fetishized violence, but below this surface, the text sets itself against all efforts to extract meaning from nature, from violence, from history and even from life itself. Any meaning present in the world, according to Judge Holden, whose voice dominates the book, is imposed upon the world by the man who is wise enough to realize that life itself has none.

Plotwise, Blood Meridian is loosely based on historical events that took place around the border of Texas and Mexico in the middle of the 19th-century. The action follows the path of “the kid,” a fourteen-year-old drifter who falls in with a band of scalphunters led by the ruthless John Glanton; but the dominant character is certainly”the Judge, an otherworldly figure who is responsible for nearly all of the book’s main passages and who leads the assault on meaning. Among the book’s characters, the majority of whom are impossibly reticent, only the judge understands, interprets, and speaks. The other members of Glanton’s gang pass through life, doing their best to remain unimpressed by it: killing, drinking, whoring, but never thinking — in short, doing their best to avoid meaning in all its manifestations.

The assault on the meaning of nature is voiced specifically by the Judge early in the book, yet it also is prevalent throughout the narration. As Glanton’s group of scalphunters traverse the terrain, the Judge often acts as botanist and historian, taking samples from the landscape and sketching them into his book; he then typically destroys the specimen. When a member of the party asks his purpose, the Judge replies “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,” and goes on to expose the view that “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” To the objection that the task of understanding everything on earth is impossible, the Judge explains:

The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

It is important to note that the Judge does not merely study nature as a means to understand it — he wages war against nature with the intention of defeating it and bringing it into submission. The only meaning that it has for him is as an enemy.

For the Judge, war is both meaningless and the only chance man has to enforce his meaning on the world. It is meaningless in that it is always present, and it is useless to discuss it:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

War is thus also compared to stone in its actuality; thus, it is another thing to enforce meaning upon. In war, the Judge has an arena in which to set himself against others and dominate them. The only possible meaning of life is existence over non-existence, and war continually feeds his need for enemies against which to test his continued existence.

When considering the significance of Blood Meridian, it does not do to consider only the words of the Judge, for it is clear that he is an evil character, and that whatever moral compass the text does have points away from the Judge and towards something else. However, the fact that no other voice counters his, and that the even-toned nature of the text does not encourage the elucidation of other meanings, leads me to believe that the assault on meaning is not only voiced by the Judge, though it may be led by him. Consider this passage, typical of the book’s narration, which describes the party’s march across the desert:

The horses trudged sullenly the alien ground and the round earth rolled beneath them silently milling the greater void wherein they were contained. In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinship.

First allow me to say that this is magnificent; McCarthy’s prose, at its peak, is unrivaled. The phrase “optical democracy,” wedged within this passage, speaks marvelously to the book’s depictions of the landscape and the culture in which Blood Meridian is set. In this land where difference is annihilated, and rock and man approach sameness, the importance of the Judge’s quest for dominion resonates.

The violence of Blood Meridian is breathtaking in its banality and the casual nature in which it is committed and described. Anyone approaching the text looking for “redemption through violence” (I’m not sure what this means) will find none. Violence itself has no meaning, and no one group or person is above another in the committing of it. Glanton’s band is originally hired to hunt down Apaches, who are depicted as ruthless killers who not only kill and scalp but hang dead babies in trees as a warning to their enemies. Clearly, one would not have to climb very far to reach the moral high-ground with these “savages,” as they are unflinchingly called, as an enemy. But the members of Glanton’s scalphunting troupe are not interested in morality; they kill, rob, and plunder with the same thoughtlessness as the Apaches. The only person in the text who succeeds in rising above thoughtless killing is “the kid,” who still kills, but is often depicted as hesitant, and in one case spares the life of a man he was meant to eliminate. However, the kid’s voice is never sufficiently fluent, and his reasons for his action or inaction remain mysterious to the reader. In contrast, the Judge not only explains his own thoughts and motives but those of the kid as well:

You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Here me, man. I spoke in the desert to you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.

The kid’s resistance to the voice of the Judge is the book’s main act of heroism, but it too is a rejection of meaning, not the creation of it. The Judge here speaks of history, hinting that if there is any meaning to be drawn from events, it is applied after the fact. The kid’s insistence on making judgments on his own actions, instead of simply acting and surviving, is to the Judge a sign of weakness and will lead to his annihilation.

As is hinted in the quote above, Blood Meridian also contains an assault on history. The kid and his thoughtful approach towards violence will not make the history books. This is textually rich on two levels. First, Glanton and the Judge, Blood Meridian’s two most violent characters, are the only ones based on historical fact (although from what I have gathered the history is very sparse). Second, it must be remembered that the kid is the book’s main protagonist, and its hero if it has one, so passages like the following have double-meaning. The kid lies in a swoon, recovering from surgery:

Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.

In short: even history will not provide meaning. But should we expect the text itself, which “heroizes” the kid, to do so?

During the book’s final section, which takes place over a decade after the demise of Glanton and his gang, the kid, now referred to as “the man,” encounters the Judge, who is eager to reminisce. The setting is carnivalesque, and the Judge, looking around, offers his opinion that life is analogous to a dance in which we all participate, “and none here can finally comprehend the reason for his presence for he has no way of knowing even in what the even consists.” In the pages that follow, the Judge’s assault on meaning is made manifest, and takes on a larger target: life itself. He tells the man that they are playing

A solitary game, without opponent. Where only the rules are at hazard. Dont look away. We are not speaking in mysteries. You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar that bonds? The judge leaned closer. What do you think death is, man? Of whom do we speak when we speak of a man who was and is not? Are these blind riddles or are they not some part of every man’s jurisdiction? What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward?

Again, and more clearly, meaning is assaulted, and only existence is propped up in its place. The Judge lives life as if it were a game where the enemy is death itself, and there is nothing more. Therefore, when the book comes to a close, and the Judge finally succeeds in killing the man, his victory is complete. The book’s final words are: “He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” He is the winner; meaning, and its last resort, death, are both defeated.

What is one to make of a book whose message is so impossibly bleak? James Wood, one of my favorite critics, asserts that the Judge should not be confused with McCarthy, and I am certain that this is true. However, it is very troubling that no other voice is included in the text to counter the sever eloquence of the Judge. Wood believes that this is a serious flaw, present in McCarthy’s work as a whole:

But there is often the disquieting sense that McCarthy’s fiction puts certain fond American myths under pressure merely to replace them with one vaster myth—eternal violence, or Bloom’s “universal tragedy of blood.” McCarthy’s fiction seems to say, repeatedly, that this is how it has been and how it always will be. In “Child of God,” we get this assurance: “As in olden times so now. As in other countries here.” The mercenaries in “Blood Meridian” are said to ride “like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote.” The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders. (source)

I agree wholeheartedly: Blood Meridian has no borders within the text, and the effect is absolutely crushing. The only possible counterweight to the voice of the Judge is the conscience and judgment of the reader, who must surmise a method of responding to the book’s assault. It is a deeply personal struggle, and a difficult one.

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Now I want to re-read Middlemarch

August 9, 2007

A. S. Byatt’s shower of praise in the Guardian won’t shed any new insight into Eliot’s Middlemarch, but it will remind you why “It is possible to argue that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel.”

When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god’s eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work – as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of “the wit and wisdom of Eliot”. But the truth is that she is wise – not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world. Here is Casaubon, having just been told he is mortally ill: “When the commonplace ‘We must all die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die – and soon’, then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.”