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Middlemarch Revisited

A friend reminded me of the artistry of Middlemarch when he mentioned how much he enjoyed listening to an audio book of the novel on his way to work. I had to reflect that I had read Eliot first fifty years ago, under a magnolia tree in Fordham’s Rose Hill in the Bronx, caught up in Dorothea’s story but equally aware that I had yet another novel to read that week for Dr. Santaniello’s English Fiction course.  So taking up the book again, I was surprised and humbled by the number of times I had to read the following passage, Edward Casaubon’s proposal of marriage (in letter form) to Dorothea.

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you. For in the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate); and each succeeding opportunity for observation has given the impression an added depth by convincing me more emphatically of that fitness which I had preconceived, and thus evoking more decisively those affections to which I have but now referred.

The knottiness of this passage, reminiscent of the frustrating Latin of Cicero, whose periods made me weep in the frustration of incomprehension, works in veritable counterpoint to the fluency of composition – and the ease of the prose rhythms. Casaubon’s self-regard, rendered in the subordination of the clauses and in the parenthetical notes to his own assertions are all too great warnings against the very proposal that Dorothea accepts. The weight of the words simply and ironically crushes any hope of realizing the “affections” that he mentions but are somehow buried in the qualifications that he has laid out earlier.

Perhaps it is too easy to comment that novelists do not write like this anymore. But I have to ask if that also means that our contemporaries do not make the demands upon us that the great Victorian writers did?

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Campus After-Life

The setting of Robert Stone’s new book, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is the vale of tears. This campus novel transcends genre largely through the psychological effect of place. Not so much as a New England college town but as the trial ground where acts of faith, betrayal, retributive justice, and redemption take place, and where, of course, evil constantly threatens.

The plot centers on the adulterous affair that Professor Steven Brookman has with his beautiful, brilliant and possessive student, Maud Stack.  The title leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the affair. Vehicular homicide ends their parting quarrel. Her death is at the center of Stone’s meditations on love, the sanctity of life, abortion, vengeance, and fate – providence if you will, in the Divine Economy. Some critics have mentioned that they find the central relationship between Brookman and Maud insufficiently developed. But frankly I found myself too bound up in the peripheral characters who form a virtual chorus of speculation and assertion on deep matters of conscience, to be too concerned with the affair. The moral geography of the novel is never less than that of a battlefield, with real weapons and fatal or near fatal encounters.

The sense that the horizontal events of earthly life intersect with the verticals of the spiritual radiates throughout the book.

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Faith and Transcendence

As would be clear to anyone who read the review in Commonweal of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel The Childhood of Jesus, the work is not a biblical narrative concerning the Holy Family. Serious playfulness to the point of obscurity challenges a reader of any of Coetzee’s works. It is as if one sits across from a great chess master in part in awe, in part in frustration as he moves his pieces in ways that both befuddle and illuminate. I find his prose and his unique insight compelling, if not compulsive, reading. The plot suggests some sort of parable in that the story concerns a young boy who in the course of the novel emerges as demanding, gifted, visionary, and troubling. He is accompanied by an adult who assumes responsibility for his well-being. When on the ship that transports them and unspecified others to a new life, the boy loses the papers that should establish his identity. The frame of the story involves a journey to a new beginning (Novilla is the city where Simón, the adult, and David, the boy, arrive.) They receive new names. [There are no surnames.] Simón reflects that they have been washed clean of their memories: their identities, adult and child, are fluid, unfixed by parentage or nation. The novel ends in a journey to another new beginning: the impulse grounded in escape from the society to which that have been inducted, one, although benign in intent, threatens the uniqueness of the child David. 

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Benjamin Black

The prize-winning Irish novelist, John Banville, leads a double authorial life writing detective mysteries under the penname, Benjamin Black. I have a friend who refuses to read Banville’s Dr. Quirke detective stories because he, my friend, ruined a summer holiday by starting an early novel in the series. Quirke’s character simply depressed him too much to finish the book, and by extension, he spoiled his vacation. I must admit that Quirke as a pathologist and canny Watson to a dour Holmesean DI Hackett affects me in the opposite manner. Banville creates, with an admittedly dismal joy, a neurotic near-alcoholic sorting out the dingier crimes of Dublin in the nineteen fifties. With a nod to that other Dubliner, James Joyce, Banville offers an array of characters that populate an equally broad array of watering holes. And the patter of the speakers might mix happily with that of those who accompany the journeys of Leopold Bloom. We know of the childhood darkness that feeds the melancholy root of Dr. Quirke’s soul: his abusive upbringing at Carricklea, a Christian Brothers’ orphanage, and his subsequent adoption by Judge Garret Griffin who with his natural children simply complicate the primal scene of Quirke’s upbringing.  Quirke suffers yet another blow, the loss of his wife, and then the aching burden of discovering his daughter, who had believed she was the child of Quirke’s step brother. No wonder the man has hands shaped to fit a glass that holds the spirits that will lift his own – or not.

The latest novel in the series, Holy Orders, offers us an apparently inexplicable murder, a Gypsy “tinker” encampment, threats to Quirke’s daughter, an avenging sibling, and a pedophile priest. Yet the real heart of the work is Banville’s development of Quirke.

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Consonance

“Consonance” echoes in my head: reading Edward Williams’ 1968 novel Stoner I felt I was hearing my own thoughts. There is more than wishful thinking here. The prose is enviably compelling, but, hubris apart, I find that the narrator’s voice mimicked the inner monologist that, for want of a better phrase, talks my thoughts to me. I know that I am not alone in this. The book’s reissue some years ago occasioned remarkable reviews. A brief look at the Amazon web page that features Stoner will more than confirm that.

The plot of the novel is devoid of grand incident: the title character, a poor farm boy, manages to work his way through the University of Missouri. He develops a great love for literature and has a clear aptitude for analysis and criticism. His mentor, a senior professor, guides him through his dissertation and also manages to divert him from enlisting to fight in the First War. Stoner becomes a brilliant teacher, a hen-pecked, nay pathologically dominated husband, and ultimately a victim of his wife’s malice. She estranges their daughter from her doting father. Stoner’s passionate and liberating love affair with a graduate student collapses, despite great depth of affection, before the pressures of university politics and the threat of scandal. Stoical acceptance balances the support of literature and scholarship as Stoner unselfconsciously finds his way to eccentricity – yet all within the compass of his small university classrooms.

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Poison Review

I had been looking forward to reading Colum McCann’s Transatlantic since I first saw notice of its publication. His earlier Let the Great World Spin, which won a National Book Award, and Zoli I had found remarkable works. Transatlantic appeared last week in the New Books section of our library, but before I began to read it I came upon a particularly critical review in the London Review of Books, a condescending attack upon McCann first of all as a hyperbolic writer of blurbs for other people’s novels.

The guilt by association was clear: anyone who writes such wildly inflated comments as a critic cannot be expected to write a novel worth reading. The review went on to establish just that: McCann can’t write – except in so far as he associates himself with those he admires – Frederic Douglass and Senator Joseph Mitchell (of the Irish Good Friday Agreements), two characters who appear in the novel.  Presumably this is so because he needs the bolstering of those relationships. Be near the great and some will rub off.

The effect of such a review is poison. The temptation is to agree and, from the critical heights of high art, find that the sycophantic efforts of the novelist are worthy of only a polysyllabic sneer. On the other hand, to start with a defensive, “I won’t let myself be influenced” is to surrender something before reading the first word –innocent expectation. The damage was done, and I found myself skimming the text, expressing surprise begrudgingly at particularly good metaphors or sections of dialogue, and yet inevitably leaving the burden of proof – that the novel was worth reading – to what I saw as an unsatisfactory conclusion. I did not enjoy the book.

I have always regarded the act of reading as contractual relationship, an agreement with the writer either in terms of the genre of the piece or the narrative stance or the structure or the setting, whatever forms the artistic whole. We agree to allow the fictional construct to work its way. If the novelist fails in the imagined contract: if the novel simply confounds its premise and seems dishonest, then the contract is violated. We stop reading with no regret. 

The review I read defeated the free entering of the contract. I found myself unwilling to accept what had been so bludgeoned by the reviewer. Had I read the book and then the review, I could have judged the judgment. Alas, I had the jaundiced reading, the subliminal and then the overt sense that the narrative failed – particularly in the section set at the time of the Good Friday Agreements.

Perhaps time will offer a way to re-approach the book. I take some solace that the terribly negative tone of the review was noticed even in the TLS in a reference to the writing of blurbs. Perhaps there is an underlying literary battle going on and, at least in part, the attack upon McCann has another more personal source. What did Byron say about Keats being destroyed by the critics of the Edinburgh Review? Literary reputations are not the only casualties of the too trenchant word.

Panopticon

Some novels take us where we had rather not go. The strength of the narrative voice beckons onwards despite a sense that there will be moments of selective page-skipping, a blanking out of what is too unpleasant for the inner ear or eye. Yet we read on to take ourselves to places and experiences that we can never have. How often do our notions of aberrant states, criminal worlds, political tyranny or the stark shock of alien customs derive from fictional accounts? We rely on the author, make an unspoken contract with her or him, to represent honestly what we do not know. There is a complicity of acceptance – unless we feel misled through lack of authenticity or the poverty of style or the falsity of emotion.

I almost put down The Panopticon by the Scottish writer Jenni Fagan.  The language was rife with Scottish dialect slang, and the more familiar Anglo-Saxon expletives; the setting was dark, and the young people represented formed a nightmare group of adolescents. I shuddered, imagining them as students in a class I had to teach. The novel presents a first person narrator, a Scottish orphan who has been the ward of the state for her entire fifteen years. Her language matches the abuse she suffers, driven by her drug use, and she records her deepest conviction and fear: that she is the subject of some “experiment” designed by the authorities to control her – hence the Panopticon of the title.  Ms. Fagan writes from her own experience; she was an orphan in the care of institutions all her early life and, as she asserts in interviews, is determined not to cheapen or sensationalize the difficulties of such a life. The author’s success in transcending what might have maimed or even killed her, tempers the telling but certainly does not slacken the tension. Life for Anais Hendricks is constant dissembling, a defensive tactic she has to adopt if she is to retain her self-esteem and her freedom. The story opens with the threat of a  criminal charge pending against her: assault and battery of a policewoman. Anais remembers nothing of the incident (her drugged state displaced her consciousness) but she is too aware of the consequences of conviction: incarceration in a “secure unit.” For the time being she is housed with other teenagers in the Panopticon, a circular prison with its central tower lodging guards who can inspect her at their choosing.

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Featured on the homepage

Three stories now featured on our home page.

George Scialabba writes on Leszek Kolakowski and the essays collected in Is God Happy?

[Kolakowski was not] solely or even primarily a political critic; he was a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He wrote books on seventeenth-century philosophy, Bergson, Husserl, and positivism, among many others, including several on the philosophy of religion, such as The Presence of Myth, God Owes Us Nothing, Religion: If There Is No God…, and the middle section of Is God Happy?

The Enlightenment plays the same role in Kolakowski’s philosophical writings as Marxism does in his political writings. It’s where modernity went astray, where virtue took a wrong turn. Marxism distorted the quest for equality and social justice into utopian dogmatism; the Enlightenment distorted the promise of science and the rejection of superstition into relativistic rationalism. And just as Kolakowski’s positive political beliefs were hard to pin down (the closest he came was in an essay called “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”), so were his positive religious beliefs. For a long time he styled himself an “inconsistent atheist,” but near the end of his life he resolved the inconsistency by returning to the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the philosophical equivalent of “conservative-liberal-socialist” is “skeptical traditionalist.” At any rate, that’s a good description of Kolakowski’s religious/philosophical stance until his (re-) conversion. He was not (at least in his writing) a God-haunted man so much as a scourge of secularism; not so much avid to penetrate the mysteries as keen to debunk their debunkers. He does not have much comfort for afflicted believers, but he rejoices in afflicting comfortable unbelievers.

Nicholas Clifford looks at the "historical amnesia" of Catholic leaders on religious liberty:

The greater question implicitly raised by [Archbishop William] Lori, but never answered, has to do with the Catholic Church’s recent conversion to a view of religious freedom as a “fundamental right.” When and why did it happen? Here, Lori’s historical account carries us back no farther than Dignitatis humanae forty-eight years ago. Again he’s perfectly accurate when he says that “successive popes have reaffirmed the church’s commitment to this principle,” and though he rather surprisingly ignores John XXIII’s role in planting seeds, he cites John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I, in support of religious freedom. Yet isn’t this a bit like saying that ever since the Voting Rights Act—also of 1965—successive U.S. presidents have upheld the ideal of racial equality? Case closed, in short; and there’s no longer any need to delve into America’s murky past from 1789 to 1964, and to have to explain the difficult contradictions that crop up.

Or is there? And if, since 1965, “successive” popes have upheld religious freedom, what can we say about “predecessive” popes, those who earlier presided over the governance of the church and its teachings for almost two millennia? Should we simply ignore them?

Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes about Chris Christie, his debate phobia, and how his pragmatic persona plays against his aims to burnish his conservative record (for more on that last part, see this piece about the governor's veto of a sniper-rifle ban that he proposed himself) . 

Tourette's As Resolution

The unreliable or limited narrator filters experience; to represent this, a tortured or puzzling use of language embodying the speaker’s voice pushes towards incomprehension. I am thinking of the opening of Joyce’s Portrait; Stephen’s infant consciousness defies easy recognition of sounds, shapes, environment. The language Joyce employs in its incompleteness carries the meaning through denying it – on first glance. Faulkner does something similar in the opening of The Sound and the Fury – and we can name many more.

Rereading Jonathon Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn forced a consideration of narrative limitation to mind. Lethem’s Lionel, if you remember, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. Unlike Joyce’s Stephen, he will not mature to leave behind the prose that offers us infant sensibilities, and unlike Benjy in Faulkner’s novel, Lionel possesses a critical intelligence and verbal sophistication. As a narrator then, Lionel both speaks out of his Tourette’s plagued consciousness and reflects on its workings. He understands himself to be “twitch” or “tic” governed and, in his interior monologue that carries the narration, he reflects upon this state.

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The Art of Groveling by Gao Lee Ji (translated by Sir Charles Peckerwood)

“The man who grovels makes a much smaller target.” (Gao Lee Ji, c. 475 BCE)

There has been an explosion of interest in the humanities in the United States recently, and one of the major contributors to this has been the Business Sections of airport bookstores.  Management book sections in particular have become the primary American source of knowledge about Asian cultures.  The shelves almost overflow with serious scholarly works on the thought of the Chinese sage K’ung-Tzu (Confucius), the general Sun Tzu, the master dog breeder Shar Pei, and the philosopher Bruce Lee.  The public’s voracious appetite for Oriental wisdom that can be applied to practical business situations is so great that the book Go Rin No Sho (The Book of the Five Rings), Miyamoto Musashi’s esoteric 17th century handbook on Japanese sword fighting has been among the most frequently gifted management books at office holiday parties for over thirty years. 

It was therefore with great anticipation that we awaited the release of the new translation by Sir Charles Peckerwood of the fifth century BCE Chinese business classic The Art of Groveling by the immortal Gao Lee Ji (Panopticon Press, 2013, 554 pages).  Although little known outside of China, Gao Lee Ji was the first Chinese sage that directly addressed what later became known as “business ethics”.

Gao Lee Ji (c.550 BCE – c.476 BCE) was the Prime Minister and Commander of the Armies under the Li Ping Emperor of the state of Wang Chung located in what is now the province of Kwangtung, in southern China.  He rose from obscure origins (several contemporary biographies of him survive, all contradictory but all pretty good) to become the de facto ruler of Wang Chung in 509 BCE.  At that time, the state of Wang Chung was the most prosperous in China and possessed the largest and most modern army.  But due to a series of unpredictable and unavoidable events that could have happened to anybody, by the eighth year of Gao Lee Ji’s management the kingdom had been utterly laid waste and conquered and the Emperor himself had been impaled on one of his own banners and his body mounted over the main gate of his capital city.

Gao Lee Ji, surveying these events from his opulent retirement palace in the peaceful city of Ho An, 500 miles to the north, decided to take up his writing brush and over the next 25 years of his comfortable existence he penned miscellaneous anecdotes of his life and the lives of the Sages as well as words of wisdom to guide future generations.  These were collected after his death and published in a volume called “The Art of Groveling”.

Although some scholars can see the influence of Gao Lee Ji running through all subsequent periods of Chinese history, the manuscript of “The Art of Groveling” was only known through second hand references by other historians and philosophers.  It was presumed lost until its unexpected discovery in the luggage of the last Manchu Emperor Pu Yi by the famous modern historian Hu Nu as he was helping load the bags onto a truck in 1923. 

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