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That E Flat Chord

It’s curious, given all my false starts with books like Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses — which share with J R long passages of rambling, essentially contextless prose — that the first time I read J R years ago, I made it through without major impediment. Oh, sure, bits of it were rough going, and I was lost a lot of the time, but I never hit the sort of wall that I did with these other books.

This’ll be my third full time through J R, and I’ve done a partial read at least once before, so there’s a lot of distance between my current impressions and how I received the book as a new reader. For years (pre-Ulysses), I think I labeled J R the hardest book I had ever read, but now I’m thinking it’s not so hard after all. Maybe that’s just experience and familiarity talking. At any rate, having now read Joyce’s novel (which Gaddis purports not to have read, though I have trouble believing it, especially given echoes both allusive and quoted outright of other Modernist writers like Yeats and Eliot that appear in J R), I’ve developed a little theory as to why I managed to get through it the first time.

While Gaddis rapidly changes voice and context time after time in J R, he maintains a consistent method of story-telling throughout the book. Once you’ve begun to get a feel for how the book works and have begun to suss out the various voices, it goes down a lot more easily than when you first encounter the book’s cacophony. By a third of the way through the book (if not before), you’re probably pretty comfortable with how the book operates, so that the mechanics of understanding it require much less effort and you can absorb the voices.

I had something similar to say about the Ulysses a couple of years ago:

When I started reading “Ithaca,” I flipped forward after just a couple of pages because I feared that all of the 70+ pages in this batch would follow the question/answer format that opened the episode. I may have groaned audibly when I saw that they would. It was a cute trick, I thought, but who needed 70 pages of it? Who needed 20 pages of it? But as I read on, a neat thing happened that has happened several (though by no means all) times for me in this book: However unsettling the form of the episode was at the beginning, I internalized it somehow and found a way to read past the form, or maybe to embrace it. What had at first seemed an obstacle or a cutesy-pie trick turned into maybe a sort of prism through which to read the content of the episode.

Of course, Joyce switches modes on you every few dozen pages, so that once you’ve begun to learn how to read a given section, you have to start over and adapt to a new method of storytelling. Pynchon does something similar, though with less clear demarcation than Joyce provides. So Gaddis, for all that he may be considered antagonistic to his reader, is actually in some ways gentler  to his reader than these other difficult authors, requiring endurance more than malleability once you’ve settled in.

As you read on and on, the effect is pretty amazing. You learn to determine very quickly who’s speaking what unattributed line of dialogue and when you’ve moved from the school to the train station to the old Bast house. You begin to hear the voices intuitively more than to read and parse them, and a real world begins to emerge. It turns out that Gaddis had something similar to say about Wagner on page 111:

– Yes but that’s what you mean isn’t it, about creating an entirely different world when you write an opera, about asking the audience to suspend its belief in the . . .
— No not asking them making them, like that E flat chord that opens the Rhinegold goes on and on it goes on for a hundred and thirty-six bars until the idea that everything’s happening under water is more real than sitting in a hot plush seat with tight shoes on and . . .

If you’re having trouble getting used to Gaddis’s storytelling, stick it out a bit longer. The noise begins to make sense over time, and there’s reward aplenty.

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Chew on This

February 29, 2012 10 comments

I had an idea that I might try just straight-up asking questions about some things that I have questions about. Think of it as a front-pager’s-privileged version of a WTF. (Or, for the more traditionally inclined among us, a discussion question.) I even made up a fancy new tag for them, in the hope that they will in fact provoke conversation. So here’s one:

It seems to me that literature about World War II is qualitatively different from literature about World War I. I don’t say that as a judgment of merit, but as a position on the distinctive elements of each. Consider, for example, “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Im Westen nichts Neues versus Gravity’s Rainbow and Catch-22. It seems like there’s a transformation, from the one literature to the next, of straight-up horror to horror inflected with ironic, absurdist, or even nihilist laughter. But I don’t know that I feel well-enough informed to be able to call this a fact. On the understanding that this entire effect may just be an artifact of my specific reading experiences and lacks—in which case, please tell me so I can fill them in—why do you think this is? Was there a particular change in the ways of war that caused it (nuclear weaponry, maybe)? Is it a function of the time lag between the wars and their respective literatures? (If so, what kind of function?) Is it just a matter of changing literary fashions that happened to coincide with the passage of time between the wars? I’m all ears.

“Contemporary” Catechism

August 27, 2010 2 comments

The other day I read a diverting—if argumentationally (Joyce isn’t the only one who can make up words) lightweight—piece by Annie Dillard called “Contemporary Prose Styles,” in which Dillard plays Linnaeus and classifies “contemporary” prose styles (the article is as old as I am) as either “fancy” (or “fine”) or “plain.” She kind of claims that fancier styles are better suited to modernist projects, and that plainer styles are preferable to contemporary readers for their ostensive presentation of the world as it is rather than as a writer arranges it. Those both strike me as naive, or at least unreflective, positions, but Dillard doesn’t seem wholly attached to them anyway, since she goes on to say that basically all writers work somewhere in between the two poles. Which is fine by me, since I don’t even intend to criticize the piece (more); I bring it up for its relevance to our reading of Ulysses.

Dillard marshals Joyce as one of her exemplars of the fancier styles: “I think fine writing in fictional prose comes into its own only with the modernists: first with James, and with Proust, Faulkner, Beckett, Woolf, Kafka, and the lavish Joyce of the novels.” I think she’s right to mention Ulysses and Finnegans Wake—I assume those are “the novels”—as pyrotechnic displays of writing. In at least some respects, that seems to be the point of some of what we’ve been reading these past few weeks. Can we talk about “Oxen of the Sun”?

But what’s interesting to me is when Dillard turns her attention to the plainer styles. She gives a broad characterization that leaped to mind throughout my reading of “Ithaca”:

This prose is not an end in itself, but a means. It is, then, a useful prose. Each writer of course uses it in a different way. Borges uses it straightforwardly, and as invisibly as he can, to think, to handle bare ideas with control[.] … Robbe-Grillet uses it coldly and dryly, to alienate, to describe, and to lend his descriptions the illusion of scientific accuracy. His prose is a perceptual tool[.] … Hemingway uses it as a ten-foot pole, to distance himself from events; he also uses it as chopsticks, to handle strong emotions without, in theory, becoming sticky: “On the other hand his father had the finest pair of eyes he had ever seen and Nick had loved him very much and for a long time.” (At its worst, this flatness may be ludicrous. Hemingway once wrote, and discarded, the sentence, “Paris is a nice town.”)

Writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, Turgenev, Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Powell, and Wright Morris use this prose for many purposes: not only to control emotion, but also to build an imaginative world whose parts seem solidly actual and lighted, and to name the multiple aspects of experience one by one, with distance, and also with tenderness and respect.

This is “Ithaca.” For all its earthiness and democratic range of subject matter, Ulysses retains a peculiar fastidiousness about its characters’ emotions. (At least so far; I don’t remember whether “Penelope” blows this out of the water.) Maybe I’m just not catching what I’m reading—a definite possibility—but to my mind the book mostly lets its characters feel what they feel without, I don’t know, intruding too much. It gives us their thoughts verbatim, but most of the emotional weight is left to us to register on our own. As the final homecoming, the episode when Bloom at last returns to the privacy of hearth and bed, “Ithaca” is the pinnacle of this reserve.

The somewhat detached tone also accomplishes the other goals Dillard names at the end there, creating a fully realized portrait not just of Dublin in 1904 but of the entire universe and all its contingent particularities that make possible this day for this man in this city. Daryl covers many of the fields this episode brings into play; what I love is how comprehensively it establishes what is the case in this world. It runs up the scale to intergalactic space and down to the corresponding space within the atom. It discourses on both physical and metaphysical principles. And it sets a willed positivity against “the apathy of the stars” (17.2226). A few months ago, I went on about Moby-Dick being about everything; I think Ulysses is similarly encyclopedic, but with an entirely different effect. What we see in “Ithaca” is how a regular old day—nothing any more remarkable about it than about any other day—necessarily includes in it everything else that exists. Every moment is entirely conditioned by everything before it (and this is heading toward the kind of understanding of reality that science was also heading toward at the time of Ulysses; Heisenberg published his uncertainty principle in 1927), every day is the sum of all previous days.

And then we follow Bloom into sleep, with Darkinbad the Brightdayler, to recharge the everyman for his next everyday.

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VISITING RELATIVE OCCUPIES TIME, LIVING ROOM

August 8, 2010 2 comments

Howdy, Zombies! My mother (neither beastly nor dead) came ’round, and my time she flew by. But I’m honor-bound to make it all up, and while it would make sense to jump aboard where the boat is now, I feel I must backfill. That is, what I have to say on “Aeolus” and “Scylla and Charybdis” echoes forward, and I can’t hark back to what I haven’t said.

(I wasn’t kidding about how reading affects my writing.)

To begin, I admit I’m a sucker for scenes behind the scenes in publishing. It’s what I do, and it amuses me. So I enjoyed Bloom at work in “Aeolus,” and felt fondly for Nannetti in his reading closet. But I also think a place where texts are made is a fertile literary setting; events and meanings seem to bloom and multiply. (Paging Adso of Melk.) That’s certainly the case here in Ulysses—indeed, texts themselves start overgrowing their espaliers and covering the style we’ve learned how to read in the first six episodes.

Judd mentions David Hayman’s idea of the Arranger, which I’m not familiar with but sounds right on. Stipulating the Arranger’s existence, then (and the fact that I’m talking out of my hat; any ridiculousness here is my lookout, not Hayman’s), what I’m specifically sniffing after is the way It takes textual models and mashes them down onto the story of this day in Dublin, sometimes pressing so hard that the “original” material gets squeezed into some odd configurations to make room.

In “Aelous,” the arranging is largely a matter of editing and editorializing. It takes work to learn how to sort through Stephen’s and Bloom’s thoughts, and then just as we’ve had three episodes of each to grow accustomed to their styles, Bloom’s newspaper suddenly grabs hold and starts to run away with the book. It’s funny, for sure (“K. M. R. I. A.”), but the heds also create this peculiar space between the narrative and itself, so that what had seemed disorienting but still reasonably straightforward is now doubled and deeply suspicious. The prose that had perhaps pretended to psychological transparency is now making hay of its printedness (and the Arranger is making fun of the characters, at least some of the time). Most striking, I think, is that the arranging here doesn’t clarify anything. Whatever the Arranger’s goals, they do not appear to include simplifying. Instead, It unfolds a whole new broadsheet of meanings and structures between us and what we had taken to be the pages we were reading.

Outside of maybe the Dickensianly vigorous grotesquerie of all the eating, my hobbyhorse here hops right across “Lestrygonians,” but it strikes down hard in the Strait of Messina where dwell “Scylla and Charybdis.” We lay our scene in a library—a book hoard!—and people it with very many texts: Wilhelm Meister, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, Lovesongs of Connacht, King Lear, and so on, plus all the songs and snippets I won’t look up because one of the Ulysses guidebook writers must already have done. Stephen performs an absorbing (if, in my eyes, wrongheaded) demonstration of the biographical fallacy to prove that Shakespeare was in fact one of his own characters; he even hauls in Will’s will’s second-best bed. The Arranger grows impatient with him, and lets Its attention wander: First It reproduces a snippet of notated Gregorian chant, then at line 684 It takes short inspiration from the Shakespearean subject and versifies the matter. Ideas appear to flit across the Arranger’s awareness, sometimes momentarily sticking together to produce name changes like “Mr. Secondbest Best,” “Eglintonus Chronolologos,” and “Sonmulligan.” (Quick leafing shows only “Puck Mulligan” repeated.) It goes all in, formatting just over a page as a play, gives up again, and finally ends with (almost) the end of Cymbeline.

I know I said the Arranger isn’t interested in clarity, but it’s notable that It isn’t blotting out the story It’s interfering with. There’s enough left recognizable that we can even in some sense distinguish what it might have been like “before” the Arranger got Its mitts on. (I know this is a fraught way of thinking.) Post hoc, it seems inevitable that a newspaper office and a library would inspire such shenanigans, but I think that’s only because we begin to discern the Arranger’s concerns through the bizarre palimpsests It makes of these episodes. Now of course we ask the questions that all start with “why,” but I shall take the Arranger’s own authority and defer: Sufficient for the day is the post therof.

Straw Poll

I started reading next week’s assignment last night and found myself coming back again and again to the question of why we read the super-hard books like Ulysses. I had Gaddis’s JR in mind as well, thanks to some comments on my post of yesterday about composition (and some notes I took for next week’s reading about mechanization, which was a concern of Gaddis’s). Both books proved challenges for me to get into. Gaddis’s book I actually made it through on my first attempt, but it took me about 1/3 of the book’s (long) length to figure out how to orient myself within the text. It’s the kind of book you have to learn to read as you’re reading it. I think Ulysses is the same sort of book, and I find that (so far) I’m having an easier time the further in I get. I’m getting oriented at last. (Which doesn’t mean I necessarily like what I’m reading, though episode ten is probably my favorite so far.) But back to my question.

Why do we read these things? I understand why we read something like Moby-Dick. For all its bad rap, it is not an especially difficult book. It’s ambitious and encyclopedic, sure, but the act of reading it isn’t terribly challenging. It is written in a familiar mode according (mostly) to rules and boundaries that make it simple enough to follow. If Moby-Dick is a hard book, it is hard by virtue of its content rather than of its form. Ulysses and JR are hard by virtue of their form more than their content (though they’re also so full of everything in more concrete ways than the way in which Moby-Dick is full of everything in the sort of philosophical abstract). Reading these books is like trying to pat your tummy and rub your head at the same time (without the sustained giggling).

So why do it? My theory is that writerly types are the most interested in these books. Maybe that’s true of most books, but I suspect it’s true more of these really technically hard books than of others. We read them to crack them open and try to understand why what works in them works (and why what doesn’t doesn’t). That theory is the basis of the straw poll I advertise in this post’s title.

Do you have an abortive novel stuck in a drawer somewhere, some poems on an editor’s desk awaiting a rejection slip? Do you count yourself a writerly type or more a readerly type? Is it a meaningful difference? Do you think that writerly types are likely to be more drawn to these really formally hard books than other readers are?

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And the Stream of Consciousness Rolls Ever On

July 18, 2010 5 comments

All right, so I know that in 1922 the stream of consciousness was the very Rubicon that marked the border with the future of literature; but lo these 88 years later, we’re reasonably familiar with the trick. I have a well-loved Mrs Dalloway in one of my boxes of books, and we most of us had to read The Sound and the Fury in high school, or repeatedly for pleasure, right? (And let’s not forget Ken Erdedy and Clenette Henderson.) It’s not a new game. But I’m surprised at how disorienting it is in Ulysses. I may just be rusty, but Joyce’s use of the technique—especially in “Proteus,” although of course that’s no accident—is more thorough and defamiliarizing than I expected.

I caught the switch between third person and first person that Judd notes, so it’s mostly clear when we’re dealing with “the narrator” and when we’re reading a character’s mind. What trips me up sometimes is the comprehensiveness of the stream-of-consciousness bits: In the same way that your thoughts to yourself generally don’t actually narrate your situation and actions, but only your impressions of them, conscious reactions to them, and mental processes that merely happen to take place among them, Stephen doesn’t tell us what he’s doing, only what he’s thinking about as he does it. This makes it difficult sometimes to keep up with the stage business of the story. Among other things, I think this is what makes “Proteus” such a challenge on the first try. Stephen is so wrapped up in his own head that he only notices some of what occurs around him, and what “the narrator” doesn’t explain for us, we often have to riddle out. For instance (to backtrack to “Telemachus”), that seal’s head is Malachi Mulligan, plump double dactyl, ’s, right? Instead of an actual seal’s, I mean.

Then again, it’s Stephen’s imagination and rambling associativeness that drives the most beautiful passages in the first three episodes. His memories that never happened of the milkwoman (1.397ff.) and of Mrs. Sargent’s mother-love (2.139ff.) are magical bits of imaginative creation, and the water-songs (1.242ff., 3.55ff., and 3.456ff.) are gorgeous poetry. I think the most impressive stretch of these first 40-ish pages is Stephen’s remembered dream of his mother at 1.102ff. For sheer psychological condensation, it rivals “My mother is a fish.”

The Ulysses “Seen” page for this passage does a fine job of showing the horror that Stephen attaches to the details of his dream’s dead mother—the smells, the physical wasting, the breath coming out of her mouth. The text then begins a remarkable layering process that demonstrates how overdetermined Stephen’s thoughts are, how everything reminds him of other things. He’s looking at his cuff, and remembers (among other things) his mother’s graveclothes; then, as he thinks of the “wetted ashes” smell of his mother’s breath, he sees beyond his cuff the sea, which Buck, quoting Swinburne, has called a mother. (Wetted ashes and the water and horrid breath congeal again at 3.150: “Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath, a pocket of seaweed smouldered in seafire under a midden of man’s ashes.”) “Clothes” and “wet” and “mother” lead from his own mother to the sea, where the bay is the edge of a bowl holding a “dull green mass of liquid” just like the white china bowl his mother hacked her bile into on her deathbed, and then “Buck Mulligan wiped again his razorblade,” which reactivates the bowl association to include the first sentence of the book, in which Buck’s shaving bowl parodies a solemn religious accoutrement (I don’t know Catholicism well enough to say which one) so that we remember again what we learned 15 lines ago, that Stephen refused to pray for his own dying mother.

As densely associative as this passage is—and I’m sure I’ve missed some of the connections; at the very least, I suspect there’s something in it of Stephen’s penury (the edge of his cuff is both “fraying” and “threadbare”) and of the contrast between Buck’s “wellfed” voice and the mother’s “loud groaning vomiting”—that’s how Stephen’s mind works. It’s a foretaste of the “Proteus” to come, in miniature and with context, to demonstrate how far we’re going to roam in this book from what we’re accustomed to. Yet it will seem familiar all the same, once we can learn the motions of it, because its abandonment of traditional technique is in the service of a psychological realism in which we can recognize some of the ways our minds work.

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The Two Moby-Dicks

In my preparation for this group read, I ran across a number of references to an article entitled “The Two Moby-Dicks.” I have myself mentioned a couple of times in comments that some have proposed multiple modes of composition for Moby-Dick. Only this weekend did I get a chance to sit down and read the whole article (written by George Stewart of UC Berkeley and published in American Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4, Jan. 1954). Stewart posits that there’s an unmissable contrast between the first fifteen or so chapters of Moby-Dick and the rest, and he seeks to investigate by internal evidence (ie, the text itself rather than evidence from what few revelatory letters and other documents exist external to the text) what this unmissable contrast may mean.

I won’t say that I had missed the contrast, but I had surely never articulated it. Looking back on what we’ve read so far, though, it is a pretty stark contrast. The first few chapters have Ishmael and his particular adventures at their heart. We hear his stupid chowder jokes, his weird memory of being punished as a child, a detailed account of his misadventure turned bosom friendship bedding with a cannibal, and so on. But as we make our way deeper into the text, Ishmael becomes more a mouthpiece than a central character. He becomes omniscient, telling us things that the Ishmael of the first few chapters wouldn’t have been able to know. In the first lowering, he seems to be in first one whale boat and then another, so detailed and intimate are the accounts he gives of what the mates are saying. Stewart provides 20 or 25 pages of internal evidence for multiple modes of composition, and many of his arguments are convincing. He suggests that the book be divided into three sections, delineated as follows:

  1. Chapters I – XV. These represent an original story, very slightly revised.
  2. Chapters XVI – XXII. These chapters represent the original story with a certain amount of highly important revision.
  3. Chapters. XXIII – Epilogue. These represent the story as it was written after Melville reconceived it, but may preserve certain passages of the original story, doubtless somewhat revised.

In considering a shift in style as an indicator of the composition shift, Stewart provides a partial answer to one of my questions about ornamentation seemingly for its own sake (“UMD” stands for Ur-Moby-Dick, or the first fifteen chapters; “MD” is section 3 described above):

In style of writing there are great differences between UMD and MD. UMD is plain, even prosy and colloquial. It contains such dialectal expressions as “says I,” “says he,” and “thinks I.” Moreover, these occur not in conversation, but in the narrative itself. These colloquialisms are not characteristic of MD, and are, in fact, wholly lacking, as far as I have observed. In addition, UMD differs from MD by lacking almost entirely the elements of the conventional poetic style of the nineteenth century, ie., the use of thou with the corresponding pronominal and verbal forms, and the use of such devices as apostrophe, personification, and figurative language in general, including the Homeric simile.

He goes on to suggest that though Melville sought in the beginning to provide an account of a shabby whaling voyage, he ultimately needed to amp things up a bit and transform the narrative from a shabby account to something epic. The formal devices Stewart lists above go some of the way toward doing that. So too do the chapters on cetology (Stewart notes that two of these occur near the opening of the third section he enumerates), which give the book more the feeling of a great inquiry than of a simple travelogue. The extracts (I posit) probably contribute to the epic tone as well.

Stewart and others have pointed to a number of details — among them various sudden disappearances and appearances and doublings — that seem to indicate that Melville may have intended to take the story in one direction and wound up taking it in another, with rather shoddy patchwork editing to bind the two stories together. This may also account for some of the problems of narration in the book. Perhaps Melville wasn’t a visionary willfully writing an unreliable narrator but was merely trying to salvage what he could of an original story while finishing his book in a grander mode than originally planned.

The ramifications of the shift with respect to who the hero of the book turns out to be are pretty interesting, and thinking about these ramifications takes me back to Matt Bucher’s post from week one, in which he wrote the following:

Who is the main character of Moby-Dick? Is it Ishmael, Ahab, or the whale? How is Melville playing upon traditional ideas of the hero or the hero’s quest (the odyssey) by having Ishmael appear to be a passive observer throughout much of the book?

Now that we’re well over halfway into the book, I wonder what people would answer to Matt’s question (and I hope I’m not running away here with something Matt had planned to follow up on). I also wonder what people might think (without spoilers) about who the hero of the book might have been, if it turns out (as Stewart suggests) not to have been one of the suspects Matt proposes.

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