Jude gets a reprieve
Today is August 31st, the ostensible end date of my annual three-month reading exercise, Summer of Classics. As I mentioned earlier, I had been frustrated with the sluggish pace of Jude the Obscure and strongly considered abandoning the book after today, even if I hadn't finished it. However, my interest in the book has revived considerably this week, and I've decided to keep reading. (Still no guarantee that I'll finish it, though; I continue to reserve the right to abandon it.) Jude and Sue have finally taken a decisive step, and I'll be interested to see whether or not they can keep their relationship from falling apart. Either way - triumph or trainwreck - I'll be eagerly looking on.
Regarding my earlier puzzlement, I now understand the public outcry that ensued upon the book's 1895 publication. The presence of so many people forsaking their marriage vows (with one instance of outright bigamy) understandably shocked the Victorians. But I'm even more shocked by the unexpected humanity and selfless sacrifice of Phillotson, Sue's erstwhile husband. He concluded a very pivotal chapter with a touching utterance ("To adorn her in somebody's eyes; never again in mine!") which, should this happen to be his final appearance in the book, would make a very memorable sendoff for the character. I've really grown to like the old schoolmaster. (Or "old" - Sue thinks of him as such, though he's my age. And of course I'm still young.)
Ah, shit. Didn't work. And he messed up the bottom corners. Tries to remember what he did, to do it in reverse. Right, right, up. Left? No, right...It's like his life - you think you're planning things out, you think you've created order. But chaos creeps in, doesn't it. There's no keeping it at bay.
Cosmos, Rubik's Cube and a windowless transport. Not quite Saddam's rathole, though not much better.
Sunday in the park with Maddie
The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers
You may have noted my repeated references to The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. I've been reading it casually (generally, one interview per week) ever since Julie grabbed it for me at a garage sale, and then posting excerpts on Sunday. I've really enjoyed the book so far, which is somewhat surprising considering how few of the included writers that I've read. I plan to read the entire thing, and post an excerpt from each interview.
If you like tidy indexes as much as I do, please note my postings so far:
Grace Paley: "You have to have two stories to have a story."
Edward P. Jones: "...only one reader in mind..."
Ian McEwan: "...just generate the same feeling in the reader that this writer generated in me..."
Tobias Wolff: "But I know I have to push through."
According to Hoyle
Writers Almanac notes that today is the death date (1769) of Edmond Hoyle, the authority on rules of card games. (If you've ever heard the phrase "according to Hoyle", that's in reference to him.) He was particularly renowned for his volume on the rules of whist, a predecessor of our modern-day bridge. I love this quoted passage from Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, when a gentleman comes home unannounced and catches his servants making themselves a bit too comfortable.
I happened to come home several hours before my usual time, when I found four gentlemen of the cloth at whist by my fire — and my Hoyle, sir — my best Hoyle, which cost me a guinea, lying open on the table, with a quantity of porter spilt on one of the most material leaves of the whole book. This, you will allow, was provoking; but I said nothing till the rest of the honest company were gone, and then gave the fellow a gentle rebuke, who, instead of expressing any concern, made me a pert answer, 'That servants must have their diversions as well as other people; that he was sorry for the accident which had happened to the book, but that several of his acquaintance had bought the same for a shilling, and that I might stop as much in his wages, if I pleased.'
Porter was generally considered a working-class drink back then, its spillage on the gentleman's beloved Hoyle clearly doubling the effrontery.
"You have to have two stories to have a story."
In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Grace Paley talks (with Nell Freudenberger) about her short story "Somewhere Else", which is set in both China and the Bronx:
You know - the thing is this: if I just wrote about China, it would be a report, more or less. You have to have two stories to have a story. That's what I've been teaching my classes. You need two stories, at least. And for a novel, of course, you probably need more. I couldn't find the other story. I mean, I wasn't conscious of this; my idea that you need two stories came long after I wrote everything. I said, "Oh, that's what I was doing."
I had never thought of story-writing that way, but it makes perfect sense. You do need two stories to make a story; otherwise, it's just a sketch (or, in Paley's words, a report). Unless you have conflict, you don't really have a story. It doesn't have to be two parallel story lines with separate protagonists that ultimately collide; instead, it can be two aspects of a single protagonist: past versus present, internal versus external, work life versus family life.
Thinking about the story collection I'm working on right now (working title: Marshland), I can already recognize that the stronger stories are indeed comprised of two stories, and that the weaker ones may have an interesting premise but are flat because the conflict (those two stories) is absent.
"We Who Are About To Breed"
The group blog We Who Are About To Die has graciously published my guest post, in which I share my thoughts on the intersection of writing and parenting. My sincere thanks to Patrick Wensink for the opportunity.
"But I don't want anything more than I've had."
The following passage illustrates what's so tantalizingly good, but also so infuriatingly wrong about Jude the Obscure. Jude has suddenly encountered his estranged wife Arabella, who is now working as a barmaid in Christminster.
"What shall I treat you to this afternoon? A Scotch and soda? Come, anything that the house will afford, for old acquaintance' sake!"
"Thanks, Arabella," said Jude without a smile. "But I don't want anything more than I've had." The fact was that her unexpected presence there had destroyed at a stroke his momentary taste for strong liquor as completely as if it had whisked him back to his milk-fed infancy.
Jude's line of dialogue is perfect: first, "without a smile" is an odd but telling clause, its negative tone clearly showing Jude's complete lack of enthusiasm over seeing Arabella again; and second, "But I don't want anything more than I've had" has a subtle double meaning, specifically that he doesn't want any more to drink but also, implicitly, that he doesn't want any more of their relationship. A modern or more economical writer would have simply left it at that, ending the paragraph at the end-quote. That line says everything that needs to be said.
But Hardy doesn't end it there. Instead he goes on to redundantly elaborate on what he just finished telling us. As if he doesn't have enough faith in readers to figure it out for themselves. It's just this sort of overwritten excess that prevents this very interesting story from being a great novel.
The cover copy of my edition of Jude the Obscure says that the book was so controversial and shocking in its day that it created a virulent public backlash which ended Hardy's career as a novelist. But even through the filter of conservative Victorian mores I'm having a very hard time figuring out what's so controversial and shocking about it. One reason I'm continuing to read this less-than-satisfying book is the hope that I'll finally discover what all the 1895 hubbub was about. But I'm strongly considering setting the book aside for good, even though I'll be far from finishing it, on August 31st as the Summer of Classics formally comes to an end. Hardy's going to have to suddenly wow me, and very soon, for me to see this one through to the end.
"...only one reader in mind..."
In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Edward P. Jones (in conversation with ZZ Packer) has these thoughts about writing (or not writing) to an audience.
A writer can't sit down and think about what everyone else is going to think - I never thought what someone in Jackson, Mississippi, might think, or someone in Oakland, California. When I sat down to write The Known World, I had only one reader in mind: myself. I was trying to make it as good as I possibly could. So it's best not to sit down and anticipate the reaction down the line. You have to just tell the truth as you know it.
Contrary Magazine editor (and online friend) Jeff McMahon has graciously invited me to become a regular contributor at that magazine's blog. I gladly accepted, and my first post (about what I've learned during my annual Summer of Classics) is up there now. I'll be posting every week or two (or three) about anything literary that comes to mind. Looking forward to joining the conversation over there.
Happy birthday, you old dog... woman... baboon... eh, whatever the hell you are...
Chicago's famous (/infamous) Picasso statue was unveiled on this date in 1967. I was too young to remember the event, but fortunately Chicago's bard Mike Royko was there, and his resulting Chicago Daily News column is one of my favorite of his.
They had wanted to be moved by it. They wouldn't have stood there if they didn't want to believe what they had been told that it would be a fine thing.
But anyone who didn't have a closed mind - which means thinking that anything with the name Picasso connected must be wonderful - could see that it was nothing but a big, homely metal thing.
That is all there is to it. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I'm sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.
But why not? Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago. And from thousands of miles away, accidentally or on purpose, Picasso captured it.
I've never heard what Nelson Algren thought of the Picasso, but at least in terms of what the statue represented about Chicago, I'm sure he must have agreed with Royko. Those final paragraphs of Royko's piece really echo Algren.
"Independence from syntax and spelling and attention to design and detail don’t strike me as freedoms worth fighting for."
At The Next Best Book Blog, Steve Himmer (whose novel The Bee-Loud Glade is high on my watch list) has a long and thoughtful essay on what it means to be an indie writer. To me, being indie has nothing to do with who your publisher is or how your book is delivered to the reading public. Instead, being indie is writing what you want to write and staying true to yourself. And each is equally possible whether you publish with Random House, Graywolf or Lulu.com. Or equally impossible.
"...just generate the same feeling in the reader that this writer generated in me..."
In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Ian McEwan professes great admiration for Philip Roth and John Updike. He has this interesting take on how the two writers influence him:
But it's about reading something while you're working and your heart is just longing for your project, and the joy of reading this book by someone else is actually what makes you turn up at the desk next day in the broader sense, you see. If I can just generate the same feeling in the reader that this writer generated in me then I'll have succeeded. And that is probably the biggest influence.
I love the idea of striving to make the reader feel as moved as some other writer made that writer feel. Almost like paying forward the gift of literature. To me that's much better than a writer simply aping his hero's work.
Ernest Lawrence Thayer
Today is the birthday of Ernest Lawrence Thayer, born in 1863. He was a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner for just a few years, but immortalized himself with one of his final pieces, "Casey at the Bat". I was infatuated with the poem as a child and could recite it from memory at age eight, and can still recite most of it now. One of my first short stories, "Mighty Casey" (published at Zisk Magazine in 2006) retells the Casey story from the perspective of the long-suffering owner of the Mudville Nine. Thank you, Mr. Thayer, for years of joy and inspiration.
"Corporations are people, my friend."
When politicans spew ludicrous comments like this, do they truly believe them? Or are they just pandering to their overlords?
Campaigning in Iowa on Thursday, Mitt Romney told a heckler, “Corporations are people, my friend”—words immediately seized upon by Democrats in what they termed as a possible defining statement by the presidential candidate.
Romney, speaking to a crowd of hundreds at the Iowa State Fair, was being pressed about raising taxes to help cover entitlement spending. When one mentioned raising corporate tax rates, Romney responded by saying corporations were no different than people. The line earned him a sustained round of applause from the crowd.
No mention there of whether or not it was a crowd of CEOs. Just for the record, Mitt: people are people, but corporations are nothing more than artificial legal constructs. What a frigging tool this guy is.
"How much you know!"
I love the subtle humor of this passage from Jude the Obscure. Jude and Arabella are at a country inn, waiting and waiting for the tea they ordered, the innkeeper apparently being more accustomed to serving booze instead of going to all the trouble of making tea.
It began to grow dusk. They could not wait longer, really, for the tea, they said. "Yet what else can we do?" asked Jude. "It is a three-mile walk for you."
"I suppose we can have some beer," said Arabella.
"Beer, oh yes. I had forgotten that. Somehow it seems odd to come to a public-house for beer on a Sunday evening."
"But we didn't."
"No, we didn't." Jude by this time wished he was out of such an uncongenial atmosphere; but he ordered the beer, which was promptly brought.
Arabella tasted it. "Ugh!" she said.
Jude tasted. "What's the matter with it?" he asked. "I don't understand beer very much now, it is true. I like it well enough, but it is bad to read on, and I find coffee better. But this seems all right."
"Adulterated -- I can't touch it!" She mentioned three or four ingredients that she detected in the liquor beyond malt and hops, much to Jude's surprise.
"How much you know!" he said good-humouredly.
Nevertheless she returned to the beer and drank her share, and they went on their way.
Jude seems clueless here with how innocent he presumes Arabella to be, which is somewhat inconsistent with his earlier assessment of her ("It had been no vestal who chose that missile for opening her attack on him", the missile being a pig penis she threw at him when they first met). Then again, during the period between the vestal comment and the country inn scene, he becomes totally infatuated with her, so maybe by then he was no longer thinking clearly. Or thinking with the wrong part of his body, if you get my drift.
"But I know I have to push through."
"Everything I've written, including this book, has seemed to me, at point or another, something I probably ought to abandon. Even the best things I've written have seemed to me at some point very unlikely to be worth the effort I had already put into them. But I know I have to push through. Sometimes when I get to the other end it still won't be that great, but at least I will have finished it. For me, it's more important to keep the discipline of finishing things than to be assured at every moment that it's worth doing."
- Tobias Wolff
That great quote is from The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, which Julie picked up for me at garage sale for seventy-five cents. (And also the Nick Hornby-edited story anthology Speaking With the Angel, for the same price.) Based on the list of authors she rattled off to me over the phone, it had to be the most hipster garage sale Joliet has ever had. Obviously I hardly need another book, but I enjoyed the Wolff-Julie Orringer interview, and am reading the Ian McEwan-Zadie Smith one right now. Good stuff.
This is a pretty significant day in comic strip history. Writers Almanac notes that both "Little Orphan Annie" (1924) and "Andy Capp" (1957) debuted on this date. There's a fascinating political angle to "Annie" that I wasn't aware of:
(Harold) Gray's wealth drew criticism during the Great Depression, when he used the strip to voice his populist political beliefs: namely, that the poor ought to pull themselves up by the bootstraps without government intervention or assistance. This is how his character Daddy Warbucks, the tuxedoed war profiteer, had succeeded, transforming his modest machine shop into a World War I munitions factory. Gray expressed his distaste for FDR and his New Deal in the strip's storylines, prompting one left-leaning writer to label it "Hooverism in the funnies." The public didn't seem to care — in 1937, "Little Orphan Annie" was the most popular comic in the country.
Forty years later, when the playwright Thomas Meehan adapted the strip for the 1977 Broadway musical, Annie, he subverted Gray's original politics. The updated Annie stumbles upon a "Hooverville" of homeless people who sing the ironic "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," and she is later saved from greedy imposter parents and the evil orphanage supervisor by FDR himself. The play — and the 1982 film — ends with a rousing chorus of the song "A New Deal for Christmas," celebrating the economic plan that the strip's creator had so despised.
I grew up reading "Andy Capp" in the Sunday Chicago Tribune, but will always remember it best from a reference in The Simpsons, when Homer, while reading the funnies, chuckles and fondly mutters, "Ah, Andy Capp, you wife-beating drunk!"
"The vague city became veiled in mist."
A telling passage from Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, during which the protagonist first sees his shining city on the hill:
Perhaps if he prayed, the wish to see Christminster might be forwarded. People said that, if you prayed, things sometimes came to you, even though they sometimes did not...turning on the ladder Jude knelt on the third rung, where, resting against those above it, he prayed that the mist might rise.
He then seated himself again, and waited. In the course of ten or fifteen minutes the thinning mist dissolved altogether from the northern horizon, as it had already done elsewhere, and about a quarter of an hour before the time of sunset the westward clouds parted, the sun's position being partially uncovered, and the beams streaming out in visible lines between two bars of slaty cloud. The boy immediately looked back in the old direction.
Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.
The spectator gazed on and on till the windows and vanes lost their shine, going out almost suddenly like extinguished candles. The vague city became veiled in mist. Turning to the west, he saw that the sun had disappeared. The foreground of the scene had grown funereally dark, and near objects put on the hues and shapes of chimaeras.
Though the opening premise is similar to Great Expectations - orphaned boy who lives in a backwater with an indifferent relative and looks out at the greater world with vague ambitions - I'm already enjoying this more than Dickens. Hardy seems much more concise and focused in his narrative.
"The CCLaP Quadruple Book Release Party and Performance Extravaganza"
Be alerted, Chicago literati! The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography is hosting a big bash next week (Wednesday, August 10) to celebrate the release of the handmade paper editions of four books previously published by CCLaP as e-books, by Ben Tanzer (his great 99 Problems), Sally Weigel, Jason Fisk and Mark Brand. The party is at Beauty Bar in Noble Square, where each author will read from their work. (And CCLaP also adds a tease about special guests - I have no inside dirt there, sorry.) Should be a very memorable evening. Not sure yet if I'll be able to attend - weeknight events in the city are a stretch for this suburban dad - but if you have the chance I highly recommend it.
I'll readily admit knowing nothing until just now about Stan Barstow, who has passed away at age 83. From reading the obit, I see he was one of Britain's acclaimed working class writers from the post-WWII era. Alan Sillitoe is probably the best known of this group (I read his Saturday Night and Sunday Morning last year, but unfortunately it was right after Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, which I loved - the two books blended together in my mind, to Sillitoe's detriment) but what strikes me about Barstow is his loyalty to his northern roots as he stayed close to home while many of his peers headed for the bright lights of London:
"...to hoe one's own row diligently, thus seeking out the universal in the particular, brings more worthwhile satisfaction than the frantic pursuit of a largely phony jet-age internationalism".
Being a second-city type myself, I have a lot of respect for that attitude. I will definitely add A Kind of Loving to my to-read list. I'll even put it near the top, lest it otherwise get lost in the shuffle.
The really mind-boggling thing about the budget mess is that the debate could be this acrimonious without any of the final proposals including even a tiny increase in taxes. Can you imagine if the Dems had really pushed for more taxes to reduce the deficit or - heaven forbid that we have an equitable tax code - a reapportionment of tax revenues that requires the upper class and corporations to finally pay their fair share? Washington might have physically imploded from GOP fury, leaving nothing but a smoking crater.
(If this sounds like an offhanded comment more appropriate to a Facebook status update, that's exactly what it is. But Facebook won't take a status update that's as long as this, so I posted it here instead.)