Readings

Fiction: 2009 and Earlier
Archives
Books by John R. Turner
Click on the Cover
More Cheap Reading
June 27, 2009

I'm almost shy to admit it, but I have read another schlocky novel with a Jane Austen theme. This one I plucked off the remainder table at Barnes and Noble in Burlington. The author is Shannon Hale and the title, Austenland.

The notion behind this tale is that there are legions of rich women who dream of Austen-like romance. So an enterprise in England has been set up to give them what they want. At a secluded country house, everything has been taken -- as near as possible -- back to 1810, or so. And a cast of actors, in the guise of visiting guests, has been supplied to carry out parts which vaguely resemble Jane Austen's characters.

The holiday lasts three weeks, and everyone agrees to stay in character the whole time -- an agreement which proves somewhat difficult to honor. How much it costs to participate in this charade is never precisely revealed, but the implication is clear: a vast amount.

The heroine of this story is not a typical client. First of all, she's not rich enough to pay for the experience herself. It has been willed to her by a recently departed great-aunt. Second, she's doubtful about the whole business, but decides to do it as a kind of wacky experiment. The plot, of course, deals with what happens to her during her twenty-one days at Pembroke Hall.

Her name, believe it or not, is Jane and her story turns out to be lackluster, though that, obviously, is not the intent. Ms. Hale is, technically, a more accomplished writer than Sally Smith O'Rourke, whose The Man Who Loved Jane Austen I mentioned here last week. Yet, Ms. O'Rourke managed to create a certain bumbling zest whereas Ms. Hale gives us no zest at all.

One assumes, after the first chapter of Austenland, that the pursuit of fake romance will, somehow evolve into the real thing. And that's exactly what happens. The Mr. Darcy character, who has been playing the role for four years and is getting fed up with it, actually falls in love with Jane and decides to chase her back to New York, where, we are to presume, they will live happily ever after.

Yet, satisfying as the outcome is supposed to be, I could take no pleasure from it. Jane never struck me as a genuine person, so I couldn't discern what it was about her that would cause Mr. Darcy to shed his 19th Century role

In these books, if they're to offer anything, there needs to be something that genuinely reminds you of Jane Austen. And I found nothing of that stripe in this one.


The Lure of Story
June 17, 2009

At the Montpelier Library sale I bought an uncorrected proof copy of Sally Smith O'Rourke's tale titled The Man Who Loved Jane Austen.  Jane Austen seems to have inspired more post-fiction -- that is novels making use of her biography or her characters -- than any other English writer. I have occasionally tried to sample some of this vast production and generally found it unreadable.

I should have found Ms. O'Rourke's novel unreadable also. It's poorly written with wooden characters and a plot more fantastic than anything I've seen on TV lately. But for some reason, I found it diverting and read it right through.

Now, I'm sitting here wondering why? The only reason I can find is that if, for reasons of mood or personal situation, you give yourself to a story -- most any story -- it will catch you up.

Some of the reader reviews on Amazon are scathing -- proclamations that it is the trashiest, most vacuous book ever produced. I suspect people who say so are merely bragging about their literary taste. Much so-called avidity for literature is simply a mode of egotism, a way of asserting one's superiority to the vulgar mob. And if people get pleasure from that, I don't suppose there's a great deal of harm in it.

This story involves a rich Virginia horse breeder named Fitzwilliam Darcy who goes to England to bid on a magnificent stallion at an auction. He manages to win out over an Arab prince, and that night, at a friend's estate near the auction, gets terrifically drunk in celebration. The next morning he wakes early with a hangover, and decides to clear his head by taking his new possession for a run. Recklessly, he chooses to leap a low stone gate at the edge of a field, hits rough ground on the other side, is thrown from the horse and hits his head against a wall.

When he wakes, it is 1810, and not only that, he is near Chawton and being looked after by two of Edward Austen-Knight's servants, who take him to Chawton Cottage as the nearest place where he can get care.

So you get the point. Amazingly silly, right?

Still, I wanted to see what happened. I wanted to find out how Mr. Darcy's brief life in Chawton -- only eight days -- could be woven together with his normal life in current America. And, so, as I said, I read right through.

Since this is not really a confession, you can judge me as you will. I don't mind. And I don't mind saying, even, that, to some degree, I enjoyed the tale.


Fleet Prison
January 23, 2009

Readers of Dickens know that of all the institutions he despised -- and he despised many -- debtors' prisons were at the top of the list. That's doubtless because his father was incarcerated in Marshalsea Prison when Dickens was a small boy. In addition to his personal grievance, though, Dickens hated the illogic of the practice. Men were locked up for years because they owed money, thus taking away the possibility of earning money to pay their debts.

Mr. Pickwick, of course, was thrown into Fleet Prison for a time because he refused to pay a judgment against him rising from Mrs. Bardell's suit for breach of promise. Knowing the charge was false, Pickwick, out of a dogged sense of justice, chose to languish in prison rather than pay a penny to reward a false accusation.

Debtors' prisons in 19th century England were curious operations. Prisoners of means -- of whom there were few, of course -- could buy many of the conveniences of life and live somewhat comfortably even though they were in degraded surroundings. But those who had nothing, had to subsist on charity, and existed in crowded, miserable, filthy conditions. Some became so malnourished they perished.

The descriptions of the Fleet in Pickwick make up a chronicle of complete, cruel corruption. It may seem out of order to include such dark episodes in a comic novel, but that was one of Dickens inveterate habits. He knew that even the jolliest episodes of life take place in the vicinity of horror, and he wanted his readers to recall that truth every day. It's not a comfortable mental habit but, clearly, it's the duty of honorable men and women. That so few practice it shows us how far we are from civilization. In the United States now, for example, it's what lets most of the population remain complacent about our hideously over-gorged prison system.

In Great Britain, the Debtors' Act of 1869 finally abolished imprisonment for debt. That was forty-one years after Mr. Pickwick's fictional captivity. It's fairly clear that Dickens's writings had something to do with that reform, which is not the least of the reasons we should respect him now.


Pickwick, etc.
January 22, 2009

It came into my head to make 2009 the year in which I would read all of Charles Dickens's novels again. I'm not sure how long it has been since I read some of them, perhaps more than twenty years. In any case, this time I have resolved to start with The Pickwick Papers and go right through.

So far I have been poking along at the rate of two or three chapters a day and at the moment am about two-thirds of the way through that first rollicking tale, which was completed in 1837, when Dickens was twenty-five years old. That, in itself is an amazement -- twenty-five years old! And he turned out this huge compilation that adds up to about three hundred thousand words.

I loved Pickwick when I first read it and, now, naturally enough, I love it even more. I don't know if my sense of humor has got more acute than when I was younger but I'm pretty sure I laugh out loud more often now than I did when I first worked my way through it. Something else, though, has also changed.

The obvious things are still there to delight, such as Mr. Magnus's deep observation that company is a very different thing from solitude. Or the magnificent concerns of the Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebernezer Temperance Association. Or Mr. Tony Weller's having "heerd how many ordinary women one widder's equal to in pint o' comin' over you (the number, which I can't be bothered to look up right now is either twenty-four or twenty-five).

Those things draw my attention as they did decades ago. Yet, underneath them is something even more compelling, a dark substratum of human misery and folly that washed past me before with my scarcely noticing it.

The courtroom scene, on the day Mr. Pickwick attempted to defend himself against Mrs. Bardell's charge of breach of promise, is about as funny as anything in literature. But it's also a scathing indictment of the legal system, which remains as pertinent now as it was then. The totality of human misery produced by the practices of lawyers like Serjeant Buzfuz could never be summed up by even the most capacious human heart. Dickens detested the process of drawing people into the hands of the law, and I've never read anyone who makes that disgust more palpable.

What he does for the law, he does also for greed, and poverty, and skinflint harshness, and domestic tyranny, and idiotic recklessness and just about any other element of human folly. It's all there, right from the start in Pickwick.

We misread if we see only the jokes, and the fellowship, and the blazing firesides, and the tables groaning with eatables. They are so cozy, so cheery, because of the black background that's always present to remind us what cross-grained creatures we humans are. This was seen and laid out by a young man scarcely grown past boyhood. And, here I am with virtually all of his efforts still in front of me in this rapidly devolving year.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

A friend recently began to read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. He had heard it was one of the greatest novels in English but as he got into it he was disappointed. It was all about shallow, frivolous people, he said. I've heard others make the same criticism. How can one care about the affairs of people who are so caught up in their own petty affairs they think about nothing else? It's a question I've heard repeatedly. It strikes me that people don't know what they're asking when they put the issue that way. Truth is, if you can't take an interest in people who are immersed in their own petty affairs, then you can't take an interest in people, period. Jane Austen's novels are about how one can deal with people in their ordinary modes and still retain sanity. And no larger question has ever been raised in the history of the world. Compared to it, the conundrums of philosophy and religion are trivia. I have often said, if you wish to know how to treat other people, go first to Jane Austen. If you find yourself doing things you know she would disapprove, then think long and hard about continuing them. I have never found more edifying books than her novels, and that alone makes them magnificent. But edification is only the beginning of their glories.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

The first thing to be said about David Bezmozgis's "The Russian Riviera" is that it's longer that most stories in The New Yorker (May 30, 2005). The second is it's a classic example of a story that just stops, for no apparent reason, as though the writer went to the ice box to get a coke and just never got back to it. It's a partial fictional biography set in the Russia immigrant community of Toronto. The protagonist is Kostya, a former boxer who now works as a security man for a restaurant run by a flamboyant thug named Skinny Zyama. Kostya is a halfway likable character, who has somehow, all his life, let other people decide his fate. We meet him at a time when be may be about to change that habit. Or maybe not. The background is more interesting than the characters. That people still, in the mode of the 1930s, like to frequent restaurants that are often called clubs, with lots gangsters skulking about, saying extremely stupid things, is one of the mysteries of human existence. Why would anyone go to such a place? Is it simple loneliness? Or does a childish notion of glamor draw them there? Maybe that's what Bezmozgis is exploring.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

A man dies, and his brother, Graham, who has always liked his sister in law, Lindsey, thinks that after a proper period of grief has passed he can win Lindsey for himself. He thinks it so hard it becomes almost a certainty in his mind. Then one day, driving home, Graham sees Lindsey in a car with his friend and co-worker Doug. So, he begins to follow them. After a while his cell phone rings, and Doug lets him know he has been spotted. Graham can't say why he's following them but neither will he agree to give it up. So they go on,  stopping every now and then for gas, talking sporadically and more angrily, over dozens of hours and across many states. Never can Graham say what his intentions are. That's because he doesn't know. Finally, on a deserted forest road, Doug and Lindsey run out of gas. Graham pulls his car off to the side ahead of them. The couple get out and walk up to Graham's car. The two men begin to wrestle and because Doug is considerably bigger than Graham, he overcomes him and takes his keys. Then he gets a tire iron out of the trunk and chases Graham into the brush. Afterwards, Doug and Lindsey drive off in Graham's car. Graham knows that after several hours Doug will send somebody to get his car and then he can get a ride out of the woods. He'll feel ridiculous then. But at the moment he feels good. Is this story by Nick Arvin,  "Along the Highways" (May 9, 2005) a tale of deep psychosis or is it simply a ridiculous comic lark? Will the trio ever be on easy terms with one another again and laugh about what happened? Seems unlikely. But then, there are some actions that can never be defined and can, therefore, never be responded to logically. And, perhaps that's the point. None of the three appears to be interesting and consequently reading about them is less than scintillating. But, it's probably true that you can't have interesting characters in a story like this.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

From Japan comes a mystery wrapped up in a melange of seemingly irrelevant details. Haruki Murakami's "Where I'm Likely To Find It" (May 2, 2005) relates the case of a missing husband who disappeared one morning, returning from his mother's apartment two floors down in his high rise building. His wife decides to hire an investigator but how she finds him and what sort of investigator he is we never learn. All we know is he accepts no money for his services, not even for expenses. For twenty days he hangs out around the apartment building, resting on the landing between the 25th and 26th floors and chatting with various people he meets on the stairs. None of them can tell him anything about the missing man. Then, the latter turns up on a railway station bench in a northern Japanese city, wearing the clothes he had on when he disappeared and remembering nothing of what happened after he left his mother's apartment to go home. So, the case is over. It appears that the investigator has been looking for something other than the missing man. But what we don't know. The story manages to hold a reader's interest because all the way through it seems to promise a revelation. So, is it merely a cheat or a tease?  I don't think so. Each of the details has a sensuous charge -- the wife's legs, for example, are lovely -- and all of these together appear, ultimately to be what the story's about. Maybe.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

How much suspicion can a person stand? More if you have a job than if you don't, according  to William Trevor's "The Room" (May 16, 2005). Katherine lost her job not long before the story starts, through no fault of her own. Her organization simply shut down. But once the job was gone Katherine began to wonder more about the murder her husband Phair was accused of nine years earlier. A prostitute Phair admitted visiting had been strangled and Katherine covered for him by saying he had got home earlier on the evening of the murder than he had. Phair told the police he didn't do it. But he never told Katherine anything other than that he had gone to the girl for talk rather than for sex. After the case collapsed because an elderly witness decided she wasn't sure of anything they had gone on with their lives as before. But once her job disappeared, Katherine decided to have an affair and went with the first suitable man she met to a shabby rented room where he was staying while temporarily separated from his wife. The affair lasted six months. They saw each other every ten days or so, always at the room. They talked, more than Katherine wanted. Then the man decided to return to his wife and the affair ended. Almost as soon as it did Katherine recognized that she was going to leave Phair, not because she didn't love him any more, but because love was not enough. So, what do we have? A woman who went for nine years with no real intimacy and, then, with just a parody of intimacy concludes that her life is intolerable? Or was it fear? If Phair killed once, might he kill again? We don't ever really learn much about Katherine except that for her love is not enough.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Jonathan Franzen's "Two's Company" (May 23, 2005) is the tale of Paul and Pam, the perfect couple, successful screenwriters, who are nauseatingly vacuous. She ends up astoundingly prosperous and he ends up an arty has-been, and it's of no consequence in either case. I guess it goes almost without saying that they don't remain coupled. I'm not sure what the story's telling us. This is what people are? This is what life is? There's nothing other than emptiness -- for human beings that is? I've never understood this theme. If it's true, what's the sense of writing anyway? Is it supposed to be a warning? But if it's telling us not to live like this, it's certainly not telling us how to live. Among some modern writers the desire for sophisticated perception seems to be an end in itself. Or, maybe it's a faith. Just tell the story. Form the words. Then, something will happen, Maybe that's it.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][


The novelist Milan Kundera says in his book of essays, Testaments Betrayed, that "private and public are two essentially different worlds and that respect for that difference is the indispensable condition, the sine qua non, for a man to live free; that the curtain separating these worlds is not to be tampered with, and that curtain-rippers are criminals." This is true but it is also a lesson that American democracy at the moment is incapable of learning. During the presidential campaign of 2004, people were said to turn against John Kerry because he got a manicure. We need badly to recognize that democracy, by itself, means nothing. The serious issue is who the voters are. We are not now prepared to face the truth that politics is as much about who the people are as it is about what they want. If they are, as Kundera calls them, curtain-rippers, we cannot avoid a criminal polity.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

John Updike is a talented writer. He has a plenitude of verbal abilities, including the capacity to be very funny. Yet, he is so obsessed with a version of 1950s sexuality I suspect he will be driven below lasting literary significance. All obsessions eventually become tiresome and Updike has been pursuing this one for so long he passed that point a good while back. The sex in an Updike story is not universal. It has a sticky, musty quality that fully realizes itself only in the folds of many-layered crinolines. It manages to be innocent and dirty at the same time, a combination that possesses a peculiar fascination for him. It's just about the only theme in "Elsie By Starlight" from the New Yorker for July 5, 2004. This common tale of Pennsylvania boy, who may escape provincialism in the halls of M.I.T., fulfills that publication's principal literary demand that nothing much should ever happen. The protagonist goes to Cambridge bearing memories of his high school sweetheart, a girl who evidently wanted to marry him, mainly because she wanted to marry somebody and he was the first prospect to wiggle into view. He explored her willing body expansively, a process described so minutely  it deserts romance for something close to medical science. Finally, down a long, woody drive, in the front seat of his father's Chevrolet, he manages to remove all her clothing. But that turns out to be the climax of their .... what? Love? Friendship? Unconsummated affair? Afterwards, whatever it was between them dwindles away. He goes back to M.I.T.. She returns to Penn State. And we are left wondering whether we should have stuck to the political essays of the magazine.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Harold Bloom, in his big book titled Genius, says that Sonnet 129 is the most powerful of the hundred and fifty-four that Shakespeare wrote. It's about lust, which Shakespeare called "the expense of spirit in a waste of shame." Lust has generally, down the ages, had a bad press and it certainly can lead to results that after its pressure has been released seem shameful, even unthinkable. Yet, without it, I wonder who we would be and whether that being would be worth the bother of life. For some readers the sonnet may appear uncertain and yet the final couplet, I think, at least suggests an answer:

"All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell."

It all depends on whether one thinks hell is too high a price for heaven, and that decision is likely the most crucial we're ever asked to make.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Henrik Ibsen's play, The Wild Duck, raises the issue of how much truth we need, or how much we can stand. In this case a man finds, well along in life, that his wife had once been another man's mistress and that his daughter is not his natural daughter. For him, the result is bad. Would it not have been better for him to continue living out his illusion? Ibsen suggests that it would have been. Given who he was, he did not need the truth. He had no use for it. By implying that some men can make use of truth and that others cannot, Ibsen creates a kind of human hierarchy that, probably, is as pregnant with danger as any other kind. The truth-teller, and the truth-knower, inhabit a higher realm. But what are the privileges of living there? The dilemma can be, if not solved, at least managed by understanding that we need not equate truth with every fact. What the protagonist of The Wild Duck finds out is a pair of facts, not the truth. The truth is something more than information. It is a grasp of the proper relation of information to its surroundings. The truth lurking in the background of the play is that past sexual acts don't matter much and that love and respect are more important than biological nexus. The tragedy here is an inability to grasp the truth rather than the brutality of truth eviscerating cherished illusion.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Does human suffering come from the absurd dispensation of the universe? Or does it come from human choice? These are the questions Lionel Trilling says that King Lear forces us to confront. His answer is that though we are ultimately in an absurd situation -- we grow old and we die, with no assurance that our lives mean anything -- the preponderance of our suffering comes from the freely chosen acts of our fellow humans. They behave inhumanely, to use a term that seems to contain within it a kind of paradox. Why is it that only humans can be inhuman? But, since they can, there always remains the possibility that they can be humane as well. And this is what imparts to the play its astounding energy. It appears to speak of hopelessness, yet it teaches that in the midst of hopelessness, there is always the opportunity to do something that will warm another human heart. This is a very simple lesson but it is evidently very hard to learn. We humans continue to want to visit justice upon one another, rather than kindness. Our minds are dyed with the thought that pain must be repaid with more pain. I wish we would try to wash the notion out of our brains. Who are we to speak of justice when all we mean is that we wish to hurt someone? Why not just say, "I want to hurt him," rather than trying to cover our lust for revenge over with a phony philosophical concept? Then, at least, we would be honest, and in that honesty we might better see the consequences of our own actions.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

In the introduction to The Experience of Literature, an influential anthology that has been used by thousands of college students, Lionel Trilling takes up the question of why we read literature. After listing a series of secondary reasons, all of which have been proposed with some force, he concludes that we do it because we're human and that it's one of the things humans do. It is, he says, a "species-characteristic trait." I have no quarrel with that. I think he's right. But even if he is, it doesn't take away the issue of the relationship of literature to life. And it's that relationship which must justify literature if anything does. After all, as far as we can tell, dead people don't read literature. The reason I have called these squibs "Literary Reagents" is to emphasize a truth I think no one can deny but which is seldom talked about by professors. Literature, before it does anything else, reacts with life to bring forth different acts and different thoughts than would have been the case had there been no literature involved. It's these acts and thoughts that must constitute the good of the literary enterprise. Whether they are, indeed, good acts and  good thoughts is a question well worth considering. But before we do that, we have to know what they are. The main point of these short pieces is to encourage people, after they have read something, to ask themselves how the reading affected their thoughts and actions. Being conscious of this effect is, I think, the principal literary virtue.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

After Mark Twain’s wife Livy died in 1904, his secretary, Isabel Lyon, was determined to succeed her. And evidently she made little effort to conceal her plans. Twain himself said that although he was uncommonly unobservant about such matters he couldn’t miss her intentions. One wonders what a woman in the first decade of the 20th century actually said in her attempt to entice her employer to marry her. Did she tease him? Did she suggest esoteric delights? These are the secrets history will not divulge. Dumas Malone, the biographer of Jefferson, told me once that though he knew more of what Jefferson did day by day than any of his contemporaries, he could never know what it was like to watch Jefferson walk into a room. I’d love to see the expressions on Isabel Lyon’s face as she tried to seduce her aging prey. I doubt they were much different from what I’d observe in a modern woman. But I can never be sure.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Caryl Phillips’s new novel, A Distant Shore, tells the story of two people, an African expatriate and a white Englishwoman, who are cut off from any sense of meaning, any possibility of finding the decent world they once hoped to inhabit. There are such people and they deserve to have their stories told. But the degree to which they populate modern novels, or at least modern novels which are said to be serious, makes one wonder about the psychological state of modern novelists. The world we discover outside ourselves is created to some extent by the world we inhabit inside. It’s the inside world which tells us whether most lives are desperately meaningless or whether some manage to find a safe shore. There is, of course, the issue of fashion to be brought to bear. Writers are as susceptible to it as anyone, and if fashion dictates that the only serious topic is ravaged lives, that’s who will inhabit the pages of novels. Still, fashion itself has to come from somewhere. One supposes it issues forth from the same inner world that drives words onto a page. Artists are said to be prescient. They are supposed to know what’s coming. Have they “seen” that the world, once so charged with meaning, is wandering into meaninglessness? Is that what the admirers of Rush Limbaugh are so enraged about? A Distant Shore is reviewed by Neal Ascherson in The New York Review for April 29, 2004.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

In Remembrance of Things Past,  Proust tells us that all grown men, when faced with injustice and suffering, prefer not to see them. This is true, and the strength of that preference determines one's political stance. If it is so strong as to be inviolable, one becomes a Republican, whereas if it has chinks of weakness such that every now and then one finds himself, almost against his will, gazing on the pain of others, one tends to fall into the Democratic ranks. The practice of not only acknowledging other people's misfortunes but of imagining them to some degree is what we call compassion. I've been in the habit of thinking that compassion is a good thing. Yet, a counter-argument can be made. It induces a kind of weakness, especially with respect to one's own ambitions. They can scarcely appear to be at the center of the universe when the misery on which they ride is brought into the open. One wonders, if a poll were taken of the readers of Proust, what percentage would be Republicans, what percentage Democrats? That's information which would actually be useful. We can be fairly confident social science will never compile it.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

In Elizabeth Costello the narrator engages in a long meditation about the relations of gods with humans, and especially about the sexual relations between them. The gods, every now and then, decide to have sex with people because that's the only way they can really feel anything. Sex, by its very nature, requires a certain vulnerability and the gods are not vulnerable. That's what makes them gods. They would have to go through some convoluted retooling simply to have the equipment for sex. Poor gods! And, so, concludes Elizabeth, we have it all over them.  This is an interesting concept because the gods are the best we've been able to imagine, and, yet, we're superior to them. We are already better than anything we can imagine. That's an epiphany in itself.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Elizabeth Costello, the eponymic protagonist of J. M. Coetzee's latest novel, argues that by killing millions of animals everyday, mainly to eat them, humanity brings down upon itself a curse. She doesn't suggest that we can, or will, stop killing the animals. But she does want us to face up to who we are. This desire is taken by everyone around her, and, especially, by her son, to be intensely impractical. If she has nothing to suggest that might remedy the situation, then she ought to stop making everyone uncomfortable. The desire not to be inconvenienced by uncomfortable truths is very general among humans. Yet, it is knowledge that serves as a burr, a perpetual irritant which may, over time, lead to different practices. It certainly produces the kind of nagging unease that restrains us from behavior that might otherwise sink to natural viciousness. Facing who we are is, all in all, a good thing for us. If we take bigotry, for example, as a condition afflicting virtually every group on the face of the earth, then we're unlikely to feel quite so superior to the bigots of another tribe. And we might even be less likely to try to kill them. I'm assuming that's the message Coetzee is trying to get out through Elizabeth, but she's such a peculiar character - at least as seen in the eyes of the people around her - that it's hard to know.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Sid Lang, of Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety, the first time he meets his girlfriend's parents, drives from Cambridge to Vermont. It's trip that nowadays would take about three and a half hours. But Sid's journey was made in the early 1930s, so then it would have taken a good deal longer, at least five hours. At any rate, he approaches the girlfriend's house about noon. Not wanting to arrive at lunchtime, he parks on the shoulder of the road for two hours, and being accustomed to making every hour count, he takes out his copy of Middlemarch and reads a hundred pages.

This strikes me as excessive. Wondering about what sort of welcome he was going to receive and gazing at the scenery outside his parked car, which he surely would have done - unless of course he was an unreclaimable fanatic - would have made him unlikely to get through a hundred pages.

I'm not sure I could read a hundred pages of Middlemarch  in two hours under the best of conditions. Didn't Sid make a single note? Didn't he pause to wonder about George Eliot's meaning? A hundred pages!

There is something vilely professorish about those hundred pages. My question is whether Wallace Stegner intended them to have that effect, or whether he really thought that's what a normal intellectual young man would do in those circumstances. One can't be sure whether Stegner's depiction of academic life is satire or praise. But the way a reader comes down on that issue will have a lot to do with the valuation he places on Stegner's fiction.

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][



©John R. Turner

All images and text on this page are the property of Word and Image of Vermont

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page          Word and Image of Vermont Home