Recent Readings, Or: A Criminal Woman, An Orphan Boy And A Frenchman Walk Into A Bar.

I haven’t written here in two weeks. I guess I just didn’t have any inspiration – and in the case of a blog about literature that means I hadn’t read anything inspiring. Then again, I do believe in the ‘writing muscle’, one which needs to be exercised often in order for it to improve. Writing is also good for your health – mentally, anyway – so see, the metaphor is turning out to be OK after all.

So, in the spirit of exercising my writing even though I don’t feel like saying anything in particular, here are some thoughts on the not-too-inspiring books I’ve read recently.

Moll Flanders is a pretty difficult read. Not because of the PG-13 life story of its heroin but because of Daniel Defoe’s writing. The plot, which jumps from husband to husband and from city to city, is told in one piece. Some years of her life

Moll Flanders' cover in the Vintage version. Isn't it nifty?

are told within the page and other specific conversation take up pages and pages. The text is not divided into chapters, making it one, 250-pages-long story. I found the language itself difficult too. It’s the worst kind of difficult: not unusual words you can look up or phrases that had since lost their popularity, but strange sentence structures which tend to go on and on and on until I can’t help but lose focus. With books that were written in different time periods to mine (Moll published 1722) I always wonder whether my difficulty stems from the author’s intentional complications or whether, perhaps, this is just how they wrote at the time. Then I remind myself that Jonathan Swift, Defoe’s contemporary (Gulliver’s Travels was published 1726), uses very ‘flowy’ prose which is very easy to read. So personal style it is. It is so easy to get caught in this historical thinking and forget that people are people every century. To balance my harsh words, I should add that Flanders has some pretty interesting moments and overall a good story; just wasn’t really my cup of tea, that’s all.

I picked up Roland Barthes’ Mythologies almost by mistake; I was walking all very purposefully to the grocery store when I ran across a book stand selling ridiculously cheap books for ‘having defects’. After browsing the stacks for a while (I had no recollection of ever needing the grocery store by that time) I ran across the Barthes. I had heard of him but never read him before; he wasn’t exactly the top spot in my to-read list but I was there, and it was cheap, so why not. Mythologies turned out to be a bit of

Just like regular mortals, Barthes does not like to be interrupted while reading

a task too. It consists of short pieces he wrote sometime in the 1950’s, sort of columns I suppose, describing and commenting on aspects of the world around him, mostly the ills of the bourgeoisie. I’ve read it bit by bit over a month or so. The reason is not the writing – which I found pretty interesting, actually – nor the ideas – which were even really interesting (this whole notion of cultural criticism brings up some great insights). The only problem with Barthes was that he was literally criticizing his own culture, which, apparently, is very different to that of mine and of 2011. Many bits there were about commercials, magazines, politics of his time. Some held timeless truths, making it a good read after all, but some were very much confined to their moment in history and meant nothing to me. Which is a shame, because they were interesting, in their way – just somewhat difficult to connect to.

This week I feel like I’ve embarked on a new and exciting reading journey, with books that I’ve only just begun and are already showing promise. Dickens’ Oliver Twist is surprisingly funny. I’ve only ever read his Nicholas Nickleby before, which was dreadfully boring, which is why I started this one with hardly ‘great’ expectations (I sincerely apologize for that pun). Turns out I was traumatized for nothing. It’s also a pretty long book, which is why I said I feel like I’m on a journey. Still, I’m having fun with it so far so I expect it will be a good read. I’m also reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. It’s a sort of biography which is told in light of his fascination with chemistry, each part in relation to another element. This might sound like a gimmick but the chemistry is woven in very cleverly and either way it’s just beautifully written. So, excited about this one too.

Next on my nightstand is the long-awaited Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. It has been staring at me for several weeks now, waiting for me to finish the books on top of it. Not to worry, friend, your turn is very soon now! Here’s to hoping it’s as good as Decline and Fall, as funny as Scoop and not at all as confusing as Vile Bodies (can you tell I’m a Waugh fan by now?)

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God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

Listen: while Kilgore Trout is writing about Bagnialto, Kurt Vonnegut is writing about Kilgore Trout and I’m writing about Kurt Vonnegut. We all have different levels of awareness, but we are all characters in the same plot.

Each time I read a book by Vonnegut I am surprised at just how mind-blowing it is. I don’t know why I never learn to see it coming. But I don’t. This time it’s Breakfast of Champions and I truly am overwhelmed by its abundance of brilliant ideas. It has Vonnegut’s usual tropes, including the one-liners on the beauty of simplicity (“every so often, somebody

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (picture from http://www.vonnegut.com)

would stop to put up a monument” ch.15), the major depressive episode bits, the social criticism and so on. The book also has, as usual, many insightful moments. Here they are mostly about people being machines and the only thing making them human is out awareness, that “unwavering band of light” (ch. 19).

But I want to talk about the narration instead. How quietly Vonnegut inserts references to the narrator since the very beginning, without explaining who he is. And all those ‘spoilers’, clues to how the story is going to end. (This reminded me a lot of Slaughterhouse-Five, and of how there is no time, all of history and all of the future is happening at once and always). So is the narrator God? If so, why is he watching television and how come he can mention his parents? About halfway through the book he mentions, quite casually, that “Jimmy Valentine was a famous made-up person in another writer’s books, just as Kilgore Trout was a famous made-up person in my books” (ch. 15).

Listen: the realization that the narrator is the writer was mind-blowing, and what made it even more so was that it shouldn’t have been. What is more natural than writing yourself, writing what you know? It’s the most truthful thing a writer can do. And yet it’s so uniquely Vonnegut. (Maybe that’s not exactly accurate: I was reminded of Muriel Spark’s novel, The Comforters, in which the main character, Caroline Rose, starts hearing typewriter noises and realizes that she is a character in a novel. It’s all very clever, and very funny too.)

Some of his drawings from "Breakfast of Champions"

The self-narration idea returns again and again throughout the book and is used to explore reality and our grasp of it. It’s funny that I happened to read this just now because that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: what happens when I ‘read’ at life as literature. I don’t believe in fate but I find it hard not to go in that direction when I think of life as a plot. I suddenly get a strong feeling that everything that I’ve done so far is preparation for what will happen next. It’s a weird thought (not a psychotic one, I promise) but it’s entertaining. The thing about book plots – good ones at least – is that they convey a message. Recurring themes are supposed to be reflected in them… They are meant to have some point which the text is trying to make. Then I wonder what the themes of my plot are. There are certainly events that repeat themselves – similar reactions in different situations. But maybe that fits in better with a psychology theory or another than in a literary one. I pay also close attention to names: sometimes I hear someone’s name and think that had he been a character in a book, I would have really appreciated the writer’s brilliant naming. I once dated someone whose name was an almost-perfect (one letter away) anagram to Harry Houdini. It was very brief thing so I can’t say I know too much  about the guy; but had I written him into a story, he would probably be a character that had trouble committing to things, and keeps escaping at the moment of truth. Or something like that.

Anyway, Vonnegut. Or maybe: Anyway, life as a plot. Or possibly both. What does it mean, in a the text that is my life, that I’m reading Breakfast of Champions just now? I’ve had the option to do so before. I was close to reading it before, even. Something always got in the way. I was going to buy it but then decided on buying something else, etc. But this time I was reminded of the book – can’t even remember why – and I went to the library and picked it up.  So why now? Are any of the ideas in the book meant to relate to something that is happening (or about to happen)? Is the writer of my book trying to tell me something? This line of thought gets creepy after a while so I had better stop. Here’s a clever quote, so that you may have something to keep thinking about: “This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books” (ch. 19).

Who’s Afraid of Roman Polanski?

Scene from "Carnage". Sony Pictures Classics, 2011

I just got back from watching Roman Polanski’s new film, “Carnage”. The movie is based on a play by Yasmina Reza – who wrote a few more plays, apparently, which I should most definitely look into. In the spirit of the movie I am writing from my guts (the credits rolled not half an hour ago), and my gut feeling is that it was absolutely brilliant.

First I must admit that the reason I went to see the movie – which I only heard about a few hours ago when I was looking to see which movies were playing today – was that the description on IMDb reminded me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Perhaps one of the reasons I feel so strongly about “Carnage” is that it is indeed very reminiscent of Albee’s play. The suffocating claustrophobia is a strong element in both pieces, as is the hostile and tense encounter of two couples. So is the slow uncovering of the characters’ true selves, letting go of their manners in order to air out what they really feel. Like Virginia‘s Martha, “Carnage” has one character who’s job it is to speak the cold and cynical truth: Alan. (I think it’s interesting that here it’s a man’s role). Since I don’t like it when reviews go on explaining the plot I’ll be brief: “Carnage” takes place in an apartment in New York, in which two married couples – Penelope &

Scene from Mike Nichols' version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". Warner Bros., 1966

Michael, Nancy & Alan – meet to discuss a fight their boys had. It starts out very polite and mannered and slowly, with the aid of alcohol and pressure, the four characters become more and more free to fight about deeper issues, about morality, about who’s fault it was that one boy broke the other’s teeth and about their dysfunctional marriages.

What stands in the center of the movie – dare I say it? yes: the theme – is violence. First that of the boys; then the couples against each other; later the couples against themselves as well. Violence takes a concrete form in the discussion of the boys’ feud and of Penelope’s favorite topic, the harsh suffering of the people of Africa. More interestingly, it takes a more general, abstract form in the aggressiveness that pops up everywhere in the movie. There’s an interesting discussion about how innate violence and aggression is in our so-called civilized western society, and how futile it is to deny it. Penelope presents herself as a very moral person, with strong beliefs in art, peace, and society’s ability to overcome its violent instincts. But the artists she chooses to display on her coffee table are Bacon and Kokoschka. I don’t know much about Kokoschka but Francis Bacon’s imagery is certainly very raw and scary, full of anxiety. (I half expected to see a Lucian Freud book in her pile. It seems fitting.) She reacts very passionately when Nancy vomits all over her beloved Kokoschka, in a manner that is very ‘natural’, perhaps, but certainly challenges her claims about herself. Eventually Alan’s cynical approach gets her to admit that her obsession with African suffering is meant to make her feel better about her morality and feel more in control. Civility is nothing more than a defense mechanism.

Alan is an interesting character too. He’s the very prototype of the 21st century man: a tough lawyer with a suit and a cell phone attached to the palm of his hand. Alan’s having a pretty big work crisis, when it turns out that his biggest client, a pharmaceutical company, has been reported to knowingly sell a drug with very dangerous sides effects. Alan’s phone won’t stop ringing. At first only once in while, causing the rest of the group to sit and wait for him each time; as the movie progresses, the ringing becomes more and more frequent and the other characters more and more frustrated with it. His type of aggression gets, in this very efficient manner, a double expression. He’s both cold about his crisis – caring only about the company’s image and never concerning himself with the dangerous drug – and impossible to his wife. He refuses to “give a damn” about the situation with his son, and is constantly making obvious how much he doesn’t want to be in this meeting with Penelope and Michael. I found this point (the constant work phone-calls) easy to relate to, as I imagine many viewers will. It is a common modern illness to be so workaholic as to neglect everything and everyone else, and so very easy to relate to Nancy’s frustration: always having to wait for Alan, always being put aside because work is more important. This is also a well articulated comment on modern aggression. Penelope and Michael, representing the old world (writer, small shop owner) have no similar work-phone issues. They have other issues, of course; that is, violence does not go away nor did it suddenly appear: it’s just there all along human history, changing its face according to the circumstances.

I guess in the end Alan’s side of the argument wins. Violence is inherent, we are all dreadfully animalistic, and all it takes

Alan the typical workaholic. "Carnage", Sony Pictures Classics, 2011

to get it out of us is a few glasses of single-malt whiskey. He was also right about how many of our troubles are caused by over-thinking: the last image in the movie shows the two boys being very friendly despite their parent’s lack of success in solving the dispute.

Re-reading and editing my post I see that I’ve referred to it as a review. I take that back: this is only a response, a gut (plus editing) reaction to the movie. In the interest of making this post worth your time, here’s a review too: IT’S A REALLY GOOD MOVIE! THE ACTING IS GREAT! THE POPCORN WAS DELICIOUS!