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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in English literature and film (326)

Tuesday
Jul042017

The Catcher in the Rye

If I were of a certain bent, it would behoove me to inquire with strict scientific objectivity, of course as to whether any other species apart from our own pass through that troubled period of alienation we conveniently dismiss as teenagery. Do penguins and goats suffer as much as the average privileged adolescent who cannot seem to handle the shift from doted-upon scion to responsible adult? What then of the changes chemical changes, everything we do is a symphony of chemicals that we incur as hormones detonate our every limb? How are we to survive this onslaught? Perhaps we can learn from less evolved monsters, and the measures taken against such rebellion and if you subscribe to the nonsense proponed in these last few sentences, please stop here. Go away. Don't come back. These pages are not for you. If, however, you believe that alienation is a specific phase in the development of a creative soul and is re-experienced then defeated as that same creative soul soars above the daily hypocrisy, hatred, and greed that preside over lesser minds, read on. For one such creative soul is the narrator of this iconic novel.  

Our seventeen-year-old protagonist is one of the most beloved in American literature, and it is of rather amazing coincidence that his name was not derived from the stars of this film. The name, Holden Caulfield, is sufficiently pompous and upper class that we know we are dealing with someone of extreme privilege, even if he doesn't seem to care much about what has been given to him in life ("Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad"), simply what has been taken away. He has an older brother, D.B., who is "prostituting" himself as a hack in Hollywood, a younger, highly precocious sister, Phoebe, who corrects a quote of his at a very critical juncture, and another younger brother, Allie, who died recently of leukemia. It is this last sibling and his wretched fate that shape Holden, inasmuch as teenagers can be sustainably molded by external events. Holden does not use his brother as an excuse; in fact, fairly the opposite occurs.  Holden's poor work ethic, general antisociality, and anger directed at the "phony" people around him (a word used dozens of times in the novel), are all typical teenage angsts, especially when the adolescent in question has a very sharp mind and a sensitive spirit to guide it. All these fears could have been discounted by an emphasis on Allie's death, but Holden only has good memories of his brother and does not wish to make him a martyr. He describes his brother's intellect ("He was terrifically intelligent"), his red hair (in a magnificent passage: "He was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off that's the kind of red hair he had"), and Allie's odd predilection for writing poems on the inside of his baseball glove the confluence of two typical strands of boyhood and, indeed, of manhood. Holden fails his way out of one expensive all-boys school after another and, as our story opens, has just been told just before that most giving time of the year in the Western world that he will not be invited back to Pencey Prep.

Apart from his family members, few if any persons have made an impact on his life. He has a ladykiller roommate, Stradlater, and a pimply, hopelessly mistrustful suitemate, Ackley. Both of these boys cannot be as real as Holden because Holden is their narrator and understands them as the sum of their flaws. In any case, both represent the stereotypes and stock confrontations to which a teenager must quickly accustom himself. Very early on comes the lone scene with Spencer, a pedantic old teacher complete with blanket, robe, and "Vicks nose drops"; his approach to Holden's expulsion is akin to a convalescent's raised brow and a tut-tut, a method that will be contrasted much later on with the sanguine wit of another professor, Mr. Antolini. But what really drives the vast majority of young men his age? That would be the fairer sex, and we have a lot of young ladies in The Catcher in the Rye: Sally Hayes, a former love interest who generates the fabulous observation, "If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody"; three thirtyish women from Seattle, who are available for perhaps someone a bit older and suaver than Holden ("I thought the two ugly ones ... were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them.  You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn't blame them"); and a prostitute named Sunny, who is assigned to Holden's hotel room by the lift operator and seems almost her customer's age. His observation of Sunny could be the novel's most telling:

I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell I don't know why exactly.

We, however, do know. We know that Holden Caulfield is a sensitive and thoughtful young man who does not force himself upon women like the rakish Stradlater (who apparently takes neither "no" nor "please, don't" for an answer). Although Holden has had "quite a few opportunities to lose [his] virginity," he "keeps stopping" whenever he is asked, by a girl who values her reputation, not to advance any further. Which makes his claims to being a sex maniac true: he obsesses with something he has never had, but has no real physical courage to get it, perhaps because he fears it will underwhelm him. 

Proof positive resides in the heroine of the novel, the heroine who is permanently absent, the subject of memory and rumors, Jane Gallagher. Jane is many things to Holden; some say she is his imagined soulmate; others may claim, with a great deal of insight into teenage boys, that what teenage boys need is someone to idealize, to talk about, to desire from afar, the classic princesse lointaine of the romantic poet. If you do not have an ideal woman as a romantic poet, then you are not a romantic poet, or at least not one anyone would ever bother about; precisely the same can be said for a teenage boy. So Jane, someone he once comforted and ended up kissing "all over .... her whole face except her mouth and all," becomes what Holden needs to sustain himself against the inevitable disappointment that is teenagery. Her quirk may be the checkers reference that does not impress Stradlater, who much to Holden's chagrin has a date with Jane at the beginning of the book, but another character trait is far more essential to understanding her:

Most girls if you hold hands with them, their goddam hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hand all the time, as if they were afraid they'd bore you or something. Jane was different. We'd get into a goddam movie or something, and right away we'd start holding hands, and we wouldn't quit till the movie was over. And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it. You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not. All you knew was, you were happy. You really were.

This passage may be read several different ways, but the strict literal reading is what should be encouraged. I do not spoil anything of the novel by admitting that we never get to meet Jane, because that would violate her status and all those dramatic conventions we hold dear. Jane must remain apart; too much of her would show Holden what he most fears: that she is no different from any other girl.

What happens next is not predictable, not episodic, and, above all, not crude or vulgar. It is simply what adolescence comprises for a boy: a schedule imposed from without; a series of meaningless meetings with people who know more than you do about life or, in the case of some coevals, pretend that they do; and frustration with your lack of control, your inefficacy, your inability to be taken seriously even though you'll have the rest of your life never to be taken unseriously again. To ban this book, as it so often has been banned, is to eliminate all the madness of adolescence, the wildness that may not mean as much now but was our world then. There are undoubtedly more detailed works about being a teenager, but one would be hard pressed to come up with one that better captures its trials. The voice that Salinger chooses for this journey is so remarkable and original, we are stunned to look back on the novel and find the grating slang of the nineteen forties, utterly authentic, one presumes, at the time and now, in no small irony, utterly outdated or "phony" if compared to the current generation's lingo and buzz words. Every so often Holden makes grammatical errors (notice his idiosyncratic usage of "on account of" and "hell") and spells dialogue phonetically, which is the commonest fault of young writers aiming for authenticity, but the key word is still "phony." Being a teenager, in our modern age at least, means being neither fish nor fowl. It is not a real existence, clearly defined as a child's innocence or an adult's sober perception of life's vicissitudes and tragedies. For that reason alone, more wisdom and self-awareness can be found in The Catcher in the Rye than in all the combined works of all the so-called existentialists, who are, anyway, simply adolescents trapped in adult bodies. And why haven't we explained our work's mysterious title? Now that would be a lousy thing to give away and all.

Sunday
Jun252017

The Fugitive

We have heard so often the story of the innocent man framed that it has become less of a fictional cliché and more of a reminder of our own first disobedience. Such a scenario is carved into the underpinnings of our nightmares, of how life can be snatched up and mutilated beyond recognition (some critics would love to emphasize our own repressed guilt in these instances, but most people's guilt is manifest and petty). What could be worse than being accused and convicted of a crime one did not commit? Loving the victim of that crime and knowing the true culprit perhaps, which brings us to this masterful film.

We know the accused will be Chicago physician Richard Kimble (a still-spry Harrison Ford). Kimble has everything that an average soul could want: he is cultured, financially successful, kind-hearted, attractive, and married to a ravishing beauty appropriately named Helen (Sela Ward); in other words, for the conventions of tragedy, he fits the bill quite well. We would not feel any sympathy towards a person of his privileges if he lost little, or if the person in question had nothing to lose at all. It is therefore appalling to watch our poor doctor enter his lovely home late one evening and find Helen bludgeoned and bloody beside a frightful-looking character (Andreas Katsulas), who in the ensuing tussle is revealed to have only one arm. One supposes it is important to have Kimble ostensibly exculpated from the very beginning so as to increase his pathos, although it hardly remains beyond plot twists to have had him order a killing anonymously. This latter option seems less likely when a filthy wealth of evidence, including life insurance benefits, points towards only one man. Kimble is arrested, tried, and sentenced to die by lethal injection with great alacrity, precisely because the sequence seems like a dream whose details could not possibly coincide with the real world. Throughout the entire proceedings Kimble retains a look of costive disbelief reflecting what he thinks of human justice; and as a man of science, he must know that law and its derivative vocations are as flawed and prone to misinterpretation as any lab test or vial. That he decides to operate outside the law is somewhat owing to happenstance: traveling on one of those prison buses that always seem to provoke mayhem, an aborted escape by another prisoner gives him his freedom − if being a hunted death row fugitive in a Chicago winter can be somehow considered liberty.   

On Kimble's trail comes the eminently cocksure U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones at his very best), who as a film character will resemble an artful codger or two from our own existence. Jones at the time of filming was in his mid-forties, four years younger than Ford. Yet his demeanor is distinctly one of a much older man who has seen and done everything necessary to prove that he is always right. Gerard does have less hair and more wrinkles than his co-star, as well as much less of a need to be in top running condition, but this palpable difference in generations extends into the strategies employed. Being an inveterate rule-follower, Gerard assumes that all success feeds off discipline, this deduction being especially applicable to a man devoted to the rules of nature and medicine. While police procedurals will regularly contrast those who think inside the box and those for whom volatile shapes would be the only means of caging their inventions, Gerard is not mistaken. What he simply does not understand, however, is the degree of indignation that Kimble feels (never mind that he spends most of the film under the presumption that Kimble was rightfully incarcerated). Why he does not know the greater limits of human emotion is not touched upon by the script; perhaps he has never been married or lost a loved one; perhaps he has always managed to treat life's vicissitudes as the function of his decision-making. At times we sense that Gerard would hardly be above gunning down his quarry at the slightest violation of his methods. 

This fundamental ignorance generates the tension required to elevate The Fugitive from the typical feline-rodent event to something grand and unnerving. The film has been compared by some critics to opera, and the comparison stands. The frost-ridden forests and icy pathways imbue the setting with a certain Wagnerian appeal, and the film's unusual length, often cited as its only flaw, actually aids in our concept of time: we cannot glance at our watches and estimate the next shootout, or even whether that shootout will ever occur. This lack of predictability coupled with Gerard's scene-stealing presence suggest that while we suspect Kimble will be ultimately acquitted, we cannot be assured that it will happen while he is still alive. As opera, we have a great hero, a terrible and earth-shattering crime, an unknown villain (one-armed men usually do not make good kingpins), and an ambiguous character who may act in the service of evil while attempting to do good − or exactly the reverse. There are many nice touches to the film, including a much-lauded vignette in which Kimble's Hippocratic oath trumps his own will to survive, but a few questions persist. Doesn't Kimble's flight argue culpability? Was it necessary to kill Helen when Kimble could easily have been out of town for business reasons? Couldn't there be a less conspicuous person to carry out an assassination than someone utilizing a state-of-the-art and not inexpensive prosthetic limb? Not that we are given too many chances to catch our breath and ponder such trivialities.

Saturday
May272017

A Night Out

What constitutes our evening pleasures very much depends, one may conclude, on how we whittle away the daytime. I have always been partial to reading, writing, and cinema; but not always exclusively partial. That is to say, when I was younger and untethered to a wonderful life of responsibilities, I felt the urge – as all young people do regardless of stock or situation – to drift into the world and let the world drift into me. This drifting may assume the form of walking about a modern metropolis in search of whatever that city may offer its wanderers. It may also involve more organized pursuits, to wit, meeting and carousing with those ephemeral beings we call friends. Now I am all for friends. But true friends are very few and stand like cracked, sturdy buildings throughout our sunsets in the same reliable position, waiting simply to be remembered and reapproached. As life takes its course much of our interaction with these persons, whom we have chosen and who have chosen us, lives off the fumes of a glorious common past. Gone are the days of plenty, or perhaps, the days of prophecy. Which brings us to a work about an old theme from this collection.

Our protagonist is Albert Stokes, a "young man of twenty-eight," to identify him, I suppose, against a much more mature man of the same age. Stokes lives with his widowed mother as well as with the ghosts of his father and a grandmother who still claims a room in the Stokes family basement. Since our title implies an exception, we are not surprised to learn that Albert doesn't really do nights out and his mother becomes staggeringly disappointed when he reminds her of his plans for that evening ("We were going to have a game of cards, it's Friday night, what about a game of rummy?"). Thankfully, dear Mrs. Stokes proves to be far from senile, her grip on reality confirmed by a lengthy soliloquy towards the play's end, even if reality for her consists of unswerving bilocation in her past and her son's present. An old chestnut, surely; but it would hardly be hyperbole to observe that Albert, a shy squirrel, is buried under a mound of chestnuts. Before he even appears for his nocturnal summoning, two colleagues, Kedge and Seeley, dissect him through the unfortunate lens of a recent intercompany soccer match:

Seeley: Sure. He was a very smart ballplayer, Foxall. But what did Albert do? He played his normal game. He let him come. He waited for him. And Connor's not as clever as Foxall.

Kedge: He's clever though.

Seeley: Gawd blimey, I know he's clever, but he's not as clever as Foxall, is he?

Kedge: The trouble is, with Connor, he's fast too, isn't he?

Seeley: But if Albert had played his normal game! He played a game foreign to him.

Kedge: How many'd Connor get?

Seeley: He made three and scored two.

Since I adhere to a strict non-disclosure policy, it should be noted that soccer is the least of Albert's shortcomings, even if it remains, to the casual observer at least, the most glaring. We can also add that Albert is not very good at any games, sporting or otherwise.

These wistful asides usher in the second act and the most important event of all, at least in the synthetic company atmosphere that obliges colleagues to behave like relatives (as relatives at family gatherings are forced to behave like passionate lovers) and celebrate someone and something for which they couldn't care less. The celebrated is old Mr. Ryan, finally booted – that is to say, finally retiring of his own free will. He does not seem as if he has made any recent contributions. As the young people feed and flock in different arrangements, old Mr. Ryan has nothing to do or say apart from being celebrated, which in this case renders his sendoff hardly distinguishable from the unveiling of an obscure statue. The party proceeds as these things often do, as a horrific waste of youth on youth – and Albert's youth has been lavishly wasted. The lack of excitement in an exciting world (ten years or so after the war and England, Europe, and the globe all chirp in a lilac cluster) impends over poor Albert in the form of the mounting personal distaste one colleague feels for him, and the result in its abject unfairness and ridiculous violence will inevitably remind the reader of middle school cruelty. And what if middle school was not a cruel time? Some, I suppose, can make that claim, especially if they were on the giving end of the stick. But Albert has always taken what life has chosen to foist upon him, even when it has shown itself to be a rather vile overlord. And when he leaves as pariahs usually leave – parting a crowd who jeers him on – his real night out at last begins.  

Pinter's theater has a polished consistency to it that is often the mark of first-rate writers, so he always seems to be talking about the same thing. Gathering his picture cards around a single fireplace would be unjust, but we can safely conclude that betrayal, in its myriad guises, has always been one of his – and drama's – most lethal weapons because it is hard by other means to generate tension among people you can see and hear agreeing on every atom in this universe. The most talked about parts of A Night Out, a lesser-known but tidy masterpiece, will always be the third act. Two very loquacious women – the first, dear Mrs. Stokes in a summary of all her deeds and desires, the second, there and on these pages anonymous – assault Albert with everything their minds and tongues can conspire to emit within the façade of social decency. It is to Pinter's credit that Mrs. Stokes comes off as the wiser of the two; it is to our discredit that we seriously feared she might not. We have other fears, naturally, some propelled into dark channels by what we do not really glimpse in Albert, that ticking bomb of male anxiety, here to mean his inability to make any sort of decision because a decision may have a consequence, and people like Albert have never dealt well with consequences. Perhaps that's why he ultimately has to take time into his own hands. 

Sunday
May212017

Nine O'Clock

I die at a time when the people have lost their reason; you will die on the day when they recover it.

Since earliest childhood I have heard plenty about the event that would change all events, the first wave of tyrants destroyed (to be replaced by an even greater despot, a dull subject permanently banished from these pages), the first mass uprising that would have made Spartacus proud. If my tone smacks of irreverence, it is because I have never been an admirer of revolution, bloodhot or otherwise; changes in my universe occur slowly and precisely without recourse to upheaval or war chants. But for the more callow among those of Romantic bent, the last eleven years of eighteenth-century French history represent a watershed in our view of the world and its dividends. Gone are the remorseless monarchs, the meddling clergy, the fiefdoms frozen in eternal hardscrabble stasis; in their stead have come happy, peaceful democracies whose main aim has been to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. Alas, while a narrow handful of such nations do exist, the majority are still mired in that grim morass of greed and power that has plagued every community since scribes and their cuneiform contrived a record of human drama. The French Revolution has come and gone, but we may still detect our proclivity for its success, our wish to see the rich choke on the cakes they so preferred to plainest rye. Which brings us to a quiet tale of injustice.

Our heroes are none; instead, we will have twenty-one martyrs for a cause that remains unestablished, the removal of one government unstinting in its waste for another government unstinting in its vengeance. The year and month, you see, are 1793 and June, and the time has come for something more than theoretical freedoms. The victims will be damned because "they were not, as a party, true to their own convictions"; and they will fall "before worse men, because those men were in earnest." Of course, when your solution to four out of every five problems are mayhem and murder, it becomes quite easy to be earnest about them. Much more difficult is the nuanced detection of human or national desires, which incites one of the condemned men to the magnificent pronouncement that begins this review. As the twenty-one face their last terrestrial night with the conviviality of the plague-ridden in this film, one pale soul withdraws from the commotion, a Girondist by the name of Duprat:

He was a younger man than the majority of his brethren, and was personally remarkable by his pale, handsome, melancholy face, and his reserved yet gentle manners. Throughout the evening, he had spoken but rarely; there was something of the silence and serenity of a martyr in his demeanour. That he feared death as little as any of his companions was plainly visible in his bright, steady eye; in his unchanging complexion; in his firm, calm voice, when he occasionally addressed those who happened to be near him. But he was evidently out of place at the banquet; his temperament was reflective, his disposition serious; feasts were at no time a sphere in which he was calculated to shine.

Soon Duprat finds a willing interlocutor, one of the partisans who will endure the most unfortunate punishment of witnessing his friends' demise on the mill of silence, and answers the only lingering question among the carousers: the exact time of their deaths. Duprat makes the incredible claim that he knows precisely when his time will come (he does not speak for others), and bases that prognosis on an odd family history which cannot be provided at length. It involves his widower father and a gentle youth, his younger brother Alfred, both of whom no longer walk among the living.  

Unlike Duprat, Alfred had not seen much success in school and had accordingly diminished his father's expectations. When, in his teenage years, Alfred finally exhibited an interest in a subject, his father was more than a little disappointed to learn the object of his scholarship: astrology, "the most obsolete of obsolete sciences, the old, abandoned delusion of divination by stars!" Content at least that his younger son would not be utterly idle, the father had left him to his own devices. Until one day when Duprat came upon his sibling in their father's den:

One day – my brother being then sixteen years of age – I happened to go into my father's study, during his absence, and found Alfred there, standing close to a window, which looked into the garden. I walked up to him, and observed a curious expression of vacancy and rigidity in his face, especially in his eyes. Although I knew him to be subject to what are called fits of absence, I still thought it rather extraordinary that he never moved, and never noticed me when I was close to him. I took his hand, and asked if he was unwell. His flesh felt quite cold; neither my touch nor my voice produced the smallest sensation in him. Almost at the same moment when I noticed this, I happened to be looking accidentally towards the garden. There was my father walking along one of the paths, and there, by his side, walking with him, was another Alfred! – Another, yet exactly the same as the Alfred by whose side I was standing, whose hand I still held in mine!

Bilocation not ranking among the virtues of human existence, we may wonder long and hard at this scene, disordered in mind as it may appear, and retreat to logic's dark little corner and swinging overhead bulb. Then again, we may consider the apparition of one and another Alfred as some index of calamity. That this end shall come at a certain hour should surprise us as much as it now surprises the condemned Duprat.     

Those of us who still patronize this author's works know something good when we've found it. I am no Collins completist, yet his books resemble the finest of gourmet dishes: one only needs a few bites to determine their succulence. Beneath lesser hands, the structure and inevitability of Nine O'Clock might feel contrived and unsuspenseful, although as we know from many a thriller, great tension need not lie in the outcome, but in the choices that spell a tragic character's doom. Collins has a talent that cannot be learned or inherited: the gift of atmosphere, of so empathizing with a reader's whims as to predict his turns before the reader himself has pathed them. Even if the reader may not want to know the very last page he will enjoy.

Sunday
May142017

A Mother

Miss Devlin had become Mrs. Kearney out of spite. She had been educated in a high-class convent, where she had learned French and music. As she was naturally pale and unbending in manner she made few friends at school. When she came to the age of marriage she was sent out to many houses where her playing and ivory manners were much admired. She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life. But the young men whom she met were ordinary and she gave them no encouragement, trying to console her romantic desires by eating a great deal of Turkish Delight in secret. However, when she drew near the limit and her friends began to loosen their tongues about her, she silenced them by marrying Mr. Kearney, who was a bootmaker on Ormond Quay.

We forget sometimes that our most fundamental relationships – parent, child, sibling – are the bases for all other relationships, romantic or office, temporary or everlasting. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy a happy, stable childhood – and happiness and stability are the foundations of life, all life – can only wonder at the broken promises that others have endured. Having children is no easy task, and one that to some should never be assigned; but when children are present, when a couple has created a perfect little mammal or welcomed such a being previously bereft of such caretakers, all thoughts should be geared towards the benefit of the children. No longer are we husbands and wives and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters: we are simply parents, mothers and fathers. And while not everyone, for a variety of reasons, may have a father, every single being on earth may claim the title character of this story.

It may seem strange that we are concerned with a mother, when the focal point of our tale is the performance of a certain Kathleen Kearney, the elder of two daughters of Mrs. Kearney, née Devlin. Kathleen Kearney has the type of name that can "be heard often on people's lips," because some names lend themselves to savoring. By dint of her very marketable appellation, her mother's own insistence, and some veritable musical talent, Kathleen Kearney becomes "the accompanist at a series of four grand concerts." These concerts, to be held in Dublin, are sponsored by the Éire Abú Society, which  I am afraid means something rather dull in Irish (and only appears to exist in Joyce's fictional realm). As the concert days approach, all consecutive, with the fourth on the very fateful evening of Saturday, Mrs. Kearney, who should not be mistaken for a person of culture, has high hopes for her daughter's performance. That first night she meets the secretary of the Society, who will represent everything she is hoping to overcome:

In the dressing-room behind the stage she was introduced to the secretary of the Society, Mr. Fitzpatrick. She smiled and shook his hand. He was a little man, with a white, vacant face. She noticed that he wore his soft brown hat carelessly on the side of his head and that his accent was flat. He held a programme in his hand, and, while he was talking to her, he chewed one end of it into a moist pulp. He seemed to bear disappointments lightly. 

Mrs. Kearney, it should be noted, does not bear disappointments lightly; in fact, she does not expect to have to bear them at all. Disappointments, for a snobbish social climber like Mrs. Kearney, are the lives of those without grace, without ambition, and, most importantly perhaps, without the proper connections to put that grace and ambition to best use.  

Things, of course, get worse for our eponymous matriarch. The Wednesday concert provokes the blasphemous suggestion that perhaps the Society "had made a mistake in arranging for four concerts: four was too many"; on Thursday, "the audience behaved indecorously as if the concert were an informal dress rehearsal"; and by Friday morning, someone has seen enough of the first concerts to use "special puffs in all the evening papers reminding the music-loving public" that Kathleen Kearney will be accompanying some impressive artistes the following night. The following night? After the apathy of the Wednesday and Thursday audiences, it was decided by the Society that Friday's would be even less attentive, a logic that would bankrupt the sturdiest of entertainment enterprises, but that is not ours to ponder. And so, a day before their daughter's third and final appearance on the Dublin stage, Mrs. Kearney reveals her suspicions to that "bootmaker on Ormand Quay" who bestowed his surname upon her:

He listened carefully and said that perhaps it would be better if he went with her on Saturday night. She agreed. She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure, and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male. She was glad that he had suggested coming with her. 

The phrase "she appreciated his abstract value as a male" in a modern work would seem, and would very likely be, wholly disingenuous; but in Joyce's context there can be no more accurate a description. What ensues that rainy Saturday night will not surprise readers accustomed to those vicissitudes of human nature that may be loosely termed "aesthetic sensibilities" (we will leave the matter at that). We will likewise not address the role of Mr. O'Madden Burke, whose ridiculous name swathes a most ridiculous figure, one which, of course, is "widely respected" by simple-minded people who think spruce, pompous frauds are something to which to aspire. What we should examine, however, is one of the artistes whom Mrs. Kearney surely cannot appreciate:

The bass, Mr. Duggan, was a slender young man with a scattered black moustache. He was the son of a hall porter in an office in the city and, as a boy, he had sung prolonged bass notes in the resounding hall. From this humble state he had raised himself until he had become a first-rate artiste. He had appeared in grand opera. One night, when an operatic artiste had fallen ill, he had undertaken the part of the king in the opera of Maritana at the Queen's Theatre. He sang his music with great feeling and volume and was warmly welcomed by the gallery; but, unfortunately, he marred the good impression by wiping his nose in his gloved hand once or twice out of thoughtlessness. He was unassuming and spoke little. He said yous so softly that it passed unnoticed and he never drank anything stronger than milk for his voice's sake.

Mr. Duggan, you see, is precisely what a mother would want in a child, because he has fulfilled his potential to a sensational level, all the more impressive an accomplishment given the banal hurdles of poverty. And yet, among the innumerable Philistines of grand society, an imaginary community staffed almost entirely by such vulgarians, all that will be remembered of him will be his nose and his gloved hand. The same gloved hand that will one day inherit the earth, the air, and the sea.  

Thursday
Apr272017

Youth Without Youth

There is a notion that people are not intimidated by great intelligence, but by great ideas presented intelligently. If you tell someone that religion can be boiled down to ten irrefragable commandments, or loving the one you're with, or the eternal return, or something that can fit on a business card or fortune cookie roll, they will smile because they have been initiated into one of the astounding mysteries of our world. It would be sad yet dutifully accurate to inform them, however, that the average person, even if somewhat well-read, would need at least ten years of intense study, incredible enthusiasm, and some cerebral propitiousness to be able to produce a first-rate book on religion or on literature. Of course, political correctness proclaims that all opinions are worth hearing and all viewpoints, regardless of education or perspective, are worth understanding. This I do not deny; these voices all have the same dignity, the dignity of human thought and feeling. But they do not have the same value. For value, you need minds who know their subject backwards, forwards and, in the case of this lush and beautiful film, also upside-down.  

Our hero is Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a seventy-year-old Romanian scholar who wakes up one evening in the spring of 1938 and realizes that he "will never complete [his] life's work," that work being the chronicling of the origins of language. He decides, quite logically perhaps, to hasten this eventuality. As he potters around a meek Bucharest that already seems to hear the crunch of Fascist boots, Dominic is lifted off the ground, scorched by lightning, then dropped unceremoniously to wither and die. So violent and unexpected is this scene that it sets the tenor for the rest of Youth Without Youth: what has just happened is a miracle of miracles, thus disbelief is necessarily suspended. He winds up mummified in an intensive care station where he signals his name and age by squeezing the hand of Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), yet the nurses who wash his crisped body giggle in his presence and only half-jokingly claim that this man is still very young. In short order we learn the truth: right before Dominic awakes, his image in a nearby looking-glass opens its eyes, soon to be met by those of the original Dominic, now young, handsome and completely unscarred from his encounter with a million heavenly volts. If we weren't already convinced by the fulminous scene outside this train station, we now know that what we are watching is science fiction.

And yet perhaps this is still not the right term. The old Dominic inhabits many flashbacks: he loved a young woman named Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara) who essentially leaves him because he has not fulfilled his potential; he is also a diligent student of Chinese who is dismissed by a French-speaking professor (likely patterned after this Swiss linguist) because without a mastery of Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Japanese, he would not take him on as a student. "To master Chinese," says the smug old fellow, twirling his moustaches, "you must have the memory of a mandarin" – which is precisely what the new Dominic acquires. Soon he is able to know the contents of any book simply by willing himself to know them; he can predict the final destination of a roulette ball, move objects by telekinesis, and absorb information at a capacity that can only be called unearthly. He also keeps himself company, literally and figuratively, by discussing his agenda and feelings with a psychic double of himself. If this sounds ridiculous, you may consider that while he has now exceeded all men in pure intellect, he has not lost the human need for conversation with a peer. Stanciulescu publishes a series of incredible reports in a medical journal that garners the attention of scientists around the world. One of these observers has a notebook marked with a wicked symbol that will be mirrored (in perhaps an overlong shot) on the garters of "the woman in room six who was placed there by the secret police." That symbol has now become the most important in Europe, much more vital than all those Chinese characters and all the mathematical equations and all the plethoric knowledge with which Dominic has stuffed his rejuvenated brain. In other words, if that symbol survives, Europe perishes. 

As the war rages on in favor of that symbol, Dominic flees to Switzerland, but he cannot exist as anonymously as he would have hoped. At a professorial gathering of leading Swiss scholars ("I knew more than each of them; I knew things that they didn't even dream existed") he is again accosted by that lovely young lady from room six who just so happens to worship that repulsive, all-important symbol and who tells him of a Doctor Monroe ("He's Swiss. Like me. Like you"). When she adds, "you know, I do have a name," he refuses this feeble stab at humanity because the knowledge of her body was no different than the countless books he absorbed, pure information. Monroe, for his part, is interested in running a million volts through some test subjects for the sake of science – and I think you might guess who foots his laboratory bills. To the film's credit, once Dominic extricates himself from this situation, there is a drastic shift in both time and tone, with the second half of the film outyelling its predecessor and continuing Dominic's spiritual journey in ways he could not possibly have imagined. And since they are beyond his own horizon, at least initially, we too will struggle to grasp why Laura seems to have been reincarnated in a young student by the name of Veronica, and why this may not be the only exemplar of metempsychosis that Dominic will witness.

While I am galled by the chocolate box of accents in English among the cast members, however realistic that has now become in the world (I invariably prefer unanimity of dialect), I should add a few words on the negativity of many of the film's reviewers. Youth without youth was a critical failure, particularly in America, for one very good reason: it holds almost no universal appeal. That some reviewers even stooped to labeling the film kitsch reveals a fundamental ignorance of aesthetic theory. Kitsch (and the closely related Russian term poshlost') tugs at the emotions by reducing them to the solution to all plot developments and all questions of character. A Hollywood film that pumps soft music against a still softer sunset and the embrace of two extremely good-looking young people who have only exchanged platitudes for two hours as bombs and bones detonated around them is the epitome of kitsch. Kitsch expects you the viewer to relate to the on-screen happenings because these emotions and lives and loves and hopes are common to all people at all times, and therein lie its eternal sadness and purported – and utterly fraudulent – artistic credentials. All this has absolutely nothing to do with the plight of Dominic Matei. The youth regained embodies the cerebral life Dominic always wanted, and it is his and his alone. He is granted by some Almighty force the time necessary to finish his life's work (a plot device probably borrowed from this famous tale), but then realizes that while he may conclude his intellectual existence satisfactorily, he will never again be a happy, love-struck youth, whereas precisely the opposite predicament would feature in a film devoted to cheap schmaltz. What is legitimately and artistically tragic in Youth Without Youth is that the wisdom and memories Dominic accumulated in the years before the lightning do not permit him to enjoy things with the same sense of invincibility that usually accompanies our early adulthood. He may be young in body but within him shudders the tortured soul of an immortal who has outlived every love and passion. And what can we say about those three roses? Only that Laura may not be one of them.

Tuesday
Apr182017

A Suspension of Mercy

Most mystery novels published today follow recipes so tried and true that one cannot but marvel that people still savor them and lick their lips. The mystery is the most elemental of plots, a natural sentiment demonstrated by our own ignorance of the universe and its secrets, yet the novel is startlingly young. Taking (as is often agreed upon) this famous story as its inception, we have only had mysteries for somewhat less than two centuries. Now I am no fan of the plain whodunits that I devoured as a fourteen-year-old because the writing is generally ignored for the sake of momentum, the characters are all stock agents selected for their ability to facilitate that momentum, and the ending is always a bow tied far too prettily to reflect life's incongruities. So even if your neighborhood bookstores disagree in their filing, one should never really call the author of this novel a mystery writer.

Our protagonist is Sydney Bartleby, a twenty-nine-year-old American writer married to Alicia, a somewhat younger British woman who understands her husband because she paints. At least this is the basic assumption made of a couple who devote themselves to the liberal pursuit of creativity. America in the 1950s was apparently not sufficiently inspirational for the fine arts, so although the two meet in the States they quickly take up residence in Suffolk, England for the peace and quiet that can be so detrimental to the young who normally thrive on agitation. This basic premise – two (as we find out, quite immature) young people choosing a rustic retreat over the thrills of London – does not count among the most likely of situations, especially since Sydney has modest talent and Alicia far less. At one dinner they are observed by their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Lilybanks:   

Sydney was a nervous type, perhaps better fitted to be an actor than a writer. His face could show great changes of feeling, and when he laughed, it was a real laugh, as if he enjoyed it to his toes. He had black hair and blue eyes, like some Irish. But he was not a happy man, that she could see. Financial worries, perhaps. Alicia was far more easygoing, a bit of a spoiled child, but probably just the kind of wife he needed in the long run. But the Polk-Faradays were still better matched, looked as if they sang each other's praises constantly, and now were gazing into each other's eyes as if they had just met and were falling in love. And the Polk-Faradays were raising three small children, children raising children, Mrs. Lilybanks felt, and yet she and Clive had been no older when their two had been born.

The Polk-Faradays, Alex and Hittie, are a nice, plump couple (Hittie the wife is repeatedly referred to as something akin to "a blond Chinese") who seem as content and well-fed as Sydney and Alicia have grown loathsome to one another in their two years of acrimony. Sydney and Alex have been collaborating on a series of failed television scripts – those days, there was nothing newer than television – and Alicia hardly conceals her Schadenfreude for her husband's disappointment. A fact not lost on Sydney, who then does what any budding writer might try: he plans his wife's murder.

In a normal detective novel, such plotting would be a lurid, hairy affair mired with unnecessary obstacles and paranoid reasoning. But for all his temper – Sydney, by his own admission, had struck Alicia "once or twice" and early on there is a violent scene over a cup – we note that Sydney is a cool customer, calmer than his nervousness would suggest, and possessor of a very clear, methodical brain. We also learn that he has been considering all his bloody options for quite a while:

Sometimes he plotted the murders, the robbery, the blackmail of people he and Alicia knew, though the people themselves knew nothing about it. Alex had died five times at least in Sydney's imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn't come back. The police wouldn't be able to find her. Sydney would admit to the police, to everyone, that their marriage hadn't been perfect lately, and that perhaps Alicia had wanted to run away from him and change her name, maybe even go to France on a false passport but the last was sort of wild, France involving complications not in character with Alicia.

Later it is revealed that Alicia suffers from a fear of flying, making her absconding to France all the less likely. What happens next, however, is one of the more remarkable experiments in fiction of any kind because it is so undeniably clever. The spouses have another bitter squabble and Alicia does indeed leave without specifying the destination; the departure is captioned as a move to benefit both partners, who really have no business being together. One is always a tad surprised that any woman could stay with an abusive lout, especially as Alicia is the only child of a very well-off couple who naturally disapprove of Sydney and his travails.  But Alicia does not think much of herself, perhaps because she does not really think much of her parents and their dapper and prim ways. She leaves to Brighton, or somewhere near Brighton, and does not report back. Sydney, adhering to their alleged bargain, refuses to try to contact her. Even when Alicia's influential parents get the police to interrogate Sydney and inquire about a rug he recently purchased – and buried.

Sydney's tale could have been made up from whole cloth, but we never quite know until the end and even then a few inconsistencies might point to an alternative interpretation. With virtuoso pacing the novel shuttles between Sydney, alone and highly productive with both his third novel, The Planners (the first two were not reprinted), and a macabre spy serial called The Whip, and Alicia's peregrinations. Apart from a lengthy synopsis of a Whip episode, Highsmith does not give us much of these texts, but they can be readily imagined. Sydney has particular trouble with The Planners although he is an experienced novelist, thanks in no small part to a belief antithetic to those of the mystery writer: 

He had never had much respect for plot, mainly because he thought in real life people were more separate than connected, and the connection of three or more people in a novel was an artifice of the author, who ruled out the rest of the world because it did not contribute.

Since I have never read a review of A Suspension of Mercy, I cannot say whether this is the novel's most-quoted passage, but it is certainly the most relevant. Sydney regards real life as a series of tasks that may or may not provide him with enough material to become a successful writer. Even lovemaking with Alicia is construed as laborious, and we never get a hint that he might utilize some of those experiences in his work, a sign of the prudishness of the times or, of course, something else. Perhaps that month off will do Alicia some good after all.  

Tuesday
Apr042017

The Thing on the Doorstep

You may have never considered reading this author's work because, as it were, horror or fantasy or some hybrid of these two genres with particularly impassioned readerships has never appealed to your aesthetic enjoyment. And while such a prejudice may be accurate for the vast majority of such writers, missing out on Lovecraft would be criminal. His style is utterly and invariably impeccable; he may often employ old and arcane words, but his subjects are often old and arcane. And while he aims at horror, he does not aim at gore or hideous violence: his achievement, even more remarkable for someone who always insisted that he had no faith whatsoever in the supernatural, was to dissect in all seriousness the wicked portals of eternal evil and their occasional manifestations in our realm. That type of Herculean task is so easily butchered by the melodramatic hack and shunned by writers of true genius as beneath their artistic ambition, which makes Lovecraft an even rarer bird, as his absolutely first-rate prose gleams with precision and beauty at every indentation. And among the many masterpieces he composed, this tale is certainly one of the finest.

We begin with a confession that will turn out to be more of a McGuffin – and I give nothing away with such a disclosure. A man in his fifties, but twelve years older than his victim and best friend Edward Derby, has killed Derby with a full revolver round to the head. The murderer, Daniel Upton, also happens to be our narrator. The motive for such a slaying is poorly secreted from first to last paragraph, as the person Upton murders is not Edward Derby at all – and perhaps, in the strict physiological sense, not quite a person, either. We are eventually led to believe that the being inside of Derby may be the bizarre creature he chooses as his wife; I should say, it is the wife who chooses Derby: 

Edward was thirty-eight when he met Asenath Waite. She was, I judge, about twenty-three at the time .... She was dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for overprotuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people .... Asenath, it seemed, had posed as a kind of magician at school; and had really seemed able to accomplish some highly baffling marvels. She professed to be able to raise thunderstorms, though her seeming success was generally laid to some uncanny knack at prediction. All animals markedly disliked her, and she could make any dog howl by certain motions of her right hand. There were times when she displayed snatches of knowledge and language very singular and very shocking for a young girl; when she would frighten her schoolmates with leers and winks of an inexplicable kind, and would seem to extract an obscene and zestful irony from her present situation. Most unusual, though, were the well-attested cases of her influence over other persons. She was, beyond question, a genuine hypnotist. By gazing peculiarly at a fellow-student she would often give the latter a distinct feeling of exchanged personality as if the subject were placed momentarily in the magician’s body and able to stare half across the room at her real body, whose eyes blazed and protruded with an alien expression.   

There are many other unsettling facts about Asenath, not the least of which is her provenance. She hails from Innsmouth, a "run-down fishing port" around which rumors have swirled about the cause of its depopulation – something involving the breeding of human residents with some inhuman marine visitors, but I digress. That Asenath is a demon, or at least of demon stock, is never doubted by Upton or the reader; perhaps it is not even doubted by Derby himself, although he seems inexorably drawn to Asenath as a great mind can be lured by commensurate evil. As in many formidable Gothic tales, we the readers know that a certain acquaintance is bad news and the end of hope in one package. Yet we sadistically flip the pages forth in wonderment over what precisely will befall him who has chosen so unwisely. 

What becomes of Edward Derby is already revealed on the opening page, and still the suspense of how he achieves his wicked fate is as tremendous as in any whodunit or thriller. Along the way, those who admire the sublimity of the English language sweeping dust off old tomes and vile images will surely be engaged by Upton's report. There are myriad examples of this perfection: "I perceived," says a worried Upton about this new, horrible couple, "that their intimacy was beyond untangling"; "Occasionally the Derbys would go on long trips – ostensibly to Europe, though Edward sometimes hinted at obscurer destinations"; "He repeated names which I recognized from bygone browsings in forbidden volumes, and at times made me shudder with a certain thread of mythological consistency – of convincing coherence – which ran through his maundering." But I have been omitting the meat dish from our courses. Asenath comes from a long line of Waites, nefarious the whole lot of them, with the primary malefactor having been none other than her father Ephraim, a wizard of some significance. Father, like daughter, was a student of magic with some alleged command over the elements and willpower that exceeded all known human exertions:

The old man was known to have been a prodigious magical student in his day, and legend averred that he could raise or quell storms at sea according to his whim. I had seen him once or twice in my youth as he came to Arkham to consult forbidden tomes at the college library, and had hated his wolfish, saturnine face with its tangle of iron-grey beard. He had died insane under rather queer circumstances just before his daughter (by his will made a nominal ward of the principal) entered the Hall School, but she had been his morbidly avid pupil and looked fiendishly like him at times.    

I suppose it is natural enough to abhor someone whose soul you somehow sense has long since been blackened by ambition and pacts; but Upton's reaction may be a mild case of twenty-twenty hindsight. After all, don't daughter and father resemble each other, at times more than just physically, and wasn't Asenath "very good-looking"? And we haven't even mentioned Edward's long, fast drives down Innsmouth road.  

Wednesday
Mar292017

The Grotesque

About seventy-two years ago Europe reached what may be called its nadir but which, in reality, was a lack of faith in itself. The reasons for such disappointment are obvious and need not concern us; what should gain our attention, however, is how art reacted to proclamations of the death of human feeling. If you bother to read this poet you may understand the fears that hastened his end, although for his defamation of the German language we will never forgive him. Other writers, who shall be thankful for anonymity on these pages, produced opportunistic treatises on mankind and its failings. And a certain segment, centered in France and headed by this writer, decided a return to the most basic of literary plots was the thrust that might restore our faith in art's grandeur (that they termed their movement the "new novel" is not devoid of irony). What is the most basic of literary plots? The mystery, of course. And how are we to take mysteries if not as a guilty pleasure? As perfectly serious works of art, that's how. In this setting, albeit written with forty years of wise hindsight, emerges this superb novel.     

Our year in 1949, our narrator is the fiendish Sir Hugo Coal, and our location is Coal's ancestral home, Crook Manor. Coal is a simple snob, an aspiring scientist, and an unabashed alcoholic. Although the family motto may be nil desperandum, Coal twists all his perceptions to do just that, boasting and fretting to no end about his career, his household, and his sanity. How does he find the time to unearth such concerns? Owing to a hideous accident, Sir Hugo has for some months now been vegetating and motionless in a wheelchair, and the accident involves (he assures us) his newly hired butler Fledge. Fledge is targeted early on, not only as the perpetrator of Coal's paraplegia but also as the usurper of his entire existence. Coal's self-imposed task is to compose a memoir on his healthy days as an indictment of his manservant. His first entry into Crook accompanied by his skinny, equally alcoholic wife, and fellow servant sets the tone for the confrontation:

Fledge himself is difficult to describe. Indeterminacy clings to the man like a mist. He has for so long concealed his true feelings that whatever core of real self yet glows within him, it is invisible to the naked eye. He is neat, of course, in fact he is impeccable, as befits a butler. Slim, slightly over medium height, with reddish-brown hair oiled back at a sleek angle from a peak dead in the middle of his forehead, he could be anything; but the presence at his side of Mrs. Fledge Doris situates and defines the man. For Doris is unmistakably a servant. As tall as her husband (and thus a clear head taller than me), thin as a rake, with a sharp, pinched face and black hair scraped back off her forehead and threaded with iron-gray wires, her being is indelibly stamped with the mark of domestic toil. Her nose is prominent and beaky, and her eyes are very dark, iris and pupil both so black they seem fused in a single orb with the merest pinprick of light dead in the center. Those black eyes lend her face a rather opaque, birdlike quality, and though the simplicity of the woman's nature very soon becomes apparent, at first sight she gives the appearance of a large crow, an unblinking alien to human affairs, a corvine transmigrated into woman's form. Only the tip of her nose, enlivened by a network of tiny broken blood vessels, lends color and humanity to her face. And thus they presented themselves, the ghoul and the crow, and then they were over the threshold and under my roof.

Our modern sensibilities dictate that most if not all of a story's loose ends be tied; in other words, we need to know what a work thinks of itself. Something will occur with the Fledges – indeed, in a way, this is the novel's primary event – that is never clarified in full, in as much as clarification could not be derived from languid hinting. Coal thinks the taciturn butler his enemy and is greatly suspicious of the Fledges' having arrived from Africa without any letters of recommendation from their prior employer. An employer who also happened to have been crushed to death by an ox – but here we drift into fruitless speculation.

Apart from whisky, Coal's other abiding interest lies, literally and figuratively, in the bones he keeps in his estate's barn. These compose the reassembled skeleton of a dinosaur that he, an amateur paleontologist, plans on presenting as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. As his ideas, first put forth by this evolutionary theorist (also an autodidact), could not be any more radical given the conservative nature of his field, he foresees the rest of his life – he is no believer in much else – basking in eternal glory:

I paced up and down, reciting my revolutionary thesis on the taxonomic classification of the dinosaur and reveling, I admit, in my imagination, in the storm of applause and controversy I expected to arouse. I expected, frankly, soon to be dominating the discourse of natural history or at least its paleontological strand I, the gentleman naturalist, the amateur!

That the beast in question has been christened Phlegmosaurus carbonensis is all you need to know. Alas, his expected watershed panel discussion in London is only attended by four people including his elder daughter and grandson. This predictable pratfall acts as the clothesline for sidelights and anecdotes about fornicating Fledge and dipsomaniac Doris, including a wet dream that arouses long lost lusts in the lord of the manor, who has not slept in the same manor wing as the lady for almost twenty-five years. Yet plump and quite unstately Lady Harriet has a daughter of eighteen, Cleo, whom Coal proudly identifies as a "true Coal" – which means that she might be well-nigh deranged. There is also the small matter of Cleo's impecunious fiancé Sidney, who goes wandering off towards the moor one dark and stormy night – never, of course, to return.

It is perhaps ironic that the real restorer of the bird-dinosaur link died of dementia since Sir Hugo, deemed "ontologically dead" by the majority of London neurologists, betrays hints of incipient, well, something or other. What could be troubling Hugo? His African adventures with a very shady fellow named George who just so happens to resemble a soldier of fortune? The prods and pokes of Sidney's surprisingly old mother who does not believe that his disappearance will yield good tidings? Perhaps the best summation of Coal's conscience is a dreadful shock he incurs on the moor:

So one afternoon I set off with a flask of whisky and a stout stick, and after tramping down a soggy cart track between thick growths of birch and alder I found myself beneath a vast gray sky with miles of flat, boggy fen before me and a lake in the distance .... It was when I had settled myself on a hummock of dry bracken close to the edge of the lake, and was casting my eye idly over the gray, wind-furrowed water, that I noticed a bulky horned object half-submerged in a bed of reeds close by. I splashed forward through the shallows to investigate, and discovered to my astonishment that it was a dead cow. I poked at it with my walking stick, then with the crook of my stick I hooked its horn and dragged it further into the shallows, and as I did so I caused the head to rise and water poured from its empty eye sockets as through from a fountain. Then the great body began to turn, began to go belly-up, and suddenly a foul, nauseating stench was released into the air and a pike, a big one, four feet long, slid out of the cow's belly and gazed at me for an instant, its gills quietly lapping, before gliding away into the depths of the lake. 

There is always such a scene in McGrath, and the scene invariably suggests that evil's undercurrent enjoys a whirlpool's endless reflections. Doris has some affinities with that old dinosaur that bears Coal's name – as does, in a way, the lanky and rapturous Fledge – although no one could possibly believe Coal's theories about their dispositions. And after all, isn't the test of a scientist whether he has any followers?         

Wednesday
Feb222017

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Without some mild prompting, horror fans may not be able to confirm that there exist two types of scare tales: those about the unfamiliar awash in the shadows and tricks of the light, and those about very familiar things that turn out to be not what they seem. For whatever reason, I have on numerous occasions toyed with scenarios from the latter grouping and they have invariably resulted in dissatisfaction. Why is our first type so superior? Perhaps because in our second, there is no suspense, no chance for understanding when something you have always treated as safe is transformed into a parlous and despicable trap (zombies, those beloved catch-all cannibals, come to mind). And while many a work has been constructed on the premise that someone – a family member, a co-worker, a respected citizen – is not what he or she appears to be, a pervasive obliviousness is the only plausible explanation; otherwise, we would simply have random whims and haphazard betrayal. It is this first premise that both makes this work so outstanding and reduces numerous whodunits to a pure guessing game. And yet there is also another genre that borrows liberally from both these types, a perfect example of which careens through the pages of this short novel.

Our eponymous character is a young man in Rhode Island; the time is that brief, sweet lull between the twentieth century's two European cataclysms. The young man has been diagnosed by alienists and other nostrum-peddlers as mentally ill, but the cause of his malady is never ascertained by modern science (and since we are reading this author, we know it never will be). No, our man is ill all right, but his is the illness of having crossed boundaries of human experiences that should remain just that, boundaries. Boundaries, as it were, to gaze upon from a comfortable distance and then be forever shown the backs of us. Young Ward's life was changed in dramatic fashion by uncovering a hitherto unknown ancestor with the ominous name of Curwen, a corruption of the Latin word for this bird. Joseph Curwen, as his forebear was called, seemed to have lived a very long and ignominious life in the region, and was somehow implicated in the witch trials that devoured Puritan England over two centuries before. And yet, chroniclers maintain that Curwen didn't age, or at least, not enough ("this strange, pallid man, hardly middle-aged in aspect yet certainly not less than a full century old"). Stranger still is this greedy and reclusive hermit's Georgian habitat, from where the wickedest midnight sounds and smells are said to emerge. This attracts the attention of local law enforcement, who choose to do nothing that could repercuss in their disfavor. Instead, one dark night they assemble an extrajudicial band and invade the premises. What they find is never made explicit, but we gather they may have been better off not interfering in such machinations:   

It was just before dawn that a single haggard messenger with wild eyes and a hideous unknown odor about his clothing appeared and told the detachment to disperse quietly to their homes and never think or speak of the night's doings or of him who had been Joseph Curwen. Something about the bearing of the messenger carried a conviction which his mere words could never have conveyed; for though he was a seaman well known to many of them, there was something obscurely lost or gained in his soul which set him evermore apart.

Curwen may well represent Poe's ancestry to Lovecraft since the latter considered the author of The Raven to be the greatest of all literary influences on his artistic development, but Poe's worlds are small and self-destructive. They collapse upon themselves like tombs or old, creaking houses, with a character or two invariably trapped within. Lovecraft's work is, however, about the abyss, the immensity of horror that is only intensified by our basal apprehensions about hell or nothingness or an oblivion that will consume us over the course of millions of years. How much better then to leave undescribed what these soldiers saw that fateful night in what they had expected would be a warlock's cave, a night during which Joseph Curwen – ageless, baleful, deal-hungry Joseph Curwen – was at last destroyed.

This terrible event, of course, does nothing to dissuade young Ward, who is under the care of a certain Dr. Willett. Willett, true to his oaths, likes facts and treatments. He is averse to the spiritual in the same way that one can be allergic to something as fundamental as milk. Even when Ward betakes himself for three years to Europe to visit notorious black magic practitioners, Willett implies that Ward could be actively mimicking his ancestor's activities and language in his correspondence out of some kind of obsessive fascination. There is, of course, another explanation, and one that has to do with the menacing portrait of Joseph Curwen uncovered at the house that Ward will soon inhabit. Giving away too much of Ward's psychic shift would be unfair to the tale's future readers, but we can mention Willett's venture to the house that Curwen built:    

It is hard to explain just how a single sight of a tangible object with measurable dimensions could so shake and change a man; and we may only say that there is about certain outlines and entities a power of symbolism and suggestion which acts frightfully on a sensitive thinker's perspective and whispers terrible hints of obscure cosmic relationships and unnamable realities behind the protective illusions of common vision.

What would be the most earth-shattering vision one could imagine? Many works have tapped into the personal, that which is unknowable except to the visionary himself, as in this incredible masterpiece, but this is not the picture painted here. What our doctor sees is objectively horrendous, not simply a byproduct of an active imagination and a few too many late night readings; in fact, Willett absconds from the house with the firm conviction that he may never sleep well again.   

What remains valuable in reading something like Charles Dexter Ward (not that there is much like it) is the holistic notion of terror that can grip any mind, non-believing or staunchly devout, broad enough to allow its horizon to expand to the width of our ignorance. Any stab at that ignorance, any advance in the ways of realm and reason, must be attributed to otherworldly sources, even if this has evolved in contemporary literature into a variant of deus ex machina, an extraterrestrial. Lovecraft enjoyed the world in its crevices and secrets and did not care much for justifying his nightmares; he dreamt up savage lands and weird chants and thought little of their implications. In this way his art is the finest of its kind: visions without egoism, fears without psychobabble, evil without redemption. His worlds cannot be captioned as the neuroses of a single, fretful mind, and not only because they draw upon centuries of lore. His truth is a hellish abyss, and one of luxurious malevolence where things that seem foul are undoubtedly foul, fouler than one could have ever feared. Too bad no one told young Ward.       

Friday
Feb172017

Lance

Deep in the human mind, the concept of dying is synonymous with that of leaving the earth. To escape its gravity means to transcend the grave, and a man upon finding himself on another planet has really no way of proving to himself that he is not dead that the naive old myth has not come true.

What is science fiction? I have no ready caption for the allegedly imaginative, no-holds-barred nonsense that so rarely broaches the literary (this film, based on a vastly inferior book, is a rare example, although it is more about spirituality) because science fiction, much as science, likes to wallow in its vague fame. It may as a genre constantly reinvent itself, yet its reinventions leave its forebears unworshipped and unappreciated but let us be fair. If science, which has produced so many wonders and made our lives substantially easier and healthier, still knows a fraction of a drachma of a billionth of anything at all about our universe, a literary movement that glorifies the progression of human knowledge cannot aspire to anything greater. Expecting more out of intergalactic internecine is a waste of hope. What we can say without fear of perjury is that a consistent swath of human readers (to distinguish them from the beasts and blobs that haunt those silvery fables) loves deceiving itself with the lure of science fiction, a regrettable phase through which some of us as children pass quickly and unscathed. They think that the reinventions of the wheel of time are profound in their look at human motives, when there is more profundity in one tractate by Duns Scotus than in a fictional universe of a thousand splendid, or not-so-splendid suns. Which brings us to this unusual tale.

The hero of our story, not immediately revealed, is a certain Emery Lancelot Boke, a latter-day knight in a new kind of armor. His mission we are never informed whether this was a lifelong dream or an unsimple twist of fate is to visit another planet and report to Earth on his findings. We learn all of this a few pages into our story because we are initially warned how little this whole business really matters, at least to our omniscient narrator:

Finally, I utterly spurn and reject so-called science fiction. I have looked into it, and found it as boring as the mystery-story magazines the same sort of dismally pedestrian writing with oodles of dialogue and loads of commutational humor. The clichés are, of course, disguised; essentially, they are the same throughout all cheap reading matter, whether it spans the universe or the living room. They are like those 'assorted' cookies that differ from one another only in shape and shade, whereby their shrewd makers ensnare the salivating consumer in a mad Pavlovian world where, at no extra cost, variations in simple visual values influence and gradually replace flavor, which thus goes the way of talent and truth. So the good guy grins, and the villain sneers, and a noble heart sports a slangy speech. Star tsars, directors of Galactic Unions, are practically replicas of those peppy, red-haired executives in earthy earth jobs, that illustrate with their little crinkles the human interest stories of the well-thumbed slicks in beauty parlors. Invaders  of  Denebola  and  Spica, Virgo's  finest, bear names beginning with Mac; cold scientists are usually found under Steins; some of them share with the supergalactic gals such abstract labels as Biola or Vala. Inhabitants of foreign planets, 'intelligent' beings, humanoid or of various mythic makes, have one remarkable trait in common: their intimate structure is never depicted. In a supreme concession to biped propriety, not only do centaurs wear loincloths; they wear them about their forelegs.

Our narrator may be more or less omniscient, but he is not God; he is not even a deity among men, as far as we can determine. No, he is the ancestor of Mr. Boke, who has long since enjoyed the simplicity of the name Lance to the complications of the Round Table's namesake. What can an ancestor tell us about a descendant? The same quantity, one supposes, predicted daily by science fiction pundits and science reality adherents about what will, may, should, and must occur in a world they have misperceived since the beginning of time. Yes, that's right, they haven't gotten it; the only major change in the last few decades is technology's tailwind, which has man reaching for stars that may not quite be what his manmade telescope tells him they are.

Lance officially a mononym free of extraneous names has bidden his parents farewell, and "the hope of seeing him again in life is about equal to the hope of seeing him in eternity." Someone might whisper to these parents, good folk, that what he is undertaking will make him an immortal part of immortal science, but they do not listen, wisely. Despite our endless evolution, they are firmly of the species that cannot forsake their young, that must know until the end of their (very mortal) days what has become of their beloved son. 

There is such an intolerable silence in Lance's room, with its battered books, and the spotty white shelves, and the old shoes, and the relatively new tennis racquet in its preposterously secure press, and a penny on the closet floor and all this begins to undergo a prismatic dissolution, but then you tighten the screw and everything is again in focus. And presently the Bokes return to their balcony. Has he reached his goal and if so, does he see us?

The interplanetary sighting we may take as figurative, or we may ignore as the dregs of panic, but neither agenda need be endorsed at this time. Surely his parents wish for a safe ascent and, of course, descent, even if they must imagine both on the basis of their earthly experience, which means they can hardly imagine it at all. "Will the mind of the explorer survive the shock?" says our narrator, who does not hasten to reveal the knowledge he may possess. Then there is the narrator's own ascent, of sorts:

When I was a boy of seven or eight, I used to dream a vaguely recurrent dream set in a certain environment, which I have never been able to recognize and identify in any rational manner, though I have seen many strange lands ... The nuisance of that dream was that for some reason I could not walk around the view to meet it on equal terms. There lurked in the mist a mass of something – mineral matter or the like – oppressively and quite meaninglessly shaped, and, in the course of my dream, I kept filling some kind of receptacle (translated as 'pail')  with  smaller  shapes  (translated  as 'pebbles'), and my nose was bleeding but I was too impatient and excited to do anything about it. And every time I had that dream, suddenly somebody would start screaming behind me, and I awoke screaming too, thus prolonging the initial anonymous shriek, with its initial note of rising exultation, but with no meaning attached to it any more – if there had been a meaning.

What on earth or beyond has the narrator imagined for himself? One might do well to keep in mind that the dream recounted is a boy's dream, one easily engorged with impressions of the gigantic summer sky in its awful transparency. If we look closely we can even see the moon's gaunt silhouette hovering, suggesting a point of departure, a beginning to the endlessness that is our universe, and I think we should leave matters at that.  

Given Nabokov's demolition of the science fiction genre in Lance and other places, some reviewers have graciously refrained from belaboring the point about Lance's pointlessness and if that's not clear enough, there's little we can do for you. Other critics, however, have claimed that Nabokov, at several junctures amidst his works, employs standard science-fiction techniques such as "invisibility" and "telekinesis" (please repeat the end of the last sentence, after the dash). That the story is unique in Nabokov's oeuvre cannot be denied; that what it depicts has anything at all to do with science or the giddy blackness of the unknown may open another discussion altogether. What type of discussion? A hint is dropped, a single word to be more specific, that implies that what we are reading is what we want to imagine as "the pleasure of direct and divine knowledge," even if "the mere act of imagining the matter is fraught with hideous risks." What risks, you may ask? That all our dreams are not dreams but the future in reverse.  

Wednesday
Feb082017

A Painful Case

This writer has come to be known, among other titles, as an innovator of the difficult, of the abstruse, of the unnecessarily and overindulgently literary. A judgment that renders his early works even more shocking if one considers their bluntness. They are not, it should be said, simple works. "Simple" in literature should only apply to books for children and young adults, where certain conventions are followed, or to the etiolated parcels that litter every convenience store and airport, the formulaic kitsch of which some people cannot get enough (explaining this type's everlasting appeal). Dubliners is blunt in the manner that a strong cordial does not get away from you: you know what it will do, you feel at once empowered and weakened, and yet you cannot but have another sip because even the most jaded among us are always impressed with quality. Yet our subject James Duffy, for whom life has been constructed as a fortress, is not impressed with much at all.

A bachelor and "for many years cashier of a private bank," Duffy is a resident of the Irish capital's Chapelizod "because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern, and pretentious" (ironically perhaps, the protagonist of this very modern and very pretentious work hails from this same area). Duffy clearly does not desire much human kindness, milky or otherwise, and has shut himself up in a bourgeois bunker "as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen." A survey of his shelves does not dissuade us from the suspicion that James Duffy does not believe in anything finer or greater than himself, which some may call solipsism and others misanthropy. There is a reason why Duffy "had bought himself every article of furniture in the room," but it is not ours to discover. There is also a reason (perhaps the very same one) why "he allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his bank," and why the probability of such a crime dissipated. Maybe a snapshot of our man will yield more clarity:

Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder. A medieval doctor would have called him saturnine. His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets. On his long and rather large head grew dry black hair and a tawny moustache did not quite cover an unamiable mouth. His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny brows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.

To paraphrase this author, you cannot know how ugly or beautiful a face is until you try and draw it (I will say that I initially read "not quite unamiable mouth," a dull bromide). But we have already sketched Mr. Duffy, so how should we presume? From this passage and his subsequent acts, there remains no doubt as to his character. Self-serving, arrogant, vain, and asocial, he is well-read but far too enamored with his own literary knowledge, which for him means absorbing a lot of 'important' books so as to be able to present them to lesser minds in a discreetly condescending manner. A person far unkinder than I might even suggest that Mr. James Duffy could represent the typical talentless literary critic ("ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed" seems to lean in that direction), but there is no need for such contumely. Which is why his sudden romance with a married woman, a certain Emily Sinico, takes everyone, Mr. James Duffy included, rather violently by surprise.   

What befalls the lonely coparcenaries of this little fling, and how the story won its title, will be left to the curious reader. The last paragraph of A Painful Case has been much discussed among people who like to discuss such things, undoubtedly because it forfends any hope for humankind and its sentiments. Similarities to another, far greater tale with an equally ambiguous ending are unavoidable, but Chekhov's masterpiece at least envisions the couple acting in unison, as two halves of a whole that, per society's conventional mores, is not permitted to endure. For all the effortless beauty of the prose that cages the two lovebirds, Duffy's affair with Mrs. Sinico must be considered nothing if not implausible. That is, unless we truly subscribe to his interpretation of her as an empty vessel, a hollow orb polished by his palms:

Neither he nor she had had any adventure before and neither was conscious of any incongruity. Little by little he entangled his thoughts with hers. He lent her books, provided her with ideas, shared his intellectual life with her. She listened to all. Sometimes in return for his theories she gave out some fact of her own life.

Whether Mr. Duffy has indeed squeezed the universe into a ball, and whether that ball will be rolled toward some overwhelming question, will be discussed by those who deem the identification of literary allusions the mark of a cultured mind. For some reason Mr. Duffy strikes one as belonging to that group, even if the only group he could ever imagine joining is some cenacle in which he obtained a lifelong presidency. One also has the distinct impression that the currency that Mrs. Sinico utilizes, a plain fact from her plain existence ("Her husband's great-great-grandfather had come from Leghorn"; "Her husband was captain of a mercantile boat"; "They had one child," and so forth), is not much valued by the recipient, who has assumed the far more generous task of imbuing her with ideas from books – as if life outside of libraries were entirely notionless. Is it because he has seen the moment of his greatness flicker? Much more likely that Mr. Duffy could not distinguish a mermaid from the eternal foam.