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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Pynchon (2)

Monday
Dec162013

Under the Rose

There are countless ways to dream oneself a writer, but only one lonely path to ever achieving that noble aim (as a character in this overhyped novel discovers). In our days of mass market publishing, where even the oddest and vilest of tomes can find print and accolades, we are no longer obliged to peruse obscure journals, college newspapers, or even minor presses to learn of novelties. Nor should we be doing so, anyway: literature of genius rarely, if ever banners the young. Juvenilia and apprentice writings often stun the assiduous researcher just as much as the older writer, who, hopeful of youth's energy, ends up quickly squinting at his first pages through trembling, forked fingers. Occasionally, however, one finds a lollygagging charm in the younger writer not evident in his more careful and ironic successor. A good introduction to a story in this collection.

Our protagonist is a porcupine (and, as we learn from the author's introduction, the antagonist is a mole), which may explain his overweening antipathy to human interaction. He also doesn't like people because he spends his days and nights watching them, lying to them, and, on harsh occasion, murdering them. Porpentine is our man in Cairo, or, as the story opens, in Alexandria, and his tasks accumulate as Britain nears this historical conflict which he deems inevitable. We meet him, "his face ... carefully arranged: nerveless, rakish-expectant, he might have been there to meet a lady," in one of those cafés which subsist on fictional intelligence officers. As it were, his watch keeps promising him his ruddy-cheeked colleague in espial, Goodfellow, and while the latter ambles through Muhammad Ali square, we are afforded a glimpse into their situation (soon, of course, to become the Situation):

Tender and sheepish, therefore, they wove their paths to cross his own at random. Mirrored, too, his private tactics: living in the most frequented hotels, sitting at the tourist cafés, traveling always by the respectable, public routes. Which surely upset him most; as if, Porpentine once having fashioned such proper innocence, any use of it by others – especially Moldweorp's agents – involved some violation of patent right. They would pirate if they could his child's gaze, his plump angel's smile. For nearly fifteen years he'd fled their sympathy; since the lobby of the Hotel Bristol, Naples, on a winter evening in '83, when everyone you knew in spying's freemasonry seemed to be waiting. For Khartoum to fall, for the crisis in Afghanistan to keep growing until it could be given the name of sure apocalypse. There he had come, as he'd known he must at some stage of the game, to face the already aged face of Moldweorp himself, the prizeman or maestro, feel the old man's hand solicitous on his arm and hear the earnest whisper: 'Things are reaching a head, we may be for it, all of us, do be careful.'

That Moldweorp would now be the German Maulwurf, with the double meaning intact, is not lost on Pynchon; nor is the fact that although "Porpentine worked nominally for England and Moldweorp for Germany, they probably would have chosen the same sides had their employments been reversed." A ruthless game will be afoot as "Egypt's sun beat down, somehow threatening," but the questions asked are the same as in every trial of the spy: whom can I trust, and what happens when I cannot even trust them?

Much more happens: Goodfellow finds a bedfellow in eighteen-year-old Victoria Wren (both cataract and Queen would not be amused); Victoria's much younger sister Mildred is pawned off, in a somewhat perverse aside, on Porpentine; the girls' father Sir Alistair continues to comb Egypt for a decent pipe-organ, finding a less than perfect one and imbuing our quilled hero, if briefly, with a sense of the otherworld; and slowly but surely a plot thickens and bubbles around a Consul who will be at a certain time and place in the gun-sight of a host of malefactors. The plot of Under the Rose is pure Buchan, with the concomitant nastiness and topicality which both makes the Scot a joy to read and assures his oblivion. And like in Buchan's war-torn landscapes there are glimmering jewels amidst this dusty, treacherous desert: "He fell asleep reading an old and mutilated edition of Antony and Cleopatra and wondering if it were still possible to fall under the spell of Egypt: its tropic unreality, its curious gods"; "As if her glow were a reminder of any Yorkshire sunset, or at least some vestige of a vision of Home which neither he nor Goodfellow could afford"; "So that at some point, prowling any mews or alley in midcentury London, the supreme rightness of 'the game for its own sake' must have occurred to him, and acted as an irresistible vector aimed toward 1900." Yet one of the finest and most curious passages relates the last year of decisions by Victoria, who seems to have come to Egypt so as to elope from it: 

This was her first trip abroad. She talked a great deal about her religion: had, for a time, considered the son of God as a young lady will consider any eligible bachelor. But had realized eventually that of course he was not, but maintained instead an immense harem clad in black, decked with rosaries. She would never stand for such competition, had therefore left the novitiate after a matter of weeks but not the Church: that, with its sad-faced statuary, its odor of candles and incense, formed along with an uncle Evelyn, the twin foci of her serene orbit. The uncle, a wild or renegade sundowner, would arrive from Australia once a year bringing no gifts but prepared to weave as many yarns as the sisters could cope with. As far as Victoria remembered, he had never repeated himself. 

There are college term papers to be drafted with Victoria's devotion as that of the fledgling writer (the quite proper use of "novitiate" will nevertheless surely be adduced as a hint), with his religion being literature itself. Yet it is the last line which remains the most marvelous. A raconteur, you see, is someone who, with a phony aside or two, only repeats others; a bore is someone who only repeats himself. That is why, also along with the Wrens, specifically along with Victoria, a zealous pyramid hunter, a certain Bongo-Shaftsbury, can go on and on about silly archeological artefacts and other such nonsense yet not appear to pose any romantic obstacles. That is also why there is another type of profession in which repetition and boringness are virtues. Well, they were virtues until they were replaced "by trends and tendencies and impersonal curves on a lattice of pale blue lines." Very thin and cracked pale blue lines.         

Saturday
Jan262013

The Small Rain

Why on earth would a college graduate volunteer for the armed forces, is the question subtending this story (it is asked in numerous different ways of more than one person, but only once directly).  Even if most privates almost necessarily do not have such an education, the reasons for risking one's physical and mental well-being for flag and country are so variegated as to render the query useless.  Some join for the adventure; some for the escape (not quite the same as the adventure, which may involve a wholly positive desire); some for the funding that will allow them, in time, also to become college graduates; some because their ancestors have always been soldiers, and ancestor worship is the most fundamental form of honor; some, we hope not many, because they admire gunmanship and destruction of nameless foes; and some, doubtless, who are indeed patriotic, a wonderful word that in recent decades has been diminished by a consanguineous term, nationalist.  A phrase-book might instruct you that patriotism involves pride in one's country of origin, while nationalism suggests feelings of protective superiority, but I do not often if ever consult phrase-books.  And in the most ethnically diverse country in the world, your patriotism and my nationalism may well reflect precisely the same sentiment.

The place is Fort Roach, Louisiana, and the year is "back around mid-July of '57," when even fewer of us were lucky enough to have completed work at a higher institution of learning.  One war of sorts has just been concluded on a distant peninsula whose strife persists to this day; and we should not forget, we cannot forget what happened to the previous generation of Europe and much of non-Europe.  In this setting, we meet Nathan Levine, our lodestar through what will be designated as a swamp, if a swamp that has become a shrine to death: 

Nathan "Lardass" Levine, specialist 3/C, had been assigned to the same battalion, the same company, the same bunk, for thirteen months now, going on fourteen.  Roach being the kind of installation it was, this circumstance might have driven more ordinary men to the point of suicide or at least insanity; indeed, according to certain more or less suppressed army statistics, it often did.  Levine, however, was not quite ordinary.  He was one of the few men outside of those bucking for section eight who actually liked Ft. Roach.  He had quietly and unobtrusively gone native: the angular edges of his Bronx accent had been dulled and softened into a modified drawl; he had found that white lightning, usually straight or else mixed with whatever happened to be coming out of the company Coke machine at the time, was in its way as agreeable as scotch on the rocks; he now listened to hillbilly groups in bars in the neighboring towns as raptly as he had once dug Lester Young or Gerry Mulligan at Birdland.  He was well over six feet and loose-jointed, but what certain co-eds at City had once described as a plowboy physique, rawboned and taut-muscled, had run to flab after three years of avoiding work details.  He had a fine beer belly now, in which he maintained a certain pride, and a large behind which he was not so proud of, which had earned him his nickname.

"Run to flab" is so marvelous an image that the rest of the passage could be middling and still enjoyable – but our fictitious flabster is far from middling.  In short order Levine is dispatched with a gaggle of other soldiers, including one, Pierce, who attended a far more prestigious university than he did (nevertheless, it is Levine who is accorded "the highest I.Q. in the damn battalion"), to a hideous assignment: the removal of corpses from a small gulf coast village misinformed about a hurricane's landfall.  For "ten hours" a day, then, Levine aids in "picking up stiffs," including one impaled upon a barbed wire fence that does something he could not expect.  The barbed wire, the very obvious detail that Levine is a Jew, his (reciprocated) interest in "Buttercup," a blonde waitress with a "slight Rebel accent," and the image of innocent and utter death should remind a reader, even more now than at the time of the story's publication, of the particular horror that occurred in Europe.  This image remains a shadow, however, if a long one, and allows us to comprehend why Levine would feel so comfortable in surroundings so alien.  Alien unless one accepts that surroundings, be they clothes, a city, or a language, do not make a man – but this is an argument for another day.                   

That The Small Rain is this author's first work may not surprise his completists, who perhaps would be loath to welcome its similarities with the literary output of another writer.  But this latter point should not be surprising at all.  Consider Salinger's preeminence in the late fifties, his prolongation of a won war through tales so harrowing in their implications and consequences that no one ever needed to read about a bloody battle again, and you have a sense of his will imposed upon American literature.  For my part, I likely have not read enough Pynchon (my boredom with this novel will surely apostatize me) to comment with adamantine authority.  So I will leave the commentary to the author himself, or, I should say, to his beloved specialist from the Bronx:

What I mean is something like a closed circuit.  Everybody on the same frequency.  And after a while you forget about the rest of the spectrum and start believing that this is the only frequency that counts or is real.  While outside, all up and down the land, these are the wonderful colors and x-rays and ultraviolets going on.

The immediate reference appears to be the military, but it can appertain to any thinking collective, any mission, program, or system of belief.  For some people being in a closed circuit spares them the rather onerous task of developing their own values and personality, thus staving off the persistent fear that there might not be very much to develop.  As it were, Levine endures the squalor without too much of Esmé, although that precocious, verbose little child would have nothing much to share with Buttercup.  And what of our title?  One, simple explanation is provided, and we may nod our heads in slight disappointment (I will not disappoint you in advance), but the clever reader can think of many others.  Some well outside a closed circuit.