Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Or Old

I was thinking I might write an essay discussing who was right: Emily Dickinson or Homer. Emily Dickinson writes:

The Robin's my Criterion for Tune--
Because I grow--where Robins do--
But were I Cuckoo born--
I'd swear by him--
The ode familiar rules the Noon--

[from #285]

But Telemachos in Homer (Lattimore's translation) says:

"There is nothing wrong in his singing the sad return of the Danaans.
People, surely, always give more applause to that song
which is the latest to circulate among the listeners."

(Odyssey, Bk. 1, ll. 350-352)

So which is it? New or old? Familiar or strange?

My first thought was I could reconcile them in some way. (That's my temperament in any case.) Maybe with nature we prefer the familiar, but with human constructs we seek variety? That nature is continuously fulfilling, but man's constructions are inherently thin, so we need to see something new. That's a little hard on Tolstoy or on Homer, but it could be true. But men go seek novelty in nature, too, climb to the top of Mount Everest or penetrate to the heart of the Amazon, and it's mostly to see new things. So maybe not.

Then it occurred to me, it's mostly men in jungles or on snowy peaks. Could this be a difference between Emily and (Mr.) Homer. (For I'm assuming it is Mr. Homer, pace Samuel Butler.) But Thoreau contemplated Walden Pond and women climb Everest these days. It's likely an accident of history that most explorers were men.

That was the essay I was going to write. Because of course there must be a truth. But I couldn't figure it out. Maybe they're just both right? Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who Do I Write Like?

OK. This is the gizmo making the rounds at the moment. The Significant Other (who's writing for Playboy at the moment) entered part of the article and it reported back, "James Joyce." Oh yeah? I can do that, I thought. Let's find out.

Actually I pride myself on using a variety of styles, so prima facie proof of success would be if it produced different models for different pieces. My two stories in Antigonish Review? Dan Brown and Stephen King. Ouch. But then three pieces in the late lamented Lichen are styled like David Foster Wallace, William Gibson, and Margaret Atwood. That sounds a bit better. My stories in Feathertale produce H. G. Wells and another David Foster Wallace. The H. G. Wells seems unlikely, but then I haven't read any H. G. Wells, so I'll reserve judgment. My story in Grain claims Robert Louis Stevenson as patron. As Borges' favorite English author, I'm not going to fight that.

Pretty good variety, so I guess that proves what I thought about my own writing and maybe suggests the tool isn't entirely hokum. But still no James Joyce. So I tried chapters from the N.I.P. (novel in progress), which is written in a deliberate mix of styles. We get J. K. Rowling, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, and Margaret Mitchell (!) plus some more David Foster Wallace. Have I got your attention yet?

But still no James Joyce.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Susan Sontag

I've been reading the first volume of Sontag's journals. From her entry for 1/15/57.

To become erudite in

1) Life and philosophy of Abelard
2) Marine biology, esp. jellyfish
3) Baron Bunsen
4) Philosophy of Spinoza
5) Book of Job

I find I've become very fond of the young Sontag. This is both funny and admirable.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bad blurbing

On the back of a novel I ordered from Amazon--it doesn't really matter what it is or who it's by--there's some boilerplate written by the publisher meant to make me want to read (well, at least buy) the book. I'm told, in black on pale blue, I'll like this novel for its 'observations', its 'language', and its 'narrative'. Had I seen this description before I ordered the novel, I never would have bought it. What's happened to plot and characters? And any novel praised for its language, I find particularly suspect. This one, I'm told, has 'precise and brilliant' language. The only thing worse would be if it were 'poetic'.

It's not that I'm in favor of pedestrian observations and mangled language, but most of the contemporary novels I dislike, whatever they may be, are celebrated for their language. Ick. Narrative might interest me, but I'd never use the word. Rather, is it a good story?

I don't really remember what interested me in this particular novel. But I'm sure the reviewer--if it was a reviewer that clued me in--didn't praise the novel's 'language'.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Influential books

The current meme of influential books is an interesting one, and I've decided to post my take on it. Most of the lists I've seen have been political bloggers rather than litbloggers, but that just makes mine all the more independent.

So here they are. This is influential, and not faves. Roughly chronological with my reading them.

1.) The Nancy Drew series. I read The Cat In The Hat books avidly before this, but these were the first books I hunted out on my own. (The Cat In The Hat books showed up in the mail.) Trixie Belden would do as well. I wasn't nearly as fond of the Hardy Boys.

2.) The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. There were a couple of years where I read two or three chapters a night before going to bed. I was once showing a short story to a friend of mine and he said he really liked it, but there was one sentence in particular he thought was beautiful. When he pointed it out to me, I realized I'd unconsciously stolen it from Tolkien. I don't know what that says about his taste or my writing.

3.) Goedel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. For a computer person, there's relatively little in the way of traditional computer nerd readings on this list. But there is this. This is the first serious non-fiction book I read on my own, and I took it seriously. I followed it with The Mind's I, which in particular led to #5. But first...

4.) The Odyssey. Out of all the Latin and Greek I've read, there's no doubt this is the most important. Computers pay the bills, but this is the reason I have a master's in Comparative Literature.

5.) Ficciones by Borges. I was using footnotes in short stories before I knew who David Foster Wallace was.

6.) Notes From The Underground by Dostoevsky. I read this and the four major novels in a relatively short period. I was working nights and sleeping days. I was devastated, maybe partly in a good way?

7.) Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The healthy antidote. I don't really understand why this isn't more popular than it is. People read Richardson, which remains slightly mysterious to me, and they read Sterne, which isn't. Short of Tolkien and the Odyssey, this is the book I've read the most.

8.) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Here's where I insert my rant about Tale of Two Cities. Dickens has become a deep and abiding pleasure for me, with this probably at the top of the list. But we read Tale Of Two Cities in high school, and everyone else who read Dickens in high school that I've talked to read that one as well. It's not funny! It's historical! While it has its charms, it has less of the things make Dickens Dickens. It wasn't until I read Great Expectations and Bleak House (I forget which came first) that I realized I actually liked Dickens.

9.) Middlemarch by George Eliot. Now when I read it, it's the tragedy of Lydgate that moves me, but it used to be Dorothea's story. I'm afraid I feel Ladislaw's not good enough for her. When I first read this, in my late twenties, this was the one book that made me wish I'd been lead to the great Victorians earlier.

10.) Selected Poems by W. H. Auden. For a long time I was a bad reader of poetry in English, but there was always this, and a few other things, most prominently T. S. Eliot. And I have a T-shirt from Finland (altogether elsewhere?) across which moves a 'vast/ herd of reindeer.' The T-shirt's black, however.

And now I'm going to turn it up to 11:

11.) The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. Notice the ring composition: we started with mystery and ended with mystery. Crispin's uneven but this one's great. This is the one that really made me want to write my own.

The one thing that strikes me about this list, though I guess it doesn't surprise me, is how old most of it is. There are living authors I like and who I think about, say Pynchon or Alice Munro, but none of them with the impact of the older stuff.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Vanity Fair (The Movie)

Things turn out well for Becky Sharp at the end of this Vanity Fair. Surprise! It's not like the novel. But is there anyone who's ever read the book who didn't want a better fate for Becky? I imagine Thackeray reading through the book one last time before final revisions, saying, "Gosh, I wish my sense of morality and overall plan for the book allowed me to give her a husband and just a small fortune." So what Mira Nair has done is understandable.

It's not Thackeray's Vanity Fair, but that may be OK.

There are a few other changes as well. George Osborne is a more thoroughgoing villain: It's Osborne that keeps Becky from marrying Jos Sedley at the beginning, not Sedley's own shyness. Osborne says he won't marry into a family to have Becky Sharp as a sister-in-law, giving Sedley choice of sacrificing his own or his sister's happiness. This nicely sets up the ending. (Think Persuasion more than Vanity Fair.) Dobbin has a tendency toward priggishness in the book, but here it's turned up several degrees, so much so that I wondered when Amelia finally does marry him at the end of the movie if she's made a second bad choice. But then was there anyone who didn't think Thackeray's Amelia was weak and undeserving anyway?

So, I thought it was a pretty good movie on its own terms. Were there any flaws? Two, one that I'm sure of, and one I rather suspect. First, the film does follow the book closely enough that Thackeray's logic really should apply. Becky's grasping is not entirely charming. She's always ready to give up the bird in her hand for the two in the bush. The Marquess of Steyn (more worldly wise and bemused than in the book) tells her as much, that none of it will make her happy. Has she learned and will she be content with her marriage and small fortune? There will be no more dancing for the King. If she's learned anything from her adventures, we don't see it, and I'm not sure her implied future happiness makes sense or is earned.

But I also wonder if the movie's intelligible. I read the book, some years ago now, but I have read it. Does any of it make sense if you haven't? I can't comment on that, but I do wonder.