Updike and Out!

November 27, 2012

I have just read what is considered one of John Updike’s best novels, Rabbit Redux, the second of four telling the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom’s life.  I found it to border on revolting, almost claustrophobic in its ‘conservative’ resignation to…well, almost everything, misogynistic of course, smug and obtuse about race in America – I could go on.  Updike is obviously an extremely intelligent man, and he writes beautifully, but what is style without content?  What is intelligence without critical appreciation?  Writing a novel isn’t a practical matter, just laying it all out, like engineering!  If you really want a good take-down of the man’s work, you cannot do better than the Gore Vidal in this review of Updike’s memoir and (then) latest novel.

My first exposure to Updike was Roger’s Version, which seemed little more than trash to me, but I was assured by fans that it was the very worst of this prolific writer’s output.  I had read some of his literary reviews and found them sensitive and interesting:  I’d even liked a short story and poem or two that I’d run across.  Time to give him another chance I thought.  While Rabbit Redux is a world away from Roger’s Version, the themes and content are very similar, and I’m done with Mr. Updike.

I had to grit my teeth to finish Redux, it was so deeply boring.  Harry/Rabbit understands little, questions nothing, and acts on instinct, all the while claiming to feel guilt.  I think this is how Updike seeks to portray the beautiful ordinariness of peoples’ lives.  Harry also hits his wife and the eighteen-year old rich drug addict runaway whom he takes in after his wife leaves him.  He and a loony black radical, another house guest  the one pushing dope on the girl, use her as their sex slave while they read Frederick Douglas’ autobiography to one another.  Harry also has a kid who witnesses much of this, whom Harry give beer to drink, and before whom he swears profusely and smokes pot.  He also complains the world is going to hell and that hippies have no respect for their country – go figure.

It sounds melodramatic, and maybe even interesting, but it’s all so flat, so filled with descriptions of the material minutiae of the 1960s, and the people all seem on autopilot, that it is simply excruciating.  Updike is considered a giant of the realist tradition, but to me, none of it seems real: more like the fantasy of reality imagined by an overly literary and intellectual man who is for some reason preoccupied with religion and authority.  Consider:  Harry works as a linotype operator, and comes from a working class family.  His sister goes to Hollywood to become an actress but ends up as an expensive whore.  Everyone in the family seems fine with this:  not a peep about choices, lifestyle, disappointment, anger, whatever, when she breezes home for a few days.  She and Harry chat about fucking a lot.  Just like brothers and sisters everywhere, right?  Maybe I’m naïve…

I could go on a lot about everything in this book that I didn’t like, didn’t believe, or couldn’t fathom, it was so elaborately pointless – the extended descriptions of Harry’s masturbating for example.  The lame discussions of the politics of the Vietnam War.  The constant looming of sex as a instinctual drive that seems to give no one pleasure.  The fact that neither Harry nor anybody else seems to want to try to figure out a way to do something with their lives that satisfies them.  Harry’s love for his son that seems limited to his view of him as a biological extension of himself and that certainly does not involve any care for his welfare beyond asking the drug addicts he harbors not to shoot up in front of him.  And… oh, never mind.

He sure does write sentences well, though.

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Leni

February 28, 2010
   
   

 
My first post on Kafka’s novel,  The Trial includes an image from the film adaptation by Orson Welles, showing Anthony Perkins as Joseph K, and Romy Schneider as Leni cuddling together.  Maybe it was the awful video transfer I was watching, but I couldn’t get through this movie, and I read the book twice in succession.  It’s another very faithful adaptation…again I say, perhaps too faithful.  But unlike Chabrol’s Bovary, and Heart of a Dog about which I entertained similar, but ultimately abandoned reservations, I’ll pass on this one.  Welles told Perkins that the movie should play like a black comedy, a directive very much in keeping with Kafka’s intent, I think, but the comedy doesn’t come through in what I saw here.

Romy, however, was fabulously seductive as Leni, the nurse of the imperious advocate (Welles) who terrifies his clients whom he is supposedly helping.  Like all the women in The Trial, Leni exerts a tremendous erotic pull on Joseph K, a pull which is simply “a snare” in Kafka’s universe.  A snare keeping Joseph from…what?


Sentimental Revolution – 1848

March 19, 2009

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The Sentimental Education (L’Education sentimentale) by Gustave Flaubert is a bleak and depressing book.  It is also a confusing and difficult book in some ways.  I have just read it for the third or fourth time.  Supposedly, Ford Maddox Ford said that one cannot consider oneself educated until one has read it fourteen times…I’ve a ways to go.

The plot is simple:  A young man, Frederic Moreau, comes to Paris from the country, ostensibly to study law.  On a river boat, he meets a married woman, Madame Arnoux, and falls in love with, develops a monumental crush on, becomes infatuated with her.  How you describe his feelings has a lot to do with how you make sense of the book.  The rest of the story unwinds over the years as he periodically falls in and out of love with her, always from a distance, for she is a respectable woman, and is not interested in an adulterous affair.  Frederic satisfies his amorous longings elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the upheaval of the Revolution of 1848 comes and goes.  Frederic runs through all his uncle’s money that he inherited and ends up moving back to the country. C’est tout!

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The subtitle of the novel is “The story of a young man.”  Frederic is a sort of anti-hero, i.e., as the main character of the novel, he is not very inspiring.  He is good looking, has a sense of humour, is generous, intelligent, and reasonably well educated.  He is also weak, without direction, a bit spoiled, given to useless romantic day dreaming, incapable of forming an honest relationship with a woman, and rather superficial.  In the course of the book, he accomplishes absolutely nothing with his life.  It is clear that were it not for his inheritance, which gives him material comfort and social status, he would be nothing at all.

Stange to have such an unappealing character as a protaganist, but that is Flaubert’s way.  When asked how he knew about women like his “heroine” Emma Bovary, he replied, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”  He identifies with his characters, he sympathizes with them, but he does not spare them or flatter them.

Madame Bovary

At times, reading this book, I felt that Frederic was a sort of male Emma.  That is, if Emma Bovary had had the freedom that being male and having money brought in that society, instead of being a provincial petty bourgeois woman trapped in a dull marriage and dying of boredom, only able to dream about the things that Frederic does, she would have been like him.  In many ways, they share a profound superficiality.  Frederic ends by becoming a provincial non-entity.  Emma stuffs her mouth with arsenic and dies a horrible death.  Women have it pretty bad in a lot of nineteenth century novels.  [The image here shows Isabelle Huppert playing Emma in a recent film version of Madame Bovary.]

woman_1840sThroughout the novel, women are treated pretty much as whores or bank accounts.  If they have money, men try to marry them.  If they are good looking, they try to get them in bed.  Some make their living that way, at various levels of classiness, like Rosanette, Frederic’s mistress, who has a large stable of lovers at one time or another, and whom Frederic “shares” with Arnoux, the husband of his true love.  This irritates Frederic, but of course, he does nothing about it.  Frederic’s lack of honesty with himself and lady friends about his feelings is absolutely typical of all the men in the book, and perhaps of most men of that time.  Women are interchangeable. His love for Madame Arnoux often seems childish, almost like an incestuous mother-fixation, he idealizes her so much.  At other times, his erotic longings take on a darker cast:

Another thirst had come to him the thirst for women, for licentious pleasure, for all that Parisian life permitted him to enjoy…Already the dream had taken hold of him. It seemed to him that he was yoked beside Arnoux to the pole of a hackney-coach, and that the Marechale sat astride him, and disembowelled him with her gold spurs.

The confusing aspect of the novel is the way it presents the everyday reality through which Frederic moves.  The progression of time is not clear – we rarely know what year it is or when things happened.  We are dropped into dinner parties and meetings at which we are given snatches of conversation, references to ideas and controversies in the air, often without quite knowing who is saying what.  The characters say things in conversation that don’t get answered – remarks are left hanging in the air.  Many exchanges have ambiguous meanings for us, and for the characters?

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Of course, the tumultuous events of the revolution come in for a good deal of scrutiny by Flaubert.  In one of the more cinematic sequences, Frederic makes his way through some contested streets, men die next to him, he steps on a hand, two people are arguing on the sidewalk, it all seems like a show.  Later, in bed with his mistress, he hears the sounds of carts and marching in the streets below.  He is sobbing – “I’ve wanted you for so long!”  Of course, it’s a lie.  He has just dashed all his hopes of ever becoming intimate with Madame Arnoux.  His dissembling is something of a metaphor for the political chaos and disillusion to come.

Flaubert operates on the stupidity of revolutionary politics and reaction with a sharp scalpel:

At a gathering of well-to-do citizens:

Most of the men present had served at least four governments; and they would have sold France or the human race in order to preserve their own incomes, to save themselves from any discomfort or embarrassment, or even through sheer baseness, through worship of force. They all insisted that political crimes were inexcusable. It would be less harmful to pardon those which were provoked by want.

The omnipresent cliche, doing service for thought:

And they did not fail to put forward the eternal illustration of the father of a family stealing the eternal loaf of bread from the eternal baker.

The utopian naivete of the workers:

“Still, you ought to take care of yourself.”

“Pooh! I am substantial! What does this matter?  The Republic is proclaimed! We’ll be happy henceforth!  Some journalists, who were talking near me just now, said they were going to liberate Poland and Italy! No more kings! You understand? The entire land free ! the entire land free ! “

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1848millais

This idealistic young man, befriended by Frederic, is shot down in the end, while protesting on the steps of a monument.  Frederic’s jaw drops when he sees that the soldier who killed him is Senecal, the one-time fiery and puritanical socialist revolutionary.  He’s gone over to the forces of reaction – power is his ultimate good.

In several set-pieces, Flaubert depicts the chaotic looting that took place in Paris when the insurgents gained control:

A vulgar curiosity made them rummage all the dressing-rooms, all the recesses. Liberated convicts thrust their arms into the beds of princesses, and rolled themselves on the top of them, to console themselves for not being able to embrace their owners. Others, with sinister faces, wandered about silently, looking for something to steal, but too great a multitude was there. . . The heat became more and more suffocating; and the two friends, afraid of being stifled, seized the opportunity of escaping. . .In the antechamber, standing on a heap of garments, appeared a girl of the town [common whore]  as a statue of  Liberty, motionless, her grey eyes wide open a fearful sight.

The forces of order fare no better in the text – they treat the beaten insurgents with terrible brutality:

There were nine hundred men in the place, huddled together in the midst of filth, with no attempt at order, their faces blackened with powder and clotted blood, shivering with ague and breaking out into cries of rage ; those who were brought there to die were not separated from the rest. . . The lamp, suspended from the arched roof, looked like a stain of blood, and little green and yellow flames fluttered about, caused by the emanations from the vault. Through fear of epidemics, a commission was appointed. When he had advanced a few steps, the President recoiled, frightened by the stench from the excrements and from the corpses.

As soon as the prisoners drew near a vent-hole, the National Guards who were on sentry, in order to prevent them from shaking the bars of the grating, prodded them indiscriminately with their bayonets.

As a rule they showed no pity … for the fascination of self-interest equaled the madness of want, aristocracy had the same fits of fury as low debauchery, and the cotton cap did not show itself less hideous than the red cap.

And everywhere, there is the shadow of received wisdom – people “thundering against”this and that, using phrases that would be echoed later in his Dictionary of Received Ideas, a compendium of cliches and common stupidity:

Then Property attained in the public regard the level of Religion, and was confounded with God. The attacks made on it appeared to them a sacrilege; almost a species of cannibalism.

“It’s a law written on the face of Nature! Children cling to their toys. All peoples, all animals have the same instinct. The lion even, if he were able to speak, would declare himself a proprietor! I myself, messieurs, began with a capital of fifteen thousand francs. Would you be surprised to hear that for thirty years I used to get up at four o’clock every morning? I’ve had as much pain as five hundred devils in making my fortune ! And people want to tell me I’m not the master, that my money is not my money ; in short, that property is theft ! “

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And it ends in a fizzle.  Frederic and Deslauriers, both failures, having watched their dreams and their illusions crash, but still friends, recall an incident from their school years when they visited the town brothel.  Frederic was so timid and embarrassed that he got spooked and ran, and since he had the money, Deslauriers had to follow.  “Those were the best times!”  Is this a final, ironic rapier thrust into the belly of their self-delusion and triviality?  Is it a nostalgic surrender to the age of innocence?  Or is it an ambiguous recognition and acceptance of both, and more?

Here is a link to the full text of the novel, albeit, in a rather stuffy translation from the 1920’s.


Sicko!

January 5, 2009

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I learned of Alfred Kubin from,  where else? Phillipe Julien’s Dreamers of Decadence. There is an exhibit of his work at the Neue Gallery now.  You can see more of his weird images at the gallery site and this review in the NYTimes.  He is not well known in America, and there is hardly anything on him in English I think.  I was surprised to find that he had written a novel as well.  I don’t know how he managed to survive the Nazi regime – how could he not be on their list as decadents to be expunged?


L’Amour Fou: Happiness in Crime

November 1, 2007

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The much loved Adams’ Family TV show was “inspired” by the ghoulish cartoons of Charles Adams from the New Yorker magazine. But what about the characters of Gomez and Morticia in particular? I don’t think there was any precedent for them in Chas. Adams’ work. Could it be that the fin de siecle French author, Barbey d’Aurevilly, is the source? Certainly, his story, “Happiness in Crime,” in the collection Weird Women, depicts a pair who could easily have been the model for that madly passionate couple, so in love with one another that the rest of the world just about ceases to exist, Gomez and Morticia Adams. L’Amour Fou, or Mad Love.

In the beginning of the story, “Happiness in Crime,” the narrator is strolling through the zoo with his elderly friend, Dr. Forty. They see a couple – tall, austere, dressed in black, the woman extremely beautiful, the man, a bit of a dandy – looking at a black panther. The woman stares at the beast so intently that it cringes and closes its eyes. She unbuttons her glove and pushes her hand through the bars of the cage, then she gives the animal a slap! The panther snaps its jaws at her, but succeeds only in swallowing her glove. The man grabs the woman’s hand, kisses it passionately, and exclaims in a tone of awestruck love, “Fool!” Remind you of anyone..? (“Darling, when you speak French, you drive me wild!!!)

The two of them have a crime in their past that allowed them to come together. The doctor knows their secret, but is sworn not to reveal it. He’s happy to keep mum: He loves to observe them, to try and figure out how they manage to be so happy in crime, so untroubled by their evil deed, and he wonders if there is a kernel of discord at the center of their all-consuming passion. (There isn’t!) The world does not exist for them, only each other.

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The author invokes this scuplture, by Canova, to describe the nature of the their total absorption in their love and their secret embraces.