Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flannery O'Connor's grotesque

Flannery O’Connor used the Southern grotesque to instil in her novels and short stories a sense of the violence of redemption which is more extreme than any of her counterparts. Thelma J. Shinn explains this is because, ‘her writing is based upon at least two traditions – the Roman Catholic and the Southern Gothic.’ Friedman develops this point by suggesting: ‘Flannery O’Connor’s Catholicism separates her from most of her Southern contemporaries. Although her characters are mainly Bible Belt fundamentalist types they seem informed by a sense of Catholic sin and redemption.’ It was through the use of the grotesque that O’Connor attempted to lay bare the corruption she saw in the City of Man and to demonstrate the path to the City of God. Grotesques are essential to O’Connor’s work, but there is an important distinction to be made between them. As Thelma Shinn explains, there are three types: firstly the physical grotesques such as Hulga with her wooden leg or the tattooed Parker in Parker’s Back; secondly, her spiritual grotesques, such as Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away or Hazel Motes from Wise Blood, who blinds himself with acid in the search for redemption; and thirdly, the secular grotesques, like Rayber, who are impervious to the word of God. As Shinn explains:

it becomes apparent that [her] spiritual grotesques are also on the path to salvation. Their violence is directed toward the physical world; they are destroying the body to save the soul. Not so with Miss O'Connor's secular grotesques. If a physical affliction is the presence of God for the physical grotesques and God is Himself a physical affliction for the spiritual grotesques, the secular grotesques on the other hand suffer from a spiritual affliction. Their violence is directed toward the spirit rather than the body.

The difficulty I always have with O'Connor is the violence. With the spiritual grotesques I can perhaps see it if, like Haze, it is self-inflicted; but with characters like Tarwater, where the violence is not self-inflicted (he is buggered by the Devil) then I fail to understand the Christian sensibility behind it. Similarly, with the secular grotesques I see no need for violence whatever, either to the soul or to the body. As an atheist, I would have to count as one of O'Connor's secular grotesques, yet I feel no threat of violence to either my soul or my body. For me, she is creating a false premise.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Understated writing

Here's an extract from the opening of Anne Tyler's short novel, Earthly Possessions. The main character is in a bank having some money counted out:

Just at that moment, the nylon jacket started up behind me. Somebody pushed me, somebody stumbled. There was a sudden flurry all around. A nylon sleeve swooped over my shoulder. A hand fastened on the stacks of bills. I was extremely irritated. Now look, I wanted to say, don't be so grabby; I was here before you were. But then the teller gave a squawk and the man ahead of me spun in my direction, unbuttoning his suit coat. One of those plumpish men, puffy-faced as if continually, just barely, holding in his anger. He fumbled at his chest and pulled out something stubby. He pointed it at the nylon jacket. Which was black - the sleeve, at any rate. The sleeve darted back (the hand clutching money) and circled my neck. For a moment I was almost flattered. I curved to make way for the object pressing into my ribs. I smelled the foggy smell of new dollars.

Anybody move and I'll kill her," said the nylon jacket.

It was me he meant.

Now, in my time I've done lots and lots of critting of stories, where I've given my impressions on the writing and how it could be improved. The reason for doing this, it should be stressed, is NEVER to improve the story or the writer, but ALWAYS to improve the reader, ie me.

Anyway, I was very struck by this opening, because I know that once, not that long ago, I would have ripped this to shreds. Utter shit, I would have said. Completely wrong register. Doesn't convey the drama of the scene. This woman is being held up at gunpoint in a bank, and she's describing the colour of his jacket, for christ's sake. Where's the sense of fear? Or danger? Sheer, unadulterated terror? (Make a note of that response - it's important.) And joking about him being grabby when she was first in the queue?: inappropriate humour, surely. And describing his face - she wouldn't have time to notice details like that. And so on...

Now, I think what a fine opening. Crisp, tartly comic but still with an edge of tension. Understated. It lets the drama unfold, and leaves the reader to decide how much or how little tension to ascribe to it. In my crit above what have I done? Deliberately tried to ratchet up the tension, with an ever-increasing triple of descriptions: fear, danger, sheer, unadulterated terror...

That's how the amateur writer would approach a scene like that. Describe every bead of sweat, ladle on the adjectives and adverbs, invest it with a portentousness it doesn't deserve.

But Anne Tyler: an excellent piece of writing: off to read the rest of it now...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Following on from the post below, this is Mircea Eliade:

In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history—from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the 'liberties' that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?

What she is suggesting is that modern man, having abandoned the myths that have furnished people like Flannery O'Connor with the certainty of redemption through suffering, no longer has any spiritual support with which to face the traumas of history. All we have is 'tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow', leading to what she describes as a 'terror of history'.

Perhaps so, but the fear of 'tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow' can at least be tempered by reconciling 'yesterday and yesterday and yesterday'. Time is undoubtedly frightening: the implacable conjunction of the unknown - swine flu, economic meltdown, environmental catastrophe, religious terrorism - and the known - that we all of us will eventually be 'heard no more' - results in an existential angst that is unique to humans. But the key to it all is not to continually stare forward, trying to predict what will happen and make your escape, but simply to come to an accommodation with it. The answer isn't in Macbeth, but in The Tempest. Make your peace with the world. Set yourself free with their applause. It's all in our own hands.

The question of suffering

Here's an intersting quote about Flannery O'Connor's views on William Faulkner, from Thomas F. Gossett in the Southern Literary Journal in 1974:

Miss O’Connor mentioned her great admiration for [William Faulkner], but then paused as if to consider. She said that the problem of suffering in Faulkner puzzled her, that he had a great ability to render it in his fiction but it always turned out to be suffering essentially without meaning.

I really do have a lot of difficulty with this. It gets to the root of O'Connor's writing and her mindset (effectively one and the same thing). I find this notion of redemption through violence extraordinary, frankly inexplicable. Tarwater finds redemption by being buggered by the Devil; Haze Motes blinds himself with acid. The Misfit slaughters an entire family. And, for O'Connor, this has meaning because it brings the mortals closer to the sky-god.

The result, for me, is that suffering in Flannery O'Connor feels manufactured. In Faulkner, because it is more rooted in humanity and human frailty, it feels more genuine. There is suffering here - the Compson family in The Sound and The Fury virtually disintegrates - but it feels like a human drama, without the intervention of a deus ex machina to skew it. Faulkner's vision was every bit as bleak as O'Connor's, yet it feels more palatable. 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow', he tells us, the suffering will go on because 'all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.'

However bleak that may be, I still find it more acceptable than O'Connor's manufactured grace, because it still leaves room for the human experience. Fools we may be, but we are still in charge of our own destiny. And as long as that is the case there is hope.

The difficulty with O'Connor's brand of suffering is that it appears not to offer hope

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

I guess I must be attuned to stories of loneliness or alone-ness – not the same thing – because it informs much of my own writing. In reading novels, more often than not that is what will jump out at me – witness my description of Honest Lil and Thomas Hudson in the post on Islands in the Stream below. And so Winesburg, Ohio, with its series of interlinked stories of isolation and disappointment and disconnection, was always going to appeal to me.

In Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson creates a place that is everyplace and people who are everypeople, and their small hopes and fears – barely, if at all, articulated – are those that each of us hide in our own quiet, private, solemn places. His characters – grotesques – are emotionally crippled but their desire for something else in life – just for something to happen – connects powerfully with the reader. With their every failure of communication comes a jolt of something – recognition, wistful regret, quiet compassion – that threatens, even if just for a short time, to penetrate the hard crust of everyday reality that we all immerse ourselves in. In their disconnection from each other, these sad, lonely people somehow connect with us, the readers, in a way that is gloriously ironic and deeply affecting. Malcolm Cowley gets it right when he calls Winesburg, Ohio a ‘work of love, an attempt to break down the walls that divide one person from another, and also in its own fashion, a celebration of small-town life in the lost days of goodwill and innocence.

In terms of American literature it is an interesting novel. Written in 1919, it prefigures some of the nostalgic pastoralism that came to typify Southern writing between the wars. In its catalogue of damaged characters, it begins to develop the grotesque which comes to be a dominant figure in later Southern writing, although it must be said that Anderson’s grotesques are softer and warmer and, with the exception of Jesse Bentley, less possessed of menace than later Southern grotesques. Rosemary Laughlan describes them as:

those who are agonizingly incomplete or unfulfilled, those who have had to suppress their overwhelming desires and needs to love, and, according to the Writer who collected their stories, those who mistook a myth or falsehood for a truth around which to center their lives. As a result, they express their frustrations or delusions sporadically in eccentric behavior.

This question of truth is important. In the first story, The Book of the Grotesque, we read:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were beautiful.

And then the people came along. each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques.

This begins to articulate many of the preoccupations of the Southern novelist. There is a kind of Rousseauian appeal to a golden age of innocence before man lost his noble savagery. There are hints of the politics and powerplays and posturings which disfigure the social life of man. There are matters of truth and honour and decency, and our Fall from the grace of truth. And then there are the results of that fall, the grotesques which populate the literature of the south. Thus, although Cowley is right to characterise the novel as a ‘work of love’, there is nothing nostalgic or comfortable here. In its depiction of isolation, Winesburg, Ohio prefigures much of the coming generation of American writing, with its preoccupations with man and society and industrialism and the inescapable progress of technology.

Modern readings of the novel tend to focus on George Willard, the journalist who appears in many of the stories and is the natural link between a number of the characters. David Stouck even suggests he is a persona of the author himself. It is to George that these sad people turn, as though seeking through him to have their stories told in print, made real. And, of course, in a kind of mimetic twist, that is precisely what happens. But George, a young man with his own dreams and fears, is unable to bear the burden of their expectations. He who could relieve them is unqualified by life to do so, and so their loneliness persists. Describing it as being ‘composed in a minor key’, Irving Howe notes the novel’s ‘subdued pathos’, and while this is undoubtedly a strength, for Howe it is also suggestive of its limitation. Perhaps so, but there is a sustained beauty to the writing here, and these small tragedies linger in the imagination.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve written about Islands in the Stream a couple of times, relating to specific points, (here and here), but not the novel in general. Overall, it’s pretty patchy and there’s definitely a feeling of diminishing returns as it progresses.

The first section, Bimini, is the best. Even this has longeurs – some of the descriptions of Paris streets and scenes, for example, are stretched well beyond this reader’s tolerance level – but the interplay of the family of men (the extended family that is, including Roger and Eddy) is particularly effective. Masculine perceptions of love – at least that sort of macho masculinity evinced by Hemingway) are peculiar: the emotion is mostly repressed but at times it bubbles over, allowing them to say to each other ‘I love you’ or ‘I love him’ in strikingly bold ways. That comes across here and so, while it could be argued that Thomas Hudson does not act as a father-figure to the boys, I would argue that in his own terms, and in terms that they would understand, he does.

Most critics seem to regard the second section, Cuba, as a failure, as a sign that his skills were on the wane. They also use this section, in particular, to demonstrate that the book was unedited (which it was, being published posthumously). I almost agree, but on the other hand I think it is close to being a masterpiece. Yes, it’s certainly repetitious, and in some instances that is definitely a fault – at the end, for example, when Hudson’s woman says twice how flattered she is by someone’s comments and that ‘she hopes he always thinks that’ is just sloppy.

But there are other repetitions that almost work. It is the extended scene with Honest Lil that is most effective for me. I never quite fell into the fictive dream with this section, but I almost, so nearly did. What Hemingway is describing is a long, drunken conversation between two people between whom there is a clear and long-standing affection. Each is unhappy, and Lil wants desperately for Hudson to be happy. Their conversation rambles in a typical – and realistically – drunken fashion, sweeping at times too close to personal territory, to emotional danger points, and then sweeping back out again into generalities, to safety, into ordering more drinks, into passing more time. There is such sadness in this small scene, so much unsaid that could and should be said, so much said that shouldn’t have been, and what we are presented with are two people who are – simply, unhappily – lonely.

It is very, very difficult to describe to outsiders a scene between two people which has built up over a long period of time and has encompassed a large number of alcoholic drinks. A gradual miasma settles over them and they almost become detached from what is happening around them. It is virtually impossible to distil the fluctuating emotions and capture the mood swings in such instances. The trouble is, the two characters enter into a zone of their own, but it takes a long time to reach. There are repetitions and longeurs and so on. The conversation does slide around and about, and tears and laughter can become almost interchangeable. It becomes an intensely emotional occasion. Even when there is no love it feels much like an affair. Anyone who has ever tried to write something similar will recognise how hard it is to make it sound a. credible and b. interesting. I wrote such a piece once, published here (but note, it’s only available for purchase, not free) which tried to do something similar and I can really appreciate the skill involved in Hemingway’s story.

But, overall, Cuba doesn’t quite work. I do think it is very close, and I think it is an under-rated piece of writing. Had he lived to work on it more, I think he would have made this superb.

The final section, At Sea, is the one that interests me least. Again, I think there is a lot of repetition, and it takes an inordinately long time to reach the principal action. When it does, it’s thumpingly well written – nervous and tense, taut, frightening. The ending, too, is powerful. Thomas Hudson’s recollections of his son, Tom, are predictable, I suppose, but no less effective for that. It is often a problem with war stories that you simply don’t know the characters outside of their war situation, and so it is difficult to feel much sympathy for them. Here, Hemingway draws us back to the man Thomas Hudson was and the life he once had, and it makes us realise that a human being is dying. Hudson’s interior monologues in this final section are far too lengthy and often uninteresting, dragging the story into dull introspection rather than providing any great insight, but when they do work they are fine, fine writing. This section, in particular, is moving:

Think about after the war and when you will paint again. There are so many good ones to paint and if you paint as well as you really can and keep out of all other things and do that, it is the true thing. You can paint the sea better than anyone now if you will do it and not get mixed up in other things. Hang on good now to how you truly want to do it. You must hold hard to life to do it. But life is a cheap thing beside a man’s work. The only thing is that you need it. Hold it tight. Now is the true time you make your play. Make it now without hope of anything. You always coagulated well and you can make one more real play. We are not the lumpen-proletariat. We are the best and we do it for free.

This sounds like a conversation from Hemingway’s own head, an argument with himself, one in which, on this occasion, hope wins. Hold on. Life is cheap but hold on.

We are the best and we do it for free.

That’s beautiful. Hemingway should have heeded his own words. But sometimes you just can’t hear Honest Lil, no matter how she tries.

Monday, April 20, 2009

J.G. Ballard 1930-2009

A few weeks ago the American author, James Purdy, died. It didn’t create much of a fuss, certainly on the UK side of the Atlantic, but not even in the US, to any great extent. I couldn’t help thinking of him when I heard that J.G. Ballard had died. Although their writing is not that similar, there are similarities between the two.

Both were outsiders, and both were better writers than they were given credit for, because they didn’t quite fit into the establishment. Purdy was ferociously anti-establishment, in fact, and refused to conform to anyone’s expectations or stereotypes. His writing, therefore, infuriated many, including those who could have been expected to be part of his natural constituency. He didn’t care; he just wrote what he wrote.

Ballard, similarly, was careless of public opinion. He was unafraid to deal with controversial material (for example, Crash) and, as a result, he was never truly mainstream and never quite attained the acclaim he should have done. That he was seen (wrongly) as ‘just’ a science-fiction writer didn’t help, of course. Literary snobbery runs very deep, and to be classed as a genre writer is an irretrievable stigma for any author.

The second area of similiarity between them is that they each, in their novels, dealt with communication and, in particular, those breakdowns of communication that are at the heart of all true human conflict. The only difference is that Ballard did this by envisioning on a larger canvas – the typical sci-fi approach – while Purdy used the individual, the single, flawed man – Malcolm, for example – from which to draw inferences on a wider scale.

But in each man was a decent humanity and a genuine desire to comprehend the good and the bad, and the reasons for each that subsist in us all.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lancelot by Walker Percy

I imagine Lancelot must have created a considerable stir when it was published in 1977. The contemporary New York Times review, for one, objected to its ‘upsetting’ ideas, suggesting it succeeded as a novel in ‘few respects’. Given the stony-faced seriousness which surrounded matters of sex and race in the late seventies and early eighties, dismissal of a novel which revels in extreme views on such matters is unsurprising: in this case wrong, but still unsurprising.

In some respects Lancelot is a typical Southern novel. We are debating matters of honour, of degeneracy, of the dangers of scientism, of the intolerability of the modern age – the ‘whorehouse and fagdom of America’ – and, finally, of redemption: all familiar territory. But, in its heavily ironic, even postmodernist, tone, it is clearly at some remove from the traditional Southern novel as we have come to know it. That is its strength and its weakness: it explores fascinating territory in startlingly fresh ways, but those ways are so extreme they are bound to confuse – and repel – the unwary reader. You cannot simultaneously attract and disgust, and disgust is an easy emotion to apply to this novel and its protagonist, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar.

The story begins with Lancelot either in prison or hospital – we are not sure which, but it is clear that a terrible event has occurred, either caused by or affecting Lancelot. The ambiguity is deliberate. So is his placing in such an establishment. There are deliberate echoes of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, particularly with the phrase ‘Yes, I am a patient in a mental hospital’, which is a direct reference to that novel’s opening line. What Percy is suggesting is that, like little Oskar from The Tin Drum, Lancelot, the inmate, is in fact a dispassionate observer of a world turned insane. Or is he? The novel is never straightforward and, as often as not, its actual meaning can only be divined by inverting the implied meaning of the text. Lancelot is alienated from his world, doesn’t understand it, doesn’t feel at ease with it (‘sinful suffering humanity’,as he describes it) and, in trying to find a way through the moral intricacies of this novel, the reader, too, suffers the same sense of uneasy disconnection.

This is because Lancelot is decidely not a character with whom the reader can form an empathetic bond. His views are outrageous, repulsive even. In one passage he describes Elgin, the black youth who works for him, as ‘his nigger’. Cleverly, though, Percy writes this in such a way that it could be construed as ironic but for Lancelot’s admission, only a page earlier, of his ‘bogus-liberal’ credentials: here they are, then, writ large. Again talking of black people, Lancelot says:

That was one of the pleasures of the sixties: it was so easy to do a little which seemed a lot. We basked in our own sense of virtue in what we took to be their gratitude.

He is also a hypocrite, a snob, a philistine. His anger towards the current age grows palpably. He tells us: ‘I’ll prophesy: This country is going to turn into a desert and it won’t be a bad thing.’ Percy works hard at making his character unpleasant, and he succeeds. Lancelot relishes the prospect of a ‘Third Revolution’ (the First was ‘won at Yorktown’, the Second ‘lost at Appomattox’). The Third Revolution and the resultant new age will be ushered in by his search for the ‘unholy grail’, through which he will discover the ‘evil in the world’. It is here that Lancelot’s misanthropy reaches its nadir, as he reveals what he believes to be God’s aim:

God’s secret of design for man is that man’s happiness lies for men in men practicing violence upon women and that women’s happiness lies in submitting to it.

The secret of life is violence and rape, and its gospel is pornography.

One can perhaps see the reservations of the New York Times reviewer as this unfolds. And Lancelot’s antipathy towards women is deeper still:

What the poor dears [women] discovered is the monstrous truth lying at the very center of life: that their happiness and the meaning of life is to be assaulted by a man.

Ah, sweet mystery of life indeed, yes, exactly, yes, indeed that is what it is: to be rammed, jammed, stuck, stabbed, pinned, impaled, run through, in a word:


In short, Lancelot is completely amoral. He has lost any sense of community or shared humanity. True emotion, he seems to believe, resides in him alone. In his depiction of this solipsism, it appears that Percy is pursuing a Christian attack on the Nietzschean view of the overman – this is the way that such madness must end, he seems to be saying. That would be unsurprising, since American Catholic writers seem to have expended considerable energy over the years in debunking Nietzsche: it is a curiosity that those with the firmest views on the morality of society so often seek to express them through the negation of somebody else’s, rather than the promulgation of their own. But negation, as we shall see, is the key to this novel.

In Lancelot, Percy creates a caricature to test how far one can go before a simple alienation from the modern slides into nihilism. Like Flannery O’Connor with Hazel Motes (although more convincingly), he tries to view the world through the eyes of someone who has become irreconcilably repulsed by it. Certainty becomes madness, rightful indignation rots into evil: in a world untouched by grace, Percy is telling us, only pain may reside, and only evil may obtain.

For it is evil that Lancelot is seeking – the ‘quest for the unholy grail’ – but Percy’s ultimate message is that, like the Holy Grail, it is not to be found. This is the key to the novel, the beginning of the inversions we must understand if we are not to conflate author and protagonist in the way that careless critics have previously . Percy knows there is no unholy grail. As soon as we, too, understand this we can begin to unpick the novel, to realise that in order to understand it we need to invert its message. There is no unholy grail: there is no Third Revolution: salvation is not found through sexual violence: women do not seek rape: men are not sustained by it: the gospel of life is not pornography: nothing is known, all is mystery; and so on. It is, then, discovery through negative: a via negativa – an understanding of what God and godliness mean through knowing what they are not.

It is understandable, however, that the novel causes confusion, and that this confusion leads to outrage. Taken literally, it presents a deeply unpleasant view of modern society. This is a view that Percy might to some extent have shared with Lancelot, but where he differs from his character is in the ultimate hope of some redemption. Lancelot and the world he inhabits are beyond redemption. The USA is a ‘cocksucking cuntlapping assholelicking fornicating Happyland’. Men are ‘walking genitals’ and women relish – indeed rely on – the sexual attacks on them. Taking the simplistic view of this novel it could be argued, then, that Percy is despatching us all to hell, with no hope of redemption whatever. However, the remarkable ending makes clear that Percy believes, on the contrary, that redemption is within our grasp.

To achieve this, Percy consciously adopts the method of Camus in The Fall, with its first-person confessional style, producing what Percy himself, in acknowledging the influence, called ‘a dramatic morality play’. As with Camus, this leads to intentional confusion for the reader: we are being drawn into the drama, made complicit in it, made to act in the role of confessor, and yet both authors present us, through the judgementalism and moralising and overweening vanity of their protagonists and the certainty of their views, with a worldview that is difficult for us to accept. In this way, Camus and Percy are inviting us to consider our views of the modern world. We see the world through the eyes of Clamence or Lancelot – as something corrupt and unworthy – and yet at the same time in our role of confessor we see them for what they are – Clamence ignoring the cries of a suicidal woman, Lancelot murdering four people. The result is that the reader is left in confusion – Clamence is compromised and Lancelot, the prophet of the Third Revolution, is as guilty as the old ways he abjures. Where can one find honour, decency, humanity? In posing these questions, Percy is clearly a successor to Camus but, as a Catholic, one suspects he is asking them as much of himself as of us: we readers, in other words, are confessors not only to Lancelot, but to his creator.

Ultimately, however, (and this is also, probably, because he is a Catholic), Percy comes closer than Camus to a resolution to the questions he asks. John Desmond notes that while Camus’s listener is basically passive, Percy’s listener, Percival, is ‘active, questioning and adverserial.’ This leads to the dramatic, elliptical ending of Lancelot in which Percival (Percy himself? God? Us?) is finally heard to speak, and he answers in the affirmative. This transforms his role from that of mere listener into participant, thus turning him into, in Desmond’s terms, the ‘true penitent who recognizes his owns sins as an offense against a God who can forgive him’. In this way, the road to grace remains accessible, even for as resolute an amoralist as Lancelot.

And for his creator, Walker Percy.

And, should we desire it, for us.

Thus, Lancelot ends on an upbeat note. We are left, remarkably enough, after what has come before, with a sense of hope. This is a fine piece of writing and a difficult trick to pull off. It is not a novel one could say one enjoys, exactly, but in terms of craft there is much here to admire.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The creative act

This is Walter Sullivan, in an article on Southern writers from 1972:

The Christian, the Jew, the Muslim, the Buddhist – all who cling to a divine faith or embrace a transcendent vision know that the only Creator is God. Man does not create. He rearranges, he makes choices, but these arrangements and choices simply effect new uses of material that already exists. So art is a means of discovery and disclosure, an act of secondary creativity that yearns toward a revelation of Being, claritas.

Interesting quote, one which uses the usual Christian tool of ‘mystery’ to ensure that it cannot adequately be answered. The debate, as framed here, can only ever come down to whether everything that is, has been and will be is the work of a divine creator, and thus that anything man does with it is not creative, as such, but simply a re-working of the initial creation. In the end it becomes a pointless argument.

So, instead, let’s address the point: Man does not create. He rearranges. It is patent nonsense. The music of Charlie Parker is not simply a rearrangement of sound pressure to create a series of different sound waves. To think in such purely technical terms is to completely misunderstand the meaning of the word ‘create’. It entirely denies the artistic element of its definition, and this is vital, because the artistic is one of the key elements of what it is to be human. It is a convenient device used by the sky-god brigade to keep uppity man in his place: deny the very existence of an independent creativity, thus saving the tiresome effort involved in subjugating it to the will of the Almighty.

The point is, man does create. Charlie Parker created music, Picasso created paintings, Shakespeare created literature. These are all more than mere rearrangements of already existing materials. They are descriptions of what it is to be alive.

Does it matter? Well yes, in the end it does. Nietzsche demonstrated quite clearly that the process of creativity is essential to the continuation of a vital life. To abdicate creativity to God is to freeze the process of life itself. It will lead to the ‘last man’, the triumph of the mediocre, the stasis of humanity. Any civilisation which is content merely to sit back and offer praise to its great leader, without making efforts to progress, is doomed.

Thomas Hudson - father figure?

In an idle moment I was looking at some of the Google queries that have drawn people to this blog and came across this one: Islands in the stream why Tom isn’t a father figure.

An interesting point. It’s presumably a question someone has been asked for a term essay or the like – people tend to be very literal in Google requests, I find. So, let’s think about it: is Thomas Hudson a father figure or not?

Well, the first thing to say is that at least the boys didn’t die on his watch, which is pretty much what you were expecting to happen all the way through. David and Andrew actually die when they are back with their mother and the older brother, Tom, dies in the war. Thomas is clear that he wants the boys to learn on their own terms. He won’t push them into anything, but nor will he stop them. Twice – after David is nearly attacked by a shark and later when he has battled to land a giant fish for a whole day (only to lose it right at the end) does Thomas feel that he should have intervened earlier. It is clear that he is devoted to his art, and I suppose it could be argued that the art comes before thoughts of fatherhood, but nonetheless he still seems, to me, to demonstrate a degree of paternal watchfulness.

It could be argued that there is a casualness to his behaviour. The (very funny) scene where they all role-play a drunken argument in the bar could be argued as irresponsible because it revolves around the premise of the youngest child getting (or at least giving the appearance of getting) drunk on gin. But this could also be seen as a bonding exercise: it wasn’t about getting drunk, it was about the group working together against ‘outsiders’.

If Thomas Hudson is not a father figure, the two most likely men who could be seen to act in that role are Roger and Eddy. Certainly, the younger boys look up to both men, and Roger, in particular, is very close to them. Roger, the failed artist, is presumably meant to be the contrast with Thomas Hudson, the successful one, and therefore if anyone is likely to be described as the father figure it would be Roger: failed at art, good at relationships, the opposite of Thomas Hudson.

There is certainly some merit to that theory. However, it is striking that both Roger and Eddy are involved in dramatic fights in the story – Eddy with all and sundry because they wouldn’t believe the story of David and the fish; and Roger with the agitated sailor who wouldn’t take a telling. Throughout, it is Thomas Hudson who acts with restraint. Now, this could be argued two ways: firstly, that Thomas Hudson is so wrapped up in himself and his art that he doesn’t engage in the everyday life of the community (and his family); or that he is showing parental responsibility.

The final word probably goes to the boys. Do they show any fear of their father, or discontent, or disapproval? Well, there is a certain distance, perhaps. The older brother. Tom, seems to relate to his father better, mostly because they have shared memories of living in Paris, which the other two brothers are too young to remember. But, that apart, the boys show every sign of having had a fine holiday. And both of them develop through the summer. They are seen to grow and mature.

Therefore, I would say that Thomas Hudson, for all his flaws, spent a fine last summer with his boys.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Nashville 1864 by Madison Jones

Madison Jones isn’t particularly well known for writing historical novels. Apart from Nashville 1864, I’m only aware of one other, although I haven’t researched it and I may be wrong on that. That said, it’s interesting that the language in this novel is actually more accessible, and feels more modern, than much of the rest of Jones’s work.

That isn’t to say his writing is generally difficult. Far from it, at its best there has always beens a lovely purity and simplicity to his prose. It’s more that his earlier work is suffused with a kind of Faulknerian ambiguity where everything is allusion and undertone and inference: clarity of language, but not of meaning. With Nashville 1864, however, Jones’s language is limpid and crisp and beautifully clear and so is his meaning.

Indeed, the most striking thin about this novella is its sheer lack of artifice. There is no false drama, no drawing out of the emotions, no toying with the reader. Wherever Jones could have gone for a big bang or a grand gesture or a dramatic plot twist, he pulls back. When Yankee soldiers arrive and things threaten to become nasty, the danger subsides naturally. When the boys get trapped behind battle lines they find, not doom, but solicitous care. Characters are not caricatures: no-one is out-and-out bad or out-and-out good because he is standing representative of one side or another; there are good Yankees and bad Rebs here, and all of them are merely trying to survive.

The simplicity of the narrative serves to give it strength. When tragedy does strike it hurts more deeply because we haven’t already been pulled towards artificial heights of fear by twists and turns of narrative: there is no crying wolf in this novel, so when the metaphorical wolf attacks its bite is grave indeed. It feels entirely believable. The mystified, uncomprehending fear of the eleven year old protagonist is entirely realistic and one feels for him deeply.

Just 129 pages long, Madison Jones has turned out a war novel which is beautiful, thoughtful and deeply moving.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Vonnegut on libraries

A propos Judith Krug (see post below), here's Kurt Vonnegut on librarians. It warms your heart...

I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength, their powerful political connections or great wealth, who, all over this country have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and destroyed records rather than have to reveal to police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I love still exists, if not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the media. The America I loved still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.
Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without A Country

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Follow your own head

This is a quote from Aly Bain, the superb Shetland fiddler, talking of a time when he and Phil Cunningham were asked to provide some backing music for an album by Marillion. The producers 'really liked' the result, but couldn't use. 'It's a bit too busy, isn't it?' they said, which Aly took to mean it was too clever for a rock album. He continues:

I play music for music's sake - it has to mean something... We discovered that rock records are mostly controlled not by the musicians but by the producers... I think hell to me is a bit like Miles Davis having to play Wear [sic] a Yellow Ribbon for eternity.

I equate this to other arts as well, particularly writing, and wonder how much the writer today is beholden to his publisher to produced something commercial? How much are novels changed in the publishing process?

There is always the danger, if one goes it completely alone as Aly suggests, of becoming self-indulgent. There is always room for a critical friend, otherwise you end up in the ever decreasing circles of Paul Auster or the parodic shuffling of later Updike. But nonetheless I think Aly has a point - sometimes you have to stick to your principles and write what you need to write.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


I watched Deliverance last night for the first time in years. It is still a good film, pretty gripping. I guess the environmental side of it - which I didn't really take much account of when I first saw it - was ahead of its time, and the way it engages with the river and the landscape almost as characters in themselves I'm coming to realise is typically Southern.

I have to be honest, though, I cringed at the writerliness of it with its carefully set up scenes. There is the section where Ed goes into the mountain to try to shoot an animal for breakfast and, despite having a perfect shot, fails to kill a deer. "I never understood how you could kill an animal," he said.

So from that moment on it's absolutely inevitable that the climax of the film is going to revolve around Ed having to shoot a man in the same circumstances. And yes, that's exactly what happens. We're even usefully given a scene just before that when, for some bizarre reason while he is teetering at the top of a cliff edge, he takes out his wallet with picture of wife and kid and other symbols of civilisation, only to drop it into the water - literally, civilisation disappearing into the rapids.

This is close to Coetzee territory - author as jigsaw puzzler, quietly sliding all the elements into place so that in the end they form a nice, clear picture. This approach feels increasingly false to me: life isn't structured so conveniently. The result, for me, is that I'm taken out of the story and made aware of the author.

I do wonder if, in twenty or thirty years time, we will look back on this type of writing and find it unacceptably arch and contrived. I believe we will.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

That old devil called compassion

At the conclusion of the first part of Hemingway’s posthumously published Islands in the Stream, the protagonist, Thomas Hudson, has just discovered that his two sons and his ex-wife have been killed in a car accident. The boys had previously spent the summer with him, and the whole of the preceding chapters had been devoted to their adventures. Although there was an inevitability about their deaths – portents were everywhere – it comes as a shock. This being Hemingway, of course, the men are men, so you do not expect wailing and uncontrolled lamentation. This is how Thomas Hudson’s emotions are described:

“I’ll do everything,” Eddy [Thomas Hudson’s cook] said. “But I don’t give a shit about anything any more.”
“I don’t either,” said Thomas Hudson.
“We’ve got young Tom.”
“For the time being,” Thomas Hudson said and for the first time he looked straight down the long and perfect perspective of the blankness ahead.

That last line is beautiful. It is unself-pitying, undramatic, raw and honest. It suggests the terrible ache that now and forever will surround this man. In the next few pages Thomas Hudson tries to react as you would expect of a Hemingway character. He tells himself time will heal, so he must simply count down the days until the pain ends; he drinks, he reads; he finds ways to cope. But this single sentence has cut to the core of the man and we know as well as he does that the brave front he is presenting is nothing more than that. That line is a magical moment in prose, because it somehow creates an invisible link between the reader and the character. I understand, you want to say. Sorry is irrelevant, implicit.

It seems to me genuinely to capture that most elusive of human emotions, compassion. Compassion has many vulgar cousins which are often mistaken for it – the ‘I feel your pain’ school of emoting – and because of this it is sometimes frowned upon by people who should know better. True compassion is a wonderful and, I think, uniquely human trait. It is the ability to see events from the perspective of someone else, but with a vision that encompasses their views of the past, present and future; that is, to understand, even to share their hopes, and to see how those hopes are helplessly shaped by events, to see the bifurcation in the road that represents the radiant hope and the blank actuality, the diversion from the dream into the true life that unfolds. Thomas Hudson had anticipated his boys becoming men; now, he – and we – must look forward only to blankness.

I am reminded once more of a quote from Flannery O’Connor that I have highlighted before, because I think it reflects an indifference bordering on cruelty. She wrote:

It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything.

I have always found that quote repugnant. That a Christian writer should write of compassion in a pejorative sense, or to consider it a weakness, seems entirely at odds with the tenets of her religion. That aside, I think her argument is unsound. It would be difficult to argue a case for Ernest Hemingway, of all people, being weak or hazy, or not being definite about his views, and yet here is a clear example of compassion – an O’Connor indicator, remember, of weakness and haziness – in his writing. Moreover, I have demonstrated that it is possible to ‘put my finger’ on exactly where and how that compassion is projected, and the effect that it has on the reader. There is no mawkish sentimentalism in the Hemingway passage, and the reader is not being invited to see the protagonist in anything other than the stark terms of the loss that he is enduring. Hemingway then goes on to portray the human weakness that undoubtedly resides in Thomas Hudson and never, at any stage, seeks to ‘excuse’ it, or to use the deaths and our reaction to them to change our views of him. His weakness remains and we, the readers, accept it, and yet we still feel compassion for this lonely man at this most solitary of moments. There is a beauty about that which is almost entirely absent in the works of Flannery O’Connor.

Death, of course, surrounds Flannery O’Connor’s work: for a Catholic, death is the stuff of life. And yet, throughout her ouevre, throughout the death and destruction, there is almost never any consideration of the human – as opposed to metaphysical – cost of all that loss. In her attempt to understand the unknowable, to play in God’s sandpit, there is a wilful inability to comprehend the dynamics of the human psyche on a human level. Thus, although there is death all around, there is precious little sorrow. Because she sees this mortal coil as only the anteroom to God’s Life Everlasting, she stubbornly refuses to consider her characters – or to allow us to – from the shifting perspective of time: there is no fork in the road for literalists like O’Connor, there is only the road and it only leads to one place.

From memory, I can think of only one O’Connor story in which there is some sense of change in the human emotions wrought by death. A Late Encounter With The Enemy is a remarkable story. It retains all the bite of a typical O’Connor piece, and yet the reader is drawn into the emotional scene more fully than is usual for her. There is a poignancy to the death from a stroke of the General as he watches his granddaughter’s graduation. His memory, as it slowly slides into darkness, conflates his Civil War past and the procession of modern-day graduands, and thus we are being presented with the past – and its defeated disappointments – the present, and the future, in the shape of the graduating students. Ironically, as O’Connor beautifully portrays the disintegration of this man’s mind, we are drawn irrevocably into it, and he becomes more real than any other O’Connor character.

Similarly, McCarthy’s work majors on death and the transition from this place to the next, wherever that might be – and that, one senses, is a matter of more uncertainty for him than it was for O’Connor – and he, too, generally displays the same lack of a human perspective. While the myriad deaths in his novels matter at some level – either metaphysical or arguably, in Blood Meridian, on a national scale – it is the personal context that seems lacking. Death seems to matter so little to characters in McCarthy’s novels. They don’t even appear to endure pain, far less sorrow. There seems a resolute unwillingness to deal with characters as individuals, as human beings with pasts, presents and futures. Things happen, and characters appear to show neither surprise nor regret nor disappointment. Remembering Hemingway’s line – ‘for the first time he looked straight down the long and perfect perspective of the blankness ahead’ – I can recall few instances in McCarthy where I have been similarly drawn into the consciousness of a character and felt so deeply moved.

The man and his son in The Road spring to mind, certainly. One might argue that the ending of Child of God achieves it, when Lester Ballard sees the boy on the bus and the boy – his double, perhaps – turns and looks back at him. That may be soand yet it feels small emotional reward for the litany of murder and degradation that preceded it. Or Suttree, perhaps, the most human of McCarthy’s characters, in his relationship with the feckless Harrogate, especially later on when he is forced, highly reluctantly, to assume the role of father-figure. But no specific instance comes to mind. Or perhaps Suttree’s relationship with the Indian, who he hopes might reach out and shake Suttree’s hand, literally a hand reaching out through the loneliness. That moment, definitely, could be conceded. One might consider the many acts of kindness which follow Rinthy in Outer Dark in her pathetic search for her child, but she remains resolutely unaware of them and it is difficult, then, for the reader to empathise. The kindly judge at the end of All The Pretty Horses, who shows some understanding of and sympathy for John Grady, could certainly be considered a compassionate character, but we are digging deep into McCarthy’s ouevre now in search of something that, I would argue, should be intrinsic to the human experience. Much death, so little consequence.

So are there examples I have missed? Or have misinterpreted? Thoughts welcome.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Although it probably hasn’t worn too well, one of my favourite books of the nineties was Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase. Its crazy conflation of Raymond Chandler hard-boiled narrative voice and surrealism (the girl with the most beautiful ears in the world and the search for a sheep with a star on its back) was irresistible. I was immediately reminded of that sense of sheer, exuberant enjoyment when I started to read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. This is an author having tremendous fun, and at the same time debunking a lot of the tired, pretentious literary myths that build up around genre fiction. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a detective story that detects more than just the murder that is unfolded in its very first page. We are launched into it without fanfare. The opening establishes immediately the premise and the mood:

Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.

The next 410 pages go on to expand that premise and alter that mood in ways we could not possibly have expected. Chabon plays with us all the time. The genre cliches abound: hard-bitten, maverick cop Landsman, world-weary, drinking far too much, contemplating suicide; the dutiful sidekick, the kick-ass boss (Landsman’s ex). And so on. But stick with it, because all is not as it seems.

Chabon creates a new world, an alternate reality in which, after the Holocaust, European Jews were relocated to Sitka in Alaska. In the novel, as in reality, the State of Israel was founded in 1948, but it is here that Chabon begins his fantasy world. Israel is destroyed after only three months, leading to the repatriation to Sitka, and Palestine subsequently slides into ceaseless conflict. Against this context, a movement emerges seeking the reclamation of Israel for the Jews once more. Meanwhile, Sitka is proving not to be the promised land:

Two million Jews got off the boats and found no rolling prairies dotted with buffalo. No feathered Indians on horseback. Only a spine of flooded mountains and fifty thousand Tlingit village-dwellers already in possession of most of the flat and usable land. Nowhere to spread out, to grow, to do anything more than crowd together in the teeming style of Vilna and Lodz. The homesteading dreams of a million landless Jews, fanned by movies, light fiction, and informational brochures provided by the United States Department of the Interior, snuffed on arrival.

Thus, Chabon neatly pokes fun at the myth of the American West, while also beginning to ponder questions of nationality and the notion of ‘homeland’. Some of the intractable questions of the Middle East, shorn of their geographical context, begin to look less rational. The fundamentalism of the ‘black hats’, in icy, blasted Alaska, rests uneasily. But through it all the sense of discontent is palpable, and we know from history where such discontent may lead. And so, as the story unfolds, it is clear that the Jewish settlers’ disillusionment is growing. One character says of Sitka, ‘This place is like a glass eye, it’s a wooden leg, you can’t pawn it.’

And this forms the basis of the central element of the plot, a conspiracy to reveal the new Messiah and return the Jews to their traditional homeland. Here, the fantasy and the crime genres merge to create something quite new, a vehicle Chabon uses to discuss matters of belief and non-belief, redemption, the inability of the fundamentalist to rise above dogma and revel in the human, the struggle for life. It is all neatly presented and, while to slight to be seriously thought-provoking, it does ask interesting questions.

There’s too much plot to explain here, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Suffice to say it all unravels in delightfully brisk fashion and Chabon’s storytelling is a joy to read. It’s a proper detective story, with a proper resolution. His fantasy world works, too, drawing the reader into it admirably. Chabon also has a way with description. Take this, for example:

Under an hour before dark, and the snow falling is like pieces of broken daylight. The Sitka sky is dull silver plate and tarnishing fast.

Simple and elegant, but wonderfully descriptive. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is full of such description, and there is a warmth to it which is beguiling.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The American short story

Interesting feature in the New York Times about the American short story. The talk is always about the 'Great American Novel', of course, but A.O. Scott usefully reminds us that there have been some mighty fine American short story writers, too. The article is provoked by the coincidence of three recent biographies of writers for whom the short form was their forte. Flannery O'Connor, Donald Barthelme and John Cheever wrote some astoundingly good short stories, in remarkably different styles. The article could have been a bit longer, but it ends on a note of hopefulness, suggesting an upturn in the fortunes of the short story. Not before time.

(I have to say, though, that any reviewer in the New York Times who still uses the word limn in their reviews is pretty brave. Remember this?)

Friday, April 03, 2009

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson

In succession, I’ve recently read Moby Dick, The Sound and the Fury, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and All The Pretty Horses, Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. Fine novels all, and fine novelists, too, but let’s be honest, none of them are renowned for their insightful treatment of women. In the aforementioned works the highlight of distaff-ness is the prostitute Joyce from Suttree, and the number of female characters in a couple of thousand pages of reading would barely reach double figures. As a result, I’m completely menned-out. So last night I really, seriously, desperately felt the need for something more feminine in my next reading matter. Cue Joshilyn Jackson.

I reviewed her first novel, gods in Alabama, on here recently. A good novel, on the surface a bit of a light, suspense romp but with a weightier core than is immediately obvious. So I was looking forward to her second novel, Between, Georgia.

I have to say I was concerned at the start that I was going to be reading essentially the same story over again. Girl from the south, from dysfunctional family, trying to escape? Check. Collection of strange aunts? Check. Central character who has a heart of gold but is inflexible to the point of insanity? Check. Boyfriend figure who is as bad a male character in a female novel as the female characters in those male novels I mentioned above? Check. Girl goes back to the family home and mayhem ensues? Check. In a discussion thread on here I’ve discussed with Court the need for authors to stretch themselves, to try something new, even if that means failure, to not treat failure as a negative but as a positive – Beckett’s ‘fail better’ idea. One wonders whether Joshilyn Jackson might usefully consider that advice.

Which is not to say that this is a poor novel. Far from it. I think Joshilyn Jackson is a talented writer with a great gift for narrative – her novels flow wonderfully and they are genuinely exciting. Her characters, too, although coming far too close to stock on occasion (in particular, here, the Ona Crabtree character) are engaging. The twin sisters in this novel, one deaf and growing increasingly blind, the other so timid she is frightened by her own shadow, are strikingly original and very appealing. And Jackson is also a very funny writer, with a fine ear for witty dialogue and a good line in tart description.

Her novels are basically light-hearted recreations of the southern grotesque, with all the metaphysical angst removed and with a humorous underbelly replacing the serious philosophical and religious musings. She takes the same basic material as her southern forebears but moulds something entirely different. Thus, while the familiar tropes can be seen – the small town mentality, the resistance to change, the hard-line Baptist view of morality, the families-at-war motif and so on – she is not ultimately looking to make any deep statement. It does make for an interesting read, I have to say – Faulkner as chick-lit, Flannery O’Connor unbuttoned...

When I say the plot is inconsequential that is not meant pejoratively, or patronisingly. On the contrary, it is very neatly worked and, as with gods in Alabama, satisfyingly intricate (although the deus ex machina motif is laboured and unconvincing and, frankly, totally unnecessary). All that matters is that the two families at war are finally brought together in the last great battle and, through the surrounding mayhem, a feelgood resolution is achieved. Jackson is a very talented writer. With Between, Georgia, she provided just the antidote I was seeking to all that testosterone.

But, nonetheless, I do hope that with her next novel she decides to write something entirely different.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

National Poetry Month

It's National Poetry Month, so here's my contribution.

Hallaig was written in the Gaelic by Sorley Maclean. This is his own translation into English, and it is him reciting it, behind music from the late Martyn Bennett. It is the most hauntingly beautiful evocation of humanity I know. The last five lines:

a vehement bullet will come from the gun of Love;

and will strike the deer that goes dizzily,
sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes;
his eye will freeze in the wood,
his blood will not be traced while I live.

get me every time. The poem recalls what it is like, now, to walk through Hallaig, an ancient settlement on the island of Raasay which was cleared of people during the Highland Clearances. It is a meditation on life and death, the past and the present. In the poem, the trees and the landscape come to life as the living relics of the departed generations of Sorley Maclean's people. 'Time, the deer' flits through the scene until it is felled by the 'gun of love': this, then, is a love killing, bloodless, stopping time, freezing human memory so that we may never forget what happened here, so that the memories of the past and of the Raasay people will live on forever in the land, in the trees, in the air.

The text can be found on the Sorley Maclean website. There isn't a direct link, but go here and select "View English translations" and scroll down a bit.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Signifying something?

Well, it’s not often I’m completely flummoxed, but The Sound and the Fury has managed it. It’s a remarkable piece of literature but I’m really at a loss as to how to deal with it. Someone once said, of critical reviews, that if the author has just spent 300 pages explaining what he means, what’s the point of a reviewer trying to summarise it in two or three pages? With this novel, in particular, I can certainly see the logic of that. There is clearly no point in producing a summary of the action in The Sound and the Fury – you just have to read it. Most likely, it will make as little sense to you on a first read as it did to me. So go to Wikipedia, where there’s a pretty decent synopsis of what is actually happening in this most confusing work.

For me, I suppose the key question that arises is: is there a point to writing so obliquely? For those who haven’t read the novel, it is in four parts, each from the point of view of a different character, and describing events that occur over the lifetime of a family in decline, but focusing on two periods in particular, in 1910 and in 1928. The first section is told from the point of view of a thirty-three year old man with some form of mental retardation, and the action is therefore told in a hazy, stream-of-consciousness, almost hallucinatory fashion, where it is not at all clear what is actually happening: the action, in other words, as seen and barely comprehended by this unfortunate man. The second section focuses on eighteen years earlier and takes the point of view of another of the family, who is suicidal and sees the action from his own, peculiarly biased perspective. We therefore have another wholly unreliable narrator and, in fact, the narrative here becomes even more extreme in its disjunction, representing the character’s mental breakdown, with grammar almost wholly dispensed with at certain points. The third section is from the point of view of another family member, someone who is deeply embittered and again cannot be relied on for an accurate description of events. Only the fourth section, from the viewpoint of Dilsey, who has worked with the family as a servant for many years, is in any way objective and it is here that, finally, some clarity comes to the narrative.

So what we have is a novel told in a fragmentary style, where nothing is ever explained and it is exceptionally difficult to grasp what is actually happening. Stylistically, it is magnificent, clearly the work of genius: to be able to sustain that level of disconnection while still retaining some control over the narrative is extraordinary. But, in the end, one has to ask to what effect? The danger is that the novel will only ever be discussed in terms of its narrative structure, as opposed to the themes the author wished to portray, rather in the superficial way we judge individuals by their looks instead of, in Martin Luther King’s words, ‘the content of their character’. It’s akin to the Heart of Darkness problem, where 99.999% of critical discussion is on its alleged racism rather than Conrad’s themes: we end up discussing the wrong thing.

Is that inevitable with such an extreme work? And is it okay? I confess I would find it difficult to address the themes of The Sound and the Fury here, because I’m not entirely certain what they are: they’re about family, for sure, and the ties that bind, and how these ties can constrict as much as support; and it’s about love and how love can be so overwhelming it can trigger its own, gradual entropy. Or something like that. But I find it difficult to get beyond that because of the extremism of the style. It becomes, to use a phrase from my librarianship past, an interposed element: something that gets in the way of the reader and the writer.

Now, proponents of modernism will dismiss that as nonsense. I’m trying to separate things that cannot be separated, they’ll say, I’m being simplistic and na├»ve. But I am those things. I haven’t studied structuralism or semiotics and so, to an extent, I read a novel at face value. And with The Sound and the Fury, that reading was heavily compromised by the lengths to which the author has gone to keep me at arm’s length from understanding it.

As well as a reader I’m a writer, and I’ve been engaged on a work for some time now. It began as a collection of short stories but gradually the stories became more and more interlinked, to the stage where it has started to cohere into a single, albeit fragmented story. However, I’ve been sitting on it for a couple of months now, because I need to think more carefully about the structure. Reading The Sound and the Fury has provoked a serious debate in my mind.

There are some similarities between his story and mine, in that events are triggered by something that happens many years ago, which has been barely understood and, in the case of my piece, completely repressed. Therefore, I am looking at the same need for a confused, disjointed narrative style. However, I would not wish to adopt the sort of approach Faulkner has taken (which is not to say, I rush to add, that I am considering my approach in any way superior to Faulkner’s – I’m not that conceited). I think, for me, it’s a question of degree of opacity, or how far one can go before confusion becomes obfuscation.

I liken it to the difference between cubist art and some surrealist art. I much prefer cubism or the type of surrealism employed by Picasso, because what it generally presents is a single reality, from multiple viewpoints. A Picasso portrait, for example, has the same face seen from all different perspectives at once. Therefore, while at first it may seem inexplicable, gradually it begins to make sense. The sort of surrealism, on the other hand, that resides purely in the fantastic, while often breathtaking, may sometimes begin in such obscurity that the sense of it remains locked purely within the head of the artist, and there is no means of access for the viewer. Again, I may be accused of naivety here: the point of modern art is to make one think, to confront an object and come to one’s own conclusions on that object. What the artist implies shouldn’t necessarily be what the viewer infers. Fair enough. But if an artist does have a point in mind I would like to have some way of understanding that, so that I can decide whether I agree or disagree. A surrealist, completely random picture of an apple with wings, however beautifully crafted, is unlikely to grant me that opportunity.

Not that I’m suggesting The Sound and the Fury is so abstract as to be inexplicable. It isn’t. I can make some sense of it, and clearly repeated readings will reveal more and more. But at what stage does style overwhelm meaning? And has Faulkner reached that stage here? I don’t know.