Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fowles and Hawthorne

(I wouldn't read this post if you haven't read The French Lieutenant's Woman, but would like to).

It is by chance that I am re-reading John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman just after reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but I can't help linking the two. The 19th century novelist looks back on the repressive 17th century Puritans, his heroine not quite modern but ahead of and outsider her time and society. The 20th century novelist looks back on the repressive 19th century Victorians, his heroine not quite modern but ahead of and outsider her time and society.

But as both are period novels of a sort, the successive readings are helping me to further explore how Fowles innovates his narrative. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne often comments on those Puritans, and his introduction makes clear he is examining it from a later perspective. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles brings the authorial "I" to a much fuller reality than Hawthorne would. But even before he injects himself in the 13th chapter, or writes himself into the book as a physical character, he is playing on the period novel convention of commentary. He frequently injects himself to comment on the Victorian age, but with much more explicit comparisions between that and his own age. Often in his injections, he warns the contemporary reader not to judge the Victorians too harshly, comparing the zeitgeist of the 1860s and 1960s, with some incisive commentary of his (our) own age. And though sometimes Fowles says "you" to the reader, he often uses "we," "our," "us:" he is quite explicitly a contemporary writer looking at the Victiorian period with a contemporary audience.

So reading Hawthorne shows me that Fowles' early intrusions in The French Lieutenant Woman, while more explicit, forceful, and deep, are not necessary new to the novel. Such intrusions do, however, prepare the reader for what is coming in chapter 13--that shouldn't come as a complete punch to the head. Though I'm not sure anything can quite prepare a reader for Fowles' later metafictional flourishes. His physical entry into the text of the novel is inspired, and his two endings take the concept of an ambiguous ending into its most explicit--and artificial--exploration yet.

I also can't help feeling a bit of irony. While Fowles is rather more sympathetic to the Victorians than Hawthorne is to the Puritans, it is amusing that while a 20th century English writer looks back to 19th century England for a repressive, rigid social ethos, a writer from that same century looks back further to find his epitome of the restrictive, judgmental society. The concept of "duty" really besots both Hawthorne's vision of 17th century Puritans and Fowles' vision of 19th century Victorians. Without feeling any affections for either the Puritans or the Victorians, I can't help but wonder whether either group was really quite as bad as the two authors present them.

Hawthorne recognized just how influential and formative the Puritans were on America. Fowles recognized just how influential and formative the Victorians were on England, and the world (The French Lieutenant's Woman is in some ways about Darwin, about how the great scientific discoveries of the Victorian period affected the Victorians, and how such discoveries have formed us). Both writers recognize an era and a people that built their (our) world--but both writers recognized culture, an attitude, an order, that needed to be shattered.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

John Fowles suggests realism and metafiction respond to the same problem

From "Foreword to the Poems":

"This uneasy consciousness of lying is why in the great majority of novels the novelist apes reality so assiduously; and it is why giving the game away--making the lie, the fictitiousness of the process, explicit in the text--has become such a feature of the contemporary novel. Committed to invention, to people who never existed, to events that never happened, the novelist want either to sound 'true' or to come clean."

In many of his writings and interviews, Fowles has referred to fiction as a "game," one played between the author and reader. I think here he's suggesting two ways the author can play the game: either pretend as hard as you can that you're not playing a game, or invite the reader in on the game with you. Fowles, of course, chooses the latter. And that's something I've always appreciated about Fowles' novels. He's aware that he's playing games, but he's not trying to pull one over on the reader, treating the reader like a dupe. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, the author often speaks to the contemporary reader as a partner: his intrusions don't read as if the author and reader are facing each other, but as if author and reader are standing together facing the same direction. In both The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Magus, Fowles practically insists that the reader consider his or her reading experience, in a way that I would call "meta-reading."

Having Multiple Editions

I've been planning on trying to get rid of some books to clear out space. My wife and I have multiple copies of several works, and I figured I would just sell those books we have copies of. Anything else, my wife, our child (or future children), or I may wish to read or re-read, so we should keep those.

But I'm finding that even when I have two or more editions of a particular work, there are reasons for me to keep both. If I have multiple translations of a work, I want to keep each different translation ( I now own three different translations of Crime and Punishment, and frankly, I don't want to choose which one to rid myself of). Sometimes a copy I might otherwise rid myself of has an introduction or something to make me keep it (Vincent Price wrote an introduction to one of my copies of Poe's short stories). Often I have one book I've marked up while reading, and another copy that is not marked up (I tend to mark up books, my wife doesn't). There's good reason to keep both editions--I may wish to find underlined passages at some point, but somebody in the household may also wish to read the book without any annotations (indeed, when I re-read Paradise Lost, I used a fresh edition so I wouldn't come across my notes from several years ago. I also bought a fresh edition of The Magus for future re-reading). And too often, there is some silly reason why I want to have two editions of a book.

A chance to really clear out some space has left me with a very small pile of books to sell, and all sorts of doubles that I just can't bear to part with.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Fowles on the novel's multiple uses

I try to avoid narrow, limiting definitions of what literature is, what it can be used for, and how one ought to approach it, for two clear reasons. First, approaching literature is primarily an individual activity, and the great diversity of humanity must call for multiple subjective approaches to literature. And second, there are so many potentials for literature, it seems harmful to try and limit those uses.

I found this passage from John Fowles' "Notes on an Unfinished Novel" particularly articulate on my thoughts:

"[Alain Robbe-Grillet's] key question: Why bother to write in a form whose great masters cannot be surpassed? The fallacy of one of his conclusions--that we must discover a new form to write in if the novel is to survive--is obvious. It reduces the purpose of the novel to the discovery of new forms, whereas its other purposes--to entertain, to satirize, to describe new sensibilities, to record life, to improve life, and so on--are clearly just as viable and important."

Fowles was an innovative novelist with a strong grip on manipulating form, particularly in The French Lieutenant's Woman. But it doesn't appear that Fowles considers innovation of form primary to his art (he suggests later in the same essay that his novels are "based on more or less disguised existentialist premises"). Indeed, there are purposes to the novel beyond innovating the form of the novel, and Fowles only describes a few.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Rube Cred

I collect sports cards: mostly football, but also basketball and a little bit of baseball. So when I was tooling around amazon.com searching for books, and discovered that Topps made a card of Fyodor Dostoevsky for its 2007 Allen & Ginter's set, I thought, "You know, if I'm not going to get a card of Fyodor Dostoevsky, what's the point of even collecting cards?"

The card came in the mail today--I danced around gleefully.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Reading "The Scarlet Letter"

Hawthorne's style
I consider Hawthorne one of the masters of the short story form, and his style in The Scarlet Letter is mostly the same. Yet a style that serves so well for 20 pages or so becomes a bit much over 200 or so.

Still, Hawthorne masterfully portrays the emotional, psychological, spiritual state of his main characters. Reading the book, I felt personally overwhelmed, weighed down. I felt the burden of the scarlet letter for Hester Prynne, the overbearing, heavy guilt and shame of Arthur Dimmesdale, and the spiritual hatred and corruption of Roger Chillingworth. In the text itself, Hawthorne portrays introspective oppression. I wanted to rip off the letter. I wanted Dimmesdale to throw off his burden and confess his actions. I wanted to run outside in the bright sunshine and move freely about.

Religion and Christ
The Scarlet Letter is much about religion, with much explicit religious discussion by the author and characters. Yet about half-way through the book, I became conscious that there had not been, and would not be, any direct mention of Jesus Christ. Which makes sense: the Puritan religion Hawthorne portrays in the book is a particularly oppressive, sin-obsessed, judgmental, unforgiving pseudo-christianity. There are many more references to the Old Testament than the New, and there are many references to judgment and Judgment. The story is in many ways about redemption and forgiveness, but in the society Hawthorne describes, such concepts are pushed to the background.

Roger Chillingworth
When I say I am a "moral reader," it is not because I think that it is the only way to read literature, nor that I think all readers should read this way (far from it). I only mean that when I read, there is a certain level of moral edification involved. I rarely read without being inspired to thought and consideration, not just of the text itself, but of how the text applies in my living life. I suppose that one could read a book like Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello and not consider the issues of animal rights that are explicitly discussed in the novel; I, however, wouldn't want to. I read for direct engagement, and what I read causes me to think of myself and the world.

In Roger Chillingworth, I see a moral. He reminds me of the spiritual corruption that comes from unforgiving hatred. A challenge of a Christian pacifist is to be peaceable, to be forgiving, to actually let things go. The presence of a vengeful man like Roger Chillingworth does not provide me with a new idea; it does, however, provide me with a concrete reminder. To seek vengeance, to hold grudges, to refuse to try and forgive, is to corrupt oneself. To nurse a hatred, a perceived wrong, to feed it and build it, ruins oneself as much as it can ever ruin an enemy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Bookstore

Bookstore Employee: Did you take that book with you into the bathroom?
George: What do you want to hear?

George: May I ask, what do you read in the bathroom?
Jerry: I don't read in the bathroom.
George: Well aren't you something.

Comment: Some hammy lines in this episode. The opening is classic, as Kramer hangs out in Jerry's apartment while he's out. Kramer also has a nice zany scheme involving rickshaws and homeless people. For most of the past decade, I sympathized with George: why are they making him buy the book just because he took it into the bathroom? Just tonight, I realized that it's a good policy for bookstore's to forbid customers from taking books into the bathroom.

Uncle Leo is a great character: annoying, but in a mostly realistic way. He's not a favorite character of mine--he's in some episodes when he's not anything special. But sometimes, he's really funny, and his interactions with Jerry are very funny. I find his insistence on saying Hello to be pretty amusing. Jerry's prison dream, in which Leo has "Jerry Hello" tattooed on his fingers of course amuses me (amuses me enough to write "Jerry Hello" in pen on my fingers? Even right now, as an adult? Well, yes).

For the record, I read in the bathroom.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Salem, MA

Sinclair Lewis Days

In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis absolutely skewers small towns. Naturally, Lewis' hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota names its summer booster festival "Sinclair Lewis Days."

Naturally, yours truly will be in Sauk Centre for Sinclair Lewis Days, as he is most summers.

(And yes, Sauk Centre High School's team nickname is the "Mainstreeters," often shorted to "Streeters").

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Tolstoy's Shaky Premise

In The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy speaks of what he understands to be the "true meaning" of Christ's teachings, and he is very critical of those that he believes have misunderstood Christ. Included among those that misunderstood Christ, according to Tolstoy, are the earliest disciples in the New Testament.

But Tolstoy is working on a faulty foundation. What Tolstoy believes to be the "true meaning" of Christ is based on Christ's words as recorded by the disciples. Tolstoy claims scripture shows that these same disciples misunderstood Christ's teachings, and added all sorts of miraculous and supernatural material. But without those same disciples recording Christ's words, Tolstoy would not have a touchstone with which to find fault with those disciples.

It is fine if Tolstoy has a standard by which to determine which parts of the disciples' recorded writings he believes provide Christ's true teaching, and which parts are "miraculous" embellishments. It is rather frustrating, however, to read Tolstoy claiming to have the "true meaning" in his assessment, while criticizing others who "misunderstand" the text. In this way, Tolstoy disappoints me: he seems to be another person with a religious idea that uses some passages of a religious text to support what he already wants to believe, while dismissing those passages of the text that don't suit his purposes.

(But I'm in the middle of the book, so perhaps I'll have more to say later. I just had to articulate what I was finding frustrating in Tolstoy's content and tone in the book. And I'm not writing this from a religious standpoint, but an academic one: I find his argument problematic).

Monday, July 07, 2008

Tolstoy on Preemptive War?

Leo Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God is Within You:

"Besides, apologies for violence used against one's neighbor in defense of another neighbor from greater violence are always untrustworthy, because when force is used against one who has not yet carried out his evil intent, I can never know which would be greater--the evil of my act of violence or of the act I want to prevent. [...] I see that a man I know to be a ruffian is pursuing a young girl. I have a gun in my hand--I kill the ruffian and save the girl. But the death or the wounding of the ruffian has positively taken place, while what would have happened if this had not been I cannot know. And what an immense mass of evil must result, and indeed does result, from allowing men to assume the right of anticipating what might happen."

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Melville on Realism

Well, perhaps not Melville: at best we can say this is what is written by the narrator of The Confidence-Man. Whether it's Melville or simply Melville's narrator is not the point, however:

"Strange, that in a work of amusement, this severe fidelity to real life should be exacted by any one, who, by taking up such a work, sufficiently shows that he is not unwilling to drop real life, and turn, for a time, to something different. Yes, it is, indeed, strange that any one should clamour for the thing he is weary of; that any one, who, for any cause, finds real life dull, should yet demand of him who is to divert his attention from it, that he should be true to that dullness."

Though I agree with the dismissal of realism (a work's realism or lack thereof doesn't terribly concern me as a reader), I don't necessarily think we all turn to literature just to "drop real life" in favor of "amusement." We can turn to literature for a whole host of reasons, including, in my opinion, a deeper engagement with the world, not an escape from it. But I've also never forgotten that I read for pleasure, for amusement, for entertainment. What brings me pleasure in literature is of course not the same thing that brings another person pleasure in literature (a point that should be obvious, but I find too many people try to make their tastes into something other than their tastes). I read for many reasons, but not the least is that I want to enjoy myself.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Burning

George: I think it's neat. You don't hear that much about God anymore.
Jerry: I hear things.

George: Whoa, back it up, back it up. Beep, Beep, Beep.

Comment: George has a lot of funny bits here--I picked these two because they're the ones I use in my own life. This episode has some other good deliveries from several characters.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


My Reading Declaration in Brief
Chapter Three: Subjectivity

"Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same."
Bernard Shaw

If a work of art moves you, it does not matter if it moves no other person in the world. Even if the rest of the world despises that work of art, it should not mean any less to you. Your tastes are subjective, and so are the tastes of every other individual in the world.

Be wary of those that would make their subjective tastes into universal, absolute claims. And ignore anybody that would deny your individual experience with a work of art.