Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov

A Review of Vladimir Nabokov’s

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2009/2010

The Original of Laura
By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited by Dmitri Nabokov
Knopf ($35)

In his aptly titled collection of interviews and essays, Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov declaimed, “Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.” A relentlessly productive artist, Nabokov was sure to be working on something when he died, and in the last two years of his life, in the face of rapidly failing health, he feverishly composed what he intended to be his final novel, The Original of Laura, which in the time-honored fashion of genius perfectionists, he insisted that his family burn if he was unable to complete.

Out of emotional inertia and admiration for the last fragments of her husband’s precious work, Nabokov’s widow, Véra, found herself unable to carry out his wishes, and when she died in 1991, the task fell to Nabokov’s son and sole heir, Dmitri. As his father’s literary executor, Dmitri Nabokov has wrestled ever since with what to do with the unfinished novel, and now at age seventy-five, just a few years younger than when his father died, he’s finally decided to publish the work and ease our minds about what he half-jokingly calls “Dmitri’s dilemma.”

As described in several interviews, as well in his much-overlooked final masterpiece, Look at the Harlequins!, Nabokov had a peculiar way of composing his novels: After conceiving of the whole work in his head, he’d write it out longhand on index cards, variously working on different parts at his whim as the whole thing slowly expanded to near-hypertextual perfection. He only left 138 index cards for The Original of Laura, however, leaving the text at nowhere near the level of finish of so many other famously uncompleted works (Vergil’s Aeneid, for example, or the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, or any of Kafka’s three novels). Not wanting to make any editorial decisions about his father’s work, Dmitri has lovingly reproduced every card in this present volume—in printed form as well as in facsimile, with perforations so we can take out and shuffle the fragments to our liking—giving us an unprecedented view into Nabokov’s working mind.

In the novel’s first several chapters, the first two of which come the closest to achieving Nabokovian polish, a writer (probably named Ivan Vaughan) lyrically describes (in perhaps a memoir) the true story of Flora, with whom he had an affair that was the inspiration for his bestselling novel, My Laura. Flora is ruthlessly mercenary and is married to a fat, famous, and independently wealthy neurologist named Philip Wild, whom she incessantly cheats on and seems to despise. In the awesome opening chapter, the narrator constructs a dizzyingly elliptical description of meeting her at a party, taking her to an obliging couple’s house for a comically cold (but nonetheless powerfully erotic and brilliantly evoked) sexual tryst, and then attempting the next day to assure a continued connection, which she assents to while making sure to keep him at arm’s length.

The second chapter flashes back to describe Flora’s ancestry and childhood, particularly focusing on her experiences with her mother’s elderly and overly familiar but essentially harmless lover, a wine smuggler who goes by the hilarious assumed name Hubert H. Hubert. While this chapter is quite rich and well constructed, certain details (such as the conspicuous use of the word “omoplate,” which also appears in the first chapter) suggest that Nabokov would have continued to scrutinize it. Then a later fragment expanding Flora’s words about her husband at the novels’ opening party scene seems as if it were meant to be incorporated into a later draft of the already gorgeous first chapter. Subsequent chapters follow Flora’s youth and eventual marriage to Wild, who in various later fragments seems to be referred to as Nigel Dalling (or Delling) and A.N.D., with each chapter more fragmentary and tentative than the last.

About halfway into the book the numbered chapters end, and—as perhaps shuffled by the younger Nabokov—Wild suddenly becomes the narrator of several extremely significant chapters and fragments. The fat, aging, unhappy, but visionary Wild spends a few heartbreakingly vivid sections describing his relationship to Flora, but mostly he recounts his experiments with a kind of cognitive visualization technique that temporarily allows him to kill off parts of his loathed body and enjoy more and more non-existence with each successive attempt. Later fragments describe contradictory approaches and experiences, but the the most vivid and chilling is the initial account, where he slowly imagines more and more of his lower extremities into nonexistence and then back into existence again—and then one day decides not to imagine back his toes. Opening his eyes, his toes are still there, but when he stands up, he falls immediately because his toes have no feeling at all, and then later that night they simply slough off.

The novel’s subtitle—which isn’t printed on the cover and strangely isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text—is “(Dying is Fun),” and as the fragments of The Original of Laura continue to fragment, there’s a fascinating contrast between the neurologist with the unwanted body serenely moving toward self-effacement and the bibliologist with the failing body (Nabokov, not Vaughan) desperately struggling to bring one more novel up into existence. The varied and fragmenting contrasts between the novel’s three main characters—Vaughan and Wild’s terribly sad longings (partially for Flora and then for something either within or beyond themselves) and Flora’s elusive loneliness that in one later fragment manifests itself as religious devotion—also form a deeply moving dynamic that becomes even more evocative as its kaleidoscopic index-card maze swirls into nothingness.

It’s wholly unclear how Nabokov would have woven together the circling strands of this final work’s DNA, but even though the completed Look at the Harlequins! serves as a perfect summation of a master at full power while also resigning himself to having exhausted his strength—“mumbling comfortably, dropping off, mumble dying away”—The Original of Laura sincerely adds to his legacy and attests to a true genius whom only death could stop from creating.

David Wiley

Monday, November 30, 2009

Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!

One Final Masterpiece:

Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!

Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

As a longtime devotee of Vladimir Nabokov, I’ve spent more than half of my life reading and rereading his novels, stories, memoirs, correspondence, lectures, plays, translations, essays, and interviews, and whenever anything previously unpublished crops up, I feel like a kid waiting in line for the new Star Wars film to open. When Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, recently decided to publish the master’s drafts for his final, unpublished novel, The Original of Laura, though, I realized that I had one last book to read before delving into this posthumous treasure. Like many other fans and critics, I’ve always felt that Nabokov’s English fiction peaked during the period of Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962) and that because his belated financial success allowed him to stop teaching and devote himself solely to writing, some of his later works became a bit too oneiric and uninspired by the difficulties of actual reality. I was particularly disappointed by his penultimate novel, Transparent Things (1972), which I admittedly read when I was probably too young to appreciate it in full, and so for some reason I never bothered to read his final novel, Look at the Harlequins! (1974). In preparing to read and review The Original of Laura, then, I somewhat warily decided to examine the state of Nabokov’s art at the end of his life, and in finally reading Look at the Harlequins!, I’ve had to revise my whole view of this amazing writer’s artistic trajectory.

A strange and often hilarious reflection of certain aspects of Nabokov himself, Look at the Harlequins! is set up as a memoir written by a Russian émigré writer named Vadim Vadimovich N., whose life and works resemble (and diverge from) Nabokov’s in a way that allows for a nearly infinite number of intertextual games—as well as for deeply penetrating examinations of art, love, loss, life, and death. Like Nabokov, N was born in St. Petersburg in 1899 and emigrated to Western Europe after the Russian Revolution to become a brilliant, if struggling, novelist in his native language. Then at around the same time that Nabokov did (1940ish), N started writing novels in English and moved to America, where he supported himself by teaching and then gained financial independence after publishing a scandalous international bestseller much in the vein of Lolita. The novel/memoir even begins with a list of N’s Russian and English novels, which amusingly mirror Nabokov’s works, and as Look at the Harlequins! progresses, we see the themes and subject matter of N’s work play off of Nabokov’s real literary career in fascinating ways.

N may share many of Nabokov’s tastes and traits, but it’s also very clear that he’s an intriguing literary invention rather than Nabokov himself, and part of the pleasure of reading this book is in watching how the real author teases us with the invented author’s dissimilarities to himself, while adding profound touches of memory that seem to be reflections of Nabokov’s own. It’s great fun to tease apart the two authors as they weave themselves into a strange mirror-tapestry, but even without these games, this book stands wholly on its own and is so brilliantly constructed—and moving, and funny, and sad—that it could easily be enjoyed by someone who’s never even read Nabokov.

N’s most marked differences from Nabokov also happen to be the two things that make for most of the novels’ most substantial explorations: N has serious mental health problems, and he ends up having four wives throughout the novel who give his life a constantly fluctuating sense of connection and disconnection. Whether Nabokov himself had mental health problems is debatable—he definitely suffered from anxiety, and some of his 1930s stories reflect a pre-Sartrean terror/nausea at the world—but he only ever had one wife (of fifty-two years), the brilliant and steadfast Véra, who in many ways grounded Nabokov and helped enable him to maintain his intense productivity (see Stacy Schiff’s deeply flawed but illuminating biography Véra [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]: Portrait of a Marriage). N has several interconnected mental maladies, but while he mostly fixates on one that involves his mind’s difficulties with spatial issues, he seems most troubled by anhedonia—the inability to feel joy. In chapter two, he recalls (or conceives) a particularly incisive exchange (or change) that he had at age seven or eight with one of his grand-aunts:

            “Stop moping!” she would cry. “Look at the harlequins!”
            “What harlequins? Where?”
            “Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together—jokes, images—and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!
            I did. By Jove, I did. I invented my grand-aunt in honor of my first daydreams, and now, down the marble steps of memory’s front porch, here she slowly comes, sideways, sideways, the poor lame lady, touching each step edge with the rubber tip of her black cane.

In order to feel any kind of joy, N invents. Even seemingly inventing the relative who induced him to invent, N is only at ease when manipulating dreams and memories into fiction. The novel/memoir itself even contains a serious inconsistency about N’s parents: In an early part of the narrative he writes that they divorced when he was very young, and then later he tells a bookseller friend that his father died six months before he was born, and at the narrative opening of the next chapter he continues this possible fabrication to become the novel’s more substantiated truth about his parents.

While his relationship to “dementia” (a nearly incarnate manifestation of his mental-health problems) remains fairly constant throughout the novel, his wives change constantly. What’s wonderfully enjoyable about this is that each wife is so uniquely and individually drawn that their entrances and exits from his life read like short-story frames within the novel, making it constantly renew its scaffolding as we find ourselves adjusting to and caring about each successive woman. While all his wives are entirely vivid—his first and last wives being the most compelling—the most powerful and touching relationship he has is with the daughter that he has with his second wife. The marriage is a bizarrely forced disaster, and his wife leaves him, taking their daughter, but when a tornado kills the mother several years later, his pre-teen daughter, Bel—another one of Nabokov’s brilliant (and only slightly disturbing) Poe-lita-like inventions—comes to live with him. Their emotional, artistic, and intellectual connection is perhaps the most profound and moving relationship that Nabokov ever created, but it’s so intense and unorthodox that in order to keep up appearances he marries again, which drastically changes Bel’s outlook and relationship to her father. Not wanting Bel around, wife number three sends her to a boarding school in Switzerland, which further alienates her and causes her to run away with a fashionably idealistic communist for the abyss of the Soviet Union.

Before she disappears and is still at school in Switzerland, N’s melancholy longing for their perfect relationship inspires him to write A Kingdom by the Sea, the Lolita-like novel that makes him rich and famous. Becoming ever more distant from his meandering and philandering third wife, N eventually receives a letter from a friend of Bel’s in St. Petersburg and undertakes a convoluted journey to try to help/rescue her. Failing, he returns home broken, but life and art still continue.

At a certain point in the novel/memoir N begins to write parts of the book in the second person, to “you” (the way that Nabokov wrote his famous memoir, Speak, Memory, to his wife, Véra), and just as he’s making a change to his life that’s both a literal resignation and a step toward complete self-determination, he finally meets the book’s “you.” The same way that the novel/memoir works as a summation of N’s (and Nabokov’s) literary career, the ensuing relationship is a kind of summation of N’s loves, and as a final, healing, caduceus-like intertwining of art and love, the woman who’s to become his fourth wife helps him solve a problem in a chapter of his last novel, Ardis (a play on Nabokov’s own antepenultimate novel, Ada)—the spatial problem that’s been plaguing his mind all his life.

With her insightful twist correcting his troubled conception of time and space, N suddenly realizes that he’s cured of his mental illness. But he also realizes that he isn’t. He knows that her solution is merely a linguistic “trouvaille”—or perhaps just a caduceus-like cadeau—and that at this point in his life he’s simply happy to accept happiness rather than to continue his search for a true solution to his condition. Which is perhaps true healing in itself: the acceptance of the happiness that he’d never been able to feel before and that his whole life had been a search and preparation for. Abstractions such as time and space were never his true problem anyway. It was his inability to see the harlequins.

V & V
Like this final gift that N receives, Look at the Harlequins! is itself a final gift of art and love from one of the twentieth century’s most ardent artists. Finally reading this masterpiece after all this time, it gave me not just an insight into the unflagging power of Nabokov’s later years, readying me for the dazzling harlequins dancing through the fragments of The Original of Laura, but it made his career retrospectively form itself into an entirely different shape in my mind. Both Look at the Harlequins! and The Original of Laura find Nabokov at his most relentlessly creative and innovative, and the fully polished Look at the Harlequins! especially alters the arc of his artistry. Joining Lolita and Pale Fire as perhaps his greatest English-language novels, this amazing work sums up just about everything that Nabokov could do, leaving one last full testament to his genius in its hall-of-mirrors portrait of the artist as an old man.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum

True Lies:

Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum

Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

Of the great postwar novels of the twentieth century, few have had as much international impact as Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. Published in 1959, The Tin Drum has had a palpable influence on the works of Thomas Pynchon, and the novel’s style, structure, and circle of themes—the narrator and main character, Oskar Matzerath, functioning as a kind of cipher for Germany itself—has served as a virtual template for such works as Edgar Hilsenrath’s brilliant The Nazi and the Barber and Salman Rushdie’s even more derivative (but still brilliant) Midnight’s Children.

The novel begins when the adult Oskar, confined to a mental hospital in the 1950s after allowing himself to be falsely convicted for murder and (perhaps rightfully) deemed insane, starts to write his memoirs. Although metaphorical and allegorical on many levels, The Tin Drum is never so simplistic as to make any one-to-one correlation between Oskar and Germany’s issues of guilt and innocence, but near the beginning of his account of his life, Oskar does make himself into a kind of symbol as he describes his current life in the asylum:

Once a week a visiting day breaks in on the stillness that I plait between the white metal bars. This is the time for the people who want to save me, whom it amuses to love me, who try to esteem and respect themselves, to get to know themselves, through me.

Subsequently, through Oskar’s cracked asylum memoir (as through those other great asylum-memoir novels of the time, The Catcher in the Rye and Lolita), we get to know some of the most painful and horrifying aspects of our own selves. We also “try to esteem and respect” ourselves by attempting to make sure that we’re completely free of the insidious complicity that Nazism spread through Germany, Europe, and in fact all of humanity. If only human beings are capable of inhumanity—if we’re the only species capable of orchestrating (or even conceiving) the Holocaust—then who among us can claim to be incapable of the most unspeakable atrocities? How do we live with knowledge of the War and still “esteem and respect” ourselves as human beings?

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Tin Drum is that it both frames and wholly evades almost all the issues raised by the War in general and by the Nazis in particular. Rather than being an active participant in the events of his time, Oskar exists on the margins, watching parades from beneath the hollows of the bleacher-facades and refusing to step up himself (either to join or to oppose). Through his eyes, we see the empty artifices created by the Nazis to dazzle the populace, and alongside him we get to descend into the vast underworld that either exists beyond the Nazis’ grasp or that crops up in their devastating wake.

From the 1979 film version of The Tin Drum
Oskar’s unusual vantage point (and ability to evade notice) is the result of his thorough singularity: He’s born with an adult ability to think and remember—his description of his birth is especially astonishing—and at age three, when he realizes that he’ll one day have to join banal adulthood, he decides never to grow up and stunts his growth by jumping down a flight of stairs and landing on his head. Somehow this works to arrest his growth, and he gets to remain a child, banging the tin drum that he receives as a gift for his third birthday, often to the confusion of the Nazis, and using his nearly inhuman shriek to shatter glass, which can be read as a twist on the Nazis’ Kristallnacht.

Although his decision to remain a child allows him to avoid and confound many of the evils of the adult world around him, Oskar doesn’t realize that remaining a child keeps him from growing in many necessary ways that his ostensibly adult mind can’t fathom—an avoidance that can itself be a kind of evil. Oskar’s stunted growth and unexpanding worldview is in many ways a mirror of Nazi Germany itself, with its own drums and shrieks and avoidance of personal accountability. In classic German literature, the Bildungsroman—the novel of growth—charts a character’s development through the necessary stages of life, and as a metaphor for the German nation’s decision to remain at an impeded and false adulthood, The Tin Drum works as a kind of anti-Bildungsroman. Of course, Oskar and his world are much more complicated than this simple summation, and as his wild and convoluted exploits expand ever outward through this labyrinthine novel, he does grow in some remarkable ways, giving the reader a prismatic view of life and of world events that’s not simply restricted to the vantage point of childish eyes.

For many years, readers have assumed—and have been meant to assume—that Oskar’s refusal to join adulthood also worked as a metaphor for the Nobel Prize-winning author’s own outsider’s view of World War Two. Through his literature and his activism, Grass has always maintained himself as a staunch critic of any kind of Nazi complicity, but then in 2006, he revealed to a startled world that he’d been a soldier in the Waffen-SS in 1944, when he was seventeen. Like so many Germans (and non-Germans), he’d been unable to avoid participating in the evils of his country and of his race (the human race), and perhaps even The Tin Drum itself was just an elaborate facade constructed so that Grass could “try to esteem and respect” himself after what he’d been part of.

Being drafted into the German Army is certainly no crime, but withholding the truth for so many decades has left many admirers of Grass’ work and life feeling betrayed by a serious sin of omission. Still, whether it helped to fashion a false truth about the author or not, in writing this life-changing novel Grass has allowed a world of readers (as well as himself) “to get to know themselves” through Oskar. Oskar’s remarks about his visitors may be disdainful and damning, but whether we’re willing participants in evil, or passive participants in it, or even victims of it, we still have the opportunity to examine ourselves and our world in Grass’ great masterpiece. As in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which takes some of Grass’ techniques and themes to even more extreme lengths, perhaps there’s no way to avoid some form of complicity. Rather than causing us to damn others (or ourselves), though, these works of art offer worlds of endless complexity that allow for true reflection, which is perhaps the best way to get to know who we really are.

—David Wiley

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales

Because He Could Not Stop for Death:

Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales

Originally published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

Gustave Flaubert was a literary perfectionist who spent year after year crafting a relatively small number of extraordinary novels, but even though it was his first published novel, Madame Bovary, that made him famous (or, rather, infamous), it was his last completed book, Three Tales, that was his best-received work during his lifetime. Time has elevated Madame Bovary to its rightful place as one of the finest of all prose narratives, with his other novels forming an oeuvre that in retrospect both defines and outshines its era, while Three Tales has become far less well known in our time than A Sentimental Education or Salammbô, which may or may not be a just reversal of fortune. This late collection of tales is a tiny masterpiece and is essential reading for anyone at all interested in Flaubert, or in short stories—and could even serve as a quick primer for someone who’s never encountered Flaubert’s diversely shimmering mastery.

The most widely known of the Three Tales is the celebrated “A Simple Heart,” which Flaubert wrote as a response to his friend and fellow novelist George Sand’s complaint that his writing too often conveyed the more negative or depressing aspects of humanity. Flaubert interrupted work on his (subsequently unfinished) last novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, to write “A Simple Heart,” but Sand died before he completed the tale. Flaubert was so shaken that he broke down at her funeral, and perhaps it was this loss that ironically made him color the loving mood of this strange and beautiful narrative with some of his most funereal hues. The story encapsulates the life of a naive and faithful servant named Félicité who devotes her existence to the service of people wholly unworthy of her, including not just her mistress’ family, but her own relatives. Félicité’s life is unenviable, but unlike her famously misanthropic author, her spirit and her faith in the goodness of life rarely waver, which in some ways makes her a much more fortunate soul than anyone else in her circle. Félicité may possess a simple heart, but she’s no Dostoyevskian holy fool, however (Flaubert and his friend Ivan Turgenev made great fun of Dostoyevsky’s inane pieties). As her peculiar mind degenerates with age, Félicité develops a grotesque spiritual relationship with a pet parrot that Flaubert devotee (and fan of holy fools) Flannery O’Connor would certainly interpret (and imitate) as grace through transfiguration, but Flaubert isn’t writing a simple salvation tale or hagiography. Félicité receives the holy spirit that’s already inside of her inner self, and even though her parrot serves as a kind of word-made-flesh embodiment of her relationship to the divine, it’s through her own particular grace that she lives and dies.

In the collection’s second tale, “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller,” Flaubert does take up the subject of hagiography, but his extrapolation of the varying medieval accounts—primarily Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend and the window-narrative found in the Rouen cathedral, among countless other sources that the thoroughgoing Flaubert absorbed during his research—he takes the story to such outlandish extents that it startles the reader into seeing just how outlandish the story is in the first place. Flaubert doesn’t seem to be making fun of religious legends or beliefs, exactly; it’s more like he’s freely exploring the utterly fantastical reaches of the religious imagination and urge. In Flaubert’s version of the legend, Julian’s path to sainthood seems to be the result of a kind of madness—a very specific kind of madness, but one whose monomania seems to be shared by many of the medieval saints. As a youth, Flaubert’s Julian kills a pesky mouse that’s gnawing away at his ability to enjoy a church service, and then in a series of escalating steps he gradually develops an insatiable bloodlust that leads him to become a nearly genocidal hunter. At the end of a particularly harrowing free-for-all, a great talking stag (who also appears in the confused and conflated legends of several other saints, most notably SS. Eustace and Hubert) curses Julian and tells him that he’ll end up murdering his own parents. After accidentally almost killing his mother, Julian flees home in terror and becomes a soldier of fortune, which leads him to commit vast human slaughter and to attain incredible riches and fame. Naturally, an Oedipean twist of fate leads him to kill his parents and then to renounce all killing and to devote himself to human service. The tale’s intensity doesn’t end there, though. Julian becomes a tireless ferryman, rowing any passenger or load for free and submitting himself to any degradation or abuse. This is the stuff of nearly all hagiography, but Flaubert’s account is relentless—and relentlessly beautiful—and when Julian encounters a horrific leper and takes step after gruesome step to aid the man’s suffering, he reaches an apotheosis that’s as breathtaking as anything Flaubert ever wrote.

The collection’s third tale, “Herodias,” continues the exploration of religious history, this time retelling the story of how Herod Antipas’ wife, Herodias, used her daughter, Salome, to bring about the death of John the Baptist. Although Flaubert is somewhat free with his historical dates and with his account of political alliances, “Herodias” is less a religious tale than it is a fascinating account of the complex webs of political, religious, ethnic, and personal interests that composed the daily texture of first-century Palestine. Here, Antipas is a brooding and defensive ruler who even fears his wife’s power, while John the Baptist and his followers are merely one very complicated aspect of his worries. Flaubert had been to Palestine, and his descriptions of the landscape and light are stunning (and accurate), making this very specific day in the life of the Tetrarch of Galilee as vivid as it is portentous.

Writing this strongly near the end of his life, it’s possible that his unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, could have become Flaubert’s greatest work, had he been able to weave it all together with more vivid and compelling threads than exist in the book’s extant draft of picaresque intellectual excursions. Discussing the failed first version of his other great masterpiece, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Flaubert said that he’d composed a brilliant series of pearls but had forgotten one thing—the string to connect them all together—and this is even more true for Bouvard and Pécuchet. It could have been another masterpiece, but his friend Sand’s life and death interrupted, which is how life and death work for writers and nonwriters alike, and so rather than lamenting what could have been, we can marvel at Three Tales’ gemlike triptych and encounter a master at his most distilled. And of course we can still read the unfinished Bouvard and Pécuchet and imagine that it was as perfectly hewn as Three Tales.

—David Wiley

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Slipping into Darkness:

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Beyond

Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

There are many great writers whose reputations rest on one superlative masterpiece, whether they’ve written several works or whether they’ve produced just one unforgettable and unavoidable magnum opus. Because it’s the only book that he was able to spend any serious time on, The Great Gatsby puts F. Scott Fitzgerald in the former category, which makes readers and critics wonder what else he’d have been capable of had he not led such a chaotic life. Then there are the writers who pour everything they have into one perfect life-work and then for some reason never publish another word of fiction. A prime example of this second category of writers is Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly a novel whose tremendous worth at once begs for further literary contributions and merits the author a well-deserved (if not particularly satisfying) retirement after changing the lives of so many readers. Perhaps more fascinating, however, is the example of Ralph Ellison and his only completed novel, Invisible Man, because unlike Lee, Ellison was a vital and vocal member of the world literary scene both before and after his one great book changed the literary landscape in 1952.

Ellison in fact published two other books in his lifetime—Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory—but they were collections of essays, and even though he was a major critical voice, readers were still eagerly waiting for a second novel when Ellison died in 1994. The main reason for Ellison’s inability to finish another novel was probably his own self-proclaimed dissatisfaction with the imperfection of his writing—even with the National Book Award-winning Invisible Man. Soon after his death, Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, collected and published Flying Home and Other Stories, and then in 1999, manuscripts found in Ellison’s home provided the material for Juneteenth, an unfinished novel that the same literary executor edited down from more than 2,000 pages, written over a period of forty years, to less than 400 pages.

Ellison’s original passion and training were for music, but he also loved literature, and when he was in college at the Tuskegee Institute he fell under the spell of literary Modernism, which eventually led to him writing his one dazzling, challenging, disturbing, and extraordinary novel. While the events of Invisible Man are rooted in very serious modern social events, Ellison himself stated that its main importance as a work was in its style and experimental nature. Ellison never abandoned music, and Invisible Man attains to the perfection of form that’s almost solely available to sonic composers.

The novel begins with the unnamed narrator describing his self-exiled habitat: a forgotten basement annex in a whites-only apartment building where he lives for free and where he’s secretly wired and illuminated a blinding 1,369 light bulbs. The narrator then flashes back to describe his young life in the American south, where after being named valedictorian of his high school class he was invited to re-deliver his valedictory speech before a group of influential white men. This leads to the novel’s infamous “Battle Royal” scene, where the narrator and several other young black men are forced to fight blindfolded while the white men watch with savage delight. I’ve met many fellow readers who have been too horrified by this episode to continue reading the novel, but this astounding overture leads into a symphonically staggering work that no serious modern reader will want to miss, whether for content or style.

Ellison cited T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a major influence, but it’s more likely that Invisible Man’s labyrinth of seemingly picaresque but in fact highly controlled progressions are more inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. While Ulysses echoed and parodied the form and music of Homer’s Odyssey, Invisible Man resounds with the forms and resonances of music itself. In a rapidly evolving literary scene, which soon introduced the endlessly innovative works of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, this obsession with form and pitch-perfection clearly kept Ellison in constant revision and never again allowed him to achieve such an accomplished and sustained totality/tonality in his writing.

The Modern Library plans to publish all the manuscripts for Juneteenth in 2010 in a massive volume tentatively entitled Three Days Before the Shooting. Perhaps this publication will reveal Ellison’s last work to be his true masterpiece: a towering Virgilian epic crossed with a sprawlingly unresolved and unresolvable Kafka novel. Perhaps this work will be the next step in Modernism and Postmodernism and will open up a goldmine for readers, critics, and anyone concerned with how the mind constantly attempts to shape our world into some kind of form. Or perhaps it will simply show us a brilliant writer attempting to bring more of his struggling mind’s invisible darkness into view. In the meantime, we still, and will always, have Invisible Man to flood our darkest annexes with music and light.

—David Wiley

Saturday, September 5, 2009

William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches

Mirrors of Chartres Street:

William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches

Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

In the 1920s, when so many of the most exciting new American writers had expatriated to Paris to make their names, New Orleans was often known as the “poor man’s Paris,” because the easily affordable Louisiana city offered writers and artists many of the French mecca’s cultural advantages while allowing them to keep their feet safely grounded on American soil, where home was often just a quick trainride away. As anyone who’s had the pleasure of living in Paris knows, there’s no substitute for the City of Lights, but even though New Orleans has nothing on the scale of the Louvre or Notre Dame or Saint Chapelle, or any of the amazing crush of the Île-de-France’s artistic and historical landmarks, it has a profoundly rich and deep-rooted cultural heritage that’s almost as Francophone as it is diversely American. And while France had the Russian Stravinsky in residence in the 1920s, along with so many other foreign pilgrims and exiles, New Orleans was the home of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Kid Ory, who at the time were virtually inventing America’s national music.

In January of 1925, William Faulkner, a twenty-seven-year-old writer from Oxford, Mississippi who was to so mold many of his country’s motley varieties of civilization into a mythic literary universe, arrived in New Orleans, ostensibly to book passage and leave for England right away. In the six months that he ended up staying in the city before embarking for Europe—Italy at first, and then Paris—he began writing the stories that lay the foundation for the vast body of work that would eventually garner him the Nobel Prize for literature.

Faulkner had been a poet in Mississippi, and as he was planning his exodus he deliberately made the decision to begin writing fiction, and when he arrived in New Orleans he found a thriving literary community that boasted a handful of leading publications for new writers, particularly The Double Dealer, which had published a poem of Faulkner’s in 1922 and which regularly featured the work of such American literary pioneers as Hart Crane, Djuna Barnes, Robert Penn Warren, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Cowley, Thornton Wilder, Allen Tate, and Edmund Wilson. Presiding over the New Orleans literary scene was ex-Ohioan Sherwood Anderson, author of the wonderful and enormously influential story-cycle Winesburg, Ohio, and Anderson and his wife were extremely hospitable to the young Faulkner, who they allowed to stay at their house for a while in January of 1925 and who they often took out for walks and boatrides when Anderson wasn’t off on his frequent lecture tours.

After what was supposed to be a last visit home to Mississippi in February of 1925, Faulkner returned to New Orleans once again to embark for Europe, but rather than leaving immediately he took rooms at 624 Orleans Alley (now called Pirates Alley), near the rear of St. Louis Cathedral. His apartment is now a bookstore called Faulkner House Books, which is where a friend recently bought me a copy of New Orleans Sketches, the collection of Faulkner’s first published prose works, which he largely wrote in the five months that he lived at this prime French Quarter location.

Chartres Street, New Orleans, c. 1906
In January and February of that year he wrote a series of very short sketches entitled “New Orleans,” which he sold to The Double Dealer for a small fee. These sketches comprise eleven reflections on the city, written in the voices of a variety of the denizens that Faulkner observed in his nightly perambulations (and imaginings/intuitions). The most affecting of these are the last three—“The Artist,” “Magdalen,” and “The Tourist”—which delve not just into what Faulkner saw on the street, but what he saw inside the mirrors of his own growing creativity, and as the months passed he expanded upon several of these sketches’ themes and scenarios to create the rest of the pieces now collected in New Orleans Sketches. As the collection’s editor, Carvel Collins, points out with great acuity in his exceptionally useful and well-researched introduction, Faulkner would later expand even further upon many of these sketches’ themes and concerns in several of his greatest novels.

Interior shot of New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral
Faulkner soon found that he could support himself by selling sketches to the New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune, and the title of his first sketch, “Mirrors of Chartres Street,” became the subtitle of many of the other pieces for the newspaper, which began publishing one of his sketches every few weeks, from February until a few months after he’d left for Europe. What’s fascinating to watch, however, is that even though the city of New Orleans fills these mirrors with Chartres-like color, as the series progresses the reflections themselves are more often of exiles and transients and misfits whose ties, if they exist at all, are to the back-country that Faulkner was himself trying to leave behind.

Perhaps the most illuminating of these sketches is “Sunset,” a story about an inland black man who arrives in New Orleans trying to book passage to Africa in order to find a real home. The man is wholly confused about the nature of the world, and his series of mishaps ends in deep tragedy, illustrating the vast divide between both black and white and reality and dream. Even more, though, “Sunset” is a warped reflection of Faulkner’s own yearnings, colored in the darkest of hues.

Giotto’s Ecstasy of Saint Francis, 1300
One of the other most affecting stories is “The Kid Learns,” which concerns an up-and-coming pimp who decides to muscle in on a much more powerful and experienced man’s territory, knowing that he’s still years away from being able to pull off such a coup. The story seems at first to be just a hardboiled sketch of lowlife machinations, but it’s not just the kid who learns in “The Kid Learns.” It’s also Faulkner who learns, his imagination taking the story into the beyond as the kid meets “Little sister Death” at the tale’s end—a reference to Saint Francis of Assisi’s deathbed addition to his “Canticle of the Sun” that shows Faulkner expanding his creative palette to include the penetrations of mystery into his character’s lives and deaths. Cormac McCarthy was to learn a lot from this transcendent approach.

By the time Faulkner wrote “Yo Ho and Two Bottles of Rum,” the last story that the Times-Picayune was to publish, he was already in Europe, and his boat trip seems to have influenced his wide-ranging observations and given his scope a touch of the Melville and Conrad that he was already surely familiar with but that until then was beyond his personal experience. The anti-colonial sentiments of “Heart of Darkness” also seem to echo through this profound tale of the Chinese crewmembers’ collective reaction to the senseless murder of a cargo ship’s messboy by a belligerent English officer. Even beyond this broadened horizon is Faulkner’s broadened narrative and imaginative power, which by this point was becoming piercingly acute.

Not every piece in New Orleans Sketches is entirely successful, however—many are little more than character studies or explorations of particular situations, and sometimes they can be superficial or hackneyed and can often have facile endings tying their meandering episodes together—but as the work of an apprentice story writer, this collection is as fascinating in itself as it is auspicious. The greatest fascination, of course, is that these intriguing pieces sketch out a blueprint for one of the most fertile American literary careers of the twentieth century. Faulkner wrote all these sketches in 1925 while also working on his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, and by the end of the decade he would publish two of the greatest works of American—and world—literature: The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930). He would be back in Mississippi by this time, unearthing in his works the native genius of the American south, but as with so many other great writers, his exodus was a necessary step in his true reflections of home. In a very short time Faulkner would develop a voice as singular and as American as that of New Orleans’ musical patron saint, Louis Armstrong, and his time teaching himself how to write in “poor man’s Paris” was surely one of the seminal experiences that afforded his work such extraordinarily deep and resonant reflectiveness.

—David Wiley

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman:

The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou

Originally published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

Of the twentieth-century American lives that have been transformed into books via the art of the memoir—and that have been transformed via the act of writing the memoir itself—perhaps none reflects us as a nation as well and as variously as that lived by Maya Angelou, whose six autobiographies (now published as the 1,167-page Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou) portray an ever-evolving human being who seems with every new volume to encompass ever more of the breadths and depths and heights of the spangled American experience.

Tobias Wolff’s memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army show us the flipside of the American dream in the nuclear/post-nuclear-family age, and the Malcolm X/Alex Haley collaborative construction The Autobiography of Malcolm X composes a multifaceted portrait of a mind fashioning and refashioning itself in constant response to a profoundly uneasy home-nation, but Maya Angelou’s series of memoirs seem to do all this and more.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928, and seeming to live more lives in America and abroad than six books could possibly contain, Maya Angelou is one of our country’s true renaissance women (I find it interesting that her name so closely resembles that of the quintessential Renaissance man himself, Michelangelo). Angelou has been a singer, dancer, actor, director, songwriter, journalist, educator, lecturer, poet, playwright, memoirist, and mother; she’s also been deeply involved in civil rights activities and politics; and in her leaner years she worked as a fry cook, a streetcar conductor, and even as a prostitute and madame. Her stature reaching incredible heights when she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, Angelou’s is without question one of the most diverse and remarkable lives of the past and current century. In fact, when I read her first five memoirs in my youth, I felt that in each subsequent book I was discovering an entirely new America. Her story is our story, and it’s as vast and eclectic as we are.

In 1969, partially at the suggestion of James Baldwin, Angelou wrote and published her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as a way to deal with her grief over two major losses. Having become close friends with Malcolm X in Ghana just a year before his assassination in 1965, and then losing her friend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to another assassination just after he’d asked her to organize a march in 1968, Angelou delved into her deepest self to create an unforgettable self-portrait. Rather than exploring her recent losses, however, she focused in her first volume (which wasn’t envisioned as the first in a series) on the first seventeen years of her life.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou tells of her early unstable existence of being shuttled between her family in Stamps, Arkansas, and St. Louis. The book’s most overwhelming event occurs when at age eight Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, after which she tells her story to her brother, which then leads to the man being kicked to death, presumably by Angelou’s uncles. In response to her rapist’s death, Angelou became almost completely mute for five years, feeling that her voice had killed the man.

Regaining her voice again through the help of a friend and teacher who introduced her to classic literature—especially Shakespeare—Angelou became a precocious and engaged teenager. But then in a wholly rational and irrational decision to become initiated into real sexuality, she asks a nearly anonymous young man to sleep with her, knowing full well that the episode would lead to pregnancy, which it does. Even without the book’s surrounding and shaping events, the young man’s priceless reaction to Angelou’s proposal is reason enough to read this amazing book.

Her second memoir, Gather Together in My Name, was published in 1974 and focuses on the next two years of Angelou’s life, when she struggled to hold together an existence for herself and her son in any way possible. This memoir wasn’t as well received as her world-famous debut, but in my case, this was the book that hooked me. Watching a young Black woman go from shady jobs and relationships to even shadier jobs and relationships, including one with an Episcopalian preacher who seduces her into prostitution, I found myself entranced with Angelou’s search for meaning and purpose and solace in an (at best) indifferent world.

Her third memoir, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, was published in 1976 and chronicles her early life as a traveling entertainer. It covers the years between 1949 and 1955, and the main events of the volume describe her part in the international tour of the musical Porgy and Bess, but the more significant material involves her short-lived marriage to Greek sailor Tosh Angelos (who supplies the basis for her stage name) and her increasingly important relationship with her son Clyde (aka Guy). Although this memoir is fascinating to jazz aficionados such as myself, this is the volume that my friends and I unanimously agreed was our least favorite. One specific turnoff was that despite her great friendship with many gay entertainers, Angelou makes a homophobic remark about how children shouldn’t be raised around their influence. More important, though, is that her exploits in music and dance, for which she was fairly famous, aren’t nearly as interesting as her explorations of her inner life, for which her writing was making her even more justly famous.

Then with her 1981 memoir, The Heart of a Woman, Angelou returns to the heart of matters, and in a converse unanimity, this is the volume that almost all my friends and I hold most dear. Angelou still focuses on her relationships with musicians and actors, but here the relationships are more profound and profoundly drawn, whether they’re positive (James Earl Jones, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, etc.) or positively disturbing (Billie Holiday at her most shocking). More crucial is Angelou’s increasing involvement with the civil rights movement, which leads her to become the New York Director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In this capacity, she comes into contact with several African anti-colonialists, and she falls in love with the South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, whom she marries and follows with her son to Cairo—and whom she eventually leaves, taking her son, her heart, and the reader to Ghana to discover the heart of Africa, and perhaps of herself.

Her 1986 volume, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, continues her journey into herself as an American, an African, and a woman as she relates in moving, unsettling, and hilarious detail the struggles she finds in Ghana for identity and autonomy, in herself and in the people who are all attempting to come to terms with who they are as a varied and occasionally unified people. She meets Malcolm X in Ghana, and in experiences similar to those described in his Autobiography, she finds herself not fully embraced by Africa, and as a response she discovers just how much of an American she is at heart.

This will of course lead her back to America, but readers had to wait until her 2002 volume, A Song Flung Up To Heaven, for the cycle to come full circle, the series of memoirs leading Angelou right up to the time that culminated in King’s assassination and that led her to embark upon her long autobiographical journey. For some reason, I’ve waited even longer, though, always wanting to see Angelou arrive at her embarkation point but somehow not wanting to arrive there myself, and as a result, I haven’t read this final volume yet.

In the series as I’ve read it, Angelou has not yet become the author of her life, and as she’s still among the living today, perhaps this has kept the still living reader wanting to keep the still living writer in process in his mind. Another part of me simply always wants to save more of Angelou’s life for later. At eighty-one and unlikely to let her memoirs overlap into meta-memoirs, Angelou has fully drawn herself. Perhaps one day I’ll be ready to gaze at the completed portrait.

—David Wiley

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Marginal but Unforgettable Bruno Schulz

The Marginal but Unforgettable Bruno Schulz

Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

Bruno Schulz, self-portrait, 1920
Of the great European writers of the past century, Bruno Schulz may be the writer most highly regarded by the fewest people. He’s often compared to Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, but his provinciality—which was both deliberate and circumstantial, and which was key to his work—as well as his ill-timed life and death have conspired to keep him from standing on the stage alongside his very few equals. Schulz was a Galician Jew born in 1892 in Drogobycz, a small town that at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; after the First World War the town was re-annexed by Poland, and at the start of the Second World War it was seized by the Soviet Union and then later taken by the Nazis. In addition to being a writer, in Polish, Schulz was a draftsman of extraordinary talent—he made his living teaching art at a school for boys—and during the Nazi occupation he was temporarily under the protection of a German officer who liked his drawings. Then in November of 1942 a Gestapo officer who had a grudge against Schulz’s “protector” shot Schulz dead in the street as he was carrying home a loaf of bread. According to the story, the murderer reported to his rival afterward, “I shot your Jew.”

Politics, geography, and ideology then further obscured Schulz as post-War Communist Poland condemned his work for being too personal and unrealistic, only partially rehabilitating his writing in 1957, but even then just to allow it into print, permitting no praise or study of it in any of the official literary journals. Translations into French and German re-spread some of the slight fame that Schulz had gained in his lifetime, and then in 1980 American writer Philip Roth introduced Schulz to English-language readers by sponsoring the “Writers from the Other Europe” series, which also included Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, and Tadeusz Borowski.

My own introduction to Schulz’s work was almost as roundabout. In my early twenties I read Cynthia Ozick’s extraordinary 1987 novel, The Messiah of Stockholm, which conjectured the extantcy of the fabled lost Schulz novel, The Messiah. Having never heard of Schulz, I thought that he was either the world’s greatest writer or that Ozick was the world’s greatest writer for inventing an author whose work sounded so inconceivably original and strange. Then a month or so later, by chance I read David Grossman’s novel See Under: Love (1986 in Hebrew; 1989 in English), which also delved deeply into Schulz’s life and work. I then immediately located a copy of The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz (published in 1989) and was affected by it in ways that not even these two brilliant novels had prepared me for.

Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that, “Schulz cannot be easily classified.” In fact, the categories that Singer lists as aspects of Schulz’s style—surrealist, symbolist, expressionist, modernist—seem quaint and outmoded in comparison to Schulz’s striking approach. For Schulz the inner world becomes manifest in the outer world, and the borders between imagination and reality in his fiction are almost wholly eradicated. The main figure in Schulz’s work—which consists almost entirely of interconnected short stories—is Father, the inspired patriarch who communes with demons and wrestles with angels while his bourgeois family tries to live an ordinary existence. Father delves into the world’s essential quiddities, and at times he lives among his aviary and treats his birds as creatures equal to—or superior to—his family. At another time he treats his tailor’s dummies in the same manner, his experiments with the mutable nature of consciousness and persona recalling the Promethean Doctor Frankenstein, or, in the Jewish tradition, a maker of Golems. His strange communions lead him to the most bizarre personal transformations—into a horsefly in one story, and into a crab in another—which inevitably strengthen the comparisons to Kafka. Schulz certainly loved Kafka, and in fact he translated The Trial into Polish—and like Kafka, who was a Jew living in Prague but who wrote in German, Schulz also wrote not in Yiddish but in the literary language of his particular time and place. Schulz’s main inspirations were Maria Rainer Rilke and Thomas Mann, however, whose influences kept him from being overly consumed by Kafka. Kafka’s stories are exceptionally sharp and precise and deadpan, while Schulz’s are lush and oneiric and febrile. Even at his most luscious, though, Schulz tempers the absurdities of the overwrought Rilke and the ponderous Mann into a perfectly balanced imbalance, where all the exaggerated heights and depths are shaped into the most dazzling and tactile of forms.

From Schulz’s Book of Idolatry, etching, 1920–1922
Schulz’s first collection, Cinnamon Shops, was published in 1934, and his second collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, was published in 1937. He also published many other short stories in various journals, the longest of which, “The Comet,” was appended to his first collection when it was translated into English and renamed The Street of Crocodiles. The Complete Fiction collects all of this work and includes excellent essays by both the translator and the editor. Schulz also published a book of drawings called A Book of Idolatry, which showcases both his visionary artistic talent and his idiosyncratic sexual preoccupations. For decades after Schulz’s murder, literary acolyte Jerzy Ficowski scoured all of Europe to collect the diminished remnants of Schulz’s voluminous correspondence and published them in the Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz, which also contains three previously uncollected stories, most notably the fantastic “Fatherland.” Nobody knows what happened to his perhaps legendary novel, The Messiah. Or perhaps there’s still someone alive who does know. Time and circumstance have only been somewhat kind to Schulz’s legacy. But as small as it is, it’s an awesome legacy, and any reader who encounters it will be forever thankful for its singular disturbance to our collective literary consciousness.

—David Wiley