Monday, September 29, 2008


Ian Hamilton's controversial and legally hampered attempt at a Salinger biography is valuable for illuminating its subject's life and motivations and for tantalizingly suggesting that Salinger has multiple completed manuscripts stashed in his rural New Hampshire home. (If he doesn't burn them, we might be surprised by a Henry Roth-like flash flood of late, late and/or posthumous works.) The most eye-opening part of the book is Hamilton's discussion of Salinger's WWII service. The guy walked through hell (Utah Beach on D-Day, Runtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge) and by the end of the war he may have been driven insane. All of this casts a long shadow over his canonical works (all written after the war; he has tried to suppress his pre-war short stories), which must now be read as emphatically postwar fiction even when, as in the case of Catcher in the Rye, they don't explicitly mention the war. Salinger, it appears, is more Hemingwayish than I have ever imagined.

UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry

Lowry's Under the Volcano impresses me no more on this reading than it has on my previous readings. It still seems overwritten. It's as if during the course of his multiple revisions Lowry wrote the life out of the story. He's also guilty, like his literary godfather Herman Melville, of sledgehammer symbolism (i.e. symbols as subtle as sledgehammer blows), such as the pariah dog that follows the Consul around (and perhaps follows him down the ravine in the novel's last line). All in all, the novel doesn't live up to its reputation, and I don't consider it a great book. It might be the ruin of a great novel, as Lunar Caustic is the ruin of a great novella, but a writer of ruins doesn't equal a great writer. In Volcano's own terms, the book is a Maximilian's palace of a novel, a ruined refuge for its doomed, dreaming lovers.

It almost pained me to write the above, because I want to like Under the Volcano. Like Melville's Confidence Man, it's a work I'm predisposed to admire. But I can't admire it, and the fault, I'm convinced, lies not in myself but in the book. Interestingly, the two novels, otherwise so disparate, seem to have one major fault in common: both read like notebook dumps--padded, overwritten novels filled out with stories from the authors' notebooks. Many knowledgeable readers consider them great novels; this knowledgeable reader regretfully does not.


As an example of how closely Joyce's Ulysses can be read, consider this brief passage from the 'Lotus Eaters' episode in which Leopold Bloom, pausing in a church during mass, misreads the sign on the back of a priest's vestments:
...Letters on his back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in.

The IHS on priestly garments--as Joyce certainly knew and the secular Bloom appropriately does not--is a Christogram, writing that alphabetically signifies Christ, in this case via the first three letters of His name in Greek: iota-eta-sigma. This Christogram is also commonly (mis)interpreted as signifying 'Iesus Hominum Salvator' ('Jesus, Savior of Man') or 'in hoc signo (vinces)' ('by this sign, conquer', from the legend of the vision of Constantine). Read in the light of this last misinterpretation, the only one that explicitly refers to the acts of reading and interpretation that are the concerns of the Joycean passage, these few lines that on the surface seem a mere scene of comic and sentimental misinterpretation become something much more complex. It is both an allegory of misreading (paging Dr. de Man...) and an allegory of the act of reading the Joycean text itself. It opens a series of mirrors, in some of which the reader might see reflected his/her own studious and/or baffled face. Bloom as reader, mirroring and parodying the actions of all nonfictional readers of Ulysses (you, me, Harold Bloom), misinterprets a written sign. But it's not just any sign. It's a sign that is commonly misinterpreted as referring to a scene of crucially correct interpretation. Joyce thus casts a shadow of doubt on the validity even of Constantine's interpretation and places a critical question mark over all acts of reading and interpreting, even of the holy Word. In short, the passage is a deconstructionist's delight, hurling the acts of reading and interpretation into a deManian abyss of mirrors and meaninglessness... This is all too complex for a blog post (it's really academic journal fodder), so let me end it now, delivering a Tristram Shandy-ish coup de grace in the delightfully understated form of a single, terminal period: .