Monday, September 23, 2013

A Few of my Literary Pillars, Part Three

The Satyricon by Petronius. The dude who invented writing (and let's assume for the duration of this silly sentence that it was a dude) probably spent many days alone with his rock and chisel meticulously carving into the stone an amusing anecdote about the amazing Sumerian chick he banged in the moonlight shadow of a ziggurat last Saturday night. As long as human beings have been funny, they've tried to be funny about sex. As long as we have been cultural creatures, sex has been the stuff of comedy. Sex comedy, indeed, might be considered one of the defining characteristics of human civilization. High-falutin' stuff for cocks and cunts, eh? In the Western tradition, the Greeks had their satyr plays and the endless hard-on jokes of Heine's one true god, Aristophanes, and the Romans had...Petronius. I've sampled a few translations and favor the William Arrowsmith version of this fragmented phallic cornucopia from the court of Nero. It begins as self-consciously as any postmodern novel, with a disquisition on its own rhetoric, then sends us on a mock-odyssey punctuated with satirical incidents of pomposity, greed and bumbuggery. A good time is had by some, the world is revealed to be fundamentally corrupt and hypocritical, and the reader is treated to some outrageous humor. Of course I've always loved it. Petronius feels much closer to me, closer to the human world, than any of the ancient epicists. The only other Roman who means as much to me is Ovid.

Ulysses by James Joyce. You saw this one coming down O'Connell Street, didn't you now? Over its nearly one hundred-year life, Ulysses has gone from cult book to banned book to dirty book to classic book to textbook to unread book, the typical life cycle of the avant-garde classic. I first read it one summer when I was feeling suicidal. I was 20, lonely, aimless, impoverished, and reading too much Sexton and Plath. And since I was going to kill myself, I wanted to read a few great books first, just to feel that I'd accomplished something in my two decades besides turning a cubic mile of oxygen into a  cubic mile of carbon dioxide. I chose Ulysses, Kafka's The Trial and Eliot's Waste Land. Three excellent choices, because each is a work that requires a full lifetime to understand, thereby necessitating the indefinite deferral of my self-offing. I couldn't even think about raising a bare bodkin until I really, truly, deeply understood James Joyce. And since Finnegans Wake will linger always on the horizon waiting to be understood, I decided that I would stand there too. Until the end. That's how literature, quite literally, saved my life. In retrospect, it's a good thing I didn't choose to read The Pet Goat or Get Shorty. (Although, for the record, I enjoyed Get Shorty, and we all know how much Dubya enjoyed the goat book.)

Dubliners by James Joyce. When I first read Dubliners at age 20, I hated it. Just hated it. The stories seemed too thin and old-fashioned, slices of mercifully forgotten life, meaningless pieces of nothingness. If I had known it at the time, I would've applied to Joyce the glib comment Hazlitt made upon Turner's later paintings, "Pictures of nothing, and very like." And I would've been every bit as wrong as Hazlitt. For it's not nothing Joyce paints, but damn near everything. From birth to death, childhood to old age, hedonism to puritanism, and every brand and manner of sad perversity, it's all here. Dubliners is a kind of Chekhovian trial run for Ulysses that also marks the English-language perfection of the epiphanic short story. Today I find my first impression hard to believe. How could I have been so blind? Obviously, I had not yet read enough Modernist literature to become literate in its techniques. When that deficit was remedied, Joyce's stories shone like the hair of Mangan's sister. I could experience the delight of their sneaky, lyrical beauty.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. I first read this at exactly the right time, while I was a high school student. I remember lying in bed one Sunday morning with family noises wafting through the walls and reading the opening pages of the orange-spined Penguin paperback with Berenice Abbot's portrait of Joyce on the cover. And I remember identifying with the child Stephen Dedalus, forced into athleticism on the field at Clongowes just as I was forced throughout childhood and adolescence to play moronic games in gym class. (Physical Education didn't instill a lifelong hatred of sports; I hated sports even before I started kindergarten; hatred of sports is like breathing to me.) I don't recall how much I comprehended of Joyce's book on that first reading, but I recognized it as a difficult, lovely thing that would reward further attention. Most important at the time was the mirror of my young self I saw in the main character and the related realization that ordinary lives could be the stuff of literature, that one need not be James Bond or George Smiley to star in an interesting book.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. Portnoy was my introduction to Roth, and a reader couldn't ask for a better intro. It's neither his greatest book (for me, that's Sabbath's Theater) nor his most nearly perfect (The Ghost Writer), but it is good enough to stand up to multiple readings. I've probably read Portnoy half a dozen times by now, and every reading shows me something I had either forgotten or failed to notice the last time through. As with a very different one of my 'pillars,' Rushdie's Satanic Verses, the book's reputation as a succes de scandale has overshadowed its formidable artistic excellence. The freedom Roth claims here is breathtaking: freedom not merely of content but of form. Roth writes the novel as a monologue unhinged from the inhibitions of traditional novelistic chronology. There's a weak linearity arcing over the work and unifying it, taking us from childhood in the first chapter to Dr. Spielvogel's office in the last line, but within that arc Roth allows Portnoy's memories to flow by association. It was this formal freedom, perhaps as much as the laugh-out-loud outrageousness, that deeply impressed me on first reading and led me to seek out the rest of Roth. Today, Roth is my favorite of Harold Bloom's Big Four (Old) American Novelists (Roth, DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Pynchon). TP and Ol' Cormac have both, in their respective ways, blown my mind into the next county, and DeLillo's work delights more often than it disappoints me, but Roth is the writer who means the most to me.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Few of my Literary Pillars, Part Two

The Plays of William Shakespeare. There are still a few I haven't read--mostly the early comedies and the late, late romances--but that's no matter. One need not consume an entire platter of chocolate mousse to know that it's the most delicious of desserts. Too much has been written about Shakespeare and there's no point in my adding another vocable to the cacophony, but I guess I'll do it anyway. As with Ulysses, the best we can do today is encourage people to actually sit down and read the plays, for their reputation for difficulty has been greatly exaggerated. My reading of Shakespeare began around age thirteen in a large paperback of the complete plays I bought off the bargain books table at my local Waldenbooks. It was a cheap edition in more ways than one: printed on paper that turned brown and brittle within 3 years, the binding spottily and lumpily glued, and the plays illustrated with anonymous bombastic 19th-century style artwork (which I adored, although or because the artist made Falstaff look like a Wagnerian soprano). I long ago donated the volume to a charity booksale, but the memory of that first Shakespeare lingers like a first kiss, the first taste of another tongue. I began with the tragedies, ensconced near the middle of the volume, and worked my way outward, toward the history plays, the comedies, the romances. Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Macbeth remain the four plays I've most often re-read, but for a few years I considered The Tempest their equal--indeed, their better in humanistic sentiment. Antony and Cleopatra has ravished me, Twelfth Night and As You Like It have surprised and delighted, Coriolanus has reminded me of the 2004 U.S. presidential election, and the newly-crowned Henry V's renunciation of Falstaff ("I know thee not, old man...") moves and impresses me with its majestic restraint. For Hal is not only dissing the fat man, he's also protecting him, warning Falstaff that to treat a king like 'Hal from the 'hood'' would be an act of lese-majeste serious enough to befruit Tyburn tree with the carcass of the blustering old tub of guts.

The Sonnets by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's sonnets comprise collectively the greatest and gayest erotic poem in the English language. This is not to say that the sequence doesn't include a few clunkers. It does. But the many highs of this sequence are so sublimely so, so almost inexpressibly beautiful, that the lows pale to insignificance, like the tiny industrial smokestacks that occasionally appear in the far distance of landscapes by Monet. So much for the greatness; as to the gayness, every time I read the sonnets they seem gayer to me. This is obvious in most of the first hundred or so, but even the misnamed 'dark lady' poems exist under the sign of a gender ambiguity established early (the male addressee is the "master mistress" of the speaker's passions) and can be best understood as the record of a bisexual triangle (or complex polyhedron) of love and betrayal. That said, any interpretation of the sonnets that relies too heavily upon an overarching narrative is probably in error. At best, the sequence presents scraps and fragments from which a coherent narrative might be teased, but not without much repetition and contradiction within the sequence as a whole. It's better to understand the poems like the songs on a 70s prog rock concept album; the unity is more thematic than narrative.

The World According to Garp by John Irving. From the sublime to the, well, not so much. Irving is not a writer who means much to me these days, probably because he wouldn't know a metaphor if it put on a bear suit and wrestled him in Vienna. But back in junior high, when I started reading serious fiction, this was one of the books that laid the foundation for my understanding of the modern novel. And what a foundation stone it was. Garp was one of those novels that, alongside the 1970s novels of Philip Roth, John Updike and Erica Jong, took full advantage of the cultural and legal freedoms so strenuously gained during the 60s, namely the death of censorship and the birth of sexuality. This is not to say, with Larkin's speaker, that "sexual intercourse began / in nineteen sixty-three," but the counterculture and the various successful legal challenges to literary censorship did open the sexual territory as a place where novelists could roam without recourse to silly euphemisms like "randy manhood" (which would be a great name for a gay pornstar). As can be imagined, the sexuality of Garp (while fairly tame compared to Rabbit is Rich) was quite eye- and zipper-popping for a tweenager in those long ago Ice Age years before hardcore porn was merely a mouseclick away and when Playboy magazine was treated like an isotope of plutonium. Reading the novel was an "oh, so this is what the adult world is really like" experience, and the book was not a bad teacher, after all.

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. Faulkner is the great, titanic Modernist composer American music never really had. Not only is he our Joyce and our Proust; he's our Schoenberg and Stravinsky too. Open Absalom to any page and luxuriate in a language that slides and skips and soars, slips and tumbles and circles and spirals, pirouettes along a tightrope with no notion of a net, and comes to rest at the end of every sentence with a period that's like a long-awaited breath and a gasping "yes, yes." I first heard this music during my high school years--not in a literature class, of course, but in a Vintage paperback of The Sound and the Fury which I read with partial comprehension and an enchantment that led me in my early twenties to read all the great Faulkners of the Thirties, from the Bundren family's burial excursion to Boon Hogganbeck's tree of squirrels. The strains of Absalom came to me the first time in a small, thumbworn Modern Library hardcover from the public library. I read the book too quickly, rushing through the serpentine sentences, not pausing to admire or interpret. Years later I concluded that this is the only way to initially read Faulkner. As his great Portuguese heir Antonio Lobo Antunes has said, "There is no Faulkner for beginners." In the beginning we can only leap and drown; the second reading is the resurrection and the life.

Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner. One year in my early twenties, I read "The Bear" again and again. I may have read it five or six times in one-and-a -half times as many months. (You can always count on a Nabokov fan for a mathematically fancy prose style.) Every reading seemed to promise a knowledge that it held tantalizingly out of reach. Maybe, I thought, the next reading would reveal more. And it did, but the more it revealed was like summiting a mountain to find on the other side a landscape filled with more and steeper mountains stretching out of sight. The sections of the story were like puzzle pieces that didn't quite fit together, and that 'not quite' fascinated me. Everything about the tale breathes mastery, not least its resistance to overall interpretation, so I could only conclude that the sweet fault was mine and determine to read the whole damn beautiful thing again. I learned the story well, but never well enough. Now I think that perhaps the best way to understand Faulkner is to relax your critical faculties and let him work on you. Don't murder the bear to dissect it; let it linger in your living mind. Melville works the same way.