Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Waiting for Godot

4, 3, 2, 1. As the cast members of his plays diminished in number, Samuel Beckett only grew in stature. And so, although it's in many ways a minimalist play, with just two principal characters and a brief visit from two others, one might say that his Waiting for Godot falls in the middle of the range. From the start -- it premiered in Paris in 1953 --  it's been his most frequently performed play, bringing together a strange range of actors, from Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall (shown above), Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith, to (most recently) Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, it has, like a rubbery cartoon character, been run over again and again and still holds its shape.

At my alternative high school in the 1970's, we put on a production that I still very vividly recall. Given its long strings of seemingly non-sequitur lines, we built in a back-up: if anyone realized they didn't know the next line, the actor was to say "What time is it?" -- and the other to reply "Why beleaguer the obvious?" -- at this cue, nonchalantly walking 'round to the back of the tree (then, as ever, the only prop on stage) and consulting a copy of the script concealed there.

The old reading was always that "Godot" was a stand-in for "God" -- and then, of course, the tree for the Cross, and so on. It's a reading that Becket rejected (although, hey, he's dead, so what matter?), but in any case, it's hardly the only way to see it. We have all waited -- in lines at state offices, for our lives to turn 'round, for babies to be born and old folks to die. What of it? There is something in the mere flow of language, the putting of one word -- any word -- after another -- that speaks to the bare essence of our human condition.

He and his Man

When The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, was published in 1719, it was received by many as a factual account. And there was good reason to do so; many sailors who had been castaways had written narratives, and in an era when not all the globe had yet been charted, there was still plenty of room for unknown "desert isles" (the phrase means deserted isles -- no sand is present or implied!).

But it turned out that the book was the work of Daniel Defoe, whose other great claim to fame was a similar portmanteau of fact and fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year. In both texts, Defoe used actual journals, reminiscences, and newspaper articles as his sources, mimicking the language, tone, and apparatus of his sources, tossing in numbers and dates and longitudes and latitudes to set the seal of truth upon his sly fictions. The story of Alexander Selkirk, who really had been stranded on a remote island for four years, provided the thread in this case. And, as Defoe's latter-day follower Edgar Allan Poe once wrote in a review, "how wonderful has been the result!"

We must now fast forward to some point in the 1940's, when the young John Maxwell Coetzee got his hands upon a copy of the book; it became a treasured favorite, and when, some time later, he found an encyclopedia article saying that Daniel Defoe was the author of Robinson Crusoe, he experienced, by his own account, an existential crisis: how could Robinson Crusoe, the man, have an author? Thus the preamble, and the title, to the lecture he delivered on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Crusoe, of course, already had a "man" (in English usage of the day, "man" was short for "manservant"), whom he'd dubbed "Friday." But now, stranger still, he had another man, or another man had him -- the author.

Coetzee had explored this years earlier in his own novel, Foe - but the Nobel lecture gives us a shorter, sweeter apothegm of the curious postcolonial echoes of Defoe's original story.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The postcolonial turn

Postcolonial literature is a very broad category; it includes African writers such as Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ama Ata Aidoo, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe; Indian-British and Indian-American writers such as Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, and Jhumpa Lahiri, and Caribbean writers such as Maryse Condé, Marlene Nourbese Philip, and Michelle Cliff, among many others. They are part of a movement in which, to quote one critical assessment, the "Empire Writes Back" -- the former subjects of Colonialism send their rich and sharply-tones missives back towards that center which cannot hold. There are even some "white" writers (in the sense in which that term has been employed, deployed, and invoked) on the fringes of the former empire whose works may belong here as well: Michael Ondaatje, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee.

Postcolonial literature has its own particular power, and particular problems. Should a po-co writer use the language of the colonizer in his or her work? Or is it true that, as Audre Lorde argued, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"? Should postcolonial writers embody the vernacular literature of their home countries, as did (for example) Amos Tutuola? Or should they garner laurels by embracing highly contemporary, international forms and genres, as did Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe? Or does "literature" itself, as a category, constitute an artificial boundary left over from the colonial era; why shouldn't postcolonial "writing include" (for example) the lyrics of Bob Marley or the oral poetry of griots? What role do the old demarcations of race, caste, and class do to the potential solidarity of postcolonial writing -- or what does gender? And, lastly, is it best to see postcolonial writing as an international, or transnational phenomenon, or is it preferable not to group together writers from different nations, cultures, and epochs?

Finally, there is the question of the reader of this literature. Are we, ourselves, as residents of "developed" nations which have long benefitted from being atop the economic and social heap (at the expense of poorer nations and peoples), in a sense 'the enemy' of these writings? Are they meant for us at all? Should such work then be, as Manuel Puig entitled one of his novels, an "Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages"? These are the questions which animate the field of postcolonial literature, and which we'll consider -- albeit all too briefly -- as we read a few of its exemplary texts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Couple of Stories by Mansfield and Joyce

Modernism has always, it seems, had a bit of a gender problem. For decades, there was a critical double-standard that relegated women -- Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Jean Rhys, and Katherine Mansfield -- to a second tier -- while enfolding men such as Joyce, Kafka, Forster, and Fitzgerald in canonical vestments.  Perhaps the only woman of the period to escape this phenomenon was Gertrude Stein -- but then, her modernism was quite unlike anyone else's, and she was at the center of an artistic circle filled with male writers and artists.  But now, at last, there does seem to be a correction, and many now see Virginia Woolf as the pre-eminent novelist of the period. Another beneficiary of our corrected hindsight is Katherine Mansfield, whose short stories are perhaps the finest of the entire Modernist movement, including one -- "Prelude" -- which became just the second publication of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press. Mansfield, too, was a bit of an outsider, a New Zealander who never felt entirely at home in Britain. She had the misfortune of striking up a long, on-again, off-again relationship with John Middleton Murry, a man who never really grasped her genius but nevertheless made himself the guardian of her; her early death from tuberculosis in 1923 put Murry in charge of her literary estate, and he extensively censored her letters and journals when they were published.

Joyce, during his career, sought to establish himself as the great voice of Modernism, and something more, its representative. Although he did not originate the technique of "stream of consciousness," his "eiphanies" -- which began with Dubliners in 1914 -- recast the notion, and with Ulysses (1922) he had his greatest triumph. Here was a novel the action of which took place all in a single day (16 June), in a single town (Dublin), and wove its words through the streams of every street, tarrying amidst idle thoughts of one of its idlest characters, Leopold Bloom. Joyce's presence was felt throughout the period from the early twenties to the outbreak of WWII, and not simply through his books, but via his habit of putting forth sections of his "Work in Progress" in literary magazinesjournals, and chapbooks throughout this period. His final work, Finnegans Wake (note the absence of an apostrophe) was his densest, written in what one critic has called "the language of the night" -- polyglot, punning, and peristrephic.

To give but a few examples: In FW, Joyce coins the word "fadograph" -- of course this is "photograph," with the punning suggestion that it "fades" over time -- but it is also a pun on the Irish Gaelic word fádo, which means "long ago" (many Irish folktales start with this word). There are also any number of other collusions and collisions of language, ranging from the "hundred letter thunder word" (made up of the word for thunder in dozens of languages) to the endless acronymic variations on the letters HCE ("Here Comes Everybody," "Haveth Childers Everywhere," "Howth Castle and Environs," and many more). It's a work of genius, surely, but one so closely-woven and multi-layered that it can really only be digested in small doses.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Streams of Consciousness

Dorothy Richardson began working on what became Pointed Roofs -- the first of what would eventually be the thirteen volumes of her Pilgrimage -- in 1911.  James Joyce was still struggling to find a publisher for Dubliners, and was at work on revising his early novel Stephen Hero into Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, which would not appear until 1914; his Ulysses -- which many assume to have been the first novel to make use of "stream of consciousness" -- came out in 1922, by which time Richardson was on her sixth volume.  The very term was coined by May Sinclair, in her review of Richardson's novels, which appeared in The Egoist in 1918.  And yet today, when it comes up, it's nearly always associated with Joyce.

Richardson herself was not fond of the term; she preferred "interior monologue."  And to be sure, her version of this approach was not overtly experimental; it did not do away with punctuation, nor did it frame itself in terms of the random jumble of thoughts that mark the mental pathways of Joyce's Leopold Bloom.  No, it was a much more centered, clear, and thoughtful interior -- indeed, it was based upon Richardson's own life, with a delay of about five years from lived experience to novelization.  Of course Joyce's characters, too, were plainly autobiographical, although Stephen Dedalus eventually evolved into a less central character -- but somehow, when a man, even today, draws from his own life in his fiction, it's fine -- but if a woman does it, it makes it somehow less "serious," as the British novelist Jeanette Winterson recently noted in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

For decades, the gender double-standard of modernism relegated women -- Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Jean Rhys, and Katherine Mansfield -- to a second tier -- while enfolding men such as Joyce, Kafka, Forster, and Fitzgerald in canonical vestments.  Perhaps the only woman of the period to escape this phenomenon was Gertrude Stein -- but then, her modernism was quite unlike anyone else's, and she was at the center of an artistic circle filled with male writers and artists.  But now, at last, there does seem to be a correction, and many now see Virginia Woolf as the pre-eminent novelist of the period, while Arnold Bennett -- whom she took to task in "Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown" -- has fallen into complete obscurity.  Another beneficiary of our corrected hindsight is Katherine Mansfield, whose short stories are perhaps the finest of the entire Modernist movement, including one -- "Prelude" -- which became the second publication of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press.

Friday, November 7, 2014

T.S. Eliot

The legacy of American-midwesterner-turned-high-church-Brit Thomas Stearns Eliot is in one sense a limited one -- very few have taken up his style of dry, chanted lines, blank except for the occasional whimsical, almost Seussical rhyme -- and yet at the same time, his influence has been enormous. This paradoxical situation was aptly summaries by a friend of mine some years ago in this bit of comic verse:

Mr. Eliot, beloved of Pound
Is riding his crafty go-cart 'round
While many a gifted latter-day poet
Is eating his dust -- they sure can't sow it.

This paradox is underwritten by Eliot's own, internal conflict; he famously described poetry not as the expression of emotion, but the escape from it. Perhaps as a result, there's a strange mixtures of tones in his best poems, combining a kind of unemotional dryness with a rich, sometimes biting wit. Both are on ample display in his early masterpiece, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." But don't take my word for it: give it a listen. There's no better way to experience Eliot.

As to the "Hollow Men" -- try this annotated version -- here we have Eliot at his driest. The epigraph comes from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where the insane colonizer Kurtz, after scribbling "kill them all" in his notebook, has met his ignominious end; the novel was freely adapted by Frances Ford Coppolla as Apocalypse Now!, the setting changed to the Cambodian jungle, with Marlon Brando in the role of Kurtz (you can hear Brando recite the poem here).

Not that Eliot was without his lighter side -- his whimsical Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats became the basis of the long-running Broadway musical Cats. Late in life, Eliot even had the chance to dine with one of his favorite actors, Groucho Marx. The two men had exchanged fan photos some years earlier, and when Groucho was next in London a dinner was arranged at the Eliots' flat. Groucho tried to impress Eliot with quotations from King Lear; Eliot was more interested in quoting old lines from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Near the end of the evening, Groucho happened to mention that his daughter Melinda was studying Eliot's poetry at Beverly Hills High. Eliot, drily, replied that he was sorry to hear that, as he had "no wish to become compulsory reading."

And we all know how well that worked out.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Age of War

The twentieth century may have been the first to be dreaded even before it arrived; for every imagined progressive force, there was an unequal and opposite reactionary force; almost overnight, the stage darkened. Some have argued, in fact, it had already begun in 1889, the year Nietzsche went mad and Hitler was born. Some sense of doom often precedes the dawn of a new century or millennium, but this time it seemed different, and it was: the new century would bring war, death, and genocide on a scale hitherto unimaginable; it would witness the despotism of Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Pol Pot, and Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo; it would see the emergence of nations from oppressive colonial regimes hurled into far worse ones; it would see the invention of the ultimate weapon of destruction: the nuclear bomb.

One could list a number of other things that were actually quite good about this century -- Penicillin, the Polio vaccine, manned travel to the Moon, the Civil Rights movements in the United States, and microwave popcorn -- but that would be beside the point. The fortunate are not always happy, nor are the poor necessarily miserable; the texture of lived experience owes something, but not everything, to its material conditions. Our feelings often cathect toward moments and symbols that seem to bring us together or tear us apart, and at these untimely interstices we are gathered for a moment, so that literature and the arts may take our picture.

There were a number of such moments in the early years of the twentieth century: one thinks of the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901, the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912, and the opening battles of WWI in 1914. In literary and cultural terms, there's the first issue of Wyndham Lewis's Blast!, the 1913 Armory Show, the serialization of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1914-15, and the "Great War" itself, which permanently altered the careers of many writers, both those who survived (J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon) and those who didn't (Wilfred Owen, W.N. Hodgson, Rupert Brooke). And then there were those who survived physically, but were shattered, such as Ivor Gurney.