Posts Tagged ‘Stendhal’

Are ideological novels a thing of the past? And is today’s autofiction “an aesthetic edition of careerism”?

Monday, July 2nd, 2018
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Joe is right, as always. The late great Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank and his wife, the French mathematician Marguerite Frank. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Useful Idiots,” an essay by  over at The Point starts with Elif Batuman‘s novel The Idiot and then goes everywhere, but the nearly 4,000-word journey makes some interesting roadside stops in its discussion of “autofiction,” fictionalized autobiography of the kind Batuman writes, and “ideological novels,” the kind the author refers to in the title of her own recent novel. Here’s a sort of sampler from the essay.

On Stendhal, Dostoevsky and “novels powered by direct engagement with ideology”:

More than pawnshops and samovars.

Through their idiot protagonists these novelists and their readers became more intimately acquainted with ideology x than any believer: the plot generated by their protagonists’ pursuit of x’s tenets exposed the implications of x to an extent that the political discourse surrounding x, constrained by polemic opposition and assertion, never could. The quantum facts of daily life, the pawnshops, manors, samovars, Thursday evenings and horse-driven cabs, were to this novel what the skin is to the body: a surface of mostly dead matter whose purpose was informing, concealing and protecting all the other vital systems. They were necessary, and they were most of what could be seen, but to reduce the novel to them would be false, incomplete—literally superficial. The “reality” of this ideological realism was not inert material to be quarried and crafted, but animate: a triple collision between the individual conscience, the society in which the idiot operates, and the ideology (conquistador chivalry, Promethean science, Gnostic materialism, Napoleonic romanticism, revolutionary communism, Gatsbian romanticism, revolutionary communism, white supremacy) that would shape conscience and society according to its own dictates.

Where we are today:

Riffing…

To be fair, the horizons of collective belief were particularly unpromising for Batuman and her generation, who came of age and made careers during a period where it was easy to conclude that there was nothing bigger than the self left to believe in. The Cold War’s end coincided with a prolonged devaluation of ideological content. Libertarian logic colonized the cultural sphere. Torrents of on-demand data eroded any vision of the longue durée. As far as government went, expert-guided liberal democracy was the order for the foreseeable future; having taken care of communism, it seemed more than capable of taking care of itself. In literature as in much else, the tenor of the Nineties was set by the New Republic, where James Woods reviews of classic novels consistently dampened their ideological charge even as his reviews of contemporary fiction condemned deviation from a pinched conception of realism.

Wood’s influence was hardly decisive, but given that a similar hostility to ideology in narrative had dominated program fiction since its CIA-funded genesis in the postwar years, there seemed as little alternative to literary fiction sealed purely within the personal and empirical as there was to the flat world dictated by the empire of free markets. In such a self-defined environment, it was no surprise that the era’s modes of entertainment should correspond to its novelistic subgenres: the tourism of historical and overseas fiction, the animated films of magical realism. (The marijuana of standard-issue MFA realism—all forgettable inaction and enhanced tactile sensation.) Autofiction, a sort of aesthetic edition of careerism, was the logical endpoint of realism’s exclusive valorization of individual experience: once all other recreations expose their artifice and exhaust their charm, what is left except to chart one’s own advancement through a world as fixed as it is real?

In conclusion:

Don’t forget the Frenchman!

These are unsettling times. Tensions and pressures formerly pacified by the prospect of endless growth now draw force from a state of permanent stagnation. Established institutions tremble with the resentful energies of dishonored promises; each crisis barely averted sows the seeds for more inevitable confrontation. Yet if literary history is any indication, an era of collapsing order offers fertile ground for novelists. Shaken by events out of inertia and conformity, they waken to a world teeming with open inquiries and untested solutions; whether facing the window, the mirror or the other, certainties dissolve. The pressing question is no longer how to fit in with the given, but how much must be changed. The temptation to wager one’s existence on an unrealized social ideal grows ever more alluring. So, too, grows the inclination to review one’s ideals and imagine their implications writ large. The unique quality of the novel catalyzed by ideology is its range, its capacity to simultaneously circumscribe the horizons of belief, exercise the full freedom to maneuver in society, and gauge its potential to foster individual maturity. It’s the best, if not the only, instrument left to us to understand what we are becoming.

“With an integrity that cannot be too highly praised,” Dostoevsky biographer and intellectual historian Joseph Frank concludes his chapter on The Idiot, “Dostoevsky thus fearlessly submits his own most hallowed convictions to the same test that he had used for the Nihilists—the test of what they would mean for human life if taken seriously and literally, and lived out to their full extent as guides to conduct.” It bears mentioning that the age of Dostoevsky was not an age of brilliant thinkers. The intellectual situation of Petersburg in the 1860s was jammed with third- and fourth-rate seminary dropouts butchering their recitations of second-rate Europeans. Given that the ideological matrix now is no more dismal than in the past; given that the universities, then as now, are turning out a new caste of intellectuals who, indebted and underemployed, have ample cause to rally around visions of a better world; and especially given that literate people today have access to 150 extra years of literary history beginning with Dostoevsky’s novels—given all this, is it really so inconceivable that some millennial author might arrive, like Dostoevsky, at a novel equal in magnitude to the disaster that helped give it form? And in the meantime, why shouldn’t the highly privileged writers of Batuman’s generation be able to afford the most basic, most essential luxury the novel can offer, that of critiquing their own articles of faith? Look closely and you’ll see: the only thing holding them back is their selves.

We miss you, Joe. As always. Read more about him here and here and here. Read the whole Frank Guan discussion here.

A masterpiece? Or tosh? The greats that you hate.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018
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Jane’s not her thing.

She’s tried. She’s tried again and again. But she cannot love Jane Eyre. 

Author Kim Culbertson was the moderator for my onstage discussion of “literary citizenship” with David Kipen, my former editor when I was a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and afterwards literary director for the National Endowment for the Arts. The occasion was last weekend’s Sierra Poetry FestivalI have tried to love it many, many times,” she pleaded. “And I hope I make up for it by loving James Joyce and Jane Austen.”

At the opening night festivities the night before, we discussed of the books we’re ashamed we didn’t “get” or didn’t love even if we did. She also warned me of the wide literary disparities in the audience I would be addressing. Some, she said, were intimidated by “critics” – they didn’t yet have confidence in their own literary judgment.

Well, nobody should. Our tastes sharpen and deepen as we read more, think more, feel more. The book we dismissed in our twenties acquires a different meaning in our forties. Half of it is the willingness to voice your opinion, listen to challengers, argue, reread, and maybe admit that you changed your mind.

The classics obviously don’t change; we do. Hence, a few years ago I rediscovered Stendhal‘s The Red and the Black, a book that left me cold when I read it in my teens. Maybe I should even give Don Quixote another go, since I read it first during those same years. But then again, maybe not…

Revered author of a single joke?

Here’s what A.N. Wilson had to say about that august novel. I’ve been reading his biography of John Milton, but though he has incandescent praise for that bard’s epic, the Spanish author leaves him cold: “It is a one-joke book, and it goes on for hundreds of pages.”

“The joke is that a silly old man keeps mistaking events and characters around him, because inside his head, he is living in the romances of Amadis de Gaul. Great amusement is had, both by characters in the book who take delight in mocking, tricking and deriding the silly old man; and by the author, who plainly expects us to join in the sadism.”

The quote is from a recent article in The Spectator, “The Greats We Hate,” that I shared with Kim and others.

Cervantes isn’t the only one who takes a beating. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Henry James all get their comeuppance. Take this example, from critic and satirist Craig Brown:

Which classic work do you think this comes from? ‘Her teeth were white in her brown face and her skin and her eyes were the same golden tawny brown. She had high cheek-bones, merry eyes and a straight mouth with full lips. Her hair was the golden brown of a grain field that has been burned dark in the sun but it was cut short all over her head so that it was but little longer than the fur on a beaver pelt.’ Jeffrey Archer? Jackie Collins? Lee Child? I’ll give you one more clue.

Perhaps she needed one, too.

After another 150 pages, the hero finally gets to roll in the heather with the brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired woman with the straight mouth and the hair like a beaver pelt, ‘and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves’.

Well, my lips move smally and by themselves, and I imagine yours do, too, unless you’re the dog (‘Oh, yuss!’) on the Churchill insurance ad, but it’s not something we boast about. The writer is, in fact, Ernest Hemingway, and the book For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s described on the cover, by the Observer, as ‘one of the greatest novels which our troubled age will produce’ but it strikes me as soapy old tosh.

In fact the word “tosh” comes up more than once in the piece, though Jane Eyre does not. But Charlotte’s sister Emily Brontë does, with her acclaimed masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Says Executive Director of the Forward Arts Foundation Susannah Herbert, “the sexiness of Heathcliff is much overplayed. He needs a good bath.”

P.D. James, Susan Hill, and many others weigh in. Read the whole thing here.

Choosing my neighbors in Paris

Sunday, February 5th, 2012
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It's the schnozz that counts...

The airplane left late thanks to last-minute reparations to accommodate Parisian snow, and so I arrived at the Charles de Gaulle late – the airport the chaotic free-for-all I was warned it would be.  I spent what was left of the very cold afternoon exploring the Latin Quarter and settling in – which I was able to do comfortably once I discovered the corner grocery that furnished me with good dark, dark coffee, French cheese, German bread, Belgian endive, almonds, and Pellegrino.

There are a few pleasant literary associations with my digs a block from the Eiffel Tower.  I am across the street … well, kitty-corner, really … from the stately townhouse where Edmond Rostand perished in the 1918 flu epidemic.

“The success of Cyrano de Bergerac was a turning-point in Rostand’s life,” writes Sue Lloyd in her 2003 biography of the writer. “His future was assured but he had to live up to the expectations of the French people… the fame he had set out to achieve from his very first book of poems turned into a crushing burden from which only death released him.”

Home sweet home

I was rather taken with Cyrano de Bergerac‘s overblown romanticism as a young ‘un … to see my schnozz might help you understand the sympatico.

My favorite quote in maturer years: ‎”To joke in the face of danger is the supreme politeness, a delicate refusal to cast oneself as a tragic hero.”

Or how about this one?  “It is at night that faith in light is admirable.” A little more commonplace, perhaps, but even the commonplace is worth remembering in troubled times.

We choose our neighbors, as we choose our ancestors. Can Dante not offer us as much guidance as any father?  As for neighbors, what company do we keep in an idle hour, and what reading is on our bedside table?

So, after scanty airplane fare (my vegetarian order was mishandled; perhaps it’s somewhere in the Atlantic), what could be more French than to be holed up in the busy little café where I had a late-lunch omelette aux champignons and strong coffee, finally getting to Book 2  Stendhal‘s The Red and the Black:

A few minutes later, Julien found himself alone in a magnificent library: it was an exquisite moment. So as not to be taken by surprise in his emotion, he went and hid himself in a little dark corner; from which he gazed with rapture at the glittering backs of the books. “I can read all of those,” he told himself. “And how should I fail to be happy here?”

Suitable words for my visit to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France tomorrow.  May I reprise the words of eminent Polish poet Julia Hartwig on getting a permanent seat at the BnF (courtesy Web of Stories)