Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Harriett Scott Chessman’s The Beauty of Ordinary Things

Spoiler Alert
Reading this book you're closely following the thoughts and feelings of the main character and the principal secondary character.  The main character a Vietnam vet, in 1974, is deeply burdened by memories of physically and morally horrendous incidents in the war.  The secondary main character is a novitiate at a farm that is a Catholic nunnery who is trying to make up her mind to take her vows.  Each character is seeking equanimity.  While this book focuses on the course their individual experiences, their experience is always involved in a set of binding relationships, mostly with his large family, to which the novitiate is a friend.  These friends and relatives have serious problems of their own, which is part of their closeness.  These characters sometimes feel lonely because of their struggle, but the reader always knows that they are not alone.

The critic Ivor Winters once described the poetry of Wallace Stevens as, somewhere "the thought takes place in the images.”  Chessman brings this technique to narrating the thoughts and feelings of her characters with remarkable felicity.  Often their conversations are rather tacit, but you know what they think and what their thoughts mean to them because of her lucid descriptions of the world as it exists at the moment they're speaking or when, later, their feelings are evolving.  Each scene is a metaphor for what people are feeling there.  This may seem like the much-disparaged pathetic fallacy (“It was a dark and stormy night….”) but she executes it with such grace and care that it is very seldom uncomfortable.  Here is an example:

[After a disturbing revelation] 
“Back at home, I sat out on my second-floor porch for a while, trying to calm down.  One of my neighbors, an old, old Polish man, came tottering out of his house with a watering can.  I watched him filling the cam, walking it over to the little patch of garden where he planted what books like tomatoes, lettuce, basil, zucchini, and a whole bunch of weeds.  Maybe the old guy had a landlord like mine who almost never came around to repair faucets or mow, much less help with the weeding.  The old man wore a canvas hat to protect his wispy haired head from the sun.”

Related to this, the vet is a lapsed photographer who resumes his craft during the course of the story, and it is no coincidence that he is capturing and delivering images, as images have captured and delivered him for the reader.

Similarities and contrasts reminded me of some of the work of Robert Stone, another writer I greatly admire.  Stone also frequently deals intimately with desperate people hostage to inward horrors, and as well with good nuns.  But, while in Stone equanimity is in short supply and self-destruction usually triumphs, often in scenes of histrionic violence, in Chessman similar characters evolve toward quiescence.

When I first read the last chapters of this book I shook my head in disappointment, thinking to myself, this is too nicey-nicey, this is to easy.  The novice filled with exultations and beset by doubts quietly becomes a nun offstage and seems satisfied and indeed delighted with her life.  The vet returns to his art, and through his art, through his friendship with the nun, and through his feeling for his family seems set on a successful, and tranquil life.  Do I believe that in the real world such outcomes are possible?  Absolutely, but they are somehow unsatisfactory in literary terms.  They do not provide what Aristotle called a catharsis of pity and fear.  .  Chessman provides soothing like an dissolution of pity and fear.  My discomfort raises questions about what ‘realism’ means in fiction.  I mean, if we take, say, Balzac, as realism, it partly means his characters’ motives are base and their periods of happiness brief.  But, really, people’s motives are sometimes noble, or at least not base, and lives are sometimes happy.  I think Chessman would not mind my discomfort.  She is noting that resolution lies in ordinary things.

Note the remarkable range of Chessman’s subject matter.  Her first novel, Ohio Angels, which I have not read, is set in the midwestern city she grew up in.  Her second novel, Lidia Cassatt Reading the Morning Newspaper, which I consider a masterpiece, is set in late 19th-century Paris among the sort of people your meet in James’ The Ambassadors.  Her third novel, Someone Not Really Her Mother, recounts the story of a family dealing with the Alzheimer's of their matriarch.  The family is in New England and the Jewish matriarch escaped from the Nazi’s in France and lived in England, though her memories are fleeting away.  Then this novel set among Catholics of Irish origin  in New England.  The three I know offer real characters with full verisimilitude.  They each involve certain preoccupations: family, the drama of non-drama, the importance of things unspoken, death, and the importance of inner life.

 Quite a level of accomplishment in the way of an author putting yourself in different worlds and people.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Kindle ebook sales for indie publishers | Books | The Guardian

Amazon reveals quarter of Kindle ebook sales in US were for indie publishers | Books | The Guardian

But read it carefully. Yes, indie or self-publishing is no longer the kiss of death, but big-name publishers are still better if you can get them — wider exposure, more sales, better chance of reviews. If your aim is not big sales but producing better literature, all this is of secondary importance, but even the most literarily ambitious of us would still be pleased to have more readers.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Comments on Mansfield Park

This novel provides the usual pleasures of reading Jane Austen: Elegant and incisive prose.  I took particular pleasure in her long sentences, often with more than one dependent clause, and even dependent clauses within dependent clauses, which remain lucid and thus articulate the relationship between ideas.  A plot that is the usual question of finding a husband for the heroine and for other important female characters, threaded among complex circles character conflict and family and class relationships.  Leading characters that are thoroughly realized human beings.  Jane Austen tends to keep her distance from her characters –; she presents them a little bit as if they were in a painting we all admire.  This distance is more striking in this novel than in, say, Pride and Prejudice.  Austin does not like all these people she has created, and freely spends the sharpness of her wit upon them.      

The pater familias of this novel is Sir Thomas Bertram, baronet.  His wife, Lady Bertram, is a woman so lazy as to be almost inanimate.  Her younger sister had married below her class and had several children by a drunken sailor.  The baronet takes one of these daughters into his household at age 8, the protagonist, Fanny Price.  Lady Bertram has another sister who is part of the household by virtue of being married to the clergyman annexed to the baronet’s estate, Mrs. Norris. Aunt Norris is not exactly a villainess, but she is so self-centered, self-deceiving, and power-hungry that she harms the lives of everyone around her especially Fanny.  She never lets Fanny forget she is a poor relation although, or because, Mrs. Norris is in a similar position.

Two issues interested me in this rereading of the novel: the limitations of Fanny as a heroine, and telling rather than showing.

Fanny is no Elizabeth Bennett.  Though she is smart and eventually grows up pretty, Fanny is a problematic because she is a boring little prig.  I have heard her compared to the treacle-sweet heroine of Bleak House.  There is considerable tension in this novel between what we might see as moderate sexual license versus an attitude of intense and fearful defense of an appearance of chastity and fidelity.  All this in an society where the threat of scandal could quickly ruin a woman's life.  For example, while the baronet is away tending to his estates in Antigua, the young people stage a somewhat flirtatious and suggestive theatrical.  Fanny is stubbornly opposed to such goings-on, which earns her points with a clergyman cousin and with her uncle when he returns.  But does it earn points with the author or the reader?

To put this in context, note that Jane Austen's family frequently put on theatricals, usually restoration comedies, when she was growing up in which she almost certainly performed.  Bear in mind also the recent republication of Austin's early novel Lady Susan, in which the heroine is a sexual predator, and that Jane Austen's aunt almost certainly derived what little financial security she enjoyed from being the mistress of Warren Hastings.

Fanny has integrity, intelligence, and stubbornness and sticks to her guns when various family members put pressure on her to marry a man whom she perceives to be wrong for her.  She also passingly brings up the morality of the slave trade with her uncle, albeit inconclusively.  As far as I know that is the only mention of the slavery in Austin's work.

In creative writing classes and stereotyped advice to writers you often hear the formula, "show don't tell.”  I note with interest that the final three chapters of Mansfield Park, which very successfully tie up numerous plot lines and consummate or foresee various marriages, are entirely told.  Of course, we know all the characters pretty well by then so we don't need "showing" as an exposition of character.  But still, it is a resounding example contrary to the "show don't tell" formula.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Comments on Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita

The bulk of this novel is descriptions of pranks played by Satan’s retinue (sketched above) on bureaucrats and other citizens of soviet era Moscow.  It is a little like Terry Southern's The Magic Christian.  The pranks fit in a tradition associated with the Faust legend; there are lots in Marlowe's Faust, Goethe’s Faust, and Boito's, Mephistopheles, for example.  The book has a reputation as a satire of Soviet bureaucracy in the tradition of Gogol or of Dostoyevsky’s The Double, but, while you get a sense of what it was like to be a member of one of the all-important writers organizations, to live in their quarters, to face living in overcrowded apartments, and to live in fear of institutionalization in psychiatric hospitals, it is not a satire in the sense that sharply delineates a perspective on his victims.  There are a lot of yucks in this book, but the jokes could be on the pretentious and greedy of any nation.   The prose style is inconsistent. Part of the book is taken up by several chapters of a conventional historical novel about Pontius Pilate' role in Jesus' crucifixion.  Toward the endof the novel, the prose grows more lush and romantic.  There is a witch's Sabbath, and the final ride into the darkness of eternity by Satan, his retinue, and a couple of the recently dead, has a Gothic, elegiac quality.  There are surprising hits of feminism in Margarita's enthusiastic response to becoming a witch.  Characterization is imaginative rather than deep.  There are six major characters, Satan,  his retinue , and the titular master and Margarita, who by the way, don't appear until about a third of the way through the novel.  There are dozens of minor characters, amusing little caricatures of Soviet types.  The plot is hard to follow.  The book's strengths are imagination, the wealth of secondary characters, and ingenuity of the jokes played by the retinue.

It is little hard to understand why Pontius Pilot is so prominent in this work.  Pilate embodies the conflict in early Christianity about whether Christ was killed by the Romans (a version of history preferred by early Christians who were a Jewish sect) or by the Jews (a version preferred by the Church after it become the Roman state religion) and embodies the problems inherent in the concept of predestination, that is — was Pilate personally guilty of ordering Christ's execution, or was he merely playing a necessary part in a predestined sacred drama.  But it is not clear how either conflict fits into the book as a whole.  Pilate may represent a darker version of the Soviet bureaucracy.

The novel bares an epigraph from Goethe's Faust where Mephistopheles says, "I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”  This observation made a little more sense out of various parts of the book including role of Pilate. 

The book was written in fits and starts over many years during which Bulgakov suffered the alternation of favor and with dangerous disfavor many artists suffered in Stalin's time and suffered also upheavals in his personal life.  Perhaps if we understood these misfortunes better we would understand the book better.  But would that make it better?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The NY Times on Obstacles First Time Authors Face: ‘There Was Absolutely No Buzz’ | The Authors Guild

The NY Times on Obstacles First Time Authors Face: ‘There Was Absolutely No Buzz’ | The Authors Guild

That's why we've banded together as "Thoth," to give our authors what buzz we can. A very faint buzz, alas, but at least each of us can let everyone in his or her network know of a new book. Well, it's not as good as a New York Times review, but better than silence.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Memory from the Days when Viola Liuzzo Was Murdered


Reading in the NPR post by Karen Grigsby Bates (http://portside.org/2013-08-13/viola-liuzzo-killed-taking-part-everybodys-fight) about murdered civil rights hero Viola Liuzzo (killed by the Klan in Selma in the 60s) being thereafter baselessly maligned by Hoover and assorted racists hardly surprised me as I lived through it myself as a kid, when I was a SNCC field worker in Georgia, and I’ve heard it all. I was down there myself when Viola Liuzzo was killed, and when the three boys were killed in Mississippi, and various others killed, and I was doing what they were doing, and I felt that murdering chill wind blow all the way across to the bad counties of southwest Georgia, where I was, “black and white together.” We felt that murderous chill deeply and it was a lonely feeling, we “outside agitators” and local folks alike. That Hoover then invented some dirty nonsense about Viola Liuzzo who died so other Americans could be free, or that white folks way up north burned a cross on her family’s lawn, or thought “she should have minded her own business,” that is exactly how I remember it, also.

            But in freely acknowledging the negatives, the resistance, rogue FBI men, Klansmen, all those who averted their eyes and minded their shops and their business, all the usual suspects and evil demons banal and otherwise, let’s not ourselves fail to pause and frankly consider the stark amazing fact of the sheer goodness and wonderfulness of Viola Liuzzo herself. That is the central fact in the piece and one to draw sustenance from. This was not a kid, this was a middle-aged woman, a solid citizen, a white NAACP member. We kids had our wild romantic kind of courage, but Mrs. Liuzzo was a more thoughtful sort of person, who had to have weighed the consequences and known the score, who had a lot more to lose and knew it.

            Reading in Karen Bates’s NPR piece that Viola Liuzzo has been forgotten, a park that is named after her neglected, in Detroit where she came from, or anywhere else, now that came as a strange shock to me, for there was no one more famous when I was a SNCC kid, and I could have as well forgotten my own name as hers. Not that I knew anything about her, just what she did. Weird to think someone so famous to me is not generally known, well, we all have that feeling sometimes. Everybody in the Movement, white or black, and all the black people who maybe weren’t active in the Movement, but lived in its atmosphere, its penumbra, in those tumultuous times, knew of Viola Liuzzo.

That Viola Liuzzo is receiving posthumous awards and that Dr. King’s son consoles her daughter could not be more welcome and overdue. But back in the evil day, her sacrifice galvanized and ennobled thousands, and encouraged thousands in the Civil Rights Movement. Those were the folks whom you never hear of and are surely forgotten, the “foot soldiers,” the ones who really carried the Movement, and so in a sense can never be forgotten, and they were vividly aware of Viola Liuzzo and helped on by her. That was the real award for her.  I wish I could tell her daughter just how famous and beloved her mother was among thousands and thousands of souls, of people across the South in those days, and was not forgotten, and was never forgotten by them. Because she lived and shared their worst fate and nightmare. Mrs. Cheney commented about her murdered son, “They done him like a dog.” I felt the sting and the dull ache of that back then. Mrs. Liuzzo sacrificed everything, she symbolized everything good about America, and for us white kids in the Movement, she reminded us of exactly what we were doing and were up against, and ennobled in her fate our own smaller contributions. We knew exactly what she had done, knew her fate in our bones, knew the hope and Christly spirit her memory embodies to this day, a real American of the best and finest sort. Back then I couldn’t have told you who the Vice President was but I could tell you who Viola Liuzzo was, as she was one of the most famous people in the world, to me. 

A friend of mine recently remembered an incident that shows the significance of Viola Liuzzo back in those dark days. He was down there in Selma at the time, in his case arriving in Selma right after she had been killed. He was the SNCC troubleshooter Randy Battle who was sent to Selma to help out right after the murder. His memory of the night after the murder tells powerfully how much Viola Liuzzo’s sacrifice meant to the ordinary folks around there, and how famous she was then, and how her sacrifice had electrified the people and moved them on their way. Talk about not likely ever to be forgotten. I wish Viola Liuzzo’s daughter could read this and know how her mother’s sacrifice empowered the people at the time when it really counted and how it outraged them and gave them raw courage to keep going. I think Randy’s memory of this one incident symbolizes and gives a sense of exactly what those rough bad days were like and the context of the tragedy of Viola Liuzzo and the meaning of it for the Movement. One reason the Movement carried the day is that it was everywhere, or as far as white folks were concerned, “trouble everywhere.” Randy Battle and I and some other friends recently put together a book of memories from those times (The Great Pool Jump and Other Stories from the Civil Rights Movement), and in it is the following account from Randy Battle:

“You know when Viola Liuzzo got killed over there in Alabama, I was sitting up in the Atlanta SNCC office, and they called the SNCC office there in Atlanta, and told us she got killed, and old Bob Mants, he was the project director over there and he needed some help. Me and a gal named Cynthia Washington, we jumped in old Featherstone’s car . . . I had me my pocket knife was all and we was going over there and fight crackers! It was a SNCC car, that Plymouth. So she and I took off to Alabama. . . .

            “Anyway, we went to that mass meeting over there that first night [after the murder of Viola Liuzzo]. Stokely Carmichael was over there too. He was the main speaker. The meeting was in the main Baptist church in Lowndes County, it was way out in the country. You know, they shot her on the highway as she was driving, Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, and we were over there and we was having a mass meeting, and look here, man, them crackers got a rumor that Martin Luther King was coming and they came out there to start some trouble and them crackers pulled up there in droves!  That church was out in the country—way out in the country. The crackers pulled up on both roads that went up to that church and they parked there in dozens of cars. And every path that you could come up through to get to the church they had their headlights on and pointed at the church and they drove up there and they started to getting out of their cars. But them niggers was there waiting on them. And you talking about shotguns and rifles and about every kind of weapon you could name! There was people out from the church watching for them, we knew they were coming. And them niggers’ trunks started popping open and they were getting out their shotguns and starting meeting them crackers, and they flipped on their headlights too and them crackers backed out. They got the idea that they had bit off a little more than they wanted to chew and they got back in their cars and backed out and they got back the hell away from there! Now they didn’t rush about it, one and two, they just took off, where they parked all alongside the road. . . .

“And so after the meeting we leave, like, there was about five or six SNCC cars, and they were interspersed with all the others, every so often, for protection to the folks, and you in the first SNNC car you leave and you get to a road where somebody got to turn off , the whole row a cars got to stop and wait on the side of the road until you go on up there about a half a mile off the road or whatever to their house and turn around and come back and somebody else turns off and the second SNCC car rides with them and everybody has to wait together and it took us damn near all night to get home, it was damn near day in the morning after the meeting closed down till when we got where we was sleeping at. I don’t think there was no more trouble by then, them crackers had backed down, and they done enough damage already, they had killed Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, so that was that, they thought. But you know, we were into sticking together and that was what the SNCC kids was there for, to give the people some little bit of cover. So we drove along with half the people home with them.”

That of course was what Viola Liuzzo was doing, too, driving people home after a meeting, giving “the people a little bit of cover,” only the Klan had her marked by then, and there would be no cover for her.

My friend the SNCC troubleshooter Randy Battle goes on in his recollection (in The Great Pool Jump) of the mass meeting the night after the murder:

 “They thought Martin Luther King was coming to that mass meeting, them crackers. The crackers was coming to kill King. But Stokely Carmichael was the guest speaker. We came real early to the church. Them young niggers—them young niggers—everybody that came brought a gun, cause we already knew, we had got the message that they was going to come and raid the church. And wasn’t nobody standing for that crap that night. You know, it was do or die. And I was standing up there with a .25 automatic ha ha ha ha ha! But I think if it hadn’t been for us them niggers would’ve started shooting that night. But we were supposed to be nonviolent. . . . Stokely never stopped speaking. Stokely just kept on talking inside the church. Some of them came out the door to look at it but the meeting never was interrupted.

“That meeting was for Viola Liuzzo, you know, but it was always really about the Movement. SNCC was always looking for any excuse to get people together and rile them up and make progress, even on an occasion like that, especially then of course. You know how it is, a preacher come to a funeral, and instead of burying the dead, he’s trying to save souls. Viola Liuzzo was killed there in Lowndes County, and she had carried somebody someplace back home from a meeting and on her way home the crackers they shot her in her car. She run off through a fence up there somewhere. They let her go and drop off whoever she was taking home and on her way back they just shot her. They did a lot a folks like that. I don’t even believe we got the numbers on them all they did like that. Some got shot and lived and you didn’t hear much about it. Plenty died or got hurt in the Movement, and it was just too much to keep track of, unless of course a white woman was involved. Don’t get me wrong, she is as much a hero as Dr. King himself. But Dr. King not the only one been assassinated. Many were barely remembered at the time, I don’t know how you would find out all their names who were murdered then.

“They were crazy times I’m going to tell you. And I’ll tell you what. It wasn’t no good feeling times neither. Like me, I’d be running that road by myself, and I would always have me something. You know, at least like a pistol or something. Or my knife. But that aint sayin nothing because I might well go out naked as without ol Bess. But I knew it wasn’t worth a damn if I got surrounded by crackers. I didn’t want to jeopardize nobody else’s life, so I just went by myself. And got away with it. And how I don’t know. Because I’m driving with a Dougherty County tag or a Fulton County tag and they know I’m a freedom rider. And I would be driving up and down them lonesome highways and them back roads at two and three in the morning. That’s where they usually catch you at, down them back roads, that where they know you coming down, they know you not going to stay on the main highway, you going to sort of sneak through the back way. And I have been so doggone scared I couldn’t talk plain!”

I hope she is never forgotten, but I hope as well we don’t just leave Viola Liuzzo up on that pedestal with Martin Luther King to be taken down and dusted off in February. That is a fate almost worse than having your memory maligned by a Hoover. But I guess it is inevitable. She was never so famous or alive as when she was about to be forgotten by the dead souls of the world. What Viola Liuzzo has always meant to me is the common people with a big, full heart. The ones who do something and risk everything without worrying too much about it. Randy Battle was a guy like that too. It is great to see Viola Liuzzo recalled and celebrated, and I like to remember and celebrate Randy too. His memory of the night afterward at the meeting with Stokely Carmichael preaching when there was almost a shootout shows what the people thought of Viola Liuzzo at the time and the high feeling her murder had left in them. His story reminds of the great multitude of such people, too, the thousands and thousands in the Movement, who were moved by her courage, who did the same thing she was doing, who were never known to be forgotten. That’s why the Movement won. The good people were too numerous in the end. The Klansmen, like the mockers of Christ, are the ones who are truly forgotten, unknowing, unreal, dust in the wind, without significance. Ultimately it is the goodness that can’t and never will be forgotten, and that keeps on coming, you can be sure of that.