Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Way We Live Now

Trollope's novel of that name is a masterpiece of plotting based on the interaction of characters and character discrimination. There are about 12 major characters in this long book, around 450,000 words, and you are never confused, for one reason because Trollope introduces each person one by one in short chapters.

The central plot is applicable to our time when foolish knaves sell impossible mortgages to knavish fools; when “financiers” package the shaky mortgages as “securities”; and the London bankers collude at teatime on Facebook to fix the LIBOR rate. It is based on a murky stock promotion of which we never understand the details. What we understand is how interaction of characters, usually in pairs, sometimes in triplets, moves the action and in some cases alters the movers.

What you think about when you think about this book is the characters. The most interesting are: First, Augustus Melmotte, a "financier" of murky background who dazzles London by flashing wealth, perhaps more than he really has, founds a Ponzi scheme worthy of Bernie Nadoff, and even gets himself elected to Parliament, before his ultimate fall. He is charismatic and a bad guy. He has no notion of honesty and beats his daughter. Yet he is a sort of tragic hero, and his downfall is moving and telling. Trollope even grants him a helping of tragic insight:

“He had not far to go round through Berkeley Square into Burton Street but he stood for a few moments looking up at the bright stars. If he could be there, in one of those unknown distant worlds, with all his present intellect and none of his present burdens, he would, he thought, do better than he had done here on earth. If he could even now put himself down nameless, fameless, and without possessions in some distant corner of the world, he could, he thought, do better. But he was Augustus Melmotte, and he must bear his burdens, whatever they were, to the end.”

Second, Mrs. Hurdle, an American widow, except her husband is not actually dead, although she has shot and killrd another man. She is beautiful, sensitive, passionate, wealthy on her own initiative, and, in the crises we witness in the book, highly moral. Trollope makes clear that she and another major character, Paul Montague, a priggish vacillating Englishmen, have been physically lovers in the past when he was traveling in America. This is not the shy, 2-dimensional flower of so many 19th century English novels.  In a way she is Henry James’ free-spirited American girl carried far beyond what James would care to undertake.

Third is Marie Melmotte, the daughter of Augustus Melmotte, who begins the novel by falling in love with a handsome ne'er-do-well because she is enchanted by stereotypes from novels. She progresses through several fiancés or near-fiancés including an English Lord, and evolves to choosing a husband from a position of cynicism but not malice.

Most of the action of the book does involve the marriage plot, but the outcomes are complex and ambiguous.   Unlike in, say Jane Austen, it is thinkable for women to choose other careers than marriage.   Nor does Trollope hand out good and bad marriages simply as a reward for being moral or immoral characters.  The relentlessly bad mother, Lady Carbury, probably gets what is for her the best marriage.  Paul Montague's chooses a bland and timid ingénue over the complex and passionate Mrs. Hurdle. They will settle in the country with her obsessive one-time admirer living a cottage in the back.  Not a happy prospect. 
This novel explores ant-Semitism. It was published in 1875, a time of change in the standing of Jews in English society. For one thing Disraeli was Prime Minister. A fully developed secondary character has reached the age of 30 and is losing in the marriage game. She chooses to marry a banker who is 20 years older than she is, fat, ugly, a Jew, and the most decent human being in the book. Her immediate family reacts like Nazi’s. Her fiancé is also a of foil for Marie Melmotte first admirer, Sir Felix, who is wellborn, handsome, youthful, but an utterly worthless drunk and compulsive gambler. So Trollope is telling us something about his attitude towards prejudice against Jews. But he also accepts without comment the general knee-jerk prejudice that was of course commonplace in his time. I have seen it stated by critics that Melmotte himself is Jewish, and characters sometimes assume that.  His pitiful wife (not Marie’s mother) certainly is.  But I found no clear-cut statement to that effect in the text; the most unambiguous description of his origin is that he was Irish-American and grew up in New York.
 Another prejudice is against Americans.
 Trollope's prose is always sound, clear, readable, and supple but is never thrilling in sustained passages. Trollope is a master of summarizing complex human situations, both in decisive paragraphs and in telling bon mots. There are paragraph-long summaries of characters’ previous lives that could serve as scenarios for whole novels by Henry James, and on which David Foster Wallace or Karl Ove Nausgaard could build a career. For example this summary of the situation in the Carbury family at the beginning of the book. Note that the situation has developed through the interaction of three characters:

“Sir Felix was then 25, had been in a fashionable regiment for four years, had already sold out, and, to own the truth at once, had altogether wasted the property which his father had left him. So much the mother knew, – and knew therefore that with her limited income she must maintain not only herself and daughter, but also the Baronet. She did not know, however the amount of the Baronet’s obligations; – nor, indeed, did he, or anyone else. A baronet, holding a commission in the guards, and known to have had a fortune left by him left him by his father, may go very far in getting into debt; and Sir Felix had made full use of his privileges. His life had been in every way bad. He had become a burden on his mother so heavy, – and on his sister also, – that their lives had become one of unavoidable embarrassments. But not for a moment had either of them ever quarreled with it. Henrietta had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially from a daughter. The lesson had come to her so early in life that she had learned it without the feeling of any grievance. She lamented her brother’s evil conduct as it affected him, but she pardoned it all together as it affected herself. That all her interests in life should be made subservient to him was natural to her; and when she found that her little comforts were discontinued, and her moderate expenses curtailed, because he, having eaten up all that was his own, was now eating up also all that was his mother's, she never complained. Henrietta had been taught to think that men of that rank of life in which she had been born always did eat up everything.”
One of Lady Carbury’s vices is bad writing. She is the author of a dreadful piece of popular history called Criminal Queens.  Her efforts to publish and promote it show that the vices of her publishing world, like her financial world, are much like those of our own.
Where Trollope's prose really shines is in bon mots. The little word or phrase that cunningly sounds the depths of what's before us. Here is a little summary of Lady Carbury’s thoughts rejecting someone's proposal of marriage:
"But mixed with her other feelings there was a tenderness which brought back some memory of her distant youth, and almost made her weak. That a man, -–such a man, – should offer to take half her burdens, and to confer upon her half his blessing! What an idiot! What a God! She had looked upon the man as all intellect, alloyed perhaps by some passionless remnants of the vices of his youth; and now she found that he not only had a human heart in his bosom, but a heart that she could touch. How wonderfully sweet! How infinitely small!”
It is that last, small word "small" that nails so much about both Lady Carbury and her admirer and stimulates and shapes our feelings about them.
There is a subplot that involves a country lass and her bumpkin admirer. It's loosely related to the main action and is amusing, but it constantly reminded me of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, which is both a kind of complement, and a kind of distraction.
Trollope's energetic but orderly ability to generate plotting for his characters sometimes gets a bit tedious. There is a whole sub subplot of the relations between an Anglican bishop and a Catholic priest that is really unnecessary and never goes anywhere. After Melmotte’s, fall, Trollope spends probably another 50,000 words tying up loose ends. Tying up loose sends is satisfying, but maybe not every i in every marriage contract needs to be dotted.

A note on punctuation: I read the free version that comes from the Apple Store which I assume, partly from some of the errors that electronic scansion is prone to, is an unedited presentation of the original text. Punctuation is interesting. It is filled with dashes, almost a sort of prose version of Emily Dickinson, the dashes frequently proceeded or follow by semicolons, commas, or colons. On the other hand, there are many occasions where we would expect a carefully punctuated text to have commas, such as examples or introductory adverbial phrases of time, where they are lacking.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reading “Ferguson” in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust

Peter de Lissovoy


The tragedy that has become a household word—“Ferguson”—cannot be understood without a sense of our history. To get a picture of life in America as it used to be, and so America as it has become today, in which “Fergusons” are commonplace, certain novels might be more useful than the history books, because a good novel presents a vision of life as it is, or was, lived whole. The novel transports us into deeper and richer worlds than, for instance, what we read about in the newspapers or on the Internet.

For the young person or modern reader or anyone wishing to have a sense of what the relations between the races were in the United States until very recently (and thus mainly still are), Faulkner’s novel Intruder in the Dust would be a good place to go. Faulkner also famously remarked on the rootedness of the present in the past, that is, the living presence of the past in our lives. Of course, to the African American reader of the novel, the direct link to the present day will be unmistakable as it is regrettable. Intruder in the Dust is a window on America and the South and also how a Nobel Prize–winning writer from the South was thinking about race as World War II came to a close and what we call the modern Civil Rights Movement was beginning, in the late 1940s. A pretty good movie was made from the novel many years ago.

The novel is about a would-be lynching of an innocent black man (the character Lucas Beauchamp) in Mississippi in about 1948 with the peculiar quality of completely lacking any sense of outrage except against the affectation of his essential manhood by the would-be victim.  In the early pages Faulkner establishes the precise origin of the near fatal prejudice against Lucas Beauchamp in a scene where he goes into a country crossroads store and buys some ginger snaps and eats them. His manner of eating them offends one of the white backwoodsmen there, who goes to brain him, only prevented by the store’s proprietor, familiar with Lucas’s ways, who is completely oblivious and absolutely indifferent to whatever is offensive in his manner of eating ginger snaps. Confronting his would-be assailant boldly, indifferently, and intractably (Faulkner loves words that start with “in”), Lucas insults him further than just by his manner of eating the cookies. He sucks his tooth loudly in an aggressive manner and puts the white man in his place in locally resonant and effective terms. (If this reaction and the ginger snaps hauntingly call to mind a kid named Trayvon Martin and some infamous “Skittles,” you see what I mean by the transporting function of the novel.)

The premise of the story in Intruder is that a poor white man from a clan and of that class that is so low as to be customarily beyond the reach of the law has been murdered and on flimsy circumstantial evidence an “uppity nigger” (Lucas Beauchamp)  is picked up to answer for it. The way he eats ginger snaps, among other things, has already sufficiently established his suspiciousness. Both victim and supposed perpetrator being in their different ways assumed not to function within the normal framework of the small-town society, the conscience of the community is not aroused, the powers that be are not moved to interfere, and it is left to a boy, an old woman, and the sheriff to fend off the lynch mob and prove Lucas’s innocence, but especially the boy.  

How is it that the white boy comes to save Lucas Beauchamp? When at the start of the novel Lucas takes the boy home who has fallen in the creek to dry him off, warm him by his fire, and feed him dinner, but then refuses to take the half a dollar (and then seventy cents) that the white boy tries to force on him not so much in gratitude but as to wipe away the shame of having been helped by a black (as he describes it his manhood and his sense of his whiteness have been challenged), this sets off a cycle of strange one-upsmanship that goes on a while as the boy has to get back at him. He saves up and sends Lucas some cigars and his wife a dress, only Lucas sends him back a beautiful gallon pail of molasses he’s made, and what’s worse, delivered by a poor white, and so the cycle of weird retribution for a kindness has to go on.

. . . and [the boy] writhing with impotent fury . . . was already thinking of the man . . . [as] every white man in that whole section of the country had been thinking about him for years:  We got to make him be a nigger first. He’s got to admit he’s a nigger. Then maybe we will accept him as he seems to intend to be accepted. . . . the Negro who . . . said “sir” and “mister” to you if you were white but who you knew was thinking neither and he knew you knew it but who was not even waiting, daring  you to make the first move, because he didn’t even care.  [italics in the original]

This is Faulkner’s genius, rendering these pathological social relations, which of course feed into our own today, and explain many a “Ferguson.” It is an ironic and deft touch of the author and an essential insight into the white mentality that the boy is enmeshed and entrapped by the refusal of Lucas Beauchamp to be rewarded for his good deed. It is not enough that he helped, he must be paid off with a sop, as you would give a too mindful slave, to preserve white honor. With this Faulkner is on the verge of self-awareness (he never entirely gets there). The boy, no less than his elders, cannot stop being exasperated by Lucas’s utterly independent attitude. Only he has fatally been helped by Lucas.

Yet because of his strange intimate adversarial quintessentially southern relationship to him it is this very boy who is accessible to the insight that Lucas must be innocent of the murder. There is romance in this conceit—that children and women can see through the non-clothes of the emperor while the menfolk are too busy carrying out evil orders—which is the hinge of the plot of the novel, the white boy’s adventure digging up the corpse to prove Lucas Beauchamp is innocent (as his gun is a strange .41 caliber not the one guilty). Whether or not there was ever such a boy, we accept Faulkner’s hope for his shred of humanity.

. . . now he seemed to see his whole native land, his home—the dirt, the earth that had bred his bones and those of his fathers for six generations and was still shaping him into not just a man but a specific man, not with just a man’s aspirations and beliefs but the specific passions and hopes and convictions and ways of thinking and acting of a specific kind and even race: and even more: even among a kind and race specific and unique (according to the lights of most, certainly of all of them who had thronged into town this morning to stand across the street from the jail and crowd up around the sheriff’s car, damned unique) since it had also integrated into him whatever it was that had compelled him to stop and listen to a damned high-nosed impudent Negro who even if he wasn’t a murderer had been about to get if not what he deserved at least exactly what he had spent the sixty-odd years of his life asking  for—

Intruder is one of those stories whose value and charm lie in one indelible and inspired character, and doubly so in the case of Lucas Beauchamp, who captures the evil quandary of an entire culture, a man who refuses not only his place in the culture, his assigned subservient role in the culture, but even to recognize the central offensive aspect of the culture as if he simply never heard of it, thus rendering it starkly visible.

None of the other characters in the novel operate on the level of interest of Lucas. There is every evidence that Faulkner meant to make his white characters as compelling or at least as functional as his black hero (or anti-hero, one can’t tell finally). The vast majority of the goings-on are white people’s and most of the pages of the novel are devoted to the white characters. All the whites are rather two-dimensional, as all the electricity is short-circuited into the one genius stroke Lucas Beauchamp, as if even the author did not know what hit him when he thought up Lucas. In the later pages of the book, the boy’s Uncle speaks volubly and interminably for the South, maybe for Faulkner or not. One must assume he is saying something the author thinks meaningful and worth saying, for his speeches are so lengthy and no irony is apparent, except for the unconscious irony of having a blathering pillar of the white community speak obtusely for pages in a novel whose real juice comes from an African American misfit:

“Only a few of us know that only from homogeneity comes anything of a people or for a people of durable and lasting value . . . perhaps most valuable of all a national character worth anything in a crisis . . . That’s why we must resist the North: not just to preserve ourselves nor even the two of us as one to remain one nation . . . [we too] postulate that Sambo is a human being living in a free country and hence must be free. That’s what we are really defending: the privilege of setting him free ourselves.”

Apparently we are meant to take this racist piffle seriously, at least as seriously voiced, the white man insisting on the absurdity of being allowed to solve all the horror deriving from slavery by himself. As for homogeneity, it had been tried across the ocean as a “lasting value” in those days, and still is, here and there and everywhere, in our day, whether worth anything “in a crisis” or not. It would be a better book, no doubt about it, if the stupefying Uncle had been excised, but these later passages form a revealing shadow, and show in spades the murky cultural underpinnings of the story, the South, and America.

“We—he and us—should confederate: swap him the rest of the economic and political and cultural privileges which are his right, for the reversion of his capacity to wait and endure and survive. Then we would prevail; together we would dominate the United States.”

As American blacks have had to put up with cruel or flamboyant Mr. Charlie or equivocating half-aware Mr. Faulkner for centuries, the “capacity to wait and endure and survive” came in handy. But what a vision of apotheosis of the old confederacy and a fantastic South conjured out of self-pity, endless evasion, probably Old GrandDad, and midnight memories of the Lost Cause! As deluded and self-serving a vision as an otherwise great writer ever put on a page I think, Jeff Davis and them would have been scratching their heads at these fanciful heights. Note the unreconstructed sentiment (in 1948) wishing white and black (those who “wait”) “confederate” to dominate the U.S.!

To enter the world of Intruder in the Dust by Faulkner is to discover an America in which everything is upside down, like Alice in Wonderland. So much is this true that the hero of Intruder is never to be recognized as such, either by any character in the novel, or by the author himself. The hero of the novel (never recognized as such) has committed the crime of being normal in a crazy land. Never perhaps intending to cast so long a shadow, Faulkner in Intruder shows us the deep roots of a modern American tragedy which presently, and until the next sad act, goes by the tag “Ferguson.”

Lucas is saved at the last from being doused with gasoline and burned alive by the lynch mob by his adversary the boy’s heroics riding through the night to dig up the corpse with the wrong bullet in it, and you would have thought after such an adventure some self-awareness and even god-almighty awe might have set in among close onlookers. But at the last, the “sympathetic” whites having been one-upped one last time when Lucas pays his lawyer “bill” (of two dollars) to the Uncle in pennies, and Lucas insufferably waits for his receipt, all that is evoked is wry smiles of southern gentlemen. Lucas Beauchamp himself is miles beyond smiles, but this masterstroke by the author is passed off as a foible.

It is most likely, in the old South, Lucas Beauchamp would have been lynched, and never a word more said about it. That the author lets him live says something about where America was in mid-twentieth century. When the SNCC kids showed up a few years later, Lucas would have given them shelter and been the first to register.

All said, Faulkner’s genius did even if somehow unknowingly produce the towering and sublimely hopeful character Lucas Beauchamp. (And as sometimes happens in Hollywood, in the movie of the same title, Juano Hernandez even takes the character to another level and a more perfect pitch, with his easy saunter and high hat and inscrutable indifference in the face of outrage and oblivion—the movie like the book worth the price for Lucas Beauchamp.)

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Hero of Our Time

This novel is constructed in a manner we associate with Conrad -: narrators tell long stories within stories.  Unlike Conrad's typical practice, the narrations are not organized into a single nested, Russian doll.  Roughly the first half is a series of stories by a wise and likable non-com Russian officer told to a point-of-view character about the figure who turns out to be the hero of our time, Pechorin, a disillusioned St. Petersburg aristocrat.  The varying outlooks of the narrations within the narration provide us with more perspective and identification than is typical for Conrad.  They enrich the reader's emotional involvement in the book.  Although this novel is about a man who is desperately cold at heart, the reader comes away with a warm feeling,

Roughly the second half of the book consists of Pechorin's diaries, which fortuitously fall into the hands of the POV, after Pechorin, with his characteristic heartlessness, has snubbed his old friend the likable non-com.  Typically of Pechorin, he is arbitrary and mendacious with others, but focused and clear-minded about himself.  Lermontov came from his world, and this clear-eye self-criticism dramatizes Lermontov’s feeling about his own class.  Pechorin is described in the book and by critics, as Byronic, which means not so much that he was like Lord Byron, as he is like Lord Byron's alter ego Childe Herald (in the poem of the same name), who, like Pechorin, wanders through foreign lands drive by his disillusion with the pleasures of society, by cynicism, and by depression.  Like Childe Harold, this novel finds richness in nature and in people distant from fashionable society.

Like Tolstoy, Lermontov knew where the bodies were buried.  Recall what Karenin’s job was -: he was head of the committee on indigenous peoples.  Lermontov's novel is set in the Caucasus and is awash in the casual contempt of the Russian overlords for the Circassians, Ossetians, Chechens and the like, and their corresponding alienation and hostility from the Russians.  For example, in one story Pechorin casually abducts an Ossetian girl, keeps her as his mistress for a while, and then casts her aside.  For him, this is a kind of self-indulgent attempt to recapture caring, but it is to Lermontov's credit that we sympathize with him, as we sympathize with her hopeless predicament.

Despite the implied social criticism, part of the attractiveness of this novel is its picturesque setting.  Descriptions of the Caucasus are thrilling and ingratiating and the subjugated people are, despite all, interesting and picaresque.  In Martin Parker's translation, the prose is flexible, and supple, grand when it needs to be, folksy when it needs to be.

Pechorin and some of the figures involved with him, such as the likable non-com, are fully and warmly drawn.  Parts of the novel have plots.  The abduction and fate of the Circassian girl, for example, is plotty.  So is a long tale about Circassians stealing horses that might have been taken from local folk epics.  But the source of engagement for novel as a whole is the build up of the reader's understanding and involvement with Pechorin, who despite his sense of his own emptiness, indeed partly because of it, is full of meaning for us.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Notes from the ICU

Recently, I had elective heart surgery.  Briefly, the background is this: I have a painfully arthritic right hip, which demands replacement.  Some years ago I had my left hip replaced highly successfully.  But in the intervening time, I had developed stenosis of a heart valve, which did not permit the hip operation until the partially dysfunctional valve (of which I had no symptoms) was replaced.  I did that about a month ago.  Don't panic as you read this, it is a much more common operation than it sounds, has a very high success rate, and I'm doing fine.

Anyway, following protocol I spent roughly the first 24 hours after the operation in the ICU of a prominent teaching hospital.  I was full of painkillers and other drugs so my sense of time and reality was distorted.  In fact, perhaps none of what I'm about to report occurred, but here are some memories that stuck with me.

I was lying in a hospital bed partitioned away from others partly by a curtain, which could be drawn and undrawn, and partly by glass.  What I could see best when it was light (sunlight or artificial light?) was a similar bed kitty corner from me in a similar compartment.  I remember staring woefully at the occupant.  She was a woman whom I would describe as a very frail 60-year-old.  She almost never stirred and remained slumped under a light grey blanket with her head fallen to one side and her eyes closed.  Of course, like me, she was hooked up to various tubes.  The most I remember seeing at that stage was occasional movement of her left foot.  A vigorous man of about her age visited some time(s?) carrying magazines, popular mechanics type magazines.  I thought I heard him described as her brother, or maybe I made that up because he looked like her, the same grizzled grey hair.  At times he would just sit beside her, at times talk to her, although she did not respond, and at times read to her from a magazine.  After one of the undetermined intervals I experienced in those hours, I heard loud and desperate lamentations.  They seemed to me the outcries of traditional keening.  There was commotion in the semi dark.  I sadly assumed she had died.  I heard some talk about something like, “He’s having convulsions.”  Then silence.

After a while I saw a robust man with very short hair wearing a red sweater go into the cubicle where the lamentation had subsided, which was now curtained off.  I think again I heard some one say he was the brother of the man whom had had convulsions.

To pick pup another thread -: Some time later, in complete darkness I heard the sound of crowded voices shouting and exclaiming.  The locus of sound moved into the cubicle to my left.  It was noisy and excited, seeming chaotic but with a sense of inner order.  I thought of movies I have seen of crews on sailing vessels raising sails.  Loudest of all was a violent banging.  I assumed it was defibrillator paddles and that some one had had a critical heart attack and the violent commotion was the response.  After a time, the commotion diminished, moved out of the space next to me and away to my right in the darkness.  A short time later (?)  I heard a voice speak outside my curtain.  How shall I describe this voice?  It as a man’s voice, baritone, arrogant, yet its arrogance was somehow warm.  It declared, “We won.”  I took that to mean the team had saved the patient.  Some time later (?), a sweet young thing, one of he lower-level members of the sharply hierarchical staff, passed by and drew my curtain shut.  I asked her, “ What happened?”  She replied brightly, “Nothing.”  At the time, I took her to mean, “This is the sort of thing we do all the time.”  But perhaps hours had passed, and nothing had recently happened.

When it was next light enough, and the curtains were open, I peered at the bed kitty corner from me expecting to find it empty or holding a new patient.  But the woman was still lying there, and I immediately sensed she was more animated.  Her arms and trunk sometimes stirred under the light blanket.  The man with the grizzled hair and the magazines was again with her.  Some times, he spoke to her and she quietly replied.  He again read to her from the popular mechanics magazines.