gall and gumption

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Another Take

The Ghost of Chuckling, in comments to my post on the movie Precious:

Hi Kia, I finally got around to watching Precious. I agree that your teacher Mudrick pegged the basic nature of the story. There must be a reason that story is told over and over and over again. The collective unconscious, perhaps? In this case, for a popular movie, I thought it was very well done. And it's not like she went on to live happily ever after. Pretty much anyone who had AIDS in 1987 was dead by 1991.

The whole thing came off as very realistic to me, at least with the caveats associated with the limitations of the form. The author was raped and abused by her father. She taught adult literacy in Harlem for five or six years in the late eighties/early nineties. She is a lesbian. It's not as if it had been written by a Bennington grad from the upper east side. And I (should say "we" because I watched it with my wife and we were mostly in agreement about it) had a totally different reading of the "what's that white bitch want" part. The "who's the real racist" angle didn't even occur to us. We saw it as a great example of how those two worlds are so far apart that communication is incredibly difficult, most often impossible. We thought it was very well-done for that type of movie in that it didn't explicitly make that point about communication, about how from their ghetto perspective they couldn't even fathom the possibility that the white bitch was going way out of her way to help them. All they could imagine, all their experience had ever taught them, was that the white bitch wanted to somehow punish them. Take away the welfare, kick them out of school. Whatever. In the really crappy movies, there's usually a magic character to explain all that.

We did question the well-trodden territory of The Color Purple. It is unfortunate that so many prominent African-American writers feature incest in their novels. Invisible Man is another famous example. Is incest an ethnic trait among African-Americans? Everything I've read suggests it's a class thing, not an ethnic thing. Being from south Podunk, all the examples I know of personally occurred in poor white families. But I think it is valid to argue that the inclusion of these scenes in so many prominent works does give the impression that it's an ethnic (racial for the really ignorant) thing. But should an artist consider that kind of political calculation, particularly when writing about things she personally experienced? I can't bring myself to say no, not when it's truly an honest and integral part of the story.

Regarding the issue of parodying the poor and propagating a message that they are undeserving, irredeemably horrible, dangerous parasites; we got pretty much the opposite message from the movie. And to be fair, that pretty much is the movie's message, that the poorest of the poor are not irredeemable. For us, that was where the Mudrick take was so painful. It might be believable that Precious could progress with the help of a wonderful teacher, but the liklihood of that whole class turning into happy, well-adjusted young women is pretty much nil.

Anyway, I don't mean to attack your take on it. We just saw those same issues a bit differently.

On another note, I'm currently doing a photo project with kids from one of the worst performing high schools in the South Bronx. As yet, I haven't been able to get much below the surface, but I can sense some of the same issues at work. Precious is a composite. How many real life characters is it made of?

This all seems very reasonable to me, and I think does better justice to the characters than I do. And yet, for me, it doesn't make my problems with the story go away.

Monday, April 26, 2010


I. "What Are You Reading?"

I get asked for advice about writing and reading, sometimes not because people know anything about what I do (though yes, sometimes for that reason too) but sometimes because I’m reading “literature.” A couple days ago I went for a smoke at work and this other woman was there for a smoke. I was reading Bleak House and this woman expressed some surprise that anyone read Dickens for pleasure and then spent almost my entire smoke break telling me what her children were reading in school. Now, I would not go so far as to describe myself as a “people person” but I am not an ogre either. If I am outside with a book, taking in a little nicotine with my fresh air, and someone strikes up a conversation I’m in, especially if it is trivial. I love trivial conversation. Because I am, as you know, a deeply shallow person. So ordinarily I do not mind, that’s part of the whole salmagundi of life. But 1) this woman did not observe the polite forms, where if you start small talk with a stranger you give them room to not follow up, you let them go back to whatever they are doing and if they decide they want to talk to you they will freely choose. No, she just sort of came crashing in and wouldn’t shut up about her children. 2) She and her children were not interesting. So, when she said that they were having to read books that were too hard for them—one was reading something by Dickens I think, and another was reading excerpts from the Iliad—I felt entitled to speak freely instead of just agreeing to unsolicited silliness: I pointed out that in the old days children started studying Latin by the first grade, and that Dickens was always popular literature. And I said “Children’s minds should be stretched; they like it.” I began to suspect that this woman was the sort of person who just sort of unloaded whatever was in her head at whatever unlucky neighbor was in the vicinity, and what she expected was sympathy. Or else why should a person expect me to shake my head, go cluck cluck and oh dear because her son is reading excerpts from the Iliad for school? The readiness with which she granted my points suggested that the complaining was more out of habit than conviction. She probably managed to frame every observation as a complaint, even when she didn’t really have anything to complain of.

II. "What Are Your Writing?"

Sitting outside a couple nights ago doing my evening writing ritual. I get to this quite late sometimes, and except for reading on the train ride it is the first free piece of time I can claim for myself, and it is so short. On this particular night I was late again and it was dark out, and probably because the light on the front porch of the building is better I sat there. I should have known better.

Because like a spite (no not a sprite, a spite) my neighbor appears. You may remember The Man Who Does Not Know What Color Anybody Is. Him. And as usual he engages in some banter and the effect, as usual, is slightly depressing but I can’t figure out why. Although for one thing he’s not really very good at it, it’s like kicking a cement football back and forth with someone.

So he wants to know what I’m writing about all the time. “Books, mostly,” I say in a tone of voice, remote and curt, that I hope discourages further inquiry. No such luck. “Are you published?”
“Are you a literary critic?”
“I’ve been called that.” (Note to self…)
“It seems this Irish writer, I think it might have been James Joyce (no no I can assure you it was not James Joyce you pinhead), was in a bar, writing one of his books, with the sheets of paper spread out all over the bar…” (Oh please God strike him dead with lightning before he finishes this joke if You are Merciful and Just) “…and the bartender accidentally knocks over his pint of Guinness all over the paper and the writer—I think it might have been James Joyce, says ‘I know you were a lousy bartender but yer a great literary critic!’ Ha! Ha!” (And You wonder why I don’t believe in You, You Bastard.)
Now, if I had told my mother that story up to this point she would say, “See? That’s the price of vanity. You should never have told him you are a published writer.” And she’d be right. Because the remainder of the conversation was all about how he doesn’t believe in literary critics it’s all a lot of bullshit anyway; he has some fiction that he wrote years ago and he doesn’t suppose it’ll ever get published because it is all about who you know, isn’t it?

Monday, April 12, 2010

No, I still have no life, thanks for asking

Have I mentioned lately how much I love 18th-century English prose? Let me try to describe how much. One day when I was in Nevis, a friend of the Mad Englishman took the two of us sailing on a 30-foot sailboat that he had bought in a state of near-wreckage and carefully restored. We sailed across the Narrows to a little cove off St. Kitts' southeast peninsula and anchored in deep, deep clear water. One of the things you might like to know about the Leeward Islands is that some of the islands (Montserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts, Saba, and Statia) don't have very good anchorages. The place where we were was not a place you'd want to be in a hurricane--in hurricanes people move their boats to St. Maarten or to St. Bart's. But on a clear bright day it was fine, sheltered by steep bluffs that just dropped straight down to the water with almost no beach, inaccessible by road. I looked down into the water and it was very, very deep for being so close to shore. But still, I could see things lying on the bottom, rocks and seaweed scattered sparsely over the white sand. It made me exceedingly happy and I was the first one in the water, taking a flying, yelling dive right off the top of the cabin.

Taking up a decent--hell, even a halfway decent--18th century novel is a similar kind of happy plunge. I just dive right in over my head and don't want to come out. I class Austen among them, but that's a story for another day. Of the writers (nonfiction and fiction) who really were of the 18th century, my favorites are Sterne, Boswell, and Richardson. I read Tristram Shandy once a year, and I read Clarissa about once every other year, to tune up my morals.

To tell you all of what I get out of the 18th century writers would be yet another story. I may have to do it one tiny piece at a time.

It's a craving for the prose that drew me to read The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, by Smollett. Well that's part of it, because to tell the truth Smollett is not a very good prose writer, I mean, you won't learn to write better from reading him. But there's something.

I'm sure that Humphry Clinker does all the things that successful novelists and the creative writing teachers counsel aspiring novelists not to do. It is an epistolary novel and most of the letters (certainly the longest and fullest ones) are written by Squire Bramble and his young nephew Jeremy Melford. There is a spinster aunt (butt of much low humor), and Jeremy's sister Liddy, who is very sensitive and secretly in love with an actor--or, possibly, a young gentleman who for some reason was traveling with actors. Their one love-passage occurs in the earliest letters, and except for one appearance at Bath very soon after, he disappears from the story for hundreds of pages. Other correspondents are the spinster aunt Tabitha, Liddy, and aunt Tabitha's daffy maidservant Win Jenkins (butt of even lower humor). Yes, they are all stereotypes. What about it?

Each of these characters has just one correspondent, so the letters sort of run alongside of each other and there's no drama (such as you get in Lady Susan or Clarissa) between them except that of comparison between different accounts of the same events. Squire Bramble is taking this party, and a couple of strays who travel with them part of the way, on an extended tour of England and Scotland. He is in search of health for himself and giving his young niece and nephew a sight of the world. It's a "Visitor from Another Planet" story (the other planet is Wales, but the roads were not then what they are now), as well as a road trip, seasoned up with the romance and much slapstick and a few poop jokes. These very loose structures allow Smollett to pretty much go where he pleases; to make observations about English life, as seen through the eyes of the members of this family and the orthographically challenged Win Jenkins. The novel is a survey of manners, of morals, of habits, of characters in their settings. Which sounds kind of slow if you forget to consider how interested people are in seeing the familiar characters, stories, problems, and settings of their own times. Smollett was writing for readers who believed, who were looking to the novel for an image of their lives.

So about 50 pages in you give up on any expectation of dramatic tension. About 100 pages in, you give up all hope of ever understanding why the novel is named after an eccentric minor character who only turns up halfway through. You find out eventually, but startling as the revelation is it comes too late to save the story. There is, really, no story. And you don't care. You read to see what turns up. During the visit to Bath, Squire Bramble writes a letter describing with grim and persuasive relish just how nasty the waters at Bath must be. The family travel from Bath to London and then they head north, getting as far as the Scottish highlands. En route they stop at St. Andrews and observe yet one more strange Scottish custom (having observed several already at this point) and it is the only description of golf that I have ever seen that made it sound the least bit interesting or attractive. Odd characters come and go, and each appearance is itself an incident that most of the time includes the story of how this character came to be so odd--which is yer basic episode. Incidents, episodes, anecdotes, backstories, the main plot line having dropped completely out of sight, long descriptions of landscape and local customs, the occasional moralizing sermon on hygiene or the social habits of politicians. It is a novel almost entirely comprised of things that you are not supposed to put in novels. Not only that, Liddy's letters read like form letters, patched together out of maybe Richardson's guide to letter-writing, conveniently titled Letters written to and for particular Friends, on the most important Occasions. Directing not only the requisite Style and Forms to be observed in writing Familiar Letters; but how to think and act justly and prudently, in the common Concerns of Human Life, except with more fainting.

Nearly 300 years after Smollett, the reader expects all action and events in a work of fiction to have a motive that is related at some level to the dramatic tensions in the story. That is, the novel of now, at least as it is taught, is required to have something like what the old critics understood as the Unities. It doesn't have the same Unities as, say, a 17th-century French tragedy, it has its own set, and the key one is that all motive must come from within the story, must reside within the characters. An episode that doesn't "advance the story" is considered a narrative dead end. Smollett clearly has never heard of this rule. But somehow the novel manages without it, and the absence begins to be funny in and of itself after a while: here they are rolling along in the carriage each with his or her own thoughts and then Heigh Ho! the carriage runs into a ditch or tips over, they stay in a town, Mr. Bramble meets an old schoolfriend or a boorish nobleman or a practical joker, and so the next episode begins, ending almost always with a moral sentiment, a lesson learned.

I don't care how badly Humphry Clinker is put together. I don't care if it has a narrative arc or foreshadowing or any of that creative writing school novel-technique how-to baloney. In the 18th century, the novelist loaded up the novel with whatever he could get it to carry. For Sterne, this became a question--what could you get away with? an lengthy and exhaustive Latin curse with a simultaneous translation, elaborately set up running gags, a completely black page, a diagram of the plot represented as a squiggly line, a parody of Montaigne, a long rambling story, set in Strasbourg, about a man with an enormous nose, a dirty joke involving nuns and mules, a visit from Death, a romp across the plains of Spain, a whole separate other tour of Spain, a promise to write a chapter on buttons, never fulfilled...--and the punchline is that the joke never ends, "Such a head!" Tristram exclaims, suddenly aware that he is managing three narrative lines at once, "Would to God my enemies could see the inside of it." Smollett, at least in Humphry Clinker, is less ambitious; he is just a sort of packrat. Here is this carriage full of people on a Road Trip, and he just packs anything in with them that looks like it might be useful. Very near the end Squire Bramble runs across another old schoolmate, Mr. Baynard, who is unhappily married to a pretty woman. She is spending him into ruin, hates country life, and goes into fits whenever he tries to remonstrate with her: the same material that Edith Wharton could spin out vividly into The Custom of the Country, summed up in about four pages.

(Well, this is about where I should expect someone to pop up and tell tell me I don't know what amazing things the po-mo novel is doing and I dunno, that just makes me tired thinking about it. It's hard for me to take seriously any literary phenomenon that is born out of an academic fad. Sorry. I'm really talking about something else here. But you know, whatever floats your boat.)

So I'm reading along, you see, and I come across this passage. The Bramble entourage are heading south out of Scotland and, crossing the border, pass through a village where they witness this remarkable scene:

—As we stood at the window of an inn that fronted the public prison, a person arrived on horseback, genteelly, tho' plainly, dressed in a blue frock, with his own hair cut short, and a gold-laced hat upon his head. — Alighting, and giving his horse to the landlord, he advanced to an old man who was at work in paving the street, and accosted him in these words: 'This is hard work for such an old man as you.' — So saying, he took the instrument out of his hand, and began to thump the pavement. — After a few strokes, 'Have you never a son (said he) to ease you of this labour?' 'Yes, an please Your honour (replied the senior), I have three hopeful lads, but, at present, they are out of the way.' 'Honour not me (cried the stranger); but more becomes me to honour your grey hairs. Where are those sons you talk of?' The ancient paviour said, his eldest son was a captain in the East Indies; and the youngest had lately inlisted as a soldier, in hopes of prospering like his brother. The gentleman desiring to know what was become of the second, he wiped his eyes, and owned, he had taken upon him his old father's debts, for which he was now in the prison hard by.

The traveller made three quick steps towards the jail, then turning short, 'Tell me (said he), has that unnatural captain sent you nothing to relieve your distress?' 'Call him not unnatural (replied the other); God's blessing be upon him! he sent me a great deal of money; but I made a bad use of it; I lost it by being security for a gentleman that was my landlord, and was stript of all I had in the world besides.' At that instant a young man, thrusting out his head and neck between two iron bars in the prison-window, exclaimed, 'Father! father! if my brother William is in life, that's he!' 'I am! — I am! — (cried the stranger, clasping the old man in his arms, and shedding a flood of tears) — I am your son Willy, sure enough!' Before the father, who was quite confounded, could make any return to this tenderness, a decent old woman bolting out from the door of a poor habitation, cried, 'Where is my bairn? where is my dear Willy?' — The captain no sooner beheld her, than he quitted his father, and ran into her embrace.

Of course William pays off everybody's debts, settles an income on the aged parents, a dowry on his sister and makes a handsome donation to charity. The whole thing is like a scene out of Hogarth. And there the Bramble party was, you see, just minding their own business and happened to see it all. If the incident sounds vaguely familiar maybe it's because you remember the ballad "John Riley" in which a "fair young maid" is quizzed by a stranger about her faithfulness to her lover who has gone off to sea. There are lots of versions to it but I like this one because it is less wordy, it has some of the leanness the older ballads (the later ballads—17th century on--are sort of gabby sometimes). She answers his questions and then--

He picked her up all in his arms
And kisses gave her one, two, three,
Saying "Weep no more, my own true love,
I am your long-lost John Riley."

The dark version of this story is the ballad of the Demon Lover, also known by the title "The House Carpenter." When the old lover returns he finds that the woman has married a solid upstanding citizen, the house carpenter, and has children. The returning lover tempts her to go away with him. "I could have married a King's daughter," he says, just to let her know what he's given up for her. She resists but not for long. He's got six ships full of treasure, after all. Then a couple weeks out to sea (in one version "...she espied his cloven hoof...") she starts to miss her children, and then the ship sinks, and--

What hills, what hills are those, my love
That are so bright and free
Those are the hill of Heaven, my love
But not for you and me

What hills, what hills, are those, my love
That are so dark and low
Those are the hills of Hell, my love
Where you and I must go.

Well, just imagine any condition in which you could introduce what we would now call an "urban legend" into a novel without layers of irony and self-referential winks at the reader. But here it is. So what on earth is Smollett doing? Well, for a start, he's sort of repackaging a lovely ballad to make it presentable to his genteel readers, who would have looked down on ballads as little better than tabloid literature--which, in effect, the ballads were. Placing it in a novel like this was a way to elevate it as well, to bring it into the range of "serious" literary form. But mostly I think he's just doing it because he likes the story. It is a perfect fit for Squire Bramble's personality, it is just the sort of story that makes him get out his wallet and beam his countenance at people. And you have to remember, too, that the countenance and approval of a gentleman like Squire Bramble are instantly convertible into respectability for the recipient: respect and recognition are currency as surely as money is.

I notice the returning traveler's dress: the new blue smock (workman's clothes) and that little bit of gold braid on his hat. After we witness the reunion (Oprah would have loved this one) we can then reflect back on that first appearance. He doesn't dress above his station, he doesn't come back looking like a swell.

One of the things that sets off some of Squire Bramble's most high-octane harrumphing is that in the assemblies and public entertainments of London and Bath, anyone can get in as long they have adequately fashionable dress and the price of the ticket. This promiscuous mingling of the social orders really gets up his nose (literally: on smells he is as shrill as the Queen of the Night). With his jealously keen eye for such matters, he picks out of the crowd the apothecary's assistant, the lady's maid dressed in her mistress's castoffs. What distinguishes the real gentlefolk from the wannabes is sensibility--the capacity to be moved by objects of sentiment. The irony here, which escapes Squire Bramble, and Smollett, I'm afraid, is that the reading public who are being instructed by Bramble/Smollett on this point are also people trying to move upwards on the social ladder. They are a few rungs up from the tradespeople and domestics, but nevertheless they are possessed by their social aspirations. They have the clothes and the ticket, they want the morals. And The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, like Clarissa, like Pamela, is among other things a book of moral instruction.

And here Squire Bramble--and Smollett, apparently--misses another irony. The new classes appearing in the cities and intruding on the public entertainments and mingling with their betters--who are these people? And why does the returning son William find his family in such a plight--the aged father digging ditches to work off a debt, the brother in debtor's prison, the sister married without a dowry? And why did William go away in the first place? Squire Bramble does not connect these questions with the ongoing project of enclosure. As his party tours the countryside, he notes approvingly that some landowner has enclosed his fields; this shows that the landowner is serious about productivity. The unenclosed fields of other landowners are just so much undeveloped potential being sat on by slackers, and there is if not a legal duty there is a moral duty, perceptible to the person of sensibility, to improve productivity. But the well-known effect of enclosure was displacement: the rural poor lost their livelihoods. These displaced persons went to the cities. They went to America, they went to India, they went to the Caribbean. Some went abroad to settle, others, like William, to work for a while and return with the means to put a family back on its feet, or to marry. But the risks were high, and many who went away hoping to return rich did not return at all. These ballads of the returning sons and lovers represent far much more hope and longing and yearning than they do of reality. That is why they are so emotionally satisfying to read; they are a fantasy of a complete and rich restoration of what is lost. Despite all the years that have passed, he recognizes you before you recognize him; he did not forget you, you have not changed in his eyes.

Squire Bramble enjoys all the fine sentiments that this incident elicits. But he never makes the connection with its cause. It's as though the engine of economic progress goes chugging away on one track in his mind and the moral sentiments go chugging away on another and the two never intersect. But there we are.

"The novel is the one great book of life," said D. H. Lawrence. You don't know how true it is until you read the 18th-century novel and realize how true it was for those writers.