Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Russian To Judgment

For years, I’ve compared anything convoluted – or simply long – to a Russian novel. Meetings that run over an hour, stories about disastrous holiday trips, that was my default summation: “It was like a Russian novel.” Alluding to your own erudition while implying there are great psychological depths to what has just transpired; trust me, there is no more lethal arrow in the pseudo-intellectual quiver.

A few years ago I made the Shame-Faced Admission™ that I’d never actually read a Russian novel, and finally picked one up so I’d know what I was talking about. It took me months to finish Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and not just because it’s as thick as, well, a Russian novel. I could only muddle through a few pages per day, baffled and at times put off by its neurotic intensity.

But all became clear by the transcendent ending, and I’m glad I stuck with it. There’s the added bonus of being able to see homages to it elsewhere. Realizing that Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket was essentially an unofficial adaptation of C&P almost compensated for the fact that I didn’t like the movie. (Bresson loved working with untrained actors. I believe, in movies and in life, you should always go with professionals.)

It was another film that got me interested in reading Notes From Underground. I’d heard that Paul Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver was greatly influenced by Dostoevsky and this work in particular. NFU is about a quarter of the length of C&P, so onto the queue it went.

The book is oddly structured. An unnamed narrator – a 40-year-old civil servant in St. Petersburg – lays out his beliefs on how the human animal functions, then recounts three anecdotes from his own miserable life illustrating his points. Somehow it works.

For a 140-year-old story, it remains shocking and vital, in part because it’s almost too honest about how people think. Its portrait of mankind is surprisingly contemporary. Run down this checklist of behavior and see if it reminds you of anyone you know:

- Relying on fantasy instead of actual accomplishment (“I invented adventures for myself and made up a life, so as at least to live in some way”)

- Brooding over slights, perceived and actual

- Concocting elaborate plans to avenge these slights that never come off as intended

- Being a jerk just ‘cause (“to take offense simply on purpose, for nothing”)

- Embracing your own misery because it justifies your self-absorption (“I will ask ... an idle question: which is better – cheap happiness or exalted suffering?”)

- Whipsawing between feelings of inferiority and superiority when it comes to co-workers and friends

- Using the pointlessness of life to excuse your own inertia (“I consider myself an intelligent man, only because all my life I have been able neither to begin nor to finish anything”)

- Considering your boorishness as doing the rest of the world a favor (“Resentment – why, it is a purification; it is a most stinging and painful consciousness”)

That’s right. What we have here is not merely an existentialist classic, but the George Costanza playbook.

Wait. You didn’t think I was talking about myself, did you? It’s not like Mr. Underground feigns expertise in areas he knows nothing about and passes off stories he’s heard as first-hand experience and oh, forget it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Radio, Radio

I’ll bet you thought we forgot about you, didn’t you? Well, don’t you worry. We’re back, and we’ve cooked up something special.

Join us, won’t you, as Shame-Faced takes to the air!

Rosemarie and I have prepared the inaugural Shame-Faced podcast. Twenty-two minutes of rapier wit. 8 MBs of razor-sharp repartee. We talk about the genesis of the project, recap what’s been done so far, offer a hint of what’s to come, and respond to some of the questions and comments that have come our way. All this, plus fine music courtesy of Evan Tate. And for free!

You can direct download the podcast here, or find it at iTunes if all goes well. It should be available at other podcast sites shortly.

Don’t worry. More posts are coming soon. In the meantime, give a listen and let us know what you think.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Footnotes, Don't Fail Me Now

Rosemarie: There’s one problem with writing about the classics. What are we supposed to say that hasn’t been said?

Me: That’s the beauty part. We’re not writing about the classics. We’re writing about our reaction to them.

Rosemarie: (beat) If you say so.

Pity the man who can’t heed his own advice.

I take on a few well-regarded novels and come over all knock-kneed, as if I were still in Mrs. Bytheway’s class. (A fine English teacher, as you’d expect from someone whose last name is a prepositional phrase. I wonder if the kids today call her Mrs. BTW?)

My posts to date have been equal parts diligent book report and review that’s several decades late. This is supposed to be about me, dammit. Herewith, a few thoughts that I should have included during the first go-round.

On The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: What I love about this book is that it conveys the ideal of the American character. A clear-eyed skepticism as well as a faith in one’s fellow man. A respect for the profound feelings provoked by religion coupled with suspicion for those who traffic in those feelings. It looks askance at those in power while acknowledging that somebody has to hold the reins. Huckleberry Finn is a living, vibrant book in part because anyone who recommends it – parent, teacher, politician – will be roundly mocked within its pages.

On Ernest Hemingway: No one is saying that the man needed more jokes. But what I come away with after reading two of his books is a sense of the burden of masculinity. When you’re a man, there’s no room for levity. I was reminded of those actors who are vaguely embarrassed by their trade and indulge in macho theatrics even when they’re out of the spotlight. There’s a rigidity to Hemingway’s sensibility that implies he’d sooner break than bend.

Or maybe the flawed sensibility is my own. Perhaps I can only deal with ideas in quotes. So much of the crime fiction I’ve read explores the codes of masculinity even as it occasionally satirizes them – I’m looking at you, Robert B. Parker – or, if presenting a stoic, at least delves into what motivates that behavior. Hemingway doesn’t bother with such inquiries. In his austere world, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. He calls a spade a spade, usually more than once, and gets on with it. It’s a bit tough for me to warm to that style.

Ah. That’s a load off my chest. I’ll try to make future posts more like this one – and Rosemarie’s – and less like homework.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Life During Wartime

In a project like this, you know that there will be books and movies that don’t do it for you. I swore I’d be honest about that. I just didn’t think that moment would come so soon.

Earlier, I made the Shame-Faced Admission™ that I’d never read any of Ernest Hemingway’s longer work. A sly anonymous commenter suggested The Old Man and the Sea, a “literary purgative” that would “get that crazy little hankering for Hemingway right out of (my) system.”

Well, Mr. or Ms. Smartyboots, you weren’t the first person to deliver that heads-up. I’d already decided not to start there. I also opted not to rush pell-mell into the work that interested me the most, his account of the “lost generation” The Sun Also Rises.

Instead, I went with 1929’s A Farewell to Arms, widely regarded as one of the finest novels of World War I.

I admired the book enormously. I just didn’t care for it.

Frederic Henry, a volunteer in the Italian Army, falls in love with Catherine, an English nurse, as he convalesces from injury. The twinned experiences of love and war reveal a great deal of life to him, perhaps too much for such a young man.

Papa, naturally, is at his best depicting the camaraderie forged between men in battle, and the deep thoughts that war provokes:

“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity ... Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of regiments and the dates.”

But that insistence on simplicity, which has the formal elegance of Shaker furniture in the Nick Adams stories, becomes constraining in longer work. At times Hemingway seems not to trust words, repeating humble nouns as if hoping to grant them the power of an incantation. In “Big Two-Hearted River” it worked, and it does here when Hemingway allows the language to take on a Joycean* rhythm of its own:

“Hard as the floor of the car to lie not thinking only feeling, having been away too long, the clothes wet and the floor moving only a little each time and lonesome inside, alone with wet clothing and hard floor for a wife.”

Over the length of a novel, though, the repetition is numbing.

My lukewarm reaction to A Farewell to Arms stems mainly from two other factors. The tragic climax is obvious from the outset, yet manages to feel tacked on. And Catherine never registers as a character, muting what little impact the ending had.

Not an ideal reading experience. But I’ve finally absorbed some Hemingway and developed a few opinions of my own about him, which is the point of the exercise. I still plan on reading The Sun Also Rises. I even intend to tackle The Old Man and the Sea. But I’m in no hurry to do so.

*Bonus Shame-Faced Admission™: I haven’t read any Joyce, either. I just think I know what he sounds like. Will this posing never end?

Monday, May 01, 2006

In Which I Slip Myself A Finn

The writer William Goldman once observed to some book editors that he had done all of his “serious reading” by the time he was 25. The editors all agreed that the same was true of them.

Whereas I did absolutely no “serious reading” by the time I was 25, unless Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators count. I was assigned some of the great books in school, but those were homework. I grumbled while I read them, skipped entire chapters, relied on vague summaries from classmates. I aced my English unit on The Scarlet Letter thanks to a project in which I transplanted the opening pages to a lunar colony, but I don’t consider myself as having read Hawthorne’s novel.

All of which leads me to this two-part Shame-Faced Admission™: I’d never read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And I’m glad I didn’t. The younger me wouldn’t have enjoyed it anywhere near as much.

The under-25 me wouldn’t have appreciated Twain’s language. I would have resented the modicum of extra work his remarkable use of the vernacular represented. But the older, sophisticated me relished Twain’s singular voice, which flows with the force of the Mississippi itself.

It’s only fitting that this novel prompted an evaluation of my younger incarnation, because Huck’s exploits on the river make up one of the great coming of age stories. He learns any number of vital life lessons, foremost among them that you can’t pray a lie and that, in the words of Tom Sawyer, “Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”

In a book packed with memorable scenes – like any of the cons perpetrated by the King and the Duke – I’d have to single out Colonel Sherburn’s lethal analysis of mob mentality. The fact that Sherburn is guilty of the crime that provoked such wrath only adds to its power.

An afterword to the edition I read touches on the view that the closing chapters, in which Tom Sawyer prolongs Jim’s imprisonment so he can be freed in high style, weaken the book. I understand the argument, but I don’t agree with it. Tom’s games are a reminder of how much Huck has grown, and of how a child’s love of showmanship isn’t necessarily the worst thing to hang onto as you move into adulthood.

Speaking of Jim, Huckleberry Finn is still frequently banned in schools because of charges that the book is racist. Having finally read it, I can’t even take that question seriously.

Speaking of Tom Sawyer, here’s another Shame-Faced Admission™ for you: I haven’t read that book, either. I’ve got my work cut out for me.