Ravelstein

Ron Rosenbaum’s laudatory article on Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein inspired me to pick up a book I skipped when it came out (Slate also hosts a discussion on it here). As Rosenbaum writes, “It’s a rapturous celebration of the life of the mind, as well as a meditation on the glory of sensual life and on the tenebrous permeable boundary we all eventually pass over, the one between life and death.” Is it that, or is it a meandering half-biography, half auto-biography, half-novel? (With Bellow, it’s safe to assume three halves, or some other unusual, impossible feat). “[M]editation on the glory of sensual life” is perilously close to “has no plot,” and Ravelstein doesn’t have much of one, but I didn’t miss in it because of its fundamentally strong conflict, with the narrator, Chick, confronting the death of his great friend and a greater human being, Ravelstein. Such a description does no justice to the novel’s beauty or its emotional anguish and power, which are there in full force and the reason the novel works.

Perhaps having an emotional conflict replace a plot is a good thing: Rosenbaum seems to think so, judging from his comments about earlier Bellow: “[...] the philosophical and the sensual in Bellow never fused in a convincing or satisfying way for me.” For me they sometimes did—Augie March, Herzog— and sometimes not—Henderson the Rain King. I’ve not yet read all of Bellow and may skip some of his novellas and stories, so I cannot completely judge him. Regardless, to me the sensual leads to the philosophical in Bellow, and without one the other doesn’t, and can’t, work. No wonder Rosenbaum had a problem with the one if he didn’t think it bridged the other. Like much of earlier Bellow, real life inspired Ravelstein.

The real life aspect didn’t impinge much on me, and I read the novel purely, as Rosenbaum recommends: “Read [Ravelstein] as if you didn’t know who Allan Bloom was.” I don’t (didn’t?) know much about Bloom save that he wrote The Closing of the American Mind. That book sounds too polemical for my taste, and having already read From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present, I’ve already experienced one jeremiad about how we are living in the End Times. I’m always wary of those who make such warnings; Jonathan Franzen made a similar point in an essay from How to Be Alone: Essays, where he admits that he has mellowed since his apocalyptic treatise on why the decline in reading is also a sign of End Times and compares his love for words to the beliefs of religious fanatics. Knowing more might actually have helped because my only problem with reading Ravelstein was not a problem with Bellow, but one with myself whenever I read Bellow: I feel like so much escapes me. I am apparently not the only one to feels this way:

Recently Sam Tanenhaus made an argument in the Times Book Review that Bellow’s work as a whole is “beyond criticism” because like Whitman it contains multitudes, it’s “a vision of the human universe as apprehended by a being of higher intelligence” and the “many defects—the longueurs and digressions, the lectures on anthroposophy and religion” don’t really matter when Bellow is considered as collective whole.

“A being of higher intelligence”—it might be gauche to compare Bellow to Shakespeare, and we know who has had and will have a greater effect on English and cultural history, but with both I cannot encompass them, their minds, their worlds. One key difference: Shakespeare wrote many convincing female roles, something that Bellow’s critics convincingly argue he seldom does. Certainly his best novels have women who are, at best, on the sideline or acting as support. The same is true of Ravelstein: Vela, the cold physicist, is a type and a slam against placing science on the alter of God without humanity to guide it—can she too be autobiographically read?—and Rosamund her opposite, a convenient young, angelic woman who saves the dying Chick from himself. Despite that, I still love Bellow for his ideas and expression, and his critics and supporters are right. Ravelstein’s weaknesses are also its strengths: the abstract ideas and flowering prose, the meandering digressions that are Proustian and precise, yet not in the service of a strong narrative, and I don’t even care much that the narrative is absent. Ravelstein is more a remembrance, but whether of Chick or Ravelstein is hard to say. But I’m glad I read it, and you don’t easily give up a creature like Bellow to death.

Life

“Since, of the charm, the grace, the forms of nature, the public knows only what is has absorbed from the clichés of an art slowly assimilated, and since an original artist begins by rejecting these clichés, M. and Mme. Cottard, being in this sense typical of the public, found neither in Vinteuil’s sonata, nor in the painter’s portraits, what for them created the harmony of music and the beauty of painting.”

—Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

Catch-22 and overrated novels

Lester Hunt thinks Catch-22 is the most overrated novel of the Twentieth Century, a stance I strongly disagree with (link originally via Marginal Revolution, which also asks what readers think the most overrated novel is).

The most pernicious aspect of Hunt’s post is that it misrepresents Catch-22: he writes, “But it consists of basically the same joke over and over again: military people are evil and stupid. They are also stupid and evil.” The joke is that military life—like much of life, especially in bureaucracies—is absurd, and made all the more so by its officiousness and self-importance and lack of awareness of its officiousness and self-importance. With this starting point, Hunt goes on to say that, “It’s a bad argument,” for Catch-22 to argue that military people are evil and stupid. But literature, even satire, is not necessarily written to make an argument: its point, if it has one, is to create art which exists for its own sake. Even so, and even if his initial point is correct, he’s dangerously close to making an argument like the one I attacked in The Prisoner of Convention, a post about Elmore Leonard: that you have to have the “good guys” in a traditional sense—white knight, armor, etc.—be more sympathetic than the “bad guys.” Novels should have the option of making one perceive a situation from other points of view, and one major point of a great deal of art, especially in writing, is that it is often difficult to tell who the bad guys are. (Saddam Hussein was a bad guy and always has been and always will be, right? So why did the former Secretary of Defense shake his hand? We’ve always been at war with Eurasia, right?) If art lacks this option it becomes propaganda.

Although I’d need to reread Catch-22 to cite textual elements for my criticism, I’d suggest Hunt start with some reading with regard to his fourth point, “[t]here is less than meets the eye[:]“”Spindrift and the Sea: Structural Patterns and Unifying Elements in Catch 22″ by Clinton Burhans, Jr., “It Was All Yossarian’s Fault” Power and Responsibility in Catch-22″ by Stephen Sniderman, both in the journal Twentieth Century Literature, and “War and the Comic Muse: The Good Soldier Schweik and Catch-22″ by J. P. Stern in The English Journal. As far as books go, Critical essays on Joseph Heller by James Nagel is probably worth reading, and even big boy on the block Harold Bloom wrote in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

My own choice for most overrated novel depends on whether one is dealing with the question of whether a novel is overrated by critics of the general public. As The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list shows, the two have substantially different ideas about what constitutes greatness. I’m more concerned with what “The Board” thinks, because its choices are more likely to stand up over time, but my choice overlaps: Catcher in the Rye, a novel that manages to combine spectacularly boring writing with a whiny, indulgent brat. Its only redeeming quality is that high schools assign it—or least mine did—despite the swearing and such, thus potentially moving out of the curriculum books like Ethan Frome—though mine made us read it. Read might be too strong a word—mind assigned it.

To Kill a Mockingbird is also a decent choice, but I doubt most scholars and critics take it seriously anymore, so it does no harm on high school reading lists, and probably a fair bit of good: it’s simple in language but still has enough to sink one’s ill-developed intellectual teeth into, and the symbolism is readily understandable even by 13-year-olds. Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, still seems to have institutional support. I suspect that when the literature professors and teachers who came of age in the 60s retire, Catcher in the Rye will fade into a curio of its time. D.H. Lawrence I don’t love and can’t see aging well, but he is extremely important in terms of the novel’s history. On the Road is another vastly overrated novel, but I hesitate to call it the most overrated.

Signaling and reviews

Marginal Revolution recently asked “What’s the optimal number of book reviews?”

I responded but should clean up and expand my comment on Marginal Revolution.

Newspaper book reviews, of course, are declining in number.

It’s actually a more precipitous decline than this statement indicates, as the National Book Critics Circle Campaign to Save Book Reviews chronicles. I wrote about the issue here and, in a follow-up, here. Then again, a question exists as to how many important review sources are disappearing, especially because so many seem trivial, and the optimal length for a book review is not a new topic, as Kate’s Book Blog reminds us by quoting Orwell.

Cowen, who posted the item that instigated this post, wrote:

I just want the bottom line. I would be happier if newspapers published many more one-paragraph book reviews, but with very clear and definite evaluations. Entertainment Weekly does just this, although I find their taste in books unreliable.

This is a valid point were it not so difficult to determine the merit of a book. Because it is, we need to know how a book reviewer arrived at their conclusion and why. Otherwise they could be using different evaluation criteria than the reader would, or they might irrationally dislike the book, or be using an unfair metric, or something similar. Updike wrote: “1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” With longer reviews, it’s often possible to separate the sins of the reviewer from the sins of the author.

The only way you can somewhat trust someone’s up or down vote is to have sufficient past information about their tastes, which, in an impersonal context, can only be gained by reading their full book reviews, or their regular books (I picked up The Friends of Eddie Coyle after seeing an interview in which Elmore Leonard recommended it). The argument goes in a circle, of course, and I think there’s a reason why book reviews continue to exist as they do: the problems with just giving books an up/down or single paragraph outweigh the benefits because of the problems inherent in judgment.

Finally, book reviews have an additional function not listed above: they act as the first draft of literary criticism and history. Books that resonate through time often have scholars who go back and examine the first reactions, and those initial reviews can kick off academic and cultural criticism. This would also seem to cause more book reviews to be written than is optimal for a reader like Tyler, but different people have different needs. Future scholars probably wish more (and more knowledgeable) reviews were written.


On the same subject, The Elegant Variation writes: “And every newspaper covers the same dozen titles. (Check Publishers Lunch’s weekly tally of most reviewed titles to get a taste of the repetition.)” That’s in large because quantity, for people who aren’t intimately involved in tracking the minutia of books, acts in part as a gauge for how interesting a book is. A brilliant review of a brilliant book in a single newspaper few read isn’t going to be enough of a stimulus to get most people interested in something. Then again, he also writes: “[...] Book Review = Good. It doesn’t always – there are plenty of mediocre to lousy reviewers out there, alienating (or at least boring) readers, but I detect very little soul searching in all this, almost no self-examination. Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports.”

But what makes an exciting review? Does it mean sex, violence, flashing lights and celebrity hookups (maybe that last part is contained in the first)? One man’s exciting is another’s boring, and while I don’t argue that nothing means anything, I do argue that different reviews and reviewers provide different but valuable things; what The New York Review of Books and Entertainment Weekly provide are quite different, and while the former is more valuable, the latter still does something.

Finally, BookDaddy just posted a relatively long piece about reviewers and where they come from. It’s instructive for anyone who wants to peer at the backstage of the reviewing profession and the ideas behind it. The last ten years have probably made asking “Who is this reviewer?” more prominent in the minds of many readers, as a much more visible feedback loop exists between artists, critics and readers (or viewers, depending on the medium) than before, when one’s choice for sending corrections or disagreeing was limited to writing letters to the editor.

Weeks’ most important question is: “In short, there’s an element of moral challenge to the question: Who are you to say these things?” I would answer that you are what else you’ve written, how well you’ve written it, and what your track record is. Just we we gauge others in large part through the narrative stories and histories they tell us, we gauge critics through what they’ve done in the past. Weeks has a similar conclusion, and to my mind the only real conclusion there can be, when he says, “It’s his reviews that grant him authority, earn him any authority. A review is not an opinion, as Mr. Schickel says. It’s not even (just) a wise judgment.”

Good call. He’s echoing what I think and wrote above. Well, it would probably be more accurate to say that I’m echoing what he thinks, but I wrote most of this post before I read his commentary.

Children of Húrin

I tried to read Children of Húrin, the latest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unpublished works and one so bad that it makes The Silmarillion brilliant by comparison. I’ve mentioned my own affection for Lord of the Rings, and after attempting some of the works Tolkien wisely did not show my chief fear is that someone will inadvertently confuse Lord of the Rings with the lesser works published, if you’re an idealist, for historical interests and reasons, or if you’re a cynic, for money, with dreck like Children of Húrin. The story is confused and has no narrative coherence, yet occasional passages shine sufficiently to make one realize that it could have been at least interesting had Tolkien finished it, but in its current state it could have used more of the editorial guidance Christopher Tolkien decided not to provide.

Milan Kundera writes in The Curtain (a portion of which first appeared in The New Yorker, where I read this section):

I am chatting with a friend, a French writer; I urge him to read Gombrowicz. When I run into him sometime later, he is uncomfortable: “I obeyed you, but, honestly, I couldn’t understand your enthusiasm.” “What did you read?” “The Possessed.” “Damn! Why The Possessed?”
The Possessed: The Secret of Myslotch appeared in book form only after Gombrowicz’s death. It is a popular novel that he published as a young man under a pseudonym, as a serial in a prewar Polish magazine. He never made it a book; he never intended to. Toward the end of his life, a long interview with Dominique de Roux was published in a volume called A Kind of Testament. In it Gombrowicz dicusses all of his work. All of it. One book after another. Not one word does he utter about The Possessed!
I tell the fellow, “You’ve got to read Ferdydurke! Or Pornografia!”
He looks at me sorrowfully. “My friend, the life ahead of me is growing short. The time I could spare your author is used up.”

After reading Children of Húrin, I would not fault anyone for disdaining the rest of Tolkien, and it is clear why Tolkien left it unpublished, and were it not for Lord of the Rings it would be utterly unpublishable and without any merit. The Silmarillion at least provides useful back story and a history of Middle-earth and adds to the richness of Lord of the Rings by clarifying some of its stories; Children of Húrin is deficient as a story and provides no useful history. That it remains on the best-seller lists is a testament to the gullibility of people like me who bought it hoping for some hitherto unseen glimpse or insight, but instead are treated to a vista no more attractive than plains Morgoth burned.

I’m not the first person to have noticed the problems with Tolkien’s later works in particular. Stephen King writes in On Writing:

Even after a thousand pages we don’t want to leave the world the writer has made for us, or the make-believe people who live there. You wouldn’t leave after two thousand pages, if there were two thousand. The Rings trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien is a perfect example of this. A thousand pages of hobbits hasn’t been enough for three generations of post-World War II fantasy fans; even when you add in that clumsy, galumphing dirigible of an epilogue, The Silmarillion, it hasn’t been enough. Hence Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, the questing rabbits of Watership Down, and half a hundred others. The writers of these books are creating the hobbits they still love and pine for; they are trying to bring Frodo and Sam back from the Grey Havens because Tolkien is not around to do it for them.

King doesn’t realize The Silmarillion is mostly prequel, or how truly awful Robert Jordan is, but he gets the essence of the issue: Sam and Frodo are not coming back, and Tolkien was sagacious enough to leave them be and leave the unfinished stories unpublished. If only his son would live and let die, rather than stuffing pictures and introductions and appendices to pad a nominal, quarter-done story that would probably embarrass Tolkien were he alive to see it. Instead, I feel embarrassed for Tolkien, and I realize it has no more artistic relation to Tolkien’s great work than the notes of a great novelist have to the finished product of that novelist.

The Dud Avocado

The Dud Avocado is a sustaining delight, although some plot twists almost threw me off the imaginative train. Now, after the novel’s last page, they seem fitting, which I suppose is the mark of a good twist: you don’t like it or you find it implausible, but it comes to feel so organic that conceiving of the novel without the twist becomes impossible. Then again, even were the surprises unacceptable, I would still like The Dud Avocado for its language and, at times, innocent snark; one of my favorite lines I will repeat in conversation, modified to suit the circumstances: “We treat each other like a couple of minor United Nations officials, Bax and I. Very protocol, very wary.” With lines like that, what’s a little oddity in the plot?

There were a few other signs of stretching: one character underwent an almost spontaneously change, or so I thought, though in retrospect the transition was foreshadowed if I had cared enough to see—there’s a little bit of the mystery genre in every novel—and now I can see its importance for Sally’s development: she learned she can’t fully trust others, though this sets up an ending that can be interpreted several ways I will not reveal here, as it contributes to an ending as fitting and sparkling as the rest of the novel. Throughout it, you get some philosophy bound with humor—”I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even.”—and bound with seeing Sally struggle, but not too hard, and not so much that you think she’s going to find herself six feet under. It would be no easier imagining disaster in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Holly Golightly is Sally’s most obvious literary kin, although I suspect The Dud Avocado is the better book (I say “suspect” because it’s been too long since I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but remember it being considerably shallower than The Dud Avocado).

For one thing, Sally is more interesting and self-aware than most heroes, even as she tries at times to be cynical and tough and succeeds no better than she would trying to be the Queen of England. But she is not silly in a disreputable or trivial fashion. The book’s tone might make some readers think it trivial, but The Dud Avocado has much to say about how to grow up (with a sense that the world won’t end and you should feel free to explore) and how to love (with abandon, but not so much as to lost perspective or drown yourself in someone else). Life, Sally realizes, is hard, but not so hard that you should become hard in response, lest you lose what makes it worthwhile, and Sally says, “now the whole thing seemed really more comic than tragic. I found I was almost enjoying myself.”

I feel the same way about reading and many things besides.

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