"Dippy Verses," John Barth, and Tolkien

John Barth’s collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction contains an excellent piece on what I take to be the novel as vacuum cleaner, or, to use his title, “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses.” A reviewer called four lines—in his estimation, three and half—of verse/poetry at the beginning of Barth’s novel Sabbatical: A Romance “dippy,” leading him point out that a) of course they’re dippy, given that they’re a joke between the protagonist and his wife, b) they’re intended ironically, and c) they’re part of a novel, a genre that is by its nature pastiche, and therefore should be considered part of its whole and not poetry as such. If poems within a novel happen to work as standalone poems, all the better, and if not, they should be evaluated as part of the whole.

“The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” is worth reading in full, especially for Barth’s wonderful extended metaphor on osprey nests, conservationists, shoal lights, and solutions, which is too long to repeat in full here, and to summarize it would be to admire a small bird in the wild, kill it with a shotgun, and then bring the results home to prove how beautiful the bird is. Much criticism works this way to a lesser extent anyway, but in this case it seems particularly egregious.

The topic arises in part because an upcoming conference session on Tolkien will focus on his poetry, which probably would not be judged much good by the Modernist standards of the mid-Twentieth Century, but that’s of little importance: for one, he wasn’t trying to write modernist poetry—he was presenting poetry in its Medieval and older role—and for two, he was working from pre-printing press cultures. Part of Tolkien’s beauty is the extent to which he recreates that earlier time. When books and parchment are exceedingly expensive, transport tenuous at best (see The Pursuit of Glory: 1648 – 1815 for more on historical developments in that field), and history transmitted generationally from person to person, verse made memorizing and disseminating oral information easier. Some scholars have speculated that the reason for the variations in titles in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the like, where references to “giant-killer Hermes” and “Prince Telemachus” abound, those two picked at random from a page of The Odyssey. Tolkien’s doing something similar. The distinctions we have among genres and among fiction and nonfiction weren’t well developed until sometime around the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century, as Michael McKeon argues in The Origins of the English Novel. Therefore, to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation.

I’m only too happy to see Tolkien’s poetry analyzed as such, but what’s embedded in Lord of the Rings should be judged a component of a novel, that most slippery and contaminated of art forms. I don’t know what if anything Barth thought of Tolkien, but his essay more than defends the aesthetics of judging the works within works that many novels contain.

As for The Friday Book more generally, it’s probably the most hilarious literary essay collection I’ve read, particularly because Barth is as skeptical of and engaged with the writing of essays as he is with the writing of novels. At one point, he says “[…] I don’t much enjoy analyzing my own [work]. It’s sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.” Elsewhere, the simple and profound gets wrapped in the cloak of the ridiculous, or perhaps vice versa, as when he notes “Of painful searching and futile running around, our literature is unavoidably full […]” Above I implied that “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” cannot be given in even an adequate form save in the one it takes, as with most good essays. It did, however, leave me with deeper and stranger thoughts about its subjects than when I began, which is the test that matters. That many apply to other fields—including Tolkien—is just another bonus.

“Dippy Verses,” John Barth, and Tolkien

John Barth’s collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction contains an excellent piece on what I take to be the novel as vacuum cleaner, or, to use his title, “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses.” A reviewer called four lines—in his estimation, three and half—of verse/poetry at the beginning of Barth’s novel Sabbatical: A Romance “dippy,” leading him point out that a) of course they’re dippy, given that they’re a joke between the protagonist and his wife, b) they’re intended ironically, and c) they’re part of a novel, a genre that is by its nature pastiche, and therefore should be considered part of its whole and not poetry as such. If poems within a novel happen to work as standalone poems, all the better, and if not, they should be evaluated as part of the whole.

“The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” is worth reading in full, especially for Barth’s wonderful extended metaphor on osprey nests, conservationists, shoal lights, and solutions, which is too long to repeat in full here, and to summarize it would be to admire a small bird in the wild, kill it with a shotgun, and then bring the results home to prove how beautiful the bird is. Much criticism works this way to a lesser extent anyway, but in this case it seems particularly egregious.

The topic arises in part because an upcoming conference session on Tolkien will focus on his poetry, which probably would not be judged much good by the Modernist standards of the mid-Twentieth Century, but that’s of little importance: for one, he wasn’t trying to write modernist poetry—he was presenting poetry in its Medieval and older role—and for two, he was working from pre-printing press cultures. Part of Tolkien’s beauty is the extent to which he recreates that earlier time. When books and parchment are exceedingly expensive, transport tenuous at best (see The Pursuit of Glory: 1648 – 1815 for more on historical developments in that field), and history transmitted generationally from person to person, verse made memorizing and disseminating oral information easier. Some scholars have speculated that the reason for the variations in titles in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the like, where references to “giant-killer Hermes” and “Prince Telemachus” abound, those two picked at random from a page of The Odyssey. Tolkien’s doing something similar. The distinctions we have among genres and among fiction and nonfiction weren’t well developed until sometime around the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century, as Michael McKeon argues in The Origins of the English Novel. Therefore, to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation.

I’m only too happy to see Tolkien’s poetry analyzed as such, but what’s embedded in Lord of the Rings should be judged a component of a novel, that most slippery and contaminated of art forms. I don’t know what if anything Barth thought of Tolkien, but his essay more than defends the aesthetics of judging the works within works that many novels contain.

As for The Friday Book more generally, it’s probably the most hilarious literary essay collection I’ve read, particularly because Barth is as skeptical of and engaged with the writing of essays as he is with the writing of novels. At one point, he says “[…] I don’t much enjoy analyzing my own [work]. It’s sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.” Elsewhere, the simple and profound gets wrapped in the cloak of the ridiculous, or perhaps vice versa, as when he notes “Of painful searching and futile running around, our literature is unavoidably full […]” Above I implied that “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” cannot be given in even an adequate form save in the one it takes, as with most good essays. It did, however, leave me with deeper and stranger thoughts about its subjects than when I began, which is the test that matters. That many apply to other fields—including Tolkien—is just another bonus.

Netherland — Joseph O'Neill

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is a puzzling novel whose comparisons to The Great Gatsby aren’t warranted; although the two share some superficial themes in the sense of making America, their dissimilar narrative structure separates them: in Netherland, the protagonist is the story, while in Gatsby the eponymous quasi-hero is always kept a level of remove from the reader. At a sufficient level of abstraction, the novels are comparable, much as a grapefruit and a pie are both foods, but in going too far toward generalities one loses the particulars upholding those generalities. One becomes the literary equivalent of an architecture astronaut.

Another qualification: “puzzling” is not necessarily a slander—Ulysses puzzled the first time through, and a novel that starts in confusion might end in brilliant harmony, like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. For Netherland, it connotes my uncertainty about how to evaluate a book so perilously treading the narrow path between profundity and random observation that I can’t ascertain which side it strays toward. This might be its great virtue. Unlike, say, Sleepless Nights, it is coherent; but unlike, say, The Name of the Rose, it doesn’t wear many of its meanings on its sleeves. When Netherland does, it is least successful, and within that least successful field is Rachel; she says, for example, “Darling, I’ve got to move on. You’ve got to move on. We can’t go on like this, waiting for something to happen.” She speaks in cliché when she’s not speaking in armchair psychologist.

This is especially problematic because Rachel is the primary female character in Netherland. She’s married to Hans. They have a son. Theirs are issues of marriage and family, and in another instance of separation from Gatsby, that novel’s hero has the concerns of adolescence: the yearning for the unavailable girl, the creation of identity via effort to make one’s self greater through bravado and material possessions, and the endless chase. Hans is a family man and a more active character than Nick Carraway—while the latter functions chiefly as a reporter and is the conduit through which Gatsby flows, Hans is a stronger character in his own right and imprints more of his personality and views on events. Granted, that personality is most often dour and depressed, but it is unmediated by another character. Rachel, although more independent than, say, Daisy, nonetheless shares Daisy’s flatness, and both reify Leslie Fiedler’s argument regarding the juvenile male character of American literature, made in Love and Death in the American Novel.

At one point, Rachel tells Hans:

“You were just happy to play with [Chuck]. Same thing with America. You’re like a child. You don’t look beneath the surface.”
My reaction to her remark is to think, Look beneath Chuck’s surface? For what?

The dialog not involving Rachel is usually much better than this and sometimes very good, but Rachel does bring out O’Neill’s tendency to play with Big Themes explicitly, which is an unfortunate trait in a book often much more subtle than this. Hans observes this, but the observation and self-knowledge doesn’t excuse the habit any more, if it ever did.

Later on, Hans recalls the sensation of staring at the sky as a boy, and in simple language conveys the mystery of existence and pondering existence, creating a powerful moment in sharp contrast to Rachel’s eye-rolling. Dropping from story into philosophy is another separation from Gatsby, which doesn’t tend to have this strain between plot and ideas, perhaps because Nick isn’t as strong a personality as Hans and Gatsby focuses on the unattainable Daisy rather than the narrator.

Still, the persistence of the Gatsby allusions are notable, but the novel gets past them with ideas of its own, and some of its praise is not undeserved. In the New Yorker, James Wood wrote:

Despite cricket’s seeming irrelevance to America, the game makes his exquisitely written novel “Netherland” (Pantheon; $23.95) a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read. Cricket, like every sport, is an activity and the dream of an activity, badged with random ideals, aspirations, and memories.

A large fictional achievement? Perhaps. Its academic and critical appeal is apparent from the subtle narrative shifts, as if the ground moves up or down a few degrees as you walk on it, the cultural intersections, and the frequent bouts of existential despair. Granted, I’m half-mocking such appeal, but I can see Netherland’s fit from the timeline shifts and the Big Ideas bursting forth in a way that comes perilously close to destroying the story vessel carrying them. Skepticism about conventional ideas, even once-unconventional ideas that have since become conventional, appears: a “shrink […] subscribed to the fine, progressive notion that each day we have lived is a kind of possession and, if we are its alert custodian, brings us ever closer to knowledge of the slipperiest kind.” Chuck Ramkissoon, a foreigner and sometime friend of Hans’, is a “Magic Negro” who acts as a liminar while becoming a repository for much of Hans’ musings about the nature of the world and success.

Their relationship is one of the central beams in Netherland, but not the only one. It differs from Gatsby, All the King’s Men, and Moby Dick, in that the first-person protagonist, rather than being drawn taunt between telling his own story and telling the story of the great man around him, is fundamentally the center of the novel’s universe. It also allows a narrator somewhat bigger than those of Ishmael or Carraway, which is a blessing and nurse. The discussion of big themes is calibrated at such a high plane that oxygen grows short, but that’s not to say that the novel isn’t full of amusing and witty comments, my favorite being “We courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically.” American college students prefer the same style. Hans says, “I was young. I was not much extracted from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent world conspires to place us as children.” Another line freights cricket with meaning:

I fell into that state of self-absorption that afflicts the waiting batsman as he studies the bowling for signs of cunning and untoward movement and, trying to recall what it means to be at bat, trying to make knowledge out of memory, replays in his mind bygone shots splendid and shaming.

Not only batsmen, Hans, and not only in cricket. The temptation to try and make further knowledge of this novel from the memory of my reading is strong but I will retire here, thinking that this is a novel whose flavor, like that of many chilis, is better the second time through.

Netherland — Joseph O’Neill

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is a puzzling novel whose comparisons to The Great Gatsby aren’t warranted; although the two share some superficial themes in the sense of making America, their dissimilar narrative structure separates them: in Netherland, the protagonist is the story, while in Gatsby the eponymous quasi-hero is always kept a level of remove from the reader. At a sufficient level of abstraction, the novels are comparable, much as a grapefruit and a pie are both foods, but in going too far toward generalities one loses the particulars upholding those generalities. One becomes the literary equivalent of an architecture astronaut.

Another qualification: “puzzling” is not necessarily a slander—Ulysses puzzled the first time through, and a novel that starts in confusion might end in brilliant harmony, like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. For Netherland, it connotes my uncertainty about how to evaluate a book so perilously treading the narrow path between profundity and random observation that I can’t ascertain which side it strays toward. This might be its great virtue. Unlike, say, Sleepless Nights, it is coherent; but unlike, say, The Name of the Rose, it doesn’t wear many of its meanings on its sleeves. When Netherland does, it is least successful, and within that least successful field is Rachel; she says, for example, “Darling, I’ve got to move on. You’ve got to move on. We can’t go on like this, waiting for something to happen.” She speaks in cliché when she’s not speaking in armchair psychologist.

This is especially problematic because Rachel is the primary female character in Netherland. She’s married to Hans. They have a son. Theirs are issues of marriage and family, and in another instance of separation from Gatsby, that novel’s hero has the concerns of adolescence: the yearning for the unavailable girl, the creation of identity via effort to make one’s self greater through bravado and material possessions, and the endless chase. Hans is a family man and a more active character than Nick Carraway—while the latter functions chiefly as a reporter and is the conduit through which Gatsby flows, Hans is a stronger character in his own right and imprints more of his personality and views on events. Granted, that personality is most often dour and depressed, but it is unmediated by another character. Rachel, although more independent than, say, Daisy, nonetheless shares Daisy’s flatness, and both reify Leslie Fiedler’s argument regarding the juvenile male character of American literature, made in Love and Death in the American Novel.

At one point, Rachel tells Hans:

“You were just happy to play with [Chuck]. Same thing with America. You’re like a child. You don’t look beneath the surface.”
My reaction to her remark is to think, Look beneath Chuck’s surface? For what?

The dialog not involving Rachel is usually much better than this and sometimes very good, but Rachel does bring out O’Neill’s tendency to play with Big Themes explicitly, which is an unfortunate trait in a book often much more subtle than this. Hans observes this, but the observation and self-knowledge doesn’t excuse the habit any more, if it ever did.

Later on, Hans recalls the sensation of staring at the sky as a boy, and in simple language conveys the mystery of existence and pondering existence, creating a powerful moment in sharp contrast to Rachel’s eye-rolling. Dropping from story into philosophy is another separation from Gatsby, which doesn’t tend to have this strain between plot and ideas, perhaps because Nick isn’t as strong a personality as Hans and Gatsby focuses on the unattainable Daisy rather than the narrator.

Still, the persistence of the Gatsby allusions are notable, but the novel gets past them with ideas of its own, and some of its praise is not undeserved. In the New Yorker, James Wood wrote:

Despite cricket’s seeming irrelevance to America, the game makes his exquisitely written novel “Netherland” (Pantheon; $23.95) a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read. Cricket, like every sport, is an activity and the dream of an activity, badged with random ideals, aspirations, and memories.

A large fictional achievement? Perhaps. Its academic and critical appeal is apparent from the subtle narrative shifts, as if the ground moves up or down a few degrees as you walk on it, the cultural intersections, and the frequent bouts of existential despair. Granted, I’m half-mocking such appeal, but I can see Netherland’s fit from the timeline shifts and the Big Ideas bursting forth in a way that comes perilously close to destroying the story vessel carrying them. Skepticism about conventional ideas, even once-unconventional ideas that have since become conventional, appears: a “shrink […] subscribed to the fine, progressive notion that each day we have lived is a kind of possession and, if we are its alert custodian, brings us ever closer to knowledge of the slipperiest kind.” Chuck Ramkissoon, a foreigner and sometime friend of Hans’, is a “Magic Negro” who acts as a liminar while becoming a repository for much of Hans’ musings about the nature of the world and success.

Their relationship is one of the central beams in Netherland, but not the only one. It differs from Gatsby, All the King’s Men, and Moby Dick, in that the first-person protagonist, rather than being drawn taunt between telling his own story and telling the story of the great man around him, is fundamentally the center of the novel’s universe. It also allows a narrator somewhat bigger than those of Ishmael or Carraway, which is a blessing and nurse. The discussion of big themes is calibrated at such a high plane that oxygen grows short, but that’s not to say that the novel isn’t full of amusing and witty comments, my favorite being “We courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically.” American college students prefer the same style. Hans says, “I was young. I was not much extracted from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent world conspires to place us as children.” Another line freights cricket with meaning:

I fell into that state of self-absorption that afflicts the waiting batsman as he studies the bowling for signs of cunning and untoward movement and, trying to recall what it means to be at bat, trying to make knowledge out of memory, replays in his mind bygone shots splendid and shaming.

Not only batsmen, Hans, and not only in cricket. The temptation to try and make further knowledge of this novel from the memory of my reading is strong but I will retire here, thinking that this is a novel whose flavor, like that of many chilis, is better the second time through.

Life: artists' edition

“What makes [Borges an artist] of the first rank, like Kafka, is the combination of that intellectually serious vision with great human insight, poetic power, and consummate mastery of his means—a definition which would have gone without saying, I suppose, in any century but ours.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book

Life: artists’ edition

“What makes [Borges an artist] of the first rank, like Kafka, is the combination of that intellectually serious vision with great human insight, poetic power, and consummate mastery of his means—a definition which would have gone without saying, I suppose, in any century but ours.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book

The Art of the Novel and The Curtain — Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel and The Curtain cover ideas big and small, moving from erudite generalizations to tiny examples drawn from generalizations of other authors’ work and back. But do they work as a whole? Yes and no: to agree with Kundera is easy, for his imperiousness makes one want to submit for the power of his assertions in comparison to the uncertainty and hedging that characterizes most criticism, and yet interrogating his ideas makes one begin to wonder: is “The desire to reconcile erotic adventures and idyll […] the very essence of hedonism—and the reason why man cannot attain the hedonist ideal[?]” Maybe, and maybe not. Is his opposition to outright philosophy or history in novel form correct? Again, at this level one could argue either way, and perhaps it is Kundera’s gift to raise the issues for others to argue. Uncertainty begins to appeal more.

If there is an art of the novel, is there also an art of writing about the art of the novel? Francine Prose did, as did James Wood, and Stephen King. The practice began long ago: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel has become virtually a standard reference in essays like this one, while Edith Wharton’s speculations have become less read over time. Kundera has trod this ground thrice, the middle and weakest effort being Testaments Betrayed. The two end books are quite separate, but with wide enough overlap that this essay treats them, unfairly, as similar enough to shoehorn into one place. If you were to only read one, I would say read The Curtain, which supersedes The Art of the Novel with its own art and density and shows Kundera’s growth.

There are various tracks writers about the art of writing can follow can follow: some write about novels in the sense of how the author intends them, society understands them, or their sheer constructedness. Some write about writing them as largely a craft born of reading them; some say that reading and experience must mix; some say experience predominates. All express a theory of the novel bound up in their discussion of the practice of it, and as a corrective to academic theory, they’re much appreciated, especially the recent pair by Wood and Smiley. Kundera is less “how-to,” closer to academic theory, and more expressive in his demands of the novel as autonomous from other arts, cultures, personalities; he says in The Curtain:

The novelist is not a valet to historians; History may fascinate him, but because it is a kind of searchlight circling around human existence and throwing light onto it, onto its unexpected possibilities, which, in peaceable times, when History stands still, do not come to the fore but remain unseen and unknown.

Maybe: but the novelist is also part of history and historical development merely by writing a “novel,” and sets his work in some manner of time and place that is a sub-product or sub-creation of his own time and place. So what again is the relation of the novelist to history? I’m still not sure. This is why, I suspect, critics like the word “provocative” in relation to Kundera’s essays on the novel. They are not so much provocative, however, as the product of a strong aversion to all ideologies exception the ideology of aversion to ideology, an incredibly recursive view of the novel, and views that come together in startling ways that attempt to subvert other theories. The best thing I can say of Kundera’s works is that their tendency to acknowledge and even revel in paradox is a more definitive statement of the novel and its place than virtually anything he explicitly says.

Kundera’s nonfiction is written like his novels, but without characters anchoring them, in that they’re high on assertion and low on specific detail, assuming the reader will perceive what “To base a novel on a sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all” or “A theme is an existential inquiry,” both from The Art of the Novel, mean. The former doesn’t mean anything: the twentieth century isn’t one of any less or lesser quality thinking than any other century, and by virtually any objective measure that could be imagined for thinking it no doubt contains more. To defend his statement, Kundera would have to retreat to subjective or imaginary measures; but it is his method, like Foucault, to assert and leave the base scrambling of truth or falsehood to defenders and detractors. Perhaps he would argue, as he does in The Art of the Novel, that living in the United States has made me immune to the bureaucratic idiocies of the Soviet Union, as he does at one point regarding those who regard his novels as thought experiments versus those who understand him to be describing life in books like The Joke.

In spite of his apparent lofty abstraction, Kundera discusses and discards numerical maybe-coincidences in his novels: the tendency to divide them in seven parts, for example, and the meaning or lack thereof in that tendency. For him, they’re analogous to classical music, as he thought himself a musician or composer until he was 25. He uses precise language regarding classical music, which is dense with allusion to composers, just as his work is dense with allusions to authors. These books are not for average readers: they are ethereal, demanding, filled with koan-like statements that can only be evaluated if one is familiar with a wide range of work, thus enabling one to consider the veracity of Kundera’s beliefs. He tends to draw historical comparisons of uncertain provenance, as when he says Don Quixote’s violations of verisimilitude are acceptable because of its historical moment, implying they should still be acceptable now because they were then. Maybe—a word I’ve used frequently— or maybe a more technologic view of the novel, not necessarily as a form representing progress, per se, but as a form whose motion from space to space is, if not a progression, then at least worthy of more consideration for works that have absorbed all that came before and then created something new, is more appropriate. Kundera might not disagree with that assertion, and one could bring quotes about the novel’s progress to support it, or one could bring quotes about the power of some older novels to attack it. Like the Bible, much of his commentary could be used to attack or support many divergent readings.

For this reason, as well as for his own considerable and unusual works in the form, The Art of the Novel and The Curtain are unusual in their self-select audience. Nonetheless, the language itself is accessible, one major virtue is their brevity: both works, in part because of their tendency to assume rather than pedantically explain, can be read in an afternoon and savored for long after. In “In Search of Present Time” from The Curtain, Kundera writes: “By definition, what a narrator recounts is a thing that has happened. But each little event, as it becomes the past, loses its concrete nature and turns into an outline.” So too with each little observation Kundera makes, each grand point, until we have lost the thread of the novel’s art and must grope in the darkness for it again. He is at his best when he pronounces: “the novel remains to use the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole.”

Yes: but there is a more metaphorical statement that toward the end of The Art of the Novel that summarizes both his point in his essays and his thoughts regarding the place of the novel in knowledge that is worth using to end this piece:

In the third book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Panurge, the first great novelistic character that Europe beheld, is tormented by the question: Should he marry or not? He consults doctors, seers, professors, poets, philosophers, who each in turn quotes Hippocrates, Aristotle, Homer, Heraclitus, Plato. But after all this enormous, erudite research, which takes up the whole book, Panurge still does not know whether he should marry or not. And we, the readers, do not know either—but on the other hand, we have explored from every possible angle the situation, as comical as it is elemental, of the person who does not know whether he should marry or not.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,372 other followers

%d bloggers like this: