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[FEBRUARY 2006.]

Commentary on Midnight

It never ceases to feel indulgent, but there is at least some relief in coming to understand that you are not actually seeking sympathy or commiseration; all you want is admiration for your skill in taking snapshots of your heart. Of course it doesn’t work if the emotions aren’t genuine, but that doesn’t mean the emotions are the point. The point is to redeem your life. Even if it has to be done piecemeal.

 

Midnight

All dried out, no sweetness in the world
All dried out, no sweetness in the world

But what about the published books of all the boys and girls?
With a published book I might have found some sweetness in the world.

In class: “You cannot partially buy into a prestige network.”

“But once you buy into it, can’t you undermine it from within?”

And I thought: what does that mean, undermine? And why would you do that? You’ll just lose your investment.

I did buy in. Surely there’s no activity more laughable than writing for the unborn, but I went ahead and bought in to the extent, thus far, of two years’ salary and an entire structure of values when in three generations there might not be a world, not one that can afford the luxury of remembering us. The trees scrape the side of the house and the bed spins underneath me, Nina Simone’s recording of “Sinnerman” in my head, I don’t know why, it’s not exactly pleasant—

But the rock cried out I can’t hide you
The rock cried out I can’t hide you
The rock cried out I ain’t gonna hide you
All on that day

I said rock what’s the matter with you rock?
Don’t you see I need you rock?
Lord Lord Lord
All on that day

So I run to the river it was bleeding
I run to the sea it was bleeding
I run to the sea it was bleeding
All on that day

So I run to the river it was boiling
I run to the sea it was boiling
I run to the sea it was boiling
All on that day

And when she cries “Power!” and the hidden men shout “POWER!”—I know it’s some kind of spiritual, but whatever that is goes deeper and harder than the New Testament, and it gives me chills. If the rain would stop, if the mind would stop.

might i read approaching zero? it is too smart for the likes of me, but i would like to try.

O modest writer, who are you?

 

The Perverse Novel (2): Henry James, The Sacred Fount

If Pierre delights or infuriates by refusing to remain the kind of book it’s supposed to be, then The Sacred Fount achieves this effect through the opposite device of uncompromising consistency. The book is so dedicated to its own world that it forgets to connect with ours.

Michael Wood points out that novels with unreliable narrators generally aren’t themselves unreliable, since our expectation of unreliability allows us, with the help of context, to construct appropriate interpretations or translations as we go. When the narrator of Pale Fire assures us that “My free and simple demeanour set everybody at ease,” we know that more or less the opposite has happened. Ray Davis notes in passing that detective novels whose investigators reach their conclusions through rules of inference don’t require us to infer the conclusions as well. So long as it looks like a deduction, it’ll do: “Given how poorly most human beings follow a logical argument, does anything more than lip service have to be paid to rationality?” Narrative convention gives us the appearance of unreliability on the one hand and the appearance of rationality on the other, and since we know how to negotiate the conventions we don’t have to grapple with the real thing.

Mind you, this is no complaint. I’m interested in arguments against narrativity, but they don’t sock me in the end because I don’t need fiction to faithfully reproduce self-experience, whatever exactly that is—any way you slice it, it’s not the same kind of thing as a book. I’m okay with fiction being allegory at the core. Still, it makes you ask: what would an unreliable novel look like if you couldn’t use convention to stabilize that unreliability? What about a detective novel where lack of convention forced you to share the detective work? Well!

With sentences vast as the granite blocks of the Pyramids and a scene that would have made a site for a capital he set about constructing a story the size of a hen-house. The type of these unhappier efforts of Mr James’ genius is The Sacred Fount (1901), where, with a respect for the mere gross largeness and expensiveness of the country house which almost makes one write the author Mr Jeames, he records how a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people that it is among sparrows.

—Rebecca West

We all learned in fiction workshops that the way you draw a reader into your story is to cover the duck blind of structure with the leafy camouflage of detail; just having the narrator tell you that something is fascinating doesn’t make it so. But James’s narrator doesn’t have time for such niceties. Obsessed with the idea that the people around him are practicing a kind of covert emotional vampirism, he can’t help but communicate that obsession at extreme length, in his own weird and abstract vocabulary, with almost none of the concrete detail that this kind of story is supposed to use as corroboration. As an example, see the long exchange in Chapter 3 between the narrator and his confidant Grace Brissenden. It’s well-nigh impossible to follow if you haven’t read the preceding chapters, and extremely difficult if you have; the talk of screens, signs and maneuvers is not easily translatable into our everyday conception of human relations, so that the usual novelistic props of physical description, tone, and so on are little help in figuring out what is happening. The only way to do it is actually to follow the narrator’s inferences step by step, adapting ourselves to his vocabulary, which I at least found as difficult a task as reading philosophy. Unsurprising that West should think of Kant, and unsurprising that she refuses to get on the train.

What is surprising is that, as the presence of Grace Brissenden shows, other characters do get on it. The narrator’s weirdness would be easier to handle if he were the only person in the book who thought this way; then we could peg him as a nut. It would also be easier if this narrative style were set against more standard dialogue and action, as in James’s later novels; then we could say that this language shows the deep nuances of consciousness that mere narration of externals doesn’t get at. But when the whole book is like this—when even other characters talk this way—we get no hints about how its world is supposed to hook onto ours. It follows its formal principles too faithfully. The narrator’s deductions move, he tells us, “in resisted observation that was vivid thought, in inevitable thought that was vivid observation, through a succession, in short, of phases in which I shall not pretend to distinguish one of these elements from the other.” The blurring of observation and thought means that we never get to observe for ourselves.

The conclusion ought to be where the narrator is told that he is insane and that his house of cards has collapsed. This does indeed happen, more or less; but we have no reason to trust these declarations any more than what has come before. No final theory is presented, nothing falls into place. After being upbraided by Grace, the narrator concludes that “I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn’t really that I hadn’t three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.” Grace brings off her triumph with the tone of certainty that the narrator can no longer employ, the tone of a novel that knows how we ought to read it. Any method without this tone, no matter how airtight, leaves the narrator, leaves the book, leaves the reader in pieces.

 

The Perverse Novel (1): Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities

My dealings with the publishing industry have historically ended in tears; the life cycle of the beast having once again entered the stage wherein I receive letters informing me that my correspondent or the hypothetical reading public was not or will not be "engaged in" or "compelled by" or "emotionally involved with" characters and events that do not "come to life on the page," I decided to cheer myself up by reading some books that do everything in their power to thwart such considerations. I am thinking not of books like Ulysses, which offer their own idiosyncratic reward once the reader has hacked through a great deal of surface frustration, but of those books where frustration is the point.

It’s hard to say what Melville was aiming at when he began Pierre in December 1851. Moby-Dick had been published the previous month to harsh reviews and disappointing sales, and pragmatism is on record in Melville’s letter informing his publisher that his next novel would be “calculated for popularity... being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, and stirring passions.” But even if the early chapters bear some resemblance to a Gothic potboiler, it quickly becomes apparent that the main passion being stirred is Melville’s distaste for his protagonist. The florid descriptions of Pierre’s illustrious ancestry, admirable appetite, and physical brawn, when coupled with the general insouciance of his behavior, make him seem rather like a large and boisterous dog who by some accident was born into the landed gentry. Whenever the authorial pontifications cease long enough to permit the development of scenes, they immediately turn into terrible parodies of the domestic novel:

“Remove the toast-rack, Dates; and this plate of tongue, and bring the rolls nearer, and wheel the stand farther off, good Dates.”

Having thus made generous room for himself, Pierre commenced operations, interrupting his mouthfuls by many sallies of mirthfulness.

“You seem to be in prodigious fine spirits this morning, brother Pierre,” said his mother.

“Yes, very tolerable; at least I can’t say, that I am low-spirited exactly, sister Mary;—Dates, my fine fellow, bring me three bowls of milk.”

“One bowl, sir, you mean,” said Dates, gravely and imperturbably.

We won’t dwell on the unfortunate treatment of the servant or the creepy flirtation by which Pierre and his mother routinely call each other “brother” and “sister”; at any rate, Melville can put a barb in the mother’s private reflection that her son is “a noble boy, and docile, he has all the frolicsomeness of youth, with little of its giddiness. And he does not grow vain-glorious in sophomorean wisdom. I thank heaven I sent him not to college.” Meanwhile, this is how our hero announces his engagement to his fiancée’s brothers:

“Pray be seated, gentlemen,” said Pierre. “Plenty of room.”

“My darling brothers!” cried Lucy, embracing them.

“My darling brothers and sister!” cried Pierre, folding them together.

“Pray, hold off, sir,” said the elder brother, who had served as a passed midshipman for the last two weeks. The younger brother retreated a little, and clapped his hand upon his dirk, saying, “Sir, we are from the Mediterranean. Sir, permit me to say, this is decidedly improper! Who may you be, sir?”

“I can’t explain for joy,” cried Pierre, hilariously embracing them all.

“Most extraordinary!” cried the elder brother, extricating his shirt-collar from the embrace, and pulling it up vehemently.

“Draw!” cried the younger, intrepidly.

It’s one thing for a Gothic hero to be an inexperienced youth who must learn of the world’s darkness; it’s another for him to be actually incoherent. Yet this is the Pierre who spends the next dozen chapters negotiating, as best he can, a conglomeration of plot tropes including the Hidden Stain on the Family Honor, the Secret Sibling, Shame and Disinheritance, and Flight to the Corrupt City. The chances are slim that any of these plot strands will resolve to our satisfaction; Melville’s narrator advises us, not encouragingly, to “let the ambiguous procession of events reveal their own ambiguousness.”

And yet Pierre’s character does deepen. This is less because he is learning from his experiences and more because Melville has decided that he wants to write a different kind of book: not only a book whose hero reads and reflects on Dante and Shakespeare and obscure philosophical pamphlets comparing God to a chronometer, but also—most infamously—a book whose hero turns out to have been an author himself all along. The narrator introduces this sharp left turn with characteristic bravado:

Among the various conflicting modes of writing history, there would seem to be two grand practical distinctions, under which all the rest must subordinately range. By the one mode, all contemporaneous circumstances, facts, and events must be set down contemporaneously; by the other, they are only to be set down as the general stream of the narrative shall dictate; for matters which are kindred in time, may be very irrelative in themselves. I elect neither of these; I am careless of either; both are well enough in their way; I write precisely as I please.

This is hardly an apology to the reader who has been frustrated by the book’s development to date. And the reader is about to get a lot more frustrated, since from here forward, aside from some perfunctory attempts at resolution, the Gothic plot disappears. What takes its place, as Pierre settles down to make his living in the city by writing a masterpiece, is a richer and stranger meditation on the business of authorship: not only its hideous capriciousness and inadequate financial reward, but also its perennial inability to match the ambitions that inspire it. Melville’s narrator ascribes this failure to himself as much as anyone.

There is infinite nonsense in the world on all of these matters; hence blame me not if I contribute my mite. It is impossible to talk or to write without apparently throwing oneself helplessly open; the Invulnerable Knight wears his visor down. Still, it is pleasant to chat; for it passes the time ere we go to our beds; and speech is further incited, when like strolling improvisatores of Italy, we are paid for our breath. And we are only too thankful when the gapes of the audience dismiss us with the few ducats we earn.

Pierre starts as a self-hating potboiler and ends with a gesture toward the artistic greatness that neither Melville nor his protagonist will reach this time around; it is the continual vacillation between economic and spiritual pressures which lends particular melancholy to paragraphs like that above. Flaubert’s version is his famous observation that “the human tongue is like a cracked cauldron on which we beat out tunes to set a bear to dancing when we would make the stars weep with our melodies.” Pierre, then, beats its cauldron as hard as possible, to incite the most ridiculous dances, for the sake of whatever weird beauty might lie therein.

 

Position Paper

“Disliking Sibelius is a cheap position. It’s cheap anti-sentimentality. And cheap anti-sentimentality is not sufficiently condemned.”

 

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