Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Palace of Books by Roger Grenier

When I first heard about Roger Grenier and his latest work, The Palace of Books, I was certainly intrigued.  When I first looked at this book-length essay, I lost some of my enthusiasm, but I began to read with my rule of fifty in the forefront of my mind.  As I neared that “line in the text,” I began to understand Grenier’s ideas, so I accelerated onto the end.  Grenier has written a thoroughly enjoyable analysis of literature for readers and writers.  He organizes this essay – not by genre, time period, author, or country – but by ideas.  He weaves a wonderful tapestry connecting various works dating back to the ancient Greeks and Chinese all the way into the 20th century.  He seems to effortlessly draw examples from the library of his mind.

This slim volume will appeal to anyone interested in reading and/or writing.  He deftly connects quite a few dozen works of literature, because they demonstrate the continuity of devices writers use to accomplish or abandon their intentions in a particular work.  Each chapter poses an idea then takes the reader on a whirl-wind tour of authors who have tackled that problem, or, in some cases, those unable to avoid the inevitable because of death, or worse writer’s block.

My favorite chapter is “Private Life.”  Grenier introduces each chapter of the essay with a question.  For example, “Is knowing the private life of an author important for understanding his or work” (56).  I have always believed the answer to be yes, because the author’s life provides a context for the work.  It may or may not help in the understanding, but at least it becomes a piece of the puzzle.  Grenier seems more concerned with how much weight a reader places on this information.  He writes, “As long as you have not asked yourself a certain number of questions about an author and answered them satisfactorily, if only for your private benefit and sotto voce, you cannot be sure of possessing him [or her] entirely.  And this is true, though these questions may seem to be altogether foreign to the nature of his [or her] writings” (56).  So we agree, at least in part.

Roger quotes Chekhov’s Notebook, “How pleasant it is to respect people!  When I see books, I am not concerned with how the authors loved or played cards; I only see their marvelous works” (58).  He then quotes J.B. Pontalis, who “suggests with a touch of malice that Proust and Freud […] don’t want their own private lives examined: if Proust’s perversion of torturing rats was discovered” (59).  Sometimes this obsession with privacy can have tragic effects.  I recall the destruction of an unfinished novel and the diary of Emily Brontë by her sister Charlotte.  What treasures have we lost?  Should we Google J.B. Pontalis to find out who he is?  I did.  He also quotes a mysterious person I could not identify, known only as “Aragon,” who wrote, “My instinct, whenever I read, is to look constantly for the author, and to find him, to imagine him writing, to listen to what he says, not what he tells; so in the end, the usual distinctions among the literary genres – poetry, novel, philosophy, maxims – all strike me as insignificant” (60).  I am with “young Aragon of 1922.”  Grenier adds, “One retreats into oneself in order to communicate better with others” (61).  If the book has a flaw, it might be the lack of any reference to some of the more obscure writers he mentions.

 Finally, Grenier writes, “If I were asked what a literary creation amounts, to, I would say that it’s about choosing among past or present realities.  Faced with a character or a story, you say to yourself, ‘that one is for me, that one isn’t for me.’  By that I mean it does or doesn’t correspond to my sensibility, my way of understanding life, and finally to an esthetic, to a certain music that emanates from that esthetic.  Memory obviously goes along with choosing and doubtless has already made its own choice” (67).  Amen.

For an interesting tour of literature and a literary mind, I highly recommend The Palace of Books by Roger Grenier.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/16/14

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

The winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature is French author, Patrick Modiano, but to us in the west, an obscure writer who has written 17 books and won every major literary prize in France.  When the Nobel was announced, I rushed to get a copy of one of his novels, and found only one available in English: Honeymoon.  Since then, several more have surfaced, and I plan on reading those as soon as possible.

Honeymoon is a peculiar novel, intriguing, nonetheless.  It tells the story of Jean B., a documentary film maker who pretends to fly to Rio, but he actually returns to his apartment in suburban Paris.  His intent is to imagine the lives of two people he had met 20 years before while evading the French police and Nazis in Vichy France.  Jean is alone, and he begins to travel with Ingrid, a Danish woman and Rigaud, a French national.  His intentions quickly evolve into an obsession.

Modiano’s prose is plain and simple, but his story-telling ability more than compensates for any perceived or misperceived simplicity in his writing.  The story became so real, I was sometimes startled by tidbits in the story which reminded me I was not in the France of World War II.

Jean B. seeks solitude to unravel the puzzle of the lives of Ingrid and Rigaud.  Modiano writes, “I was lying on the mattress, staring at the sky and the top of the pines.  I could hear shouts coming from the swimming pool, down below, and the sound of people diving.  Above me, between the branches, the play of sun and shade.  I let myself sink into a delightful torpor.  Remembering it now, it seems to me that that was one of the rare moments in my life when I experienced a sense of well-being that I could even call Happiness.  In that semi-somnolent state, occasionally interrupted by a shaft of sunlight piercing the shade of the pines and dazzling me, I considered it perfectly natural that they had taken me home with them, as if we had known each other for a long time.  In any case, I had no choice.  I’d just have to wait and see how things go” (19).

The young Jean B. apparently had a crush on Ingrid, and now, he tries to reassemble her life from fragments of his memory and off-hand remarks she made during their travels.  While in Paris, he makes two discoveries.  The first is a suicide in a Milan hotel he registered in, and the second is a list of seven people living in and around Paris with the surname, Rigaud.  He must decide what to do with this information, while concealing his location from family, friends, and co-workers – some of whom awaited his arrival in Rio de Janeiro.

 While Patrick Modiano uses sparse language – approaching, but not quite reaching the sparseness of Hemingway – this story is thoroughly enjoyable, with just a dash of suspense.  Honeymoon is one of his more popular novels, but I await a delivery from Amazon to discover more treasures by this writer who has escaped my attention.  Thanks, Nobel Committee!  5 stars.

--Chiron, 11/28/14

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

My recent introduction to Donna Tartt and her third novel, The Goldfinch, so overwhelmed me, I craved more of her work.  The Secret History is her first novel, and it proved to be every bit as exciting, suspenseful, and interesting.

I have begun to compare Tartt to Iris Murdoch, the Booker Prize-winning English novelist for the depth and breadth of details and character development.  Like Murdoch, Tartt fills her novels with a large and disparate group of characters.  Unfortunately, Tartt is a slow writer.  So, while her second novel, The Little Friend waits patiently on my TBR pile, I will, most likely have to wait almost decade for her fourth.

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a transplant from California to Hampden College, an elite New England school.  Richard has previously studied Greek, and when he learns of a charismatic Professor, Julian Morrow, who hand-picks five students, his interest is immediately piqued.  Julian tightly controls his students.  He only allows five, and these select few take courses only with Professor Morrow.  After initial rejections, Richard persists, and is finally admitted to the class.

His classmates are an interesting collection.  Henry Winter, a tall, brilliant scholar, more or less leads the group.  Twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, Francis Abernathy, and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran round out the clique.  All these students come from relatively wealthy families – albeit with varying levels of access to their trust funds.  Richard, however, comes from a middle class family, and he has extremely limited resources.

As to be expected, Tartt provides detailed introductions to each of these characters.  She describes Henry as, “well over six feet – dark haired, with a square jaw, and coarse pale skin.  He might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank.  He wore dark English suits and carried an umbrella […] and he walked stiffly through the throngs of hippies and beatniks and preppies and punks with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina, surprising in one so large as he” (17-18). 

Bunny, “smaller [than Henry] -- but not by much – was a sloppy blonde boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a relentlessly cheery demeanor and his fists thrust deep in the pockets of his knee-sprung trousers.  He wore the same jacket every day, a shapeless brown tweed that was frayed at the elbows and short in the sleeves, and his sandy hair was parted on the left, so a long forelock fell over one bespectacled eye” (18). 

Tartt describes Francis as “the most exotic of the set. […] he dressed like Alfred Douglas […] [with] beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties; a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper” (18).

The twins, “looked very much alike, with heavy dark-blond hair and epicene faces as clear, as cheerful and grave, as a couple of Flemish angels” (18).  Richard instantly develops a crush on Camilla.

The group finds themselves so intensely immersed in Greek and Latin, they frequently speak to each other in these ancient tongues.  They begin experimenting with rituals and celebrations mentioned in Homer, Virgil, and other classical writers.  And then a serious accident occurs, and the group descends – to use Joseph Campbell’s term -- into the belly of the whale.

Despite its length, every page of this thrilling and suspenseful story binds the reader more and more closely to the clique.  I frequently had the eerie sensation I was in the room with Julian and his students.  The Secret History by Donna Tartt rises near to the top of my favorites for 2014.  I can’t wait to get to her second novel.  5 stars.

Chiron, 11/27/14

The Bones Poems by William Virgil Davis

In June of 2011, I interviewed William Virgil Davis, writer in residence at Baylor University, on the publication of his latest collection of poetry, Landscape and Journey.  This most interesting collection details many journeys Bill Davis made throughout Texas and all the way to Wales in the UK.  His latest collection, The Bones Poems, offers 78, what I call short and skinny poems.  I especially like this form of poetry, and many of the poems I write fall into the same category. 

Davis has stripped his poems down to the bare bones – pun intended.  I read on page after page, poems reduced to their most basic essence.  The collection displays Davis’ clever use of words and images, which never fail to surprise and please.  The collection opens with poetic prologue titled, “Proem”: “they begin their journey back to flesh // they stand alone in the wind / and the wind / clothes them with words / and the words / break out in silence / as if reborn // to speak to those who are still in their skins” (1).  I carried this slim volume around for about three weeks before writing the review.  I dipped in and out of random pages as if to make sure these poems had the depth and spell-binding nature I noticed on the first read through. 

Here is another of many favorites, which affected me deeply.  “The Recognition.”  “when they bend / close // to the earth // their shadows / fill // with flesh” (16).  These unexpected images, the impossible actions and movements, leave me with a sense of wonder at the real meaning of time and existence.  “The Bones Circle” shows Davis’ sometimes playful mood.  He writes, “the bones circle / sniff / the damp earth // they seem to decide it will do / and turn // to step into the hole” (21). 

Some of the poems have a more frightening tone, and evoke passages from Dante’s Inferno.  For example, “The Drowned”: “like an image in a mirror / misted over / they sink from sight // falling through water / deeper than dreams / pulling their long screams // down with them” (23).  “They Make Love” amused me more than I expected.  Davis writes, “they are stripping off skin / letting it fall to the floor // naked / they switch / the lights off / and clash / in the dark / like armies // all night long / the sparks fly up / from them / burn away / in the wind // it is as exciting as death” (27).

My favorite among all is “Their Light.”  Davis writes, “they drink a cup of darkness / like water / like breath taken in // they sing their song / in the dark caves of the body // when you have forgotten them / they stand upright in the wind // and the wind is like long music / and the dark // and the dark / had never been so bright” (69).
I could go on and on, but time tolls the end of this segment.  I highly recommend this collection of thought-provoking, interesting, and most wonderful poems.  Pick up a copy of William Virgil Davis’ newest collection, The Bones Poems, and begin to notice the amount of time spent among this garden of verses.  5 gold stars

--Chiron, 11/14/15

The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke

I am not sure how to classify this novel.  It has CIA spies, terrorists, and a host of characters as if from a reincarnation of Twin Peaks.  Brock Clarke’s latest novel, The Happiest People in the World, is an amusing romp from Denmark to Broomsville in upstate New York.

Clarke lives in Maine and teaches at Bowdoin College.  He has two collections of stories and a critically acclaimed novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.  Happiest People is his third novel.

I was a bit confused at first, because of a slew of individuals were known only by their code names.  But as the story progressed, and the identity of these amateur James and Janet Bonds revealed themselves, this tragi-comedy developed into a thrilling tale.  While the serious ending was hardly funny, it had a Keystone Cops quality that at least raised a smile.

Jens Baedrup works as a cartoonist for an obscure Danish newspaper in a remote corner of the peninsula.  Following the publication of the notorious cartoons depicting images of Mohammed, the publisher – a bored, fourth-generation holder of that position – decides he can escape by republishing the offensive cartoons, and he orders Jens to add another of his own cartoons making fun of the prophet.  As a result, the newspaper building is burned down, as is Jens home, which happened to be empty at the time.  His marriage teetered on the edge of collapse, so the Danish police indicated the cartoonist was found dead inside.  They whisked his wife away to a remote location, and sent Jens into hiding.  After several unsuccessful moves to keep him safe, they turned him over to the CIA.  His handler, known only as “Locs,” spirited him to Broomville in upstate New York to work as a guidance counselor in a small high school.  The principal of the school fired the alcoholic counselor to make way for Jens, now known as Henrik Larsen.  Then the fired counselor turns up dead.

Brock’s prose is light and breezy – up to a point.  On occasion, the characters lapse into interior monologues comprising long sentences.  In this example, the school principal Matty receives a call from a former lover.  “‘I’m not even supposed to be thinking about you,’ he said into his cell phone. ‘Let alone talking  to you.’ // ‘So don’t talk,’ she said.  ‘Just listen.’ // So Matty did that.  She talked for a long time, long enough for him to understand that after he’d ended their affair seven years earlier, she’d been so angry at him and at Broomville and at the freaking world that she’d decided to go to work for the CIA, long enough for him to understand that – in her capacity as a CIA agent and his capacity as an American citizen – she wanted him to do her a favor, long enough for him to get up out of the chair, walk out of his office, out of the building, out into the parking lot.  He kept turning in circles while he listened to her talk’ (25).

As all the major characters converge on Broomville, I expected a cataclysmic explosion.  When smoke cleared, I got a most unexpected surprise.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/31/14