Showing posts with label Ian McEwan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ian McEwan. Show all posts

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Stoner Redux

Recently Mary sent me a New Yorker article by Tim Kreider, The Greatest American Novel You've Never Heard Of  (published last October) as a wake-up call to read John Williams’ Stoner. 

The book had been rediscovered abroad, and brought back into print by the New York Review of Books.  One of my favorite UK novelists, Ian McEwan, has championed the book across the pond when interviewed for an article; Literature needs more Lazarus miracles like Stoner

It was republished with an insightful essay by John McGahern who, sadly, died at about the time of this paperback edition was published (2006).  The author of Stoner, John Williams, died in 1994, never to see his greatest work become critically acclaimed.

When Mary sent me the New Yorker link, I immediately ordered the book, although I was continuing to read William Trevor’s short stories, so many of them and so delightful, that it will be on my reading plate for some time to come.  So the intention was to put Stoner in my reading queue which is building, and building.  But when the novel arrived, the New Yorker article kept reverberating, and I was fascinated by the cover of the paperback (apparently you CAN tell a good book by its cover!) and I found myself putting it at the top of the queue and, ultimately, interrupting reading the Trevor collection.

One of the points made in the New Yorker article is somewhat inexplicable to me: Despite its pellucid prose, “Stoner” isn’t an easy book to read—not because it’s dense or abstruse but because it’s so painful. I had to stop reading it for a year or two, near the middle of the book….  Yes, it is painful at times, but much of Dickens and Hardy can be painful too but still compulsively readable.   How anyone could put this compelling novel aside is bewildering.  The author of Stoner articulated the very reasons I “fell in love” with the protagonist.  John Williams was once interviewed and said:

I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important ... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job.  Teaching to him is a job-a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was ... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something, you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher ... You never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.

The essence of the story is about a man who grew up working with his parents on their farm.  The time is before the onset of WW I.  He knew nothing else but scratching out life from the fields, his worn hands those of a laborer.  It was hard work and there were diminishing returns from the land so when his father heard about the state college having a program to study Agriculture, so he sent his only son there, with the hope he would emerge with new techniques which would lessen their burdened lives. But William Stoner would never return to his former life, becoming instead a teacher of English. 

Here the exterior story and the inner story run parallel but at odds with one another.  His life is besieged by an unhappy marriage, isolation from his wife Edith and daughter Grace, and plagued by an enemy in his English Dept, its Chairman, Lomax (as evil a character towards Stoner as Claggart was to Melville’s Billy Budd), and by Lomax’s favorite student, Walker, who Stoner thinks unworthy of becoming a teacher.   He argues this with his one friend, the Dean, Gordon Finch, “it would be a disaster to let him [Walker] in a classroom…..if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as….the only hope is to keep him out.”  But Finch is also now part of the real world and he has become increasingly removed from Stoner.  Then finally the real love of his life materializes, Katherine, a student, but ultimately it is to be a love denied.  Meanwhile his inner life is blossoming, finding in literature a certain kind of perfect harmony and tranquility. 

Both the New Yorker article and the Introduction to the NYRB edition quote the same nearly opening lines as I bracketed in pencil in the book.  It sets the tone and the themes like a piece of sculpture captures the essence of its subject.  It foreshadows the very end at the beginning, unusual for opening lines: An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

His discovery of the love of learning and literature comes at the end of his college years (he thought of the years before, the distant years with his parents on the farm, and of the deadness from which he had been miraculously revived). And he comes to his profession almost by accident, his mentor, Professor Sloane saying “but don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?...Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.” Suddenly Sloan seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded.  Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love.  It’s as simple as that.”

The joys of learning, teaching, moving forward in intellectual endeavors, counter balance worldly affairs.  The University is a refuge from life itself.  And then he finally discovers he is indeed a teacher: The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print - the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly…..He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.         

However, his personal life is not what he imagined it would be.  Edith, his wife, is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda (and as the New Yorker article astutely observes, you could almost describe [Stoner] as an anti-“Gatsby”).  Edith is unstable, almost child-like, and like Zelda ultimately tries to find some self identity in the arts.  They are totally estranged from each other, although living under the same roof. As one would imagine, their daughter, Grace, is impacted by this, ultimately getting pregnant to escape their home, moving to St. Louis, her husband (who she marries after she finds she’s pregnant) dying in WW II  (in fact, the novel bridges WW I and WW II).  She remains more or less in a trance, answering most questions Stoner asks with “it doesn’t matter,” over and over again, perhaps homage to Melville’s Bartelby similarly saying “I prefer not to.”  She becomes an alcoholic.

The absolutely exquisite, compact writing is what makes this novel great.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, where we come from and where we go during this brief encounter with life resonates in the pages.  Shadows, light, darkness, death, and nature figure prominently in the narrative, particularly the farmers’ fields Stoner comes from. Here he is burying his father:  They buried his father in a small plot on the outskirts of Booneville, and William returned to the farm with his mother.  That night he could not sleep. He dressed and walked into the field that his father had worked year after year, to the end that he now had found. He tried to remember his father, but the face that he had known in his youth would not come to him. He knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand. He broke it and watched the grains, dark in the moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers. He brushed his hand on his trouser leg and got up and went back to the house. He did not sleep; he lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him.

After his mother dies, he lays her beside his father, and probably this is where the novel’s prose is bleakest, but rings so true. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.  Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives, and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them.  Slowly the damp and rot would infest the pine boxes which held their bodies, and slowly it would touch their flesh, and finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances.  And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.

But counterbalancing the dark aspects of life pushing Stoner along (sometimes the reader wondering whether he is a participant in his choices), is Stoner’s euphoric discovery that his choices are one of the mind, not in day to day living:  But choices is what excited him in his work, such as when he was planning his own book, an esoteric study of the English Renaissance.  He was in the stage of his planning his study, and it was that stage which gave him the most pleasure – the selection among alternative approaches, the rejection of certain strategies, the mysteries and uncertainties that lay in unexplored possibilities, the consequences of choice….The possibilities he could see so exhilarated him that he could not keep still.

And it is his love of his work, in spite of the slings and arrows dealt by his exterior life, which grows and grows in the novel.  He stands up for academic integrity, at a great cost to himself, but on his death bed has his doubts about the meaning of it all: He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance.  And what else? he thought. What else?

It is a remarkable novel, doubly remarkable that it went unnoticed for so long.  As the New Yorker article points out, so was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.  The latter I discovered for myself (and reprinted when it was long out of print). 

 John Williams' Stoner can easily stand besides Yates’ work as one of the more important American novels of the 20th century.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Three for the Road

Some ostensibly very different works of fiction are discussed  here, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, John Updike’s The Maples, and The Portable Library of Jack Kerouac.  But they are tied together in some ways, particularly as I read them somewhat concurrently over the last month or two -- mostly during our trips to Alaska and Seattle -- and each in its own way has struck a chord in me.

After reading McEwan’s Saturday which I thoroughly enjoyed, everything taking place in one day (Saturday, naturally), I read his Solar -- a good story but not in the same league as Saturday.   I had never read Atonement, his highly praised and ultimately filmed novel, something I must get to doing.  I was looking for something a little lighter from McEwan for our recent trip to Alaska and Seattle, and I stumbled upon his Sweet Tooth, a mystery and a love story, and written from a woman’s first person point of view.  Much in the novel is about writing itself, a novel within a novel with detailed outlines for some short stories as well, all fitting together like a literary jig saw puzzle.

It takes place during the paranoid cold war 1970s when a young Cambridge graduate, a mathematician by training but a compulsive inveterate reader by avocation, Serena Frome, joins the M15, the British intelligence agency.  Ultimately she moves up the ranks and is given a “soft” assignment, nothing too dangerous, of following young British writers, ones that M15 might think would benefit by clandestine financial support, in the hope that their writings might have some use in the macro setting of the cold war.  So, the beautiful Frome is assigned to bestow a grant to a young writer, Tom Haley.  How was she to know that they would fall in love, his never realizing her association with M15 (thinking she represents a nonprofit group that bestows literary endowments)?  Where there is such a secret there are the underpinnings for tension throughout the novel and McEwan capitalizes on every twist and turn.  To say any more is to give away an ingenious ending to the novel, where everything finally coalesces.

But how real life enters and is transformed by fiction is at the heart of the novel.  As an example, Serena and Tom discuss probability theory (as a reminder, Serena is a trained mathematician).  Tom doesn’t get it.  But ultimately it enters one of the short stories he is writing   He gives it to Serena to read.  She fails to see how it coalesced in the creative process until she tries to go asleep and in that state finally realizes how Tom did get it:  As I lay in the dark, waiting for sleep, I thought I was beginning to grasp something about invention. As a reader, a speed-reader, I took it for granted, it was a process I never troubled myself with. You pulled a book from the shelf and there was an invented, peopled world, as obvious as the one you lived in…. I thought I had the measure of the artifice, or I almost had it. Almost like cooking, I thought sleepily. Instead of heat transforming the ingredients, there's pure invention, the spark, the hidden element. What resulted was more than the sum of the parts…. At one level it was obvious enough how many separate parts were tipped in and deployed.  The mystery was in how they were blended into something cohesive and plausible, how the ingredients were cooked into something so delicious.  As my thought scattered and I drifted toward the borders of oblivion, I thought I almost understood how it was done.  Just a wonderful description of the creative process, how life is reflected and filtered by a writer’s story.

This is a page turner, somewhat of a classic spy story, besides being a primer on writing itself.  Ian McEwan is becoming one of the more interesting writers of the 21st century.

But I return, now, to a different kind of 20th century story (actually stories), having had the pleasure of concurrently reading Updike’s The Maples Stories. Although these were published during his lifetime, they have been posthumously issued as an “Everyman's Library Pocket Classic” in hardcover, a volume to treasure.  I had read most of these before, but to read the eighteen stories that span from 1956’s “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” to “Grandparenting” published in his favorite venue The New Yorker in 1994 is to view the life of the great literary man himself.  It took Adam Begley’s brilliant literary biography, Updike, to see that “the Maples” were in fact Updike and his first wife Mary.  The closest Updike had delved into autobiography was his work Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, published in 1989 but that is greatly about his growing up in Shillington, PA. 

The Maples chronicles the jealousies, infidelities, the love and the hurt, and the intimacies and the breakdown of his marriage.  Consider the aching beauty of his writing, so finely crafted in this description of when Richard Maple picks up his wife Joan in his car to finally go to court for their no fault divorce:  She got into the car, bringing with her shoes and the moist smell of dawn. She had always been an early riser, and he a late one. 'Thanks for doing this,' she said, of the ride, adding, 'I guess.' ‘My pleasure,' Richard said. As they drove to court, discussing their cars and their children, he marveled at how light Joan had become; she sat on the side of his vision as light as a feather, her voice tickling his ear, her familiar intonations  and emphases thoroughly musical and half unheard, like the patterns of a concerto that sets us to daydreaming.  He no longer blamed her: that was the reason for the lightness. All those years, he had blamed her for everything - for the traffic jam in Central Square, for the blasts of noise on the mail boat, for the difference in the levels of their beds. No longer: he had set her adrift from omnipotence. He had set her free, free from fault. She was to him as Gretel to Hansel, a kindred creature moving beside him down a path while birds behind them ate the bread crumbs.

“Grandparenting” which takes place well after the Maples divorce is an act of atonement for Updike as it brings together the now divorced Maples one last time to participate in the birth of their first grandchild  It ends with the plaintive “Nobody belongs to us, except in memory,”  Indeed, Updike is for the ages.

a "beat" copy
And what could be more different from Updike than Jack Kerouac’s Portable Library which I managed to fit in here and there, making it mostly bedtime reading.  I read On the Road ages ago so that and his other writings in the Portable Library edition seemed new to me. Oh, man, this is the beat generation, a step before mine, but I remember it well as it played out in the late 50s and 60s.  Kerouac writes with a pulsating persistence, almost stream of consciousness, as if he just cannot fit enough life on a physical page.  It throbs with energy as he tries to absorb the “real” underbelly of America in every place imaginable, with the help of drugs, alcohol, sex, and, man, cool beat music.  It’s almost as if he did not live in the same world as an Updike who crafted his sentences like a sculpture.  No, Kerouac was more like a Jackson Pollack, frenzied by getting the colors of life just right (to him), writing in riffs like Charlie Parker (both mentioned by him in his writings). 

Here is just one breathless paragraph from his Jazz of the Beat Generation (1949) after hearing a rendition of “Close Your Eyes:”  Up steps Freddy on the bandstand and asks for a slow beat and looks sadly out the open door over people's heads and begins singing "Close Your Eyes." Things quiet down for a minute. Freddy's wearing a tattered suede jacket, a purple shirt with white buttons, cracked shoes and zoot pants without press; he didn't care. He looked like a pimp in Mecca, where there are no pimps; a barren woman's child, which is a dream; he looked like he was beat to his socks; he was down, and bent, and he played us some blues with his vocals. His big brown eyes were concerned with sadness, and the singing of songs slowly and with long thoughtful pauses. But in the second chorus he got excited and embraced the mike and jumped down from the bandstand and bent to it and to sing a note he had to touch his shoe tops and pull it all up to blow, and he blew so much he staggered from the effect, he only recovered himself in time for the next long slow note. "Mu-u-u-u-sic  pla-a-a-a-a-a-a-ay!" He leaned back with his face to the ceiling, mike held at his fly. He shook his shoulders, he gave the hip sneer, he swayed. Then he leaned in almost falling with his pained face against the mike. "Ma-a-a-ke it dream-y for dan-cing"-and he looked at the street out-side, Folsom, with his lips curled in scorn-"while we go ro-rnan-n-n-cing"-he staggered sideways-"Lo-o-o-ove's holi-da-a-a-ay"-he shook his head with disgust and weariness at the whole world-"Will make it seem"-what would it make it seem?-everybody waited, he mourned-"O-kay." The piano hit a chord. "So baby come on and just clo-o-o-o-se your pretty little ey-y-y-es" -his mouth quivered, offered; he looked at us, Dean and me, with an expression that seemed to say "Hey now, what's this thing we're all putting down in this sad brown world" -and then he came to the end of his song and for this there had to be elaborate preparations during which time you could send all the messages to Garcia around the world twelve times and what difference did it make to anybody because here we were dealing with the pit and prune juice of poor beat life itself and the pathos of people in the Godawful streets, so he said and sang it, "Close-your-" and blew it way up to the ceiling with a big voice that came not from training but feeling and that much better, and blew it through to the stars and on up-"Ey-y-y-y-y-y-es" and in arpeggios of applause staggered off the platform ruefully, broodingly, nonsatisfied, artistic, arrogant. He sat in the corner with a bunch of boys and paid no attention to them. They gave him beers. He looked down and wept. He was the greatest.

Old home, still essentially the same
It was only after reading The Portable Jack Kerouac that I realized I have some ‘six degrees of separation’ with him.   Over a period of 12 years he lived within two miles of where I lived as a kid (92-18 107th Street, Queens, NY), first at his parent’s house at 133-01 Cross Bay Blvd, Queens, NY and then for five years at 94-21 134th Street, his frequently hanging out at Smokey Oval Park on Atlantic Avenue, where I used to practice with the Richmond Hill HS baseball team. This park was later renamed the Phil Rizutto Park as Rizutto played at Richmond Hill High School, and was a classmate of my father’s. 

Then, another association from my past: a close friend early in my high school years, Paul Ortloff, apparently began a relationship with Kerouac’s daughter, Jan, when he was attending Cooper Union for art.  For the first nine years of Jan’s life Kerouac had denied being her father but after a blood test he acknowledged the fact.  She only met her father two or three times.  As one might imagine, Jan, was psychologically damaged by this rejection which haunted her for her entire short life (died in her mid 40s) but as a teenager she fell head over heels in love with Paul.  I can understand why.  He was charismatic, bright, and as Jack Kerouac was to the Beat generation I suppose Paul was to psychedelic and tattoo art.  I wrote about him when I first started this blog, trying to capture some of my personal history (reading the entry today somewhat distresses me, because of the lost opportunities and its candor):  He was a rebel with a James Dean aura. In later life Paul became a psychedelic artist. His road to that distinction was paved when he first learned to carve simple tattoos into himself using India Ink, graduating to having professional tattoos injected all over his body. He and I would go off to a Coney Island tattoo parlor on the subway for those. For some reason, I hesitated doing the same (probably because I was very allergic to pain!). When I read John Irving's haunting and enigmatic “Until I Find You” I couldn’t help but think of Paul.
Paul on right; Me second from the left

Paul and I lost contact well before we graduated from high school, his going his way into psychedelic art, ultimately moving to Woodstock, NY, my going the so called straight and narrow.  Reading about him in James T. Jones’ Use My Name:Jack Kerouac's Forgotten Families brought up a lot of memories, but his relationship with Kerouac’s daughter was unknown to me at the time.  Of course I cannot verify any of this other than Jones’ account.

Interesting where reading takes you. All three of these books brought me inward, a self examination at this stage of my life.  So in spite of their differences, to me there is commonality other than the fact I read them sort of concurrently and mostly during our trip to Alaska and Seattle.  Simply put, they spoke to me very personally, one about writing, one about the marriage and craft of the short story by a writer I deeply admire (and miss), and the other about a parallel universe, one of which I was aware, but only lived through tangentially.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Lazy Hazy Days

It’s our usual time for what I call the vacation (being on our boat in Connecticut) from the vacation (being retired and living in Florida).  Our life here is very different from that of being in our home, living in a couple hundred of square feet on the water, and in the locale of my working days.  Everything must have its own place and must be secure when we run the boat, which with each passing year is less and less.  When a boat is a home (even for a few months) it becomes more of a challenge to secure for running and to deal with the umbilical cords to the dock, the power lines, the water line, the lines that hold us secure enough so our fixed satellite dish does not stray from its southwest target.  And then what we did as a younger couple on the water takes energy and sometimes daring, wares in precious short supply as we age.  And finally, we’ve been to most ports worthwhile visiting on the Long Island, Block Island, Vineyard, and Nantucket Sounds, and we are happily content at our dock or at our mooring off the Norwalk Islands.

Missing from our boating life here, though has been a small boat, one to take us on a cocktail cruise in (diet coke for me, the Captain), together or with friends, on placid twilight evenings. Recently we were able to buy such a boat – a fairly new one, so it’s likely that we’ll be out on the water more often now.  That is how it should be.  Naturally, we are happy to share it with our son, Jonathan, who has practically grown up on boats.  He’ll help keep it standing tall.

But, aside from our usual routines, the shopping and provisioning, meeting friends for lunch or dinner, my early morning walk in Shorefront Park which adjoins our marina (marveling at the rebuilding going on there and the raising of homes still in the aftermath of super storm, Sandy), there is the endless working on the boat and, for me, some writing (working on some short stories).  I also have my “summer reading” list.  Along with reading short stories by John Updike and Alice Munro, I squeeze in a novel here and there and my most recent read, Solar, by Ian McEwan, certainly classifies as “summer reading,” not literature at the level of what I read before by McEwan,  Saturday, but, still an engrossingly, compulsively readable novel.

I was curious about how the author would handle, in fiction, a subject that has interested me ever since I was exposed to it in high school: solar energy.  At a high school science fair, GE put on a demonstration of solar energy using a small model car on stage, shining spotlights on its roof and miraculously the small car moved across the stage.  I was hooked.  If I had more of a scientific bent, perhaps I would have gone into the field.  Mind you, this was the late 1950s.

So while the technology has been around, we’ve been slow to use it to partially solve our energy needs.  The State of Connecticut sponsored a rebate program in the early 1980s in the wake of the gas crisis, for installing solar powered hot water and we were one of the first houses to line up for it.  It was the most basic of systems, direct heat transfer, a pump circulating a liquid that quickly absorbed heat and then transferred it through a number of coils in a special hot water heater which had an electrical back up heater when the sun didn’t shine.  There was no battery storage of energy.  But it worked!  And by timing our hot water usage we squeezed everything we could out of the sun before reverting to electrical back up.

It’s disheartening we haven’t more rapidly developed this technology to make much more widespread use of solar energy, especially now with battery storage of energy becoming much more efficient.  It’s one of the reasons I admire Elon Musk’s vision, huge garages with solar panels on top, powering his Tesla tethered automobiles.  Even the rooftops of Manhattan could be outfitted, but instead the luxury buildings there have pools and cabanas.  Where are our priorities?

Ian McEwan’s Solar deals with the weighty subject of global warming and the solar solution through one of the most despicable protagonists I have ever encountered, a Noble Prize winner who is a compulsive liar, over eater, sexaholic, and criminal.  One can hardly cheer for his success but McEwan’s novel  makes interesting reading as a satire of everything Michael Beard – our prodigiously plump, reprehensible physicist who can’t save himself but sees himself saving the world -- comes in contact with.  No sense going into the plot in detail as it is readily available on line.  But if you are up to some beach reading, and like McEwan as I do, it’s worth the time.  Some of the novel is very funny, so it is a change of pace for McEwan, as Straight Man was for Richard Russo, although the latter overshadows McEwan’s work for sheer hilarity. 

But Solar is about a serious subject, and one can only wonder why as a nation we haven’t made it a greater priority for solving our energy needs.

Low Tide Shorefront Park

High Tide Shorefront Park