Archive for January 2012

The Literary Gymnasium   Leave a comment

It must have been about three or four years ago, when I was still living in central New Jersey, when this incident occurred. I was standing on piece of gym equipment, one of those assisted pull-up machines, waiting between sets for my muscles to recover before I strained my arms and shoulders and back again, when I heard a voice directly behind me. It was the one of the personal trainers, a youngish guy with a thick Jersey accent who probably made decent (but not great) money from the Sisyphean task of showing middle-aged women how to use the Nautilus machines.

“We had to read The Great Gatsby in my senior year of high school,” he was saying to his client, “and I didn’t understand the point of it at all. It made absolutely no sense to me. Thankfully I’ll never have to read another novel again.”

Since he was standing right behind me, I was momentarily tempted to turn around and tell him that I was a professor of English literature, before thinking better of it – realizing that I could only come across as intrusive and annoying in this context – and hoisting myself back up onto the pull-up machine. As he moved on, I kept thinking about what he had said, in particular the unintended irony of his choosing The Great Gatsby, the classic American novel about the failures of self-improvement, as his particular example.

Further chewing the trainer’s words over in my mind, however, I began to think: in a culture where stories (books, movies, television) are consumed primarily for the easy pleasure of their entertainment value, is it any wonder that this trainer had difficulty seeing the point of reading a complex work of literature? Raised in this environment, we are quick to dismiss what we don’t immediately understand as being uninteresting and valueless.

What if, I thought to myself, one were to approach the gym with the same mindset. Imagine, let’s say, you were a trainer who took on a football player as a client, a football player who had never been to a gym in his life, and had no idea what it was for. You put the footballer through his paces, and then send him home.

That evening, the footballer’s girlfriend asks him over dinner: “So, how was the training session at the gym? What was it like?” To which he replies: “I didn’t understand the point of it at all. It made absolutely no sense to me.  First, I had to run for half an hour on a treadmill – absolutely pointless, running on the same spot over and over. Then, even more stupidly, the trainer made me pick up a series of heavy objects and then put them down again. I can’t see any connection between these absolutely pointless activities and improving my football skills. Thankfully I’ll never to have to do another workout again.”

Why does the footballer’s response sound absurd? Because we understand that working out in a gym is a necessary supplement to a successful football career. It builds a foundation of fitness and strength on which specific skills can then be built and then sharpened. No footballer today would question why the apparently “pointless” tasks performed in the gym are necessary to his game.

Yet, when it comes to literature (and the humanities more broadly), this is precisely the kind of sound logic that is dismissed by today’s culture. People never learn what the value of literature is, and so they dismiss it as an ornament rather than an intellectual foundation on which specific skills can be built.

Let’s be clear: literature can never be a substitute for real-world experience, any more than football training drills are a viable substitute for on-field experience. But if we understand its uses and purposes, literature can be a powerful tool for developing the basic skills for forming a successful character, a kind of gymnasium for the mind.

As I stepped off the assisted pull-up machine, having mentally sketched out the basics of this defense of literature, there was one thing that still bothered me. While I’ve read The Great Gatsby three times, taught it twice, and I acknowledge its canonical status, I too don’t really understand all the fuss about that particular novel. I mean, it’s good – but whatever its title may proclaim, it’s not great.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

Posted January 31, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

Review: The Rachel Papers (1973) by Martin Amis   2 comments

It is hard not to compare The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis’s debut novel, to Lucky Jim, the best and best-known work by his famous father, Kingsley Amis. Both, after all, are novels of disillusionment, with Jim Dixon finding that academia is rife with petty politics that take away from the fulfilling life of the mind he once envisioned, while Charles Highway, the protagonist of The Rachel Papers, seduces and then discards a slightly older woman by the name of Rachel, concluding that she is not a suitable match for him.

That, however, is where the comparison should end, for The Rachel Papers is a critical parody not only of Lucky Jim, but of a whole subgenre of writing about youth and its illusions. This kind of novel is ripe for caricature precisely because its features have hardened into a recognizable set of clichés: the uncouth but lovable narrator, for instance, whose rough exterior is a defense mechanism in response to the perceived injustices of the world.

While there are numerous novels that fall into this subgenre, two in particular stand out in the period preceding The Rachel Papers: Lucky Jim, as I have already mentioned, and The Catcher in the Rye. Amis never mentions the latter directly, but Charles does say on several occasions that he has been “reading a lot of American fiction,” and it is not a long shot to suggest that Rachel’s on-again, off-again American boyfriend DeForest has echoes of Holden Caulfield.

For Martin Amis, the disjunction between tough exterior and sympathetic core is ripe for critique. The implication is that we, as readers, see past these defense mechanisms in order to perceive that, beneath the angry countenance they present to the world, characters like Holden Caulfield and Jim Dixon are really romantics, misled into unhappiness by a mixture of cynicism and bad faith. Amis sees this gesture as encouraging a falsely sentimental view of youth, one that overlooks its stupidity and capacity for narcissism.

Charles Highway is the antidote to such mawkish sentimentality. Seeing the imminent arrival of his twentieth birthday as the entrance point into maturity, Charles sets out to make the most of his remaining time as a teenager. He moves from his family’s home to live with his sister, Jenny, and her boorish husband, Norman, in order to attend a school designed to help him get into Oxford University. Central to his farewell to his youth is his desire to sleep with an Older Woman, and that is where Rachel comes into the picture.

Not that Charles is desperate to lose his virginity – indeed, he already has a more-than-willing casual partner in Gloria, and the reader discovers that he has had sex with several other women, often followed by painful bouts of sexually transmitted diseases. But the seduction of Rachel is presented as a meaningful Goal, an encounter with an Older Woman, experienced and knowledgeable. Of course, the issue of Rachel’s age turns out to be farcical, since she is barely older than Charles, turning twenty herself during the course of their brief affair.

The Rachel Papers is an unpleasant read (what book by Amis isn’t?), but this horribleness is strategic. Amis takes aim at every sentimental preconception we might have about his youthful protagonist, emphasizing in particular the vulgarity of Charles’s body as he spits (“hawks”), leaks, squeezes, and vomits his way through the story. Charles is apparently not squeamish about any taboos, revealing his incestuous feelings toward his sister, for example, sniffing Rachel’s dirty underwear, and theorizing calmly that, based on his tastes and level of sensitivity, he “ought” to be homosexual, thus turning his enthusiasm for women itself into a kind of perversion. Amis shuts down any avenue for seeing his protagonist as a misunderstood romantic: from his sexual behavior to his intellectual pursuits, the reader has the sense that Charles knows exactly what he is doing and how revolting he really is.

The one remaining illusion for Charles seems to be that life will change once he becomes an adult, an assumption that seems to come true when, in his Oxford interview, the professor neatly pulls apart the contradictions and intellectual misappropriations in Charles’s arguments about which no one had previously dared to challenge him. But even Prof. Knowd’s incisive assessment of Charles’s abilities and shortcomings does not represent real maturity, but instead a sort of advanced pissing contest that suggests adulthood is a complicated continuation of, rather than a genuine break from, the immaturity of youth.

Amis’s rampage against the false sentimentalization of youth is not without precedent, although the best examples tend to come not from recent fiction but from the nineteenth century, such as Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe and Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, both of which deal with the seduction of an older woman and the subsequent disillusionment of the young male protagonist. In Charles’s obsessive note-taking about his life and the people around him – the title of Amis’s novel refers to one of Charles’s notebooks detailing the affair with Rachel – there is also an implicit reference to a famous section of Søren Kierkegaard’s monumental work Either/Or titled “The Diary of a Seducer.” Kierkegaard uses the persona of Johannes to detail his idea of the “aesthetic life,” a perspective to which the grotesque Charles provides an obvious counterpoint. Charles also self-consciously imitates Franz Kafka by writing his own Letter to My Father.

Amis’s chief literary and intellectual point of reference, however, is William Blake, chosen because of his famous exploration of the line that divides innocence from experience. In one scene, for example, Charles recites to Rachel the first stanza from “The Clod and the Pebble” from Blake’s Songs of Experience, expecting her to reply. Charles ends up having to complete the rest of the poem himself, implying that Rachel is to some extent an innocent, lacking the language of experience that Charles has embraced (even the literal meaning of her name, “ewe,” suggests a slightly older version of the innocent Lamb from the opening of Songs of Innocence).

The Rachel Papers is at its best when its focus is on this intellectual context. In recent interviews, Amis himself has said that the main shortcoming he sees when reflecting back on his debut novel is how awkwardly the plot unfolds. The novel does meander along at times, and there were moments when I thought that this book would have made a better short story – tighter and more focused – than a full-length novel. I can’t say that I loved The Rachel Papers, but my own experience has been that it has provided much food for thought, and that, rather than pure entertainment, is the sign of good fiction.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted January 28, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

Tagged with ,

On the Passing of Gilbert Adair   Leave a comment

Although Gilbert Adair passed away on December 8, 2011, I only learned about his death today, and the belated news got me thinking. You see, I read his novel The Holy Innocents (1988) – better known these days by its cinematic title The Dreamers – at what might be termed a crucial time in my life.

Growing up in a rigorously Protestant family, in my youth I was perhaps more sensitive than most people to novels about sensuality and decadence. I remember, for instance, reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) at the age of sixteen and being strangely aroused by it. It wasn’t just the eroticism of the book – although that obviously played a part – it was also the sense of deep subversion that touched something profound in me. Here was another way of living, something exciting, dangerous, edgy – a way of living in which risk and radical honesty were not merely performed, but were demanded.

When I read The Holy Innocents in 1994, at the age of 19, I hadn’t yet had my Road to Damascus moment, but it was imminent, coming at the beginning of the next year, when I discovered critical theory and postmodernism. Crucial seeds were being sown in my French classes, where we studied Albert Camus, the Theater of the Absurd, and the upheavals of mai 68, that revolutionary time in world history which has left such a mark (positive and negative) on French intellectual life. It was in this climate that I encountered The Holy Innocents, a book that, like Death in Venice (a story, perhaps not coincidentally, that Adair himself rewrote as his 1990 novel Love and Death on Long Island) and The Story of the Eye, lingers as a formative work not just because it changed my sexual perception of the world, but because it rang an existential chord in me. Here, it seemed to say, is a new and dramatic way of existing.

What about this novel seduced me? Most crucially, it was its affirmation of aesthetics over politics, of beauty over the ugliness of reality, of the fleeting moment of pleasure over the calculating tedium of the long term investment. In short, this was a reformulated romanticism for the postmodern era. It was nihilism at its most beautiful, the perfect trap for a nineteen-year-old on the cusp of intellectual discovery. I identified with Matthew in the same way that, at sixteen, I identified perversely with the aging, decadent Aschenbach, for being overcome by the sublime power of beauty. How could one not feel eliminated, reduced to nothingness, by the power of the aesthetic?

A year or two later I read Adair’s The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice (1992), a collection of his critical essays, and the first hints of disillusionment with certain aspects of postmodernism began. After his death, Adair’s criticism was praised as his greatest contribution to letters, but for all its cultural mastery, I found The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice to be narcissistic, arrogant, the proclamations of a privileged bully who belongs to smug little clique of fellow intellectuals. Adair pales in comparison to Roland Barthes, the critic he clearly aspired to emulate. My formerly ardent admiration faltered – I read no more.

It wasn’t until I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), an adaptation of The Holy Innocents, that I thought about Adair again. If The Holy Innocents was darkly romantic, then The Dreamers was downright sentimental – and I began to realize then just how much of a blind fool my younger self had been. And yet, and yet – despite its flaws, The Holy Innocents remains a book that I will continue to love and cherish, for its flaws, for all its nihilism. Its sense of irresistible folly, after all, is precisely what is so utterly seductive about it.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted January 23, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

Tagged with , ,

Review: The Electric Michelangelo (2004) by Sarah Hall   Leave a comment

There is a longstanding view that literary fiction is too mannered, too stylized, overly complicated in a way that is uselessly ornamental rather than essential. As a critic and teacher, I often find that such accusations come from people who lack the essential tools to grasp the strategies and purposes of the genre, reflecting that lamentable human tendency to conflate what we don’t like with what we don’t understand. Reading Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, however, was an experience that caused me to rethink this question.

Hall’s novel tells the story of Cyril “Cy” Parks, a young man from the northern English resort town of Morecambe. Starting in the early twentieth century, the plot, such as it is, follows Cy’s life from youth to old age. His early life is dominated by his mother, Reeda, punctuated by boyhood adventures that come to an abrupt end when he is apprenticed to Eliot Riley, the town’s tattoo artist. After the passing of these two role models, Cy heads across the Atlantic to Coney Island, where he falls in love with Grace, a woman who asks him to tattoo eyes over her whole body. When things turn out tragically with Grace, Cy drifts around the world, eventually returning to Morecambe as an old man, taking on a young woman, Nina Shearer, as his own apprentice.

The plot itself is linear and curiously pedestrian – even Cy regularly thinks of his life as being “fated,” to such an extent that it often feels as though the story only shifts in any meaningful way when it receives various nudges from Hall. The complaint that “nothing happens” is a common element of the aforementioned criticisms of literary fiction, but that leads me to wonder: is the laborious plot of The Electric Michelangelo inherent to the genre, or is it simply poor craftsmanship on Hall’s part?

The issue of narrative drive is a complicated one, bound up as it is in this question of the purpose of literary fiction. The complaint that “nothing happens” has its mirror image, after all, in the counter-criticism made against popular fiction that, for all its thrills, twists, and romance, one is left with a certain feeling of hollowness, a sense that the narrative energy on the page of a popular work in the end amounts to very little. What is supposed to distinguish literary fiction from its popular counterpart, from this perspective, is the idea that the literary fiction has a sense of meaning and profundity. It gets us to think and question, rather than merely providing entertainment.

In The Electric Michelangelo, Hall’s words seem to be made of concrete. Decorative, poetic, but heavy and inert, the novel moves from the sheer force of her authorial determination rather than any sense of inner momentum. The lack of narrative energy in Hall’s novel is an affirmation of the great secret of authentic storytelling, that a plot contains the greatest amount of life when the author is forced to cede some control over the artistic process – the ancient Greeks, with their Muses, knew about this principle, and one might say that this idea has been confirmed for today’s audience, for instance, by John Fowles in The French Lieutentant’s Woman.

Now, it is true that one of the qualities of literary fiction is that plot may be sacrificed to meaning: think, for instance, of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, a work that is full of meaning but short on action. I know from my own experience of encountering Dostoevksy’s novel as a young, inexperienced reader and then returning to it, with somewhat wiser eyes, how a better understanding of the world of literary fiction can enrich and deepen one’s perspective on a work. But what makes Dostoevsky a successful writer of ideas is his willingness to allow ideas to enter the world of his story that challenge, in an authentic way, his own. The nihilists that appear in Dostoevsky’s novels are a magnificent example of this engagement: Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, and Ivan Karamazov are complex figures, never simply straw men to be knocked over by Dostoevsky’s own opinions. It is from this genuine clash of ideas that Dostoevsky’s novels generate their intellectual energy.

Hall, by contrast, is monotone in her heavy-handed attempt to generate meaning in her novel. Her metaphors are clumsy and unsophisticated, including the death of Cy’s father on the same day as the protagonist’s birth, the experimental sinking of Cy in quicksand, and disparate natures of the Siamese twins who run the Varga, Cy’s favorite bar in Coney Island. Hall seems desperate to saturate everything in her novel with meaning, but ends up instead with a cacophony of confused, forced metaphors.

Even more questionable is Hall’s decision to engage with history in her novel. The vague references to the Renaissance, especially to Michelangelo, are so shallow as to be laughable. The Renaissance, after all, was motivated intellectually by a rediscovery of classical ideas, whereas the ephemeral, visceral nature of tattoo art suggests instead a relationship to the Gothic that, if Hall had invoked it, might have allowed for a similar intellectual dynamism as runs through Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.

Hall also imposes her own contemporary views back onto the early twentieth-century world that Cy inhabits in a way that provides a very one-sided perspective on culture has changed during this time. His mother Reeda, for instance, is a feminist before her time, an advocate for women’s rights who performs secret abortions in her hostel, and far too saintly to be believable. Despite the historical realities of the world in which he lives, therefore, Cy lives in an unrealistic bubble that is unconvincingly welcoming and tolerant toward women and minorities. Hall is so insistent on preaching to the reader that, toward the end of the novel, Cy even delivers a diatribe to his young apprentice on the importance of young people voting.

The problem with The Electric Michelangelo, in the end, is the ubiquity of Hall’s fingerprints over every last inch of her creation. The novel suffers, not because “nothing happens,” but because Hall is unable or unwilling to open up her story to the contingencies of the artistic process. It was the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin who identified the “polyphonic,” many-voiced nature of Dostoevksy’s work, and it is precisely this element that is missing from The Electric Michelangelo. The crucial element that defines literary fiction, therefore, is the willingness of the author to write against herself, to allow ideas and prejudices to be weighed without the sense, from the reader, that the measure has been fixed (even if, in reality, they have).

Rating: 2/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted January 20, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

Tagged with ,

New Directions   Leave a comment

Those of you who tuned into the old version of this blog will have encountered various stories about the state of contemporary English literature – links to reviews of newly released books, interviews with leading authors, calls for academic papers, and so on. That was, as I have said, the old version of the blog. An experiment, one might say, or more realistically, a place-holder until I worked out what I really wanted to do with the blog.

With the new year, then, comes a new direction. Instead of providing links to content generated by others, I am planning on creating my own writing for this site. Mostly it will come in the form of reviews and commentary about the various books I happen to be reading, although who knows what other directions it might take. While the main focus will naturally be on contemporary English literature, I am thinking of including in here comments on other national literatures and even some writing on literary and critical theory.

Posted January 19, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article