Author Archive

Review: Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998) by A.S. Byatt   Leave a comment

A.S. Byatt is one of those writers that has grown on me over the years. I first encountered her work, as most of her readers do, through her highly-decorated novel Possession, only to come away from it disappointed by a sense that an opportunity had been lost. The recurrent fault that I found in Byatt’s work was that she has a tendency to overwrite, with too many superfluous details and ornaments (think of her pastiches of Victorian poetry in Possession, for example, which were masterly yet, for me, void of interest) that distracted from the story she was trying to tell.

While I haven’t yet returned to Possession to gauge whether my initial impression was correct or not, I have nonetheless continued to read Byatt’s other works with an ever-deepening sense of appreciation. What I like most about her fiction is her sense of intellectual adventure. Byatt may be the most intelligent writer in British literature today. She is an author who demands from herself – and thus, in turn, from her readers – a rigorously honest and complex appraisal of whatever issue is at hand. While this determination sometimes leads to a tendency to overreach her skill as a storyteller, when it works, as it does in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, the results are outstanding.

As its subtitle suggests, Elementals takes the classic metaphorical opposition between hot (passion) and cold (rationality) and plays with it in new ways. There is, of course, an implicitly Blakean twist to how Byatt goes about doing this, in which hot and cold are never simple oppositions, but are instead made to depend upon each other in order to understand fully their meaning. This idea gets its fullest treatment in the allegorical story “Cold,” a full-blown modern fairy-tale that confirms Byatt’s long-acknowledged debt to Angela Carter.

While Byatt, in treating the opposing symbols of hot and cold in these stories, nods several times toward the Romantics – the narrator of “Jael,” for instance, remarks on her appreciation of Jane Eyre, a novel that gives particular weight to this metaphor – she also targets them repeatedly for critique. The Romantics, after all, privileged emotion and passion in their work, whereas Byatt urges the reader to consider the other side of the equation by pondering the pleasures and rewards of coldness and detachment.

Although this thread runs through the entire collection, Byatt makes her most articulate plea in “A Lamia in the Cévennes,” the underlying message of which forms an implicit riposte to John Keats’s poem “Lamia.” At the center of the story is Bernard Lycett-Kean, a painter who moves from Britain to France in order to pursue his rigidly solitary investigations into the problems of color. There he is visited by a lamia, a mythological, snake-like creature who promises him that, should he kiss her, she will be transformed into the woman of his dreams and love him eternally. Bernard, wary of such a pact and wary of giving up his solitude, proposes to paint her instead.

The story’s message hinges on a key couple of lines from Keat’s original poem: “Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” This Romantic suggestion that we should not look too closely at things, that we ought willfully to blind ourselves for the sake of preserving an illusion, is vigorously opposed by Bernard. Instead, Byatt shows that, rather than leading to a simple opposition between science and art, Bernard’s rationality possesses an artistic impulse with a beauty all its own.

Byatt thus makes a repeated argument in Elementals for qualities such as coldness, rationality, and solitude – qualities that, while obviously more difficult to embrace than their warm, emotional counterparts, nonetheless have their own rewards and advantages. Byatt is not, of course, opposed either to Romanticism or emotions as such, but champions this cause out of a sense of balance. Today’s culture is unthinkingly sentimental, it seems, and so Byatt prescribes the qualities of coldness as an important corrective.

Byatt’s occasional tendency to overreach means that sometimes her work can be a bit hit and miss, but Elementals is impressive in its consistency. Byatt also helps matters by concluding the book with “Christ in the House of Jesus and Mary,” one of her best stories, in which she imagines the story behind a Velasquez painting of the same name. Speaking to the distraught cook Dolores, who will later become the model for Martha in Velasquez’s painting, the artist says: “You must learn now, that the important lesson… is that the divide is not between the servants and the served, between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms, and those who merely subsist, worrying or yawning” (p.226). There are few statements with which I can agree more wholeheartedly. It encapsulates why it is that Byatt, whatever her occasional faults, is truly a great writer: for her, art and literature are not merely intellectual pastimes, they are intimately bound up in the living, breathing moments of living one’s life.

Rating: 4.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.


Posted March 4, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

Tagged with , , ,

On the Contrary   Leave a comment

My mind keeps on coming back to this passage in W.B. Yeat’s A Vision (1925), in which he talks about how his reading of William Blake helped him to understand the difference between a contrary and a negation:

“I had never read Hegel, but my mind had been full of Blake from boyhood up and I saw the world as a conflict – Specter and Emanation – and could distinguish between a contrary and a negation. ‘Contraries are positive,’ wrote Blake, ‘a negation is not a contrary,’ ‘How great the gulph between simplicity and inspidity,’ and again, ‘There is a place at the bottom of the graves where contraries are equally true.'” (p.72)

It returns to my mind not as a vague philosophical problem, but as a difficulty related to the puzzle of my own life. You see, I, too, understand Blake instinctively. He means that it’s uncreative, lazy thinking simply to negate. You like white? Well then, I like black. You love something? Well I hate it. You believe in God? Well, I’m an atheist. Negation is banal because it masquerades as something different, when all it has done is to rearrange the surface of something rather than its fundamental, underling mode of existence.

I remember an instance that took place while I was at a conference held at Georgetown University in 2007. The conference was on Australian literature – Georgetown and UT-Austin being the centers of study for Australian literature in the United States – and I was feeling a little overwhelmed and alienated by the presence of so many other Australians. I had been having lived in the States for about six years at that point, having left my past in Australia behind me like a bad dream. Over lunch, an older Australian woman started asking me about religion.

“So, Peter,” she said. “Are you religious?”

“No, I’m an atheist,” I replied.

“What about your family?”

“Very religious. My father is a Protestant minister.”

“Oh,” she said. “So your lack of faith is a reaction formation. You’re rebelling against your upbringing.”

I’ll never forget the look on her face when she said these words. It was an expression that combined triumph, self-righteousness, arrogance, and smugness into a single expression, as if her diagnosis had pinned me down as a simplistic fool who knows no better than to negate. With a little wisdom, a little experience, her face intimated, I would see the error of my ways and return, like her, to the religious fold.

“No, I’m not rebelling against my father,” I replied. “In fact, I have come not to negate my father’s words, but to fulfill them.”

Despite making what I thought was a pointed and clever reply – it amused me to echo the words of Christ in my affirmation of atheism – the woman was clearly unconvinced. She had placed me in her simplistic category, and there was no getting out of it. Thankfully, the conversation ended soon afterward, and we did not get to discuss whether my decision to leave Australia was, like my lack of religious belief, also a reaction formation. That would have been a rather more complicated matter.

Like Blake, I was convinced of the superiority of the contrary over the negation. For years, I ensured that everything in my life carried with it a texture of thoughtfulness and complexity. I was open-minded. I carefully exhaled the last vestiges of racism, sexism, and homophobia that one inevitably ingests when enveloped in a cloud of conservative thought, and instead engaged in a new and critical way of approaching the world that was full of consideration and responsibility.

It didn’t matter that my mindset was a contrary and not a negation. It didn’t matter that how I thought and acted was complex and philosophical, that it bore an ethical relation to the other. It got me nowhere, as the last few years have shown. My marriage, in particular, faltered, and this approach for dealing with problems was perhaps the worst I could have taken. I tried to talk through things. I forgave when I should have walked away. I was understanding when I should have been angry. When it was over, I remained friends.

Sometimes, I have come to realize, you need a little negation in your life. Sometimes simplicity is better than complexity. Hatred can be like a spice that burns your tongue, pleasant only if it is in small enough quantities not to overwhelm the taste of the food. It feels good no longer to be friends with my ex-wife, to admit that I hate her for the things she did to me.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter all that much whether you choose the path of complex contrariness or simple negation, for they are both negative modes and equally destructive in their own ways. I would prefer to echo Nietzsche’s greatest desire: “And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.” Learn from your enemies, is the logic behind this wish, but don’t waste your whole life negating – at some point, forget your hatred and create the life that you want to live.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 29, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

Tagged with , , , ,

Review: Amsterdam (1998) by Ian McEwan   Leave a comment

Often long-established authors, having been overlooked several times, end up being decorated for their lesser works, and in the case of Amsterdam, for which Ian McEwan won the Man Booker Prize, this pattern holds true. Not that Amsterdam is a bad book, but when I compare it to McEwan’s best – Atonement, of course, along with Black Dogs and Enduring Love – it doesn’t quite reach those same heights.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to admire the way McEwan writes. While managing to be as urgently postmodern in his style and themes as any other contemporary writer, McEwan pays great attention to the intricacies of plot and character. There is no navel-gazing in Ian McEwan’s novels, which always have at their center some motivating event or other that, like a stone being dropped into a still pool of water, sends a series of waves rippling through the rest of the plot – the discovery of the corpse in The Innocent, the balloon accident at the beginning of Enduring Love, the false accusation of Robbie in Atonement, and so on.

Although the death of Molly Lane at the beginning of Amsterdam appears set to follow this same pattern, it is not the central event. Instead, her death brings together two of her former lovers, the composer Clive Linley and the newspaper editor Vernon Halliday. Rather than a single event, McEwan provides his two main characters with two moments that have broader consequences: for Clive, his failure to intervene in a possible rape so that he can grasp hold of a moment of musical inspiration; for Vernon, his decision to publish front-page pictures of Julian Garmony, a right-wing politician who was also a former lover of Molly’s, dressed as a woman.

McEwan draws Clive and Vernon together first as friends and then, when circumstances turn against them, as enemies out to destroy each other. This pattern bears a strong resemblance to what happens to Bernard and June Tremaine, the husband and wife in Black Dogs who, having been drawn together by their Communist ideals, have their marriage torn apart by deep philosophical disagreements. Amsterdam and Black Dogs are both intended by McEwan, it seems to me, to be documents of their time, a summary judgment of the failures of the twentieth century as it draws to a close.

Like Bernard and June, Clive and Vernon are given opposing perspectives on the world – highbrow and lowbrow, artistic and commercial – that, for all their apparent disagreements, end up collapsing into an orgy of self-righteousness and mutual hatred. The perspective we get on the British media is, as one might expect, scathing, with McEwan delineating its willingness to plumb the depths of human depravity at the expense of any sort of sophistication or culture. Pages dedicated to literature and the arts are reassigned to sports, and real news is converted into grotesque sensationalism.

Just as scathing, though, is McEwan’s description of the complacency of the cultured elite. His assessment of how Clive has benefited from the post-war boom while denying the same privileges to the next generation is razor sharp, particularly when one considers that McEwan himself is a product of this era. “Nurtured in the postwar settlement with the state’s own milk and juice, and then sustained by their parents’ tentative, innocent prosperity, to come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock and roll, affordable ideals,” writes McEwan. “When the ladder crumbled behind them, when the state withdrew her tit and became a scold, they were safe, they consolidated and settled down to forming this or that – taste, opinion, fortunes” (p.13). Such, then, is the state of post-Thatcher Britain, which forms part of a repeated pattern of social ideals that end in despair and inequality.

The curious thing about modernity, McEwan notes, is that this despair and inequality seems to emerge, paradoxically, from cultural origins that promise great beauty, joy, and hope. In making this point, Amsterdam points repeatedly back to the Romantics. The Millennium Symphony that Clive Linley is composing, for instance, is compared to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” In a conversation toward the end of the novel, Clive tells how he once set the Romantic poet William Blake’s “The Poison Tree” to music. And of course, when he is in need of inspiration, Clive habitually retreats to the Lake District, a region of England that occupies a privileged place in English letters, having inspired authors such as William Wordsworth and Jane Austen.

Initially when I got to the end of Amsterdam I was a bit nonplussed by the way that McEwan failed to upstage my expectations as to how the story would end. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the novel’s depressing spiral was crucial to the point that McEwan was trying to make about the history of modernity, which is that no matter how forceful the push for change and reform, no matter how “enlightened” and scientifically advanced we become, the tedious fact remains that human society continues to resort to the old tactics of brutality and conflict. The more things appear to change, the more they stay the same. The city of Amsterdam comes to symbolize this paradox in the novel. “There was never a city more rationally ordered,” writes McEwan, and yet it turns out to be the place where people can get away with murder (p.168).

What makes Amsterdam a somewhat less successful novel than its closest cousin, Black Dogs, is its lack of a third perspective. In Black Dogs that role is played by Jeremy, Bernard and June’s son-in-law, who mediates between the conflict of the two central characters, and whose ability to see the gray areas that Bernard and June miss provides the novel with a hint of ambiguity and even hope. Amsterdam, however, feels a little unbalanced in this respect, and therefore underdeveloped – one might easily, one suspects, have transcended the doom and gloom of the bitter fight between Clive and Vernon by complicating our view of one of the other characters – Julien Garmony, perhaps, or George Lane, or even, best of all, Molly.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 25, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

Tagged with , , , ,

Writing That Matters   Leave a comment

When I was a young man, I had wild and terrible literary ambitions. I looked at the sparse output of some famous writers and thought to myself: “I could easily write five, maybe six great books by the time I am twenty-five.” I didn’t, of course, though not from laziness, but from a dawning recognition that I lacked the maturity to write to a standard that I found satisfactory. There is a threshold of quality that, in my own mind, I am still in the process of crossing.

There is, however, another kind of writing that has given me far greater anxiety during my lifetime: writing that is personal, that is intended, at least at the time of composition, for my eyes only. This kind of writing has tormented me, I suppose, for a similar reason as the indefinite postponement of my literary ventures – that is, I felt that my style was not up to the right standard.

It seems a strange judgment to make when one considers that such writing is not intended for anyone else to see. A large part of my anxiety stemmed from my foolish, lingering dream of someday being a great writer, knowing as I did that such status creates a public desire to see even the most extraneous products of one’s pen.

Franz Kafka, for example, wanted his work thrown into the fire upon his death, an order that was happily disobeyed by Max Brod, the executor of his will. But for all the literary merits of The Trial, The Castle, and Kafka’s myriad short stories, one has to shudder at what he would think of his personal letters and diaries being put on display. Even the memos he wrote for his job as an insurance analyst have now been published.

How could I write down my private thoughts when my style could not compare to Kafka’s? How could I write an account of my life after reading Stendhal’s The Life of Henry Brulard? Should the unthinkable happen and I became a famous writer, my jejune prose and half-formed ideas would reveal me as a fraud, a counterfeit, a fool who was undeserving of whatever modicum of success that, for a brief moment, I had achieved.

The other anxiety that tormented me was this: that with each passing day, I was missing an opportunity to record my life. There is, after all, no possibility of going back in order to recapture the singularity of the moment. How I felt, who I was, all the particularities that defined each crucial moment of experience had been irrevocably transcended, a feeling that intensified whenever I went back to look at those brief patches when I had bothered to record my thoughts. All those monumental moments, it seemed, have passed as though they never existed.

That I was young and foolish, there can be no doubt. But what is it, I began to wonder, that drives us to want to write down every florid detail of our lives? Since the average person today tends to lack historical insight, we assume that the standards of our time, especially our obsession with fame and celebrity, are somehow natural and eternal.

But this interest in reputation, in preserving a name for oneself, emerged as a widespread phenomenon during the Renaissance, as Jacob Burckhardt, in his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), makes abundantly clear. Drawing on Burckhardt’s work in Fear of Freedom (1941), Erich Fromm argues that this need to be recognized as an individual is in inverse proportion to the social cohesion of a community. Individuality brings with it a new horizon of freedom, writes Fromm, but it often comes at the cost of feelings of loneliness and isolation.

It was this anxiety that hampered my personal writing for all these years, a nagging feeling that my style must be beautiful enough to merit its existence. My own youthful self-importance, one might say, covered over a deeper fear that my writing might not be important at all. That fear extended beyond my writing, of course, extending its logic to why I could not bring myself to write about my own life. If my writing did not matter, then could not the same be said about my very existence?

It’s not a question that concerns me any longer. I am calmly aware that neither my life nor my writing matter, certainly not in the long run (and probably not in the short run, either). Therein lies one of the great ironies of desire, the paradox that seems to haunt every human ambition, that success generally comes when we no longer worry about the outcome. I continue to write because, as A.S. Byatt writes of her single-minded painter in “A Lamia in the Cévennes,” it makes me happy “in one of the ways human beings have found in which to be happy” (p.88).

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 19, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

Tagged with ,

Review: Continent (1986) by Jim Crace   Leave a comment

Along with several other prizes, Continent won Jim Crace the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award, which must have been something of a surprise to him considering that this is not a novel but a collection of short stories. Despite being his debut work – novel or not – this book represents a mature and intelligent beginning to Crace’s career.

There are two things about Continent that stood out for me as a reader. The first is the quality of the writing. Crace avoids the great error practiced by many authors today, which is to be ornamental and flowery under the guise of being “poetic.” This excruciating emphasis of style over substance is too often the misguided product of creative writing programs. Students in these programs should instead study Crace’s style to get an idea of what good writing is like: poetic in places, certainly, but also possessing a level of restraint and understatement that lends muscle and nuance to his prose. There is no unsightly narrative flab on display here.

The other thing that stands out is Crace’s intelligence. Continent does not possess any recurring characters or plot lines, but the stories – with the exception of the second story “The World with One Eye Shut,” easily the weakest piece in here – are linked by the common theme of the ambiguity of change and progress. The opening piece “Talking Skull,” for instance, is told from the perspective of Lowbro, an educated young man whose father has made a fortune from selling the milk of hermaphrodite cows to a superstitious populace. Torn between his family history and the enlightened perspective his education has brought him, Lowbro is faced with difficult decisions about how to manage his future.

Crace’s repeated message that the arrival of modernity has, beneath its glittering surface, numerous drawbacks that cannot be undone is a message that stretches all the way back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Crace is never simplistic or hackneyed in his treatment of these problems: the conflict between modern and ancient in each story is like a coin that is turned over and over, allowing the reader to see the qualities and flaws of each side. The objects of the old superstitions that appear in these stories – magical milk, sexual rituals, electricity, horse-riding traditions, calligraphy – are thus always presented ambiguously. The benefits of science and progress, Crace shows, can come at a high price, a trade-off that is reflected, in turn, by the mixture of profound wisdom and superstitious ignorance that characterizes pre-modern cultures.

It is hard not compare Crace’s stories in Continent to both Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, although these two influences are fused together in an original way that belies mere imitation. There is, for instance, Crace’s decision, reflected in the title of his book, to set his stories in a kind of utopia in which particular settings are sometimes suggested (“Sins and Virtues,” for instance, is clearly set somewhere in the Middle East) but never clearly defined, a strategy that both Kafka and Borges use to great effect. But the most important aspect of their influence lies in Crace’s fusion of fiction and philosophy – not using literature as a didactic vehicle, but as a mode of critical inquiry, searching and questioning as the narrative snakes forward, always willing to double back and, if necessary, bite its own tail.

Continent is a solid book, but not a perfect one, and it is in the area of unity and purpose that I have my biggest reservations about it. The second story is glaringly out of place in the collection, as I have already noted, and I am bemused at what Crace was trying to do by suggesting that this fictional continent is somehow a variation on our own world – it’s not, and this strategy of suggesting a parallel world seems to me a distraction from the book’s real themes. That said, there was plenty to like in this collection, and it makes me looking forward to seeing whether Crace has fulfilled the promise evident in his debut work.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 14, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

Tagged with ,

The Authoritarian Character   Leave a comment

Sometimes there are moments when, as you are reading a book, you stop, sit up straight in your chair, and look around you in a sort of silent, physical form of exclamation. That’s what happened to me at the end of last year while reading Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom (1941), a penetrating analysis of what it is that draws human beings to submit themselves to authoritarianism. What caught my attention only partly concerned what Fromm was describing – instead, it was the way in which his brief sketch of what he calls “the authoritarian character” had the effect of recalling, with startling clarity, someone that I knew.

The person in question was strikingly tall, around six and a half feet, a  physical superiority that he used to menace the space around him. Although he had gone gray, he wore a trendy spiked haircut, worked out regularly, and looked rather well preserved for a man who had just clicked past fifty. He had a loud, booming voice that he employed to great effect; walk within a hundred feet of his classroom, and you could hear him ranting and raving, putting on an energy-filled performance for a classroom full of misguided young students who viewed this weekly fountain of rhetorical fireworks as “challenging” and “entertaining” without ever stopping to think whether they were actually learning something of value.

It was more than just his dynamic but empty teaching style, however, that identified this person as the incarnation of the Authoritarian Character (AC). The central contradiction that Fromm identifies in this need to dominate others is that it stems from a profound paradox, for the authoritarian character is “torn by a constant ambivalence towards authority; he hated it and rebelled against it, while at the same time he admired it and tended to submit to it” (p.57). There is nothing wrong with authority and power, Fromm contends, when it extends from a healthy sense of oneself, but when it stems from emotional inadequacy the end product is the authoritarian character.

AC covered over his lust for power by employing a strident rhetoric of social justice. “I’m a thousand miles to the left of Karl Marx,” he claimed at one department meeting. The door of his office was adorned with a large poster of William Blake, his favorite poet, with the inscription “The Arts and Sciences are the Destruction of Tyrannies.” Inside, the office itself was decorated with posters of The Clash. He wore Sex Pistols t-shirts and hosted a radio show on the local college station dedicated to punk music. Although he hadn’t published an academic paper for more than a decade, he claimed to have expertise in African-American literature and women’s literature. He bought an apartment in East Harlem. He labeled himself a feminist, a gay rights campaigner, a vegetarian, an advocate against racism, a bulwark against all forms of injustice.

It wasn’t necessary to look far to see the inherent contradictions in this charade of left-wing piety. AC was at his rampant worst when it came to the topic of racism. A former Southerner from Georgia, AC had grown up in an era of desegregation during the 1970s and claimed that it had left a profound mark on his character. The reality was that his experiences had allowed him to identify racism as an emotional hot button, a switch he could cynically flip to stir up controversy and righteous anger at any moment. His histrionics in the classroom were focused primarily on this issue, and he would whip himself into a frenzy of rage and anger in every class, regardless of the topic, repeatedly screaming out the n-word at his students under the guise of having them “confront” the collective sins and prejudices that constitute the collective guilt at the heart of American culture. This approach created a mob mentality that appealed to the basest, most anti-intellectual instincts of his students, a contradiction that could be justified thanks to the smokescreen provided by AC’s anti-racist angle. Surely only a racist, went his perverse logic, could fail to be visibly outraged by the injustices of the past.

AC was, then, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but all the more dangerous because he had convinced himself of his own righteousness, unable as he was to identify the glaring contradictions between his rhetoric and his actual behavior. The great feminist, for example, ignored the women in the department, and it was an open secret that he conducted improper dealings with numerous young female students. When his colleagues voted for a representative to sit on the newly formed Faculty Senate, he stormed out of the meeting after narrowly losing to the department’s elder statesman, furious that the democratic process had not produced the result he wanted. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the administration chose one of his drinking buddies as the new Vice President, and used this access to power to persecute faculty members he didn’t like, eventually driving two of his departmental colleagues from the college. Speaking up loudly in faculty meetings against the supposed corruption of the system, he nonetheless happily accepted tenure in an institution where that privilege extended only to a select few of the full-time faculty.

It wasn’t until my final few weeks as AC’s colleague that I learned some of the nastiest truths about his past. Ten years previously, it turned out, he had been fired from a tenured position after being charged with assaulting a student at a party. That incident, in turn, brought to light AC’s behavior at a position several years before that at a college where his contract had not been renewed, also due to problems with physical violence. I could well believe it – when I saw him shortly after the Faculty Senate vote, AC, clearly in a state of rage, had himself threatened me.

Now that I have moved on from that position and entered Korean academia, where the politics are more difficult to penetrate but in which I am happy to serve with few questions, I am grateful that I no longer have to think about AC . He was in my thoughts today, though, for two reasons. The first was the deep disappointment that I felt after finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel that unsettled me in its resemblance to AC’s teaching, filled as it is with rage and self-recrimination, emotions that hide behind a smokescreen of noble causes but that scream of dishonesty and a suppressed lust for power. The other reason is the email that landed in my inbox today. It was from a former colleague whom AC had forcibly driven out, letting me know that she was doing well, and that AC had just been fired for misconduct with a student.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 9, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

Tagged with , , ,

Review: Freedom (2010) by Jonathan Franzen   Leave a comment

“Humanity,” Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in Being and Nothingness, “is condemned to be free.” So too it might be said that readers of contemporary fiction are condemned to tackle Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel Freedom, a work that arrived, after a hiatus of nine years, in a flurry of triumph and acclaim. Certainly “condemned” is a good word to describe how I felt about it by the time I got to the end.

Franzen is one of those writers that people know about by word of mouth. His breakthrough novel, The Corrections, is a book that you are likely to discover in the process of unwrapping a birthday present from your uncle and aunt in Connecticut, the kind of work that an overexcited friend from your graduate school days presses into your hand and says: “You have to read this. It blew my mind.”

I don’t mind admitting that I, too, caught the fever. I started reading The Corrections on a plane to Los Angeles at the beginning of last year, and by the time I finished it I had already started formulating plans to get my own family together for Christmas for the first time in more than a decade. While I found Franzen’s style unattractive and pretentious, there was something real and identifiable about his characters that won me over. The author’s apparent cruelty I saw as a necessary detachment on Franzen’s part, important to shading the moral grays that turned each of the Lamberts into well-rounded, believable characters. As a consequence, I also went back and read his first two novels, which were solid enough but did not reach the same heights as The Corrections.

It was with a sense of anticipation, then, that I began reading Freedom a few days ago. I was patient. I was hopeful. As I got deeper into the novel, however, there was no getting around the looming conclusion: Freedom was downright awful. By the time I reached the three-hundred page mark, just over halfway, finishing the book really did feel like a prison sentence. Dutifully, I served my time.

So what can account for this spectacular failure? How can Franzen strike such a chord with The Corrections and then come across as so utterly tone-deaf in Freedom?

Before recounting its shortcomings, I should first say what it is that I liked about Freedom. After all, I did not expect it to be an unmitigated disaster from the very beginning, and it certainly did not feel that it was going to be while reading the initial stages of the story. Other reviewers have complained that the central characters of Patty and Walter were too dull to carry the story, a view with which I heartily disagree. Although Patty’s stilted “autobiography” (which Franzen, for no good reason, writes in a third-person voice that is indistinguishable from the rest of the narrative) is an incredibly clumsy approach for an established novelist, I found Franzen’s depiction of their tepid romance and marriage, especially the little details of the ways in which they repeatedly hurt and betray each other, to be painfully real. This element of insight in Franzen’s writing is what made The Corrections so successful, this feeling that while reading his novel you are also undergoing a painful but necessary session of emotional therapy.

Apart from the Berglund’s disintegrating marriage, however, there was little to admire about Freedom. What made the early pages of the novel interesting was Franzen’s critique of the ways in which human beings delude themselves. Thus, for instance, we witness Patty being led astray by her drug-addicted, emotionally manipulative college friend Eliza, who preys on Patty’s guilt and lack of esteem in order control the latter’s life. Similar spirals of reactive (should I say “corrective”?) behavior are set up throughout, from Joey’s reaction to his parents to Patty’s desire for Richard.

The novel thus provides the reader with a litany of self-destructive, guilt-ridden, passive characters – a lot like The Corrections, you might say, but here is the strange thing. Whereas Franzen, in the early stages of the novel, highlights the negative effects that flow from the weakness and endless self-pity that motivate his characters, by the second half of the novel he attempts to transform these same horrible qualities into virtues. Walter, in particular, is supposedly redeemed by the contention that his inherited negativity gives his life “meaning.” Despite the utter betrayal of his own ethical standards and his staggeringly grandiose sense of self-righteousness, Walter is excused, in the narrator’s eyes, because he is a “nice man.” Even Walter’s loser brother, Mitch, a worthless drunk who shirks all responsibility for his five children, is transformed into a kind of Thoreauvian hero by the end, living peacefully by a lake and only working when he has to. It’s a bizarre and bewildering moral u-turn that Franzen takes, down a path where I simply cannot follow him.

My increasing disillusionment with the novel as I was reading it only served to highlight other technical flaws that I might otherwise have been willing to overlook. I have already mentioned my dislike for Franzen’s style in his earlier works, but in Freedom this pretentiousness reaches a level that is simply unbearable. I teach my students to read literary texts closely on the grounds that authors choose their references and metaphors carefully, but Franzen’s frantic need to provide in-depth descriptions of inane, unnecessary details and endless name-dropping was too much. Consider, for instance, this ridiculous sentence from the novel’s epilogue (by which point I was at the end of my patience) in which Franzen makes a horrible contrast between the artificiality of the social networking site Twitter to the authenticity of birds in nature:

“There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world of nature, which Walter had invoked as if people were still supposed to care about it, was one anxiety too many.” (p.546)

To make matters worse, there are numerous other occasions where Franzen not only constructs hopelessly unwieldy metaphors, but also proceeds to insult the reader’s intelligence by explaining the symbolism: he makes a lazy parallel, for instance, between Jenna’s manipulation of Joey and the dubious loyalty shown to him by his right-wing political connections (p.401); the comparison of Patty’s split from Richard to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam (p.510); and, worst of all, the analogy between Joey’s grotesque search through his own feces for his wedding ring to his arms deal in South America, the difference being that “there was no gold ring hidden in this particular pile of shit” (p.441). No, indeed, there was not.

When I started reading Freedom, I thought I had some idea, based on my reading of his earlier novels, of what Franzen was setting out to achieve. What is most disappointing about Freedom is not that it is a failure, but that it is a betrayal of the kind of unrelenting emotional honesty that I once thought I detected in Franzen’s work. A great writer is one who invites you to resist them and wins you over anyway, which is what happened to me with The Corrections. Freedom, by contrast, seems like a miscalculated attempt to preach to a particular section of the choir, and surely Franzen, who early on in the novel takes Walter to task for being unattractive precisely because he is so passively agreeable, should have understood this same dynamic in his readers.

Rating: 1/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 4, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

Tagged with ,

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.

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 , ,