Sunday, April 29, 2012
The word "compelled" in the sentence I quoted a few posts ago, from Olga Masters' book Amy's Children, puts Amy's aunt in the category of characters who have felt, at different times in the history of literature, strangely driven to do this or that thing; they are the woman in the horror movie who hears a noise in the haunted woods and finds herself strolling out the door insanely in her filmy nightie shouting, "Hello, hello, is anybody out there, hello," into trees that she absolutely knows are filled with demons.
That hello-hello dementia stopped seeming unbelievable one night last week when there were gunshots down the street and everybody around me fled outside to look at this strange and dangerous event. No one was happier or more confident than the man who knew what gauge it was, although I didn't hear the number.
Compelled to look at Amy, the aunt fills her time contemplating the niece's clothes. What compels her? "The power of dislike," the reader says, maybe: it seems to be the explanation. Masters doesn't tell you clearly but she hints. The dislike is a mixture of emotions, you deduce, an alchemical mix that produced this bit of gold -- every description of an emotion is a recipe for that emotion -- an untested recipe with a hopeful cook, and the ingredients, Spinzoa said, were always desire, joy, and sadness, reasoning that these three could be manipulated and diluted into as many combinations as the human race would require -- maybe the aunt is driven by habit; she might be a woman who always looks down on other women who are well dressed, or women who work under a male employer as Amy does, and perhaps that aunt maintains her morsel of selfhood in the face of all nieces; it is this stubborn cupidity that gives Dickens the seeds of his characters, who will not be moved; the aunt is this cupidity diffuse, a Miss Murdstone is the same quality solidified.
Masters' "compelled" is very naked, but I suspect that the progress of literary compulsionism is evolutionary, and that earlier extrapolations prepared future generation to accept that brevity. "The precipitate vigour of Juan's movements seemed to impel me without my own concurrance, and as the shortness of the time left me no opportunity for deliberation, it left me also with none for choice," is a decompression of her single word, and it was published by Charles Maturin in 1820.
Trust me, begged Maturin and other earlier authors, proving with their busy sentences that they could explain themselves, and the generations of readers passed down that trust like heirloom blankets knitted by themselves so that later authors could take that trust for granted and made themselves cosy under it, is my suspicion, realising that they could discard Maturin's "seemed to" etc etc, or they decided that the blankets were too hot and now they wanted to explain compulsion in words less blatant, feeling the crusty past pushing them and believing that they were compelled to write in a new way; it was their new duty, it was the duty of Amy's aunt to look at Amy, it is the duty of Maturin's narrator to follow Juan, and it is the duty of the woman in the nightie to walk into the woods and die; a belief in irresistible compulsions covers a lot, for example, modernism, postmodernism, the romantics, Young Werther, suicide, gambling, and the way I keep clicking away from this post to look at newspaper headlines in the Age.
There is something mysterious about this compulsion. It seems to me that the characters would always have done something else if that unexpected flood of emotion hadn't been introduced to shove them on (emotion is an invisible force and it has to be an invisible force here because the story hasn't provided a visible prod that would take the place of that mystery, eg, a gun pointed at the left ear, a ceiling collapsing, nothing exterior to them is adequate so they have to do the work internally) but the emotion can never be completely explained, Maturin the Gothic romantic keeps his "seemed" (which is a word that says, "I can't explain why"), treasuring it, excess of sensibility necessary to his genre, there is a strange completeness in the compulsion's victory over the character's mind, the character pursuing their action with a vehemence that seems unusual, or unusually complete; Amy's aunt is "compelled" to stare at her niece until all the details the author needs have been absorbed.
Here is a lantern labelled "Amy's aunt" and the author picks it up and points it at a patch of the darkness that occupies so much more of every book than it will ever be able to illuminate, although, scratch that: any part of a book that hasn't been illuminated with prose is not the book, not lighted, not unlighted, but nonexistent. The aunt is the writer's guide, she is a temporary god-power, bringing into being all the world just then, though she is also nothing, she is the author showing the author a surprise, she is the unseen leading the writer from one word to another, she is the force that produces prose, which may be compulsion; and some writers when they are interviewed will praise compulsion, saying, I can hear my characters talk to me, I can see them so clearly, I only take dictation.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Mikamé exists so that suspicion could be released into Enchi's book. He is the devil and the reader is Faust; he is a tool disguised as a man.
I was reading a translation of Bashō's poetic travel memoir Oku no Hosomichi, when I reached the endnotes and saw that the translators were using the Japanese book to direct my attention to Samuel Johnson's Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland. Both writers had travelled north, one in Japan, one in Britain, the first in the 1680s, the other in the 1770s, and that light connection was enough to pull the attention of the prose away from Honshu to a place that was otherwise unrelated, long distance between the two nations, and the norths of the two islands are not alike. Akita Prefecture does not have lochs but it has forests, and Samuel Johnson in Scotland became irascible over trees. Where were they? "A tree might be a show in Scotland," he wrote, "as a horse in Venice." He was often scornful, the absence of a tree in Scotland brought out his scorn, he scorned the opinion of a clergyman once in the house of Mrs Thrale before dinner, and Max Beerbohm wrote a short essay many years later, A Clergyman, predicting that the clergyman "never held up his head or smiled again." "This unfortunate clergyman may have had something in him, but I judge that he lacked the gift of seeming as if he had."
And Johnson's scorn came out at these absences, the absence of something in the clergyman, the absence of trees in Scotland (Lydia Davis turned that irritation into a story so short that it's mostly a blank page), and the absence of horses in Venice, although I don't think he ever went to Venice, which was beloved of Ruskin, but they keep changing it, said the Victorian writer, anguished: the Venetians wanted to knock down their own old statues and buildings and so he sat drawing a cross carefully and quickly before it could be smashed. From all this I deduce that a person's attention can be drawn to any object or place or idea by any unexpected thing. I had to fend them off, wrote Ruskin. They had a hammer.
Ovid imagined change everywhere in the world, change is the god of Metamorphoses, he rips through the myths like a box of tissues: use one, the next pops out, use that too, the next one segues rapidly into the air; the poet's eye is fixed on transformation, no matter who into what, women into trees, Zeus into a bull, it's the one word he's after -- restlessness -- and it is in me, he tells us in the last few lines, it is inside me, change will kill me, I will die, this theme of change is my death; the poem is a poem of his death but the poem itself will not die as quickly as the poet. A poem can change for centuries and not die. Each country (state, says Hegel, in German), seems to embody certain ideas, and by executing one behaviour or another in the world it gives those ideas new features; justice in one country follows a certain set of procedures, in another country it has another course to pursue, the name of each country illustrates the difference, the name of each country is the title of an essay about that country, the essay sprouting up in every individual mind when the name is said, as the hard metallic knock of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Force (whose nickname is Metro) introduces the subject of the police to the room before the bodies themselves enter to meet their definition. Think of the word as the idea of a painting and the bodies as the painting itself. Is it a bright painting, is it a dark painting, is it a small painting, and though the brain behind the painting is thinking of its own history, the viewer sees brightness or size.
Weeks ago we received a free meal at the Spice Market Buffet in Planet Hollywood where the food has been divided into different areas, Breads in one place, Mexican at the opposite end of the room, Desserts between them, and while I was walking between the counters I saw how automatically people would name a treat as they came up to it. "Tortillas," they said, arriving at the tortillas. There was nobody with them who might have listened or responded but they felt inspired to produce the word. They named the beasts of Eden that were lamb and cake. A man came to a basin of dead prawns lying coiled with their eyes like beach balls, and "Shrimp!" was the word he said to the air as he looked for the tongs. Language had gathered the animals up for him but he could only take away a smaller amount for language is more capacious than plates. Yesterday morning when I saw a woman walk up to the psychology shelves at the library and say the words, "Psychology, ha ha ha!" I thought this was the same phenomenon displayed in the shrimp-man but she was on the phone. Attention is everywhere but gathering it is tricky.
Bashō's book has been Englished more than once with different titles. My version was translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu, who named it Back Roads to Far Towns.
Beerbohm's essay is available online.
Davis' short story is six words long, plus four more words for the title, and it goes like this:
SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT:
that Scotland has so few trees.
Saturday, April 21, 2012
Every part of the characters' lives that might exhibit them doing anything other than experience psychic extremities is dead to Fumiko Enchi by about halfway through the book, she ignores those innocent moments when these people scratch their noses -- they are robbed completely; Fumiko Enchi is too excited to care.
Now that she has gone this far it would be embarrassing to her as an author if one or more of the characters were not legitimately involved in supernatural murder.
The last action of a certain character in the final paragraphs is heavy with these implied words, She has been involved in several deaths. "The mask seemed to know the intensity of her grief," the author explains. But if you could see the character without that suspicion laid over her, what would you notice? Nothing spectacular; you'd barely pay attention to the woman. Here she is, she picks up a mask, a baby cries, she drops the mask, and that's the scene. Consider it from a sane viewpoint and you realise that the author might be treating us like dupes. There is no need for anyone to believe that a person who picks up a mask and then drops it is guilty of murder. People look at masks every day, constantly, in Japan and elsewhere, and people drop things in Japan and elsewhere, and babies cry; there's nothing strange about that. Not everything has to be connected, not everything has to imply.
For example, last week as I was walking down the road I saw a helium balloon rise from the dumpster of a nearby apartment block; and meanwhile behind the wall of a childcare centre someone young began to scream, and if I related these two facts just like that, together, you might think, "The toddler must have seen the balloon, and the apparition frightened them," and so I thought at first, until I realised that the wall was too high and the balloon (which was not fully inflated) was too low. There was no way the child could have seen it unless they had x-ray eyes capable of seeing through walls which I suspect was not the case but seriously, who can tell? Literature reminds me that such things are not impossible.
Consider this: Enchi might be channelling spirit vengeance herself; she's been thinking about it a lot, we know, and it is possible that she has talked herself into believing that the character deserves to be accused of crime; she shouldn't get away with it, this character -- she should suffer with an "intensity of grief." Guilt! thinks Fumiko Enchi: the idea of spirit vengeance has made her dwell on guilt. Someone needs to be accused. The book needs to end like that, she thinks. Guilt needs to be brought to a conclusion. This is the frame of mind that belongs to one of those brooding women who inflict spirit vengeance on their rivals. The rival needs to suffer (the brooding woman thinks) the rival has to feel damaged and disturbed, and why's that? Because the rival is making them feel unhappy, the rival is challenging them, and who is the only challenge Enchi is facing at the end of this book, who is the one person who could make her look absurd? The mask-dropping character is the answer to that question, the mask-dropper could make her look absurd; she could turn out not to have been involved in those deaths after all, she could say, "Spirit vengeance? That's hilarious. You've been reading too much Genji. You don't need supernatural theories to explain an avalanche." She needs to be subdued. So the author from her superior position makes the woman look like a criminal when there might be nothing wrong with her except clumsy fingers.
Never mind though, never mind: put that aside and agree that everybody's expectations have been fulfilled. The author is satisfied because several of her characters are directing evil spirits, the jam has not led me to a worthless book, the knowledge that lay latent in Mikamé's brain has been brought out and vindicated by events, the dormant period of both vengeance and knowledge has ended with the activities that have been exciting the reader for one hundred and forty-one translated pages -- patience has been rewarded in all directions -- we can all be glad like the dinner guest in Charles Dickens' first piece of published journalism who sees that his host's cousin has been asked to make a speech and jumps up to recite the Sheridan anecdote that has been pullulating in his brain since the party began. "Budden," he says to the host, "will you allow ME to propose a toast?" -- Budden agrees -- Jones rises to the status of a conduit -- releasing what? -- villainy, says Dickens, like this: "there is no knowing what new villainy in the form of a joke would have been heaped on the grave of that very ill-used man, Mr. Sheridan, if the boy in drab had not at that moment entered the room in a breathless state" -- the woman of Masks recognise a kindred spirit in Jones -- Mr Minns flees the meal deciding to remove the entire family from his will.
Masks was translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Mikamé already knew that brooding women were able to exercise spirit vengeance but that knowledge sat quietly inside him from the start of the book onwards until the behaviour of another character named Yasuko pulled it to the front of his mind, and when he expressed his suspicions to his friend Ibuki the knowledge was drawn out of them into the world, and they became conduits for distrust, which was directed at other characters who had become conduits for spirit vengeance, and so everybody in Masks is directing one thing or another at somebody else all the time without respite and every action is another person's opportunity, as well as an opportunity for some quality to emerge into the broader life of the community, the examples here being suspicion and revenge, and, in addition, whatever emotions come from reading Fumiko Enchi's book, an action performed by me, myself, and brought into the wider world by the earlier action of jam being shifted from its glass jar onto the front cover of the novel, near the spine, and who did that I do not know but I assume it must have been me as well, although how I transferred that jam, and why, are questions I can't answer because the whole episode inhabits a blank area of my memory; there is not even a disturbance to mark the spot where it sank, all hands on deck, and not even an inflatable pool pony left to tell the tale.
Once Mikamé's knowledge has been admitted into the book it is allowed to spread further and the reader is introduced to the idea that an avalanche which smothered a character to death before the story began was part of that vengeance, it was not a natural avalanche after all, even though it looked natural to everyone who did not know about the spirit vengeance aspect of the case, which, as the book went on, went from complete nonexistence in paragraph one, to a towering important fact that threw implications over every sentence, by about page ninety.
Enchi demonstrates the following idea: that every action is revelatory. All of the characters take part in the theme of spirit vengeance, either conducting the vengeance themselves or revealing its existence in other people; they can't have sex without spirit vengeance getting into bed with them; a woman can't take care of her child without spirit vengeance. If a character in Masks had put jam on a book then that action would have been proof somehow of the spirit world's fundamental malignancy. The person who moved the jam wouldn't have to be consciously malignant themselves; they're perhaps only a gateway opening to let the spirit vengeance through. What form will it take? Will there be another avalanche?
What conclusion precisely should be drawn from the jam-evidence I am not sure. But I remember that it took a while for Yasuko to realise that a friend was using her as a door for the malignant phantoms. It is possible that someone is priming me for a purpose and that the memory of M.'s mother's home-made peach jam on the cover of Masks is a damning message I cannot read.
Sunday, April 15, 2012
It is impossible for me to ignore a book with jam on the cover. Jam draws attention, jam is the reason why I have been reading the copy of Fumiko Enchi's Masks that lay on my shelf for months unopened -- jam made me open it -- jam is the equivalent of the most enthusiastic critical assessment or review that anyone could ever write; there is nothing more convincing than jam. Towards the end of the book I came across this paragraph --
Mikamé's failure to explode seemed to grate on Sadako's nerves. She glared at him rigidly. But the aggressive nature evidenced in her unhesitating decision to hire a detective was nothing at all like the brooding sort of wrath that could force a woman's spirit to leave her body and wreak vengeance on a rival. Mikamé nodded, reassured, even as he felt her cold gaze on him.
-- which directs me to a force as strong as jam, namely, literature, since, as far as Enchi's reader is aware, Mikamé's only experience of women who go through the "brooding sort of wrath" that forces their spirits to leave their bodies and wreak vengeance, has come to him through The Tale of Genji (and possibly other unnamed stories from that period of Japanese history: ""Of late he too had taken an interest in the possessive spirits that cropped up in Heian literature"). Literature must have convinced him that he knows the difference between women who channel psychic violence and women who don't; if he had never read about that stark divide between aggressive women and brooding women then he would not have felt reassured. He is convinced of his own safety, thanks to literature. Brooding is the key.
Lady Rokujō in the Tale of Genji broods. At no point in Murasaki Shikibu's book does she hire a detective, or even make some Heian-appropriate motion in the direction of detective-hiring, and as every reader of the book knows, she is assumed to have taken revenge on Genji's other lovers by channeling psychic forces of violence. The memory of this character has reassured Mikamé, who is also a character, though if it hadn't been for the Tale of Genji he might never have worried about spirit vengeance in the first place.
A genuine Japanese man would have encountered the vengeful woman in a story elsewhere too (the woman either spirit-channeling or reappearing after death as mystic angry phantom), because she's not uncommon in Japanese fiction, but Mikamé is a book character, and not a member of any nation, and so I have to agree that he drinks from the source of knowledge his author gives him, which is primarily Genji.
In his two-dimensional fictional book-plane there is nothing to tell him for sure that any kind of spirit vengeance is being directed through any women; there is not even any proof that spirit vengeance is definitely taking place. But reading The Tale of Genji he feels certain, of course he knows that Lady Rokujō is unleashing spirit forces there, because the author directs him to that conclusion. His own author lets her reader know that certain female characters in Mikamé's world are directing vengeful spirit powers, but Mikamé can't read his own book. If he could then he would know, as I do, that his guesses are correct, that spirit vengeance is taking place, and that Sadako is not the cause or the conduit. Give him the power to read himself and he would know whether spirit vengeance was actually taking place and who was responsible.
The literature that he can read, gave him those suspicions, and the literature that he can't read would clean them away. If he knew about this blog post he would wish he could read it; he would be endlessly tantalised by the idea of this person (me here typing) who knows all the answers. In Mikamé's eyes I am an unnatural genius.
[to be continued]
Enchi's book was translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
So Marguerite Young puts her characters together out of contradictions but the element of stability is there in each of them; always a contrast-element in the middle of those stormy fights (detecting fight in the work of the poet Allen Tate: "Tate the truth-seeker of no imperial truth possible or given, explores the richness of contraries and propositions which, each taken to be true, would nullify each other except for their continued presence as a subject of conflict.") Cousin Hannah is the one who climbs mountains, no matter what else she is, and Miss MacIntosh is the one who walks along the beach. Catherine Cartwheel lies in bed. If one of Young's characters meets an obstacle then that obstacle never destroys them or alters them any more than the storm of research destroys the classic novel; the obstacle joins the hurricane and gives the author a new window through which to shine a light at the stable anchor or ground-rooted pole -- on our own sun there are whirlwinds of transparent gas, and if there are no solid objects in the whirlwinds then science can't see them but once a solid is involved then the invisible can be detected -- the same in literature here -- fictional events are solids in the whirlwinds, obstacles are solids, they unveil the contours of winds, they refine the appearances of characters -- the nature of Marguerite Young's book makes these obstacles benevolent -- but Olga Masters doesn't work like that in Amy's Children; her people aren't classical books, and obstacles throw them off course, they swerve, they're impressionable.
Young's characters don't swerve, they plough ahead and trust that their personal gravity will deal with the problem, or not plough exactly because they don't move through life in chronological order, the way Masters' characters do. Young's people don't always know who they are or where they are in time, so say that they hover rather than plough; and when Miss MacIntosh tells the narrator that she's going to establish the primacy of good earthbound common sense she does it by asking questions, almost all of them irrelevant -- "What is a monsoon?" "Where is New South Wales?" "Who was King Canute?" "Where is my brother Richard?" -- which are connected only by the fact that they are factual and that they have factual answers: a monsoon is a real event in the real world and you can in fact describe it -- but this is not sense, suggests Marguerite Young, adding the ridiculous extreme about the brother Richard (a question the narrator won't be able to answer, and I might wonder if all of this woman MacIntosh's questions aren't really some kind of armour or proof of existence or some other thing, each question beginning and ending, each question a short book telling you where the author is positioned), this is not sense, says Marguerite Young, this is a facsimile of sense, and maybe she also says that all common sense is an affectation, it is only apparent not actual, and what else in the world might be apparent and not actual?
Olga Masters' characters have been strapped into time with seatbelts, the chronological car trundles forward and they have to go with it, knocking into problems as they arrive. The car bangs over a bump and their heads shoot up and hit the ceiling. They're bruised but the car keeps going. Young's characters don't bruise anywhere: they easily pick the bump off the road and put it around their necks on a string, saying, Look at my new ornament. Masters' characters suffer the bumps the reader would suffer. I am disguising these people as you, says she. Wallpaper my cracks, says she. Wallpaper their ambiguous parts as you have always wallpapered your own. Or else the reader is not expected to be so interested in other people that they care about cracks. The characters look roughly like people, as the flesh and blood people around us look like people, awkwardly defined and mysterious, and we are in the habit of taking people as they come, in pieces; we do it in real life automatically, so too in books, the habit carries over, the instant leap that occurs when a friend draws three dots and a line on a paper plate and we recognise without hesitating, "That is a face."
Or, another idea, the characters are not there to be understood and mistaken for people but to be absorbed into the brain of the reader, Olga Masters seducing her way in with these imitations so that she can be assimilated, lodging inside like ghost or tapeworm, continuing herself like that, dead Olga Masters, who passed away in 1986. Nine years later died Marguerite Young.
Sunday, April 8, 2012
("She" in the first paragraph is the American writer Marguerite Young and "the book" is Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. See previous posts.)
But the paper cube represents failure, she can't be infinite, she can suggest the idea of infinity, the possibility of endless viewpoints, but there has to be an end, the book has to finish somewhere, either she was going to stop writing voluntarily or death was going to do the job for her; and it stopped her during one of her other books, Harp Song for a Radical: the Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, which was published unfinished in 1999. Promising three volumes she only drafted one. Every author who stops writing a book has acknowledged the presence of death, and the last page of every book murmurs death, death, by implication, making that the final word in every story. The end of every story is, and then they all died.
A character who said a line on page five will never say that line in the same way again no matter how often you read the words, in fact the more you read the more it will mutate, the changes that run through you leaking out and affecting even a static thing like a sentence, or an apparently static thing; the line itself is secretly never still but moves through space and circles the sun. I age, therefore the sentence ages; if it's going to parasitise my memory then it has to take the good with the bad, and let it reflect that we're all in the same boat; this planet earth might feel the same way about me, or a least it acts as though it does.
So I treat the sentence as the planet treats me; this seems unfair and sour but, apparently participating in the nature of a planet as I am, I can't help it, or if it is possible to stop then I don't know how. Hypothesis: nor does the planet.
If she had composed the book orally there would have been nothing to represent her failure except silence. You would drive to the middle of a desert, stop the car, hear no human voice, and it would be the sound of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.
Think of the subtlety she could have had, if novels could be infinite. There would have been billions of variations on Mr Spitzer's character. One viewpoint would only just differ from the one before, in one small part. The next one would differ so, so slightly, in another small way. Instead she made him both alive and dead, which is contradictory enough to get the point across. Infinity had to be replaced with unmistakable strength. Failure, which could be called modification if you prefer, is evidence of her existence as a human being. The novel she had planned was impossible in this natural environment, the one we inhabit, with its trees, flowers, sunshine, bees, water, and the inevitable deaths of its books.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Marguerite Young's characters are books in an ideal library of classics -- by which I mean? -- that they come in two parts. The first part is a description, something plain and large that sets this person apart from everyone else, it's how you recognise them. Her bus driver is a Republican with a huge beard and there is no one else in the book like him. Cousin Hannah is a suffragist explorer and there is no one else in the book like her. Mr Spitzer and Miss MacIntosh both take walks but Mr Spitzer's walks are city walks and Miss MacIntosh's walks are beach walks. Now you know who they are when they appear, and you could say that these descriptions are like the first impressions that real people have of other real people, they're that red-haired woman who delivers the mail, my rich cousin who bought a yacht, some tag, some placemarker, the person can be summoned up easily, perhaps because you want to extrapolate on them, saying, my rich cousin who bought a yacht, she painted her yacht green last week and sailed to --
The second part is that extrapolation, which, in the fantasy I'm having, is like the commentary that gives the classic (the book itself is the equivalent of the first part) a larger existence in the minds of anyone who considers it, a volume of research or reputation that can, if it's the right size, make the classic so huge that it seems inextinguishable, perpetual, and intimidating as a country. The classic, or first part, stays in place, and commentary takes place around it, in addition to it, which is the way Marguerite Young treats her characters, giving each one that strong nametag of a description and then extrapolating, extrapolating -- they exist to be extrapolated, considered, and seen -- what did Cousin Hannah explore? -- deserts and mountains -- what did she do there? -- in the deserts she rescued women from harems -- and? -- one day the most powerful sheik removed his head-covering and he was a woman -- followed by more details about Cousin Hannah. Was she proud of her adventures? Yes, she was always bold and fearless. No. "For that of which she should have been proud she was ashamed." More information, until the author behaves as if she's reached a point of critical mass and more contradictions appear, the author, that suctioning whirlpool, grabbing and exaggerating those contradictions, announcing that Cousin Hannah may in fact have been the opposite of everything that has been said about her although she did in fact go on those expeditions, but the presentation of her motives may be wrong, in fact is wrong, absolutely wrong, couldn't be more wrong, and here is the right version which I the reader now cannot of course believe is right, but I might not be wise enough to disbelieve it if I hadn't had the other right version first.
Mr Spitzer may be alive or he may be dead, he may be himself or he may be his brother, he may be a gambler with a card up his sleeve or he may not; he is a composer, composing is his passion, but he is not a composer; his music is not the music that you would recognise as the work of a composer.
Here is the person, says Marguerite Young, here is a plump shy lawyer who walks through the city, now look at this part of him, regard if you will, that aspect, I will put this attribute to this name, I will attach it there, saying first that Mr Spitzer takes walks, then enlarging the reader's ideas about his walks, then bringing up a possible alternative, treating these characters like complicated or detailed objects that deserve to be studied and interpreted, and every signal they can give off should be searched for and read, she intimates (by doing it) and yet you'll never find all the signs, you'll always keep adding to this person who seems at first glance, so simple -- this is what she suggests, by giving us one story about the person, then another story, and then when that story is over it segues into another one (has she been reading Ovid?) or she boxes up the sketch of a separate story in a sentence and drops it in there, saying, without saying it, there are parts of them you will never see, not fully, not really, parts that might contradict every idea you've formed about them, new aspects sidle into further aspects, the reader notices a brief mention of a baby, then the baby's father is mentioned, then there's a side-story about him and his personal history, all erupting out of the baby, which erupted out of the mother, which erupted out of the narrator meeting that mother by chance in a rural cafe, which erupted out of a bus trip, which erupted out of the fate of Miss MacIntosh, which came about as the result of a different event or events.
On and on until the characters might begin to appear inexhaustible, as an ideal classic book is expected to seem inexhaustible -- no end in sight to Jane Austen dissertations, says a poster on Wuthering Expectations -- but Austen did not write those dissertations, and Young's characters do not stir up the storm of commentary that surrounds them -- that storm is someone else's work, it is the work of the author, who is trying to represent the rest of the universe. The characters need to appear inexhaustible, because we ourselves, as a human collective, see each object kaleidoscopically (she suggests, and in other places more blatantly stated) -- this is how Cousin Hannah can seem true from two opposite points of view -- it's one of their qualities, this inexhaustibility, these characters, these substitute-people, who are not there as minds-to-be-read, as some fictional characters are, but as things-to-be-looked-at, therefore, the size of the book, one thousand one hundred and ninety-eight pages in my copy from Harvest Books, published in 1979 and bought by me in the secondhand bookshop in Fitzroy that had to move because it had been damaged in the upper floor by fire (this could be another set of extrapolations, this could be in Miss MacIntosh, how the fire began in an air conditioner, how they shifted around the corner to Smith Street, how they had to close again, how I would have gone to their closing-down sale with every book only two dollars if I hadn't been in another country, how that other bookshop on Brunswick Street closed too --) has a purpose -- it takes the idea that each person can be approached from multiple directions ("There is no one way to account for everything") and represents it in time and space: she transforms it into a large paper cube. Maybe a book is also sculpture.
Sunday, April 1, 2012
Signs of prosperity change over time: a tallow candle would still have you prosperous today but only because we can see you have money to waste on stumps of efflorescent fat; your eyes love the drips, that black draft is romancing your pocket. Some signs of prosperity do not change; when Olga Masters's Amy can move out of her aunt's spare bedroom she is richer than she was when she couldn't, and that same state of affairs pertains today I swear, even among the Irish flag people and the one dressed as Saint Patrick, although for most of the day I thought he was the Pope. Wuthering Expectations has been thinking about the classics, a canon that has been kneaded to the point where, says a poster at Jillian's Classics Club challenge, the word classic can be applied to Harry Potter if you want, and who am I, asks the poster, to argue otherwise? Who am I? Mr Spitzer in Miss MacIntosh asks the same question and he is actually his brother. "There is no unshakeable law of mental life," wrote Marguerite Young in her profile of Marianne Moore. "There is no one way to account for everything," she says, accounting for Marianne Moore in a single way which is hers.
So the Classics Club challenge is not to read a static thing called classic but to read a book that can be described as a classic in words that convince others and maybe yourself. Your job is persuasion. This is democratic and magical. I argue that Amy's Children is a classic of Australian kitchen sink literature, or books published in the 1980s, or books by journalists born in New South Wales, or books about single mothers in Sydney, whatever suits me; I argue that Harry Potter is a classic of modern children's literature, or books set in boarding schools, or serial fiction, or international entertainment phenomenons, take your pick; I argue that Fumiko Enchi's Masks (thinking of this book because I took it off my shelf last night and it had been rubbed with jam) is a classic among Japanese books with words in their titles that can be translated into English as mask, and so is Yukio Mishima's Confessions of Mask. There may be other classics in that genre.
The libraries of the world are full of classics, anything is a classic, we have enriched ourselves, here is one way in which the changing conditions of our understanding have encouraged the production of certain things and discouraged the production of others, namely, books that could never be called classics of anything, lost books, lost by the lack of imagination in their owners, who can't think of a reason why this book, whatever it is, could be called a classic of something, when, I swear, there is a category small enough to fit anything, a category small as a blue hair ribbon -- look at St Patrick's Day -- a day represented by the colour green -- which allows it to amass any concrete object in the world. No romantic extrapolation is denied. I can walk the streets in a jade cape and people will understand. I can wear a bowler hat with a shamrock in the band. The shamrock can be covered with glitter. It can be six feet tall. The hat can have a drawbridge. I can wear a frog costume and on the stomach of the frog I have sewn the outline of a marijuana plant. Lovely comprehension sweeps through the crowd because it is the seventeenth of March. A category is a thing that can amass. A book is a category: it can amass. Amy's ability to amass is limited; she doesn't have a lot of money and she doesn't show an interest in things that can be amassed without money; she is not like the old woman I noticed in the dumpster behind the block of flats this afternoon holding one arm over her head with the wrist cocked and the hand held flat like the head of a shower. I don't know what she was collecting but it was free. Spring is coming. The largest category on earth is light although blind cave fishes stay evasive; alternatively dark.