Thursday, July 14, 2016

those whose shoots grow

When you look at the post about book lists at Babbling Books again you are in despair because in the interim you have seen the Feminista's 100 Great 20th Century English-language Works of Fiction by Women, and noticed To Kill a Mockingbird, which, as you know, is only there because everyone had to read it under duress in high school, so that this is one of the few books by women, or in fact by anybody, that anyone who voted for this list has ever known or can remember. You think of lists as bad records of failures. Why did Giorgio Bassani say that Francesca Duranti’s 1984 book The House on Moon Lake, tr. Stephen Sartarelli, reminded him of “the same beloved, familiar, infallible fictional pathways discovered by Henry James”? He must have remembered that stories in James tend to consist of people haunting one another, The Turn of the Screw making it overt by introducing the notion of ghosts, which foregrounds, by default, the author’s usual implied verb. At the end of Moon Lake Duranti has inserted a supernatural woman who promises to sell the lead male a collection of letters and then retains him inside her house by means of some enigmatic power. So the constellation of ideas, woman, house, man, mystery, letters, haunting might make you think of The Aspern Papers. But the intention is different; the presentation is blunt, the book does not seem convinced of its own paranoia, the haunting is deserved in a way that appears clear (the lead male does not want to spend his time with real women so he gets an unreal one), and honestly the most weird mystery in the entire Moon Lake appears at the end of chapter fourteen, when this man is trying to work his way through a stumbling block in a book that he is writing and the thought of the word voluble sends the text off on botany, a subject it has never been interested in before. “Voluble. The word’s ambiguity entranced him. Botanists define voluble plants as those whose shoots grow upward in a twining spiral – each species in its own way, the dextrorse twining only in a clockwise direction, the sinistrorse always in a counterclockwise direction; they are plants that …“ etc. These plants enter the book more or less of their own volition. Once they have appeared then the man considers birds and following this he realises that he is going to create a female character with the qualities of owls and lilies. It is as if Duranti has tried to think of the least likely source of inspiration that a book-writing human being could possibly have but she does not enjoy her imagination’s own convoluted strangeness: it is a functional object that she now drops. If Bruno Schulz had written this, I thought, he would know what he had done. He would allow the book to suffer fully from its bewitchment.


  1. I don't mind Mockingbird, but The Fountainhead? Ethan Frome?

    Maybe it's hard for an author or artist to see when the work has become bewitched, to recognize the bewitching forces acting upon the materials, to allow them enough room. Maybe some artists resist bewitchment and try to hem it in, cage and control it in their lack of understanding. Blah blah blah agon blah blah blah wrestling with the muse blah blah blah. A Romantic might find that noble, but I'm bound by pragmatism, most of the time. Though a thorough working-out of the aesthetics of a piece can sometimes be suffocating, too.

    "suffer" is good in that context.

    1. It’s hard. This is one of the reasons I admire Stein’s Making of Americans, the fact that she makes the struggle with that working-out into one of the subjects of the book until it finally takes over and disintegrates everything. James has his own version. That would be the “suffocating” way – The Golden Bowl. Duranti has her eye plainly on the surprise that she’s going to spring on you at the end of the book and doesn’t see the one that some aspect of her is trying to spring on herself. I’m sure that if I read the book again I wouldn’t see it. But for now it stands out to me.