Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sewing a Dream Together (Finnegans Wake, Day Five)

Boald Tib does be yawning and smirking cat's hours on the Pollockses' woolly round tabouretcushion watching her sewing a dream together, the tailor's daughter, stitch to her last. Or while waiting for winter to fire the enchantement, decoying more nesters to fall down the flue. It's allavalonche that blows nopussy food. If you only were there to explain the meaning, best of men, and talk to her nice of guldenselver. The lips would moisten once again. As when you drove with her to Findrinny Fair. What with reins here and ribbons there all your hands were employed so she never knew was she on land or at sea or swooped through the blue like Airwinger's bride. She was flirtsome then and she's fluttersome yet. She can second a song and adores a scandal when the last post's gone by. Fond of a concertina and pairs passing when she's had her forty winks for supper after kanekannan and abbely dimpling and is in her merlin chair assotted, reading her Evening World. To see is it smarts, full lengths or swaggers. News, news, all the news. Death, a leopard, kills fellah in Fez. Angry scenes at Stormount. Stilla Star with her lucky in goingaways. Opportunity fair with the China floods and we hear these rosy rumours. Ding Tams he noise about all same Harry chap. She's seeking her way, a chickle a chuckle, in and out of their serial story, Les Loves of Selskar et Pervenche, freely adapted to The Novvergin's Viv. There'll be bluebells blowing in salty sepulchres the night she signs her final tear. Zee End. But that's a world of ways away. [Emphases mine--sgfb]

I can't read this book for more than ten minutes without wanting to grab pen and paper and write something myself. Joyce's critics claimed that he'd gone beyond genius, beyond poetry and beyond all language in Finnegans Wake and maybe they're right, but maybe they're just not brave enough to jump into the limitless sky with old James just to see how far they fall, how far they fly, how they'll tumble and where they'll land.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (Finnegans Wake, Day One)

No, that's not a Robert Pollard/GBV reference, but is an announcement that I've finished Michel Houellebecq's Atomised and have begun James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

I have no idea what I'll think about this book. I'm only a few pages in and I don't actually know how much of the language I'm intended to understand. I have decided to read it quickly and just plow straight through and if I get the gestures and some of the precise meanings, that's good enough. I am familiar enough (I hope) with the literary conceits and the basic ideas behind the book (the Fall of Man repeating itself over and over, and the weird sexual crime at the heart of the book, and that it's nighttime in Dublin and that Anna Livia (the mother) is the river Liffey (which also means that since her soliloquy ends the book and the first word of the introduction ("riverrun") is the last word of her soliloquy, she should also properly speaking be the narrator of the introduction, and that "Finnegan" is "Finn again" maybe, and the "wake" is not the wake of the old story but "wake" as in what comes afterward, like the wake of a boat, and Finn is perhaps Finn McCool, the hero who sleeps in a cave like Barbarossa, and after another Fall, maybe, Finn McCool will come forth and save Dublin, which is every city. Maybe.

This is less a text than a performance, and it's unreadable and it's not unreadable, and it's a novel and it's not a novel, and it begins with "riverrun" and ends on that same word in Dublin, which is the Garden of Eden. I don't know if I'll enjoy reading this book, but I do know that already it's making me think about narrative in a different way, and making me wonder about open versus closed narratives and gosh, but our cubehouse still rocks as earwitness to the thunder.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shakespeare's "Hamlet:" Not Quite a Review

On Friday evening, Mighty Reader, two of our friends and I went to the Seattle Shakespeare Company's performance of Hamlet at the Seattle Center Theater. If you live in Seattle or evirons, you must go see this. It totally rocks the house.

This is a not-quite modern dress Hamlet, as there are nods to 19th-century fashion alongside high heels, Uggs and Eurotrash ski wear. The sets are minimal: a bare stage with flats painted to look like either castle walls or desolate winter landscape, a couple of chrome and wood benches and not much else. The Seattle Center Theater is a small space and the actors use the aisles between audience seats as extensions of the stage; Hamlet made his entrance behind me, to my right. I don't usually like things like that, but for this production it worked.

The cast is generally excellent. A lot of performances of Shakespeare strike me as being acted by folks who don't really undertand the language, but in most cases here the lines are delivered as if Elizabethan English is a living tongue and the actors believe in what they are saying. Many of the words have changed definitions over the past 400 years and the actors use that to change the meanings of some of the lines, usually for comic effect, and I think it works in this production. I was happy with how much humor director John Langs found in the play, and how much of it the audience got.

Darragh Kennan is too old for the part, but his Hamlet won me over pretty quickly. He addresses the audience directly during his soliloqueys and I think that works and I believed him. Richard Ziman as King Claudius is exactly the right mix of egotism, smarminess and savvy politician. His first speech is delivered at a microphone, surrounded by courtiers. His "prayer" speech is great, and the chemistry between Claudius and Hamlet is wonderfully hateful and dangerous.

Everyone, as I say, acquits themselves well. Gertrude and Ophelia are not really roles of great depth (few of Shakespeare's women ever transcend the level of stereotype anyway) but they are done well here. Ophelia's madness is possibly a bit predictably done, and I'm tired of seeing her with a handful of stones instead of flowers, and possibly I'm also tired of seeing her so over-the-top mad in her mad scenes. I'd like for once to see a bit of a subtle madness, a lost Ophelia rather than a lunatic. Maybe someday. Her exit from the stage after her funeral is cool.

A lot of the staging and the interpretations are cool, in fact. The action opens in total darkness, the first line ("Who's there?") startling and spooky and the light comes up gradually on stage as the action progresses toward the entrance of the ghost. Claudius and Gertrude wear bathrobes and drink flutes of champagne when they greet the returning ambassadors to Norway. The play-within-a-play is downright brilliant, especially the dumb show that opens it (and also Hamlet's scene beforehand with the players as he tiresomely gives them advice). I remember being struck during the third act, maybe, with how surprising the production was. But I was struck more, truth to tell, with how versatile Shakespeare's poetry and plots really are, and how well they endure the centuries. Shakespeare's plays--especially his tragedies--are so complex, so refusing of easy interpretation and summary, that there are nearly infinte ways of understanding them, of reading and performing them. There is simply so much to Shakespeare, such great depth and complexity, so many levels and possibilities sitting right there in the prose that it will be impossible--no matter how many more centuries pass--to "wear out" the plays and exhaust the interpretive possibilities of them. Shakespeare was that good. He was better than we are, and I am again humbled by his genius. He was a man, take him for all in all, but we will never see his like again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tristram Shandy, Day Thirty-Four and Done

So that's that for Laurence Sterne's satire on English bildungsromans, and a fine time it was. I'm sure I'll miss the Shandean universe even while being happy to move on to some other book. I will not get into the "did Sterne finish the book or not" question, except to say that the idea of some sort of plot resolution is foolish and, honestly, how and where would this narrative properly "end?" I'm just glad to have read it and I exhort you to read it if you haven't done already.

What on Earth will I read next? Finnegans Wake? The Ambassadors? The Cry of the Sloth? A Moveable Feast? Or something entirely else? Hard to say, and you don't care so I won't belabor the point.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tristram Shandy, Day Thirty-Three

There has been a lot of activity recently. Book VII contained three trips from Calais to Paris (all narrated simultaneously): Tristram as adult writer of the novel, in more-or-less present tense; Tristram as adult before beginning to write the novel, at an unknown age and traveling alone; and Tristram as a child, traveling with his father, his uncle Toby, Corporal Trim and Obadiah (Mrs. Shandy remained in England). Sterne (you know, the real writer) takes the opportunity to trot out all the stereotypes of French that the English loved in the 18th century, and had a couple of jabs at Catholicism again, but not so badly this time around. Anyway, lots of fun and more mention of the mysterious "Jenny," the woman in Tristram's life about whom we will learn, in the end, almost nothing. Book VII serves no other purpose than to pad out the book and to interrupt the narrative and delay the story of Uncle Toby's love affair with the Widow Wadman, which begins immediately again with the start of Book VIII. Mrs. Wadman is carrying out a determined and well-planned assault on Uncle Toby's passions, though of course Toby has no idea that he is in any danger, poor fellow.

Also! TG and I went to lunch and had a marvelous time. We met at a used bookstore where I purchased a Vintage paperback of Thomas Mann's Death In Venice and Other Stories, even though Mighty Reader and I have no room on our shelves for even this slim mass-market volume. I bought it anyway; I could not help myself.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tristram Shandy, Day Thirty-One

Alas, the war has ended with the Treaty of Utrecht, and Uncle Toby has no more to do! Almost all of his energies--since retiring from the army because of his wound had in Flanders--have gone into (and come from, truth to tell) recreating all of the battles fought by the English army, in miniature on his bowling green past the kitchen garden, as near to in real-time as he could manage, taking forts and cities one by one as guided by the daily mails and newspapers. But no more, for there is peace in Europe, and a heaviness has settled over Uncle Toby's heart and he grows listless and disinterested in life. There is a malaise, an overcast, and also a lot of free time. Into that free time, into that heart yearning for something, comes love, in the form of the Widow Wadman.

But we must wait a bit to come to that, for Book VI ends and Book VII opens with young Tristram taking a trip across France, and for 25 pages we are given a travelogue of all the French cities between Calais and Paris, at breakneck speed, and it is only after 25 or so pages of Tristram's travel journal do we discover that he is still a boy of five or so, and is accompanied on this trip by his father, his Uncle Toby, and Toby's manservant Trim. The narrator has yet again, as he puts it, "begun some distance from his subject."

I also wish to mention that Chapter XXXVIII of Book VI contains, just after telling us that Toby will marry the Widow Wadman, a blank page upon which the reader is urged to write his own description of the Widow. The narrator assures us that she is the most desirable woman the reader has ever seen or imagined, and is wise enough to know that he cannot draw one woman desirable to all readers so he lets each reader fill the imagined shape of the Widow Wadman with his own desires. Which is quite clever.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tristram Shandy, Day Twenty-Nine

I am past the midpoint of this book and Tristram is now either a few days old, or a few years old. The narrative has looped around a bit. I believe that in the main timeline, it is only a few days since Tristram's birth. His mother has gotten out of bed for the first time since her laying-in only to overhear her husband and Uncle Toby discussing the sad news that the firstborn son, Bobby, has suddenly died. We have not learned how or why, but we do know that Bobby was about to be sent off to tour Europe as all young men of station are expected to do, and we also know that Bobby was a bit of a dimwitted lad.

Other interesting news is that Tristram’s father has begun writing a book, the Tristrapedia, which will detail the necessary steps in the education of young Tristram and guarantee that he will not be so thick-headed as Bobby. It comes as no surprise to learn that for the first five years of his life, Tristram is entirely ignored as his father puts his energy into writing the Tristrapedia and not into actually raising the boy. Such is the way of the Shandys. Tristram, meanwhile, when he is a few days old (I think) has been inadvertently circumsized by a falling sash window. Ouch. And, yes, highly unlikely.

So Mr. Sterne continues to amuse and play formalist games but alas, I find that I have begun to skim over some of his digressions. That can’t be a good sign. No doubt one reason it’s taking me so long to get through this book is the tiny type and the yellowed pages; it’s just difficult to read the damned words, especially for an old man like me, reading mostly on poorly-lighted buses.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Have Sworn To Move On

Scene: Last night, in the livingroom. Enter Me and Mighty Reader.

Me: So, I had this idea about the protagonist's motivation and I think I should rewrite the section where Act 4 ends and Act 5 starts. I don't think that I've quite nailed it and I had this sort of epiphany at work today and I think I can more clearly delineate his internal world and--

Mighty Reader: You're talking about the same book you just sent to your agent, right?

Me: Yeah, but it's a really good idea. See, the primary motivating force in his life has always been a sense that--

Mighty Reader: Oh, for God's sake.

Me: What?

Mighty Reader: You have got to start writing a new book. You have got to stop fussing with Killing Hamlet. Don't be the guy who rewrites the same book for the rest of his life. Just don't.

Me: But--

Mighty Reader: No, just don't. Move on, already. Write the Antarctica book. You keep saying how brilliant it's going to be. So write it already.

Me: (pause) Well. (pause) Okay.

Mighty Reader: (making a fist) I really mean it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Killing Hamlet: No Longer In My Hands

At long last, I have sent the latest version of Killing Hamlet off to my agent. I hit "send" at 12:38 AM this morning, and then I went to bed. This followed a several-hour session of entering corrections into the ms (I did one more round of revisions last week; Mighty Reader had some excellent suggestions) and I'll be happy to not see this book for a couple of months. I will spend the holiday season regrouping, reading, and thinking about my next book. I am not NaNoWriMo-ing. I'm not that brave.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Just Curious

Why is it that as soon as you hand a MS to a reader, you get your best ideas for the story and you want to snatch it out of their hands and make them wait for the results of the next round of revisions? Don't get me wrong; I'm grateful for the ideas, but still. There is always a version of the story that I like more than whatever version of it people are actually reading. Maddening.

Also: Tristram Shandy, day 22 (I think): Our narrator has finally been born, though he has yet to appear in a scene. He's been talked about quite a bit, though. His mother remains cloistered in her chamber, just as she's been the entire book. His father and uncle Toby have spent the majority of their time in the parlor, though Mister Shandy did take a walk down to the fish ponds when he heard the sad news that his son was named Tristram by mistake; he was intending to call him Trismagistus after the famous alchemist. Damn that Susanna and her poor short-term memory. Uncle Toby has sent for preacher Yorick, who baptised Tristram, to see what can be done about it. Mister Shandy expresses little in the way of hope.