Books Do Furnish a Room
This is the 10th (10th!!) book in the series and after the foray in the war, we’re right back where we started: discussing marriages and books in the UK. Specifically, we’re looking into the post-war publishing industry and discussing the state of literature now in 1945 or so. So where are? Well the Moderns (sic) have hung it up and we’ve moved into some other kind of thing that can’t quite be pinned down. There’s the lingering ghost of St. John Clark, now embodied by the likes of Widmerpool (the old classmate and whatever word you would use for a fiction-writing poetaster). On the more chaotic, but possibly more talented end you have Trapnel. Somewhere in the middle is Nick, who is respectable and more important actually published.
“Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, an opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age. Each of these ambitions had something to recommend it from one angle or another, with the possible exception of being poor – the only aim Trapnel achieved with unqualified mastery – and even being poor, as Trapnel himself asserted, gave the right to speak categorically when poverty was discussed by people like Evadne Clapham.”
“Youth, dumb with embarrassment, breathless with exhibitionism, stuttering with nerves, inarticulate with conceit; the socially flamboyant, the robustly brawny, the crudely uninstructed, the palely epicene; one and all had obediently leapt through the hoop at Sillery’s ringmaster behest; one and all submitted themselves to the testing flame of this burning fiery furnace of adolescent experience.”
Temporary Kings is a reference to the idea of being a great writer or an important writer or a successful writer, but only for a short time. This is mainly a reference to the general ambition the main characters are feeling, but also specifically to the character of Trapnel, who is in the model of Julian MacLaren-Ross, a writer who people generally don’t read any more. In the novel, like the last novel, we’re very much in the mode of looking at literary success and trying to figure out who deserves it and who doesn’t.
“I had not expected him to be in the least senile, but the sharpness of his manner may have been amplified by some apprehension, shared by myself, that changes must have taken place in both of us during the last twenty years, which could prove mutually disenchanting.”
“Enormous simplifications were possibly necessary to carry a deeper truth than lay on the surface of a mass of unsorted detail.”
“Each recriminative decade poses new riddles, how best to live, how best to write. One’s fifties, in principle less acceptable than one’s forties, at least confirm most worst suspicions about life, thereby disposing of an appreciable tract of vain expectation, standardized fantasy, obstructive to writing, as to living. The quinquagenarian may not be master of himself, he is, notwithstanding, master of a passable miscellany of experience on which to draw when forming opinions, distorted or the reverse, at least up to a point his own. After passing the half-century, one unavoidable conclusion is that many things seeming incredible on starting out, are, in fact, by no means to be located in an area beyond belief.”
Hearing Secret Harmonies
A jump in time makes this novel more about legacy of all sorts. Nick’s children play a large role in this one, as does the idea of not just who is making it in his own generation, but what will happen in the next.
“In its vulgar way, a painstaking piece of work, although one must always remember—something often forgotten today—that because things are generally known, they are not necessarily the better for being written down, or publicly announced. Some are, some aren’t. As in everything else, good sense, taste, art, all have their place. Saying you prefer to disregard art, taste, good sense, does not mean that those elements do not exist—it merely means you lack them yourself”
“People think because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist himself lays it down. His decision is binding. The biographer, even at his highest and best, can be only tentative, empirical.”
The Chamber – 3/5 John Grisham sort of prefigures a Lesson Before Dying with this one, or they came out about the same time. A guilty Klan bomber who is sitting on death row has just fired his lawyers, a Chicago law firm that had been representing him pro bono as he approaches his execution date. A young new hire approaches the partner in charge of pro bono work and ask to join the case and we eventually learn that he is the estranged grandson of the prisoner. He uses this to get transferred and eventually uses this to get hired by the prisoner who is done with lawyers as far as he is concerned. So this novel becomes a kind of treatise on the death penalty and looks to find sympathy for even the worst people on it. It’s not really a book about redemption so much as a book that asks questions about redemption.
The Beetle Leg – 3/5
The Beetle Leg is the second novel by the American postmodern writer John Hawkes. No, not that John Hawkes, but I think he could play him in a movie or be in a movie of his books. Anyway, this book is a postmodern minimalism. For me that’s one of the two main threads: minimalism and maximalism. One attempts to strip bare certain elements of recognizable forms of writing, life, art, history and tries to look at the structures themselves and see what you can do with them. The other tries to add as much together to create new forms or double, triple, or quadruple up what the forms can support. The difference between Kathy Acker and Thomas Pynchon.
This novel strips out everything it can from Westerns and sees what remains. What remains is rough and hard at times to find footing. Individual sentences are great, but the novel itself is hard going at times, funny, but rough. I think this quote from Flannery O’Connor about a different John Hawkes novel covers it.
“You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t. The reader even has that slight feeling of suffocation that you have when you can’t wake up and some evil is being worked on you. This…I might have been dreaming myself.” – Flannery O’Connor
The Theater and its Double – 3/5
There’s a lot of interesting ideas in the book, and some silly ones. The interesting ones come from the idea that theater is static in a way that makes it impossible to take risks and be interesting and important. Artaud says something about it’s both too serious and too silly at the same time. I like this, and while I am not a theater person really, I could probably recognize a static element to theater currently. I most certain recognize how risk-averse modern novels are. It’s shockingly bad these days or maybe its too much too little at the same time. As far as the sillier ideas? I think it comes down to how empty the theater he seems to be promoting is to me. Maybe it’s the de-emphasis of the author that does it for me. It’s not that I care about authors so much as I care about works. I don’t care very much about the theories of performance that he gets into and are picked up in books and articles by Derrida and the like.
“Theater of Cruelty means a theater difficult and cruel for myself first of all. And, on the level of performance, it is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies, carving up our personal anatomies, or, like Assyrian emperors, sending parcels of human ears, noses, or neatly detached nostrils through the mail, but the much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us. We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all.”