On Failing In Our Own Style

In Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 39) Julian Barnes writes:

But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure….

His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion.

We are reminded, in many walks of life, that it is not only winning that is important, we must lose, if such is our fate, with dignity too. This ‘American academic,’ whose biography of Edmund Gosse will almost certainly never be completed (perhaps because the weight of its own ambition drags it down and renders onward movement impossible), has found his own unique realization of that state of grace–a state not suffused with bitterness and resentment. Success is not imminent; failure is highly probable; better to not rage against the dying light if that rage were to result in further indignities being heaped upon an already bowed head, a knee already bent.  Cut the line; sink gently to the bottom.

A realization that many dreamed of projects–members of the dreaded ‘bucket list’–will not ever be made manifest is sometimes said to dawn in ‘middle age.’ (The scare quotes indicate that ‘middle age’ is not a precise chronological quantity.) Then, our bodies betray us with ever greater frequency, we realize–thanks to a clear remembrance of the past–that a pattern of behavior we have been trying desperately to modify has been an ever-present feature of our selves, and that new habits are increasingly harder to form. Self-improvement becomes intractable; we become tired of the role of Sisyphus we have been cast in. We had imagined for ourselves an endless and infinitely renewable plasticity; we had extended ourselves and pushed against the bounds of our being and capabilities; but we find familiar barriers blocking our path onwards and upwards.

Under such circumstances Ed Winterton’s strategy is an eminently respectable one–even if not beloved of those who compose inspirational quotations for calendars and internet memes. At some point, we cease the straining and start to find greater comfort in homilies that urge us to accept ourselves for who we are, to not live for the future, but for the present. These now appeal to our sensibility–a more ambitious version of which had scorned them in the past. Now they appear to speak to a truth previously unglimpsed.

The notion of ‘a correct and acceptable fashion’ for failure introduces a wrinkle of course. It is unclear whose standards of correctness and acceptability we are to follow as we decide to settle for failure. Surely, we cannot imitate and emulate other failures; they are failures after all. The ambiguity of such a description provides hope then for one last signature gesture. If we are to fail, then we must fail in our own distinctive style; we must choose its manner and time and mode of expression. (Remember the bit about unhappy families being unhappy in their own particular way.) If we cannot succeed, then let us not at least fail at failing.

Crying For Anna Karenina

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone; I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway. Once.

A dozen or so years ago, I was making my way through a long-postponed encounter with Anna Karenina. I knew what fate held in store for Anna; the novel could not provide me with novelty–far too many had written about Anna’s death. But even then, I pressed on; Tolstoy is a rich and rewarding read regardless of foreknowledge of plots. As I did so, and as I approached Anna’s terminus, I found myself, as I often do, on a train, tome in hand.

By now, Anna’s physical and mental decline had begun; her love with Vronsky is contaminated by anger and bitterness and jealousy and mutual recriminations. She is sleepless and anxious; she has lost home and has not found another. She is an exile, at home, in society; her precious child may no longer be hers. The walls have come down.

As Anna’s fate approaches at the station, as I realized I was finally in the presence of the denouement whose contour had revealed to me by busybodies like myself–chattering away about the novel’s presence in their lives–I felt myself overcome by a curious and complex mix of emotions. Perhaps I felt pity for Anna; perhaps I sensed I knew how she felt–torn between a home that could not be hers ever again and one that was promised her but could not be. Perhaps I was horrified by the thought of a human being taking their own life–the most devastating of its possible resolutions. Perhaps, suddenly, I was afraid for this woman, for what she was going to do to herself. Perhaps I sensed the desperation that was hers was ours too, that her actions were not mysterious aberrations but entirely explicable.

So as Anna falls, as she is consumed, as her life comes to an end at–where else?–a train station, tears sprang to my eyes. I closed the book–a chapter had come to an end–and leaned back in my seat. I closed my eyes for a second and looked up to see a man sitting across from me, gazing curiously at me. I stared back, blinked furiously, and put my book away. I would not, and could not, read for a while.

Christopher Buckley and Dipsomania: Apparently Hard To Let It Go

The writers of great literature often supply us mere mortals with memorable lines, especially if they serve as the openers for their works. Thus, for instance, Tolstoy‘s Taxonomy of the Family, which kicks off Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This serves as raw material for endless variations which then embellish our own–lazy–conversation and writing:

All successful sports teams are alike; every unsuccessful sports team fails in its own way

Or,

All good movies are alike; every bad movie is terrible in its own way.

And so on. You catch my drift.

Or to consider another example, consider Jane Austen‘s unforgettable opening for Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Armed with this line, one can, with some facility, provide a suitable response to Christopher Buckley‘s homage to dipsography, the art of drinking, and, as it turns out, his drinking buddies, the slogan for which reads, ‘Alcohol makes other people less tedious. And food less bland.’ (‘Booze as Muse‘, The New York Times, 30 June 2013):

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a boring drunk’s boring drunk friends will write chapter and verse–boring ones–about their drinking exploits and their love of the bottle.

In this tedious jaunt through the flagon-and-Boy’s Club-infested shelves of his life, Buckley describes ‘three-martini lunch’ dreams involving Tom Wolfe, writing assignments involving Bloody Mary recipes, works in the obligatory Kingsley Amis reference (among several others to–mostly male, I think–writers), before leading up to what surely was the central motivation for writing this piece, the opportunity to let us readers know that he, too, like many before him, had tried to, but failed to keep pace with, that writer’s writer, that drinker’s drinker, Christopher Hitchens:

I mentioned Christopher Hitchens a moment ago. It seems fitting that he should provide our nightcap. He and I once had a weekday lunch that began at 1 p.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m. I spent the next three weeks begging to be euthanized; he went home and wrote a dissertation on Orwell. Christopher himself was a muse of booze, though dipsography and fancy cocktails were not his thing. Christopher was a straightforward whiskey and martini man. In his memoir, “Hitch-22,” he made a solid case for liquidity.

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious,” he writes, “and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”

Unfortunately, very little could have made less tedious the increasingly unhinged rantings of Hitchens as his expiry date loomed, and on the evidence available to us, the same goes for this considerably-less-than-novel paean to alcohol of Buckley’s. Men musing about their alcoholic recipes and proclivities is boring enough, but my tolerance runs out especially quickly when confronted with boastful tales of consumption marathons in the company of equally uninteresting hacks.

The next time Buckley feels the ‘entheos’ to write about his alcoholic adventures and adventurers, he should respond to it in the only way possible: drink himself to sleep, and spare us the details.

Mary McCarthy on Madame Bovary as Neurotic

Among the most famous descriptions of Emma Bovary are Mary McCarthy‘s cutting lines:

[She] is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling.

Ouch.

But what follows these lines is a perhaps more interesting set of observations:

Emma is trite; what happens to her is trite.  Her story does not hold a single surprise for the reader, who can say at every stage, ‘I felt it coming.’ Her end is inevitable, but not as a classic doom, which is perceived as inexorable only when it is complete. It is inevitable because it is ordinary. Anyone could have prophesied what would become of Emma–her mother-in-law for instance. It did not need a Tiresias. If you compare her story with that of Anna Karenina, you are aware of the pathos of Emma’s. Anna is never pathetic; she is tragic, and what happens to her, up to the very end, is always surprising, for real passions and moral strivings are at work, which have the power of ‘making it new.’ In this her story is distinct from an ordinary society scandal of the period. Nor could any ordinary society prophet have forecast Anna’s fate. ‘He will get tired her and leave her,’ they would have said of Vronsky. He did not. But Rodolphe could have been counted on to drop Emma, and Leon to grow frightened of her and bored.

Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a particularly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome; e.g., if Rodolphe had not materialized, Emma would have found someone else. But if Anna had not met Vronsky on the train, she would still be married to Karenin. Vronsky is necessary, whereas Rodolphe and Leon are interchangeable parts in a machine that is engaged in mass production of human fates.

This is certainly an acute way to capture the contrast between a tragic fate and a merely pathetic one. It also, quite perspicuously, makes us cast Anna Karenina as the heroine of an existential drama, one not driven to her destiny, but one who remains in command till her tragic end. Societal compulsions may seem to have exerted inexorable pressure on her life, and made it hew to a precise trajectory, but as McCarthy notes, there remains a great deal of surprise to be found in each fork of the path she traveled. This sense of surprise ensures Anna Karenina works as a suspenseful novel; we are aware of tragedy looming, but still unclear about its exact contours. Of course, even in Emma’s case, her ‘end’ is not precisely determined, but that she would be forever condemned to her relentless, misery-making dissatisfaction seems preordained. In so doing, Emma resembles nothing as much as Freud‘s neurotics, destined to endlessly, helplessly, repeat a recurring pattern, and indeed, finding their only comfort in its reenactments.

Note: Excerpts from the 1964 Signet Classic edition of Madame Bovary featuring a translation by Mildred Marmur, a foreword by Mary McCarthy and excerpts from Gustave Flaubert‘s trial on obscenity charges in 1857.

Re-Reading What One Has Read

A few days ago, I wrote a post on reading (and re-reading) what one writes. Today, I want to put down a few thoughts on the business of re-reading what one has read, sometimes willingly, sometimes not.

Susan Sontag once said, ‘All great books deserve to be read five times at least.’ When asked if she did so often, she replied in the affirmative. (I dimly remember her saying this during a 1992 interview at the 92nd Street Y.) I have never read a book five times–unless you count comic books like the Tintin series, which I’ve re-read dozens of times–but Sontag’s remarks still make acute sense. The most perspicuous definition of a classic book is one that endures, that is read and read again by successive generations, by a diversity of readers. We embody those diversities and temporal passages in our personalities and histories; what better way to enjoy the true worth of a classic than to expose our different selves, changes wrought in them by our unique experiences, to its endlessly multiplied offerings?  It seems staggeringly obvious to me, as it has to many others, that Anna Karenina will be read differently once its reader has actually suffered an acute heartbreak or two, or lived through a slowly disintegrating relationship.

So this sort of re-reading is an acknowledgement of the dynamic relationship between writer and reader, and of the creative nature of reading itself, informed by the particular background that he or she brings to the text. There is another, more mundane, and possibly more infuriating kind of re-reading: when one forgets that a book on our shelves has already been read by us, or even when in returning to a book we are currently reading, we resume at the wrong point and realize that the pages we are staring at are ones that we have read before.

The former might occur to any reader with a sufficiently large library of suitable vintage. We scan through its shelves hunting down the unread, and sometimes forget that our catch is one that we had seized upon and read before. Sometimes we find out quickly as we enter its pages; sometimes revelation arrives late.  I do not think the author should feel insulted that his work had failed to be memorable; our memories are strange things and we still have little idea of what makes some of its inhabitants long-term residents and others merely transitory visitors. Instead, he should hope that I find the revisitation sufficiently invigorating to continue. After all, doesn’t every writer want to be read and read again?

Moving on to the latter kind of re-reading. Resuming a book I’m currently reading, at the wrong point, is a common affliction for me. I do not use bookmarks–for some reason, I absolutely disdain them–and I often forget the page number where I had halted. I try to locate the point of departure but that quest often goes wrong, and so I plunge in with a guess. And sometimes, a page or so later, I come upon a passage that tells me I have been this way before. I find this experience curiously shaming sometimes: Was I not paying attention the last time I was reading these pages?  But here again there is reassurance for both reader and writer: I get a second chance to put things right and pay heed to the writer’s efforts and the writer gets another opportunity to keep me hooked till the end. Oh, and yes, the writer gets read again.

Lawrence’s Rainbow Still Glistens

So much has been written about DH Lawrence‘s The Rainbow that further commentary is perhaps superfluous, but possible redundancy has never been much of an influence in decisions to write. So here I am, offering my dos pesos.

The Rainbow, ostensibly the multi-generation history of the Brangwen family (which continues in Women in Love), is an ambitious novel in which Lawrence advances many philosophical theses–ethical, metaphysical, and political–using a diverse set of literary techniques: internal monologues; authorial interventions and asides; and character construction and dialogues.  It situates these in its recounting of relationships between men and women, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, teachers and students, and even employers and employees. (The Rainbow also features extended commentaries on, among other things, the educational system, the pernicious influence of industrial life on the English countryside, and the changing roles of women in society.)

I will not be the first, and certainly not the last, to note that Lawrence’s vision of the power plays between human beings can be bleak and dispiriting; this does not make it any less interesting. Sexual love and the relationships that spring up around it, are often, if not always, territories for the contestation of wills and selves doomed to remain opaquely hostile to the other; the ‘relationship’ such as it is, appears not so much as a shelter from the surrounding storm, as a theater for the creation of one.  Anger, fear, resentment, jealousy are as central to this battle as are the more exalted emotions normally associated with the mingling of bodies and souls. Man and woman bring a complex set of motivations, histories, and unresolved existential crises to their ‘encounter’; contact is made with the counterpart, and battle is almost immediately engaged. Sometimes there are are literal or figurative honeymoons; sometimes not. (Lawrence’s description of the cascade of confused anger and longing that can send a loving relationship careening downward approaches, at times, Tolstoy’s brilliant descriptions of the decay that infects Vronsky and Anna’s passions in Anna Karenina.)

An editor at a publishing house might well have returned Lawrence’s manuscript with the comment “It’s a little too interior, if you know what I mean.” Much of the ‘action’ in the novel is located in the maelstrom of characters’ minds;  the reader is frequently granted privileged access to extended attempts at resolutions of intractable, torturous compounds of emotional impulses. Digesting these and generating sympathy for, and empathy with, Lawrence’s characters remains the primary challenge for any reader.

Most critical takes on The Rainbow justifiably focus on the sexual relationships at its core; but Lawrence’s descriptions and analysis of the negotiations of power between employer and employee (at Ursula’s school) and between teacher and student (at the same venue) are also fascinating. These encounters are no less fraught than the sexual ones with struggles for pole position, for the deployment of strategies designed to assert one’s self in order to fully realize it.

The Rainbow is not a light read, but it is never tedious; the tone is magisterial, and only occasionally pompous. In scope and ambition it comes close to being an epic.

Bernard Rose’s Kreuzer Sonata: Sex and Jealousy Forever

Bernard Rose‘s The Kreuzer Sonata might be the best cinematic treatment of insidious, corrosive, and ultimately self-destructive sexual jealousy that I have seen recently. Based on Leo Tolstoy‘s 1889 novella, and part of a trilogy of Tolstoy-adaptations by Rose–I have not seen his Anna Karenina and Ivan’s XTC yet, but I intend to–the film belongs to the transposition genre; it sets Tolstoy’s story of 19th century Russia in 21st century Los Angeles. The locale changes; the plot details are modified in response accordingly, but the essential component of the lurid sexual imagination–made more feverish by imagined infidelity–is faithfully preserved. Rose’s rendering has the visual look and feel of a low-budget quasi-cinema-verite production in both its dark color palettes and camera work; the dialogue is often clipped and overlapping, and thus unfailingly rings true. These elements of Rose’s style combine to give the Rise and Fall of Marriage Founded on Carnal Love the feeling of a terrifying headlong rush toward the final, inevitable, tragic denouement.

In Tolstoy’s story, the narrator repels and fascinates us as we realize his jealousy is grounded in his own uncomfortable positioning of sex within his self: he is unable to shake loose its demands on him, and yet repelled by his response to it. His wife is sullied by her acceptance of his sexual desires but her rejection would have enraged him; so from the very beginning he despises his wife even as he makes love to her. Caught in this bind, he is an easy mark for the green-eyed monster. Without exaggeration, Tolstoy’s story was about sex–talked about, referred to, and obsessed over–but in the context of that tale never made explicit in its pages (Tolstoy’s treatment was still explicit enough to get the novella banned in Russia and–briefly–in the US). In the cinematic version, the sex is explicit, frank, and center-stage; it makes clear precisely what the husband is fantasizing about. This is what his wife did before him with other men; this is what she did with him; this is what she now does with her ‘new lover’. The husband’s obsessions are made worse, of course, because the sexual component of their monogamous, child-producing, buzz-killing relationship is in terminal decline; this precipitous fall is neatly paired off with a correspondingly dizzying rise in his obsessive desires to control her sexual being, to know her more than he had ever wanted, or is ever possible in this world of ours.

Rose has pulled off the rather neat trick of making Tolstoy’s story more relevant for our times by his adaptation: Tolstoy’s original narrator made himself distant by his idiosyncratic, religiously-inspired, crankish attitude toward sex; but Rose’s central character is worldly, sophisticated, even sexually powerful in his attractions and charms. He is not asexual, reluctantly drawn into its sordid embrace; he is an active player in the sexual arena, one who conquers frequently and successfully. And yet, he is ultimately defeated by its unique challenges. Tolstoy’s central character always appeared ill-equipped for the challenges of the sexual relationship; what leaves us shaken about Rose’s pseudo-hero is that even one so apparently strong is humbled by the seemingly-perennially paired companions of sex and jealousy.