Archive for July, 2011
For the last several months, I’ve been reading and rereading–almost obsessively–Golden Age detective novels.
I’m not entirely sure what this is about. Maybe I’m just trying to recapture what it was that made me love detective novels to begin with. “Murder mysteries” is what they were called when I was younger, and “murder mysteries” is what I think of them still.
I’ve been aided in this endeavor by good friends who have sent huge packaged of books, replacing many of the ones I had that are now out of print or very expensive to get.
This week I’ve been looking at two in particular, mostly because they surprised me, especially taken as a pair.
The books are Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers and The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.
Before I go on to what I want to go on to, I should note a couple of things.
These two novels are both first novels, both in the absolute sense–the first ever written by these two authors–and in the relative sense–the first appearance of their most famous detectives.
For Christie, that detective was Hercule Poirot. For Sayers, it was Lord Peter Wimsey.
These two novels were also written and published very close together in time–The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920 and Whose Body? in 1923.
And there are, of course, other similarities. Both women were British. Both used Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes as her template.
The similarities are important because they rule out many of the usual explanations for why two novels might be dissimilar. Christie and Sayers were both writing for the same audience. They were writing at a similar time in their own lives and in the history of the world. They were coming out of the same tradition. They were writing their first novels. They were being published at the same time.
And their books, even so, could not be less alike.
Let me start out by saying that I have always thought of myself as really loveing the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, and I am willing to say, even now, that Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors are two of the best works of fiction in the detective genre.
The first Sayers novel I ever read was Murder Must Advertise, and I remember loving it. I think it’s weaker now, but I’m older, and I’ve read and written a lot more.
The problem with Whose Body is not that it is genuinely and truly awful–although it is that–but that it is genuinely and truly awful in ways it did not need to be.
Everything that is wrong with this book is wrong because of a decision made by Dorothy L. Sayers herself, and everything that is wrong is not wrong with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
There is, to begin with, the fact that there is no establishing information of any kind at the beginning of this book. We are plunged into the plot not just in media res but in media life. Lord Peter is already well known to Scotland Yard and welcomed to help investigate even with his amateur status. We don’t know why, or under what circumstances, he came to be so. There is a body in a bath, stark naked except for a pair of pince-nez. We not only don’t know who he is–that’s the point of the title, after all–but anything about any of the circumstances surrounding either the death or the people in whose home the death was discovered.
We are introduced to a pack of characters without being given any background on any of them. What very little characterization there is consists of throwaway stereotyped lines about stupid police detectives and consceintious Jewish financiers.
As for Lord Peter himself, he is, almost entirely, a caricature. The endless and unrelieved stress on his bizarre mannerisms, the attempts to reproduce his dialect in speech, brought me to a point where, around page 30, I was ready to shoot him. The constant dropping of the final g in words like “thinking” and “doing” were enough to make me think that Cromwell hadn’t been entirely wrong to want to get rid of the aristocracy.
And then there’s the matter of that aristocracy. Aristocrats litter this book, all drawn with the broad lines of music hall comedy, stupid and vapid young men idling away at clubs if they can and being miserable about jobs if they have them. The aristocratic set could have been done by Monty Python as part of one of those sketches about upper class twits.
Through all this, it’s perfectly possible to see how Sayers has attempted to imitate Conan Doyle. We are first introduced to Holmes in media life, too. He is already a consulting detective with something of a reputation among the police. Holmes works where Sayers doesn’t, I think, because Watson provides the set up and background that makes the reader feel the story has some kind of foundation, rather than being sort of shot out of a cannon without warning. Watson explains things to his readers because he needed to have them explained to himself. Sayers has provided no Watson, and plot elements and clues come flying out of nowhere at random intervals.
It’s also easy to see how Christie was imitating Conan Doyle. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is written in first person from the point of view of Poirot’s own Watson, the amiable idiot known as Captain Hastings.
In this book, however, there is due time taken to introduce first Hastings himself and then the people with whom he is staying, the people among whom the murder will occur. What’s more, Poirot’s career and reputation are explained–briefly, but explained–before we ever see him, and well before he ever finds himself involved in helping to solve the crime.
And although Poirot has some elements of caricature, he is not written so broadly as to be unbelievable, and the other characters are not caricatures at all. Even Hastings isn’t a caricature.
It feels to me, reading them side by side, as if the two women approached their first books with entirely different attitudes and intentions.
It feels to me that Sayers set out to write a murder mystery, but Christie set out to write a novel.
If I’ve just punched all your buttons, stop. I’m not talking about “the novel” as a superior form to “genre.” Christie’s first book is very much “genre.”
Many genre novels are very good novels as well as being very good examples of their genre.
But Whose Body? isn’t a genre novel. It’s an intellectual exercise, a sort of elongated crossword puzzle, in which the usual strengths of fiction–for characterization, setting, even for plot as more than just a string of events–are almost entirely absent.
I wonder how much of this difference can be laid at the feet of the one really striking difference between the two women. Agatha Christie left school at the end of what Americans would call “high school” and married and settled down. Dorothy L. Sayers became part of the first contingent of female students ever allowed to study at Oxford and eventually one of the first women ever to receive an Oxford degree.
University training being what it is, maybe the difference is that Agatha Christie assumed that in writing a detective story she was wring a novel, and that Sayers assumed that in writing a dectective story she wasn’t.
Obviously, of course, somewhere down the line, Sayers must have changed her mind. Gaudy Night is certainly a novel, and not just an exercise in creating a puzzle.
The nature of the two books, though, explains why I have always kept a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles around the house–and replaced it every time it fell apart, as it did this morning–but I had to be reintroduced to Whose Body by a friend.
I’m going to go put on some harpsichords.
So, I’ve been looking over the comments for the last few days, and I’ve decided it’s time to be explicit about what I always thought should have been obvious. I mean, I don’t have anything else to say, and it’s late in the afternoon, and I’m tired.
Also, it sort of strangely fits in with one of the odder things about the faculty meeting.
First, this is a blog, not a discussion group, and I’m not a moderator. It exists for me to blither every once in a while, when I feel like it. Me being me, I feel like it a lot.
Back in the days when I did participate in Internet discussion groups, I refused to touch any that were moderated, on the assumption that all moderation is first and foremost an attempt to restrict speech.
“Civil” is as “civil” does, and mostly it defines anything OUR side says as constructive criticism, and anything THEIR side says as harrassment, intimidation, bullying and extremism.
Been there, done that, have that t-shirt.
That said, however, there are two people that I know of who would not be allowed to post here if they ever tried to register. One of them is the person who drove me off my last Internet discussion list. The other is the single most dishonest human being I’ve ever met, digitally or otherwise.
It’s my blog. I can do what I want to.
Second, other than the two people in question, I’m perfectly happy to have people blither, rant, fight and whine in the comments, as much as they want, as long as everybody understands, up front, that it is not my job to police the action.
What I really won’t do is throw a commenter off the blog because another commenter is upset–is commenter a word?
Anyway, I know nobody commenting here now has made any such request, but the requests have been made, from time to time, directly and indirectly. In the case of the direct request I declined, and in the case of the indirect request I ignored. Both got me called a lot of names.
But it’s like my father used to say–if you haven’t heard it before, you don’t know what it means; and if you have heard it before, it hasn’t killed you yet.
I do wish some of you–and that’s a PLURAL, because half of you do it at least some of the time–would be less quick to infer that somebody else’s comments is saying something distinctly–I don’t know how to put this.
Let’s just say we’ve all got buttons that are more or less easily pushed. And sometimes it would make sense to go back and reread the comment you think offended you before you decide it’s actually saying what you think it’s saying to offend you.
Okay–diagram that sentence.
Finally, my own and only reason for writing this blog is to have fun. There are things I’m interested in–politics, yes, but also literature, movies, harpsichords, the middle ages, Catholic theology, Renaissance painting, education, the murder mystery past and present–lots of things.
I write the blog because I want to talk about them.
If you write a comment to the blog and I don’t respond to it, it means nothing at all except that it’s not a subject I feel like writing about today.
It doesn’t mean I agree with it or disagree with it or love it or hate it or anything. It’s just not catching my interest in the way it needs to if I’m going to WRITE about it.
And it’s harder to write about things than it is to read about them, or talk about them.
And to go further than that–if I do respond in contradiction to some you said, I don’t necessarily disagree with you.
When I was growing up, my father made a big point of teaching us that in order to understand our own arguments, we had to fully understand the arguments on the other side.
He also said that it was never legitimate to engage in straw man arguments.
So when I see people saying things that aren’t exactly true, I tend to jump in and make the opposite case, or correct the definitions.
This is how I once got called a right wing extremist and a socialist moonbat on the same discussion group on the same day.
It’s been worse in fan mail.
In the end though, is this: I like the comments, whether I agree with them or not. I want lots of comments. I wish the lurkers would comment more.
But right now, I’m in the middle of writing a book in a new series, or at least finishing this part of it. With all new characters, my cheat sheet looks like crib notes for a dissertation defense.
And the term is about to start.
I’m a little distracted.
One of the really nice things about this summer is that a friend of mine has been sending me books, mostly classic mysteries, or things having to do with classic mysteries. One of those books was a collections of essays, articles and other material about “the detective story,” published in the 1950s. I’d remember the name of it if I could, but at the moment I can’t, and I can’t look it up.
I’ve got a faculty meeting today, so I’m sitting around waiting for it at a computer at school. The book, of course, is at home.
Maybe I should have waited to get home to write this.
Except–probably not. I’m going to be exhausted by the time I get home, and in the meantime I remember wha it was that bothrered me.
Part of the book consists of a section of various advice by professional writers of detective stories on what you should and should not do in a murder mystery. Some of this advice is just good sense–don’t include untracable poisons, for instance, or make your murderer somebody nobody has ever heard of through the course of the novel.
It did interest me, though, that so much of the advice in these four or five articles–one was not an article but the ceremony for induction into the Detective Club–was negative. It was all about what not to do. And there was a lot that was proscribed, too. So much so that if I actually followed the advice, I’d never write a mystery novel again.
Among the various thou shalt nots, for instance was “thou shalt not do any part of the novel from the murderer’s point of view.”
I should point out here that the articles and essays were talking about detective novels, and fair play ones at that, and that the problem seemed to be that doing a section from the murderer’s point of view without revealing the fact that that was the murderer wasn’t fair play, and revealing the fact made the detection part of the book superfluous.
My sentences are really getting impossible today. I have no idea if that’s fear of faculty meetings or just getting up early.
It seems to me that excluding any writing from the murderer’s point of view does two things to a murder mystery, both bad: it makes it impossible to truly get into the murderer’s mental frame of reference, to understand the motive and the personality that was susceptible to the motive; and it limits the number of points of view that can be presented under any circumstances.
And, in fact, among the other “thou shalt nots” in these pieces was the insistance that a detective novel should be about a detective detecting, and any other focus on any other character, murderer or not, was a bad thing,
Even at first glance, it must be obvious that adhering to any such rule would wipe out some of the most famous classic mysteries of all time–The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express–as well as doing in all the work of P.D. James, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, and dozens of others.
In fact, a mystery written with this rule taken as a rule would not be a novel at all. It would be an intellectual puzzle with a little narrative, like a kind of interactive, video-game version of a crossword puzzle.
But even the rule about never writing from the murderer’s point of view is bad enough. If the reader knows, going in, that the writer will never write from the murderer’s point of view, then he is able to discount any character from whose point of view the author does write. Aha, he says, clues rule out Sheila and Lancelot, but point of view sections also rule out Martin, Jacob, Gwendolyn and Miles–that leaves only Stedman to be the murderer!
In fact, all the thou shalt nots seemed to me to unduly restrict the scope of the mystery novel, to take it out of the real of literature and make it something else, and something far less interesting.
I don’t, I suppose, have much problem with writers urging each other not to engage in genre cliches. I’ve got a list of genre cliches I’d like to see die a natural death myself.
But why should mystery writers, any more than any other kinds of novelists, be restricted in which or how many points of view to use, or restricted to a relentless hammering on the detection to the exclusion of all other issues, or prevented from writing about current events or philosophical issues or politics?
It seems to me that a mystery novel is first and foremost a novel, and that that is true even of the fair play detective story. There’s nothing inherent in the form that should mean it must be penned into a very small place, and the smaller the better.
And now this room is full of people talking, and I have to go.
It feels like half a post. Maybe I’ll get back to it tomorrow.
Well, okay, maybe not this second. We just went through the week-end from Hell, almost literally. It was hot enough. And it’s not even August yet.
But today is the first time in months that I actually have to be somewhere by eight o’clock in the morning, and tomorrow I’ve got something going, too.
I’m not sure why the “have to be somewhere” thing is so important. It’s not like I usually sleep past the time I got up this morning anyway. My almost invariable rule has been to wake up between four and four thirty in the morning and go from there. It’s a good, quiet time to write in. If either of my sons is up, it’s because he’s been up, all night long. I don’t feel any compunction about packing him off to bed so that I can be alone to think.
But having to be somewhere at eight is what I associate with teaching, and although today has nothing to do with teaching–Greg has a doctor’s appointment–teaching is definitely on the horizon. Last term, I did very little of it. Greg’s medical problems and my mother’s on top of them became pretty much all I had room for.
This term it looks like I’m going to be doing a lot more, which is kind of nice. And yes, I know I complain. But still.
Complicating the teaching situation at the moment are the effects of Connecticut’s big round of problems with its state government, now led by a man named Dan Malloy, a Democrat.
During the entire Wisconsin public workers union flap of a few months ago, Malloy, who was faced by a similar mess, was interviewed by one of the cable news networks. His statement was that, unlike Wisconsin, Connecticut would have a different and more balanced approach to the budget deficit problem, one that wouldn’t hurt so many people.
Malloy then went to our state government and asked for a package of tax increases, which he got. This, he said, was the first step in a two-step process. The next step was for Connecticut state workers to agree to cutbacks in wage increases and benefits.
Our sales tax went from 6% to 6.35%. Our state income tax rates were raised slightly at the top end. We lost a decades old $50 sales-tax-exclusion on clothes. The real estate tax credit went from a maximum of $500 to a maximum of $300.
All of these were tax increases that would be felt by pretty much everybody in the state. The real estate tax credit cutback is going to hit just those families who are struggling to pay mortgages. The end of the $50 sales tax exclusion for clothes is actually the end of Connecticut’s long series of attempts not to put sales tax on clothes for children. The sales tax hike has weird effects everywhere. My McDonald’s speciality coffee, which I admit I only get about twice a month, is now 1 penny more expensive.
But if you’re going to share the wealth, you’ve got to share the pain. Malloy was convinced that, having had his tax increases (or most of them) passed by the state legislature, he would have no trouble getting the state employee unions to come to an agreement about cost of living wage increases and benefits general.
He was especially sure because the tax increases were not enough, and everybody knew it. If he couldn’t get concessions, he was going to have to go for lay offs.
Well, he’s had to go for lay offs. We’ve now had three or four rounds in the negotiating process, and although some of the state unions are willing to play ball, at least two of them are not. And the way bargainng works in this state, all the unions have to agree, or there’s no deal.
Malloy has started some cautious layoffs, but he’s started them as if he’s doing the thing where politicians try to scare the public into agreeing to higher taxes–in the first round, he laid off state police, and corrections workers.
The hold out unions aren’t impressed. They know all about those tactics, and the seem to think they’ll be fine, just sitting still and waiting for the man to cave.
In the meantime, the budget shortfalls are having direct effects on just about everything.
Some of the local community colleges have cancelled Saturday classes–to save money on opening and heating buildings–even though Saturday is the only day many working people can get to a class in the daytime.
At the closest of the community colleges to me, the number of composition course sections has been cut in half and the maximum number of students per class has been raised to 32. Composition, even in classes that are not remedial, requires teachers to assign and closely monitor several papers a term, often more than five. Nobody can possibly do a decent job of teaching composition to 32 students at once, never mind to 64 or 96–and full time faculty teach 4 courses a semester. I suppose the saving grace is that all 4 won’t be composition.
And as of yesterday afternoon, the unions are not budging.
During the whole Wisconsin thing, there was a lot of talk on the Internet about how awful what’s-his-name was being, trying to destroy the rights of workers to collective bargaining.
After several months of this, though, I have a little sympathy for Wisconsin’s governor. The way these people are behaving, I can easily see getting to the point where you think that only going nuclear could possibly get you anywhere.
We have raised taxes on the rich in Connecticut. We’ve raised them on everybody else, too, including on people who are living on welfare and food stamps, since they still shop in stores and buy gasoline. We have changed the sales tax code so that online stores with partnership arrangements–such as Amazon–can no longer afford to partner with Connecticut-based web sites.
And, to be fair, the majority of the unions have voted to accept cutbacks–no cost of living increase this year, a little more every month of employee contributions to health care packages, a small (very small) scale back in pension benefits, some furlough days.
The two (I think) that aren’t moving, though, aren’t moving.
And so we’re running up against a wall, with schools starting next month on every level, and the people who are getting kicked to the curb are all the people who can afford it least. While the unions protect full time employees, the part timers and adjuncts are geting killed: less work, fewer courses, worse times.
I can’t remember hearing whether the Wisconsin governor got what he wanted in the end.
Malloy is definitely not getting what he wants here.
Maybe a “balanced” approach doesn’t work if too many of the people in the mix are unbalanced.
I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but here, it’s ridiculous. It just turned eight o’clock on the morning and it’s already seventy degrees, and very muggy, so that seventy feels like eighty. It got to nearly 100 yesterday, and it’s supposed to do the same today and tomorrow.
It’s a good thing I’ve got a lot of work to do.
In spite of all that, however, I’ve got a complaint.
I just finished a book that I enjoyed all the way through, and then I got to the last ten pages.
And I hated the ending.
I mean that literally.
The ending seemed to me to be a) facile, and b) predictable and c) to negate, in fact, what the author thought she was trying to say.
C, above, is the most important point.
I felt the same way about the ending to the movie version of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, a book I’ve loved for decades.
The book is about the spiritual journey of a man named Larry Darvell, who is compelled by his experiences in the Great War to go find the meaning of life. He finds it in Buddhism, and in detaching himself from all passions.
And at the end of the book, that’s what he does. He gives up his small private income and his life in Paris and goes back to America to drive a cab, to practice moderation and “continence,” by which he means celibacy.
And yes, I know. This sounds awful. The book is wonderful nevertheless, and you have to remember that it was written long before Western celebrities had taken up Buddhism as a hobby.
The Buddhism as a hobby thing, however, is a good reason not to see the Bill Murray remake of the movies. When I talk about the movie here, I’m talking about the movie with Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power.
And, as I said, the ending to that movie is truly, mind-numbingly awful, because at the end of it, what Larry does is confront his old girlfriend from Chicago and charge her with all her sins, with complicity in the death of a mutual friend, with selfishness and jealousy.
And there is, of course, a certain amount of satisfaction to be had from such a scene. Isabel really is a monster of self-centeredness. You want to see her smacked around a little, even if only verbally.
But having Larry actually do it makes everything we’ve heard about Larry’s spiritual journey null and void. He has not reached the shores of enlightenment. He has not changed his very soul.
It’s as if all the industrialists at the end of Atlas Shrugged had gone–oh, gee, okay, we meant what we said, but we’re making an exception for Social Security.
I’ve had people tell me they felt this way–betrayed, let down, annoyed, angry, I don’t know–by the endings of some mystery novels, where either the murderer isn’t caught, or where he can’t be punished in one way or the other.
A mystery novel, however, has the conventions of the genre to deal with. Readers come to a mystery with the expectation that the perpetrator will be revealed and punished, either killed during the action or arrested for trial and imprisonment later.
The book I was reading was a mainstream novel, which means that the conventions are fewer and the expectations should arguably be less.
The ending still did something more than merely annoy me, and it ensured that I would never read this particular book again.
It didn’t quite get me to a place where I wouldn’t read another book by this author, but if I did read another book and the ending did the same thing to me, that would probably be it.
Is this sort of thing general? Do we all do this?
We talk a lot about how a book opens, and how important it is to keep the reader’s attention so that he or she goes on reading, but it seems to me that after that we mostly take it for granted that if the book hooks and holds us, the ending will be all right.
This book I just read proves on its own that that isn’t always the case.
And that doesn’t even get into the phenomenon of books whose real endings take place a good whacking hunk of prose before the technical ending, so that you get the bang-up you want and then have to read another 50 pages of meandering for no reason anybody can figure out.
The real ending of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for instance, is when Fred and George rout the evil Umbrage with their fireworks. Everything after that is mostly anticlimax.
For myself, as a writer, I put less thought into my endings than I do to most of the rest of the books, and it occurs to me that this has probably always been a mistake.
I don’t think I’ve ever done this sort of thing, though, where the last ten pages makes the entire rest of the fiction completely pointless.
Maybe I should say that at least I hope I haven’t.
I wasn’t going to write a blog entry today, because a mess of a night with a couple of family emergencies–minor, but energetic–meaning that I am LITERALLY running on no sleep. Okay. I conked for about an hour after lunch, sitting up on the love seat.
But still. I’m in no shape. And I know I don’t take any responsibility for typos usually, but today I can barely see the keyboard.
I just want to post an explanation. A number of people have been reading and responding to older posts, some very old indeed, and I just don’t know if I ever explained everything or not.
So here goes:
1) The literacy in the title of the “Literacy Quiz” is CULTURAL literacy.
2) And I knew exactly what I was testing–I was trying to find out just how much trouble my students were going to have with their textbook.
All the questions on that quiz were pulled from a composition textbook that consisted of some straight chapters but mostly essays and articles from various writers.
All those items were mentioned in the text without any explanation whatsoever. For instance, the writer of an essay might say, “The Europeans of the new century thought they were too civilized to engage in the kind of self-interested bloodiness of their ancestors, but in just a few months they would find themself involved in a conflagration that would make June 15, 1815 look like a kindergarten rehearsal for a very adult play.”
Okay, that was a terrible sentence. I’m tired. But you see what I mean. If you don’t know what June 15, 1815 is, you can’t understand what the writer is saying.
All written work above a certain level of difficulty is full of allusions like that. There are literally thousands of references across the culture that most writers simply assume most readers will just know.
And “getting” the allusions goes a LONG was to being able to understand what a writer is saying. In some cases, if you DON’T get them, you also don’t understand, period.
The textbook we were using was not a difficult one, and it was written for students of at best moderate academic ability. Most of these students struggle daily with understanding the books and articles they’re asked to read, and they struggle not because they didn’t drill in phonics but because they have no cultural context to speak of.
I could get a hundred questions of that kind just by sitting down with the editorial/op ed pages of the New York Times on any given Sunday (that’s an allusion–did you get it?), and I sat down one afternoon in my living room and got nearly a hundred from just two pages of McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues.
All writers use allusions. They have to. No writer would ever get anything written if she had to explain everything, all the history, all the literature, all the art, all the politics, all the current events.
That test did me in good stead as long as we used the book it was based on, because it told me where I had to stop and outline what they needed to know to understand what they had to read.
Without it, I would have failed a lot more people than I did, and I was not a cream puff.
And I don’t think being able to Google it is a substitute for knowing. For one thing, lots of them didn’t even realize an allusion was present–they had no idea there was anything to do a search for. For another, if you have to stop 15 times in the course of a 1000 op ed to look stuff up, your understanding of the piece as a whole isn’t going to have been much better than if you hadn’t bothered.
Be reassured, however–they didn’t get grades on that test, and it wasn’t part of their final grade for the course.
It was for my information.
And my information was depressing.
When I was in high school, I went through a period of reading everything I could get by any living French writer I had ever heard of–on the unformed assumption, I think, that if I couldn’t get up and move to Paris right that minute, I could at least anticipate the move by living there in my head.
I was about fifteen at the time, and I hadn’t yet figured out what later because obvious. Hemingway and the other expatriate Americans whose lives I envied hadn’t spent much time talking to the French. They talked to each other. They really didn’t talk to French writers.
I think it took another ten years before it occurred to me that there might be a reason for that.
At any rate, at the time, there was a set of more or less uniform paperback editions of Sartre’s works, including The Words, and Nausea and a collection of plays including No Exit. In the collection of plays was one called The Respectful Prostitute, and it has the distinction of being the first work I ever read that I knew I was supposed to respect and simply did not, at all, no compromises.
I don’t mean I didn’t like it. I didn’t like a lot of things, but in most of those cases I understood, instinctively, why what I didn’t like should still be considered “good,” in the sense of “done well.”
I didn’t like Thomas Hardy. I could tell that his novels were done well. I just didn’t want to be in the same room with them.
The Respectful Prostitute was not like that. The problem was not that I didn’t like it, although I didn’t. The problem was that it was rank, outright awful.
We’ve talked here, on and off, about whether we can say objectively if a book is good or bad. The Respectful Prostitute is a play, and I’ve never seen it performed. I also read it in translation, and translation can be either good or bad in itself.
In spite of all that, I feel perfectly confident in saying that the thing was awful. It was Sartre’s attempt to “address” the racisim of the pre-Civil Rights era American South–it was written in 1946–and even at the age I was I knew that the man knew nothing about America, nothing about the South, nothing about race relations, and not a whole lot about how human beings actually responded to each other.
The play does not fall flat. It’s worse. It seems to take place in some alternate universe where wooden automatons spout all the lines you’d expect them to if you’d read a tract on The Negro Problem, but none of the lines you’d expect them to if you’d ever met any people.
I have no idea if that’s clear. The experience of reading that play was so cringingly awful that I can remember finishing it even today–remember where I was, what I was doing, everything. It was my literary equivalent of the Kennedy assassination.
I am really not trying to imply here that Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog is bad in the way Sartre’s play is bad–it isn’t. In fact, it’s a very good book, if by “good” I mean one that keeps me interested and makes me want to go back for more. In fact, it even makes me want to check out Barbery’s first novel, which concerns the same apartment house and some of the same characters.
What the two works share, though, is this: in both (all the time in the Sartre, on and off in the Barbery) it’s quite obvious that the writer is writing about people he or she does not know and does not understand. Sartre’s play is bad because he didn’t understand any of the characters he thought he was writing about. Barbery’s book is better–and often good–because she does understand most of them.
But, a few preliminary notes:
1) My guess is that most of the people who read this blog would not consider this to actually be a novel at all, if they read it. It’s not “literary” in the way that Ann Beattie or Michael Chabon is literary. It doesn’t focus on adultery and campus politics.
It is, however, also not a “story” in the sense people mean when they say “that book has a good story.”
It is told in the first person from two points of view: Renee, a working-class but ferociously self-educated concierge in a high-end apartment house in Paris; and Paloma, a twelve year old girl in one of the families with an apartment in the building.
Things happen to these people, and to the people around them, but the point of view sections are both meant to be their diaries. And, as with all diaries, they not only report events, but discourse on ideas.
And there are a lot of ideas.
2) This book spent over a year on the New York Times best seller list. That’s a long time, even for the Times list, which is skewed in favor not only of independent bookstores but of a certain kind of independent bookstore.
The writer is a professor of philosophy, and the book was supported by what sounds from the description like the French equivalent of the NEA.
National Endowment for the Arts, not National Education Association.
So this is not only French literature, it is, in a way, Official French literature.
That leaves me with some interesting questions. Did this book do less well, commercially, in France than it did here?
The point of the Endowments–whatever they’re called–is to support art the government thinks is good but that has trouble finding an audience or appeals only to minority taste.
Any book that spends a year on the Times list is definitely paying its own way.
Maybe French readers like French novels less well than American readers do? I don’t know. It would be interesting to have an answer.
3) The story of Paloma, the twelve year old girl, is essentially Catcher in the Rye, except that where Holden Caufield wanted to go back to childhood, Paloma wants to kill herself after setting her family’s very expensive apartment on fire.
This is not a spoiler. She announces her intentions to do this in her first point of view section. She has, however, all of Holden’s ideas–the alienation from her family and school and friends; the conviction that adults are all phony and inauthentic.
Barbery, however, went considerably farther than Salinger ever did in making the family the locus of awful–this is a group of people so determinedly neurotic, the cat is on Prozac.
4) The story of Renee, the concierge–fifty-something and ugly, child of a working class background with no real formal education–is where I found the problems with characters who just don’t ring true.
Oh, Renee herself rings true enough, although being an American I have trouble connecting to her situation in some ways.
Where the thing goes off the rails is when we meet Renee’s equally working class friend Manuela or when Renee talks about her people growing up.
I know that most people in the “knowledge professions” think that anybody who does manual or menial work must be downtrodded, alienated and emotionally numb, but I’ve got people like that in my family, and that’s not who they are.
I kept wanting to shake Renee and go–oh, stop projecting.
5) Renee and Paloma have one big thing in common, and that’s that they’re both trying to hide how smart they are. Renee believes that if she allows the rich residents of the apartment building to know she reads philosophy and literature instead of watching television and behaving like a member of the proletariat, they will–well, I don’t know what they’ll do. Maybe fire her. It’s never made clear.
This is where I had trouble, because, at least in NY, nobody would think twice about the concierge reading Heidigger or the guy running the kiosk on the corner reading Proust. And they’d both probably be in night school getting a degree, anyway.
Paloma doesn’t want to let anybody know how smart she is because she doesn’t want the kind of pressure she thinks her family would put on her if they knew. And that would be thoroughly believable, except–
6) If you’re going to make your character a super genius, you’ve got to be VERY careful. I’ve got exactly one supergenius in the whole of the Gregor Demarkian series, and I’m very careful never to show him doing any of the things he’s supposed to be a genius in.
So much of this book is from Paloma’s point of view that Barbery doesn’t have the luxury of doing that.
That means that we’re constantly privy to Paloma’s thoughts on everything from French food to world politics–and those ideas are, well, what can I say?
Not particularly original, for one thing. Paloma has managed to come up with pretty much the same set of complaints and observations as dozens of adolescents I’ve known, including myself.
And there’d be nothing wrong with that–it’s actually all entertaining enough–if I wasn’t being encouraged to see Paloma as much more than this.
Given what’s actually here in the book, what makes Paloma stand out is not her brilliance, but her calm embrace of sociopathology.
And I’m willing to bet almost anything that that is not the way the author intended me to think of Paloma’s plan to commit arson and suicide on September 16.
7) When I was looking through various reviews and reports of this book before I read it, I came across a delighted review of the audio edition saying that it was wonderful, most of the chapters that were little essays on philosophy had been cut out.
This made me nervous about the book in a number of ways, but I can now say the reviewer was wrong–you don’t want to give up the chapters oh philosophy.
At the beginning of the novel, Renee is reading Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, a book about how all we can know is the workings of our own consciousness, we cannot ever really tell that there is an outside world that exists–a sort of apotheosis of solipsism.
And all I could think was: well, if you WANT to be depressed, go spend your afternoons with transcendental phenomenology.
I’ll spend mine with Jane Marple, and I’ll be fine.
But then, outside of a year or two in adolscence when I was striking poses, I’ve never been the alienated kind.
Good book, really, for all the complaints–and I will read Barbery’s other one.
It’s Saturday, and barely seven o’clock, and my day has already gone to hell in a handbasket. Seriously.
I’m in one of those not in any position to make sense moods where I don’t even want the Beethoven, never mind the Bach. And I just realized that I may have made yet another mistake in figuring out what happened.
But I’ll go back and look at that in a minute.
First, a couple of notes.
I always thought of the Carl Upchurch story not as being about being saved by the Humanities, but about being saved by rigor. The point about Shakespeare was not that it was good or affirming or whatever, but that it was difficult to read. In order to make any sense out of it at all, he had to work at it, hard, and over an extended period.
I always thought it was that–and then the fact that he did succeed in understanding it–that was the point. Twenty odd years of secretly thinking he was probably stupid (because he couldn’t do that kind of thing in school) were replaced by the realization that he could.
Some people are thugs because they think that it’s the best they’re able to be–it’s thug or victim, because they’re not good enough to do anything else.
I’m with Mique that whether “education” makes us better depends to a large extent on what that education consists of. It’s not just the lack of rigor in the Humanities these days that gives me pause, but a formal educational system that over-rewards conformity on every level.
Walter Russell Mead made the point yesterday in an article on the present state of crises in the world–that the people we call our experts these days have large come up in a system that requires conformity for success.
The guy who thinks his English teacher is wrong about Shakespeare or his history teacher is wrong about the Civil War gets a lower grade than the guy who goes along to get along, and the guy who goes along to get along gets a better college placement than the rebel.
And that’s especially true the better and more elite the college, because in an applicant pool where pretty much everybody has straight As and ranks in the first three in her class, even a single hiccough can make you look not ready for prime time.
But my point yesterday was not to revisit the are the Humanities good for anything wars, but to ask about change. I think it’s true–can’t remember who said it–that some people don’t change because they don’t want to bother, or even like where they are–but I also think it’s true that some people don’t change because they think the attempt is hopeless.
I’m also not sure that we should make such a big deal about the “difference” between somebody who has anger but learns to control it and somebody who learns simply not to have anger.
Learning to control the anger IS a change, a big one, and it has an enormous impact on the people around you. I also think that it would be counterproductive to define “change” only as the radical result of getting rid of the trait completely. My guess is that it’s probably not possible to get rid of the core trait. The only possibilities we’re looking at are controlling it, or not.
And that makes the whole issue of sex and change even more interesting. I’m pretty sure that it’s not possible to change who you are attracted to or what turns you on sexually. I’m not sure you can’t change who or under what circumstances you have sex.
We do know it’s possible for some people, including some people with really strong sex drives, to remain at least interpersonally celibate for long periods of time. We even have records of some of their struggles from diaries and autobiographies. None of them seems to have freed himself of sexual desire, only of sexual congress.
But I think when the issue is put like that, it becomes fundamentally different from the argument we’re now having in public about Michelle Bachmann and her husband.
Maybe I’m the only one who’s been watching this here, but for about a week now there’s been a minor media bouhaha about the fact that Michelle Bachmann–who’s trying her hand at getting the Republican nomination for President–signed a “family values” pledge that, among other things, claims that the American black family was more cohesive under slavery than it is now.
It was also opposed to gay marriage.
When the slavery thing didn’t have much traction, the media started looking into Bachmann’s life, and what they found was Bachmann’s husband, a man who advocates training homosexuals not to be homosexual any more.
He is also a man with distinctly “gay” attributes–as lisp, very effeminate body language, etc–and that has caused a huge fuss as well, although only Jon Stewart has been pointing out the man’s mannerisms on television.
But it occurs to me that “I think homosexuals should change so that they’re no longer attracted to same-sex partners” is one thing, and “I think homosexuals should change so that they no longer ACT ON their attraction to same sex partners” is something else.
And yet both sides seem to behave as if it’s only the first proposition that is being suggested, or that’s even possible to be suggested.
I don’t know if I’m making sense here.
Maybe all I’m saying is that we haven’t really managed to define what we mean by “change,” and we’ve got to do that if we’re going to be able to ask, or answer, the question of whether or not people can do it.
It’s the 15th of July, and for those of you who were confused on Wednesday–that was my birthday, but although I was born on Friday, the 13th, it wasn’t a Friday. And I like Mozart.
This morning I got up very early and tried to do something resembling sensible work. I even managed it, for a while. Then I went to look at Arts and Letters Daily, and found an article about how reading and writing about literature does not make you a better person. It might even make you worse.
The article itself was not all that interesting. For one thing, I’ve never really held the opinion that reading and writing about literature, whether High Cult or lower, will make anybody better. The idea that that’s something it can do has been the cause of some truly terrible young adult novels over the years.
It also seems to me to be a self-evidently destructive way to think about reading, or about studying the Humanities. It is a version of the same vocational impulse I’m often driven to distraction by when we have our periodic dust-ups about the Canon.
What’s the canon for? It makes you a good person. Wheee!
No, it doesn’t.
The actual claim in the Humanities, of course, is not that the Humanities make you a good person, but only that they make you a better one–better than you would have been if you had not studied them.
Robert has pointed out that there is no feasible way to test this–in order to do it properly, you’d have to get each person to live his life twice, once with the input of literature and once without.
Unlike Robert, I don’t think we should dismiss questions just because we have no standard method of testing them. To do that would be to dismiss most of the great questions of human existence. The scientific method, and the quantification that goes with it, do wonderful things with quanta, smelting, and vaccinations, but they’re never going to get us to understand love or hate or heroism or evil.
For better or worse, if human beings want to understand themselves, they’ll have to rely on inexact methods approached through metaphor. But I don’t think that means that we cannot come to an understanding of what is actually true, in these areas as in others.
But all that to the side, my question this morning is this: never mind if literature can make us better–can anything?
Is it possible for men and women to change for the better at any point beyond childhood? Is it even possible in childhood?
It used to be said of young people in their twenties that their character had been “set,” and the assumption seemed to be that after that point there would be no significant change in any direction–and changing for the better would be harder than changing for the worse.
The reason I brought up Carl Upchurch is that he is a famous example of somebody who at least claimed not only that he changed for the better–well, that was obvious–but that he’d done so because of literature.
As a young man, Upchurch was a gang member and violent criminal in Philadelphia. He eventually went to prison for armed robbery, and when he got to prison he was just as violent as when he was out.
He eventually landed in solitary confinement, and after being there for a while he started being bored out of his skull. Then he found that there was at least one thing in his cell he could use for amusement–somebody had left a book behind.
The book was a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Upchurch’s account of all this–it’s in his autobiography–is very funny. How he forced himself to read the thing because he had nothing to do. How he read it about twenty times before he began to figure out what it meant. How he found out that you could get books from the prison library in solitary if you asked for them–only to realize that he didn’t know the name of any books.
But he was pretty sure Shakespeare had written other things besides sonnets, so he asked for that.
And it went from there. He ended up earning a degree, publishing a couple of books, and becoming a rather successful writer and activist for prison reform.
I have no idea whether or not the story is factual as told. I do know that Carl Upchurch definitely did change, and for the better, and did it at a time when we tend to think people’s characters have been “set.”
When he left prison he was no longer violent. In prison, he settled down to study and work in a way that he never had before, and that he seems to have had no prior training in. He read nothing and then he read Shakespeare.
The Christian tradition, of course, relies heavily on the idea that people can change, and for the better, and do it at any time in their lives. That’s what the entire idea of being “born again” is all about.
And we as a culture tend to retain vestiges of the Christian idea that change is possible at any time–or at least that change is possible in most areas, given the right combination of circumstances. We’re heavy on the circumstances, and when manipulating those doesn’t get us the changes we want to see in human beings, we find totalitarianism a more and more attractive prospect.
Of course, when we think there is something not capable of change, we tend to adhere to its changelessness with just as much ferocity as we do to our conviction that if we just raised them right, children could be transformed into noncompetitive, cooperative altruistic automatons that always make the “right choices.”
Chief among the things we think are unchangeable are what we call “sexual orientation,” or don’t call that–things having to do with sex. People are born gay or straight or bi and no amount of environmental conditioning will change it. What’s more, any attempt to change this is morally wrong.
We actually feel the same way about bad sex–like pedophilia, or “sexual predators” (rapists)–we just put it into different words. We talk about them as being unnatural, and perverted, but we treat them as if their predispositions to do what they do are inborn and irradicable aspects of the human personality. That’s what the sex offender registry is all about, and that’s why we think that the Catholic Church, faced with priests committing pedophilia, should have removed them permanently from access to children: these people are incapable of change, this is not something you can learn to stop or train yourself out of.
Even God can’t fix that one.
But the question remains, of course–what can be changed, what causes the change, why do some people change and others not?
And, while we’re at it–what do we want to change? And what should we want to?
And no, I don’t have the answers for any of it.
I only know that, in real life, unlike in novels, human change is often only temporary.
Today there will be Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.