Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Henry James : Daisy Miller

As Azar Nafisi puts it:

"I had just begun "Daisy Miller" and was reading about that Europeanized young American, Winterbourne, who meets in Switzerland the enchanting and enigmatic Miss Daisy Miller. Winterbourne is fasinated by this beautiful - to some shallow and vulgar; to others innocent and fresh - young American woman, but he cannot decide if she is a "flirt" or a "nice" girl"

And that's about all there is, since we're not taken any closer to any of the characters.

Miss Daisy is as enigmatic as anyone we might see while passing through a hotel lobby.

This novella is only concerned with a social milieu: status-conscious wealthy Americans living in Europe -- and though the story is only 72 pages - I'm not sure it's worth even that.

Or, if we are to make something of the heroine as that "child of nature and freedom" which James mentions in his introduction, it is only as a fantasy of a morbidly lonely man's imagination.

Though Azar makes more of it:

"Daisy and Catherine (from "Washington Square") have little in common, yet both defy the conventions of their time, both refuse to be dictated to"


"from the very first moment she appears with her parasol and her white muslin dress, Daisy creates some excitement, and some unrest in Winterbourne's heart and mind. She presents herself to him as a puzzle, a dazzling mystery at once too difficult and too easy to solve"

Though, I don't think there's much of a mystery here.

These are just people with plenty of time on their hands and nothing else to do other than flirt or gossip about those who do. The attractions of the old world (the castle in Switzerland, the colloseum in Rome) are just backdrops for ennui.

And when Azar condemns Mr. Giovanelli as "an unscrupulous Italian who follows her everywhere to the chagrin of her correct countrymen", she's attributing far too much to a phantom, since the reader has not been taken inside that relationship.

She's bought into the reactionary attitude of Winterbourne & Co. -- which is only natural since the author has shown everything through their eyes -- or more accurately -- through their suspicions.

But I want to hear more about Daisy!

And I wish James hadn't executed her so summarily.

She was apparently a high-spirited, though un-educated girl -- with the many opportunities that wealth could offer her.

And she seemed to be following the wise course of hanging out with Romans while in Rome -- in order to learn something about the world beyond Schenectady.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Henry James : Washington Square

Yet another book that Azar Nafisi was reading in Tehran - and then briefly discussed as a memorial to Razieh, one of her students who especially liked it and was later executed by the fundamentalist regime.

And I liked it, too -- being completely sucked into those finely drawn moments of human interaction, as seen from the inside of each character's mind.

The entire story seemed to run with the precision and inevitability of clockwork - indeed, that is the metaphor that is used to summarize the story:

"From her own point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring"

And as the author had me peer into the crania of his subjects - I'm afraid that I was peering also into my own, and I share Catherine's challenge of growing up with a parent who was as brilliant, rational and perceptive as he was self-centered -- a combination which seems especially American with its pursuit of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (a phrase which my father must have recited a thousand times)

And poor Catherine's lover was the same way -- so, though it was delightful for the reader to notice how quickly both men perceive each other as enemies -- it was something of a disaster for her -- except that, in the long run, she probably had a happier life as a spinster than she ever would have had as wife to the self centered Morris Townsend.

Nafisi refers to Catherine as the heroine of this story - celebrating the triumph of her indendence - and indeed, she was confronted by three formidable adversaries who all claimed to be looking out for her best interests -- but weren't.

"A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost"

That was certainly a shocking moment as her father expresses his excitement rather than his concern over her predicament.

But Catherine's success is a very small one: she will never raise a family or really accomplish anything other than her little "morsels of fancywork".

There's something that's dark and creepy about all this -- as if the main character were just a big juicy bug trapped in a spider web and waiting to be eaten -- while the author is a distinguished entomologist.

Nafisi remarks that Catherine's father (Dr. Sloper) is a modern villain : "a creature without compassion, without empathy" -- and relates this to the regime that is oppressing Iran.

But when has an adversary ever been perceived as empathetic?

And the ayatollahs were/are desparately trying to reject the modernism that so defines all the characters in this story. As Henry James notes on the first page of his story, Dr. Austin Sloper explifies a profession which, in America, "more successfully than elsewhere has put forward the claim of "liberal" -- as he pursued his life's ambititon to "learn something interesting, and do something useful"

I admire and kind of empathsize with Dr. Sloper -- as, indeed, I do with all of the characters in this story (unlike my negative feelings towards all the characters in either Gatsby or Lolita)

I even empathize with the neer-do-well Morris Townsend who would rather explore the world and enjoy himself instead of grinding out a profession --- and the dreamy aunt Penniman who wants to immerse herself in the romance of others.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fitzgerald : The Great Gatsby

Continuing my class with Professor Azar Nafisi, I had to re-read this American classic - dimly recalling it from high-school. How could a 16 year old understand such a story ? Or, for that matter, how could a 29 year old (Fitzgerald's age when he wrote it)?

Conveniently, a previous reader had highlighted every mention of color in the copy I got from the library, and explained them all on the inside of the back cover - so I could more easily follow the symbolism of green (growth, desire, envy, greed) , white (purity, emptiness, elegance), yellow (brightness, happiness, wealth) , brown etc.

But the story, as a whole, failed rather badly for me -- seeming to rest upon a shallow, priggish, constipated Midwestern middle-class curiosity and resentment of the polo playing set as fundamentally corrupt and insensitive - combined with utter contempt for a working class (George and Myrtle) who are dupes. (and don't forget about Myrtle's sexual energy - the only character who seems to have any)

With a healthy dose of anti-semitism thrown in (the epicenter of all corruption being the Jewish gangster with all that vermin-like quivering nostril hair who uses the clean cut, war-hero Gatsby as his front man.)

"A small flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the darkness"

Which is to say that Nick, the narrator, is the only character who rings true to me -- all the others being his immature, class-conscious fantasies.

And, BTW , I don't buy his self perception as being an especially honest person -- as he passively hangs out with people he despises and eventually identifies Gatsby as his good friend.

Nor do I share his conclusion that connects Gatsby's ambitious dream of an "orgastic future" with that"last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity to wonder"

Won't there always be some people who find something great commensurate with a great capacity to wonder?

Though Gatsby does not appear to be one them (he's more like a psychotic stalker.)

Nor apparently, is Nick Carraway.

Rather than ending an entire book, I think this passage only belongs at the end of chapter one of Nick's life. He would then go back to Minnesota, marry a sweet girl, inherit his dad's hardware store , eventually get divorced by a wife who can't stand his self righteousness, get rejected by his children who can't stand his criticism and hypocrisy, and end up a lonely alcoholic.

It might also be fun to contemplate one of the most reprehensible characters in all of fiction: Tom Buchanan.

A snobbish, racist, philandering, abusive, do-nothing blue blood - who seems to have more muscles than brains -- except that he does mount a passionate, successful defense of his marriage against a fabulously rich fellow who has camped out in his neighborhood for five years, working as relentlessly as Ravana to seduce his wife away from him.

Tom's success surprised me - and if additional chapters for his life were written, I would have him settle down into becoming a good father (he's learned his lesson about consorting with low-lifes) and become director of a yacht club which he would build into a prosperous institution. I.e. -- I figure he would be a no-nonsense manager.

BTW - one loose end, as far as I'm concerned, is the actual value of the Gatsby estate.

The entire narrative is driven by curiosity about this character -- with revelations as evenly spaced throughout the book as sex scenes in a XXX movie.

But how much wealth did he actually accumulate while working for that crafty Jew?

It would have been so easy for Nick to report that the value of estate was less than the loan still due on the mansion, leaving Gatsby as penniless at the end as he was at the beginning. But for whatever reason, Fitzgerald left that question unanswered.

And now it's time to take our seat in Professor Nafisi's class and turn to Chapter two, entitled "Gatsby" in "Reading Lolita in Tehran" --- wherein she ingeniously puts the book on trial for crimes against the Iranian revolution.

As the student/prosecutor, Mr. Nyazi, in the case declared:

"Islam is the only religion in the world that has assigned a special sacred role to literature in guiding man to a godly life... through the Word you can heal or you can destroy. You can guide or you can corrupt. That is why the word can belong to Satan or to God"

".... remember, Ladies and Gentlemen, Gatsby is the hero of this book, and who is he? He is a charlatan, an adulterer, he is a liar... this is the man Nick celebrates and feels sorry, this man, this destroyer of homes!"

And I tend to agree with him.

Gatsby is something like a hero in this book, at least to the narrator who finally becomes his friend and admires his dedication to a dream/vision/memory:
"an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person."

And, though he doesn't say it, he would have to admire Gatsby's financial success -- which is in such sharp contrast to his own struggles -- and without which Gatsby would be dismissible as a psychotic loser, whatever his "gift for hope" might be.

"The Great Gatsby" is only off the hook if we deny that Gatbsy has been presented as some kind of hero - and then we have to query the value of stories without heroes.

Nafisi interprets the book as a cautionary tale about dreams that fixate on the past -- like the dream of Muslim revolutionaries to return Iran to Sharia.

But wouldn't that apply to all historic ideals (including those of freedom, human rights, scientific method etc) ?

I think character of Jay Gatsby is too fanciful/unreal to carry that much weight.

But an Iranian reader might be familiar with priggish characters like Nick, and a universality of the contrast/conflict between provincial vs capitol cities.

She goes on to teach:

"The idea or ideas behind the story must come to you through the experience of the novel, and not as something tacked on to it. Let's pick a scene to demonstrate this point. You will remember Gatsby is visiting Daisy and To Buchanan's house for the first time:

"Who wants to go to town? demanded Daisy insistently.
Gatsby's eyes floated towards her, "Ah", she cried,
you look so cool"
Their eyes met and they stared together at each other
alone in space. With an effort, she glanced down at the table.
"You always look so cool", she repeated.
She had told him that she loved him
and Tom Buchanan saw. He was astounded. His mouth opened a little,
and he looked at Gatsby, and then back at Daisy as if he had
just recognized her as someone he knew a long time ago"

"On one level, Daisy is simply telling Gatsby that he looks cool
and Fitzgerald is telling us that she still loves him, but he doesn't
want to just say so"

Except that --- she did just say so two pages earlier:

"as he (Tom) left the room, she got up and went over to Gatsby, and pulled his face down kissing him on the mouth.
"You know I love you", she murmured.

What strikes me about this passage
is how dry and plain spoken it is.

Where images instead of the author's voice
are carrying the story -- as in a screen play.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nabokov : Lolita

Somewhere near the beginning of "Reading Lolita in Tehran", I realized that I had to read the original if I wanted to join that Iranian book club.

My first attempt, about 45 years ago, was a failure. I was a teenager looking for sex talk and quickly got discouraged by the all that dense verbage that fascinates me now.

What a great book! It's language is so much more delectable than the rather dry traslations of foreign literature that have been my passion for the last 20 years.

Here's a choice passage, from late in the book:

"This book is about Lolita; and now that I have reached the part which ( had I not been forestalled by another internal combustion martyr) might be called "Delores Disparue." there would be little sense in analyzing the three empty years that followed. While a few pertinent points have to be marked, the general impression I desire to convey is of a side door crashing open in life's full flight, and a rush of roaring black time drowning with its whipping wind the cry of lone disaster"

It's typical in many ways -- with it's gratuitous use of French, its wildly romantic self-dramatization, its contrasting voices ("few pertinent points" vs. "side door crashing open") and its innaccuracy: i.e., this book is not about Lolita at all.

Instead, it's all about the narrator who calls himself Humbert Humbert -- a European intellectual who despises all things American (except for the financial legacy that required him to live there) and who has a strong taste for early teenage girls.

Indeed, I'd say this book is all about taste -- especially a taste for language -- and Humbert Humbert is a dedicated aesthete, who, unfortunately has an uncontrollable taste for forbidden fruit.

Though, in many times and places (especially in Asia) that taste for children would have been completely acceptable. As Azar Nafisi reminds us, a ten year old girl can get married in Iran, and as we might recall from "Dream of Red Chamber", supplying young girls to old men was a cottage industry in traditional China.

It's only in places like America that laws protect children -- just one more reason why it's hell-on-earth for a man like Humbert.

Actually, it's that description of America c. 1950 that fills the bulk of this text - and that's what is the most delightful and fascinating for me (who was born then) -- all based upon Nabokov's own extensive travels throughout the country in search of his beloved butterflies.

Though it's limited to the kind of places Nabokov knew: small towns and college campuses.

If only Humbert had fixated upon butterflies instead of underage women, he wouldn't have led such a miserable life!

It's an America seen through the eyes of a profoundly guilty man -- and yes, Humbert does feel guilty - obsessively so -- just not guilty enough to stop what he's doing.

And since both Humbert and his creator were professors of literature, the book is packed with literary references, offering endless opportunities for future scholars to pick its bones.

But at the heart of this story is a character who is so vicious, confused, self decieving, and certifiably insane -- I'm wondering if all that study is worth it.

It's only as an artist that Humbert excells, for which his tale is that kind of evidence that is much more credible than anything else he has to say. (two different versions of his sexual initiation are given in an early chapter to caution the reader concerning the reliability of his narrative)

This is a story that has a flesh-eating monster -- but not a hero to kill it.

And an interesting comparison with Nabokov's fellow Russian-American novelist, Ayn Rand, can be found here:

We know what Ayn Rand thought of Nabokov and Lolita. In a 1964 interview, she cited Mickey Spillane as her favorite writer. When asked about Nabokov, she replied: “I have read only one book of his and a half — the half was Lolita, which I couldn’t finish. He is a brilliant stylist, he writes beautifully, but his subjects, his sense of life, his view of man, are so evil that no amount of artistic skill can justify them” (“Playboy Interview” 40). One cannot but note how closely her condemnation of Nabokov resembles her damnation of Tolstoy. We can imagine what Nabokov might have said about Atlas Shrugged by reading his estimate of What is to be Done? in The Gift. Here he mocks Chernyshevsky’s book for its “helplessly rational structures,” its appeal to “rational egoism,” and concludes that “the idea that calculation is the foundation of every action (or heroic accomplishment) leads to absurdity” (293-94). The ideas attacked by Nabokov lie at the very center of Atlas Shrugged whose author held rationality to be man’s highest virtue.

(BTW -- I can't get beyond the first page of any Ayn Rand novel -- but I do think that novels written from the dark side, just like paintings that exclusively depict Hell, can at most, be considered minor masterpieces)

But even if there's no hero to kill Humbert the Horrible -- at least Humbert is the hero who kills his nemesis, the evil Clare Quilty (Clearly Guilty?) who runs off with Lolita and tries to recruit her for his pornographic films.

Is Cue more evil than Hum ?

They're both intellectuals - though Cue is the kind who tries to be a success in the world -- writing syruppy plays for grade schools as well as X-rated pornography.
I.e. -- he'll do anything for a buck -- while Hum is more self absorbed and romantic about it all -- quite content to make art that will "live in the minds of later generations" (but then -- Hum is a trust fund kid)

O.K. -- Cue is more evil -- and we can't feel too bad about his long, painful death that Hum will eventually give him as he finally, and rather comically, retreats to the shelter of his bed spread.

Except that -- every character in this story is seen through the lens of a notoriously unreliable, self serving narrator -- and neither Cue nor Lo nor any of Humbert's female companions have lives of their own.

The only characters who can be contemplated in this book are the author and his protagonist.

(BTW - I just some clips of the Kubrick film -- and James Mason is almost exactly how I envisioned Humbert -- although I no desire to see it or any other dramatization of this novel)