Saturday, June 30, 2007


A few capsule comments on things I've been spending my time on of late.

Sea-reading. This year my "beach reading" (not on the actual beach but in a beachfront place) was, first, John Banville's The Sea which I'll always recall reading while a cold day's nor'easter beat rain on the balcony and against the screendoor. Set near the sea in England, the story is kind of a fast-paced Proust with its reliance on an older narrator's recall of days of youth long gone when as a lower class boy he got to rub shoulders -- and on one memorable day more than that -- with an upper class sister and brother. Engagingly written, sharply observed, fraught with a kind of melancholy that would like the past to explain itself. The melancholy also derives from a painful recent past, namely the decline and death of the narrator's wife which is told with great fidelity to the feeling of the aftermath of a lifelong relationship. Good writing; I'll read more by Banville sometime.

The other novel I read was Laurence Durrell's Justine, the first of the Alexandria Quartet. Though published in the late '50s, the feel to me is of the Fitzgerald / Hemingway nexus of modern prose fiction. Which is to say that the novel feels a bit "dated," even in its own time, but because the time it recalls is a high point of prose fiction in this century, the narrative has a compelling "reality" to it that I sometimes find lacking in more contemporary, overtly postmodernist stuff. It made me think again of the '50s as a time when the impetus seemed to be an improvement over post-WWI aestheticism -- in other words, a view able to do justice to what the world had learned of its sorry self in the Depression and in WWII. It has something to do as well, I expect, with trying to formulate some kind of readerly, accessible art of writing to counteract the mass -- and even educated classes' -- defection to film and other more accessible avenues of fiction. Anyone trying to write fiction after the '40s -- remember where Fitzgerald and Faulkner ended up -- must simply believe in the necessity of writing. And must convince the reader of the "use value" of the writing, so to speak.

Not so shore. "Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore / you may not see me tomorrow," Bobby D. sings on "O Sister." Well, if that's true, the ocean of time is threatening to overwhelm whatever the shore represents in that metaphor, and we may not see the beach, of Ocean City, MD, anyway, "tomorrow." I've never seen such high waters in June, which actually means I've never seen so little beach. Early in the first week there was the hard-packed wide sands of my youth -- for a few days -- but it was soon made short work of.

The greatest film actor who ever lived. At the beach I also watched several DVDs of Brando films. Not great films (except, I suppose, Waterfront), but in every performance Brando does something that is astounding: he becomes the character he's portraying. I don't think anyone else -- very few before him and few after him (Nicholson and especially De Niro and Streep) -- has the ability to inhabit a character from the inside. Brando doesn't simply "act like" whoever the character is supposed to be, he manifestly thinks like that character. In his eyes are the actual thought processes of the character, something that isn't in the script. I mean, on film, the difference between a real actor and a hack is that the real actor knows how to act when not speaking, but watch some of your favorites and see how often that acting is actually a repertoire of mannerisms (that's true of everyone I've just mentioned too, but their repertoire is more finely tuned than most). To say Brando 'transcends the material' is putting the wrong spin on it. Brando gives all possible weight to the material. No matter how indifferent the film, when he's on screen the story concerns a real person, a real presence. And his choices of behavior are always audacious, never simply glamorous or heroic or -- the failing of the majority of screen people -- cute. When Hamlet says of actors he's seen, "I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably" he sets the bar. Most actors can only imitate the appearance, rarely can they manifest "that within which passeth show." Of course, it's a paradox -- how manifest what can't be shown? If anyone figured out how to do it, it's Marlon.

I know foucault about it. Finally finished The Order of Things by Michel Foucault on my return. I was reading it because of my conviction that his discussion of the shift in episteme from the Classical (i.e., Renaissance to Enlightenment outlook) to the modern (i.e. nineteenth century and after) would help me to illuminate Oedipa's situation in The Crying of Lot 49, the Pynchon novel I'm currently writing about. I believe it did. What made reading Foucault kind of fun was the fact that he adheres to triads in his thinking even more than I do. And that's saying something, though I'm not quite sure what. I've been known to tell students it's not "either/or," there are always three things to consider. For Foucault, it's the tripartite division of the world of human activity into "life, labor and language." Which is to say biology, production, and speech/thought. One can see at once that what he's describing is what happens to humanism in the period he's addressing. But he's on the way to opening, theoretically, the space that does away with human meaning as the basis for knowledge -- and that's where TP's going to.

stelliferous Meaning. I'm trying to knock-off the "end" of the Lot 49 chapter this weekend. It's going pretty well if I do say so myself, which means that I've actually committed myself "on paper" to saying what the slippery little sucker is "about." I'm both excited and daunted by the prospect of doing the same for Gravity's Rainbow, up next, because I've been reading the fucking thing forever and haven't ever been so prosaic as to write about it. But as Rilke always sez: sprich und bekann.

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