Thursday, April 23, 2009


1. 'Vacate the personae.'
Having made it finally through Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift (1975), I breathe an immense sigh of relief. The book was almost as exhausting as The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and that’s saying something. Bellow is the kind of writer, I now know for sure, that can lay it on with a trowel. Charles Citrine, the first person narrator, like all Bellow narrators, is a pretty interesting guy to be around; Bellow makes him a literary celebrity in the Chicago area, and is endlessly fascinated with the kinds of wheelings and dealings such a guy (like Bellow himself) has to get involved with to keep the money flowing, no matter how many prizes he may have won and whose good graces he may be in at the moment.

I knew of the novel as the one with the character, Von Humboldt Fleisher, based on the poet Delmore Schwartz, but I really had the impression, going in, that we were going to be treated to Bellow’s fictionalized version of Schwartz’s story. Sorta, not quite. Humboldt never really has center stage: he gets his due early on with some great scenes of how rapturously wonderful he was in Charlie’s eyes early on and how much bad blood came into the relationship due to Humboldt’s later instability, but the novel -- complete with a rather unpredictable and even deus ex machina-like smalltime mafioso named Cantabile, and a femme moyen sensuelle (and quite sensual) who ditches Charlie late in the book, for a mortician no less, and an ex-wife who is mostly offstage but who is a sinkhole of monetary demands, and an old flame, and the daughter of said flame, and a brother about to undergo heart-bypass surgery (one of the best encounters in the book) -- rambles all over and is in no hurry to get anywhere particularly. Add to all that the fact that Charlie is sorta, maybe, kinda converting his thinking to the ideas of Rudolph Steiner, and you get an odd double vision in the latter stages of the book. For all the narrative’s endless interest in whatever is happening and whoever is making it happen, the narrator is ostensibly trying to divest himself of his passionate regard for those things he cannot change. He’s searching for wisdom; again: maybe. Citrine is too canny, too much embroiled in the quotidian and all its quirks to be believable as sage-on-the-mountain material, but Bellow does have some of the goods on show. There is a sense that all this earnest investigation of everything is meant to show that, wherever it may rest, the heart is deluding itself if it thinks its attachments can ever be a raison d’être for actual existence. There’s more to things than meets the eye. But it’s not as if Citrine is a seeker 'against a backdrop' of literary fortunes, mafia threats, and a sudden reinstatement of fortune via an improbable filmscript cooked up long ago with Humboldt, for Citrine is always swallowed up by the demands the world -- and all the people in it -- make on him. Like I said, exhausting.

2. Ah, ma patrie

The final screening of the semester for Cinema at the Whitney was a double feature of films by Jean-Pierre Melville, The Silence of the Sea (1947) and Army of Shadows (1969), both engaged by the situation of the Nazi occupation of France in WWII. The first is an extremely static tale that unfolds like an old French conte -- the arrival of a foreigner and how he became a part of our provincial lives -- but with the difference that the foreigner is a Nazi officer staying at the rural home of an old Frenchman, the narrator, and his young niece. Plenty of fireside monologues during which the Nazi officer -- with cultivated, genteel aplomb -- holds forth on his love for France. Though, as unwilling hosts, the man and his niece never speak to and barely acknowledge the presence of the officer, all hearts soften toward this well-meaning conqueror who speaks not of how Germany will alter France but rather how the civilizing influence of France will transform the Huns into . . . well, not Nazis, apparently, but something that history would be proud of, defined by even. Boy, is he in for a surprise when he finally realizes the intentions of his Nazi brethern! And so he goes back to the front rather than take part in the further humiliation of la belle France. Beautifully shot, composed, with a steady pacing that is almost hypnotic, the film amounts essentially to a sentimental ‘my country, ’tis of thee’ paen, understandable, given the palpable anger against the Occupation, but still weak in anything like a nuanced rendering of the situation. Beautiful clichés of both countries are presented, but with much less affecting emotional bond than is found in Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), so much more telling in its depiction of the code of officers being undermined by the realities of war.

Army of Shadows presents us with a more ostensibly realistic depiction of a cell of resisters to the Occupation, and has many memorable scenes, most gripping of which is the determination to put to death a traitor who the resistance group has abducted. They aren’t prepared for suddenly having neighbors on the other side of the wall who will hear everything -- so no guns, and no knives. And so the man must be strangled to death while all participate in holding him motionless. In Melville’s hands, the scene is almost humorous, at least in the initial failure to be properly prepared and in being so incompetent in their fell purpose, but it finally becomes definitive of what makes for solidarity: the necessity of dealing death to the enemy. The film does run on, though, and Melville’s pacing is at times truly strange, as though he has no particular interest in getting the tale told. The film has a rather flabby feel to it, rather than a taut arc that will take us to the ultimate fate of the cell -- some dead by capture, some dead as traitors, the majority left to those ‘after the film’ summaries of their ultimate fates that are always so unsatisfying.

And that’s part of the problem: one finally asks: what is this film the story of? Is it meant to show some gradual moral change or crisis in the group? Some kind of self-questioning? That does happen when the one female in the group, Mathilde, played with haughty calm by Simone Signoret, betrays the group, after capture, to save her daughter from a fate worse than death as a whore to a Polish regiment, and the group has to overcome the protests of one of their number that he won’t stand for her execution. They shoot her dead on the street and then the film quickly ends. But to get to that moment, if that is meant to be defining, we have to wander though many scenes that seem much looser than need be (including one failed attempt to rescue a comrade who is near death anyway, that simply seems comical in its incompetence, again), and a rescue of Philippe Gerbier, the figure we’ve been following since the beginning, that is almost outrageously successful.

My feeling watching the film was that I’d be watching it for the rest of my life since its pacing was so much like life: things happen, and then something else does, or doesn’t. Even so, the film was fascinating if only because I loved seeing the locations, the people, the actors who weren’t trying to be charming stars, but at the same time I couldn’t stop myself from conjuring images of much more exciting, Hollywood versions of fateful missions (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and risky escapes (The Great Escape, 1963). Released in 1969, Army of Shadows is perhaps far enough away from the events of the Resistance to be able to take some liberties for entertainment purposes?

3. Calvino Revisited

Just for fun I re-read Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), which I first read some time in the early ‘80s and was enchanted by. What’s more, my memory of the novel has always been a reference point whenever anyone discusses fictional sleight-of-hand, as with Borges, or Cortázar, or Barth, or what-have-you. Calvino’s version of fictions that fold in on themselves provides a send-up of the reader’s dependence on a text -- a text that is never simply an object -- while at the same time conjuring the extent to which people become the texts they read or write.

One could say it’s a novel that treats the status of being ‘a reader’ as a certain kind of identity, a defining characteristic, and Calvino is charming in his evocation of the oddly personal communality of that status. What’s more he’s willing to put that very relation -- his interaction with his own readers -- at stake by treating us as hopelessly hooked on whatever he chooses to do with his narrative, which involves several ‘short stories,’ or tales within the tale, that comprise the opening pages of the novel we (or rather, ‘you,’ dear reader) are attempting to read. In other words, we read with a second-person character who is reading a series of openings to novels we never get to finish because something always happens to the text. These proferred novels are of a variety of types and are almost equally interesting, as far as they go, but they are also meant to be page-turners of a sort, things we won’t put down till we see how it all comes out. And we won’t ever know. The story of what keeps happening to interrupt our reading is the story that ‘you’ are engaged in: involving another reader (an attractive and arguably more knowledgeable female counterpart to the masculine ‘you’ of the story), the other reader’s sister, an Ian Fleming-like novelist, and a novelistic forger. It all ends with our happy couple -- you, the reader, and your female counterpart, the Other Reader -- settled in bed together as you finish If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.

Fictional closure is where real life begins, but what Calvino grasps so well, and perpetrates his fiction on the premise of, is that the Reader only wants fictions to go on and on. Maybe so, but he wisely brings his to a close before the proliferation of openings becomes tiring, and before the characters, who never really are characters, seem too lacking in particularity to interest us. Why I loved the novel is that he maintains its pace well and builds up its comedy through a readerly frustration it expects us to enjoy. But also because it seemed to me that at the heart of such fiction is a clear-eyed appraisal of the ruse of fiction, of how it applies conventions to give us ‘the reality effect’ it aims for, and how, mutatis mutandis, all such details can easily be something else, if only we are reading a different kind of story with different conventions. The reality is all in the eye, so to speak, or, even more to the point, all in the terms, the language, the conventions of depiction that we trust to render what we find ourselves in the midst of. Without that, we have only opposing subjective ‘takes’ -- otherwise known as politics -- and Calvino archly sees that ultimately politics in art is a blow against the art, or artifice, itself. A refusal to be led, to be told, to suspend disbelief, or, worse, skeptical engagement with any world other than the one one knows to be the case. I saw Calvino’s approach as a great joke -- but without malice -- on all those who want to lose reality in a fiction, but also all those who can’t abide a fiction that doesn’t correspond to ‘reality.’ Bravo, Calvino!

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