Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Wishing there were more sentences 

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews the popular book Eats, Shoots and Leaves". (He's not exactly appreciative.) What most caught my attention in the piece were a few comments about writing and the effect of good writing.

In this context, Menand quotes W.H. Auden's letter to The Nation magazine about their movie reviewer James Agee:

"I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them. Further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, attracts epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. I am all the more surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading Mr. Agee before I read anyone else in The Nation but also consciously looking forward all week to readng him again."

In addition to the eloquence with which Auden writes even a simple letter to the editor (natch), there's something I love about the fact that Auden is so taken by Agee's writing that he reads the reviews even though he doesn't care for criticism, nor for movies. :-O

Menand then goes on to say:

"A lot of the movies that James Agee reviewed...when he was the Nation's film critic were negligible then and are forgotten now. But you can still read his columns with pleasure. They continue to pass the test of good writing: itis more painful to stop reading them than it is to keep going. When you get to the end of Agee's sentences, you wish, like Auden, that there were more sentences."

Something about this put me in mind of what Holden Caulfield says, which I'll paraphrase as, "You know a writer is really good when you wish that he were a friend and you could call him up after you read his book to ask him questions." (I'll check that quote at a later date and replace my paraphrase.)

A specific works come to mind for me in this context, of wishing for "more sentences" and for the ability to know and dialogue with the author.

Admit it, you've never heard of John Crowley. Neither had I. But I have an odd habit. Sometimes, when I'm at a party I'll chance into an interesting person who has some connection to literature. I'll ask them, "Do you have a favorite author?" and if they do, I'll ask, "Which book should I start with?" In this case, I met someone who worked in a literary agency. His answer was John Crowley and Aegypt. He warned me, "You'll never find it. It's out of print." He wasn't kidding. It's not the easiest thing to come by. You can buy it online, but I challenge you to find it in a used book store.

In any case, Aegypt reached into my imagination and won me over. It's a great book for those of us who wondered from a very early age if perhaps there wasn't some sort of important information coded into ancient stories (an idea M. Night Shyamalan worked amusingly into Unbreakable).

Crowley is a mystic who weaves a compelling tale. He doesn't cheapen the esoteric information (Dan Brown) that underlies his fiction. He simply weaves it into a story of growing up and struggling with the glimpses we sometimes have into the greater fabric of the universe.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Michael Chabon's beautiful crafted story in which he uses the history of the development of comic books in the United States as a backdrop to explore such themes as exodus and exile, the American Dream, friendship, and how the early mythologies of the comic books served their creators as tools with which to imagine the futures they wished to make reality.

Arcadia and The Real Thing
I'm stepping out of the realm of traditional fiction in order to include a great playwright: Tom Stoppard. These two plays while best served on a stage, can also be read as literature.

Both treat themes of love and move through time in unusual ways to illustrate different points. The Real Thing examines a passionate marriage from it's breakdown backwards towards its initiation. Arcadia in some way echoes Greek themes of "curse of the house" by showing relationship patterns across generations in the same house.

Stoppard is in a curious category of masters of the English language for whom English is not their first language (his was Czech) in which one would have to include Validmir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad (Polish). All three authors run circles around the 99.99% of use who have used it since birth.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Ignore the movie! (You will hear this again below.) This is a wonderful piece of magical realism. It is funny, lyrical and often moving. He has some trouble with the ending (the hardest part and I forgive many books I otherwise adore for this issue), but it's an engaging read all the way through. My advice is to read the first chapter. If you're in, you're in. If not, move on.

Endless Love
Again, ignore the movie! The best thing that can be said about this novel was probably in the blurb on the back cover of the paperback edition on my shelf: "For a few hours of my life, it broke my heart." Synopsis: slightly obsessive young boy accidentally burns down his girlfriend's house and changes his life (and lives of their respective family members) forever.

Good god. A woefully misunderstood work of art. It seems almost blasphemous to try to use words to describe Nabokov's masterpiece. Instead, I'll note that in a shocking twist of fate, lowbrow director Adrian Lyne managed to make a very good film of it that no one ever saw.

Winter's Tale
This is the book that started the party line of "Do you have a favorite author?" In this case, the person being quizzed was a masters student in English who was engaged to a grad school classmate of mine. I had known him casually for two years. Finally, we had a real conversation. Thanks to Sean, I discovered one of the great writers of the last 20+ years. This book is a must for those who love Manhattan. Read it in the winter. You'll never see Grand Central the same way again. I promise.
Oh yes, yes! Winter's Tale is a must. The sterotypes about Lolita don't even MATCH the shameless manipulative desires of Humbert Humbert and the levels to which he will sink. It is appalling and amazing.

Recent books found in the attic and devoured: "The Royal Road to Romance" by R. Halliburton. Try to get a 1925 copy with the photographs. Pearl Buck's lesser known, "Kinfolk." "Yankee Lawyer-The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt." "The Woman of Andros" (Thornton Wilder)
Oh! You've discovered my shameful passion!

jm @ houseinprogress
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