Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Mark Rants

I don't want to seem like a snob. I probably am. I just don't want to appear that way. I have nothing against entertainment in general. Who does? But I'm also a lover of the arts. And by arts I mean music and literature, and by literature I really mean good books in general. For those of you not familiar with my take on art, I differentiate it from entertainment. Example, Lady Gaga is a performer. She wears costumes; she dances; she tries to sing. But she's an entertainer. Or as I like to think of her: a hot dog: more preservatives than meat. The irony may be that she’s worn it. Her image is everything – attitude, choreography, flipping off media at a ball game, etc. She’s imaginative and bold, and something can be said for those who succeed in that field, though not much. But I don't consider her an artist per se. I mean, while her sub-field is music, she's not a musician. Which is just as well since most consumers aren’t concerned with music in general anyway. This might help explain why she and others like her are so successful. They realise that the paying public doesn't care for galleries and symphony enmass. Apart from romantic comedies and the occasional indie film, we tend to pay to see movies whose bzillion dollar budgets go to special effects, not story. Successful film makers often use sequels to draw in audiences, not necessarily actors' performances or a solid script. But this isn’t a condemnation of the general public and their apathy with the arts. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I find the unwashed masses beyond redemption. 

Maybe as a society we’re oversaturated with art to the point of inoculation. Maybe Shakespeare was right, that there’s nothing new under the sun, or that nothing new gets noticed anymore unless it's designed to shock us. If so, then maybe those artists’ motivations are wrong. This might explain the end result, though, at least in some cases, such as Transformers, the Piss Christ, or Lady Gaga.

The writing medium is no exception. Some writers may be concerned with getting published or being famous. Others are driven by a mission, a ministry, or some other agenda. These writers aren’t necessarily concerned with good writing, though. Instead they tend to be motivated by a creed entirely indifferent to art. Brothers Todd & Jedd Hafer are prime examples of this. Their novel Bad Idea is paperbound with good intention. From my understanding the brothers are involved in outreach programs -- getting kids off the streets and so on. Noble and worthy causes, but don’t confuse this with art. Hell, for the sake of argument, I’ll allow that this is more ennobling than art itself. Still, attention to a good story and quality writing can’t hurt anyone either, and this is a novel after all, not a self-help book for parenting. My Tweet earlier this month was inspired by my impressions of this book, and it warrants a repeat: “Faith should inform one’s art, not throw a yolk on it, crack a whip, and say, ‘mush!’ Let your convictions set tone, not play Puppet Master.”

While art sometimes serves as a springboard for social commentary and the like -- a vehicle for improving one's mind or providing insight -- its purpose should be to evoke. It should never be used to bang the audience over the head with some view the author holds dear. Sure, much of this is subjective. In fact, it could be argued that there's an audience for everything. Art be damned. That sort of thing. After all, if you find Adele dull and Madonna brilliant, it won’t matter to you whether one can sing and the other can’t. If you know all P Daddy’s Hip Hop by heart and have never heard a single work by Chopin, who am I to judge? So what if some awful writer finds fame and fortune while great works remain unread by most. Welcome to the real world, right? I get it. But I’m still allowed to hoot and holler and demand justice – at least the poetic kind.

Blue Hearts by Jim Lehrer is a different novel altogether. This story is all about getting our characters from point A to point B. Economy of words is the overriding theme, and I have no problem with this. However, the story is pretty dry and would’ve worked well as a TV episode. (That’s not a compliment.) The inner conflict or motivations of the characters are rarely mentioned and never in a way that allows the reader to care.

Still, I shouldn't cast aspersions on Lehrer or his story. Writing is hard work, and Lehrer isn't bad. He just doesn’t evoke. It doesn’t seem to concern him. Which is fine; this is espionage after all. Not a love story. However, contrast this with a different book of the same genre, Stained Glass by William F. Buckley Jr., and you see that espionage and drama and romance and personality can and does blend well together. (More on Stained Glass next month.) 

Then there's the third and last novel in Robertson Davies’ The Salterton Trilogy, A Mixture of Frailties. While this isn't his best story (and my least favorite of the trilogy), it’s still very good and better than everything else I read this month. Davies is a true artist, and what he says about critics, music and relationships is beyond insightful; it’s damn well inspired. His characters express our own joys and fears, reminding us of both what we tend to forget and what we’ve always known. You really can’t ask for more than that. His prose is smooth and don’t intrude on the story, encapsulating what good writing is all about. A good writer and friend once told me that you know it's good writing when you don't even realise you're reading. Davies achieves this. I just can’t decide whether I love him or envy him more.

Friday, January 6, 2012

"Pale Fire" by Vladimir Nabokov

Based solely on the Table of Contents (Forward, Poem, Commentary) you might assume you're in for a dry academic study of a poet’s work. This is the book’s veneer. Once peeled away, an exhilarating story unfolds. Pale Fire is written, first person, by one Charles Kinbote, a native of Zembla, now living in New Wye, Appalachia, and a recently hired professor at Wordsmith College. Before this book is published, Kinbote rents a house from one Judge Goldsworth, who years ago had a madman named Jack Grey committed to an insane asylum. The judge is away on sabbatical when Kinbote moves in. 

Next door lives our celebrated poet, John Shade. He writes a 999-line poem he entitles Pale Fire – stirring verse full of poignant imagery, double entendres, brilliant puns and word games. (As a rule, I deplore poetry; but this is fantastic stuff.) Shade dies; the manuscript falls (you’ll learn how) to Kinbote. He writes the accompanying Forward and Commentary and finds a publisher. 

This is that book.

Initially you might think Kinbote will be the ideal critic for Shade’s poem; in the course of their budding friendship, the two minds (Kinbote alleges) became twin souls.

But our smug émigré spends more time telling us about his Zemblan homeland than about Shade’s poem. Kinbote claims that he often entertained Shade with stories about Zembla and about the revolution that led to its king’s imprisonment. It was after this that Shade began work on his epic poem, Pale Fire. For this reason, Kinbote assumes Shade’s poem would focus on Zembla. Instead, Shade wrote about life and family. Indeed, you begin to suspect Shade never intended to have the poem published! Kinbote fails to see this; he’s too preoccupied with inventing clever connections between his own vain and self indulgent telling and Shade’s verse.

The similarities are strained at best. Or are they? At times it seems Shade may have indeed buried Zemblan themes deep in his writing. Kinbote is so persuasive. Zembla’s king escapes from the bloody revolutionists, ends up in France, where, Kinbote claims one Jakob Gradus, a hired gun, is directed to find and assassinate him. 

Kinbote continues to use Shade’s poem as a springboard for an engrossing story of Zembla and its monarch, all the while, says Kinbote, corresponding to verse from the poem, if not in content, at least chronologically. For as Shade was filling out index card number 243, which would become lines 740 to 748 in canto four, the brute was boarding a plane bound from Paris to a quiet little countryside in New Wye.

The day Shade completes his poem he accompanies his neighbor Kinbote to the fellow don’s rented house, manuscript in hand, perhaps planning a toast. On Kinbote’s porch, so Kinbote says, both poet and admirer are met by Gradus, who draws his revolver, fires at our fugitive king Kinbote, but hits the genius Shade instead. This is actually Jack Grey escaped from the asylum, seeking his revenge on Judge Goldsworth. But Kinbote doesn't seem to make the connection, though he does allow that Shade resembles the judge.

Kinbote reports that he later visited the assassin in prison and that the man pretended he’d never heard of King Charles II of Zembla. Nor would he acknowledge he’d been sent on a mission to assassinate him. A thug, but a loyal thug, Kinbote decides.

But is Kinbote really a fugitive king? Does Zembla even exist? 

The book is full of literary gems and jests like these. You’ll enjoy uncovering what appears to be the façade only to discover a dream. Innuendo rushes along just beneath the lines, and once you’ve finished reading the witty Index, you’ll want to go back and do it all over again. Certainly one of the best books I’ve read. Subtle. Amusing. Brilliant.  

"Tempest-Tost" by Robertson Davies

First book in the Salterton Trilogy. I’d read book two, Leaven of Malice, first, back in November (see blog post). That was a paperback stand alone. Then nearly two weeks ago I found the whole trilogy in a thick paperbound book hiding in a bag against my bedroom wall. Didn’t even know I had it. I swear; I really need to clean my room. This stack of thirty-seven pizza boxes is about to tip over too.

Reading the books out of sequence didn’t hurt anything; the stories are self contained.

Great books are like a seduction, an intimate relationship between reader and writer. When the writer’s command of the language is sure, the reader will moisten the fingers and caress the story as it unfolds, soon “mmm-ing” and “ah-ing” as another pleasure is laid bare. Eventually the writer has the reader in the throes of a passion and an ecstasy until ultimately the reader is panting, lying naked, and in a fevered delirium!

Or is that just me?

Book three, A Mixture of Frailties, closes out the trilogy, so I’ll be reading that next. And maybe smoking a cigarette.  

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...