Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Light Reading; Close Reading

Eastside Road, May 30, 2017—
Jean Rhys: Sleep It Off, Lady
New York: Harper and Row,
ISBN 0-06-13572-7
pp. 176     read 5/27/17
MARVELOUS LITTLE STORIES here, quietly menacing some of them, all clearly from a feminine point of view but told by children, young women, middle-aged and old women, always with a very authentic voice. The settings range from the British West Indies to London and Paris, and are as persuasively evoked as are the characters. The sixteen stories are arranged in chronological order as to the age of the narrator, adding up to a quiet novella whose manner has affinities with Virginia Woolf, Saki, Rosamond Lehmann (a favorite of mine), and perhaps — this is a stretch — Chekhov; and while many readers will no doubt find them dated I, approaching eighty-two, find them tranquil and wise. And beautifully written.
Jonathan Cott: There's a Mystery There
New York: Doubleday, 2017
ISBN 978-0-385-54043-8
pp. 242     read 5/28/17
I'VE KNOWN JON COTT for fifty years and you will be forgiven for thinking me not an objective reader of his books; perhaps you are right. That will not keep me from writing about his most recent book, a fascinating disquisition on Maurice Sendak and, more particularly, Sendak's book Outside Over There, the less-known conclusion to the trilogy beginning with Where the Wild Things Are and continuing with In the Night Kitchen.

Sendak is generally though of as a writer-illustrator of children's books, which is like thinking of Henri Matisse as a painter of interior decor, or Mozart a composer of tunes. True: but things go much deeper than that. It's the going deeper Cott is interested in here, investigating the sources of Sendak's work, and the resonances it has with both psychological and cultural dimensions. I've often quoted here Joseph Kerman's assertion that criticism is "the study of the value and meaning of works of art": in this book Cott emerges as a serious and useful critic.

Cott is primarily known, I suppose, as an interviewer: of the nineteen titles listed on the "Also by" page at the front of Outside Over There, five are collections of interviews, or much extended interviews, with subjects ranging from Susan Sontag and John Lennon to Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. He published a first interview with Sendak in Rolling Stone, where he has long been a contributing editor, in 1976, and Outside Over There includes a lot of material from that visit.

These conversations with intelligent readers of Sendak, including Sendak himself, reveal the rich and sometimes surprising sources and the patient, gifted making of his books, focusing on Outside Over There. The many references include Mozart, German Romantic painting and literature, child development, psychology; and the persistence of the early 20th-c. Eastern European (specifically Jewish) immigration to New York. The resulting book is patient, complex, rich, closely read, but conversational in tone and fascinating to read. It sends me to the bookstore in search of Sendak, and reminds me to take another look back over the extensive Cott shelf.

And I would particularly recommend Cott's book to the parents of small children. There has been controversy as to the propriety of Sendak's books to small children, but Cott, and his conversants, make clear his explorations of loss, rage, sensuality, and other inevitable aspects of childhood can be presented thoughtfully, eased by the delicious beauty of Sendak's art (and writing!).

Georges Perec: “53 Days”
Edited by Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud;
tr. David Bellos
Boston: David R. Godine,
ISBN 1-56792-088-8
pp. 260     read 5/28/17
AND HERE IS ANOTHER exercise in Deep Reading which is nonetheless beguiling enough to be a day's summertime reading. Some who know me know that among my harmless eccentricities is a preference to read Complete Works of authors, on the theory that if one book is worth reading, then all the books by that author must be worth reading: this has protected me from Dickens, Balzac, and many other too-prolific writers. And I prefer also to read these books in the order in which they were written, which is why I have not yet got to Moby-Dick, The Golden Bowl, and many another masterpiece.

But, looking over the Books To Be Read the other morning, my eyes fell once again on the attractive cover of Georges Perec's "53 Days", his last book, and I dove straight in. I haven't yet read Life a User's Manual or A Void, and I don't know when I will: they're long and dense, and I rather mistrust their translation into English. Perec is well known to be an Oulipian; his books are written with the celebrated constraints of the Oulipo group; and as a writer I like to read deeply enough to get into the method behind the book while enjoying the content of the book. As the Companion says, once a critic, always a critic.

I'm sure there are constraints aplenty in "53 Days", but I read the book quickly, for pleasure, and didn't notice them at all. Let me explain quickly: constraints include such things as acrostic, palindrome, anagram, and lipogram (which omits a given letter: in the case of A Void, the letter "e"); I'm not going to go further into the technical matter of the subject, which can be explored on Wikipedia or in Daniel Levin BEcker's excellent book Many Subtle Channels: in Praise of Potential Literature, which I wrote about here a number of years ago.

"53 Days" is incomplete: Perec died before finishing it — a supreme constraint. It was planned as a detective novel in two parts, of which the first, called 53 Days, is complete as a very readable first draft in this edition, ably translated by the dependable David Bellos. (Well, nearly complete: the last two of the thirteen chapters are present only as extended notes from various notebooks Perec was keeping.)

The second part, Un R Est Un M Qui Se P Le L De La R, exists only as sketches, notes, and memos. Had the book been finished its structure would have recalled Perec's earlier, very successful W or the Memory of Childhood, a book that comes frequently to mind these Trumpian days, and came to mind reading There's a Mystery There, and which I highly recommend. (And here let me add my recommendation for approaching Perec, for those who aren't constrained by my chronological compulsions: Things; A Man Asleep; W or the Memory of Childhood. They're approachable as simple reading, pleasure reading, in spite of all the critical apparatus that's grown up around them, but of course the more deeply one reads, the more pleasure one gets.)

53 Days without the enclosing quotes, that is the first part not the whole book, is a mystery enclosed within another, exotic in locale (fictional arctic setting, fictional tropical one), with parallel "plots" concerning disappearances and corruptions, elegantly and fascinatingly written.

But what of Un R Est Un M Qui Se P Le L De La R ? The enigmatic title turns out to be a clue to another mystery, a deeper one; or rather a pair of them: one concerning the characters and plots within the book, the other concerning the book itself and how (and, I suppose, possibly why) it was approached — alas one cannot say "written", it's only sketched and planned, though pretty elaborately.

I was particularly satisfied by the book because it involves one of my favorite terrains, the Grande Chartreuse — and, oddly, a minor device is a (apparently marginal) bookshop in Grenoble used as a drop by Resistance fighters, a shop remarkably similar to that in which my correspondant Charles Lunaire found the typescript of Jean Coqt's novel Skagen, which Lunaire is translating and I am publishing. (The fourth section, Modane, will be out by the end of June.)

And suddenly, near the end of "53 Days", a passage that goes straight to the heart of anyone who loves rambling the Alps: in Bellos's translation,

This snow-covered waste ground is like an immense blank page where the people we are seeking have inscribed not only their movements and gait, but their secret thoughts too…
Monsieur Leccoq (1868)
Which sent me immediately to Project Gutenberg for the original:
Ce terrain vague, couvert de neige, est comme une immense page blanche où les gens que nous recherchons ont écrit, non seulement leurs mouvements et leurs démarches, mais encore leurs secrètes pensées…
So now I must read Gaboriau, and Stendhal too — I'll never get to Moby-Dick at this rate…


louann said...

Thank you for these suggestions/reviews. I'll follow up on a couple of them for sure - 53 Days sounds particularly like my type of novel. Did want to comment on Sendak though - given four grandchildren who I buy books for every week, combing what is available in Lafayette thrift stores, which is a lot (and I am mostly looking for those older books that I see as classics), I have been somewhat careful about Sendak. I personally really liked his books - I think The Night Kitchen is my favorite - but my sons uniformly didn't like them - not even the most popular ones. I never could figure out why, but there was something in the illustrations along with the text that made them uncomfortable. Since children don't pretend about that stuff, I paid attention. I still don't know why, and maybe the book you are describing would get at that in a way I didn't explore myself. It is an interesting and strange thing, though. It didn't happen often with books we read.

Charles Shere said...

How to present Sendak to children, and whether to, is precisely addressed by one of the conversations in Cott's book, I forget which and have already lent the book away. I think it's a question of the books being read to the child, not simply presented to him. But this is an issue that must vary among individuals…