Sunday, November 4, 2007

Balzac Mania

Last Christmas holiday when I visited my parents, I found an old copy of Balzac short stories that I had read while I was in college. My sophomore year in college, I had taken a French Literature in Translation class which introduced me to the novels of Zola, Balzac along with some other French novelists of the nineteenth century. And since then, while I had read a few more Zola novels, I hadn't read much of Balzac. To be honest, I think I was too naive and idealistic to appreciate Balzac's sharply honed observation of society. Reading Balzac over a decade later, I was amazed by the thickness of his description of life in nineteenth century Paris, his ability to skewer vanity, sanctimony and other obnoxious behavior with one quick turn of the phrase, as well as the immenseness of his plots.

Since that Christmas holiday, I've gone on to read Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, Dark Side of Paris, Eugenie Grandet, and, most recently, Cousin Bette.

In Cousin Bette, I was struck by Balzac's different descriptions of the two courtesans, the middle-class sanctimonious Madame Marneffe and the singer Josepha. The most telling difference is in their treatment of Baroness Hulot, the wife of the man to whom they were mistresses, Josepha being Hulot's former mistress and Marneffe the current mistress.

As Hulot becomes increasingly entrenched in financial woes due to spending all his money on one mistress after another, he also brings his family down with him. At one point, Baroness Hulot appeals to Hulot's former-friend-now-enemy, Crevel, to lend her money. Moved by Baroness Hulot's goodness and saintliness, Crevel casts aside thoughts of vengeance against Hulot and agrees; however, on his way to get the money, he visits his mistress, Valerie Marneffe (who keeps four different lovers simultaneously) who mocks Crevel for being taken in by an act by Baroness Hulot.

In contrast, when Baroness Hulot comes to appeal to Josepha to help her find Baron Hulot (Hulot left his family when he realized that his lenders were in pursuit of him), Josepha dresses in her finest clothes to meet the great lady:

"She pushed forward an easy-chair for the Baroness, and herself took a folding-chair. She saw that this woman had been beautiful, and was moved by profound pity as she watched her nervous shaking, that the least agitation made convulsive. She could read in a single glance the saintly life that Hulot and Crevel had long ago described for her; and she not only lost all idea of matching herself against this woman, but bowed before a greatness that she could recognize. The sublime artist admired what the courtesan might have mocked."

This scene points to one of the greatest differences between contemporary culture and Balzac's period. While Balzac's ironic mode is in fine form today, who would dare to write so easily of sentiment in the same way that Balzac could?

I have a friend who says that the downfall of literature these days is the lack of courage on writers parts to express feelings, to even allow themselves to feel fully. Irony and cynicisim can be easily done as it brings down everything around them. Granted, it takes a sharp wit and cleverness to do such. However, isn't part of Balzac's greatness that he could differentiate between different vices and virtues?

Yes, it's sentimentality, and sentimentality was much in favor during Balzac's era. However, is it enough to say it's sentimentality?

I find it interesting that Balzac posits Josepha's ability to distinguish a woman of virtue due to Josepha being a great and "sublime" artist. The Online Etymology Dictionary entry for sublime originates the word sublime from the Latin sublimis for "uplifted, high, lofty" and also denotes a 1586 definition "expressing lofty ideas in an elevated manner." In Elaine Scarry's brief but important book, On Beauty, Scarry argues that beauty is important because it lifts one outside of one's self, and therefore beauty is one of the agents of compassion: we are lifted outside of one's self, we think of something outside our self, we think of someone outside our self, and to think of the other is an exercise of compassion.

This has been an expressed aim of Sentimental Culture, to make the reader be pulled along by their very sentiments for a character. Yet, one hesitates to go along blindly with many of the novels written in the nineteenth century which expressedly tried to reform society with sentimental novels. However, should one condemn the use of sentiment completely because it had been ill-used by novelists? How are we to distinguish between vice and virtue?

Even the act of distinguishing between vice and virtue seems fussy and old-fashioned. However, do we not practise it in our everyday lives? Do we not say: this person does not have the same values as me? Fine for them, but we don't have to be friends.

We might no longer use the words vice and virtue but we do so distinguish. We say things like: that person is shallow. He's into appearances. He's a man-whore. On and on in a mocking tone that is meant to express our own sophistication, our secular beliefs, and our worldliness.

Balzac makes me question all such contemporary poses. After all, here is one of the worldliest, most sophisticated and urbane novelists, and he dared to express his belief in virtue even while he noted the ways in which virtue could be disdainful, naive, or could ultimately fail. Yet, he does not question the worth of virtue itself.

I suppose I am wondering what the value of goodness is in contemporary society. In Balzac's period, goodness/virtue can be expressed through the troupe of religion. All his virtuous women are religious. They are otherworldly. We live in a secular period. Goodness is those who are aligned with our political beliefs, our mores that are unexpressed, our niggardly mannerisms. In the face of that, Balzac's scene where the virtuous Baroness meets the courtesan singer Josepha has a grandeur that seems inexpressible, nay, even inexplicable in our times.

Is Balzac being self-referential when he talks of Josepha as a sublime artist? Or at least pointing to a function of the artist? I think he must be. In considering the function of art in my life, be it visual art, music, novels, poetry, architecture, or films, I do want the recognition of something worthwhile in life. I find art as that which is most worthwhile in living. To see the luminous paintings by Gerhard Richter, to hear a lofty aria in an be moved by human expression, to hear a human sentiment worth sympathizing with. That which is worthwhile to be lifted.

It's not to say that human beings should be saints in the mode of Baroness Hulot. But it's to recognize that compassion, forgiveness, charity, self-sacrifice are still worthy traits. No one is Baronnes Hulot. She's a character in a novel. But in the midst of human flaws, in the midst of contemporary cynicism and irony, can we still find a way to express worthy traits? Can we express the complexity of expressing these contradictory modes together or does irony have to negate sentiment these days?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Charles Schulz bio

Oh, I really want to get my hands on the new biography of Charles Schulz. I've been a fan since first reading Peanuts as a child when my father used to buy me these large format paperback volume compilations of the strip. Wall Street Journal has an insightful review by Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Rearranging stacks, lost book, new books, and Gardner

I spent several hours trying to rearrange my books so that they would all fit...on top of my bookshelf. My current bookshelf's 25 cubbies have been completely packed, double booked, since I first bought it 2 years ago. Since then, I've been putting book on top and stacking books on the floor by my bed. I am also holding off on buying another bookshelf as I am considering whether to move in a year or not.

One of the most distressing things I realized during my book-rearranging is that I've misplaced Frank Kermode's book on Shakespeare's language. I've been reading Shakespeare at the rate of a couple of plays per year for the last couple of years, and Kermode's essays are a perfect companion to such a venture. I spent a hour looking for the book through the 11 stacks currently on top of my bookshelf without any success. Urgh. This means I might have to go and buy another copy.

Sadly, I just spent a large sum of money on four books at Borders. While I generally like to shop at independent bookstores, particularly as independent bookstores in San Francisco are plenty and well-stocked, I was at Borders doing a little scouting for a freelance gig I have with a publishing house. This retail venture cost me more than I will earn. The books I bought were as follows:

Latest issue of Foreign Affairs
William Easterly's White Man's Burden, looking at why aid to developing nations have failed
Alain de Botton's Architecture of Happiness. I enjoyed de Botton's Consolations of Philosophy when I read it years ago; it's a good introduction to some of the main philosophers. I like architecture, but don't know enough about it even in spite of the many architecture books I own from having worked with art publishers. So, I thought this would get me caught up a little on the topic.
And a real gem: Discovering Korean Cuisine, Recipes from the Best Korean Restaurants in Los Angeles. I only own one Korean cookbook, mostly because it's difficult to find exciting Korean cookbooks. The one Korean cookbook I own is one I bought when I lived in Korea for a few months, and covers more home basics. Discovering Korean Cuisine is wonderful in that it has innovative recipes from chefs in LA. I am particularly excited about the rice cake recipes as I love rice cakes and have long wanted to make my own. Additionally, Discovering Korean Cuisine also has recipes that include using Stone Pots which I've always been curious about. I am looking forward to making many of the porridge and hot casserole dishes as we head into the rainy season here.

Finally, some last thoughts on Gardner's Nickel Mountain. I finished the book this afternoon after a nap, and enjoyed the beautiful prose and compelling characters thoroughly. One aspect I appreciate in this novel is Gardner's attention to human emotions and human motivations. An example of this occurs after the main character, Henry Soames, believes he has caused the death of a man staying in his house. Soames falls into a depression, and his closest friend, George Loomis says this to Henry and Henry's wife:

George reached over, not even looking up, and put his hand on her shoe. "No, wait," he said. "It's true. He says he made a choice, the choice to go on yelling, which makes him to blame for Simon Bale's dying. But he knows that's only word games. He didn't know Simon would fall downstairs, and even if he did, it's one time in a thousand you kill yourself that way. It was an accident. Henry was the accidental instrument, a pawn, a robot labeled Property of Chance. That's intolerable, a man should be more than that; and that's what Henry's suffering from-- not guilt. However painful it may be, in fact even if it kills him, horror's the only dignity he's got."

Which makes me wonder about horror and our reaction to it. Many years ago, I attended a lecture by Edward Said. Oddly, more than the lecture, I remember the man giving the introduction to Said, a fellow professor at Columbia, who said something along the lines of irony as a strong action against atrocities. Over the last couple of years, I have wondered if helplessness is the last thing we want to face in ourselves as human beings, particularly in America where so much of the culture is embellished with optimistic dream-making. Yet, I feel that if we faced that part of our lives is about being helpless, it would make it easier for us to help others and to be compassionate towards others. But I do agree that there is horror too, for there are situations for which there does not seem to be any solution, particularly considering the war in which we are enmeshed.

And one final passage from Nickel Mountain. This concerns the rebuilding of Henry's diner into a restaurant at the behest of his wife, Callie. The description of the relationship is worth considering:

He'd felt a kind of awe, watching the place [the new restaurant] go up: not only awe at the looks of it (a gabled building like an old-fashioned Catskills barn, twice the size of Henry's old diner, with planter-boxes inside and out, and twelve tables, and fireplace at one end), but awe, too, at what his wife had done to him, scooping up his old life like wet clay and making it over into her own image, and awe at how easily she managed it all and how easily, even gladly, he had accepted it, in th eend. It was as if it was sojmething he'd been thinking all along and had never quite dared-- though God knew it wasn't. Her idea had given him the willies, ,set in his ways as he'd been by then, and they'd probably have given him the willies even if she'd caught him younger; but he'd found there was no stopping her: She was hard as nails and mean as her mother when there was something she had to have. So he'd given in, and when he'd done it, not just in words but totally, freely choosing what he couldn't prevent, he'd felt a suddent joy, as though the room had grown wider all at once (which by that time as a matter of fact it had), or as if he'd finally shoved int he clutch on the way down a long straight hill it was no use resisting.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

John Gardner's Nickel Mountain

Right now I am reading John Gardner's Nickel Mountain. The descriptions of the hills are particularly evocative to me as I lived in central New York during my college years, and seeing the hills on a misty morning always made me feel a little melancholy but also glad to see and experience such beauty. The rural areas of New York, outside the affluent Hudson Valley towns, have a good deal of that melancholy; it's small farming dying in America.

I love the character Henry Soames, a morbidly obese middle-aged man who runs a diner and ends up marrying the pregnant teenager that works at the diner. Even before the advent of the "sensitive man," Gardner captured all the thoughtful and often somnambulant qualities of a person who does very little but think about human life and human interactions. Soames takes after his father, a man who died early weighing 360 pounds and was bitterly mocked by his wife for his "feminine" qualities. Sometimes, Soames thoughts on being human, and the sadness of being human, become too much for him and he will break into a rant to an old Polish man who frequents his diner in the middle of the night for a spot of hard liquor with his coffee.

This one part, which Gardner places in parenthesis, when Soames listens to a teenaged boy speaking about his ambition to be a race car driver captures Soames' character perfectly:

Henry was not convinced of it [that the boy would become a race car driver], though even to himself he'd never pinned down his doubt with words; he knew only that the boy had a certain kind of nerve and a hunger to win and the notion-- a notion that everyone on earth has, perhaps, at least for awhile -- that he was born unique, set apart from the rest.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Shipment of books and other books from friends

Lately, it's as though I am simultaneously blessed and cursed with books: blessed because so many of them are wonderful books I want to read and are sent by friends who are thinking of me, but cursed because I don't have enough time to read them all.

While I was in New York recently, I saw a friend who works at Palgrave MacMillan and she gave me a memoir by an Italian young woman who survived Auschwitz along with the new book by Wesley Clark. Some other friends gave me the collection of poems, Field Russia, by Gennedy Agyi, the Chuvashian poet. Just saying Chuvashian is a novel experience rolling off the tongue. I haven't had a chance to do more than take a brief look at one or two pages, but it looks promisingly like Paul Celan in it's interior approach to language. My most prized freebie while in NY is the upcoming novel by Roberto Bolano, Nazi Literature in the Americas, supposedly true biographical entries about writers in the Americas who had some sort of contact with or admiration for Hitler and/or the Nazis. They are so funny and absurd. If you are not familiar with Roberto Bolano, who was one of the most important writers of South America in the new generation, check out the New Yorker which has one of his short stories online:

It should be enough to have received 7 books while in New York. However, in the two weeks since, it's been like Christmas. As soon as I returned from my vacation, I found on my work desk: Fernando Pessoa, The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro (translated by Chris Daniels). Reading the very first lines of this volume:

I've never kept flocks,
But it's like I've kept them.
My soul is like a shepherd,
It knows the wind and the sun
And it walks hand in hand with the Seasons,
Following and seeing.
All the peace of Nature without people
Comes and sits at my side.
But I get sad
As the sunset is in our imagination
When it gets cold down in the plain
And you feel night coming in
Like a butterfly through the window.

Reading those lines, I wondered why the Whitman influence has had a more interesting impact on Portuguese and Spanish speaking poets than English speaking poets. Over the past few years, I've grown increasingly disenchanted by the first person persona of the everyday that has taken over the American poetry scene. But that's a larger topic to be explored some other post.

One book of poems I haven't done more than crack open is Giscomb's Road which a friend from Chicago sent me. The reason is because it looks complex, something to think on for hours. I would like to get to it as it's accompanied by a note from my friend talking about Giscombe as being a different kind of poet than many poets currently dominating the scene.

Among the most unusual books I've received in my lifetime is a charming and eclectic paperback entitled: How to Build an Igloo. At first I thought it was a joke along the lines of a Chronicle gift item. Instead, it's a genuine Do It Yourself igloo instructions written by an engineer. Accompanied by line illustrations, the instructions include such invaluable tidbits as how to dress for igloo-building, creating light in your igloo by using a polished block of ice, joining two igloos together for a roomier igloo, and other structures that are not necessarily igloos but also built out of snow/ice.

There are so many new books I've received that I am going to have to do a post number 2 on the same topic later.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Mission Statement

For awhile now, I've been thinking about how to think about books in a different way than by writing in my journal or by writing a review. Generally, I find that my journal entries about books and writers, and the thoughts they inspire, tend to be free association and amorphous. On the other hand, the few reviews I have written for established publications, whether online or in print, have been formal and required a good deal of time and energy.

I am exploring the blog format as a way of quickly spending some time on books that I am reading and find interesting, but also as a way of thinking somewhere between the formal and the informal. Furthermore, I would be intrigued to hear from people who are reading the same books (or have thoughts on what I have written on this blog). Should be a fun experiment.