Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Inside a World -- On Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

by Michael Gorra
Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2012

Michael Gorra reads wholeheartedly. A gifted and thoughtful critic, he here performs what will be, for some, critical apostasy. For his discussion combines close reading, biography of the author in his historical and cultural context, a useful inclusion of relevant scholarship, and his own readerly presence. He writes as a critic, but he brings to his effort the sort of deep sympathy that informed Colm Toibin’s novel, The Master.

The masterpiece Gorra discusses is, of course, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Gorra writes from a perspective that draws on and synthesizes his own reading of relevant scholarship. He presumes his audience has read James’s novel, a presumption that because he is not concerned to offer plot summaries allows for the book’s wider range. Similarly, Gorra assumes we also know something of Henry and his famous family. Thus, he omits or lightly glosses as he chooses. (Henry’s famous brother appears, his sister almost not at all.) We do learn of the Florence, Venice, and Rome that James himself saw, knew, and brought to bear in Portrait. We also learn of the London that James knew, of the reasons he went from handwriting to dictating, and of the likely influence that James’s time in Paris. Gorra also contextualizes Portrait within the mores and publishing conventions of his day, and he is especially good at charting how those conventions altered in James’s lifetime – changes that account, in part, for differences James made when he revised Portrait for the New York edition.

Though heavily noted, with nearly 40 pages of such notes at the book’s end, Portrait of a Novel’s greatest genius is Gorra’s own voice, one which is at once well-informed but also deeply humane and above all else thoroughly engaged with a book he so clearly values.

Inevitably though, readers in his audience may well wish he had brought his critical attention more squarely on some aspects of Portrait of a Lady. In particular, Gorra seems not to consider as significant the role that Pansy plays in the marriage plot that informs and constrains Isabel’s choices at the end of the novel. Pansy is, after all, Isabel’s step-daughter. Raised by her father, Gilbert, to be submissive almost to the point of caricature, Pansy yet shows some wish to establish her own life within her own sense of freedom. This wish her father has steadfastly tried to stifle. Isabel understands Gilbert’s arrogance and cruelty better than anyone. Yet in discussing the book’s end (which, as any reader of Portrait will know, is decidedly not a conclusion), Gorra seems to ignore Pansy’s situation and its implications for Isabel. These slide by with hardly a mention.

Still, this is quibbling with a book that has most surely succeeded in immersing its readers inside the world that James knew and that his novel makes. For those already familiar with and compelled by that world, Gorra’s book offers the considerable pleasures of deep company. If at points one wishes to interject a question or offer an interpretation that Gorra seems to overlook, that sort of response is itself a testament to – a response to – his success. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Novel World: On Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
Little, Brown and Company, 771 p., 2013

Donna Tartt has written an ambitious and immensely readable novel, its sentences often deft pastiches that at once record and voice the thoughts of its main character, Theodore Decker, or Theo. Theo’s story proceeds from the fateful day a fictional explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art kills his mother and nearly kills him. Young Theo, 13, survives, badly concussed. He comforts a bloodied, dying older man who gives him a ring, telling him where to take it, and who also tells him to salvage Carel Fabritius’s small 1654 painting of a goldfinch.

That painting and its accompanying exhibition have drawn Theo and his mother, and, among other museum goers, a mysterious girl, Pippa, accompanied by that elderly man. Only glimpsed prior to the explosion, it’s this elderly man, Welty, whom Theo stumbles upon amidst the wreckage and tries to comfort. The gallery rooms have become a welter of debris and the place smells of fire. Despite his injuries, Welty sees that the Fabritius painting has been blown entirely out of its frame. Welty dies, his blood on Theo’s hands as Theo watches. Then, his head aching and full of sound, Welty’s ring in his pocket and the Fabritius painting under his coat, and glimpsing Pippa (who has also survived) as he goes, Theo makes his way out of the gallery rooms surreal in their destruction, down one empty corridor after another, trying always to move away from the smoke and sirens, until he eventually finds a door that opens onto a street. Dazed, almost freakishly determined, he walks home, where he waits for his mother, who will not appear; she has been killed in the same explosion. Theo loses a mother and gains a painting.

From that fateful day, it’s a long and twisty tale centering on two questions: what will happen to that painting, and what will happen to Theo? These questions and their successive answers take Theo to the elderly gentleman’s business partner (Hobie, a restorer of antique furniture), to the house of one of Theo’s friends (Andy Barbour) where he stays for several weeks, to Las Vegas with Theo’s father (a one-time bit actor, alcoholic, and erstwhile professional gambler who’d walked out on Theo and his mother some time earlier but who returns once he gets wind of Theo’s inheritance money), back to New York, eventually to Amsterdam, and so on.

Young Theo sounds very much like Holden Caufield – smart and with a vivid interior life of questions, observations, and judgments. If these traits and his own traumatic experience tend to isolate him, they also make his voice easy to hear. But unlike Holden, Theo ages.

In Las Vegas, Theo meets an equally unparented friend, Boris, who’s partly Russian, or Polish, or maybe Ukranian (Boris seems to speak all three languages, though his English is at once rudimentary and quirky). Despite the fact that Boris’s mother has also died years earlier, or perhaps partly because of it, Boris has learned both a relentless lack of fear and a surprising generosity towards the flaws of others. His father is a mining executive driven by work, sustained by vodka, and rarely at home; when he is at home, he’s prone to beating Boris, a habit Boris partly understands and mostly forgives.

For his part, Theo’s father keeps very odd hours. The woman he lives with, Xandra, works on the Las Vegas strip while, perhaps, selling drugs on the side. In this absence of any consistent supervision, Boris and Theo find easy access to alcohol and more; a marginal, intense high school experience ensues. All this while, Theo keeps the painting; he wraps it in protective packaging and tapes the package to the back of his headboard. And from time to time he unwraps it to look at it again. He does this with some guilt and some pleasure. The painting connects him with his mother and with a set of values. Over time, Theo comes to know The Goldfinch so well he will later be able to identify it by some nail holes in the board on which it’s painted.

Tartt’s language effectively and often idiosyncratically compels and propels the narrative, making it usefully difficult for a reader to step back and thus find a place from which to survey and judge. One guesses that Tartt wants the book read in big swoops of time, and though the story might lag some in the middle, she doesn’t let it lag for long. The family that initially agrees to take in Theo knows him because their Andy and Theo are school friends. The Barbours read like old old money New York – a world that may look as foreign to readers as it does to Theo. In this, Theo’s story starts to seem parallel to that of any number of Dickensian heroes: a poor protagonist scrambling to figure out the social codes of a level of society not previously known. As an orphan, Theo’s continually angling to fit it, always aware of his precarious position.

In Las Vegas, Boris and Theo make quite the pair, both bereft and mostly alone, living in a half built, half foreclosed suburban development the desert slowly reclaims, under a sun so bright it hurts. Even there, Pippa lurks in the background of Theo’s thoughts, she and Theo bonded by a trauma they have each just barely survived. When Theo’s father dies, Theo can think of nowhere else to go but back to New York, where Hobie again takes him in; eventually the two become business partners. It’s an interesting cast of characters, each sharply drawn, idiosyncratic, improbable when cursorily described but human and compelling within the novel’s world.

And in the end, Tarrt isn’t really trying for anything like realism. Her world, while based on the prosaic one, is a novelist’s world: a place rife and rich with meaning as her central character must confront the largest, scariest questions – about mortality and how to live in its knowledge. The novel’s answers come as much from Boris as from Theo, and they have everything to do with art, with what it can accomplish, and what it cannot. In this, the small Fabritius painting becomes pivotal: “But what does the painting say about Fabritius himself? Nothing about religious or romantic or familial devotion; nothing about civic awe or career ambition or respect for wealth or power. There’s only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and no sense of escape. Time that doesn’t move, time that couldn’t be called time. And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching.”

Theo never sought the explosion that killed his mother, never planned to comfort a dying man who tells him to take and preserve a small painting, never envisioned the distinctly odd unspooling of his own story. In this, he is perhaps no more surprised than any of us in our own lives. As Theo says near the novel’s end, “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth.”

Against this, in the midst of it, is art, about which Theo says, about which Donna Tartt says, “…it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” And in a weird or perhaps brilliant coincidence, the actual painting of that goldfinch chained to its perch is currently (in December, 2013) on display in New York, not at the Met but at the Frick. It measures 9 inches wide by a bit more than 13 inches tall, and it is dated 1654.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Reading Silence: Dallas, November 22, 1963

We read so many things.

Obviously we read print – comics, novels, poems, short stories, memoirs, disquisitions on any number of topics, monographs, tax forms, car manuals, billboards, bus schedules, cook books and all manner of periodicals. We read the faces of strangers and those we love. Someone fly fishing reads a stream. A golfer reads a green. A quarterback reads a defense. Those who look to the sky try to read its weather. All of us, including politicians, try to read the past for what it will say about the future. And of course, moment by moment, we read the present for its cues (red light, stop), its dangers (not that ski slope, it’s too steep), and for whatever this moment-by-moment might add to our general knowledge. This reading of the present can be exhausting, which is why we establish habit and routines; they free us from the vigilant attention that reading the present can otherwise require. Those same routines can numb us, which is one reason travel can wake us.

Fifty years ago this week, John Kennedy was shot, and the twelve year old I was then has not and will not ever fully recover from it. Such an event experienced at such an age alters one’s view of what is possible. Over a long life, other events, private ones, equal it in intensity. But that November run of days stands out for me as a series of firsts, its events coming so rapidly they could not be attended to, presented so publicly they saturated every physical and emotional space; to escape them was not possible – there was nowhere to turn.

We were released from school early that day, a Friday, the nuns trying not to cry in our presence, their lips moving in prayer even as they ushered us up the bus steps. The television was on in my house when I got home, and it stayed on all that day and the next and the next. I recall those images, ones now familiar for being so often replayed, and seeing them again this week brings me close to tears, for I see that twelve year old boy and know again his deep confusion. Beyond those images what stays with me is the silence in the house, the silence outside, the silence in streets and stores and even as we stopped in the car for gas. No desultory talk. Everyone quieted. We all of us kept the television on in a futile effort to fill that silence with something like understanding, and what we got were police reports, repetitious statements of shock, of disbelief, the movements of a new president and a new widow, Lee Harvey Oswald shot in the stomach, speculation, constitutional explanations, reactions of world leaders, the planning for a funeral and the funeral itself.

What we did not get that weekend were directions about how to understand this new-to-us country, this United States where in our lifetime, now, a president could be shot. Without the need to ever say this to ourselves, we had believed such an event impossible. We had seen this president avert nuclear war, another previously impossible possibility. In some real way he had saved the world. And now he was dead because of someone with a rifle, a good eye, a steady hand.

Since that run of days in 1963, the world has seemed to me precarious in a way that I’ve become accustomed to but still don’t like. Perhaps this is merely that sort of maturity, which, it seems, comes only at cost. The memorials, interviews, and archival footage replayed this week invoke again that silence which was our only answer to questions we could not think how to ask. It is a large silence – one I yet struggle to read.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On the Police Procedural: Peter Lovesey & Donna Leon (with a Brief Nod to Tana French)

Though I am but a novice and erratic explorer, I sense that the large world of mystery novels holds any number of provinces, one of which is called (if I’m not mistaken) the police procedural.

To enter this world is to live within the tight focus of an imagined here and now: more precisely the here and now of a dead body recently discovered. This focus becomes the story’s world, one purged of the extraneous: little concern over current events except as they might be reflected in one example, little discussion of sports or movies or of the various diversions that can typically constitute a week or a month. Little discussion or interest in anything, really, except as it might constitute evidence or motive. Thus a police procedural can make a narrowed world at once scary and comforting, comforting because typically its moral compass stays firm, scary because it’s a world of what appears to be (at least at first) random and inexplicable violence. One enters this world as a reader precisely because a police procedural promises that the random will be transformed, page by page, into an explicable result of cause and effect.

The Peter Diamond series, authored by Peter Lovesey, and the Commisario Brunetti series, authored by Donna Leon, both inhabit this large world. Both consistently feature one detective, center on a single crime or series of related crimes, and locate themselves in or around a single locale. Peter Diamond works out of the nick on Manvers Street in the English city of Bath, while Guido Brunetti’s office is located in the Questura in Venice, Italy.

Over the course of many novels, both series offer deepening understandings of their principal characters. Peter Diamond is paunchy, smart, intolerant of paperwork. He inspires loyalty because he is clearly and fundamentally a decent guy; he inspires sympathy because, in the latest novels in the series, he has had to deal with bereavement -- for his own wife was killed. Guido Brunetti is of a similar middle age, married, his wife a university teacher of literature in English with a particular interest in Henry James. She’s a great cook, and she’s a member of one of Venice’s most powerful families. The Brunetti’s two children grow as this series of books progresses, giving all the Brunetti characters the chance to deepen, giving readers an even more rounded view than we get of Peter Diamond.

Both series also owe some of their attraction to the beauty and historical interest of their locations. To follow Brunetti is to walk the streets, the calle, and bridges of Venice, experience its tides and weather, and begin to understand its unique culture and relationship to the rest of Italy. It’s also to see the tensions produced by tourism, by European unification, and by the corruption of politics. To read a Peter Diamond mystery is always to be located in or around Bath. Though Peter Diamond himself may not know its full and deep history, someone in any given novel does know it. And Lovesey frequently weaves in literary allusions. Thus reading a Peter Diamond mystery, one may learn that Mary Shelley wrote part of Frankenstein while in Bath, or that Jane Austen stayed at a particular address.

Both series also rely on a deft management of point of view. As readers, in effect we become either Peter Diamond or Guido Brunetti, sharing their intelligence, foibles, trials, private lives and baseline commitment to civil society. Both detectives often must deal with inept (or, in Brunetti’s world, sometimes also corrupt) colleagues. Both lean on trusted equals of longstanding, and both must negotiate the use new computer and electronic surveillance techniques that they at once welcome and distrust. This is a point-of-view that readers have full access to at the start. It’s also one that is subtly withdrawn as any given novel proceeds to its end. At some point, some crucial reflection or series of conclusions made by the detective is not presented; thus, the endings to these books are not necessarily predictable, which may also make them more enjoyable.

Yet in terms of pacing and focus, Leon’s and Lovesey’s books diverge considerably. Lovesey stays close to the crime and to the police investigation that results. As the series has progressed, Peter Diamond has risen to a leadership position, a fact which changes the part of the procedure that he might conduct and direct. For readers who follow the series closely, this is a satisfying progression. Donna Leon can be less focused on a given crime; it can take many pages before the crime even occurs. Leon’s interest is often more fully invested in her lead character, Guido Brunetti. He has consistently held his superior rank as Commisario, which places him one level below the Questura’s senior leader, an incompetent and vain individual whom Brunetti tolerates and manipulates by turn. He enjoys his food and drink, and often both are given in some detail. His marriage functions as a genuine partnership and he clearly struggles to keep the parts of his life in healthy balance. He loves his city and his walks through it – all things Leon takes time to present.

Peter Diamond almost always gets a result that leads to charges and convictions. In a Donna Leon novel, Brunetti typically unravels the mystery, but such knowledge, while at least somewhat satisfying to him and to readers, may not lead to the public affirmation of a judicial process. Sometimes Brunetti cannot prove what he knows. An educated man, he reads Tacitus for consolation.

Both series dependably do what police procedurals do: offer a tested formula of character and action. Neither Peter Lovesey nor Donna Leon can claim to have penned great literature. If you remember the plot arc of one of their novels, there’s considerably less enjoyment in reading them a second or third time. In contrast, Tana French has written at least two books that might fall into this same genre description, yet also rise above it. But that’s a new discussion.

To help track locations in Donna Leon’s Venice, see this site:

Friday, November 01, 2013

Keats and His Urn

Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions and would speak, if he had loved…
                                                     ("Fall of Hyperion")

Halloween approaches and passes, and John Keats comes to mind, not because of costumes or the dim memories of saints but because Keats was born on October 31st. We don’t get to choose our birthdays nor the situation or family into which we arrive. Keats’s family was tubercular: his mother died of the disease, as did Tom, Keats’s brother, as did John himself. It’s a sad story and well-enough known to those who find Keats’s odes among the finest poems one keeps within arm’s reach on a desk.

As with the work of other writers – Plath, Woolf, Weldon Kees, Emily Dickinson – the act of reading Keats’s poems seems now almost inevitably bound up with the facts of biography, his too-short life. It is as though Keats himself has become a figure on his own “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a silent form who teases us out of thought. What would he have written had he lived as long as Coleridge? Keats letters are rich with theorizing. He was a writer keenly observant, whether of a nightingale, the manners of his friends, or the workings of his own responses, his own intellect and negative capability. Aside from the odes, one could argue that he never got the chance to test or fit his ambition to its appropriate forms. Keats knew this as he was dying, and it vexed him.

But Keats is best thought of now not for his biography but for what can only be termed, inadequately, his profound curiosity, his impulse to thoroughly inquire in and thoroughly partake of the time he had. Biographers suggest that his interest in medicine – which he studied until his money ran out – had its origins in watching his mother, then his brother, die. Of course this makes sense. But such a motivation may merely have been the topmost layer of a much deeper and all-encompassing interest in how things work, and particularly in how human things work. The same mind interested to trace the seemingly twin experiences of dream and thought (as in “Sleep and Poetry” and “Ode to Psyche”) may well have found medical knowledge a compelling if insufficient part of the much larger picture.

And this same curiosity (the term is too lightweight, alas) led, in Keats, to a sort of humility that could also be understood as ambition. Keats was interested in his own experience, yes, but that interest he always saw as a doorway or introduction to something far larger and more compelling. He looks at a Grecian urn and sees not his own mind but rather an expression of something he identifies as essential in human life, essential and recognizable to any who share the cultural knowledge to interrogate what is presented on the urn itself. Keats doesn’t see this effort or the education necessary to it as elitist; he eagerly scrutinizes the urn because doing so offers a way to understand (so he hopes) part of the complexity of human experience – all human experience. He knows art for what it is: artifice. Yet he also knows such artifice makes experience and that such experience may lead to understandings or recognitions or qualities of mind unavailable except through art. For Keats, art is an effort to be learned because it is artificial and because it is human to want to try more and know more.

Keats wants to understand how art stops time (even as it reproduces it), and whether such art can tell us anything. The urn stops time in that it preserves a moment. In this, it’s like a photograph (unknown to Keats) or a painting. In preserving the moment, it also reproduces that moment, over and over, whenever someone cares to look. The urn is thus a seamless embodiment of a contradiction, one it holds poised, its elements at once resolved and ever opposed. The people on the urn are at once forever happy and in love – and forever unable to move beyond the moment.  So how are we to understand their condition?

The urn itself speaks at the poem’s end, and what it says goes unchallenged except by the silence that follows it: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Is beauty the only truth we’ll know and the only one we need to know? That’s the question Keats learns in examining the urn. It’s a valuable thing to figure out how to pose a question. The urn not only helps Keats pose a question, it also offers its own answer.

We know, then, what the urn says. Do we agree? Would Keats, at 60, have agreed? We’ll never know, “For poesy alone can tell her dreams” (“The Fall of Hyperion,” canto 1).

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"