Monday, February 12, 2007

How Faulkner Looks Today

An aquaintance was dismissive about Faulkner. Seems he'd sat down to reread The Sound and the Fury and had found it dramatic and obvious. "For kids," he said. It's true that I couldn't see slowly trolling through four or five of the novels like I did when I discovered him as a teenager. But it occurs to me that a reader today would simply look through what at the time was most significant about Faulkner. Internal monologues, polymorphus grammar, shifting points of view; if I'm talking about Modernism in early 20th century literature, in my class it's James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, the James brothers, and William Faulkner is next. Not too far down the list. But my friend has probably read hundreds of novels written since then that simply take these narrative mechanisms for granted, and thus he focussed on the crazy Gothic people living in the ruins of the once classy world now torched, which subject matter in Faulkner is rich but to taste. The truly influential writer erases himself.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Galeano's Masterpiece Inspires an Irish Delight

One of the most crucial writers for understanding Latin America, and all of the Americas, is the Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano. His Venas Abiertas de America Latina (Open Veins of Latin America) is, I think, the essential history of colonial exploitation of the New World. But his masterpiece, a literary as well as an historical milestone, is Memoria del Fuego (Memory of Fire), a searing review of the injustice, caprice, craziness, but also majesty, magic and drama of the Western Hemisphere from pre-Columbian days through the twentieth century.

It is a work as significant for its form as for its content, as Galeano presents short passages collected from myriad sources to weave an impressionistic collage of events large and small, making connections and stirring intuitions as only the very best literary masters can do. The fact that these passages, paragraphs, stories are for the most part drawn from authentic historical sources draws the reader's amazement and shock beyond the text as literature and outward to the world itself. Only a handful of writers have the erudition and eloquence to transport us the way Memory of Fire does.

The trilogy was composed by Galeano in the 1980s, and nobody really attempted to match it for many years. It was sui generis, until 2005, when along comes Don Akenson's An Irish History of Civilization in two massive volumes, dedicated "To the memory of Sir Walter Raleigh, who should have known better, and in honour of Eduardo Galeano, who certainly does." The collage technique is again deployed to carry us from Biblical times to the twentieth century, and to convey something of the tragic and funny experience of the Irish diaspora. I love Irish history and above all Irish literature, and what is not lost on devotees of the subject is the tremendous weight of melancholy that weighs on the whole terrible Irish experience. Thus the deep, deep sense of humor, evolved as it is to look with clear eyes at a world where men are "straw-dogs." Galeano, Akenson. Now we need the Jewish version.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Real West

Two indispensable books about the American West both have the word "blood" in the title: Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America by Charles Bowden (North Point Press, 1995), and Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West (Vintage, 1985) by Cormac McCarthy. These are books beyond revisionism, where a moral imperative has seized the writer with a compulsion that seems like it might overrule death itself. We all know, after all, that the North American continent was "settled" by Europeans in a long campaign of murder and rapine, and we all know (don't we?) that the real history of human cruelty is more than anything anyone might imagine. So what does the obsessively unflinching writer have to offer us, if we already know this, if we already can fill in the blanks in the backcountry in our own troubled minds? The obsessive writer can offer us an awful lot. This is the only book I've ever read by McCarthy, although his The Road is in my Stack (of books to be read) and I may go back to the earlier westerns on the strength of his writing. He overwrites by any sane standard, but like Jacques Derrida (hah!) he does it so well that what would be (is) merely silly from a different writer is compelling and persuasive in his hands. He's a poet's novelist, forcing the reader to write down a list of words to follow up, names of scrubby bushes, Latinate adjectives and long-forgotten verbs. I don't care much for violence in literature, and McCarthy is as violent a writer as you're likely to find (one English professor told me he'd sworn McCarthy off once and for all after Blood Meridian). The sadism comes long and hard. But this story, of a bunch of desperadoes on a long trail of pillage and despoilation along the Mexican borderlands in the mid-eighteenth century, is dead-on necessary, hammering home a lesson that we all still do need to learn, about not only the West but above all about the Myth of the West. Which brings me to Mr. Bowden, another subversive with a long list of books and a longer list of grievances. This non-fiction meditation looks not only at the history of violence underneath the history of romance, but also takes us deep into the street life of today, the druggies and smugglers and poor Indians (Eastern readers with delicate sensibilities: out west they call themselves "Indians," mostly) still there, in Tucson and Reno and Pueblo, some still waiting for the USA to pass away and leave them as the Navajo elders prophesied, others marking time to leave this world themselves. An Indian gambler tells Bowden that he can't stand to leave the casino while he has any money left: something more could still happen. Bowden's own obsessions keep him with the rough trade in the oil fields, in the Mexican factory towns, in the merchant marine. Whatever grips him, it won't ever let him walk away. The monster that grips these two endlessly moralistic writers is history. You try to do right in a wrong world until you die. Then you can't to it anymore. And that is life.