16 February 2015

Can't and Won't: Stories, by Lydia Davis

At the center of this collection -- and by far the longest piece in it -- is a story called The Cows. It is a collection of notes that some observer has written about the creatures in a field. It is dry, largely mundane account. Nothing really happens. The descriptions are not especially vivid; the cows do not evoke philosophical contemplation, nor do they seem to have any symbolic meaning. The account goes on for an astonishing, absurd amount of time. Long enough that you pause at least three times to think, I can't believe this is still going. And yet, it is completely riveting.

Davis has a real gift for this kind of thing; these strange, acerbic little fragments that seem so rich with meaning yet so utterly, amazingly flat. The voice has an almost unpleasant detachment, at times seeming bemused and contemptuous, at others, lonely and eager for contact, though unsure how to initiate it. There is a definite kinship to an author she has a clear proclivity for, Flaubert, though their voices are distinct: this collection contains a series of what she calls 'stories from Flaubert' that brilliantly inhabit his worldview, yet stand apart from the other pieces, even if it is difficult to say exactly how.

The queer fragments and Flaubertian tales are the high points of this collection. Somewhat weaker is are texts bearing the subheading of "a dream." Perhaps because I am currently also making my way through The Dreams by Naguib Mahfouz, which seems to be a far more successful rendition of a similar idea, I did not find them particularly compelling. But it is when Davis writes about a character that seems, unfortunately, to be rather autobiographical, that I find her completely unbearable. I had this problem with an earlier novel of hers, and it nearly put me off her altogether. There is a middle-aged, neurotic, socially awkward writer and translator who occasionally crops up in her stories and whom I find totally unsympathetic and ungodly self-absorbed. Fortunately, she makes very few appearances in this collection.

Overall, an enjoyable read, one that certainly benefits from a slow, lengthy process of periodically dipping into it. But I think some of the other collections, such as Samuel Johnson is Indignant, are better.

10 February 2015

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

I might just not be a Graham Greene fan. I recall having similar feelings after reading The Quiet American, though I've largely forgotten that book: that while I appreciate his prose, it does not seem to engage me emotionally. The vaguely convoluted, hazy plot combined with a fervent, even anguished sort of emotion serves to alienate me from the characters. I watch them with a sort of detached pity: they seem very unhappy. Perhaps they are not very good people, but maybe nobody really is. Or maybe they actually are quite good, and their apparent sins are not so bad. In Greene's world(s), it's very hard to tell.

This novel tells the story of a priest in Mexico who is on the run from a government that is committed to executing the clergy. He is very unhappy, not only because he is on the run, but also because he is a bad priest. Consumed with both guilt and fear, he almost wants to get caught, just so to end his torment. The Lieutenant who pursues him is also deeply unhappy, because he sees how much the people are suffering, and also because he is taking hostages from among them and executing them in an effort to capture the priest. The people, obviously, are the worst off of all, yet they have an almost bovine stoicism punctuated by occasional flares of annoyance or rage which do nothing to stifle their benevolence and ability to behave with utter selflessness. Or is it stupid superstition; the narrator can't seem to decide.

The attempt to prose the moral depths of Catholicism is not uninteresting, but the idea mostly seemed to be that it is all very murky. The plot had occasional moments of breathless suspense, but also seemed oddly interminable, until, boom, it was over. The denouement had a certain mechanistic quality, as though the pieces were obediently slotting into place.

Like I said: I might just not be a Graham Greene fan.

09 February 2015

Reading the World

This article both inspires, interests, and frustrates me. It certainly reminds me how much I've neglected this blog, for instance. As I've been trying to figure out my job/life situation, I had intended to try doing more writing here as a way of, well, trying out other kinds of writing. But I haven't devoted much time to that, in large part because I continue to (try to) work on academic research. And aside from a handful of translations and a few free reviews for other websites, I haven't done much in the way of actively trying to pursue other kinds of writing.

I have been grousing about the growing popularity of books about books; where people set themselves some kind of arbitrary reading list and then chronicle the process of completing it. This is partly because I am more interested in reading the books themselves, rather than some random person's impressions of them. What makes their thoughts so interesting, eh? It doesn't help that their reading lists are often fairly random or insipid. But of course, what I am probably more frustrated by is that they're doing it (and getting paid to do it) and I'm not.

The thing is, Ann Morgan's project -- reading one books from every country -- really appeals to me. It's not just that it's a more interesting variant of the books-on-books theme: it actually seems like a worthwhile and thought-provoking exercise in its own right. What is more, her blog, A Year of Reading the World, is well-written, and uses the discussions of particular texts and springboards into all kinds of fascinating questions, suggesting that her thoughts might be very interesting indeed. Her book, she explains, is not a pithy summary or review of each book, but an exploration of how the book changed her way of thinking. To quote: "I wanted to explore how reading the world can remake us as people and challenge the assumptions that we all grow up with, wherever we’re from. And I wanted to examine why storytelling matters to us and how it has shaped the lives of many of the people I encountered during my quest." This is a description that actually makes me want to read the book. And it's also the kind of thing I would love to think and write about. It scratches at all my contemplations of what kind of writing I really want to do in life, not to mention what kind of writing I'm actually good at. To top it off, the article I link to above discusses the kinds of community that Morgan found while working on the project, and the opportunities that came her way because of it, and it all just makes me very, very jealous.

Harrumph. I wonder if someone would at least pay me to review the book...