Saturday, April 28, 2007

Rambles + 2 Pieces on Novels + Poem: Masayo Keike

Finally, a little spring--Spring--in Chicago. It's actually been here already, but only when I'm back in New Jersey. I always associate favorable weather in Chicago with the slim period just before classes start or as they're winding down, which is to say, early September or May and early June (though we always lurch onwards up to my birthday, in June, by which time I am convinced anyone and everyone in our hemisphere not enrolled in summer courses should have a little break from a classroom). When I think of Chicago springs I immediately envision the sun-bleached lakeshore and the lake's churning surface, with the blue bolt of sky crumpling above it, before anything else. Yet most of the time I only see it in passing, from the window of my car as I'm heading to or from Evanston or downtown. I think I'll have to head over there soon just to remind myself what the real thing looks like.


I have too many books on my current bookshelf. I read 20 pages into one and then start another. And it's not as if I don't have countless other things for work to read. But I feel like I'm finally now recovering from last quarter's reading marathon (though I cannot look at a computer screen without wearing my glasses, or my strabismus immediately kicks in), but one result is that I have so many things I want to read and not enough time to read them. Fully, that is. I hate to skim books (and most good novels or books of poetry, let alone scholarly texts, cannot be skimmed), so I'm now in the sifting and gleaning period. One of my colleagues is always nevertheless urging slow reading, and while I take her point, I cannot imagine any time soon when I'll have the opportunity to read anything except at breakneck speed (students' manuscripts, the many many many of them, notwithstanding). There is just not enough time to do so and have a life, at least the life I envision even if I'm not living it right now.


Which brings me to this article, in the London Times Online, on Orion Books's decision to published abridged versions of the "classics," because, well, people don't have time to read--read: slog--through the countless longeuers of so many of the great(est) novels. According to Arts Reporter Ben Hoyle, Orion will soon issue its first six Compact Editions, which it's billing as "great reads 'in half the time'." The outrageousness of this plan is a marketer's dream: short of the late author herself or himself, or an editor deeply immersed in the author's life, work and thought, how could anyone else presume to know what to trim from these longer works? And once they've been so damaged, are we even talking about the same work at all?

Here is how Hoyle reports on the origins of this plan:

Malcolm Edwards, publisher of Orion Group, said that the idea had developed from a game of “humiliation”, in which office staff confessed to the most embarrassing gaps in their reading. He admitted that he had never read Middlemarch and had tried but failed to get through Moby Dick several times, while a colleague owned up to skipping Vanity Fair.

What was more, he said: “We realised that life is too short to read all the books you want to and we never were going to read these ones.”

Research confirmed that “many regular readers think of the classics as long, slow and, to be frank, boring. You’re not supposed to say this but I think that one of the reasons Jane Austen always does so well in reader polls is that her books aren’t that long”.

The first six titles in the Compact Editions series, all priced at £6.99, are Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick and Wives and Daughters.

Bleak House, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, North and South and The Portrait of a Lady will follow in September.

Each has been whittled down to about 400 pages by cutting 30 to 40 per cent of the text. Words, sentences, paragraphs and, in a few cases, chapters have been removed.

!!! Chapters??!! I almost thought I was reading an Onion (Orion, hmmm...) article at first. Edwards's assessment of why Austen always does so well also struck; even if you concede him the point about the relative concision of her work, he appears to have misses all its other aspects, such as the gracefulness and wit of her writing, the novels' focus on bourgeois domesticity and their lively, female protagonists, the engaging plots, and the underlying moral frameworks, which still resonate with countless readers. (The fact that her works have also repeatedly been translated into film and TV versions also doesn't hurt.)

But the essential question of whether or not a book--especially Moby Dick and Middlemarch, for example, or any of the Dickens texts--is seriously damaged by truncation of this sort (chapters!), and whether it should even be called by the same name--whether it can be considered the same work at all--does not appear to register. It's stories like this that confirm my suppositions, fortified by André Schiffrin's and others' accounts, that there are people in the publishing industry who really do not like literature at all. Yes, I know, old news. Selling books, they enjoy; but actually taking account of what may be in some them, not so much. (This reminds me that Byways, the supposedly excellent lyric memoir by my first publisher, James Laughlin, have been out for two years, and I need to pick it up.)

Anyways, I laughed at the Times's examples of super-condensed novels, which reminded me of Linh Dinh's and Kenneth Koch's poems along the same lines:

Very compact

As Orion Books decides there is a market in creating cut-down classics The Times shrinks them further.

Anna Karenina

The problem is, thought Anna — her aristocratic brow furrowing slightly under a fabulous new hat — men look so irresistible in uniform! Ditto boots, billowing shirts and moustaches! Hangmarriage. Hang motherhood. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a train to catch.

Vanity Fair

At Vauxhall, Posh and Becky were toying with their parasols and nibbling macaroons. Becky was singing, in a voice not unlike her poor dead mother’s, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Giving all your love to just several men”; when she spotted young George Osborne coming towards them.“Oops!” she said, as her friend fell into the boating lake.

David Copperfield

I am Born . . . I am Sent Away from Home . . . I Have a Memorable Birthday . . . I Become Neglected and Am Provided For . . . I Make Another Beginning . . . Somebody Turns Up . . . I Fall into Captivity . . . Depression . . . Enthusiasm . . . Dora’s Aunts . . . Mischief . . . Mr Dick Fulfils my Aunt's Predictions . . . I am Involved in Mystery . . . Tempest . . . Absence . . . Return . . . Agnes!

So now, as an exercise, try to reduce any of the following to paragraphs (or just imagine being the editor who decided to lop off whole sections): The Last of the Mohicans, Typee, Sister Carrie, USA, Finnegan's Wake, Babbitt, The Man Without Qualities, The Death of Virgil, My Ántonia, Ship of Fools, Doktor Faustus, The Book of the Dead, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Mumbo Jumbo, The Sot-Weed Factor, Beloved, Rabbit Redux, Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, The Tunnel, The Gold-Bug Variations, Cryptonomicon....


Which brings me to my next post, on Hermione Lee's refreshing but perhaps not exploratory enough paean, posing as a review, to the novel, in all its formlessness and relative length, breadth and girth, in the current New York Review of Books. What is the novel, and what good is it? She looks at Milan Kundera's The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Auden scholar Edward Mendelson's The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, John Mullan's How Novels Work, John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide, Franco Moretti's two-volume study of the novel, The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography and Culture and The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes, and Patrick Parrinder's Nation & Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day, in order to assess what she terms "storms over the novel," or in other words, what this long, often ungainly and endlessly characterized and decried form is, does, and, what its value is . She begins

What good is the novel, the long story told in prose? Hegel called the contingent, the everyday, the mutable, "the prose of the world," as opposed to "the spiritual, the transcendent, the poetic." "Prosaic" can mean plain, ordinary, commonplace, even dull. Prose fiction, historians of the novel tell us, has had to struggle against the sense of being a second-rate genre. Heidegger said that "novelists squander ignobly the reader's precious time." In late-eighteenth-century Britain, when large numbers of badly written popular novels were being published, "only when entertainment was combined with useful instruction might the novel escape charges of insignificance or depravity."

In pre-modern China, Japan, and Korea, the general word for fictional writing was xiaoshuo (in Chinese), meaning "trivial discourse." Socialist critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have accused the novel of bourgeois frivolity. By contrast, aestheticians of the novel, like Flaubert, proposed the ideal novel as "a book about nothing," or, like Joyce, as a game which would turn the everyday world into the most concentrated and highly designed prose possible. Moral writers of novels like George Eliot or D.H. Lawrence believed in the novel as the book of truth, teaching us how to live and understand our lives and those of others.

The novel's entanglement in "the prose of the world" can also be its justification and its pride. The novel's virtue, it has often been argued, lies in its egalitarianism, its very commonplaceness. And the novel's everydayness need not be an enemy to its aesthetic integrity. In his wise, deep, and witty essay on the novel, The Curtain, Milan Kundera, a follower of Flaubert in his critique and practice of the European novel, celebrates "the everyday" ("it is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well") while writing in praise of the novel's essential self-sufficiency:

It...refuses to exist as illustration of an historical era, as description of a society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of "what only the novel can say."

Well, perhaps quite a few novels do this, but quite a few others do seek to exist as "illustrations of an historical era, as descriptions of a society, as defenses of an ideology," even if they're not sure what that ideology is or how it functions. But such is the broader history of literature and of literary texts, as opposed to the specific set of works and the literary body they constitute that Kundera is extolling, and I'm willing to accept his argument based on the library he refers to, which I imagine is similar to the one he drew from in The Art of the Novel, a work I love but which I also love repeating endlessly that my students found boring and pretentious. It is not full of longueurs, asides, set pieces, passages of tedious description, and many of the other things that can be found in the works of such authors as Balzac, Zola, Melville, Henry James, John Steinbeck, and countless others. Rather, it's a original and artful defense of Kundera's idea of the novel, which is markedly different, at least on the surface and also in terms of models and aims, from most of the examples of this form that one currently finds being churned out in the United States. I nevertheless think it's an indispensible book, and I intend to read his new one to see.

At any rate, I especially like the idea of the novel's heterogeneity, its undefinability, and, following Bakhtin, who can never be cited too much, or Auerbach, its prosaicness, even when it is highly poetical and lyrical. So much of daily life is unexciting, dull, a bit of drudgery; there are our routines, our mere comings and goings which never merit being described, our mere presence in and movement through time, our innumerable patterns, remarkable primarily to psychologists and applied mathematicians, that we not even be aware of. So much of this has continued to make its way into the novel, against the desires of those who'd leave it all out and give us only action, and larger-than-life character, and of course what results from and converse guides the combination of these two things, plot, but the quotidianity of life itself is essentially plotless, which makes me wonder if the many meandering and divagating bits--words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters!--that Orion Books plans to lop off to create fast and fan-ready books aren't part of the very moments in these texts that embody the essentially prosaic quality of our human existence?


And now, after all this chatter about prose, and particularly the novel, here's a poem, by the Japanese poet Masayo Keike (1959-), entitled "Falling Star."

I only know a few Japanese phrases and cannot read the language at all, so perhaps a J's Theater reader who knows Japanese can tell me how accurate this translation is. (The poem and its translation are both from Poetry International Web.) I love how the Japanese poetry looks on the page, and so I'm reproducing the .jpg image of the entire poem.

Coypright © 2001, Masayo Koike
From: Ameotoko, Yamaotoko, Mame o hiku otoko
Publisher: Shinchosha, Tokyo, 2001
ISBN: 4-10-450901


Above our head
A star fell
A strong bluish star

Like the moment when for the first time
A man uses his instrument dripping with ink
The star swiftly disappears a blur into the sky

During then
All we could do was
To forget to wish
Just surprised, as if for the first time

The night air as if enveloping in a sphere
The void after it was lost to sight

(Among the night trees a solemn sound grown by the rhythm)

Ah, what a
Daring wheel-track traced by the star!

It was
Like a stake silently driven into us
Remain on the earth and live!
Live, said the star!

© Translation: 2006, Leith Morton
From: Masayo Koike: Selected Poems
Publisher: Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2006
ISBN: 0 97 515 06

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