January 2008 Archives

Dreams and madmen


Having loved all his other novels, I finally got around to reading Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, and boy, was it strange and wonderful. I'd heard a vast array of opinions about this book, from "It is one of my top ten novels of all time" to "I loved it in a tense, uncomfortable way" to "it was an unmitigated train wreck." It's always intriguing to me when a book attracts such a wide variety of reactions, so I was looking forward to The Unconsoled for that reason. It also just so happens that I read Ishiguro in what you might call "increasing order of weirdness," and I had heard that this is indeed his weirdest book. There is something deeply satisfying about continuing my trajectory in this way, although at this point I doubt it's sustainable any longer - it would be quite a challenge to write a stranger book than this one.

Of course, many of its strange qualities have been explored before. The surreality, the language of dreams and nightmares in which the protagonist tries in vain to accomplish simple tasks, the sudden and confusing shifts in setting and perspective, the garbled rationale and bizarre priorities of the natives in a strangely familiar city: all of these elements have been combined and recombined to create the "Kafkaesque" genre. That said, this book does all of these things in a way that seems more tense and fluid than many other dreamlike stories I've read. Ishiguro really captures the shifting sands of perception that mark a dreamlike consciousness. At the same time, he manages to maintain cohesion within the narrative - just barely, at times, but he manages it. Sometimes the balance between the surreality and the sense of coherent character and voice, feels like a virtuosic juggling act that the performer is just barely pulling off; the audience is poised at the edge of their seats, transfixed at the intricate patterns traced by the juggled objects, and simultaneously nervous that they will, at any moment, come crashing down on the performer's head.

Appropriately, then, the main character of The Unconsoled IS a performer: Ryder, a famous English pianist revisiting a city which may or may not already be familiar to him, where he is supposed to give a performance which may or may not be very important in a variety of ways. One of the things I loved about this novel was the unique way that relationships slid in and out of focus; a few pages after seeking out the daughter of an acquaintance in a café, Ryder will gradually "remember" more and more details about her. Although it is at first implied that they have just met, they are soon having conversations that suggest a long history of mutual resentments and shared hopes, attacking and reassuring each other in a manner reminiscent of a (dysfunctional) long-term relationship. Ryder's own emotions and thought processes regarding the happiness and mental health of the woman's son, Boris, achieve a level of intensity more appropriate to a stepfather than a chance acquaintance, and Boris' own reactions to Ryder indicate a deep desire for approval reminiscent of a neglected child. At the same time, the closeness of Ryder's relationships with mother and child is never explicitly stated, and seems to wax and wane unpredictably throughout the novel.

In a similar vein, the life stories of different characters start to mirror and imitate one another in eerie and intriguing ways. Having been drawn into a conversation with the hotel porter, Gustav, about how Gustav has fallen into the habit of never speaking directly to his daughter, Ryder gradually adopts the same practice toward Boris, his sometime-son. Witnessing the fraught relationship between the hotel manager Hoffman and his son Stephan either suggests to or reminds Ryder of his own nebulous connection with his parents, who may or may not be arriving in the unnamed city to hear him play the piano for the first time in many years. The reader is never sure the extent to which the conversations and stories going on around Ryder create his perceived world, the extent to which he is extrapolating his own story outward onto those around him, and the extent to which a more complex dynamic is at work. The primal fears involved in many of these interactions (rejection by parents, arriving unprepared for important performances, the sudden realization that one's actions have been wildly inappropriate) add another level to the question of what Ryder is "half-creating" and what he perceives; there is a sense that we may be caught in an uncontrollable spiral, continually creating the worlds we dread through the very act of dreading them.

This sense of inappropriate behavior is a constant throughout The Unconsoled, and it runs the gamut from exhilarating to horrifying to surprisingly unexceptional. Nobody seems to notice, for example, when Ryder shows up to a fancy dress event in his dressing gown and slippers, and Ryder himself is strangely nonreactive when a journalist and photographer who are interviewing him commence talking about him as if her weren't present, planning how they will flatter and distract him into making unwise publicity decisions. On the other hand, he is horrified when the mourners at a funeral stop their sobbing to flock around him and deluge him with manic adulation, searching their pockets for refreshments to offer him and castigating themselves for having only a small piece of cellophane-wrapped cake. In one of my favorite scenes in the novel, Ryder and his wife-or-maybe-just-casual-acquaintance Sophie attend a late-night showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey - an alternate-universe version of the film involving interstellar gunfights between Yul Brenner and Clint Eastwood, who star as the astronauts who must dismantle HAL. The atmosphere in the theater is depicted as almost carnivalesque, with people laughing, talking, playing cards in the aisles, and, most bizarrely, rolling onto their backs with their legs in the air, shrieking with mirth, whenever anyone needs to inch by their seats. This is the flip-side to the terrifying or disconcerting abandonment of logical behavior in other sections - a giddy, liberating feeling which pervades the theater and lets the locals, as the hotel manager puts it, "unwind."

But the strangest narrative quirk of The Unconsoled is the way in which Ryder occasionally takes casual notice of a long, complicated back-story just by looking at a person, in the same way that he might notice a runny nose or a lipstick smudge. The first time this happens, as Gustav is showing him around his hotel room, I found the trick strangely disorienting, and actually doubled back to see whether I had missed a small phrase such as "I found out later" or "he would go on to tell me." But as I went on with the novel and similar incidents followed, it struck me as a very clever way to play with narrative. Readers are already familiar, after all, with narrators who notice small physical details about people they're observing, and even make assumptions or draw conclusions based on those observations. The next (il)logical step, in a novel of surreal perceptions taken to grotesque heights, is the ability to simply perceive another person's thoughts, feelings, past or present actions simply by looking at or thinking about them. So, for example, Ryder can take casual notice of Gustav's preoccupied air in the hotel room, and also casually notice that the porter is worried about his daughter, who has been handing off her son on certain days so that she can do errands, and then (Gustav has reason to believe) not doing the errands after all. Similarly, he can be waiting in the car with Boris while Stephan Hoffman runs an errand at a woman's apartment, and tell us how he watches Stephan climb the stairs and ring the bell, then recount his conversation with the woman as he enters the apartment and follows her down the hall, recounting the interior design as well as the conversation. Then, in case the reader is thinking that Ryder must have followed Stephen into the apartment after all, he writes that his attention was recalled by a noise made by Boris, and goes on to interact with the boy within the confines of the car. The liquidity of perception here is masterfully done, and once I cottoned on to this unique little trick, I quite enjoyed the experience of having the narrative stretch and balloon in unexpected and sometimes humorous directions.

Just as Ryder describes audiences reacting to the ultra-modern musical pieces performed in the novel, I loved The Unconsoled on a purely aesthetic basis. I'm not sure what lasting messages or morals I'll take away from it, beyond a sense of the universality of human fears and fallibility, but the tense, intriguing mood and skewed, shadowy universe it created are still tangible to me days after closing the covers.

Mrs. Beeton and "Mrs. Beeton's"

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So! I have already finished my first biography in the Year of Biographies: Kathryn Hughes' The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton.

As I was saying in my post of a few days ago, Hughes' book is more a biography of a book than a biography of a person, which was a great way to start out the project. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, in its many incarnations and branded spin-offs, has been THE go-to manual for British homemakers for over a hundred years, but its long career of clout and influence didn't really get going until after Mrs. Beeton herself had died, and after her publisher husband, who provided much of the driving force for the book's creation, had fallen into syphilitic insanity and had to sell his company and furniture to pay his creditors. In a way, the story of the actual Beetons is secondary to the story of Beeton's itself.

Not only that, but from its very beginnings the book was a cobbled-together collage portrait of cookery, etiquette and home management books spanning the previous fifty years, the Beetons doing something between editing and plagiarizing the tome into existence. The book and its brand only got more hybrid and multi-authored as time went on, with successive generations of Beeton women publishing under the moniker "Mrs. Beeton," successive generations of publishers revising and expanding Management's original text, and, eventually, a full-blown sale of the Mrs. Beeton brand. As Hughes points out in the final pages of her study, all this results in a dispersed "text" that is just the type of thing postmodern theorists seek out and drool over. Our culture right now is interested in, and wants to be comfortable with, texts which have no clear author, whose creation was a complex or multi-part process. But Hughes argues that, judging by modern reactions to the way the Beeton book was put together, we are actually a lot less comfortable with this crossbred concoction than the mid-Victorians were. Whereas pilfering from other peoples' cookbooks was common practice when Mrs. Beeton was doing it so thoroughly in the 1860's, we can't help feeling a bit shocked and let down when we judge her by our modern standards of authorship, and it is sometimes difficult for a contemporary reader to locate what exactly it is that she and her husband did. They didn't exactly write a book, but they managed to assemble a mish-mash of material from other sources in such a way that the finished product spoke eloquently to the age's upwardly-striving middle classes.

And because Mrs. Beeton's became so wildly successful and influential, it also served to freeze certain moments of British cookery and homemaking in time, extending them far beyond what would otherwise have been their normal lifespan. Hughes takes the famous tendency of the British to boil vegetables into a pulp: the declining quality of domestic produce in the 1850's and '60's meant that there were good reasons that people were boiling their vegetables back then, but the inclusion of those long boiling times in Mrs. Beeton's meant that the practice got extended for years after those reasons had faded away. In fact, as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse attests, people were still skinning and boiling their vegetables into an overdone mess well into the twentieth century, when fresh and delicious veggies were readily available. Hence Mrs. Beeton, or at least Mrs. Beeton's, gets blamed for "ruining cooking in Britain," despite the fact that Mrs. Beeton herself never invented a recipe or sanctioned a process. It's an interesting meditation on custom and influence.

Also fascinating was the point that because the Mrs. Beeton brand is constantly being reinvented, each new generation thinks of her as a person who probably belonged to their parents' or grandparents' generation. A recent play associated her with World War II-era Britain, and people in the 1930's thought of her as epitomizing the decadence and extravagance of the Edwardian era. Apparently, Lytton Strachey considered including her in his famous dirt-slinger, Eminent Victorians, and envisaged her as a "tub-like" woman all in black, who bore a resemblance to Queen Victoria herself. Whether in service of breaking with one's forerunners or indulging in nostalgia for times gone by, the legendary Mrs. Beeton seems always just prior to any person's direct experience. Having some sense of who she actually was - a practical, organized middle-class woman who pitched in with her husband's publishing business, mourned her syphilis-induced inability to produce healthy children, and died very young - added much to my enjoyment of sampling later generations' visions of her.

The Beetons à la Hughes remind me of the "on-the-go" stereotype of today's high-powered businesspeople. Always on the lookout for magazine article fodder, they both worked constantly, even on vacation, making contacts with French illustrators or scouting out locations for descriptive pieces. It's good to be reminded that, as much as we talk about life getting faster and more demanding in the modern era, there have always been people driven to live like the Beetons, and the necessities they were under, such as corresponding by letter and traveling by train, hardly made their lives simpler or more idyllic. They were editing gigantic tomes of "universal knowledge" while also editing and writing pieces for their stable of magazines, all of which were monthly or bi-weekly. I think that so often the word "Victorian" summons up images of domestic tranquility and well-ordered social clubs, tea parties and sitting around the family fire of an evening. Life for the Beetons, though, ran at break-neck speed. This realization is especially ironic considering that the Book of Household Management is full of plate illustrations depicting idyllic farmyard scenes, hearkening back to an imaginary time of bygone pleasures similar to the one that many people conjure up when thinking about Victorians. So the Beetons were looking backward at the eighteenth century, and we are looking backward at them. I wonder how far back one must go before the backward glances cease.

Hughes also makes some interesting points about the shifting class dynamics in England at the time, and how they affected the Beeton family. Specifically, Isabella's decision to work for money alongside Sam was taken at a crucial moment when it was becoming expected that "respectable" women stay home and preside over the domestic realm. Both Sam and Isabella were part of the rapidly growing middle class whose parents or grandparents were servants but who had made a more prestigious place for themselves in the world. In the previous generation, or at least the generation before that, it was totally acceptable for wives to work for money, especially in their husbands' businesses (Sam's mother and stepmother both worked as publicans at the Dolphin, the inn owned by the Beeton family). But by the time Isabella got married, the more "refined" tastes of mid-Victorianism meant that her journalism was seen as mildly scandalous in its own right, and also a negative reflection on Sam's ability to support his family. It is one of the many ironies of the Beetons' story that one of their largest joint projects involved putting out a book that reinforced exactly those ideals of feminine domesticity that they themselves were flouting. It is interesting, also, to see them rooted so concretely in a specific time and class, because after their deaths Mrs. Beeton's was re-imagined to accord with the customs and expectations (ever-fancier, at least until the post-war generation) that came with middle-class life as time progressed.

There are also "juicier" tidbits in this story - the portrayal of Sam Beeton's decline into self-destructive insanity after Isabella's death is the stuff of tabloids (Lytton Strachey would be proud). And the evocation of Isabella's upbringing at Epsom, the site of the famous Derby, where her stepfather was a local kingpin and where she helped to raise her siblings and half-siblings in the deserted Grandstand for the majority of the year, are vivid and intriguing. But it's really the history of the book that provides the most food for thought here, and I thought that Hughes did a good job tracing its various versions and meanings throughout the Beetons' lives and beyond.

2008: Année Biographique


Well, what do you know? It's a blog.

I hope everyone had fantastic holidays; I definitely did. Lots of good times with family, friends, and friends of such long standing that they may as well be family. 2007 was a crazy year! We went to Switzerland, bought a home, I settled down in my job, ventured (OK, was nudged) into new and different writing challenges, started a big creative project of my own, and witnessed similar life markers in the lives of my friends. And now, for the new year, a couple of my resolutions combine to create a new reading project.

As much as I fell down on the job during many of the busy months of 2007 with my poetry-memorization project, I got a lot out of it during the months when I was doing it, and I enjoyed having a monthly challenge and impetus to spend time with a form that I otherwise tend to neglect. For 2008, that form will be biography, something of which I've been meaning to read more for a long time now. I have had mixed experiences reading biographies; it can deepen and inflect my appreciation of a person, and it can also tear idols down from their tenuous pedestals. For a long time I avoided reading them, for fear of "ruining" my favorite artists by finding out about their less admirable characteristics. But I feel like I have reached a point of acceptance and even appreciation of human fallibility, and my desire to be knowledgeable about historical ways of life, especially with regard to historical women, is also increasing. Plus, I am interested in a lot of the difficulties that biography presents: how to deal with one's personal bias for or against the subject; where the boundaries of "subject" reside and how much atmospheric content or background to include; which aspects of the subject's life to emphasize, if any; the relationship between biography and autobiography, the changing significance of actions and opinions with the passage of years; capturing human changeability and complexity in a static, printed form; group "biographies" and how the portraits therein differ from a traditional, single-subject biography; cultural differences between subject and reviewer, and how they are acknowleged. I'm looking forward to exploring all of these themes in more detail, and I think I have a good beginning lineup to start tackling them.


January's selection is easing me into the genre with Kathryn Hughes' The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, a portrait of the married couple behind that blockbuster Victorian book of cookery and manners, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. Imagine a Victorian version of Betty Crocker, with the crucial difference that Isabella Beeton was a real person, and you have some idea. In terms of the art of biography this is an interesting place to start, because it is really more of a portrait of a book, an examination of the book's origins, assumptions, target market and lasting implications, than anything else. The life stories of Sam and Isabella Beeton are very much present, but almost tangential to the discussion of Management, as the Beetons called their thousand-page tome. It seems fitting to me to begin my time with biography books with a book that is essentially a biography of a book.

But more on the Beetons later, when I have followed them through their rise and fall. I actually have the entire year plotted out already, and I'm excited about the interplay that may happen amongst the biographies on the docket. Here is my plan:


The Autobiography of Mark Twain
I wanted to think about the tension or relationship between biography and autobiography, and Twain's account of his own life is at least guaranteed to be lively, high-quality writing. Twain is also one of the most staunchly controversial figures in American letters, and one whose work I am very familiar with, so I think he is a great candidate for this kind of comparison - and also someone with whom I will enjoy spending two months. On that note...


Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers
With a publication date of 2005, Powers' is the most recent Twain biography. Between this and Twain's own account, I will get the endcaps of the spectrum of writing about his life. From what I could gather from a quick perusal, Powers feels a distinct admiration for his subject and an appreciation for Twain's legacy, but does not idealize him or shrink from his less charming qualities. Seems like a good middle ground, and the prose feels readable.


Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill
In addition to having heard good reviews of this book when it came out, I was interested to include in my project biographies that diverged from the single-subject norm. This one occupies an interesting in-between space, focusing on Florence Nightingale but telling, in the process, the story of her entire family unit and how her interactions with them defined Florence the person. As I have also read Lytton Strachey's famous castigation of Nightingale in Eminent Victorians, this more in-depth and (I assume) sympathetic book will be an interesting study in two different biographers portraying the same subject.


George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes
I was excited to find that Hughes, whose style and pacing I am enjoying in Mrs. Beeton, had written a biography of George Eliot. I have been wanting to know more about Eliot for a long time; her proclaimed atheism and non-traditional romantic relationships are easy for me to relate to, and the gentle humanism of her novels is endlessly inspiring without being didactic. Having loved Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, and liked Silas Marner and The Lifted Veil, I am excited to learn more about the author herself.


Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium by Bart Ehrman
As a total know-nothing about all matters theological, this was the hardest book for me to research. But including a biography of "the historical Jesus" is appealing to me because of the extreme contentiousness that the biographer has to traverse, and the extremely fraught meanings and emotions that many readers will inevitably bring to the table. I'm also interested in a biography that draws on such old and piecemeal materials, and where the line dwells between fact and interpretation (if, indeed, "fact" is even a tenable category here). I heard Ehrman interviewed on Fresh Air about his book Misquoting Jesus, and he seemed like a well-spoken, interesting scholar who was also thoughtful and patient. Reviews of this book were strong, so I'm hoping it's a good bet.


The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Well, no study of the biographical form would be complete without this book, the famous autobiography of Gertrude Stein masquerading as a biography of her partner Alice Toklas, masquerading as Toklas' own autobiography. I have to say that Stein's style often makes me want to gouge out my eyes, and what I know of her leonine ego and scorn toward other women is not exactly endearing, but I am walking into the reading of this book with hope for better things. Its implications as part of the larger tradition of biography and autobiography are just too rich to ignore. Hopefully old Gertrude, like other experimental linguists, gets more palatable with a little practice.


Becoming Mae West by Emily Wortis Leider
After slogging through Toklas I will need a fun-to-read portrait, and Mae West fits the bill. I've been intrigued by West for a long time, and so far, the more I learn the more interested I am. She was a crusader for sexual freedom in an era that wasn't ready to hear it, and took a very high level of creative control over her films, often completely rewriting the scripts. Plus, the woman was a class A wit, and witticisms usually make for enjoyable reading. I thought August, the hottest month in Portland, was a fitting time to devote to West's smoldering sexuality. In addition, she was highly inspired and influenced by the subject of my next month's selection, Bessie Smith.


Bessie by Chris Albertson
I originally intended that there be more music biographies on my list; perhaps I'll have to extend this into 2009! Old-school blues are one of my favorite musical genres, and existed in a world about which I would love to know more. In addition, Smith has the advantage of being a character of a subject, a huge personality who has attracted many debunkable and non-debunkable legends over the years. I have heard rave reviews of this biography, not just for fans of Smith but for aficionados of the biography form in general. Looking forward to it!


Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times by Alfred Allan Lewis
Although I wasn't immediately drawn to the subjects of this book, it fits nicely into my project in a number of ways: being set in turn-of-the-century New York, it sets up December's selection on Edith Wharton. Its topic of the social consciousness and change wrought by these four elite women invites a comparison and contrast with November's selection on Mother Jones. In addition, like Gill's book on the Nightingales, it is a group biography, this time focusing on a social network rather than a family unit. I hope it will round things out nicely.


Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Elliot J. Gorn
Having surveyed the kind of gentle (or not-so-gentle) social change a bunch of high-society New York women could make at the turn of the 20th century, I wanted a contrasting portrait of high-impact, high-visibility campaigning in the streets during the same period, and nothing says "down-and-dirty activist" like Mother Jones. I know next-to-nothing about this iconic woman, and am looking forward to learning more.


Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee
Several years ago, I read Lee's amazing biography of Virginia Woolf and heard her speak at Smith. I was struck by her prodigious skills as a biographer, and have been hankering after this Wharton study for months. I'm allocating it to December in hopes that it will be out in paperback by then. I think Lee is a master of portraying the multifaceted complexity of her subjects, while not being afraid to argue for strong positions. Wharton should provide her with ample material, and rounds out the several biographies on my list that treat of 1900's New York.

So, that's the plan. I'll be writing up reviews on here, as well as continuing reflections about the ways in which the different books speak to and cast light upon one another. Wish me luck in my biographical pursuits!

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography