Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Showdown at High Tea

This is just a silly title.  It is a bit forced, not totally unlike a Quentin Tarrantino movie where everything is shoehorned into one over-stuffed movie.  (I've actually been thinking quite a bit about The Hateful 8 since I saw it last Saturday, and I'll end this post with a coda related to the film.)

What the title is supposed to represent is how I have been recently inspired to read a number of authors who are all largely in the High Modernist vein.  (I've also been reading Bove, and despite some influence of Kafka, he strikes me as a realist author, who was not explicitly a modernist, though actually Armand, one of Bove's earlier novels reminds me very much of Sartre's existential fiction.)  On the one hand you have relatively refined genteel fiction coming from Woolf, Musil and Proust (with Woolf and Proust both returning again and again to write about tea parties and other soirees), and then you have Faulkner crashing about in the underbrush, with all his tales of hunting and how relatively modestly well-off whites will cling to their title to the land in the face of increasing pressure from modern society (to say nothing of the familial demands over time*).

But Faulkner surely was a modernist, even though his preoccupations were completely different from Woolf and Musil.  I'm sure there are close to a thousand monographs written on literary modernism and its key proponents.  For me, one of the chief hallmarks is that the interior voice tends to dominate and take precedence over outwardly observable actions and dialog.  By that I mean that the novel from Austen through George Eliot featured a lot of interaction between characters but also commentary from the omniscient narrative voice on the inner motivations of these characters (and this was particularly prominent, even oppressive, in Eliot's Middlemarch).  However, one could argue that the inner motivations more or less aligned with the outward actions, or in cases where there was a discrepancy (either someone adhering to social conventions even though they didn't wish to or someone intentionally deceiving another person), these could be understood by someone with a basic grasp of human psychology.

The modernists tend to break with this convention in different ways.  Some are essentially asserting that inner states are mutable and constantly shifting.  If a person can hardly know him- or herself, what chance is there to convey this to others, either in writing (epistolary fictional forms) or via speech**?  I saw quite a bit of this towards the end of Musil's The Confusions of Young Törless, where Törless is frustrated with himself not being able to explain his actions to his teachers.  One response is to write encyclopedic works, showing the inner thoughts responding to various stimuli.  (At least this is my take at what is the essence of Proust and Musil's The Man Without Qualities: the impossibility of fully explaining oneself to others.)

A second approach is to focus on inner monologue and try to show how there are gaps between the inner thoughts and the outer actions, but to get less caught up in the question of whether the inner self is stable (or even particularly concerned about conveying interior thoughts to others).  This is certainly how I read Woolf, particularly Mrs. Dalloway and to a lesser extent To the Lighthouse (where we get inside the heads of several characters if I remember correctly).

Jacob's Room is a bit different, where we get short snippets of conversation (and perhaps some inner thoughts) all linked to Jacob.  It's sort of like Jacob is a spotlight (or better yet an x-ray spotlight) and we only can find out what is going on with the other characters when Jacob comes close to them or interacts with them in some other way.  Clearing out Jacob's room after he has died in World War I counts as part of this exercise.  I have to admit, I just didn't care much for this, as I had to work too hard, imagining there was some sort of thematic unity behind the way Woolf sequenced the different vignettes.  After all, it wasn't strictly chronological.  There are a couple of times the empty room is referred to in the middle of the book.  Maybe there wasn't much of a scheme at all and it really was kind of random meandering through Jacob's life.  (Or was it?  There are certainly moments in Joyce's Ulysses where it probably seems Blook is wandering aimlessly through Dublin, though he is really retracing Odysseus's travels.  You never really know with the modernists, but I wasn't enjoying Woolf's novel enough to put any more work into it when it resisted my initial efforts at finding some narrative thread.)  Others like it quite a bit and liken the effect to watching a stone skip over the surface of a pond, but I was kind of bored throughout.  I did think Jacob's short encounter with a prostitute was one of the better scenes.  For my taste, Mrs. Dalloway isn't so relentlessly experimental and is generally the more rewarding read.  I've put it at the tail end of my very long to read pile, with some additional Faulkner, incidentally.  I'll have to see how I respond to it 20+ years after my first reading, and I'll go ahead and reread Mrs. Dalloway's Party at the same time.

Faulkner, at least in his early novels, is going for a different effect.  The interior voice can be so dominant that it is very hard to understand what is "actually" going on.  Since a person normally doesn't refer to him or herself by name in their own thoughts, Faulkner likewise often obscures who is talking to whom, and just launches into the conversation.  I couldn't even tell in some cases if the conversation was a real one, but set in the past, or if it was simply an imagined conversation.  Faulkner is one of the better novelists, though hardly the only one, to explore the Rashomon effect where different people can experience the same event completely differently, to say nothing of how they remember it later, which is again different from how they might speak about it later to others.  The Sound and the Fury is the epitome of this where there are four different narrative voices, but it comes up in Go Down, Moses as well, particularly in "The Bear."  To be honest, I wasn't that grabbed by "The Bear."  I got really tired of all the hunting in Go Down, Moses and could easily have left the hunting scenes out (there would still be plenty in "Was" and "Delta Autumn").  I think in general with Faulkner, I will read the book through on my own, and then if I ever get to a second reading, I will refer to various on-line sites where people have worked out the genealogy in these stories.  I could get some of it, but some of it was just too tangled, certainly in part because it was so shameful to talk about having half-brothers that were born from Black slaves or servants that it was discussed in a very roundabout way if ever at all.  Interestingly, my copy of Go Down, Moses completely fell apart while I was reading it, so this summer I'll probably pick up a copy of the LOA volume that collects it and Intruder in the Dust (a kind of sequel) and A Fable.  I've added enough Faulkner to my reading list, that I will have covered all the "important" novels by 2020.  Something to look forward to certainly, and I may cheat a bit here or there by moving Faulkner up a bit periodically.  Despite the seriousness of many of the novels, there are many comic episodes in Faulkner.  In Go Down, Moses, "Was" and "The Fire and the Hearth" both had very comic passages, though the funniest Faulkner I have read to date is The Reivers.

Coda: I think this post has gone on long enough, and I will return to The Hateful 8, which features an impressive mix of styles.  It is a Western, but also a thriller in some sense, and there are also characteristics of the locked room mystery with most people having some secrets from each other.  There are a few moments that are absurdly bloody, but other than that, I liked it quite a bit, and thought it actually tackled post Civil War conditions in a way that wasn't completely stupid, though obviously not as profoundly as Faulkner.  Where QT's movie is a bit different from Faulkner is that the perspective of the whites still licking their wounds from their defeat is mixed with Yankees and Westerners who mostly just wanted to avoid picking sides.  In Faulkner, everything is filtered through a Southern's perspective.  I thought the song that ran over the credits was just incredible: Roy Orbison's There Won't Be Many Coming Home.  I don't mind admitting that I wasn't aware of the song until now.  I can almost imagine a scenario where Quentin loved the song so much that he had to come up with a vehicle to feature it.  Well perhaps not, but you never know.  I'll try to embed it below, but here's a direct link to it on Youtube.

* I haven't read the Snopes trilogy, but I've read a few of the other books with links to the Sartoris clan, and it becomes obvious how in this society that drew so heavily upon English traditions some form of primogeniture was essential to keep estates from being split up into tiny bits that were completely unproductive.  In Go Down, Moses Faulkner shows how things get very complicated when primogeniture isn't followed because it doesn't seem fair, and quite a few white men had children with their slaves (and later Black servants), but these descendants were almost entirely excluded from their birthright.  It is actually notable that one man set aside a $1000 bequest for his illegitimate son, and this has consequences for binding the mixed race descendants to the estate.  Faulkner seems to suggest that the children who moved away are generally no better off than those who stay.  What is also a bit different in this novel (or rather series of linked stories) is that the "pure" white side of the family has very few offspring, so the estate doesn't keep getting chopped up as would normally happen.  Though there is a moment in "Delta Autumn" where Uncle Ike bemoans how a whole town has sprung up where there was originally only a small sawmill and railroad depot carved out of the land of one of his neighbors.

** It is arguable that this is going on in some Ibsen and Strindberg plays.  It is also an issue that preoccupied Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as well as Exiles, which is a play written along the lines of Ibsen's plays.  I've just seen it, however, and I have to agree with the critics that say it is badly written.  Maybe it is just as well he worked out his issues in his marriage here (baldly and badly) and then was able to come up with a far better and more nuanced portrayal of a couple with fidelity issues in Ulysses.

† I can't believe that I passed up the chance to plug Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet where three of the books are written from different characters' perspectives, in some cases significantly reversing what the reader thought he (or she) knew from the previous book.

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