About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 20 - Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway

In my twenties, I found Woolf too ensconced in her class for her gifts to be fully accessible, though it was clear to me that those gifts were extraordinary – the sensitivity to how consciousness worked and the attunement to how language can evoke its rhythms and intensities. Then at a certain point in my life, there she was! I began to love Woolf’s novels for their depth of understanding and their wonderful language and structure. My writing, in its odd and lesser way, began to resonate with the appreciation of her work, and this was partly due to my undertaking at the age of forty to write the first of my novels; that will do it for one. The novel I began to draft then has finally become my new novella, Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable.

In any case, here I want to try to suggest the basis of my admiration for Woolf. The novel of hers which I have read and taught most often is Mrs. Dalloway. Particularly in the various versions of my course on modernism, that work powerfully (and usefully) evokes several crucial concerns of the modern period: the nature of the stream of consciousness, the shock of the First World War, and the issue of “moments” of intense experience, of “being.” Woolf’s use of limited omniscience to focus, first, on the stream of Clarissa Dalloway’s consciousness renders the great range of her receptivity to existence – her sensitivity to the presence of death (evoked by the repetition of the Shakespearean song “Fear no more the heat of the sun” or by Big Ben tolling the hour, etc.) as well as her attunement to the flux and flow of life: “In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” This is not Leopold Bloom’s Joycean free associative stream of consciousness, for Woolf has selected and rhythmically arrayed these phrases and perceptions (and often she uses other distancing controls, locutions like “one would think” employing the conditional and the impersonal pronoun), yet her characterization of Clarissa Dalloway does capture an affirmation akin to Bloom’s – a lyric upwelling of Clarissa’s sense of life as she simultaneously prepares to give her upper-class party and simultaneously resonates with memory, with her alertness to the proximity of death, and with the possibility of vivid, vital life.

“This moment in June” can stand for the primacy of momentaneous experience in this 1925 novel’s vision of modern existence. She has inherited Pater’s pre-modern aesthetic of the vital, hallowed “moment” and ushered it into modernity. Her great tragicomic novel renders the unfolding of intense moments of life and of death, of passion and of loss, as they struggle to endure after the Great War in the face of cultural mourning for death’s massive presence in “one’s” consciousness. Clarissa Dalloway’s “double” in this beautifully double-plotted novel is Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked veteran of the First World War. Septimus’ capacity to respond "normally," "to feel," has been exhausted – burned out of him – by the horror he has witnessed, above all by the death of a friend, Evans, a soldier blown to bits before his eyes. As a result, Smith lacks a protective layer insulating him from the forces and voices around him which would “scrape and rasp his spine.” Nevertheless, he responds to the interconnectedness of life, to the canopy of trees “quickened” to life or to the sounds of birds, which in his painfully distorted case chatter on in Greek. His struggling existence parallels Clarissa’s, often in shared imagery and language: her love of the canopy of trees at her childhood home, her terror at the forces which scrape and rasp her spine, or her incantation – like his – of “Fear no more.”

Septimus Smith is driven to suicide by his obtuse psychiatrists, who in the early 1920s make him feel that he is a freak who must be locked away for his failure to maintain “a sense of proportion.” Woolf’s censure of these doctors may well stem from her own experiences of their treatments, but more deeply, her horror at their inability to understand how to mourn, how to face tragic loss, is a signal feature of her modernist vision; it is conveyed in a quasi-omniscient sequence almost exactly in the middle of the novel: “But Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged – in the heat and sands of India, the mud and swamp of Africa, the purlieus of London.” Psychiatry’s occupation of the psyche becomes linked to Imperialism’s conquests. “Conversion is her name, and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace.” Again, in an echo between the double plots, Clarissa responds as follows to the efforts of a Dickensian-named, born-again Miss Kilman to convert her daughter: “Had [Clarissa] ever tried to convert any one herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves?...[L]ove and religion would destroy that, whatever it was, the privacy of the soul.”

In the climax of the novel, as Clarissa is made to hear about the suicide of the psychiatrist’s patient, she has a series of epiphanies. There is the moment of revelation when Sally Seton arrives at the party; when they were young women, she had given Clarissa the passionate “gift” of a kiss, and here she was now, “older, happier, less lovely,” talking about her “five enormous boys.” Earlier there had been the arrival of Peter Walsh, the man who had been passionate toward her in youth, and there is her realization that he is now, in his mid-fifties, perturbed and injured by life. Most important for Clarissa, though, is her hearing of Septimus throwing himself to his death: “her body went through it first…Up had flashed the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it….He had flung it away. They went on living…they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate.”

In exploring what death communicates, Woolf is writing from the center of modernist vision. “There was an embrace in death” of all that had been negated by the “sense of proportion,” the “converted” self, and a moribund society. Septimus “made her feel the beauty; he made her feel the fun,” for his death stirred in her 'sympathetic imagination' (which is her "gift") all of the silenced possibilities for meaning obliterated by the spiritual death in Clarissa’s world: “the impossibility of reaching the center” – the “closeness” and “rapture.” Given the enormity of World War deaths, of what seemed the death throes of a civilization, all humans struggled to see how death could be understood beyond the chaos, bitter emptiness, and fear (“Fear no more the heat of the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages”). Woolf’s novel shows us that the challenge of modernity is to imagine how death can function as a portal through which transfiguring knowledge can speak – how it can function as the sign of an autonomous new sense of being, bridging the torrent of death.

How Woolf imagines these possibilities needs more explanation than I’ve offered here, and in my next post I’ll try further to sketch her vision in the context of her ideas and of her other novels. Here's a link to the novel about Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith: Mrs Dalloway.

Virginia Woolf Portrait 1928 8x10 Silver Halide Photo Print

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 19 - Conrad in the twentieth century (part three)

I hope you will take a look at the links here describing my new political novel about Israel, Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable (or follow that Amazon link to read/explore and “search inside the book”).

In this post, I want to place Conrad in the context of the century just past. There’s a fine book by Ian Watt about the novelist's relationship to the previous century, the nineteenth, in which he was born and became an adult, and to the movements in art which came to fruition in the 1870s and 1880s – that is impressionism (exemplified by Monet’s or Renoir’s paintings) and symbolism (embodied in Mallarme’s poetry). Clearly these two wondrous movements relate to Conrad’s ability to capture the atmosphere and symbolic resonance of characters’ minds and their settings. But Conrad’s willingness to portray the extremity of reality and finally his hardness of mind, which exposes and strips away hypocrisy, situate him as a novelist who inhabits and confronts the twentieth century, with its corrosive rationalizations justifying millions upon millions of deaths.

Conrad’s most powerful characters dramatize and embody those exploitative, murderous rationalizations: for example, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Charles Gould in Nostromo, and the ensemble of Russian autocrats, functionaries, and revolutionaries in Under Western Eyes. There are also the less society-encompassing exemplars of these delusions: Lord Jim himself is an example. And there are the behind-the-scenes perpetrators – Holyrod in Nostromo, Mr. Verloc and Mr. Vladimir in The Secret Agent, the Manager in Heart of Darkness, and Stein in Lord Jim. As well, there are the fellow-travelers, detached yet enabling participants: Nostromo in Nostromo (even the passive Decoud there), the Assistant Commissioner and his entourage in The Secret Agent, or the deeply skeptical Heyst in Victory. These last are also observers who witness the atrocious events, the suffering of characters, and the delusions of Kurtz and the other enactors of inflated, rapacious dreams. Marlow is the model for such witnesses.

The character of Marlow possesses an extraordinary astuteness about other humans; for a character that comes into existence in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, he is far in advance of the late Victorian gentleman he ought to be (and who sometimes manifests himself in occasional defensiveness and compensating behavior). Conrad creates him as the teller of the novel’s story, and his flaws and his courageous sensitivity both situate the reader so that we become aware of what is at issue in the very act of speaking, of narrating (our critical awareness about the narrator’s perspective is intensified also by Conrad’s frequent use of multiple narrative viewpoints); the Conradian self-consciousness stirred in us about how to speak the truth is a crucial feature of the novelist’s modernity. Marlow’s own advance into modernity is a matter of two qualities of his mind, two capacities which Conrad describes in other contexts: One is the ability ‘to see the truth,’ to keep his eyes open in the face of extremity; the arc of plot and revelation in Heart of Darkness depends on the intensity of Marlow’s commitment to the truth. Marlow’s second gift is what Conrad called the “sympathetic imagination” – that is, he is able to intuit and empathize with the mental state of another human being, to establish a sort of ad-hoc community of two humans struggling with what tortures the mind of the other, of a Kurtz, of Lord Jim, and of lesser characters. And what possesses the mind of one haunts the mind of the witness; as Marlow is made to say, “Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better his stare [into the abyss]….It is his extremity I seemed to have lived through.” Before the existential void, he makes the moral choice of solidarity with Kurtz who faces and voices “the horror” of his own imperial enterprise, with its deluded rationalizations of his rapacious violence.

In Nostromo, the imperialist Charles Gould has his witness in his wife, Mrs. Emilia Gould, and she too faces the abyss of what she calls “material interests.” In Conrad’s novels, women often bear both of Marlow’s gifts; Mrs. Gould sees the truth of what the silver mine has done to the lives of owner and worker, of master and servant, alike, and she is haunted by the self-conscious realization of the void the mine creates in the vast world of the novel, which is narrated from a wide range of narrative viewpoints. Mrs. Gould also possesses a sympathetic imagination, which draws the pained souls of Gould’s world to her, the intellectuals and the desperate aristocrats, the deluded movers and shakers and the enabling underlings. And she is left with a deep sense of the imperial void, absorbing the Latin American nation in the midst of celebrating still another revolution. Even an endangered sense of justice or a provisional community in Conrad’s vision must draw upon the capacities of a Marlow or of an Emilia Gould.

These remarks are too compressed, but hopefully they begin to give an impression of Conrad’s works. My intention is finally to write a book titled Conrad in the Twentieth Century and Other Essays. But in my next post, I’ll move on to another focus.
Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)Under Western EyesHeart of Darkness and the Congo Diary: A Penguin Enriched eBook ClassicLord Jim: A Tale (Penguin Classics)Victory (Penguin Classics)The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Penguin Classics)[Here are links to these extraordinary novels, on Amazon.com: Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin), Heart of Darkness (Penguin Classics), Under Western Eyes, Lord Jim: A Tale, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Penguin Classics), and Victory (Penguin Classics).]

Friday, April 15, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 18 - Conrad in the twentieth century (part two)

There are certain large-scale and demanding modernist masterworks that render society’s organizing edifices as they loom over and crush human lives. Among these works is Conrad’s longest novel, Nostromo (1904), which forces the English-speaking reader to face the great weight of imperial entitlement at work in the very language and form of the English novel. The Polish-British novelist’s courage in writing that work is not only a function of the writing itself – facing the blank page and creating there a world in language; his courage involves his difficult, even precarious situation as a writer, quadruply displaced (Russian exile, then the return to Poland, the years in France, and finally the arrival in Britain – though first there is service on British Merchant ships and only after 1894 permanent residence in England).

Earlier I discussed Under Western Eyes (published in 1911), in which Conrad portrays the harrowing site of his childhood exile in Russia, and in Heart of Darkness there is the courage of a European writer in 1900 confronting Europe’s pervasive imperialist megalomania. And as I mentioned, in Nostromo it was risk-taking and courageous in 1904 for him to focus his most ambitious novel on the experience of a British imperialist and his wife; Conrad was a foreigner and naturalized citizen undertaking to reveal some of the most difficult truths about his adopted British homeland. A similar risk is implicit in his 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, which exposes London’s political underworld of radicals, agent provocateurs, and police.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Conrad develops a vision of British life as the site of social, ethical, and personal self-deceptions and collisions, and in doing so he employs the destabilizing strategy of perspectivism, of presenting the “truth” of a story not as singular, but as a multiplicity of truths narrated from differing points of view. Both the content and the ‘contrapuntal’ form of his vision achieve what Conrad describes as a “somber” and “sinister” impact; in the preface to Heart of Darkness, he writes, “the somber theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hand in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.” (The “sinister resonance” in Conrad’s fiction is analyzed more fully in the first chapter of my Fullness of Dissonance: Modern Fiction and the Aesthetics of Music.)

That “sinister resonance” is in part a matter of Conrad's use of a certain psychological realism, which presents each character’s stream of inner perception in order to render the most difficult truths about him or her, and each internal monologue or self-disclosing dialogue does not exist in isolation, but is in ‘counterpoint’ with other characters’ monologues and dialogue. As well, like still another character, there is Conrad’s evocative and symbolic use of the external atmosphere of setting, which his characters internalize – whether it is the experience of going upriver in the Congo darkness or exploring the anarchic, sun-drenched streets of a disintegrating Latin American city or negotiating London’s dim settings, whether seedy or sumptuous.

A continuously destabilizing turbulence emerges from the perspectivism of Conrad’s multiple viewpoints and settings, and their colliding views and truths give the reader the often dizzying responsibility of deciphering and judging Kurtz, Charles Gould, Verloc, Razumov, and Conrad’s other haunting and powerful creations. In this way the novels’ modernist perspectivism magnifies the power and capaciousness of its core characters. The result is a version of the modernist “gigantism” I’d discussed in an earlier post, a breadth of self-consciousness and power. Particularly his core characters are possessed by a consuming self-consciousness and self-absorption, yielding enormous force yet blinding them to the damage done by their egotism and megalomania (Nostromo and Decoud are amateurs of self-consciousness and egotism compared to the imperial master of rationalized exploitation and brutality, Charles Gould. And of course colossal Kurtz bestrides them all.) In my final post on Conrad, I’ll try to detail the perspectivism and “gigantism” of Conrad’s presentation of these compelling and revelatory characters.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 17 - on Conrad in the twentieth century (part one)

Before I turn to Conrad, I want again to mention the short novel I’ve just published, a political novella about Israel during an international crisis. As I’ve mentioned, I have revised it over the years (with two agents’ help, it was nearly accepted for publication a couple of times), and I’ve now made it available newly revised through Amazon’s free publishing arm, Createspace. With its nuclear theme inside something of a thriller structure as well as its portrait of three generations of Israelis, the difficult political questions it raises sadly remain relevant. The title is Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable (that’s the Amazon link), and it’s accompanied by eight stories of mine about America in the 80s (i.e., during the Reagan years through the fall of the Berlin Wall). I’m glad that it’s now available to people who might find it moving and stimulating.

The issue of the novel’s relationship to the most harrowing problems in society is, of course, central to Joseph Conrad’s novels. As he engages his (and our) world’s excesses and political extremities, the governing approach or aesthetic of his fiction marks his novels as a product of the twentieth century. Each of Conrad’s narratives embodies and projects, for one thing, the core modernist strategy of perspectivism, which is finally a process of unfolding multiple points of view in a sort of counterpoint of voices. Views and voices mix and collide, altering one another, and this continual (simultaneously spatial and temporal) altering and unfolding is for Conrad a key to the process of understanding reality; finally it is a way of being. His own identity and experience embodies just those qualities so central to his imagination. The sense of his being an alien in British society and of being repeatedly fragmented by his experience and by his society’s fate: all of this is built into his life history – in childhood as a colonial subject of Russian rule in Poland, as a self-exile from Poland at 17 to Marseilles, as a Francophile who adopted English as a merchant marine and then as a writer, finally as a British citizen.

From his birth in 1857, Conrad’s life dramatically embodies the modernist concerns with dangerous excess and with the implacable collision of perspectives. His father, Apollo, reminds Bernard Meyer, who is one of Conrad’s biographers, of Balzac’s comment that if you point out a precipice to a Pole, he will immediately throw himself over, dressed in full regimental regalia. Apollo – a member of the landed gentry, proudly bearing the Nalcesz coat-of-arms – was a member of the Polish National Committee opposed to Russian rule over Poland. A literary and political writer and a translator of French and English literature, Apollo named his son Konrad, after the hero of a nineteenth-century Polish national epic hero. When Conrad was four, he almost died of pneumonia as his parents took him with them into Russian exile, which was Apollo’s punishment for his political opposition to Russian rule. In a remote town, north of Moscow, young Conrad – he was then seven – watched his mother die of tuberculosis; she was also of the landed gentry, but her family was grounded, practical, and disapproving of her marriage. At the age of 11, Conrad moved back to Poland with his ill and dying father, permitted finally to return; after Apollo’s death, the boy was made to walk at the head of the large patriotic funeral procession.

For the next six years, Conrad – initiated into trauma, resilient yet sensitive to disconnection – was raised by his mother’s practical brother, Uncle Tadeuz, in Krakow where he was tutored in his mid-teens (and visited the French-speaking part of Switzerland with his tutor, who reported to Tadeuz that the adolescent Conrad was “an incorrigible Don Quixote”). The Uncle feared that Apollo was influencing his son from the grave, and yet at the age of 16, Conrad was given permission (and funds) to go to Marseilles in order to apprentice as a French merchant marine. This was in 1874, a year in France not unlike 1974 in America – a time of profound disillusionment and realism about the government and the disastrous 1871 Franco-Prussian War. Over the next two years, in his late teens, Conrad shipped to Martenique and to Venezuela, illegally ran guns to Carlist revolutionaries in Spain, squandered most of his money, experienced a disastrous love affair, and attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest (but missing his heart). The French immigration office understandably cancelled his sailor’s license.

Conrad traveled to England, enlisted in the British merchant Marines, and began his sixteen-year career rising in the ranks to Captain and becoming a naturalized British subject in 1887. He served as Captain of the Roi de Belges, going up the Congo River in 1890, and his experiences during that voyage became part of the basis of Heart of Darkness, written in 1900. His literary career began however when, he says, he was docked in Rouen harbor and started writing Almayer’s Folly in the flyleaf pages of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the proto-modern masterpiece of stark realism and exacting style about Emma Bovary’s needy and out-sized ego (Conrad admired Flaubert and especially Maupassant, for they had “the courage to state the hardest truths”). This first novel is about a sort of Pere Goriot, that is, a King Lear-like father, who struggles to protect and control his daughters; already here, Conrad is exploring the creation of a consuming, larger-than-life character, who – tragicomic though he is – threatens to crack open the structure of his family and society. In 1894, when Conrad was thirty-seven, the novel was accepted for publication; also that year, Uncle Tadeuz died, and Conrad formally ended his sea career (which had already been curtailed by his illness after his trip up the Congo four years earlier). He settled in London and married his typist Jessie George in 1896. Mrs. Conrad’s memoir is a suggestive source in documenting the neurasthenic agony of writing for him.

Conrad sometimes buckled under the pressure of writing, for he consistently set himself the hardest tasks as a novelist. The modernist audacity and ambition of his works during the first decade of the twentieth century exacted a great toll, and after the completion of Under Western Eyes in 1910-11, he suffered a serious breakdown. In that work, he summonses the courage to return in imagination to the scene of his earliest traumatic experience of political oppression and extremity and to write a novel about Russian autocracy, modeled in part on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Conrad uses elements of that novel, despite his antipathy toward the Russian novelist). The essay “Autocracy and War” like Conrad’s 1911 novel presents a vision of existence as combat between an inhuman nothingness or “néant” (embodied for Conrad by the political oppression of the Russian Tsar and by Bismarck in Germany) and the capacity to sustain compassion and empathy (the “sympathetic imagination” toward others, on which human community is based and which is often sustained, he writes, by women); Under Western Eyes portrays a group of such women who variously struggle to help each other and the protagonist Razumov to endure oppression’s negation of the human. Thomas Mann greatly admired the novel, particularly for its juxtaposition of narrators and its metafictional perspectivism: Razumov’s journal of being buffeted by the forces of oppression (and his own internalization of them) is “translated from the Russian” by a well-meaning, sentimental and somewhat blinkered English “professor,” who provides his Western reading of the harrowing Eastern tale. The novel is that rare work of art, Mann writes, capable of bridging the divide between and synthesizing the implacably opposed entities of East and West in Europe.

In my next post, I’ll try to indicate other instances of the courage and modernist audacity of conception at work in Conrad’s perspectivist novels and, also, to explain his rendering of the modern novel’s characteristic “gigantism” and particularly the revelatory excess of self-absorption and megalomania in some of Conrad's most compelling characters.