29 July 2014

Jean Buddenbrook's letter to his daughter Tony

My dear Tony,

Your letter duly received. As regards its contents, I should tell you that I did not fail dutifully to communicate to Herr Grünlich your view of the situation in an appropriate manner. The result of which, however, truly shocked me. You are a grown young lady and find yourself at such a serious crossroads in life that I do not scruple to point out the consequences that might result from any frivolous step on your part. Upon hearing what I had to say, Herr Grünlich became quite desperate, crying that he loved you so much and the pain of losing you would be so great that he was prepared to take his own life if you were to persist in your decision. Inasmuch as I cannot take seriously what you have written about another attachment, I would ask you to master your agitation about the ring you were sent and to weigh all this most seriously one more time. My Christian convictions, dear daughter, tell me it is our duty to have regard for the feelings of others, for we do not know whether one day you may not be held answerable before the Highest Judge because the man whom you have stubbornly and coldly scorned has been guilty of the sin of taking his own life. I would like you to recall, however, something that I have impressed upon you often enough in conversation, and which the present occasion allows me to repeat in writing. For, although the words we speak are more vivid and immediate, the written word has the advantage of having been chosen with great care and is fixed in a form that its author has weighed and considered, so that it may be read again and again to cumulative effect. We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition. Your path, it seems to me, has been obvious for many weeks now, its course clearly defined, and you would surely not be my daughter, the granddaughter of your grandfather, who rests now in God, indeed would not be a worthy link in our family’s chain if, of your own accord and out of stubbornness and frivolity, you seriously intended to follow an aberrant path of your own. I beg you, my dear Antonie, to ponder these things in your heart.

The most heartfelt greetings as well from your mother, Thomas, Christian, Clara, and Klothilde (who has spent the last few weeks at Grudging with her father), and from Mamselle Jungmann as well. We all look forward to the moment when we may embrace you once again.

As always with love,
Your Father

from part 3, chapter 10, of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks: John E. Woods translation

25 July 2014

First notes on Buddenbrooks

Part 1

Family dinner, new house of the family Buddenbrook, bought by the old man, his son and wife live on a lower floor. Seems to be about 5 stories, with a granary on the lower level—a horse and cart can drive through the archway and pull into the back yard. Exporting grain seems to be the business, with financing from Hamburg (I think). The old man receives a threatening letter from a stepson (his oldest; he also has a stepdaughter) anent a forthcoming inheritance he believes due. Good imagery, especially around the food served at the dinner. Lots of guests of a political and prestige bend. The children are introduced early and then set aside.

Part 2

Jean seems to have his 5th child (can’t keep count). Old Johann is happy. Jean consults an old commonplace book and seems embarrassed by it. Teen Tony vacations with her grandparents—where everything is nicer—and rebuffs a boy who tries to kiss her; she’s a handful. The Tom and Christian duality is further set up; Tom is studious, Christian a prankster, looking for a laugh and attention. This can’t end well for Christian. 

18 July 2014

Last Notes of The Luminaries

  • A hundred pages left to go. Finally hit a dry-spell, the courtroom scene. The only thing more boring than a lawyer is a courtroom drama.
  • Still there were some funny moments. Which reminded me of how humorous this novel is--an urgent message is delivered with instructions to destroy it after reading, and the destruction is mocked; Te Rau asking after a certain type of woman at the seance; the bluster of Mannering, the fey good goofy-nature of Staines, Lydia Wells' way of greeting a woman newly arrived to Dunedin. 
  • The problem of ending a book one spends a week with--and one only spends a week on a good book, at least in middle age--is that the next book, no matter what it is, won't be as good. Best to follow something like The Luminaries with a Warren Beatty biography. Or opium.
Non-Luminaries notes:
  • There is a California beach house rule that says only pocket paperbacks from the 1970s can fill the bookshelves.
  • Nothing tastes better than 4-hour-dead halibut.

17 July 2014

A note on the shape of The Luminaries

It is a circle to start--360 pages for part 1, and then the other parts proceed by half the previous part's length. Down to 1? Who knows, not there yet. Just picked up on this--not sure how Catton did it.

The structure reminded me of a funny paragraph from Nathanael West's debut novel The Dream Life of Balso Snell:

Is this journal to be like all the others I have started? A large first entry, consisting of the incident which made me think my life exciting enough to keep a journal, followed by a series of entries gradually decreasing in size and culminating in a week of blank days.

16 July 2014

The Luminaries at page 500 (more notes)

  • Curious why I'm reading it every chance I get, a hundred pages a day if I can make the time. Besides the enjoyment and the propulsion of the story, there is no resolution in the offing. Moody just opened Lauderback's trunk and rifled through it; Dick Mannering (great name) has been informed that his former whore is studying tarot. Don't know what to expect at the seance. Maybe a strangling (a la Arcturus). 
  • Has a celebrated novel ever been this influenced by a TV show? I conjure pictures of HBO's "Deadwood" constantly while reading this book. Makes me want to write a novel based on the best tv show ever, "Simon & Simon".
  • There's a nice division being set-up between characters who were in the hotel room and those who were not. 
  • Burning through this makes me hope the other big books I brought on holiday will be as enjoyable. They are Biskind's Star (Warren Beatty bio), Mann's Buddenbrooks, and Littell's The Kindly Ones. An actor, a family saga, and a Nazi--party time.
  • Have been out on two boats the past week, none named Godspeed.

14 July 2014

Notes on The Luminaries at its half-way point

  • Holds together well for a multi-character minutely-plotted novel. Haven't had to flip pages back to reread to clear up past action. Catton can leave a scene or character for a long time and come back to it nicely.
  • Wouldn't describe Catton's prose as natural, but she's expert at details (environment and character), and great at suspense; the first half of the novel is a huge set-up and I have no idea where it is going. Each sub-chapter seems like a client retelling the events that brought him to 221B Baker Street to ask Holmes for help and resolution.
  • Like Highsmith's The Termor of Forgery I won't be disappointed if all the loose ends of this novel don't get tied. I like loose ends, ambiguity, and unresolved puzzles. 
  • Have no idea what the Zodiac has to do with anything, yet. 
  • New Zealand's west coast is laid out well and it is easy to orient oneself within the novel as the characters make their way north and south and up and down river.
  • Tried over the years to read the two big Wilkie Collins novels (Luminaries got compared to Collins when it came out) and never finished them. Prefer Luminaries.
  • Wish that jail was always spelled gaol.

29 June 2014

The Screwball Novel

Arts and Entertainments, the new Christopher Beha novel, is a fun quick read that goes down easy, a beach book if I've ever read one. Maybe beach books should be renamed lemonade books; I live on the beach two months of each year and the beach doesn't go down easy ever.

Arts and Entertainments is a screwball novel--lots of silliness, more smirking-humor than laugh-out-loud humor--and its plot involves a handful of immature adults who get mixed up in the world of reality television, and all the embarrassing asides that come with that enterprise. The plotting in Arts and Entertainments is large and tight and it is this novel's best feature, as the characters themselves are queued to the plot's parameters.

Eddie Hartley, the main character, is a handsome and dim protagonist who becomes a perpetual victim to outlandish circumstances. The supreme example of this sort of plotting is of course The Crying of Lot 49Arts and Entertainments falls short of that great unpredictable maze, but Eddie's pursuit is vital and urgent and necessary to him, and his decisions--seldom good, mostly awful--compel a reader to read on.

I wish it were nastier; there are scenes in Arts and Entertainments that begin to remind one of the The Day of the Locust, only they don't flourish, likely because they don't have Nat West's wit or viciousness. Moody, the producer of the reality within the reality, is a supposed demiurge, but he isn't drawn as robustly or as menacing as he ought to be. The female characters, mostly in supporting roles, are better realized.

Beha's new novel is written in passive prose and laden with contractions, fashioned into plain sentences of the short descriptive nature, and his writing of environments and surroundings is often antiseptic. But he has proved himself now with a novel that builds taut suspense, a challenge for contemporary novelists. And with two novels to his credit, hopefully he has realized his strongest talent, writing women. This was Henry James' and EM Forster's talent, and one hopes Beha exploits his gift in bolder directions.

19 June 2014

Another great messy house from Iris Murdoch

The dim light showed, immediately outside the door, the steep stairs which Cato now mounted to the room above where he once more checked the window which had been partially boarded up and more recently covered by a blanket hung from two nails. All being well he turned on the light, which here was slightly brighter. He ran down again to switch off the kitchen light, then came up more slowly. The little room was dingy and shabby but not totally comfortless. There was a chest of drawers with the drawers standing open and empty, a divan bed with a dirty flimsy green coverlet drawn up over disorderly bedclothes, and a small metal crucifix nailed to the wall above. The speckled linoleum was worn into holes, but there was a cheap newish brown rug. A washstand with a brightly tiled back and a grey marble top was strewn with Cato’s shaving tackle. On the floor was his suitcase, packed, unpacked, packed, now once more disgorging its contents conspicuous among which was a bottle of whisky. The dusty wainscot was decorated here and there by eccentric forms of flattened soup tins which a previous tenant had nailed over the mouse holes. There were two upright chairs and a number of overflowing ash trays. The room smelt of damp and tobacco and the lavatory next door. Cato switched on a one-bar electric fire which stood in the corner, the element emitted a shower of sparks, then settled to a dull glow. He sat down on the divan and lit a cigarette. He was trying to give up smoking again, though really now it scarcely mattered.

from Henry and Cato by Iris Murdoch. Here's the original review from the New York Times in 1977