Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sure, they let us in

As may be obvious from previous posts, I've been doing an essay on Saul Bellow. This has required fairly intensive reading of A Silver Dish, and I've noticed a very curious sentence in it, in the second part, when Woody and Pop are just about to visit Mrs Skoglund.

She is described as dreaming of the Second Coming, which could be hastened by reaching the hearts of people like these two "scheming bums", Woody and Pop. The next line is:


Sure, they let us in.


There are no quotation marks so it appears to come from the voice of the narrator. This shift to first-person is unique in the story.

It could be read as a universal first person, from the point-of-view of Mrs Skoglund, referring to the harvesting of lost souls, or it could refer to Woody and Pop, thereby more closely linking the narrator to Woody. Or it could be a mistake. Or something else.

Very odd.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Bellow on critics and modern criticism

Critics often translate important books - write them again, as it were, in the fashionable intellectual jargon. And then the books are no longer themselves. they have been borrowed by Culture, with a capital C. There are two things here that we must clearly distinguish. One is the work of art with its direct effect on people. The other is a work of art as a cultural commodity, as a piece of society's property in Culture. In the second form, art becomes a fertilizer for the cultivation of languages, vocabularies, intellectual styles, ornaments, degrees, honors, prizes, and all the rest of that. That's Culture with a capital C. That's what I'm talking about. And this is what always happens. Our model for it is the Christian religion, which started with faith and ended with churches.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

John Barth - Goodbye to the fruits

A colleague in Boot Camp gave a link to a wonderful site, Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast. This has dozens of short stories for downloading, including some top class stuff - James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Kerouac, Nabokov, Spark and others. Absolutely perfect for sticking on the i-Pod to listen to on the 20 minute walk into work in the mornings.

So I started with Goodbye to the fruits by John Barth. An odd story, I have to say. I think you have to understand the context of the story. It's part of a collection in which the woman has a terminal illness and the man is, in a twist on Sheherezade, telling her stories in order to try to prolong their time together.

If you know that, it's quite poignant. It's funny too. There are some lovely touches, such as the long section about marshes and the geology of it and so on, followed by "and that of course leads me on the Marsh Arabs" and a long section on their hideous treatment by Saddam Hussein. The way it is thrown in, almost as an afterthought, but he gets so passionate about it, is very good.

He then goes on, in a wonderfully artless comment: "No marsh, to paraphrase John Donne, is an island." That made me laugh out loud.

And there's an equally good "As Aldous Huxley said somewhere." These give a great impression of this character, racking his brain for something to talk about, just to keep the conversation flowing. The story starts with lists - lists of fruit, fish, meats etc. Ordinarily, I hate lists in stories - they're just verbiage as far as I'm concerned, but here it works very well because of the context of this man talking and talking and talking because he's frightened to stop.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Saul Bellow on character

Saul Bellow writes (of Mr Sammler):


A "character" has his own logic. He goes his way, one goes with him; he has some perceptions, one perceives them with him. You do him justice, you don't grind your axe. I have no axe to grind, one way or the other. This man seemed to me to be the sort of man to whom this would be happening: he happens to have religious feelings. I did not choose such a person for the purpose of expressing my own religious convictions. I was simply following the thread of his being. I found a clue and I was winding it up, going inwards. It brought me to religion. If it had brought me elsewhere, I’d have written something else. One doesn't arbitrarily invent these things in order to put anything across. That what I am trying to say to you.


That's what I AIM to do. It's not what I do, I know. I still have this urge to SAY something and it gets in the way of the story saying it for me. I push it instead of letting it pull me.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

An exercise

So here's an exercise for anyone who is interested in character/dialogue. Write down four names. Male of female, exotic, foreign, boring, whatever.

Now, write a piece of dialogue in which names A and B are talking about what name C thinks of name D.

Hey presto, four names become four characters...