September 24, 2013
She wondered what sort of herbs they were, which the old man was so sedulous to gather. Would not the earth, quickened to an evil purpose by the sympathy of his eye, greet him with poisonous shrubs, of species hitherto unknown, that would start up under his fingers? Or might it suffice him, that every wholesome growth should be converted into something deleterious and malignant at his touch? Did the sun, which shone so brightly everywhere else, really fall upon him? Or was there, as it rather seemed, a circle of ominous shadow moving along with his deformity, whichever way he turned himself? And whither was he now going? Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, leaving a barren and blasted spot, where, in due course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing with hideous luxuriance? Or would he spread bat’s wings and flee away, looking so much the uglier, the higher he rose towards heaven?
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
August 9, 2013
Midsummer was an interesting time for online discussions of literature and the reasons for which readers of literature actually read. Kevin Hartnett and the team at The Millions were the first to kick the hornets’ nest when they “asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest.” Mission accomplished, especially when Tom Ferraro, Associate Professor of English at Duke University, nominated Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as the Great American Novel:
The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?
When the comments section at The Millions exploded with dissents and disagreements, the discussion spilled over onto The Daily Dish, the blog of Andrew Sullivan, where one of Sullivan’s readers was given prime position to offer backup to Ferraro and take down the naysayers:
No surprise there’s backlash against the inclusion of The Godfather. Academics and those who think of themselves as literary types can’t give credit to any novel that isn’t either “beautifully” written or previously endorsed by the academic/literary community. It’s easier to harp on sentences and metaphors than to talk about mythic story, plot, character, and theme.
Meanwhile, in a separate but related discussion, Ted Gioia attracted an audience with his paean to the rise of what he calls a new breed of fragmented novels:
Instead of relying on fragmentation as a means of disjunction and dissolution, as many experimental novelists ha[ve] done in the past… the new fragmented novel is holistic and coalescent. … The comparison with musical polyphony is fitting because, as with the counterpoint, the voices in these recent novels are made to fit together with a virtuosity akin to that demonstrated by the great contrapuntal composers.
“Instead of ‘messy cacophony,’” Gioia continues, “these novels delight with their complicated coherence.” He then names fifty-seven individual titles that fit the bill and claims that each one in some way “resists disunity, even as it appears to embody it,” giving extraordinary care to narrative sophistication but burying both the care and the sophistication beneath what is, for Gioia, an ultimately superficial facade of stylistic and structural complexity:
These novels do not simply delight us with their contrasting voices. They also send us through an enjoyable labyrinth… filled with sharp turns and apparent dead ends, yet we always reach our final destination. Their authors are… showing off their ingenuity in building coherent narratives out of starkly juxtaposed bits and pieces.
But, striking a kinship with Sullivan’s reader, Gioia bemoans the waywardness of those who dare to see the style and structure of those novels as somehow more stimulating than their stories:
When I was a student of literature, my professors — who were academic literary critics, not fiction writers — almost never mentioned these [narrative-oriented] elements of craft. I remember one professor even going on a rant in class about students who paid too much attention to the plot of the novel. He had more important matters in mind when he read a book than the actual story.
Thankfully, another of Sullivan’s readers was given space on The Daily Dish to respond to the previous reader by noting the obvious flaw in that reader’s line of thinking, and in Gioia’s as well:
[T]he reader doesn’t defend Puzo’s writing. S/he just tries to pretend it doesn’t matter by diverting attention from it to what the previous posts had already readily acknowledged: that The Godfather is a great story. For my money, though, if something is going to be labeled the Great American Novel, it had better damn well be a great story and be fantastically written. No amount of story greatness can make up for shit writing, and vice versa.
The sentiments of that statement echoed those of the question that had been occupying my mind while I watched these discussions unfold. If someone reads a piece of writing solely for the story it contains, not for the quality of the writing itself, why waste time on reading it at all? Film adaptations and summarisations offer far more expedient means of ingesting the same narrative information that one would glean from reading anything lengthier for story alone. Surprisingly, the issue of expediency cropped up in the comments at The Millions when “Mr. C” chimed in:
Nice to see The Godfather on the list. Someone gave the book to me years ago, I don’t even think I knew the movie was based on a book. I was hooked in minutes and finished it over the weekend. As a heavy reader friends will ask me for a good book to read and many times I will say “The Godfather,” they will look at me with skepticism and I’ll just say give it a try. Every one of them has returned the book a week later and said that was a great read.
But why is it considered a virtue of The Godfather that one can have it all over and done with, read and appraised and appropriately admired, in only seven days? And why would Stuart Burrows, Associate Professor at Brown University and one of the nine English scholars commenting at The Millions, concede that the list of novels he and the other respondents produced was “unusual” because someone else nominated Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a novel that “very few people have the patience to make it through”? By what logic can it be possible that, on the one hand, the value of a novel lies partly in its capacity to be read at speed, and that, on the other hand, the novel should be read for story alone even though the artform of the novel is the least speedy means by which a reader can access the story? Even when readers purport to read novels for nothing more than the pleasures of story, there must be some other quality to those novels — some quality of style or structure — that induces the reader to prefer to access the story through them rather than through an adaptation or a summarisation or something else altogether. My sense is that this other quality is the sophistication of those elements of the novel that tend to be glossed over in celebrations of Puzo’s The Godfather and that Gioia acknowledges in his essay only in order to downplay their affective impact.
Literature is, by definition, abstract, and therefore complex, and therefore intensely demanding of those who choose to engage with it. Story is everywhere — in literature, yes, but also in film, on television, on stage, in opera, in pop music, in comic books, on blogs, in tweets, in reportage, everywhere — and it is therefore readily available in countless venues that are far less demanding, complex, and abstract than literature. On some level, then, to turn to literature is to choose abstraction over immediacy, complexity over simplification, and demands over simple accommodations — and, moreover, to engage with literature beyond the point of turning to it is to seek stimulation from each of those choices. Those who genuinely seek out story alone probably don’t turn to literature at all, and this remains the case, I think, even if one believes that one turns to literature solely in search of story. Once we acknowledge as much, once we concede that story alone may spark an engagement with literature but cannot fuel its continuation, the primacy of the story, its value above and beyond all other elements of the literary work, disintegrates in the steady flow of the words across the pages and gradually descends like debris overawed by a flood as the pages turn. What remains afloat on the surface of our literary experience are those elements of the work that arrest our attention in the moments after the story attracts it, and these, in my experience, offer stimulation and reward enough to last much longer than a week.
July 20, 2013
This year has been for me, in a sense, the year of Much Ado About Nothing. Back in November, I began helping a couple of colleagues to direct our students in a performance of the play. We spent November and December closely reading the text, then we spent January and February intensively preparing for the stage. We also paid careful attention to both Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation and the 2011 West End production starring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. And although we pulled the trigger too soon to catch Joss Whedon’s more recent take on Shakespeare’s material, I saw his Much Ado when it hit cinemas this summer and I’m convinced that it is the best of all those I have seen. It could have just as easily gone the other way. Whedon shot the film in only twelve days, while in the middle of post-production on The Avengers, using his own house as the set and restricting himself to a grainy monochrome palette. It could have been a sloppy, rushed, underdeveloped mess. But it isn’t. Why not?
Part of the film’s success resides in the minor changes Whedon makes to Shakespeare’s original text and in the talents of some first-rate cast members who do full justice to those parts of the play that Whedon doesn’t tinker with. Most notably, I think, Whedon’s decision to transform the ancillary character of Conrade from a female role into a male role works wonders not only for that character but also for the more crucial character of Don John. Whereas Shakespeare’s pages render Don John a “plain-dealing” villain who turns out to be so pathetic and paper-thin that he barely warrants the stage time allotted to him, Whedon’s film shows he and Conrade involved in a sexual relationship which subtly reconstrues his motivation for manipulating the other characters and kickstarting the plot. Now, rather than having no stronger basis for his villainy than bitterness over the bastardy that keeps him in his brother’s shadow, his cruel machinations appear to be more the result of a purely opportunistic and misguided attempt to live up to his lover’s perceptions of his masculinity. Whedon also does a skilful job of eliding the character of Balthasar and reworking Balthasar’s into pop songs that better suit the film’s contemporary setting, and his decision to allow Nathan Fillion free reign as the bumbling Dogberry has produced not only the best available performance of that character but, perhaps, the best conceivable performance as well. I don’t see what any other actor can do with Dogberry from here on out except imitate Fillion’s line delivery and physical buffoonery as accurately as possible. Only the excision of the character of Antonio seems to me to be a misstep on Whedon’s part, particularly since Antonio’s absence prohibits the staging of one of Shakespeare’s best and most dynamic scenes, equal parts hilarious and devastating, when Antonio and the aggrieved Leonato confront and threaten Don Pedro and Claudio over their accusations against Leonato’s daughter, Hero.
Most of the film’s success, however, seems to me to reside in something less immediately identifiable, something that sets Whedon apart from the other film directors who have been drawn to Shakespeare since the 1990s. The films of Kenneth Branagh present lavish stagings of Shakespeare’s plays with the ultimate aim of clearly conveying the dramas that Shakespeare orchestrates by way of enunciating and thus foregrounding his language, which basically involves Branagh pointing a camera at a group of accomplished actors and simply letting them do their work. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet takes the opposite approach, forcing flashy camera movements and ritzy editing to convey the drama while the actors enunciate monologues and soliloquies but employ more physical techniques for communicating the content of minor dialogue, and the films of Julie Taymor offer some compromise between, or combination of, Branagh’s and Luhrmann’s approaches to Shakespeare. In each case, though, the result is an admixture of three languages: the language of Shakespeare, comprising the dialogue; the language of the staging, comprising setting and set design, props, and costuming; and the language of cinema, comprising camera movements, editing, and soundtrack scoring. In each case, too, the language of Shakespeare is the dominant element whose occasional weaknesses or infelicities, as the directors perceive them, determine when and how much compensation should be made using the languages of staging and cinema. Whedon, however, does not let the language of Shakespeare dominate Much Ado About Nothing. His film allows the language of staging to dominate while the language of cinema that supplements the staging and the language of Shakespeare follows on from, and is at the mercy of, the other two.
In practice, this means two things. First, it means that Whedon uses the distinct capabilities of cinema as an artform to avoid simply producing a stage version of Much Ado that happens to have been performed in front of a camera. Utterly unlike Kenneth Branagh, for instance, he rarely allows a character to deliver more than a few lines of dialogue — even during monologues and soliloquies — before cutting to reaction shots of other characters and, almost as frequently, intercutting a dialogue delivery with action from another scene that takes place elsewhere and at a different time but nevertheless speaks to the content of the dialogue. Second, it means that, when Whedon sets his Much Ado in a villa in contemporary Los Angeles, he has his actors deliver their Shakespearean lines almost the way they would deliver them if they were performing a role in that setting without any Shakespearean language at all. There is very little showiness and glamour to the delivery of dialogue, and sometimes even a deliberate rebuke to the way we might expect dialogue to be delivered. Eloquent lines are mumbled, pithy lines are drawn out, witty lines are dampened and drained of their buoyancy, and there is often a tinge of emotional equivocation to lines that seem to be, on the page, either outrageously joyful or desperately cruel. These things are particularly true of all the lines delivered by Fran Kranz as the besotted Claudio when in conversation with Jillian Morgese as his lover, Hero, to such an extent that those two actors, solely by way of body language and tone of voice, reconstitute the meaning of words that literally refer to virginity and maidenhood and force upon them new meanings relating more broadly to infidelity, promiscuity, and betrayal. And these things are likewise true of the lines delivered by Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice, between whom there seems to be not so much a “merry war,” a bantering battle of witty words, but a real and deep bitterness over the failure of a bygone romance — so much so that the sparring exchanges which advance a largely intellectual one-upmanship in Shakespeare’s text now obtain an element of malice intended to open emotional wounds. The result, on the whole, is a decidedly different but impressive take on Much Ado About Nothing. By bringing Shakespeare’s characters into a setting that suppresses and attenuates the crackling repartee of their words as written, Whedon harnesses the energy that those words only sporadically release on Shakespeare’s pages and transforms it into an edgy, bristling, abiding susurration that undergirds every frame of his film.
June 30, 2013
The texts’ narrative amorphousness and mixed media — what Randall calls “hybrid forms” (3) and what Daniel Davis Wood calls a revival of the avant-garde nouveau Roman post WWII European postmodernism — clearly represent the unsure approach to new ways to make sense of the trauma. The canon of such experimental 9/11 fiction is continually being set by cultural and literary critics.
My remarks on the rebirth of the nouveau roman cited in an MA thesis by Brian J. Phelps.
June 27, 2013
Edinburgh is a place of absolute contrast and paradox. A sense of quality in men and things goes hand in hand with chaotic squalor. The rational squares and terraces of the New Town confront the daunting skyline of the Old. Slums still abut the houses of the rich. Wild mountain scenery impinges on the heart of the city. On fine summer days nowhere is lighter and more airy; for most of the year there are icy blasts or a clammy sea fog, the haar of the east coast of Scotland. Edinburgh is contemptuous of the present. In no other city in the British Isles do you feel to the same extent the oppressive weight of the past. Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox are a presence. The dead seem more alive than the living. There is a claustrophobic, coffin-like atmosphere that makes Glasgow, in comparison, seem a paradise of life and laughter. Moderate health is virtually unknown. Either people enjoy robust appetites, or they are ailing and require protection. Heady passions simmer below the surface. In winter the city slumbers all week in blue-faced rectitude, only to explode on Saturday evenings in an orgy of drink and violence and sex. In some quarters the pious must pick their way to church along pavements spattered with vomit and broken bottles.
Bruce Chatwin, ‘The Road to the Isles’