Saturday, January 15, 2011

Returning to the opening-paragraph discussion I began earlier this week, I offer the following commentary. Please take into consideration that, as I write this, I am (1) freezing and (2) mildly concussed.

Sample 1

In the spring of 1917, when Doctor Richard Diver first arrived in Zurich, he was twenty-six years old, a fine age for a man, indeed the very acme of bachelorhood. Even in war-time days it was a fine age for Dick, who was already too valuable, too much of a capital investment to be shot off in a gun. Years later it seemed to him that even in this sanctuary he did not escape lightly, but about that he never fully made up his mind--in 1917 he laughed at the idea, saying apologetically that the war didn't touch him at all. Instructions from his local board were that he was to complete his studies in Zurich and take a degree as he had planned.

According to Malcolm Cowley's introduction to my very ragged copy of Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald believed that the novel was the best thing he had written and expected it to be a smash hit. So he was shocked and depressed when the public did not feel likewise. The book was originally released in 1934, but after its tepid welcome, the writer continued to fiddle with it. Becoming convinced that some structural error was responsible for its failure, he took voluminous notes about his plans to reorganize it. Nonetheless, despite all his best efforts, the novel was not republished before his death. My edition follows Fitzgerald's revision plans, and one of the largest of those revisions was the beginning: instead of opening with the fine and mysterious Rosemary Hoyt scene on the Riviera, he begins chronologically by introducing us to his main character, doomed Dick Diver. Now, I have just reached the Riviera scene so can say right now (and as far as I can remember I've never read this novel before so I have no idea why the copy is so beat up) that it's a far more compelling scene visually and emotionally than the opening above. But as I understand Cowley, Fitzgerald worried that it led the reader into misunderstanding the centrality of Dick's decay. So he created this bildungsroman sort of beginning as a way to defuse those misapprehensions. Did it work? Well, I haven't finished the novel, but I can tell you that Gatsby it ain't. One of the beauties of Gatsby--maybe its greatest beauty--is the sense I have that the tale is told in one rushing breath. There is an illusion of seamlessness, a narrative and imagistic fluidity that Tender does not have in the least. Gatbsy feels like magic. This novel feels like a book that a man hammered out on a typewriter.
Sample 2

November 2
I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.

By the end of the first line you can tell that Roberto Bolano's novel The Savage Detectives is going to imitate either a diary or a series of letters. In other words, you expect choppiness and limited vision and a singular voice, which is exactly what you get, at least for the first half of the book. This is the sort of novel that millions of people who aren't me laud as great. Those people include my husband as well as many other people whom I not only respect but who seem cooler and smarter than I am. So I am loath to reveal my essential lack of hipness by making any kind of remark at all about this book. I will say that all of its clever choppiness and confusing character introductions and the name dropping of invented surrealists and the accumulations of sexy, mean-spirited women and the fact that nothing ever happens unless you count waiting around in cafes for poets who don't show up became, in combination with the strangely parallel distractions of Moby-Dick, almost impossible to bear. I spent a lot of time at the kitchen table with both novels arranged in front of me and doing everything possible to avoid opening either one of them. The Savage Detectives started winning the battle, but only because its pages weren't falling out. Yet I wanted Moby-Dick to win, so I stuck the Bolano back on the shelf, at which point my husband said, "Didn't finish that book, did you." Notice his lack of question mark.

Sample 3

"Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen."

The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Sorrowful and the Glorious Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing-room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream as she usually was.

The Prince of Lampedusa never knew that his novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) would become one of the greatest and most popular works ever published in Italian. He never knew it would be published at all, and in fact had received yet another rejection letter just before his death. Lampedusa spent his life as a reader, as a rememberer, as the last scion of an ancient noble family; and he created the world of The Leopard from stories of his own ancestors and from the 18th-century palaces that he himself grew up in during the early part of the 20th century and that were destroyed during World War II in the Allied bombing of Sicily. E. M. Forster said of The Leopard, "This is one of the great lonely books." I think that remark is exact, and much of that quality derives from the part that the palaces play in the novel. This is not to overlook the fact that Lampedusa's central character, the Prince of Salina, is one of the great figures of literature. But the houses! They are very nearly living things themselves, as this opening paragraph makes so clear. The paintings and the tapestries are as sensitive to change as the man who recites the Sorrowful and the Glorious Mysteries. How I wish I were wandering among the hundred rooms of this palace. How love this lonely book.


Mr. Hill said...

Aw, I knew you weren't going to like the Bolano, but I was afraid to ask. It seems so well suited to the reader's game that you introduced me to though, the open-at-random-and-see-what-it-has-to-say game. Oh well. I still don't know a single woman who likes that book, which makes me question my evaluation of it sometimes.

I love the way you describe Gatsby and contrast it with the clunky expository mode of the excerpt here. That poor guy was just forcing it at the end there, writing through the mind instead of through the gift.

And I was only dimly aware of The Leopard before I read this, and my first reaction was that it started waving in the iridescent parrots before I was ready for them, but the combination of loneliness and doomed palaces has hit my sweet spot. I'm going to saunter over to our used bookstores and poke around for it.

Dawn Potter said...

My husband loved the Bolano, and he also likes Cotazar, and Animal Collective, and those 3-hour French movies where nobody does anything except sit beautifully in chairs. I appear to be lacking the gene for this genre, but I accept its greatness. Re "The Leopard," let me offer as temptation the following images: a parade of noble carriages traversing the dry stream beds of remote 1860s Sicily, a panoramic ballroom scene better than anything in Tolstoy, a dippy Great Dane named Bendico, and a giant prince in a giant bathtub. How can you resist?

Dawn Potter said...

That would be "Cortazar." Also, you're right about the Bolano being perfect for the random-reader game. And I should mention that I did like his long list of made-up surrealists with misspelled names . . . except that not all of them were made up. And possibly the character who was complaining about the typos was wrong.

Anonymous said...

Ms Potter, This Bolano book is a masterpiece as many readers have acknowledged here and around the world. The meat of the book is on the second and longer part of the book. Do yourself a favor and finish the Bolano. Why do you have to be so arrogant about that? I would hope a literary prize winner would be more serious on her remarks about one of the great writers of recent times.

Dawn Potter said...

Hmm. I hope I wasn't coming across as arrogant. I was trying to say that I believe that the Bolano may indeed be great. Different readers have different predilections, however. I think that's why humans have developed so many varieties of art.

Anonymous said...

A few notes from the Potter Peeper gallery: I have not read Bolano's Savage Detectives and appreciate the comnment from Anonymous, which supports my initial response to the opening. However, arrogant is not an accurate modifier for Ms. Potter. Endearing in her honesty, perhaps, but not arrogant. Fitzgerald's references make clear that he is conscious of writing in the shadow of Joyce's Ulysses and Mann's The Magic Mountain, which exacerbates his own sense of disintegration (the antithesis of German "Bildung"), whereas the Prince of Lampedusa's prose embodies music and poetry, an enigma of evanescence, both sad and lovely.