Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

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Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 02 here)

The age of argument appears to be over…. (Is that what’s implied when someone says we live in an age of anxiety?) … But let’s walk away from that question and leave behind the game of Who Can Best Guess this Zeitgeist? Leave that contrivance to the book peddlers….

All I can do is read a story and see what grabs my attention. And what grabs my attention is usually the essence of the story. (I say usually, because any first appearances that grab one’s attention can of course be deceiving.) And just because the essence of a story grabs my attention doesn’t mean I’ll be able to articulate a definition of that essence.

By essence I mean the thing (moment, symbol, character, idea, etc.) that the entire work of short fiction seems to hinge on—the essential thing without which the story would have no reason to be read by the average casual, curious reader. It may or may not mean a Joycean “epiphany,” or an Aristotelian catharsis, or the thesis of a classical rhetorician. The essence may even be something “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[1]

To find the essence of a story, a reader asks questions, like the four questions of Alfarabi, or other things like:

  • What topics does each story contain and concern?[2]
  • What of things I’ve previously read that concern and compare and contrast with those topics and subjects?
  • Who is the storyteller of each story? (Which is not the same as asking, Who is the creator of each story?)

And in asking these questions I assume the storyteller is separate from the story creator, but I don’t assume or deny any reliability in what that storyteller tells me the reader/listener. At this early stage in the investigation, I don’t even have to worry about defining the word reliability.

The next two posts in this series will examine a pair of short stories by a pair of New York writers: Chris Arp and Nicole Cuffy. And while no one ever confused the Big Apple with the Midwest, Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) does include much of Upstate New York to be, in terms of regional dialects, part of the Midwest. Keep in mind, however, that both Arp and Cuffy have written pieces of historical fiction set neither in New York or the Midwest.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

NOTESwood

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus § 7.0.

[2] An infinite number of topics might exist for any story, sure, but see Bateson on Kant:

Kant argued long ago that this piece of chalk contains a million potential facts (Tatsachen) but that only a very few of these become truly facts by affecting the behavior of entities capable of responding to facts. For Kant’s Tatsachen, I would substitute differences and point out that the number of potential differences in this chalk is infinite but that very few of them become effective differences (i.e., items of information) in the mental process of any larger entity. Information consists of differences that make a difference. (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 81, 99.)


Apr 1 2014

Nabokov’s “Lolita” (a second reading)

bookbread Canterbury
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I read Lolita for the first time about five years ago and was overwhelmed by the style but thought it lacked substance in terms of plot and character. Upon a second reading I would concede the book has substance, and my initial sense of something lacking was really a reflection of my belief that the novel contains no likeable characters. I find nothing to like or sympathize in Humbert, Lolita, or Quilty.

Lolita’s name is Dolores—“pain” in Spanish––Lolita is a “pain” and painful for Humbert.

The book is setup as a confession: Humbert is definitely no St. Augustine, though he may have read some Rousseau. I have not read Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), but as a reader, I find the company of the literary children of James Joyce more tolerable than that of their father. In other words, the linguistic acrobatics of Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), work in ways Joyce never mastered. The Irish Oscar Wilde taught art-for-art’s-sake, and later Irish James Joyce believed in style-for-style’s-sake—but Nabokov and Burgess both know that the best formula is style-for-story’s-sake.

It’s quite a writer’s trick for Nabokov to make the narrator a professor of French poetry. Throughout my reading this trick made it difficult for me not to confuse Nabokov-the-author-poet for Humbert-the narrator-poet.

Early on Humbert confesses: “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita,” (Part I, Ch. 15). This line might be compared to a reflection made by the character of Thomas Buddenbrook:

“I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already.” (Buddenbrooks, VII, vi, 378–79)

Later Humbert dreams of eventually impregnating Lolita (Part II, Ch. 3), so that he can have a second Lolita, somewhat like the character of Manfred in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), P. B. Shelley’s remark that incest is the most poetic of all circumstances, and sentiments of the villain Noah Cross at the climax of the film Chinatown (1974). Nabokov’s line “my impossible daughter” (Part I, Ch. 29) is brimming with multiple meanings and interpretations.

I remain ambivalent but more accepting of Lolita after this second reading, but Nabokov has thought about the idea of re-reading, as found in his lectures on literature:

“I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book:  one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 3)

For Nabokov, a writer is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter:

“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…. The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 5–6)

Finally, here’s Nabokov on artists and morality:

“I never could admit that a writer’s job was to improve the morals of his country, and point out lofty ideals from the tremendous height of a soapbox, and administer first aid by dashing off second-rate books. The writer’s pulpit is dangerously close to the pulp romance, and what reviewers call a strong novel is generally a precarious heap of platitudes or a sand castle on a populated beach, and there are few things sadder than to see its muddy mat dissolve when the holiday makers are gone and the cold mousy waves are nibbling at the solitary sands.” (“The Art of Literature and Commonsense” 376)

 

NOTES

Mann, Thomas Buddenbrooks, Verfall einer Familie. Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods published as Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, 1993.

Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1982.


Sep 3 2010

Concerning “Contemporary American Fiction”

Jenn at American Short Fiction blog made some great observations in an Aug 24th post:

“everybody’s been making their own lists so that everyone else can refute them flatly, and loudly.”

Exactly, Jenn–it’s on this very issue that Bookbread finds himself perplexed.  What is this compulsion to refute, to dismiss, to accuse, to ignore which infests the landscape of book conversation?

“The books we’re arguing over—even the supposedly overrated ones, or the ones dubbed critical successes—are not the books people are buying in droves.”

Aye.  Contrary to the Apostles of Joyce, unbought authors are neither the most read nor those best remembered.

“I think people should keep talking about the divide between popular literature and serious works—and especially the way the two are lately striving to imitate each other to stay afloat in the struggling publishing economy.”

And here Jenn reminds Bookbread of some words from Dylan: “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose,”—so that in American fiction, when you’re going broke (apparently) you go for baroque.

“For whatever reason, books that bridge the seriousness divide from either side, no matter how superficially, seem to sell the absolute best.”

Yes, but which books bridge that divide?—that is the question.  Certainly not Ulysses or Infinite Jest [NYR].


Mar 5 2010

Readers re-Joyce: Finnegan brought right back to life (Irish Independent)

Readers re-Joyce: Finnegan brought right back to life – Books, Entertainment – Independent.ie.