Upcoming Discussions

Friday, 4/25/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Elena Ferrante, MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (2012)

Friday, 5/16/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

William Faulkner, AS I LAY DYING (1930)

Friday, 6/13/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Kate Atkinson, LIFE AFTER LIFE (2013)

Friday, 7/11/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Colum McCann, TRANSATLANTIC (2013)

Friday, 8/15/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Eleanor Catton, THE LUMINARIES (2013)

 

THE FALL SERIES:

OUR NEW ENGLAND

Friday, 9/12/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Mary Rowlandson, THE SOVEREIGNTY AND GOODNESS OF GOD (1682)

Friday, 10/3/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Catherine Maria Sedgwick, HOPE LESLIE (1827)

Friday, 10/24/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Mark Twain, A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT (1889)

Friday, 11/14/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Sarah Orne Jewett, THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS (1896)

Friday, 12/12/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Philip Roth, THE HUMAN STAIN (2000)

Tuesday
Apr222014

Elena Ferrante: In Her Own Voice

As you may know by know, Elena Ferrante is something of a recluse. Or perhaps that's the wrong term. She zealously guards her privacy. She grants few interviews, never appears on camera. There is on photograph of her that makes the rounds, a grainy black-and-white of a mid-fifty-something woman smoking. It's widely considered a fake.

Frankly, she makes Salinger and Pynchon look like social gadflies.

She will, occasionally, grant written interviews. Click here for one she did with Publisher's Weekly.

There are a few more you can find. But trust very few unless they're from a reputable source. Many in Italy think the writer could even be a man. Or that "Elena Ferrante" is the pseudonym for a more famous Italian writer who has gotten pigeonholed into one genre or another.

We've encountered her before in this group. Here's a blog post from the last time we read her, when we did DAYS OF ABANDONMENT.

She's had something of a big run recently with critical appraisals in The New Yorker (here), The Times Literary Supplement (here), and the L. A. Review of Books (here). Warning: don't read these unless you're done. They contain spoilers.

In fact, consider skipping them entirely. Of any writer I know, Ferrante almost dares critics to make assessments. Her writing flings theories back into their faces. Maybe into ours, too.

Wednesday
Mar052014

Dickens Goes Smash

In May, 1865, suffering from work exhaustion and extreme anxiety over his not-so-clandestine relationship with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, Dickens took her and her mother on holiday to France. He was writing OUR MUTUAL FRIEND and--as he had done all his life--he took the manuscript on vacation with him and continued to work on the end of Book III and the opening of Book IV.

After a month abroad, the group decided to return home. They crossed on Thursday, 8 June 1865, and then on Friday afternoon, 9 June 1865, boarded the 2:36 train at Folkestone to take them up to London. The train, packed with Continental pleasure-seekers, was in this configuration: a steam locomotive, a tender hauler for coal and water, a brake van, one second-class carriage, seven first-class carriages, three more second-class carriages, and three more brake vans with guards who could signal to the engine up front with whistles.

At 3:13, just beyond the Headcorn Railway Station and before the train reached Staplehurst, Kent, the conductor spotted a man wildly waving a red flag. The train was running about 50 miles per hour. The conductor whistled for the brakes and threw the engine into reverse, but the train could not stop before it hit the Beult viaduct, where a length of track was undergoing maintenance and reconstruction of the timbers holding it up.

A drawing of the Staplehurst train wreck. The schematics are a bit muddled, perhaps from being drawn days after the crash.The viaduct was about 10 feet high and 21 feet long; the river underneath was almost dry. The locomotive, tender car, first brake car, and one second-class carriage made it over the viaduct before the bridge and tracks gave way. One first-class carriage remained hooked and dangling; the others and two second-class cars went into the river bed, a toppled and mangled mess. One second-class car car dangled from the other end and the remaining brake cars remained on the tracks. Ten people were killed; another forty to fifty were severely injured. Countless others, including Dickens himself, sustained minor injuries.

There were two causes of the accident: 1) the construction foreman had misread the train schedules for that Friday and thought he had more time and 2) the flag-waver was placed too close to the viaduct, only about 554 yards back, instead of the mandatory 1000 yards.

Dickens and party were in the dangling first-class cabin. He climbed out through a busted window, helped Ellen and her mother up the bank, and then took to moving the dead to a secure area and caring for the injured.

He found a man with a cracked skull, his brain hideously exposed. Dickens gave the man some brandy and laid him on the grass. The man said, "I am gone," and died in his arms. A bloody, mangled woman was propped against a tree; Dickens gave her brandy, but in a moment she too was dead. One young passenger later recalled "Charles Dickens, the very novelist" had cajoled him to free himself from a pile of twisted wreckage. Another passenger recalled how Dickens, with his hat full of water, was "running about with it and doing his best to revive and comfort every poor creature he met."

When the emergency train arrived from London to take away the survivors, Dickens climbed back into the precarious, dangling car of the wrecked train to retrieve the manuscript of OUR MUTUAL FRIEND from his satchel. Although he claims in the Postscript to the novel that he was in the process of writing chapter 2 of Book IV, "The Golden Dustman Rises A Little," we now know that he was just a page or two short of finishing chapter 4, "A Runaway Match." Look at the last paragraph of chapter 4. You'll see what happened after the wreck.

Dickens suffered a great deal of what we would now call "post-traumatic stress." He lost his voice for two weeks. He quit traveling by train for the rest of his life (that is, whenever he could escape the necessity). And he died five years to the day of the wreck. His son claimed at his eulogy that "he had never fully recovered."

One of the only photographs of the crash, taken several days afterwards.

Wednesday
Feb192014

The Publication of OUR MUTUAL FRIEND 

Since we've danced around this issue so often in our discussions, I thought I'd take a minute to clarify how OUR MUTUAL FRIEND was published.

Around 1836, Dickens and his publishers devised a new way of publishing novels: offer them in ten to twenty installments of three or four chapters each for a relatively cheap price (one shilling each). Each installment had 32 pages and four illustrations. Dickens began this scheme with THE PICKWICK PAPERS and continued it throughout his life, revolutionizing publishing history.

Before this innovation, publishers printed novels in chunks--usually a leather-bound volume of fifteen or twenty chapters at considerable expense--and authors were paid a royalty on net profits only after the publisher recouped costs. In general, authors split the profits of a work 60/40 with the publisher (the higher number being the author's take--how times have changed!). With Dickens' new scheme, authors were paid monthly royalties based on how individual installments sold--and thus could make money while writing the book. And novels could be purchased by the middle class, not just the upper class.

The individual installments of OUR MUTUAL FRIENDOUR MUTUAL FRIEND was no exception. It was published in installments as follows:

May 1864. Book the First. Chapters 1-4
June 1864. Chapters 5-7
July 1864. Chapters 8-10
August 1864. Chapters 11-13
September 1864. Chapters 14-17
October 1864. Book the Second. Chapters 1-3
November 1864. Chapters 4-6,
December 1864. Chapters 7-10
January 1865. Chapters 11-13
February 1865. Chapters 14-16

March 1865. Book the Third. Chapters 1-4
April 1865. Chapters 5-7
May 1865. Chapters 8-10
June 1865. Chapters 11-14
July 1865. Chapters 15-17
August 1865. Book the Fourth. Chapters 1-4
September 1865. Chapters 5-7
October 1865. Chapters 8-11
November 1865. Chapters 12-[17] ("Chapter the Last"), plus the "Postscript" and eight pages of "preliminary matter" (that is, the title page, table of contents, etc., ready to go in typeset for when they were gathered together as a volume.

If you look back at some of the chapters we've read, you can see how they fall together in sets--and see some of Dickens' plan. For example, in the chapters we read for this week, chapter 14 ends with a cliff-hanger question which leads to the last set of chapters, 15 - 17, on sale the next month. Those last three chapters are then the furtherance (and decline) of the Boffin plot (15), the upswing in the Rokesmith/Bella Wilfer plot (16), and the concluding Veneering snark (something that has happened at the end of every volume).

As we've discussed, Dickens tried to stay in advance of this novel, writing the first volume before he began publishing. However, something--what?--about OUR MUTUAL FRIEND slowed him down. By the third volume (this week's reading), he was hopelessly behind, barely able to keep up. He claimed this novel left him "dazed" as he wrote, something of a new feeling for him.

Dickens' writing method was always the same: he scribbled notes, expanded them, drafted them into paragraphs right on the same page, and finally fleshed out the dialogue in a mad jumble of almost illegible handwriting. He then handed these sheets to his secretary to make sense of them--and then reviewed the subsequent script before sending it all off to the publisher. Here's page fourteen of Dickens' handwritten manuscript for OUR MUTUAL FRIEND:

Imagine trying to decipher this!

As you may know, the reviews were not kind--with the exception of one from E. S. Dallas, a rather noted critic for the London Times. Up until this novel, Dickens had been handing his manuscripts over to his official biographer, John Forster, once they had been seen through publication. But this time, he gave the manuscript over to Dallas--who needed the money and sold it a few years later. In a moment of cosmic irony, it eventually was bought by J. P. Morgan, one of those Veneerings Dickens hated so much. It is now housed in the Pierpont Morgan in New York. 

Wednesday
Jan152014

Victorian Order: Incessantly Repeatable

"[Mr. Wilfer's] black hat was brown before he could afford a coat, his pantaloons were white at the seams and knees before he could buy a pair of boots, his boots had worn out before he could treat himself to new pantaloons, and by the time he worked round to the hat again, that shining modern article roofed in an ancient ruin of various periods."

--OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, Book I, Chapter 4, first paragraph

No period of European history has become so obsessed with notions of personal, social, cultural, political, and artistic order as the nineteenth century. These notions were grounded in the growing industrialism: you can keep your house clean with any number of solvents and with a mechanized system based on industrial tools; you can keep yourself clean with running water, a flush toilet, and some of the very same solvents. If you see your body as a machine, you can (and should) clean it. If you treat your house as an industrial system, you can (and should) control it. If you treat cooking as a mechanized process, you can standarize it into chemical formulae (a.k.a. recipes).

As long as you hide it. Mr. Wilfer's problem as a member of the growing lower middle class is that he can buy the necessaries to stave off ruin (dust?), but he can't hide that he's buying them in the first place. This old coat? Had it for years. The goal is to be orderly without seeming to try. And Mr. Wilfer is trying very hard.

Here are three cultural examples of the mechanized order-mania that are not directly related to OUR MUTUAL FRIEND but offer context.

1. In the mid-Victorian age, photographs were the new must-haves. They were a mechanized way of preserving (ultimately, by reproducing) a cherished image (or an industrial memory, as the case might be). Those photographed had to sit for hours for the exposure. And so babies--perhaps the second most photographed subject in the nineteenth century--had to be held still. The only way to accomplish that--hiding the rage for order while practicing it in a mechanized environment--was for the mother to hide behind the scenes, holding little Johnny or Janey for the duration. 

Thanks, Mom!Mother is in the cloth! In most cases, she is cut out of the shot, the baby seen against a background of velvet or brocade. But in some pictures, the original frame has been preserved. If you pull back, there she is, hiding, holding. It's order by trick, as it were.

2. If Victorians loved to photograph babies, they loved even more to take pictures of the dead. After Uncle Fred or Aunt Emma died, you propped them up in a chair and took their picture--often with your family at their sides. Now they could finally be still for that picture! In death, there was an order that fit the newly mechanized world.

Emma, you never looked better.The eyes were always the problem. They tended to fly open--and remain so. It sort of broke the (enforced) mood of (industrial) remembrance. The solution? Sew them shut but paint them back on, a nightmarish display of that compulsion for order in the face of the decay that is life. (I'll spare you a picture of painted eyes.)

3. No bit of ordered industrialization matches the London sewers. According to Rose George in her consummate book on all things sanitary, THE BIG NECESSITY (a must read!), no one is exactly sure to this day how many miles of tunnels are in the London system because of its endless crooks, bends, unused tunnels, doubled-up tunnels, and outright wrong turns no longer in use.

It all started in the mid-1850s with the introduction of flush toilets. Before then, London had been a maze of cess pools, emptied (sort of) by the "night soil men" (or sometimes "nightmen"). And not only London. In the mid eighteenth century, flashy Versailles had been an open pit--not outside the castle but within. The hallways and rooms were littered with human defecation. People apparently were too busy for chamberpots. Visitors complained that the grand hall of mirrors was nothing but a loo. The court ordered more and more screens to be set up throughout to hide what was apparently an unstoppable problem.

With the coming of indoor plumbing, the problem was eliminated (ahem) in a modern, mechanized way: it went into an overflow of water and left your house. What happened after that was not your concern. It was disappeared, as it were.

Before the building of the London sewers, whatever was flushed went by gravity through wooden troughs and open ditches right into the Thames. Children, mostly orphans called "mudlarks," scavanged the muck on the banks for valuables. (Apparently people were already flushing everything; today, iPhones are one of the most valuable commodities fished out of the London sewers.) In the very hot summer of 1858, London finally underwent what came to be known as "The Great Stink." The Thames turned so foul, so polluted, that it was blamed (erroneously) for cholera outbreaks. Parliament itself was engulfed in a noxious miasma. Something had to be done. MPs were inconvienced!

The Crossness pumping station, built between 1859 and 1865: beautifying the unspeakable.Sewers were constructed throughout the 1860s (while Dickens was at work on OUR MUTUAL FRIEND), including six trunk lines that measured over 100 miles. They ate up London's now-forgotten "other" rivers, tributaries of the Thames and Lea (the Peck, Tyburn, Fleet, and at least a dozen others which are now incorporated into the modern sewer system). Pump houses were built where gravity proved inefficient. Those sewers didn't exactly clean the water; they just got it farther from London. It was Kent's problem now. And so order was maintained. Or the illusion of it anyway.

Tuesday
Dec032013

Hammett and the Roots of Film Noir

Let's start here, with a clip from the 1947 film CROSSFIRE, with Gloria Grahame as hard-boiled Ginny Tremaine and Robert Young as the homicide detective.

The genre of noir (nwahr, French, meaning "black") is truly an American original: gritty, extra-dry wit spackled over loneliness and alienation, always with a crime element of some sort in the plot. Seedy characters in black-and-white cinematography. Striking femmes fatales in tight dresses. Mush-mouth criminals. Cool, abrasive, but polished detectives. And little to no musical score, as if the emotional distress doesn't need underlining with harmonic cues.

Although we mostly think of noir as a film genre, and although the movies are mostly set in California (or more specifically, in L. A.), it's important to remember that its roots are in New York City. And its creative genesis lay with writers like Dashiell Hammett (and the man who followed closely in his footsteps, Raymond Chandler).

In the end, noir is indeed a literary genre, even on the screen. The words are the thing, the patter of sense over rank senselessness. The scenes play out in novelistic conventions: small conversations among few players, telling (sometimes too telling) symbolism (THE MALTESE FALCON, anyone?), and the misdirected dramatic irony common among crime novels (that is, we know as little as the characters but we think we know more).

And that most novelistic of all subjects: love. Or lust. There is no line between the two. It's simply the old romance that somehow escapes the patter. Check out this clip from the 1954 film PUSHOVER with Fred Macmurray as our intrepid detective and Kim Novak, for my money the best actor in the genre:

Noir betrays its New York roots in a recent adaptation of the genre: sci fi noir. Think BLADE RUNNER (1982). Or GATTACA (1997). Or MINORITY REPORT (2002). Or TWELVE MONKEYS (2005). Here, the landscape is definitely Manhattan recomposed as a futuristic, dark, urban nightmare.

For me, noir comes to its apotheosis in one of the greatest movies ever made: VERTIGO (1958). Many would argue it's not a noir film--it's in color, after all, and fully scored, and the crime is mostly the torment within--but the cool, mannered surface, the polished, novelistic dialogue, and the talent of Kim Novac put it over the top for me. It's Hammett boiled down beyond the hard-crack stage: to mere residue, the almost chemical composition of despair.