Thursday, May 28, 2015

Comments on No Country for Old Men

This is a moral tale, and, as usual, Evil is more interesting than Good.

The plot shifts smoothly toward the end of the novel. It beings by following a working-class west Texan, a welder, a good citizen but inured to violence by fighting in Vietnam, who stumbles by accident on the remains of a drug shoot out in the desert. He finds only corpses except for one mortally wounded survivor. The welder picks up the very substantial suitcase of cash left by and makes off in perfect anonymity. But he has a flaw as a thief: — he has a twinge of empathy for the man he left dying. The later had asked for water, and the welder was carrying none. After he has hidden the stash, compunctions grip him, and he drives, hours later in the night, back to the crime scene to succor the thirsty man. But newly arrived killers spot him. He escapes, but his truck has been identified. The novel thenceforward recounts hunting him down and ancillary confrontations and shootouts.

The representative of Evil is an Eastern European hit man; the representative of good is the local sheriff.  The scenes of hunting and confrontation are tense and enthralling.

Another hit man, who was hired to kill the first and, predictably, is killed by him, describes him as a pathological killer, but he very self-consciously operates by a moral code, one that, like the welder, he sometimes fails to follow. There is something mythical about him; he kills with an unusual weapon that appears to shoot people through the head but leaves no exit hole. He is dark of hue with piercing blue eyes, perhaps a throwback to the Pleistocene European hunter-gatherers who bore that coloring. He has no empathy whatever and unhesitatingly kills people who even passingly impede his way, or merely irritate him by momentary contradiction. He is a sort of embodiment of Shopehaurian will ; by that I mean something like a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge.  In his most complex scene he ambushes some one he has morally obliged himself to kill. He swore to the welder that he would kill this victim if the welder did not do something. Death prevented the welder from fulfilling his promise, but the hit man feels he is honor bound kill the second whatever the circumstance. He debates the question with his victim, and, contrary to his sense of his own freedom and power, the hit man in the end evokes fate by allowing the flip of a coin to decide.

The sheriff seems to have wandered in out of a Western Movie or Larry McMurtry.  He is near to retiring from a life dedicated community service.  The community he serves is the old West Texas, but his calling is disintegrating under him because of crimes related to drug smuggling.  During most of his tenure no murders went unsolved, as in Westerns, but now strangers are killing one another in his world for strange reasons. He is well ware that without drug users there is no smuggling, and is puzzled by hippies, whom he sees as the substrate of moral degeneration that is making it impossible for him to continue to serve his real community and fulfill himself. He is the old man who no longer has a country. He is uxorious, emotionally reticent, and garrulous

I specify these characters by naming their roles.  This is a moral parable after all.  But each one is fully realized.

After the death of the welder the book waxes talkier.  The hit man waxes philosophical; the sheriff calls on people significant to him merely to talk with them.  Near the end he dutifully calls on a young woman to tell her her husband has been killed. He stands on the doorstep, 5-gallon hat in hand, and says he is sorry. She responds feelingly about what her husband's death means to her. He repeats that he is sorry. She says, "If you stand there and say you're sorry one more time I'm going to get my gun and shoot you." It a dark comic moment, but we share her feeling.

The title is the first line of Yeats' poem Sailing to Byzantium.   The title of another West Texas novel, Horseman Pass By by Larry McMurtry is taken from Yeats' self-elegiac last poem, Under Ben Bulben. What is it that draws raw, dry West Texas to misty Ireland? Pride perhaps.

There are many immanent descriptions both of the vast, harsh country and of the tacky motels and roadside stops where the pursuers stalk their victims. The prose is only sometimes as breathtaking as it is in Blood Meridian, but it is always exciting. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

John Williams' novel Augustus

From about 90 BC until about 30 BC, the Roman Republic suffered from Civil Wars. They were complicated. In general they were between  aristocrats, who controlled the Senate, and  plebeians, who controlled other political offices, but in practice they were often between generals, caudillos, who maintained private armies only nominally allied with either class and they involved many shifting alliances and betrayals among leaders and clans. Octavius Caesar, the grandnephew and protégé of Julius Caesar, the most famous of these generals, ended these civil wars with his victory over Anthony and Cleopatra in 31 BC. He also ended the Republic and made Rome an Empire, which was free from major civil wars for about 200 years thereafter. Thus did he acquire the title Augustus. This is an epistilatory novel based on the life of Augustus and on his times.

Historiography was just getting started in the West, and, inspired by Greek historians, this period is one of the first in human history to be at least moderately documented. Several histories by eloquent and diligent historians survive, but they are far from perfect. Some of them wrote long after the event, some of the histories are partially lost, and of course the historians have their various biases. Augustus, the person, is notoriously hard to pin down. Shakespeare in his plays Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, working from the Greek historian Plutarch, portrays him as merely coldl and power-hungry except for his affection for his sister. Other historians portray him as dutifully patriotic, the savior of his country, and the bringer of peace.

Like Napoleon, Augustus was noted for his stare. Several portrait sculptures survived from his lifetime, but it is hard to learn from them. Besides a tendency to show him as stereotypically heroic, Roman sculpture was embellished with colorful painting, gilding, silvering, and inlay that have worn away, so we are left with inscrutable stares.  But are they those of Augustus?

This is the author's fourth and last novel. In his illuminating introduction Daniel Mendelsohn points out that the heroes of each the first three are of no political stature and reflect how the forces of life shape men of very modest accomplishment rather than the hero shaping his life. Two are set in the author's lifetime and one in the 19th-century American frontier. Each has autobiographical overtones. So it is surprising that for his fourth novel he turned to Roman history and a very powerful man.

Williams both exploits and struggles with the historical ambiguity of Augustus' character by choosing to write an epistolary novel. We hear about him from the point of view of several generals, several close friends including the poets Horace, Virgil, and Ovid, from both of his wives, from his most important mistress, from his beloved only child Julia, from spies working both for and against him, from several intellectual hangers on, not to mention from Julius Caesar, and Augustus himself. A wide and varied canvass. Williams does a fine job writing in these various voices. He carefully delineates their biases and somewhat less carefully their styles. Yet for me a sense of foreignness is lacking. I'm an amateur in Roman culture, but I feel that for all their historical standing, the Romans had a very different sense of self than we have, more based on the intersection of face and domination, to put it glibly. This foreignness does not fully emerge through Williams' letter writers. One thing that emerges from these letters is the importance of friendship to William's version of Augustus. In the beginning we see him as a student with a group of close friends. Gradually in the course of his life one of these friends betrays him and others die. It is as if in each betrayal or death he loses part of himself. Augustus' own letters appear only at the very beginning of his career and to the end.

An epistilatory novel demands flexible prose more than anything else, and Williams prose is consistently flexible and effective.

Surprisingly for the man who emerged triumphant from a risky struggle and ruled the Mediterranean world for most of his lifetime (He died in 14 AD.), as Mendelsohn points out, this novel is like Williams' other novels in showing how the struggle with life shapes the hero, rather than the other way around. Augustus in this novel did it not set out to become the ruler of Rome but to avenge the death of his beloved grand uncle Julius Caesar and to survive. But victories lead to obligations until he can only survive by defeating Anthony and Cleopatra.

The novel falls into two halves. The first, though it is far from a military history, portrays Augustus and his associates in the period of his rise to power. Marriages arranged for the purpose of family alliances are almost as important as battles, and Augustus' friend. and in effect prime minister, Maecenas, known to history as a patron of the arts, appears here mostly as a match maker. The second half portrays his intimate world and its public reflection during his life as emperor. It largely neglects Augustus' extension of the empire, vast public works, and establishment of a bureaucracy that served the empire well for hundreds of years. It does display his personally modest style of living.

Williams devotes much of the second part of the novel to Augustus' relations with his daughter and only child, Julia. Her letters take up more pages than any other correspondent. She comes off as something of a protofeminist, seeking self-realization within the constrained role of upper-class Roman women. In her letters Williams fails most, for me, to give a true feeling of Roman self-image. Augustus’ fondness for her is mentioned in the histories and dwelt on by Williams. But, for political reasons he married her off to three men, for two of whom she was dutifully indifferent, the third she hated, and to whom she bore in total seven children.

Around 18 BC Augustus promulgated a series of laws promoting what we might call family values, with only mixed success as is witnessed by Ovid's witty and explicit handbook, The Art of Love. In an atmosphere of erotic scandals and assassination conspiracies in 2 BC Augustus exiled Julia to a small barren island off the coast of southern Italy. Since then there has been endless speculation about his motives; her possible involvement with Ovid lends notoriety. Williams has a theory. He portrays it movingly, and it is as good as any other.

The final letter from Augustus, by this time in ill health and surveying the increasing emptiness of his life, is vivid and eloquent as is the last letter in retrospect from his physician. But something remains missing in the decades when we read only other people's thoughts. I came away feeling I had read a rich and moving novel, but not that I had seen into the fears or longings of Augustus.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Comments on Les Miserables

I listened to this novel in the excellent reading by George Guidall of Julie Rose's translation.  A little over 60 hours, or four and a half days.  For quotations and general double checking I used the translation by Isabel F. Hapgood provided by project Gutenberg.

Hugo, who is nothing if not articulate about what he believes are his goals and meaning in this novel, declares that it is about the moral redemption of the principal character, who, as I'm sure most of you know, begins as a petty thief condemned to prison galleys, and c. 1500 pages later rises to ever higher moral nobility until he dies of it, and after.

That's true, but there are other important subjects in this vast work.  One is an assertion of the Christian moral nature of the world, although he is opposed to the institution of the Catholic Church. Another is a human exploration of Paris.  Another is the process of France's digestion of the French Revolution and of Napoleon.  Another is the exposition of how decision-making takes place. Another is the exploration of youth versus age.  Another is his conviction that the author's views on anything at all are worth passing on to the reader.  Most fundamental is his interest in the engagement of opposites.

A tight plot and characters that are attractive and clearly either good or bad are the mainstays of current popular fiction, as they were then, and limit the range and subtlety of a book.  Hugo makes up for that limitation by his prose, what he writes about, and how he writes about it.

Hugo’s prose is often described as ponderous, and it certainly can be.  But in the long haul it is varied and flexible.  It is like a large-scale organ with it’s ponderous pipes, it melodious pipes, it's shrill, at times racy, at times witty pipes, etc.  Indeed one of the pleasures of this book is appreciating the resources of Hugo's style.  Here's a guy who can describe the whole world, or the tiniest corner of Paris, with equal aptness.

The book is highly digressive, like Tristram Shandy.  An example often cited is the 2 1/2 hour description of the battle of Waterloo.  A very minor incident in the battle is a cornerstone of the plot, but he could have delivered that in five minutes.  He describes the battle in some detail including Napoleon’s debates with himself on strategy, and why, in Hugo’s view, he lost.

But, unlike Tristram Shandy, plot drives this novel.  One thing leads to another in intricate, supple, and tightly contrived ways.  There is a problem.  The stereotype these days is that each author gets to have one unlikely coincidence, the McGuffin.  The plot of Les Miserables depends on one unlikely coincidence following another like a pack train; there are hundreds.  It begins to feel as if Hugo had his own special McGuffin: a free pass to unbounded unlikely coincidence.  That usage reflects his idea that we are in the hands of fate, that is God.

Hugo likes to describe characters in ways that will identify them as attractive or unattractive to the reader .  His attractive characters are usually generous, friendly, and good looking; his unattractive characters are selfish, surely, and plain. The social role of the character is always a cornerstone of his or her depiction. You do not meet characters, as we often meet in contemporary novels, who are a bundle of characteristics who happen to have a social role as a kind day job. Jean Valjean is first of all a criminal; Javert is first of all a detective; Cosette is first of all a marriageable girl etc.. It requires the length of the novel to move Valjean out of the criminal category. His self-acknowledgment that he can no longer fulfill the role of detective drives Javert to suicide.

Characterisation is in certain respects full, and in certain respects shallow.  It is full with respect to establishing the characters’ position on the ladder of good and evil.  The ladder has many rungs but goes only up or down.  Of the moral standing of men he sees as related to the French revolution, he writes:

"Below John Huss, there is Luther; below Luther, there is Descartes; below Descartes, there is Voltaire; below Voltaire, there is Condorcet; below Condorcet, there is Robespierre; below Robespierre, there is Marat; below Marat there is Babeuf.  And so it goes on.  Lower down, confusedly, at the limit which separates the indistinct from the invisible, one perceives other gloomy men, who perhaps do not exist as yet. ……"

It is also full in the sense of describing the process of decision-making in dramatic detail.  This decision-making portrays minds engaged in internal rhetorical debate.  For those of us who live after a hundred years of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, it seems a little stiff and awfully rational, but it is rich in vigorous and detail. 

Hugo goes to considerable trouble to portray youth an age.  He delights in the garrulousness of quirky old men; old women get scant attention. He delights in the naïve enthusiasm of youth; pretty young women get lots of attention. But you do not come out of this book with the gut feeling that you know them personally.  What will the marriage of the ingénue couple (Cossette and Marius) be like in 20 years?  We don’t even wonder.  We know their societal niche and we know their moral standing instead.

Hugo expects a reader well read in French and classical history. He casually refers us to our familiarity with the Greek biographer Plutarch and the Roman historians Livy and Tacitus, among others. Interestingly he never cites Montagne; perhaps the mayor of Bordeaux was too skeptical for him.
The anecdote that Chou En-Lie once remarked to Nixon (or was it to Kissinger) that it was too soon to know if the French revolution has been successful is probably a legend, but it’s endurance reveals an unmythical concern.  The French, and with them the world, continue to try to come to terms with events and issues arising from the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and to discover proper means of dealing with them. Besides Chou En-Lie, Pol Pot, & Deng Xiaoping, among many others, studied in Paris in forming their concept of revolution and governance. Hugo, who several times says Paris represents the world, was only concerned with France, which went though a process of digesting the revolution that is comparable in intricacy and painfulness to a polity digesting itself.
The period of the action is 1815 - 1832, but by frequent flashbacks, explanations, and references the book engages with history from the beginning of the French revolution (1789). In those decades France was governed or ungoverned successively by absolute monarchy, a period of chaos, a couple of different imperious committees, an emperor, absolute monarchy again, and constitutional monarchy and at all times by passionate and deadly factionalism. In those years for anyone with anything to loose which side you were on was a constant source of identity and anxiety.
The family of Marius, the ingénue hero, whose experiences in the unrest of 1832 resemble those of Hugo, embodies the identifications and tensions. His grandfather is a passionate monarchist, his father an equally passionate Bonapartist. He has been raised by his grandfather to hate his father, but gradually comes to respect him and absorb his political position. This is the process of debate over governance embodied in the lives and feelings of characters.
One of the most moving actual verbal debates comes between the bishop of Digne and a former member of the convention that overthrew Louis XVI (un conventionnel). The bishop was appointed by Napoleon, almost by chance, that is fate, that is God. He is sort of an anti-clerical clergyman, living simply and piously in the mountain village of his bishopric, giving his salary mostly to the poor, etc. Acts of empathy and generosity by the bishop save Jean Valjean from rearrest and set him on the path of virtue. In the course of his pastoral care he seeks out a conventioneer, as they were called, who is an atheist and a republican living as a hermit in a period of merciless reaction. The conventioneer is a man of great wisdom and dignity who accepts his immanent death. They debate their respective faiths. Hugo is evenhanded; he is interested in portraying the debate, not in settling it, and it remains unresolved with each man thoughtfully moved.
First, as is typical of serious characters, the bishop debates with himself:
"Nevertheless, the Bishop meditated on the subject, and from time to time he gazed at the horizon at a point where a clump of trees marked the valley of the former member of the Convention, and he said, "There is a soul yonder which is lonely."
And he added, deep in his own mind, "I owe him a visit."
But, let us avow it, this idea, which seemed natural at the first blush, appeared to him after a moment's reflection, as strange, impossible, and almost repulsive. For, at bottom, he shared the general impression, and the old member of the Convention inspired him, without his being clearly conscious of the fact himself, with that sentiment which borders on hate, and which is so well expressed by the word 'estrangement'.
Still, should the scab of the sheep cause the shepherd to recoil? No. But what a sheep!
The good Bishop was perplexed. Sometimes he set out in that direction; then he returned."

The bishop journeys to the hut of the conventioneer, and they debate the revolution. For a long time they trade citation of atrocities, the bishop citing the atrocities of the revolution and the conventioneer those of the Ancien Régime. The conventioneer sums up:
"In any case, and in spite of whatever may be said, the French Revolution is the most important step of the human race since the advent of Christ.... The French Revolution had its reasons for existence; its wrath will be absolved by the future; its result is the world made better. From its most terrible blows there comes forth a caress for the human race. ... Yes, the brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over, this fact is recognized,--that the human race has been treated harshly, but that it has progressed."

The bishop respectfully does not assent.

The title is notoriously hard to translate. It means something like the poor or the unfortunate or the outsiders. It implies that the subject of the book is the suffering of people whom society does not nurture, who dwell outside the empathy of the comfortable and well off. Hugo is criticising people's lack of compassion and charity rather than society's very structure. Hugo stresses that the lot of the poor could be improved by education, but beyond that what he mainly does is admonished the rich to be nicer to the poor, rather than imagining a way to eliminate the richness and poorness. Note that in his hierarchical list of the intellectual fathers of the revolution, he puts Baboef at the bottom. Baboef was the only one of the prominent revolutionaries who proposed concrete plans for removing hierarchy from society in general.