Wednesday, March 01, 2006
At the end of last month, I posted a book diary, a list and brief commentary on all the books I'd read during the month, part of an effort to help me remember what I just read, which I'm finding harder and harder to do all the time. I'm determined to keep this up at least through the end of this year, so here's the second installment.
Seven Types of Ambiguity, by William Empson. I actually started this in January but I finished it this month. I wish I had taken notes as I read this book. It will certainly require re-reading for me to fully assimilate its insights. Not being a lit-crit type, I don't know if this is a book that contemporary critics remember fondly reading as graduate students, revere as a classic without reading, understand as an important influence on more recent critics, or ignore completely. I can say that my own experience of reading the book varied considerably from page to page. When I was most familiar with the material - say, when Empson is dissecting Shakespeare - I found the book fascinating. I remember particularly a chapter that focused on the situation where a poet substitutes an unexpected word for one more expected in a given place, perhaps producing a more abstruse metaphor, and that part of the meaning of the line hinges on the readers expectation of a different word, and a more commonplace metaphor, and on one level even partially hears the expected word, and that this produces a fecund ambiguity as the expected word and its meaning and the actually chosen word and its different meaning jostle for position in the reader's mind. When I was less familiar, or totally unfamiliar, with the poems Empson treats, I found the book tougher going. I had to spend so much energy making sense of the poem for myself that I found it difficult to concentrate as well on Empson's analysis of second and third orders of meaning. Among the many reasons I think I will need to re-read this book is that I could never keep the seven types of ambiguity straight; frankly, at a couple of points in the book I suspected that Empson himself was failing to keep them straight - he began at one point to describe one type of ambiguity as basically like the previous type only more so, which really made me question whether the purported taxonomy was of any value whatsoever or whether Empson just liked the number seven.
I read four contemporary plays this month, something I don't usually do; the effort was pursuant to my potential involvement with a theatrical company, a group of Americans who studied for years at the Moscow Arts Theater in Moscow, Russia, and have now returned to America. They put on a festival in Boston last summer showcasing three contemporary plays, one from Macedonia, one from Lithuania and one from Russia; they then returned to Russia and put on an American contemporary play there. These are the four plays I read.
A Place I Have Never Been To, by Zanina Mircevska. This was my least favorite of the four plays I read. It was written in a kind of faux-folk style, a kind of cross between folk tale language and the language of not-very-good early 20th century expressionism. Around the time of the first Balkan war of the 1990s (Serbia invading Croatia), I marinated myself in traditional Balkan literature. I can't say that much of it has stayed with me, but I recognized what the playwright was drawing from, and it was a not very interesting take on a literature I don't love in the first place.
Finer Noble Gasses, by Adam Rapp. What a depressing play! Members of a rock band hang around their apartment popping pills of various color and unspecified chemical composition, watching (and smashing) television and speaking to each other in cryptic half-phrases. It's like Beavis and Butthead as written by Brecht. Or, alternatively, the kind of play lots of teenage guys would like to write, but couldn't. Which is to say: the author clearly had talent, but the concept struck me as quite adolescent. I did not enjoy this play, but I could see how it could work well theatrically.
Lucy is Skating, by Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite. This play was a fairly conventional story of a marriage in crisis told in a theatrically alienating style. The playwright has obvious talent, and is worth watching, but (again, possibly because of the translation) much of the language lacked vividness.
Playing a Victim by Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov. The best of the four plays, and the only one with a striking theatrical conceit. The protagonist's job is to play the role of the victim in police reenactments of crimes as part of crime-scene investigations. Whether such a job exists strikes me as immaterial; it's a wonderfully redolent conceit with obvious theatrical potential. Unfortunately, the authors never take the play beyond the conceit into the realm of an actual drama. The play goes directly from setup to conclusion without passing through any plot as such, in the sense of the revelation of character (through or without action). But the Presnyakov brothers do have some talent.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. I cannot decide what I think about this book. On the one hand, I obviously enjoyed it very much, because I kept reading it and kept wanting to read it when I wasn't reading it. The book has passages that are startlingly vivid. And it's honestly not much like any other book I've read; the author has created a truly distinctive world and a truly distinctive voice. On the other hand, I was annoyed with the author much of the time I was readong. The book has passages - many - that are startlingly banal. And, honestly, the whole project is highly derivative. If I were to pitch the book, I'd describe it as a cross between Gravity's Rainbow and The Magic Mountain. I once described the plot of Pynchon's magnum opus as: hero goes to France, meets mysterious Continental woman with whom he has kinky sex, and from whom he learns certain esoteric facts about ballistics, then is thrown from a car and rescued by another mysterious woman who takes him to Germany, has more kinky sexw with him, and teaches him esoteric facts about rocket fuel, then pushes him out of a balloon, when suddenly he's rescued by another mysterious woman . . . etc. Murakami's book is similar: our hero is constantly having mysterious encounters, frequently with women, some of whom he has kinky sex with, most of whom are not convincing as actual characters, and so forth. As with Pynchon, there's a sense that Murakami thinks eccentricity pushed over the edge into implausibility somehow substitutes for true characterization, or constitutes characterization in our age. But Murakami is better than Pynchon on this score; the teenage girl whom the protagonist chastely befriends is, unlike the other females in the story, a real person, someone I could believe in. I was reminded of The Magic Mountain for more fundamental reasons: both books are about stasis, spiritual stasis, on the individual and the cultural level. For that reason, the protagonists of both books are really insufferable; Murakami's hero, like Mann's, has dropped out of society and is just hanging around waiting for something to snap him out of his stasis. In Mann's novel, what snaps him out is World War I. In Murakami's, the hero actually heads further and further away from any reality we recognize, into an occult world, and winds up engaging in a kind of astral combat with avatars of the forces that, we're supposed to believe, have derailed his life in the real world. I find the whole occult aspect of Murakami's novel unconvincingly psychologically; this kind of navel-gazing pseudo-action shouldn't achieve what actual action in the real world achieves for a person, psychologically, and yet in Murakami's book it does. And yet, I wondered after finishing the book whether it might not work better - for me, at any rate - if it were a movie rather than a novel. Something like this. There were numerous points in the novel, that, upon reflection, felt more like scenes from a serious anime cartoon than like scenes from a conventional novel. In any event, for all my criticisms it's a very impressive book, and I am very glad I read it.
Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. This was pure fun. Gogol's hero, Chichikov, is a bit of a Gatsby, a former civil service official out to make himself in the provinces. He ingratiates himself with all the local grandees, in the process providing the author with an opportunity to satirize a variety of Russian types. And at the opportune time he springs on them his odd proposal: to purchase from them serfs who have already died, the dead souls of the title. The novel reminded me of Don Quixote in its satire and its its narratorial style. But it doesn't approach that eminence for two great reasons. First, Chichikov is entirely sane, hence we lose the wondeful double-consciousness of Sancho and the Don that is the source of greatest delight in Cervantez's masterpiece. Second, Gogol never figures out how to take his conceit to the next level. Volume I (the only volume of the story ever published in the author's lifetime; fragments of unpublished subsequent material are included in this edition, but I admit I didn't read them) ends with the revelation of what Chichikov's actual scheme was, and with a long flashback into Chichikov's origins. We never see Chichikov try to put his scheme into actual action, nor any counterpart in sublime madness to Sancho's appointment as governor. It's a small masterpiece rather than a real monument to literature, but it's a pleasure nonetheless. And it would also make an excellent movie, either as a period piece or updated to the present day.