Monday, February 19, 2007

Miguel de Cervantes – ‘Don Quixote (First Part)’

This is my second go at Don Quixote; first time around I got so irritated with the translation’s anachronistic humour that I stopped 200 pages in. A book written in 1605 shouldn’t sound like it was written in 2005, and the Penguin edition of a few years back struggled so hard to maintain the humour and vivacity of the original that it sacrificed its tone. Edith Grossman’s version is much better, and whilst there is the odd Americanism on show (‘in back’ was one, for the British ‘in the back’ – no reason why American English shouldn’t be used, but these were the moments which sprung out at me as incongruously modern), she captures excellently Don Quixote’s gravitas and Sancho Panza’s flippancy, which is most of what is funny about Don Quixote. Get the gravitas wrong and the jokes don’t work: here, they are screamingly funny. The best section for this is Sancho’s description of Quixote’s love Dulcinea of Toboso, for whose sake he performs all his glorious deeds. He has been building her up from the beginning as the perfect woman, so Sancho has quite a lot to lay into in his engagingly cack handed way, and he doesn’t disappoint. The conquests in the first half of this volume are similarly hilarious, and not for a moment did it occur to me (until it was suggested) that this irresponsible use of arms or, more to the point, their use according to beliefs one has talked oneself into, works quite well as an illustration of recent US / UK foreign policy. The imagination transforming windmills into giants, and SCUD missiles into Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Unlike in Iraq, the destruction Don Quixote wreaks is extremely localised. He batters a few folk, gets battered many times over in return, and it’s really cartoon violence that you get here. The whole of the first part of the novel only covers 20 odd days, and he must be left half dead on five occasions at least. The small scale of the action compared to the epic sweep of the description is itself a comic device, and it reminded me of James Hogg’s The Three Perils of Man in this (the perils are War, Women and Witchcraft, by the way). There are other curious points of comparison. The warlock Michael Scott, mentioned in Don Quixote, is a character in Hogg’s novel (which is also uproariously funny on occasion), where the enchantments are not the product of madness, but real. Sancho warns Don Quixote that he is not, as he believes, under a spell, because if he were then he would have no appetite and no need to do ‘what nobody else can do for you’, and the idea is reminiscent of the passage in Hogg where Michael Scott provides for his guests by turning the mice which overrun his castle into a banquet. The guests eat and eat, but their appetite never diminishes. Both novels also deviate into lengthy short stories told by characters, and they both feature quite a bit of aimless wanderings, which I suppose makes them picaresque novels.

On the whole, the stories Hogg inserts are funnier than the main action. The opposite is true of Don Quixote, and for this reason they are a good deal less welcome. There is a joke even in this: while Don Quixote can invent damsels, giants and castles with the greatest of ease (any woman, wineskin / windmill or inn will do), he is largely absent when, by a series of staggering coincidences, no less than five damsels in varying states of distress, turn up at the inn where each of their (interconnecting) stories is told. The characters who have gathered around him – the priest, the barber, Cardenio, Don Fernando and Dorotea – do an implausible quantity of match making while Don Quixote sleeps or stands guard uselessly. Although Dorotea has a perfectly good plight of her own (Don Fernando has left her a ruined woman), she has to invent another involving a kingdom and a giant in order to secure Don Quixote’s interest. It is a good joke, but I got rather tired of the damsels, who are interchangeably good and beautiful.

Particularly unconvincing is Zoraida, a Moor who, against her upbringing and her entire culture, becomes a Christian and requires rescuing from her father’s house in Constantinople so that someone can transport her to a civilised country (i.e. Spain). How she’s reached this decision is not explained: one is left to assume that it is the conclusion anyone really ‘good’ will reach. There’s a pretty basic, partisan, racist morality at work here, which again strikes chords today. To be an ‘Old Christian’ is considered a good thing – just as now there is no question of taking a citizenship test if one’s grandparents were born in the UK. I found out the other day that one of mine wasn’t – should I worry?

After the tales are told, Don Quixote is finally coerced back to his village (on the way we get some more fights! Hurrah! And a sixth damsel – boo!), and there’s an unsubtle suggestion that another excursion followed once he’d recovered from his poundings, leaving the way open for the Second Part. I seem to have almost reached the end of this entry without mentioning how weird it is that the first novel in the western tradition should be a piece of meta fiction (a section near the end even discusses literary merit, and the way popular plays are dumbing down society). That tradition sure hit the ground running.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Douglas Coupland – ‘Life After God’

Still with the Christmas books here, and there are a few more to come. I feel I’m slightly cheating zipping through them like this, short ones first, when there are biggies further down the pile (Don Quixote, Untold Stories), but on the other hand it’s nice, too, to have a flurry of different reads, different situations, different ways with words. Coupland’s way is practically transparent, you barely feel like you’re reading at all until 100 pages in and you realise that actually, there is a structure here, a wayward path. This is a novel. A novel with pictures and loads of blank space, and which fair scoots along as a consequence. The point of these tiny instalments, I think, is that they each represent a thought, something which can be captured by an illustration (these provide the book’s structure). Some are longer than others, more developed. A lot of them run in to one another, making up a narrative, but at other times there are lists of related ideas – imagined individual deaths from a nuclear explosion, or resumes of who the children we met earlier ended up being as adults.

And, recurring, is the idea that the generation born in the ’60s were the first to be raised atheists, and that this has left them damaged or inadequate in some way. Or that people on their own are inadequate, and need a God in order to make up the shortfall. If you rely entirely on your feelings to guide you in life, then what happens if the feelings are too strong? You can go off the rails, like Scout’s sister Laurie, or you can damp them down with antidepressants, like Scout himself. Which leads him to thoughts like this:

I said that time was linked to emotions. ‘Maybe the more emotions a person experiences in their daily lives, the longer time seems to feel to them. As you get older, you experience fewer new things, and so time seems to go by faster.’ (p. 270)

One could say that it is paradoxical to allow a life to be governed by feelings – aren’t feelings to do with reactions to structure? If they are also allowed to form the structure, then aren’t they getting ahead of themselves? The one thing sure to alleviate anxiety is to remove responsibility for one’s actions. If it is not my fault that I didn’t get this job, or sustain that friendship, if it is instead God’s will, then there is nothing I could have done in either case which would have made me more successful. This is a tempting prospect. To have one’s failings given the official stamp of ultimate authority. But also: this is a form of damping too. Scout comes to the realisation that he needs God after he comes off his little yellow pills, and in doing so he leaps from one palliative to another.

Scout can’t handle the knowledge that his life is his doing, but it is far from clear that his final choice is the right one. Another character, Dana, also makes a late life switch to religion (again from drugs – this time not prescribed), and this phone conversation is the result:

‘The time is coming, Scout. You will not have to live inside linear time anymore; the concept of infinity will cease to be frightening. All secrets will be revealed. There will be great destruction; structures like skyscrapers and multinational corporations will crumble. Your dream life and your real life will fuse. There will be music. Before you turn immaterial, your body will turn itself inside out and fall to the ground and cook like steak on a cheap hibachi and you will be released and you will be judged.’

‘Um – Dana … I think I have somebody on call waiting. Can I phone you back?’ (p. 241)

Even before Scout takes off into the wilderness and finds himself humbled before God (or at least Nature), he has seen that religious faith can drive a person off the rails just as surely as doubt.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Ivan Brunetti (ed.) – ‘An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories’

That’s the one. It is pretty fine, yeah. There is a contents page, but it only has pictures and numbers – looks lovely, but pretty useless for reference purposes.

The only thing I’ve actively disliked so far is Gary Panter’s ‘Jimbo in Purgatory’. Stuff I do like: Richard McGuire’s ‘Here’ (place stays the same, year varies, sometimes within the frame, lots of intergenerational parallels); Peter Bagge - you gave me some of his comics, I think?; things even I’ve read / heard of like ‘Maus’, ‘It’s a good life if you don’t weaken’, ‘Jimmy Corrigan’; something called ‘Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer’ which confused me a fair bit but how can you not love the title?; Mat Brinkman’s ‘Oaf’ which looks like you drew it; a beautiful ‘Gasoline Alley’; a measly one ‘Krazy Kat’; James Kochalka’s ‘Sketchbook Diaries’ which are jangly; ‘Barnaby’; a whole load of ‘Peanuts’ tributes (Art Spiegelman’s is the best) but – so far – no actual ‘Peanuts’; Julie Doucet’s rather lovely (and grotty) ‘New York Diary’. Things progress thematically quite a lot: all the mid-section cartoons are about sex (mostly relationships, some fantasising, some child abuse)... except actually for ‘It’s a good life...’ which is a bit odd. Then they morph into more general diary cartoons. All the funny stuff’s at the beginning – should I be dreading the end?

Does that give you some idea? It’s a nice thing.

A comic expert responds:

Sounds good – This here website might help you in figuring out what is what.

I’m familiar with a lot of it, obviously – it’s all been anthologised somewhere before, usually in the McSweeny’s book from a couple of years ago, but it’s a nice selection. There does seem to be rather too little for me though.

I knew that you’d like both Gasoline Alley (You can get big collection of the dailies called Walt and Skeezix that are nice) and Kolchalka. The latter is jangly because he’s in a big old jangly band, called James Kolchalka Superstar, naturally. I like his superhero comic – Superfuckers. Lots of fun there.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Raymond Carver - ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’

Circumstances could certainly have conspired better for my reading of this. In the first place, I read it mostly at work, and few things can kill the flow of reading more than a) being surrounded by people talking and b) getting interrupted every so often to do said work. In the second, the fellow’s just not Richard Yates. Not in an M. R. James whole-other-type-of-story way, either: there are obvious similarities between Yates and Carver. Both give us small scale scenes of domestic life in the US (Carver sets these in smaller towns; Yates does New York and Los Angeles), in which inadequate protagonists struggle to come to terms with themselves and their situations. Yates makes us feel their humiliation, but Carver plays with a straighter bat: his characters, though they are self aware, are rarely aware of how others see them. His poles are good and bad; Yates’ self possession and embarrassment.

The character Al in ‘Jerry and Molly and Sam’, for example, wants to get rid of his kids’ mongrel Suzy. She pees all over the carpet constantly and is for Al a metaphor for the mess his home life has become. The real problem is Al’s marriage, his infidelity, and the fact that there are kids stuck in the middle of it all, but he reasons that he has to start somewhere, and the dog is the easiest target. So he takes her out in the car to a distant suburb and leaves her there. Returning to the uproar occasioned by Suzy’s disappearance, he realises he’s done the wrong thing: ‘I believe I have made the gravest mistake of all’ (p. 119), he thinks, struck at what he has done. He’s not embarrassed, as a character in Yates would be, he swings violently from thinking ‘this is a good thing to do’, to ‘this is a bad thing’. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if it keeps changing, but he will never feel that he has been silly, only good or bad.

I’m reminded of an ancient interview with Barry Adamson in Melody Maker, talking about the collaborators for one of his albums. One was Jarvis Cocker, one was Nick Cave. Barry thought that while Jarvis was prepared to play around with sexual attitudes in his songs, Nick was ‘all man’, and that one wouldn’t be able to make the same kind of innuendos in conversation with him as perhaps one could with Jarvis. There is zero homosexuality in either this book or Yates’, but that’s not what I mean. There are convincing female characters in both, but that’s not it either. A few weeks ago I praised Yates’ story ‘The Canal’ for acknowledging that ‘it’s possible to make a fool of yourself even in life threatening circumstances’, and this shows a willingness in him to play around with vanity which would not occur to Carver.

To even this up a bit, another difference is that Yates, with his plethora of divorces, doesn’t consider to anything like the same degree as Carver, what happens when people who should get divorced stay together. The title story is particularly good on this, with its tale of an infidelity bottled up for two years, and then the immediate and brittle aftermath.

My favourite story was ‘Nobody Said Anything’, which also has a breaking home as a backdrop. The warring parents leave for work, though, leaving behind the narrator, an adolescent kid who has faked a stomach ache in order to go fishing. It’s the sleazy narration which appeals - checking the level of the Vaseline in his parents’ bedroom before he leaves the house, fantasising about the woman who gives him a lift part of the way (and failing 100% to work anything suggestive into the conversation), then when he reaches the creek: ‘I hurried down the embankment, unzipped, and shot off five feet over the creek. It must have been a record.’ (p. 37). Worthy of Beavis and Butt-Head, that one. Then he meets another boy who has spotted an extremely large fish in a shallow part of the creek, and their attempts to catch it bare handed constitute the main action of the story. Pretty thrilling it is too. If you don’t want to know whether they catch the fish, look away now.

‘Here he comes!’ The kid waved his arms. I saw the fish now; it was coming right at me. He tried to turn when he saw me, but it was too late. I went down on my knees, grasping in the cold water. I scooped him with my hands and arms, up, up, raising him, throwing him out of the water, both of us falling on the bank. I held him against my shirt, him flopping and twisting, until I could get my hands up his slippery sides to his gills. I ran one hand in and clawed through to his mouth and locked around his jaw. I knew I had him. He was still flopping and hard to hold, but I had him and I wasn’t letting go. (p. 42)

Blog archive