30 March 2012

I enjoyed Elaine Blair‘s review of Michel Houllebecq‘s most recent novel, The Map and the Territory in the NY Review of Books.  It was one of those reviews that I suspected was more interesting/compelling than the book itself, the ultimate effect of which was to interest me in a book I otherwise would have bypassed.

Now, I realize that what I appreciated in Blair’s approach to the review was my sense that she is a kindred spirit: she is a woman interested in the “maleness” of male literature.   This week, she writes about Houllebecq v. American male novelists.  She cites (as I have many times) David Foster Wallace‘s essay on the Great Male Novelists (GMNs), and the gap between Updike/Bellow/Mailer/Roth and today’s younger generation of male novelists:

When you see the loser-figure in a[n American] novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me […]

Into this theater of struggle, in 2000, arrived The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq’s loser characters have thoughts like “her big, sagging breasts were perfect for a tit-job; it had been three years since his last time.” And he doesn’t call them on it. Except occasionally he does. Houellebecq has a relaxed looseness about the whole matter of whose point of view (author’s or character’s) is being expressed in a given moment. He is happy to keep readers guessing about what he actually believes and what he’s satirizing.

American male novelists (post-Updike et alia), according to Blair, want to be liked by female readers; Houllebecq is more interested in the reality, i.e. the duplicity, of maleness.

Now I suppose I really do want to give The Map and the Territory (and The Elementary Particles) a look.

7 March 2012

Harriet Doerr, author of the National Book Award winning novel Stones for Ibarra, published that beautiful novel – her first – at the age of 74 (she also went back to college to earn her BA at the age of 65).  She wrote, in a personal essay called “The Tiger in the Grass,” about speaking at a writers’ conference:

I explained my late start as an author after forty-two years of writing “housewife” on my income tax form.  These years without a profession, from 1930 to 1972, were also the years of my marriage.  Hands were raised after my talk, and I answered questions.  The final one was from a woman who assumed, incorrectly, these were decades of frustration.  “And were you happy for those forty-two years?” she asked, and I couldn’t believe the question.  I asked her to repeat it, and she said again, “Were you happy for those forty-two years?”

It was then that I said, “I never heard of anyone being happy for forty-two years,” and went on, “And would a person who was happy for forty-two years write a book?”

I love the complexity – which is to say the honesty – of Doerr’s answer.  I love the “incorrectly” coupled with the answer she gave the woman.  We want things to be simple, to be this or that; they never are.

Stones for Ibarra

I’ll be writing more about Harriet Doerr for our Post-40 Bloomers column at The Millions.

5 March 2012

I’ve seen it three times now — once on the big screen, once on my laptop, and once in a classroom with 15 undergraduate students (a seminar on literature of childhood).  It holds up every time, which is remarkable (in the second and third instances) given how patiently the story and its characters unfold, and how little speech there is in the film.  Victor Erice‘s THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE moves from philosophical to morbid to lighthearted to melancholy via the simplest filmic gestures; and, of course, there is Ana Torrent‘s stunning little face, which moves through these registers and emotions with the same seamlessness and beauty.  Definitely among my top 5 of all time.

Criterion‘s film notes tell us that the film’s artful spareness is in good part due to Franco-era censorship (the film was made in 1940, the year after Franco took power).  There were more overt political references in an earlier version, as well as a reflective voiceover from an adult Ana.  I am no proponent of censorship; but as a teacher, I feel affirmed in my imposition of parameters and limitations on students (word counts, prompts, etc) as they work on craft; so often we see that Less is More.

1 March 2012

The very smart and thoughtful Lisa Peet of Like Fire tells us a happy-ending story (boy, don’t we need it?) about late-bloomer Walker Percy, over at The Millions.  On writing The Moviegoer, at age 44:

I can only report that something did happen and it happened all of a sudden. Other writers have reported a similar experience. It is not like learning a skill or a game at which, with practice, one gradually improves. One works hard all right, but what comes, comes all of a sudden and as a breakthrough. One hits on something… It is almost as if the discouragement were necessary, that one has first to encounter despair before one is entitled to hope.

I have four of Percy’s books on my shelf and haven’t read any of them.  He’s been on my must-read list for years.  Not sure what the hang-up is.  At the moment it’s (lack of) time, but I’m newly inspired to get on it.