Friday, July 29, 2005

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

I am going to change the way I do things, since the way I do things has been unfruitful of late. Instead of just blithely reading books and waiting for passages/ideas from the text to forcefully strike me, I am going to revisit sections of a text until I can articulate something about it. Bear with me (if, indeed, you are still here at all) if this experiment doesn’t pan out.

Right now the text under scrutiny is Henry James’s The Europeans, which is a lot less stuffy and a lot more delightful than I’d expected it to be. A less-empty Oscar Wilde is what comes to mind, although I also see where comparisons to Jane Austen come from. Anyway, upon revisiting the first chapter, I came upon (appropriately) this passage:
You are irritating,’ said the lady, looking at her slipper.
He began to retouch his sketch. ‘I think you mean simply that you are irritated.’ (8)
There are a couple times in this first chapter when a character (consciously or unconsciously) attributes an emotion to a certain cause, when in reality the feeling is linked more to the character’s own mercurial disposition and passions, the core of which doesn’t change. For example, the woman, Eugenia, after exhausting the subject of first the weather, then her brother, immediately switches to complaining about how often their cousins will probably be. She’s not a pessimist, exactly (James describes her as having “a certain tranquil gaiety (16)"), but she never comes out and admits that she enjoys anything.

What is the consequence of being self-contained and unaffectable by outside circumstances? I don’t know, but at least now I have a question to ask the rest of the book. Will report further with my findings at a later date - keep your fingers crossed.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Literature/Real-Life Correlations

Note: I wrote this post about 2 months ago but never published it because it felt unfinished. It still feels unfinished, but I don't know how to end it so I'll just put it up anyway.

Waggish posted a few days ago on the lack of literature regarding work.
But when I think about work as I know it, there are few literary correlates. Proust, I'm sure, would have had brilliant things to say, but he was lucky enough not to have to work. Social realist novels like Gladkov's Cement or those of Dos Passos say less about the act of working than they do about the sociological politics underlying it. Leopold Bloom doesn't spend much of his day, page-wise, in the office, and certainly seems preoccupied with other matters even while he's there.
(This is really only tangentially related to his post, but) I can't comprehend. After reading his post, I spent a long while trying to think of an experience I've had that hasn't had multiple literary correlates, and I failed. This is troubling.

When I was a prepubescent little girl, I devoured books. My parents never kept tabs on my reading, so I was free to read coming-of-age novels, young-adult science fiction, and Danielle Steel. Before I even purchased my first pair of bell-bottoms (8th grade), I'd read all about pimples and bras and teenage pregnancy and how nice guys often had seedy underbellies and drugs and class elections and different sexual orientations and what to do if you were a girl who wanted to be a knight with magical powers. I was ready and excited to enter high school.

Of course, reading about it is different from living it, and expecting the problems didn't make dealing with them much easier. But the point is, ever since then, I've always had a guideline for my life - this is what to expect, these are your choices, these are your possible outcomes. This is how to look at things and how to look past them. I can't ever remember an experience (in my admittedly sheltered life) that hasn't had a close correlate in something I've read. I'm pretty sure most others, even the ones that don't read, have gotten a pre-taste of their life through other media outlets. Yet still, I do sometimes get exasperated because they don't sense the magnitude of the cliche of all their personal problems.

The people I know that have read a lot and widely since a very young age rarely talk at length about themselves. Is this common?

P.S. A question I am less well-equipped to answer: Is it the author's responsibility to come up with something that correlates with what the reader has experienced?

Friday, July 15, 2005

You, or Your Memory

I threw away picture-frame wire, metal book ends, cork coasters, plastic key tags, dusty bottles of Mercurochrome and Vaseline, crusted paintbrushes, caked shoe brushes, clotted correction fluid... I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they'd put me in this fix. They'd dragged me down, made escape impossible.
- White Noise, p.281
About two years ago, I read this essay, which I forget now who it's by or what it's called. But the author talked about how she used to take her camera everywhere and take pictures of all her doings, fearful that one day she'd look back on her past and remember nothing.

Then one day she tried to look back on her past and all she could remember was a string of snapshots, the memory of these having replaced the memory of the events themselves. So she stopped taking pictures, preferring to experience and absorb her life.

There's an obvious correlation between taking taking pictures of everything and hoarding all your junk. They both attempt to preserve the now in case it should become useful in the future, the obvious problem being that they preserve it imperfectly, and sometimes end up destroying and replacing the memory they were meant to preserve.

The difference between that and this blog is that I'm not trying to preserve events or memories, but rather ideas and thoughts. Although I'm not sure, actually, how I'll feel about this blog in the future. Even now, I look back on many of my former entries and blush. I've felt tempted to edit them, or hide them, or pretend they never happened.

There's this great quote by Fitzgerald in one of his letters to his editor, but the book's a million miles away so I'll just paraphrase it. After rereading his Great Gatsby a few decades after it was first published, he says (much more elegantly):
Looking at it now, there are many places that ought to be fixed and touched up, characters that need to be redrawn. But it's a finished work, and I'm a different man now, so I can't do anything about it.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

In which I am better than everyone.

Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living... I have lived some thirty years ont his planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. Walden, p.6
When I first read this, I thought, shut up Thoreau. Later that night, at a business dinner with my mom, I listened to an elderly man ramble on about the importance of knowing the etymologies of Chinese characters, and I thought, I don't care, old man.

Moral: it's no use fighting condescension with condescension.

I've been reading a lot lately, but I've had nothing to say because I've thoroughly enjoyed and agreed with a lot of the literature I've read.* It seems like I always have less to say when that happens. Why is that? Often, a person that dislikes a piece of art has some articulatable reason for disliking the piece, while the former can only shrug and say, "I thought it was good."

Although thinking about it, that's not always true. I have many things to say about Proust and DFW, both of whom I like a lot. And I had nothing at all to say about Lipsyte's awful Homeland. So maybe the reason's more simple - I haven't been reading the right way, or the books haven't appealed to me in that way.

*Also, it's been difficult to get enough online time to write good blog posts in China.