Thursday, July 31, 2014

More Pro-Babylonian Propaganda

Translations matter.  Oddly, to recognize this fact, you have to reread a book.  If the first time you ever read The Odyssey was the Fagles translation, you would have no idea how much the translator was important in making the book come alive.    Now imagine a book you have read many times in many different translations.  A new translation comes along.  Same story that you have read many, many, many times.  But, suddenly in this new translation, the book pops alive in new ways.  The story feels fresh and exciting and like something you have never read before.  That would be a good translation.

Enter Robert Alter, who has been praised many times before in this space and is hereby praised again.  I recently finished his latest Old Testament translations.  This set has a curious title: Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.  (The Former Prophets is an odd moniker, but it fits.)  I’ve read all those books before Alter came along.  Many times.  But, rereading each of the four books contained herein was a surprising experience. 

As a book, this is an interesting history.  Coupled with the Books of Moses, we now have Alter’s translation of the complete story of  Israel from Creation to Captivity.  It is not a pretty tale—one long descent of mankind. 

Of the four books contained in this newest translation, there is no doubt that Samuel is the best.  Indeed, it is cheating a bit to have included it here—Alter had previously published his translation of Samuel, so a good chunk of this book is simply the inclusion of a previously published stand-alone book.  It makes sense to include it for the sake of completeness, but not all of this material is new.  The Samuel narrative is beautifully written, a marvelous story—surely one of the Greats in World Literature.  Indeed, I assigned Samuel in my Leadership and the Liberal Arts class last semester.  David and Lincoln made an interesting pairing of biographies.

Kings, which I finally just got around to reading, was as tedious as I expected it to be.  The Samuel narrative is beautiful literature.  Joshua was a crisp tale followed by some legalese.  Judges is replete with good stories.  But Kings?  It is so clearly a mishmash, a cobbling together of assorted stories, most of which are ripped out of some Court records chronicling the Civil War and long aftermath of Israel.  The narrative high points are the antics of Elijah and Elisha—trickster prophets who relieve us from the tedium of yet another king who worshipped idols and displeased the Lord.  Wash, Rise, Repeat.  Quite honestly, by the end of Kings, I was glad the Babylonians came along and put us all out of our misery.  Which, now that I think about it, is a rather interesting take on the point of Kings—maybe I was supposed to be glad that God finally put an end to the tedious nonsense.  Maybe I am supposed to cheer for the Babylonians here.  I don’t think that is heretical.

Writing a review of the Bible seems odd, by the way. It is also oddly difficult.  What comes next?  Here are some lessons I learned from the Bible?  Here are some surprising tidbits from the Bible?  Here are my favorite characters from the Bible?  Here is the main point of the Bible?  Here are the boring parts of the Bible?  Here are some suggestions for improving the Bible so that it would be a better book?  (OK, that one is heretical.)  Why has nobody ever made a good movie of the material in Joshua, Judges, Samuel or Kings?  (That question kind of interests me.  There is surely a great movie, maybe even Peter Jackson trilogy, based on Samuel just waiting to be made.  ( I saw the Richard Gere movie when I was in high school; I wish I could erase all memory of it.)  Samson is another obvious movie waiting to be made.  Action-hero Samson!)

There is already a noteworthy movie about Elijah.  You can watch it here.  It will be more entertaining than anything else I could add at this point.   

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Jeffersons

Seventeen years after publishing The Hamlet, Faulkner published a sequel.  The Town sees the Snopes movin’ on up from the lowly backwater of Frenchman’s Bend to the town, the bona fide town, of Jefferson itself.  (Really, the town is named Jefferson.  A curious coincidence?)  And along the way, we watch a remarkable transformation of Flem Snopes.

As noted here in an earlier post, the Snopes in general and Flem in particular are symbolic of a modern commercial spirit.  Flem makes money; somehow, someway, he turns every opportunity into cash.  Nobody is ever quite sure how he manages to do this over and over, but he does.  At the end of The Hamlet, he has swapped a worthless old bit of property for a profitable bit of property in town, and so he moves.  At the outset of the Town, he is finding ever more ways to acquire wealth.  Bit by bit, other Snopes follow him.  There is the good Snopes, Eck, who dies in an unfortunate accident.  But, fortunately for the line, and for humanity, Eck's son is also a Good Snopes, a hard-working industrious Snopes, who in violation of all that is Snopeslike, builds a rather profitable, creditable, ethical business in Jefferson.  Eck’s son, Wallstreet Panic (that is really his name: Wallstreet Panic Snopes) shows a path that could have been travelled by the clan, but wasn't.  Instead, the clan ends up looking a lot more like I.O.’s son, Montgomery Ward (that is his name Montgomery Ward Snopes), who sets up a pornography business in town (which, I suppose is an improvement over the prostitution business he set up while in the army during WWI).  You know where this is all headed.  As goes Frenchman’s Bend, so goes Jefferson.

Except it doesn’t.  Flem, having acquired his wealth, realizes he wants something else, something more.  He wants respect.  (All together now: R-E-S-P-E-C-T).  And so he tackles the two hurdles in his way.  First, the other Snopes must go.  He can’t get rid of Wallstreet Panic, but then again, he doesn’t really need to do so.  He does manage to get Montgomery Ward and I.O. out of town.  Suddenly, there are no other Snopes around to drag down the family name.  But, Flem needs more.  He needs a position of responsibility and respect.  And this is where the tale gets incredibly dated.  What is the most responsible and most respected job in town?  The banker, obviously.  Flem take over the bank.  In doing so, he runs the previous banker, the man, incidentally (well, probably incidentally) who is sleeping with Flem’s wife, out of town.  The Town is the story of the Triumph of Flem.

Well, except there are some discordant notes on the horizon.  Flem’s wife makes what seems like a shockingly abrupt decision.  His adopted daughter has an uncertain future. And then there are these wild child Snopes who show up in town one day; they are too much even for the Snopes’ clan to handle, and so they are shipped back out of town.  You know it is bad when even the Snopes can’t handle the wild branch of the family.  Maybe Flem’s position isn’t so secure after all. 

Maybe this is a trilogy.

The Town is a stronger book than The Hamlet.  For one thing, it coheres better.  For another, it is told by three narrators, with the shifting viewpoint Faulkner does so unbelievably well (see As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury).  We are never quite sure what is motivating anyone in the book; what does Flem’s wife want?  What does she hope to attain?  Is she really just bored?  And is De Spain as shallow as he seems; can we trust Gavin, who is clearly jealous of De Spain, on this matter?

But the big question it raises is whether Flem has any hope of succeeding.  Can you buy your way into respectability?  It is a weird question.  Once upon a time, there was some moral suspicion of those who had too much wealth.  We still pretend that is true today, but check out People magazine.  Or think about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.  Or look at the self-promoting autobiographies which fill the Business sections of any Barnes and Noble.  These days, we worship the wealthy.  Why?  Mostly because we want to be the wealthy.  Yeah, every now and then, you hear some noises about the 1%, but at the end of the day, the people complaining about the 1% just want to get their new iPhone and lead a life of leisure, just like the 1% are doing—well, except the 1% work 20 hour days and all, but we don’t want to mention that fact because it ruins that pleasant buzz of righteous indignation.

In other words, who would actually look down on Flem Snopes?  I noted this when talking about The Hamlet; I have a hard time condemning Flem.  The Town makes it even crisper.  Yeah, Flem’s failed little stunt at the power plant was a bit déclassé, but he has moved on from that, so why shouldn’t we?  If Flem Snopes moved into town, and moved his way into the biggest house in town, and had his house decorated just like in the decorating magazines, and took over the most prestigious business in town, would anyone in modern society think he was doing something wrong, that somehow, this just wasn't right?

But, that being said, I cannot imagine anyone handing the Snopes trilogy to a teenager and saying, “Model your life after Flem Snopes.”  Something is missing here.  I just can’t put my finger on it.  Maybe The Mansion will make it clear.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Counselor

Changing media is a tricky thing.  History is filled with artists who could not sculpt, musicians who could not write an opera, and writers who could not compose a decent poem.  There is no shame in that; nobody, with I suppose the possible exception of Leonardo da Vinci, is good at everything.

So, imagine an 80 year old writer who is in the running for the title of greatest living American novelist. But, for reasons unknown, he really wants to write a screenplay for a movie.  A big Hollywood movie.  Maybe that is the explanation; maybe screenplays for big Hollywood movies pay more than novels.  (Ya think?)  Maybe this 80 year old novelist has some big debts and really wants a big payday.  But, more probably, he has always just wanted to write a screenplay.  So he does.  OK, let’s drop the faux-anonymity.  The author is Cormac McCarthy.  I love Cormac McCarthy. 

He writes the screenplay.  Then it gets even better.  He gets a Major Hollywood Director: Ridley Scott.  He gets a Superstar cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt.  Wow.  What could go wrong?

I finally got around to watching it.  The Counselor is an absolutely terrible movie.  OK, “absolutely terrible” isn’t right; it is much worse than that.  Words cannot express how unbelievably, really unbelievably, disappointingly awful this movie was.  All those stars are trying their best, but it is just a disaster as a movie.  And, sadly, there is absolutely no doubt where the problem lies.  The screenplay is bad, really bad.  It just isn’t a screenplay; it seems like the sort of thing someone who is a novelist would think is a screenplay.  After seeing the movie I thought that maybe there was a novel lurking under there somewhere and somebody needed to take that novel and write a real screenplay based on the novel. Maybe that would work.  But, like a novelist who just doesn’t understand poetry, McCarthy just doesn’t understand that writing for a movie script is not the same as writing a novel.

Fortunately, lest this review turn into a trashing of McCarthy, the screenplay has been published and I read it.  I should have followed my general rule and read the book before seeing the movie, but in this case, I figured that since the movie was the real object and the printed screenplay is secondary, I should reverse the normal order.

From the screenplay, I can now see what McCarthy was trying to do.  He should have just written a novel.  I think it would have been a good novel.  In fact, in some ways, he did write  novel—the descriptions of the movie scenes which don’t have dialogue, and the descriptions of the settings for the assorted scenes read just like descriptions in a McCarthy novel.  In fact take away the bits indicating the speaker and much of the dialogue here could be straight out of a McCarthy novel.  In fact, I have just decided that I will henceforth consider this book The Counselor: A Screenplay to be the name of a novel on which an absolutely horrible movie was based.  That makes me feel better.

Why does the novel work better than the movie?  For one thing, there are some parts that are vastly more comprehensible in the novel.  There is, for example a scene in the novel in which a woman from whom the Counselor (no name—he is just the Counselor) borrows a phone.  In the movie, that is all the woman does—lends him a phone.  In the novel—she is subsequently kidnapped.  That second scene is crucial for explaining how these same abductors know to kidnap the Counselor’s fiancée—he called her on that phone.   There are lots of little details like that in the novel—things that take scenes which leave the movie viewer saying, “How did the characters know to do that?” or “What are they doing?” and, you know, explain them.  My favorite example (favorite as in, an example that surely belongs in the Hall of Fame of Bizarre Movie Directions): in the final scene (and this isn’t ruining anything because a) you aren’t going to watch this movie if you are sane and b) it wouldn't make any sense if you just watched the movie anyway), Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is descried as being dressed this way:

She is dressed in an ankle-length black pleated skirt, a dark green bolero jacket with black braiding.  She wears a heavy graduated swag choke necklace of emeralds with matching earrings.  She is about five months pregnant, just noticeable.

Read that last line again.  Now, remember that is a description from a screenplay.  Fast-forward to being the movie viewer—you are supposed to notice that this woman is pregnant—barely noticeably pregnant, no less.  Without that bit of information much of the story in this movie makes no sense; with that bit of information, a lot snaps into focus.  So, next time you are watching a movie, be sure to try to figure out if an actress walking across a restaurant is meant to be barely noticeably pregnant.

The same thing happens when the Counselor wanders through a crowd in Mexico, by the way.  In the written text, we are told what this crowd is—and it is important what this crowd is and why the Counselor is there. In the movie, he just pushes his way through the crowd for no apparent reason.

Another example?  OK, I’ll stop—this is like shooting fish in a barrel.  It’s a terrible movie.

But, the novel.  I promised to get back to that.  In the novel there is an interesting question being explored.   The world you live in is a world which has been made up of previous choices you have made.  You may not have intended to create the world in which you live, but you did create it.  Once you find yourself in your current world, you will often find yourself at a crossroad, but it is not the crossroad you want.  You want the crossroad to be whether you have to live in this world you created or not.  You want to decide whether you have to endure the consequences of your previous actions.  But that is not the crossroad you are at.  You have no choice.  You might give everything to avoid the consequences of your previous actions, but you cannot change your previous actions.  You are at a crossroad, but it is only the crossroad of deciding whether you will accept the fact that you have created this world you did not want or whether you refuse to accept the fact that you cannot change the world you created by your previous actions. 

But, it gets worse.  It is not simply that you must endure the pain of knowing that the world you created is painful because of things you have done.  You make decisions now and then later on you are faced with other decisions you did not see coming at all.  Decisions you would rather not make, but now you have to make them.  You are operating in a blind.

But, it gets worse.  There are other people out there who are also making decisions.  And some of those people do not have the moral scruples which you have.  And in a world in which those with moral scruples, no matter how small those scruples may be, meet those without moral scruples, the latter will win.

Like all of Cormac McCarthy's work, this novel has a deeply moral core.  We go through life trying to skirt the edges of being moral.  We think we can commit a small sin here or there and that it won’t really matter.  But every time we commit those small sins, those small violations of our moral code, we create a new world in which we must live with the consequences of those past violations of our moral code.  One violation of your moral code leads to new choices and you cannot escape those new choices.  And once you are down that road, there is no going back.  Along that road you will meet people who do not have the same limits as you, and when you meet them, you will not like the results of all those previous choices you made.

And right now, you are thinking this is all a overblown.  You are thinking that just because I make this small decision now, I will not end up with my world destroyed.    

The hunter has a purity of heart that exists nowhere else.  I think he is not defined so much by what he has come to be as by all that he has escaped being.  You can make no distinction between what he is and what he does.  And what he does is kill.  We of course are another matter.  I suspect that we are ill-formed for the path we have chosen.  Ill-formed and ill-prepared.  We would like to draw a veil over all that blood and terror.  That have brought us to this place.  It is our faintness of heart that would close our eyes to all of that, but in doing so it makes of it our destiny.  Perhaps you would not agree.  I don’t know.  But nothing is crueler than a coward, and the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining.

If you think this is overblown, you have just closed your eyes.  Don’t act surprised when you cannot undo your prior actions because you don’t like the results.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bigger and Pinkie

Yesterday, I wrote reflections on Richard Wright’s Native Son.  Last night I read Wright’s essay, “How ‘Bigger’ was Born.”  The essay was included in the Library of America volume, which is one more reason you should always read Library of America volumes.  Another reason the Library of America is better:  the notes at end explain that the version of the novel I just read was the original manuscript—the published volume was sanitized a bit so the Book-of-the-Month Club would issue it.  The end notes have the passages as they were modified for the Book-of-the-Month club.  No doubt about it; the novel as originally written is stronger.

So, some further thoughts:

1. Wright goes to great lengths to explain that Bigger is real.  He has known many Biggers in his life.  Wright’s insistence here is much like Dickens’ insistence in his preface to Oliver Twist that he characters therein are real.  Dickens puts it in all-caps (“IT IS TRUE”); Wright doesn’t.  But, both essays have the same stamp-your-foot-when-you-say-that tone.  I get why Dickens wants to insist that his characters are real, that there really are prostitutes like Nancy.  But, Wright’s insistence was surprising—of course there are men like Bigger.  Obviously, in 1940 this wasn't obvious to everyone.

2. Wright makes the same comparison between Bigger and himself that I made yesterday.  In reflecting on his fear that the Communist party might condemn the book because of its “individualist and dangerous element,” Wright realizes, “I felt that a right more immediately deeper than that of politics or race was at stake; that is, a human right, the right of a man to think and feel honestly.”  Wright has a difficult time in this essay escaping the expectation on his race and his politics.  Wright: “the moral—or what I felt was the moral—horror of Negro life in the United States.”  Oh, Richard Wright, wherever you are—your moral is so much more transcendent than you even imagined.

3. Wright notes that the novel was shaped by the many other novelists he read, but he doesn’t tell which novelists.  It would have been interesting to know whom he had been reading.  Maybe he says in his autobiography.  But, there is no doubt what I suspect.  There was one book whose echoes I heard straight through Native Son; indeed, it strikes me that these two books would be a fascinating comparison.  Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is eerily similar to Native Son. Pinkie and Bigger could be brothers, but one is a black kid in the slums of Chicago and one is a white kid in the slums of Brighton. 

4. Native Son also reminded me of An American Tragedy but that may be just because I recently read Dreiser’s novel.  Even still, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Wright liked Dreiser’s novels. 

5. The endnotes in this volume about it publication history are a stark reminder of the extraordinary change in the moral landscape of art.  The scene which the Book-of-the-Month Club needed changed was shockingly tame compared to what the Book-of-the-Month Club routinely sells today.  Bigger and his friend masturbate in a movie theater.  It’s less than a page.  Compared to the several pages of gratuitous sex in any modern novel, one wonders what happened since 1940.  It’s even more surprising when you think that something like Sister Ray was still shocking in the 1968.

6. Wright was walking a fine line in crafting this novel.  On the one side, there was the fear of alienating whites who wanted to be sympathetic to the situation in which blacks were living, but would be shocked by the portrait of something less than the Model Citizen.  On that same side, there were all the upwardly mobile blacks who would be quite upset at a portrayal of someone who was not the best role model or example of upward-mobility.  On the other side, though, there was the actual plight of a large number of Americans, native sons of the land.  The line—how to portray the reality of the situation without alienating the very people who most needed to be shown that line.  This is, see above, exactly the same line Dickens had to walk.  Wright succeeded as well as Dickens.

7. On my reading list is now Black Boy.  Also the Library of America edition, by the way—here again, the Library of America is the first publisher of the work as originally intended.

8.  Sometimes I wonder why England doesn’t have a Library of England.  English literature also has a few books of note, which would benefit from the same editorial and publishing care which the Library of America is lavishing on American literature.