WRITING SHORT: 39/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

In grade school, we memorized poems. Memorization was hard for me (it still is), but I did my best to remember the assigned passages at least long enough to recite them out loud, palms sweating, if called on. I think this practice was supposed to saturate us with uplifting and ennobling literature that would provide comfort in the tough times ahead when we became adults.

I’ve been an adult for many years now, some of them quite tough. All I could ever recall of those elementary school efforts were two lines: “By the shores of Gitchee-Goomee” (Longfellow) and “Into the valley of death rode the four hundred…” (Tennyson). Neither was particularly sustaining when encountering life’s challenges.

What did stick with me was the idea that memorizing was an approved endeavor for classy young ladies. When at the age of twelve and a half I fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), I therefore had to memorize some of his verse – if only to show his spirit (surely hovering over my bedroom in Queens, New York) that I cared. For some reason I chose “Ozymandias.” Because it was only fourteen lines? I have no idea. But I memorized with such diligence I remembered it long after I’d traded in Shelley for Leonard Bernstein as my love object.

Did “Ozymandias” help in getting through life? Not really. Not until recently, when I took another look with adult eyes:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear —

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Think of the many hot shits in the world you can’t stand. For all their self-importance, nothing of them will remain. They’ll be nada. Buried in bare, boundless sand.

Feel better?

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FACT OR FICTION?

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Readers often wonder how much of a novel, novella or short story comes from the writer’s own life and how much is made up. Some literary critics (and some biographers) have built an entire career on teasing from literary texts published as fiction what may have really happened and what likely didn’t. Other critics — and probably all writers — maintain the fact-or-fiction question doesn’t matter because after the writing leaves the writer, it must stand on its own.

As a would-be writer, and certainly as a nearly life-long reader, I don’t think the question is worth pursuing.  What did or did not happen in “real life” is irrelevant to the merit,  or lack of it, of the completed literary work. Anyone whose reading of what a writer publishes is driven by prurient interest in the details of the writer’s life is not far removed from the reader of fanzines and other sources of celebrity gossip.  Which is not to say that a taste for gossip isn’t a  widespread human failing, shared by me, but should not be confused with the experience of reading literature.

What’s more, even where the published work bears no apparent surface resemblance to what is known of a writer’s life, you can rest assured that every writer who ever lived has in one way or another cannibalized his (or her) own experience of living for material.  Nothing is safe from the writer, not even the writer!  Sometimes, it’s emotional experience — translated, for example, into science-fiction, or fantasy, or “post-modernism” of some kind, or innovative structure.  Sometimes, apparently more realistically, it’s a character or characters modeled either on the writer, or someone the writer knows or has heard of.  But — and this is the important part — something always happens to that lived experience in the process of putting it on the printed or digital fictional page, and what that something is makes all the difference.

(Parenthetically, I would go further yet and assert that even when writers compose allegedly factual memoir or autobiography, or when non-writers explain to themselves in private the important events in their lives, the accounts can never be fully factual accounts of “real life.”  They are how we see things, how we justify to ourselves what happened. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves so that we can keep on living. But did they really happen that way?  Who’s to say?)

Now back to writers. When in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” teen-age Alexander Portnoy comes home from school and twice that day has the liver he finds in the refrigerator:  once,  raw, behind a closed door in the bathroom and again, cooked, on his plate for dinner — does it matter to the gestalt of the book whether Philip Roth ever himself jerked off with raw liver when he was a teen-age boy in Newark, New Jersey?

Roth, of course, is our century’s champion creator of what appear to be fictional alter egos.  “Portnoy” was his fourth book, relatively early in his career.  “Deception,” his eighteenth book, is a series of pre- and post-coital conversations over several years between two adulterous lovers (with a few other conversations interspersed). The man is “Philip,” a writer of novels who spends half the year in London (as did Roth for many years while living with Claire Bloom). The woman in “Deception” is English, and  nameless. The conversations, and the coitus, take place in “Philip’s” London writing studio, on a mat where at other times he does back exercises.

At some point between the earlier conversations and the last one in the book, “Philip” has written and published a novel in which the lover, and then wife, of a man named Zuckerman is an Englishwoman. Non-Roth readers should know that Nathan Zuckerman, who has many of Roth’s characteristics, had already appeared in several Roth novels prior to “The CounterLife,” a novel with many of the characteristics of the novel that “Philip” has just published in “Deception.” “The CounterLife” was Roth’s second book before “Deception.”  If it isn’t already too confusing, I might point out that Peter Tarnopol, another Roth fictional alter ego, wrote two stories about Zuckerman in Roth’s “My Life As A Man” before Zuckerman got to be the central figure in novels apparently written by Roth. (With Tarnopol’s help?)

The Englishwoman in “Deception” is upset that “Philip,” she thinks, has written about her in his recently published novel. I will leave you with their conversation, which is obviously much better than anything I could add at this time to the topic under discussion.  (It’s on the second to last page of “Deception.”)  I love the last line.

“….I object greatly to this taking people’s lives and putting them into fiction.  And then being a famous author who resents critics for saying he doesn’t make things up.”

“Because you had a baby doesn’t mean I didn’t make up a baby; because you’re you doesn’t mean I didn’t make you up.”

“I also exist.”

“Also. You also exist and also I made you up.  ‘Also’ is a good word to remember. You also don’t exist as only you.”

“I certainly don’t anymore.”

“You never did. As I made you up, you never existed.”

“Then who was that in your studio with my legs over your shoulders?”

Res ipsa loquitur.  (The thing speaks for itself.)  Which has nothing — and of course everything — to do with the matter.

A FEW ODD FACTS ABOUT GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND ME

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People who read each other’s blogs sometimes make the mistake of thinking they know each other pretty well.  But blogs are deceiving.  What a blogger omits gets left out of the picture. Here, for instance, are a few oddments you may not have thought of in connection with the author of TGOB.

1.  Geoffrey Chaucer was master of the English language circa 1400. (If you’re wondering what this has to do with me, read on.)

2.  English 715 years ago (aka “Middle” English) wasn’t exactly a foreign language, but some — including me — might call it close to one.

3.  “Middle” English pronunciation was also something else.  It was spoken just before what linguists call “the great vowel shift”  — an oddity occurring with all English speakers in the early 15th century (don’t ask me why) that moved our vowels a notch further forward in our mouths from the point where Europeans sound out the same vowels.  Example:  the color that you get by mixing blue and yellow used to be pronounced “grain” (and spelled “grene”); after the shift, it began being pronounced “green” and still is, except perhaps in Ireland. (In fact, Middle English does have a faint Irish lilt.)

4. Why am I telling you this?

  • First, to take a break from sex, love and death, which I seem to have been writing about quite a bit lately.
  • And second, because starting tomorrow I’m taking a six-week course in Chaucer designed for retired Princetonians.  (Or non-retired ones who have their days free to do as they please.) Just Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  And just the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  It’s being given by a renowned Professor Emeritus from Princeton University named John Fleming who has no idea I’m blogging about him and his short course.

So many people have signed up for Professor Fleming’s course that it’s being held in the former courtroom of Princeton Boro. (That is, it was a courtroom before the Boro merged with Princeton Township to become just plain Princeton. But you don’t need to know all that local political history to understand this Chaucer thing must be a very popular subject here in Princeton to fill a courtroom, however small by courtroom standards.)

5.  The subject seems to have been so popular there had to be a lottery for seats, and I won one of them!

6.  In 1954 I took a course in Chaucer and everything he wrote, including The Canterbury Tales. I was in graduate school  at USC. (Southern California, not South Carolina.)  I still have the textbook and my notes for the exam but can’t read the notes or any of my marginal commentary anymore.  So I bought the currently recommended text and will bring both to class, like the goody-goody I used to be.

7.  My having had a course in Chaucer sixty-one years ago does give me a leg up on the pronunciation, believe it or not.  I checked myself against an online spoken version of the first twenty-six lines of the Prologue, and I wasn’t bad at it.  I missed the beat fairly often but got most of those retrograde vowels right.  Here it is, if you’d like to try yourself:  http://www.nativlang.com/middle-english/middle-english-canterbury-tales.php

8.  Or, if you’d rather not bother with all those vowels, this is what the beginning looks like:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote |
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, |
And bathed every veyne in swich licour |
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; |
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth |
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth |
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne |
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, |
And smale foweles maken melodye, |
That slepen al the nyght with open ye |
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); | (
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, |
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, |
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes; |
And specially from every shires ende |
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, |
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, |
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. |
Bifil that in that seson on a day, |
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay |
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage |
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, |
At nyght was come into that hostelrye |
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye, |
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle |
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle, |
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde,
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

9.  What saddens me is that I can’t remember the name or face of the Chaucer professor back in 1954.  I liked him quite a bit, perhaps because he admired a proto-feminist paper I wrote about Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde, centered on her declaration that she was her own woman. And now he’s gone, gone with the wind — blown clear out of my mind, both the look of him and any way of identifying him.  I didn’t even write his name in the textbook, perhaps because I thought I might sell it again afterwards, although how I could have sold it with all those handwritten illegible notes in it I can’t imagine. I think his last name began with a W, but I’m not sure.

10.  And if all this messing about in the faraway past sounds too odd for you, think of it this way:  Maybe after our seemingly endless freezing winter of Northeastern discontent, I just can’t wait for those soote (sweet) shoures (showers) of Aprille and those smale foweles (birds) to maken melodye.  Reading about it in Chaucer, even in Middle English, speeds it up.  By the time the course is over, the shoures and foweles will really be here.

DEAREST OF MEMORIES

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Bill and I have finally completed our major intellectual undertaking of the year.  To be entirely accurate, I have. Bill fell away after six lengthy chapters. (There were eighteen all told.) I speak, of course, of getting through Ulysses, that 644 page behemoth of a book in which James Joyce commemorated forever June 16, 1904 in the lives of three Dubliners — Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly.  We did not undertake this effort alone. There was an eight-week class, and a wonderful professor, and lots of support from extracurricular sources enumerated in some detail in a previous post about Bloom defecating in his outhouse.

But did I really read all clotted 644 pages carefully, scout’s honor?  Um, no.  However, where I skimmed, I skimmed judiciously, certainly putting in even more time than I had anticipated.  And as it has now clogged up two whole months of my life, if I ever pick up that book again, which I very well may, it won’t be to read it from cover to cover.  Once you know the lay of the land, so to speak (as I do by now), you can dip in and out where it pleases you.

So what will I remember after all this labor?  The same passage I remembered after I read it at twenty:  Molly Bloom’s memory of the day sixteen years earlier when Leopold proposed to her on Howth’s head above Dublin and they made love for the first time. She was eighteen, he was twenty-two. (It’s the final passage in the forty pages of stream of consciousness which constitutes the last chapter of the book.)

Does this mean I haven’t matured at all in sixty-three years?  Perhaps. But I like to think I will remember that last part of Molly’s soliloquy now, together with Bloom’s memory of the same event, not because it’s sexy (my reason at twenty) — but because that day on Howth’s head remains the dearest of memories for both husband and wife at the close of the book, although it is now far in the past and their marriage is fraught with current and unresolved difficulties.

It may be that as a lady getting on in life I am more optimistic than a younger person might be about the power of dear memories to hold people together.  But there it is.  I am that lady.  Also — point for my side — Molly ends with a single word:  Yes.  Which has to count for something.

******

Leopold’s memory comes while he’s having lunch: a gorgonzola cheese sandwich with mustard, cut in strips, and a glass of burgundy wine:

(p. 144)

Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun’s heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth below us bay sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion’s head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines fain brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you’ll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet-sour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nanny goat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright.  Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

Many pages later, Molly’s memory comes in bed, in the wee hours of morning, as she reviews her day, her life, her youth [she feels old at 34]:

(pp. 643-44)

….the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leap year like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn’t answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn’t know of…[here Molly considers her boyfriends and kisses and experiences in Gibraltar, where she grew up] ….and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

*****

I wish us all such memories, when our hearts were going like mad.

BLOOM AT STOOL: A SCATALOGICAL INTERLUDE

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[Prefatory note #1:  The word “scatalogical” is from the Greek skat-, meaning excrement; akin to Old English scearn, meaning dung; cf., Latin muscerdae, mouse droppings]

[Prefatory note #2:  Quoted passages, possibly offensive to some, were written by James Joyce, not me.]

[Prefatory note #3:  Driven by scientific curiosity as to what it might do to the stats, I thought of captioning this post “Leopold Bloom Takes A Shit,”  but chickened out at the last minute, just before clicking “Publish.”  It might have drawn a bad crowd, with no intellectual interest whatsoever in that towering masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, Ulysses.]

Okay, now we can begin.

Extremely diligent readers of this blog may recall my mentioning Bill and I were planning to sign up for an eight-week course on James Joyce’s Ulysses, scheduled to begin in October. In case you don’t recall, I’m telling you now: that’s what we did.  Bill likes the professor, whose lectures we have enjoyed before and who has a jolly laugh, which is why Bill enrolled.

 [Bill also has great skill in making thoughtful comments in class which in no way reveal he hasn’t done the assignments.  I, on the other hand, overly anal since day two of toilet training, am compulsive about turning every page and — in this case — trying to understand what’s on it.]

I had tried to read Ulysses once before, when I was twenty and still a student at an institution of higher learning, where I eventually produced a fifty-page paper about this big and heavy book, relying greatly on the published critical wisdom of Edmund Wilson and others. I have almost no recollection of what I read, or wrote.  In the intervening years, I again tried twice more, on my own, and both times failed, once sinking at section three, the other time a little further along, at section nine. [Both of these sections, I might add, are almost impenetrable to the lay reader.] There are eighteen sections all told, consuming 650 large pages set in very small type, in the latest, approved, Gabler edition.

This time I have armed myself against the reading with James Heffernan’s DVD lectures on Ulysses (previously given to senior honors students at Darmouth), and with a ponderous tome, The Annotated Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses by Don Gifford, that purports to explain away every geographic, religious, historic, linguistic and mythological complication and complexity in the text — by means of a nearly line-by-line parallel reading which may make things nearly as confusing as plowing on without the annotations.

Why am I taking these heroic measures to meet such a challenge in my dotage?  Because, like Mount Everest, it is there.  And because I am supposed to be a knowledgeable literary type. (Ha!) And because if I don’t get through it this time, I probably never will. But I will be able to say I gave it everything I had.  And if that’s not good enough, I can always fall back on the losing lawyer’s excuse on my deathbed: “You win some, you lose some.”

Yes, I exaggerate; some parts are less hard than others. Some parts are even pleasurable. Or, as the pretty white-haired lady sitting next to me in class mysteriously remarked last time, “delicious.”

Here (for example) is a hard part.  It comes from the mind of one of the three main characters, young Stephen Dedalus, as he walks along the beach on the way back from a job as part-time instructor in a private boys’ school. [It’s from the dreaded section three.] Don’t knock yourself out. And please don’t ask.  I’m putting it in for purely illustrative purposes.

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and sea wrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver. rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them colored. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in.  Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

See what I mean? But after sections one, two and three — which all concern Stephen — we move on to Leopold Bloom, a thirty-eight-year old advertising salesman (married to Molly Bloom, the third major character), whose father was Jewish but converted to Catholicism, yet who is still generally an outsider considered Jewish by the Irishmen he meets at work and throughout the day.  If Stephen is cerebral (an understatement), Bloom, although far from stupid, is definitely a man of the body. We are first introduced to him in section four (after 41 pages of Stephen) with this opening paragraph:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

I like Bloom.  Although I don’t like urine-scented kidneys, I do like  the way his mind works and the language in which Joyce accompanies him throughout his day.  Bloom is keeping me turning the many many pages in each week’s assignment. He is kind, and feeling, and although he has employment and marital difficulties, he enjoys whatever small (usually earthy) pleasures life may bring his way. That includes his time in the outhouse.  (No indoor bathrooms for the lower middle class in Dublin on June 16, 2004.)  I even identify with him there. Although I have baby wipes and real toilet paper and a nicely white-tiled bathroom of my own, I too like to read in the john, like Bloom; and hold back to enhance the eventual release, like Bloom; and don’t at all shy away from subsequent aromas arising from the bowl. (Also like Bloom.) And occasionally think, though not very seriously, about making money from writing, just like Bloom does.

Bloom’s pleasures at stool are the first time in English literature since 1400 — when Chaucer included a tale about how to divide a fart in twelve parts in The Canterbury Tales — that we get plain language about where food goes after we ingest and digest it. And since this is a blog about writing and reading and some of the things I’m doing and thinking about as I get old, here’s a choice (albeit abridged) passage about all that from section four of Ulysses — not only for educational purposes, but also to accompany or perhaps even stimulate the beginning, or end, of your day. Besides, I’m spending so much time with Stephen and Bloom this month and next, I might as well wring a post out of them!

The scene: Bloom, dressed for attendance at a funeral later on, has just finished cooking and eating his breakfast in the kitchen. Pork kidney browned — nearly blackened — in a pan with sizzling butter, bread to dip in the gravy, and tea (with milk). The cat gets the burnt bits.  She’s already had a saucer of milk.

He felt heavy, full: then a gentle loosening of his bowels. He stood up, undoing the waistband of his trousers. The cat mewed to him.

— Miaow! he said in answer. Wait till I’m ready.

….A paper. He liked to read at stool. Hope no ape comes knocking just as I’m.

In the tabledrawer he found an old number of Tidbits. He folded it under his armpit, went to the door and opened it….

He went out through the backdoor into the garden: stood to listen towards the next garden. No sound. Perhaps hanging clothes out to dry. The maid was in the garden. Fine morning….

He kicked open the crazy door of the jakes. Better be careful not to get these trousers dirty for the funeral. He went in, going his head under the low lintel. Leaving the door ajar, amid the stench of mouldy lime wash and stale cobwebs he undid his braces. Before sitting down he peered through a chink up at the next-door windows. The king was in the counting house. Nobody.

Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper, turning its pages over on his bared knees. Something new and easy. No great hurry. Keep it a bit. Our prize titbit: Matcham’s Masterstroke. Written by Mr. Philip Beaufoy, Playgoers Club, London. Payment at the rate of one guinea a column has been made to the writer. Three and a half. Three pounds three. Three pounds, thirteen and six.

Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too   big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada. Life might be so. It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat. Print anything now. Silly season. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell. Neat certainly. Matcham often thinks of the masterstroke by which he won the laughing witch who now. Begins and ends morally. Hand in hand. Smart. He glanced back through what he had read and, while feeling his water flow quietly, he envied kindly Mr. Beaufoy who had written it and received payment of three pounds, thirteen and six.

Might manage a sketch. By Mr and Mrs L.M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb. Which?…….

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the jerky shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.

In the bright light, lightened and cooled in limb, he eyes carefully his black trousers: the ends, the knees, the boughs of the knees. What time is the funeral? Better find out in the paper.

And then — enough dalliance!  On with the day.  As we we should be doing, too.