Tuesday, October 21, 2008

See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell


Agee on Film by James Agee : Screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who also wrote film reviews for The Nation and Time for many, many years. I read his 1949 appreciation of silent comedy, which at the time helped revive nostalgia for the genre even among people who weren’t alive to experience it. Precepting a film history class, Edward Branigan (film scholar!) is much on my mind, and Agee’s article definitely falls under Branigan’s category of “adventure history” (fittingly so), but elsewhere Agee writes otherwise. I also just rewatched The Night of the Hunter, which he scripted. The film owes its incredible beauty to Charles Laughton’s direction, I imagine, but Agee has a fine religious sense and deep feeling for the plight of “little lambs” (children). Agee is also included in a recent anthology of film critics that I have checked out (including Manny Farber, Otis Ferguson, Edmund Wilson and others) and hope to get to soon.

The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek : Haven’t gotten to the story (“Pet Milk”) that is apparently much loved in creative writing programs across barren and manly America, but the first story, “Farwell,” is brief and soothing. The collection has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, my fave.

Other recent reads:

Narrative of Sojourner Truth :
Elusive narrative, dictated to white abolitionist Olive Gilbert. The insufficiency of the written word is more upfront than in any slave narrative read thus far. But I had to present on all that in class today…

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by Ishmael Reed : A Western parody, smarter than (perhaps) but not as funny as Blazing Saddles. The Loop Garoo Kid is a black traveling circus performer who steals a green horse and begins a voodoo reign of terror on the town of Yellow Back Radio, in revenge for the white man’s land-grubbing. All of American history occupies the same Western landscape. Some of it is very funny, some of it brilliantly explodes conventions, some of it is simply pornographic, and all of it was very clearly written in 1969.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell : Marlon James asked us toward the beginning of the semester to name the single book that made us start writing (his was Shame by Salman Rushdie). I didn’t have a good answer at the time (not that I haven’t read a heck lot of inspiring stuff), but now I’ve just read the book that may become my definitive answer. It’s not because of anything to do with the story (though it’s a great story), but because Maxwell, in his digressions and his indifference to consistency of point-of-view especially, validates the disjointed (but not incoherent) way that I like to write. It’s a book that I can let inspire me without feeling that I’m imitating it. Maxwell is another guy beloved in creative writing departments (along with the aforementioned “Pet Milk,” Revolutionary Road, etc.): a friend in the department lent it to me, and my independent project advisor says it’s one of his favorites. But the book is not all writerly tricks; as for the story, there’s a bit with a dog that will reopen all the old wounds you’ve ever experienced after losing a pet—not cathartic necessarily, but not a meaningless sadness either.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008



Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster : It’s my secret shame, now public, that this is the first Forster I’ve ever read (save for a proto-sci-fi story I read a couple years back). Forster was no fan of criticism of the arts, and this series of lectures was considered fairly lightweight in its day, though the book has quite a reputation today. This is essentially a popular novelist of 80 years ago telling what he has learned about the novel, never pretending that the creative process and the critical process have anything to do with each other.

Other recent reads:

The Life and Adventures of Nat Love : I just turned in a lengthy paper about this book and Douglass’s autobiography, so there isn’t much more I want to say about them. There’s one great passage that I wasn’t able to include, however, because it’s not the sort of passage that one includes in a literary analysis paper. Nat Love writes about his encounters with Billie the Kid, and this part nearly made me cry, for God knows what reason:

The “Kid” showed me the little log cabin where he said he was born. I went in the cabin with him, and he showed me how it was arranged when he lived there, showing me where the bed sat and the stove and table. He then pointed out the old postoffice which he said he had been in lots of times.

Passages like this—individuals moving through the world and losing things—make me wonder if a literature class can teach me anything, since these are the sorts of moments I seek out, and they can’t be experienced or explained in an academic setting. I guess reading will always have to be a solitary act and an end in itself. This is a sad book in a lot of ways, wild and free though Nat Love may be.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass : “Canonical” isn’t really a qualitative term, but I think it appropriately describes how crucial this book is. Just read it. It doesn’t take long.

The Street of Crocodiles
is in the end a great collection. I shouldn’t have summarized its contents too soon, because it contains many surprises, and the recollected child is usually only implicit and doesn’t limit Schulz’s subject matter. Much of this book is light years beyond my comprehension, but always gently delivered and never so dense with allusion like Rilke that it becomes unmanageable. A particular favorite (so many to choose from!) is the “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies,” which is to say, a treatise on the nature and manipulation of matter, so deftly handled that a slight action at the end, “Pauline yawned and stretched herself,” is very sexy.

One more thing:

This is not a movie blog, and I don’t intend to make it one, but I’ve seen some great ones recently after a long dry spell, so I thought I would share. I rewatched Notorious, perhaps the dreamiest movie Hollywood ever produced, but also one full of passion and violence. Bergman and Grant seem very solid up against each other. In its approach towards conventions of espionage, it is in certain ways the opposite of North by Northwest. That film works itself into a frenzy over its manic plot machinations. This one is disgusted by its own lurid details, until the business with the wine, when Hitchcock gets caught up in the excitement and the violins start to work double time. “It isn’t fun,” says Ingrid. It isn’t, but it is. And the characters speak so very quietly! And the cameraman is obsessed with the contours of the back of Cary Grant’s head! And the Freudian mother belongs in a different movie.

The following night, Last Year at Marienbad played at Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis, and while no sense of romance is intended, its lead actors could have stood to be replaced with Bergman and Grant, who at the very least could create some meaning out of those long meaningful glances. That said, the new print was (here’s the cinephile coming out) magnificent. A film with such an insane-making score can only ever be admired, and I did admire it. Movies like this don’t make a splash anymore, and that made me briefly nostalgic for the 60s, which I never experienced.

Finally, Lilya 4-ever is an extraordinary movie, the best I’ve seen in ages. Naturalism is usually an excuse for laziness and hyper-editing in movies today (or maybe that’s something different, a commercial mutation of naturalism that makes me want to puke). But here, in a movie with a rare first person point of view (more or less), it is, how shall we say…natural. I knew I was in the grip of something great at the moment that Lilya rushes outside and begs her mother not to leave. It is the most insane outpouring of emotion ever seen in a movie, and I can’t imagine the amount of energy it required of its young actress. I am obsessed with sad teenagers. I guess that trivializes the traumas Lilya experiences, but it’s why I love the new M83 album, and the band My Favorite, and director Moodyson indulges in that sort of thing with the title of his movie. Lilya and Volodja—the ghosts of dead teenagers!