"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Art of Patience–Faulkner, Tolstoy, and Joyce

I could never have read War and Peace; Absalom, Absalom!, or Ulysses when I was young.  In fact I tried, but gave up after twenty-five pages.  The patronymics were impossible, the sheer length daunting, the stream of consciousness maddening, and the non-linear stories confusing.  Why didn’t these authors simply tell a story like Dickens, Dreiser, or Somerset Maugham – stories that followed a character from beginning to end like Pip and Clyde?

Maugham’s short stories are engaging from the first paragraph.  They capture ambience and, character; initiate the plot, set the tone, and establish a rhythm and pace from the very beginning.  The reader immediately and always wants to know more. He cares less about what happens to the character in terms of psychological evolution and moral development and more about what is in the book bag, who is Red, why is he on the deserted island, and where the tramp steamer setting off from Penang will berth.  Maugham knows his subject and his format and is able to tell a rip-roaring tale of adventure and tropical mystery in ten pages or less.

Chekhov’s short stories are more complex, and in the same few pages is able to address his familiar theme of death and dying, the nature of history, and the importance of love. The reader is less anxious to find out what happens to the characters and more interested to see how they evolve, react to social pressure and economic hardship, and resolve conflicts or anxieties.  Chekhov is considered the better master of the genre because he not only tells a story but relates it from within and without.  The character’s internal reflections and soliloquies are as important as his actions.

Tolstoy wrote very few short stories, but his best were written at the end of his career, and they are dramatic summaries of the themes that he touched on in his novels. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a powerful, chilling account of a man who has constructed his life to that there are no surprises.  He is deliberately bourgeois, predictable, and conservative.  He avoids conflict and risk.  Compromise is his modus operandi and he understands how and when to concede – not for economic or political advantage, but to preserve the harmony he has so carefully constructed.

This perfect world of order and discipline begins to collapse when he falls ill; and as the terminal disease progresses, he begins to reflect on the life he has led.  Was he not good enough or prayerful?  Why was intelligence, insight, creativity, and passion being deprived of him?  Was life only a short span between nothing and nothingness? Why was such a sentient being as Man consigned to the cold, hard earth as his reward?

Ivan Ilyich is more a novella or short novel than a short story, but it still is a good example of the genre that Chekhov and Maugham mastered.  You do not want to know what happens to Ivan Ilyich from the very first, but you are curious, then quickly drawn in.

War and Peace has a bad reputation.  At 1500 pages of small print, enough characters to require an alphabetical, annotated reference, complex passages of military strategy and the philosophy of history, interlinked families with love affairs going and coming between them, scenes set in Moscow and Petersburg and on the battle fields of Russia and Europe, there is no wonder that few readers even give it a try.

The novel, however, is as intriguing, compelling, and dramatic as any.  It is one of the most accomplished, brilliant novels ever written because it tells a story, relates history, explores character, and reflects on meaning.  Although Tolstoy is deliberate in his exposition of character, eventually we get to know Andrei, Pierre, Ellen, Marya, Boris, Nikolay, Natasha, Kuznetsov, and even Napoleon.  We follow them in war and peace, in battle, love, and  social whirls.  After a hundred pages we forget that that we have just begun; and after seven-hundred do not want the story to end.

War and Peace is not a difficult book, and after a while the patronymics become part of the character.  The story itself, while shifting from character to character is never perplexing.  Tolstoy does not tell five separate stories, but five intimately inter-connected ones.

What is required for War and Peace is patience and time.  Fewer and fewer readers pick up the book because it simply takes so long to read, and while it can be put aside, it demands continuity.  It is easy to lose one’s place in the increasingly complex story.  Each of the characters change, mature, and evolve over time.  Pierre is perhaps the best example, for in his search for meaning, he must make sense of his new-found fortune, deal with his venal and deceitful wife, go to war, form friendships and family loyalties.  It is not good to leave Pierre for too long.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, written a number of years before War and Peace is a potboiler; and except for Levin who is in many ways the precursor of Pierre and Ivan Ilyich, a reflective, philosophical man trying to make his way in a changing Russia, the story steams along with love affairs, passions, family feuds, social exiles, restitution, and romantic finality.  Despite its length (much shorter than War and Peace but still well over 700 pages), it requires little patience.  Tolstoy has not yet decided to create the intricate design of his later work.

Those readers who have read Faulkner have different ways of dealing with his disturbing literary techniques.  Some do not try to make complete sense out of the shifting landscape, and just let the words and sentences flow until the story finally makes sense.  Then they go back to the beginning and start over. Others read it like a text and reread difficult passages to fix character and essentials of plot before clues are lost.

Faulkner requires patience, but not the kind required while reading Tolstoy.  The reader must be committed to the story and willing to work through it. When stream of consciousness, a non-linear narrative, and stories told from many different perspectives combine, some deliberate technique for understanding is required.  You cannot simply pick up The Sound and the Fury and read it from cover to cover.

Absalom, Absalom! can be compared to Tolstoy because of its panorama of history, class, character, and involved plot; and Joyce because of its stream of consciousness.  The long interior monologue of Miss Coldfield in the first pages of the book tell the entire story of the Sutpen’s, but in as evocative prose as has ever been written:

Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish. There would be the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and oversweet with the twice-bloomed wistaria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of the sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity while the wan haggard face watched him above the faint triangle of lace at wrists and throat from the too tall chair in which she resembled a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house. Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect with his air grim, haggard, and taller-ran. Immobile, bearded, and hand palm lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest. Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm immobile and pontific, creating the Sutpen's Hundred, the Be Sutpen's Hundred like the oldentime Be Light.

In many ways Ulysses is the easiest of the great novels to understand, and the particular challenge requiring patience is the mundaneness of the reflections of Bloom and Molly.  These are not heroic or tragic characters like Thomas Sutpen or Andrei Bolkonsky.  They are not shuttling between the salons and courts of Moscow and Petersburg, nor clearing a hundred square miles of swamps and cypress to build ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’.  They are ordinary, and although Molly’s long soliloquy is a masterpiece of complexity, it is a contained and limited one.  Bloom, too, navigates a far simpler universe than that of the Russians:

Mr Bloom, without evincing surprise, unostentatiously turned over the card to peruse the partially obliterated address and postmark. It ran as follows: Tarjeta Postal, Señor A Boudin, Galeria Becche, Santiago, Chile. There was no message evidently, as he took particular notice. Though not an implicit believer in the lurid story narrated (or the eggsniping transaction for that matter despite William Tell and the Lazarillo-Don Cesar de Bazan incident depicted in Maritana on which occasion the former's ball passed through the latter's hat) having detected a discrepancy between his name (assuming he was the person he represented himself to be and not sailing under false colours after having boxed the compass on the strict q.t. somewhere) and the fictitious addressee of the missive which made him nourish some suspicions of our friend's bona fides nevertheless it reminded him in a way of a longcherished plan he meant to one day realise some Wednesday or Saturday of travelling to London via long sea not to say that he had ever travelled extensively to any great extent but he was at heart a born adventurer though by a trick of fate he had consistently remained a landlubber except you call going to Holyhead which was his longest. Martin Cunningham frequently said he would work a pass through Egan but some deuced hitch or other eternally cropped up with the net result that the scheme fell through. But even suppose it did come to planking down the needful and breaking Boyd's heart it was not so dear, purse permitting, a few guineas at the outside considering the fare to Mullingar where he figured on going was five and six, there and back.

Ulysses is read for Joyce’s language, and the only way to read it is to hear it read or to read it out loud, listening to the prose non-prose poetry, internal memoir, daily routine not-routine of the life of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly.

In the last four years I returned to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Joyce not only because I now have patience and time, but because I had not found any of the answers asked by Levin, Pierre, Ivan Ilyich, and Andrei Bolkonsky and answered by Tolstoy. Nor had my travel and the study of history, ethnography, philosophy, and evolutionary biology provided the clues to the reasons behind the repetitive and ineluctable cycles of history as Shakespeare did in his Histories. I had spent ten years in the Deep South exploring culture, race, class, and geography; but no one but Faulkner explained the intricacies and subtleties of the South as well as Faulkner.

Shakespeare saw what the critic Jan Kott has described as The Grand Mechanism – the machine of history that churns out predictable tales of ambition, succession, aggression, self-interest, and enterprise because of the immutable human nature which fuels it. 

But Tolstoy addressed an equally fundamental issue in War and Peace. If history cannot be explained by ‘The Great Man’ theory, and every action of the great and low alike are influenced by a chain of events extending to pre-history, which is more important in current events – Napoleon or the will of the masses.  Tolstoy is as deterministic as Shakespeare, but allows for personal and very human dynamics in the equation.

Nothing surprises me anymore – or certainly very little – and no matter who does what to whom, what atrocities occur, or what venality and greed surface, I do not react.  Of course these events happened.  How could they not have?  No scholarly treatise or political commentary is necessary.  Only Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Joyce provide the additional and far more fundamental answers that I have been looking for.  If they can’t help me address the age-old conundrum “Too soon old, too late schmart” nobody can.

So I have plenty of patience, and now that I have finished War and Peace, I can’t wait to read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Pushkin.

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