Friday, December 09, 2005

A couple weeks ago I started Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, being that it's one of the books that I always wanted to read, knew I should read, but hadn't read. It's a big book. I like in-depth books. I'm not adverse to picking up a 1000 page book. If it's well written, the reader becomes lost in the characters' lives, like in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. I have never gained so much pleasure as when I read Proust. I haven't read his entire masterpiece, but I've read four volumes so far. However, Portrait is a different book. It's roughly 850 pages long and divided into two books. I'm halfway through the novel and I don't care for a single character. Not the lady, Isabel Archer, not her cousin Ralph Touchett, not his mother, not Isabel's friend Harriet Stackpole, not Isabel's suitor Mr. Osmond (who I presume she marries,) and certainly not Madame Merle and her passive aggessive sinister ways. Four hundred pages in to the dense novel and the only characters that I've even made a semblance of a connection with are the now dead Mr. Touchett, Ralph's benign father and Lord Warburton who professed his love for Isabel.
James has created vague characters, most who lack any redeeming qualities. Though Isabel may seem to be making her life her own, James somehow portrays her as a child unaware of her beguiling powers. When she is left a large sum of money by her uncle, Mr. Touchett, upon his death, she is to supposed to have the world at her feet, according to James. She can now travel and live as she likes, without a care in the world. True, money can buy such luxouries, but why did James have to make his lead character possess a large sum of money in order to live whatever life she chooses? Maybe I'm placing a modern ideal on a late-Victorian novel, but I don't buy it. Or perhaps James accomplished precisely what he wanted? He painted a portrait of the ideal woman. A woman who is not real. Who has no true emotions, ideas or cares. A woman who does not possess self-knowledge or know her self-worth. He created a 2-D character, not a real woman. She is unlike any woman I've met. And that's not a good thing.

Also reading: The Peabody Sisters by Margaret Mitchell
Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg by Carolyn Cassady

On deck: V by Thomas Pynchon
Old School by Tobias Wolff
The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Every now and then I go through a period when I read books about books or authors writing about other authors. Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris is the perfect book in this genre. Short enough to read in one sitting, but rich enough to make you wish she kept on. Henry Miller wrote a book called The Books in My Life and John Baxter has a new book out titled A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict. I also recommend Alan Cheuse's Listening to the Page: Adventures in Reading and Writing.

My take on books has been insignificant so far, but I've been overwhelmed by literature nonetheless.

I made one of my first attempts to articulate my relationship to books in November of 2002. I wrote it in a dream state so it sounds a little immature.
But here it is anyway.

I live amongst books stacked in bookcases in no specific order anymore. They're piled on top of bookcases barely kept afloat by tiny steel butresses. They lie prostrate on the floor, under the bed, in my closet, on my TV and on top the windowsill. Even entering my room can be a challenge for the less agile. If by some chance you're able to open the door, the entrance is only wide enough so one can squeeze through sideways, holding their breath and sucking in their stomach. The space is tight because my bed rests opposite the door protecting my books from potential intruders.
Oh, it's you. Come in, but quick.
Now slowly...and watch your step.
Don't tramp on Balzac! He's had a tough day. Earlier this morning Dreiser fell on him from the top shelf.
And that's Papa Hemingway you hear. He's leaning against Gogol, going on and on about his near death experience and how Victoria Falls was almost the last thing he ever saw. But what a way to go, right?
But Gogol isn't listening and neither is anyone else. On the third shelf, Flaubert is making eyes at Hart Crane; our Hart is making his way across his short bridge of life, recording everything.
Looking down on all of this is Whitman. Perched half way up the mile high bookcase, his beard nearly reaches the floor and it probably would if it weren't for Emerson's head breaching the clouds. Yet the texture of white on white is truly a sight. O captain my captain, I still sing the body electric.
If you can make your way across the crowded room, stepping over Cicero, Milton, Lucretius and Plath, you make your way down a small row where Dickens stretches out around the arm chair at the end.
Jack London guides you to the closet whose doors are perpetually ajar.
Wait! Don't open that!
Ah, oui, oui monsieur. That's Kerouac. Proust can't understand his Quebecois, but nods saintly all the same as Jean-Louis goes on. Allen tries to quiet him, but at the same time he's smiling and actually delighted.
Here in the closet you'll find Melville and Dosty telling each other stories at the same time in different languages in ascending volume and they seem to always understand one another.
None of this seems to bother the triumvirate of Jean Rhys, Virginia Wolfe and Eudora Welty. They've found something in each other that can only be found in literary heaven.
At night, trying to sleep, I tell you I can hear the larger than life Tar Heel, Thomas Wolfe typing away at all hours. His enoromous North Carolina hands pound at the old Royal as sweat swiftly falls upon each page. Still, it doesn't stop him from ripping off one page after another.
Here in my world of books, my world of bound pages, words flow in the everlasting river of literature where Shelley swims ashore to write once more.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Picture of the Rio Grande from Marfa, Texas
Taken by Robert Creeley
Books vs. Movies?

I was trying to think of why reading and books have had a greater effect on my life than movies. In books, the imagination is able to become the dominant engine. Without a picture to direct us how and what to think we are able to devise our own image, create our own interpretation of people, places and events. My vision of Steinbeck's California coast is different than anyone else's. My interpretation of Balzac's Paris can not be the same as yours. Our experiences shape our view of the world. Where we come from, what we've read, seen or heard all play in integral role in our interpretation of art. We simply imagine things differently. Though films give a character or story great visual and psychological appeal, they don't have the same depth as books.

I've been thinking about this because they're making Kerouac's On the Road into a movie. I want the film to be made. I want to see Walter Salles's interpretation of the iconoclastic novel, but I know it can't match the freshness, rawness and brilliance of Kerouac's seminal work. Salles would have to create an entirely new way of film-making to match Kerouac's innovative writing, to match his language and specific cadence. Even if he comes close, the movie should be entertaining if nothing else. In The Motorcycle Diaries, the film is visually stunning, but Kerouac's novel is indebted to the language and the characters. But Salles's cinematography of the American landscape should add visual context and depth to the film.

The late great poet, Robert Creeley was the first to tell me of Salles's attempt at putting On the Road on film. He was in Marfa, Texas for a conference when he found out. I had been in contact with him while I was writing my thesis and he continually e-mailed me, even when he became ill. When he passed away this spring, we all lost a genius poet and great man.

I should be finishing my book on Rousseau tomorrow and then I'll begin to write about my next book. There isn't much to write about or comment on in the Rousseau book. At least not enough that even I would want to write about.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

All Quiet on the Western Front. That was the book that started my addiction. Since then I've become a word junky. Hooked on the combination of words that create sentences, sentences that create paragraphs, paragraphs strung together to create novels.
I can't explain why I became a word addict, but I started in 7th grade. "Hi. My name's Mike and I have a problem."

"All writers read, but not all readers write."

After giving up on becoming a writer for a living, I've begun to believe in this maxim more and more. A writer I'm not and I know this now. But books, I devour them. At times I've gone through two a week. I know some people read more than that, but for a lot of them they read books for their job as critics, teachers or even as professional readers. I'm none of these. I read waiting for the bus, during lunch, after work, waiting for the train, during dinner (in between bites if I'm eating alone,) while watching T.V., while listening to music, sleeping, whenever. It may seem I have no life to speak of and I may not, but I have Kerouac, Faulkner, Wolfe and Whitman to keep me company.

Currently reading: Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Leo Damrosch
Next up: Character Studies by Mark Singer
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