Thursday, April 28, 2011

Featured Passage, Mrs. Bridge

This may not be Connell's most powerful passage, but I couldn't resist.  From Chapter 61 "Parking":

 "The elegant Lincoln her husband had given her for her birthday was altogether too long, and she drove it as prudently as she might have driven a locomotive.  People were always sounding their horns at her, or turning their heads to stare when she coasted by.  Because the Lincoln had been set to idle too slowly, the engine frequently died when she pulled up at an intersection, but as her husband never used the Lincoln and she herself assumed it was just one of those things about automobiles, the idling speed was never adjusted.  Often she would delay a line of cars while she pressed the starter button either too long or not long enough.  Knowing she was not expert she was always quite apologetic when something unfortunate happened, and did her best to keep out of everyone's way.  She shifted into second gear at the beginning of every hill and let herself down the far side much more slowly than necessary.
The Lincoln's cushions were so soft and Mrs. Bridge so short that she was obliged to sit erect in order to see whatever was going on ahead of her.  She drove with arms thrust forward and gloved hands firmly on the wheel, her feet just able to depress the pedals.  She never had serious accidents, but was often seen here and there being talked to by patrolmen.  These patrolmen never did anything, partly because they saw immediately that it would not do to arrest her, and partly because they could tell she was trying to do everything the way it should be done."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Perplexing Mrs. Bridge

My graduate writing professors Alan Cheuse and Susan Shreve first made me aware of Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell.  In fact, they recommended it so highly, I bought a copy that loitered on my bookshelf from 2008 until two weeks ago when I finally decided it was time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Featured Text, A Poem by George Matheson

It is not news that our society likes to erase death.  Erasures are everywhere, down to our very wedding vows that shy from saying “til death do us part.”

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me that she’d learned a mechanism for coping with death: every morning upon awaking, she was supposed to remind herself that she would die and that that was okay.  I nodded thoughtfully at her, but it almost immediately occurred to me that this was not a revolutionary technique and that, in fact, I had been doing this week in and week out since I was old enough to profess Christian faith.

One of the great benefits of church-going is that we regularly think about death—famous Biblical deaths (foremost among them Christ’s own), the deaths of those who have gone before, and, valuably, our own.  We proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again; we equally proclaim our own.  And it is more than just okay—it is with the promise of ultimate fulfillment that we die.

I certainly don’t claim to speak for all Christian churches, but in my experience of mainstream denominational worship, I can say that this proclaiming of our own deaths occurs most frequently in the hymns we sing.  To be sure, scripture provides the fundamental understanding of death, but it is the hymns that allow us to actively affirm it week in and week out.

Today is Maundy Thursday.  Technically, we are celebrating the last supper and Christ’s commandment (maundatum=command) that we love one another as he has loved us.  But beautiful as this commandment is, our celebration has a somber tone, for we know what lies ahead on Good Friday.  Our hymns in the next couple of days turn specifically to Christ’s death: “O sacred head now wounded”; “Alas and did my savior bleed”; “Ah, Holy Jesus.” 

But lately I’ve been haunted by a specific erasure that, to my mind, is absolutely pertinent to Holy Week.  The hymn “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” no longer appears in the most recent edition of the Lutheran hymnal, though it was there as recently as the previous edition (the green hymnal, for those of you Lutherans).  As you’ll see, it not only offers a profound vision of our own deaths, but it is, in fact, a poem with its own literary integrity.  Watch for the penultimate line of the hymn where the choice of “red” comes as an absolutely perfect—and breathtaking—image.  Enjoy!

O Love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
That in thine ocean’s depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way
I yield me flick’ring torch to thee
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain
I cannot close my heart to thee
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head
I dare not ask to fly from thee
I lay in dust life’s glory dead
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Men with Mirrors: The Problem of Emphasis

When I mentioned to an acquaintance of mine that I was reading Madame Bovary, he immediately raised eyebrows, accusing it of being a racy book.  Come to find out, he hadn’t read the book; neither was he basing his impression on the famous obscenity trial of 1857, but instead on a movie version he had seen years ago.  If you’ve read Madame Bovary, you’ll see (as many of Flaubert’s contemporaries failed to see) that sex is beside the point; instead, it’s a tool—among others more outstanding—that Flaubert uses to make a thematic point.  Many point to ennui as a great theme in Madame Bovary.  You might also take away thematic ideas on the danger of allowing disillusion to take over when life fails to live up to a person’s ideal vision of it.  You can see how these themes are far richer and far more needing illumination than mere sex.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Featured Passage, Madame Bovary

Flaubert's writing is beautiful, to say the least, but this week's featured passage was an easy choice.

"Emma was like all his mistresses; and the charm of novelty gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, that has always the same forms and the same language.  He did not distinguish, this man of so much experience, the difference of sentiment beneath the sameness of expression.  Because lips libertine and venal had murmured such words to him, he believed but little in the candor of hers; exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fulness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Crafty Flaubert: Reflections on Madame Bovary

“Generally,” writes Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction, “a novelist retains his liberty to draw upon any of his resources as he chooses, now this one and now that, using drama where drama gives him all he needs, using pictorial description where the turn of the story demands it.”  Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, from a craft perspective, is a study in how to expertly use these two methods and expertly shift between them.

It is more than that, of course.  For one, it is a quiet, wry satire in which Flaubert pulls off commenting on characters who nonetheless have a certain dignity.  He strikes this balance by making the blame for foolishness lie not on the character herself, but on her circumstances and surroundings.  Emma doesn’t choose to build the lofty, sentimental, and romantic thoughts that will ultimately be her downfall, but the books she reads during her convent education are placed in her hands without any guidance as to how to balance the real and the ideal.  The book is also a vividly painted portrait of provincial life—a picture so life-like that descriptions never feel laborious.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Featured Passage, The Cookbook Collector

As I said in Tueday's post, Goodman's The Cookbook Collector is primarily character driven.  So today, I thought I might feature a passage that describes my favorite character from the book, George.  Enjoy!

"He was attractive and he knew it, but he pretended he had no idea.  Therefore he was both vain and disingenuous.  Tall, or so he seemed to Jess, he looked Italian with his dark skin and dark eyes.  Very old--again, from Jess's point of view--where anyone past thirty harked back to another era altogether.  Despite his years, George had a powerful body, a broad chest, a face of light and shade, a glint of humor even in his frown.  When he wasn't lobbing his sarcastic comments, he seemed scholarly and peaceful, like a Renaissance St. Jerome at work in his cave of books.  All he needed was a skull on his desk and a lion at his sandaled feet.  He wore T-shirts, jeans, rimless reading glasses, sometimes tweed jackets.  He had the deep didactic voice of a man who had smoked for years and then suddenly quit and now hated smokers everywhere.  He never watched television, and he never tired of telling people so.  But the most pretentious thing about him was his long hair.  With his chestnut locks threaded gray, he was a fly caught in amber, the product and exemplar of a lost world."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Contemporary Contemplations: Reflections on The Cookbook Collector

You know those “I’d rather be ___” bumper stickers, like I’d rather be fishing, or I’d rather be driving a golf ball?  Mine would say, “I’d rather be reading a 19th century work.” 

This is not to say that I wish I’d lived then or that I ever plan to write historical fiction (actually, I agree with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh that I do distrust an author who cannot see the nobleness in his own time and therefore must turn to other eras for material).  But insofar as reading goes, I have to make myself take a break from the 19th century to keep abreast of contemporary literature.  For me, reading contemporary lit. is like having lunch with a friendly acquaintance but an acquaintance with whom I know I will never quite share the perfect naturalness of a best friend.

Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector proved one such reading experience.