Monday, November 15, 2010

If you were expecting a poem of the week you can go sit on a Pnin!

As I'm sure you've already heard by now from several friends and the news media, I failed to post a poem of the week this week. I've decided that instead of trying to play catch-up I'd build up my poetry power for next week. Besides I have a great novel I want to talk about, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin.

You might know Nabakov for his supposedly scandalous masterpiece Lolita. Believe it or not, he actually wrote lots of other books in both Russian and English, and of them, very few are about grown men falling in love with young girls! A perfect example of one of these novels totally unrelated to awkward romances is Pnin.

The novel tells the life story of Timofey Pnin in fragments, some from his youth in Russia, but most from his adult life as a University professor of Russian literature in the United States. Nabakov's initial description of Pnin and his interactions with his surroundings portray him as a bumbling buffoon, lost in the English language and just about everything else. This is how he's described on the first page of the book,

"Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappoingtingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail looking, almost feminine feet."

Nabakov, famous for his spectacular prose style, effectively shows the reader Pnin as the majority of the characters in the book see him - as a clown. At this point in the book I began to worry if I was merely reading a 200 page demonstration of how clever Nabakov can be with words, like listening to a bewildering guitar solo only to realize it existed independent of any song to anchor it down. I quickly realized, however, that I wasn't a cleverer reader than Nabakov is a writer.

Without abandoning the sardonic tone, Nabakov somehow begins to portray Pnin as a type of tragic hero. Behind the broken English is a man who's knowledge of literature -Russian, French, and English literature - is exhaustive. Underneath all the strange mannerisms and obsessed devotion to social formalities is a loving husband, step-father, and teacher despite his affection seldom coming back to him. By the end of the novel Pnin has evolved from a teacher who knows everything about Anna Karenina but seems to know little else, to a man who loves the beauty of the world around him in both people and objects so deeply that he wishes only to study and admire it without having to become a part of it. Unfortunately, he lives in a world where admiration isn't enough to survive on.

When I realized who Pnin really was I couldn't help but pity and admire him at the same time. I think this excerpt from the letter Pnin wrote to propose to his wife who later left him three times (you'll have to read the book to figure that one out) is one of the most telling passages in the novel of who Pnin is:

"I am not handsome, I am not interesting, I am not talented. I am not even rich. But, Lise, I offer you everything I have, to the last blood corpuscle, to the last tear, everything. And, believe me, this is more than any genius can offer you because a genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do. I may not achieve happiness, but I know I shall do everything to make you happy."

Well, as usual, this post has gotten way out of hand and is longer than I intended, but I can't finish without talking about how amazing Nabakov's prose is. Or maybe it would be best if I put my favorite example of his writing from Pnin and let you write your own inner-body blog post about how great it is. This is a memory Pnin has of a childhood friend that occurs to him when he is at a gathering of Russian friends in America (it's long but it's worth it!):
P.S.: Notice how the tone struggles to remain formal despite the highly emotional content of the memory. The tone becomes a symbol of Pnin's whole character! Amazing!

"Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin - not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind, but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira's death were possible. One had to forget - because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of death in one's mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood."

That counts as the poem of the week.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Contest Winner!! Next time it could be you!

Hey citizens of the blog-0-sphere! This is Alexis Lopez, she's the first every What's Parker Reading Contest winner. She won a beautiful copy of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. If you're wondering why you didn't win it or why you didn't even know about the contest, it's probably because you haven't been reading the blog faithfully enough! Luckily this isn't the last contest you can enter. Keep your eyes open for more secret opportunities to win great literature!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A hearty poem of the week by Thomas Hardy...There's gotta be a better Thomas Hardy pun....

During Wind and Rain by Thomas Hardy

They sing their dearest songs-
He, she, all of them - yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face...
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss-
Elders and juniors - aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat...
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!
They are blithely breakfasting all-
Men and maidens - yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee...
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them - aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs...
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

In my search for a poem of the week I though it would be fun to have a love poem. Unfortunately there seem to be a lot more quality in death poems than in love poems, especially if you're looking for a poem of the week from Thomas Hardy. But don't worry! Good love poems do exist, and I'll find one for next week.

This morose little poem was published in Hardy's last volume of poetry when he was in his 80s. If you're familiar with Hardy you know he can be a pretty bleak dude whether in novels or poetry, but in his last volume of poetry he seems to have come to terms life long pessimism. However, he was the one who set these terms and they still come off pretty gloomy.

In this poem Hardy begins each stanza with a happy domestic scene like a family singing, or moving into a new house and then introduces Time to destroy whatever harmony the poem is trying to create. The structure of the poem lends itself well to the theme. The beginning of the stanzas is written in a song-like rhythm until "Ah, no;" the rhythm is broken and the long last line, loaded with a string of sharp syllables portrays Time's decay. Just as the devastating passing of Time seems to catch us off guard and only slows when we stop to consider the damage it's done, the last lines of each stanza come as a surprise.

But Hardy isn't just trying to bring everybody down. Believe it or not, the of inevitability of death isn't the only lesson the poem is trying to teach. There seems to be a correlation between what activity the family is engaged in, and the type of destruction time inflicts in each stanza. If they're singing as a family, sick leaves fall of the trees; that's not really so bad if you think about it, after all, the leaves will grow back in spring.

In each of the first three stanzas the family is finding joy in each other or in nature. Although time still arrives to crash the party, its damages are temporary: falling leaves, a storm, or a decaying rose. It's not until the family seeks joy in a new house with fancy carpet and clocks - "bright thing that are theirs" - that time takes its darkest toll.

In reminding us of that our deaths are inescapable, Hardy is not trying to cheapen life. Only when material possessions and status become the source of all joy do we become nothing more than a decaying name on a tombstone. Or as Hardy puts it in his cutting last line: "Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs."

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnamble: The best trilogy since the Anaconda movies!


This is a shot from Samuel Beckett's famous play Waiting for Godot. If you've never seen the play and can't tell from the picture, its a very bizarre. The whole thing takes place in front of that scraggly tree and consists of only four characters who each seem to be copied and pasted out of completely different plays. Because Waiting for Godot was my introduction to Beckett, I thought it would be a good way to introduce Beckett's trilogy Molly, Malone Dies, and the Unnamable; plus it was a great opportunity for a photo to be on my blog for the first time ever!

I'm sort of at a loss on where to start with these books. I can't really talk about plot, setting or characters because Beckett went to great lengths to make sure none of those things made it into any of these books. Well I guess that's not completely true, there are characters they just change names several times and sometimes become objects instead of people - unless people are really just objects in which case I suppose there are lots of characters in the books. In fact you could say there is setting too, if the the inner-mind of a armless, legless man sitting in a garbage can is a setting. There's actually plenty of plot to be spoken for as well, for instance in Malone Dies there seems to be someone dying, and someone is definitely looking for something in Molloy...

If I sound conflicted about this trilogy it's because I absolutely am. In these three books Beckett seeks to define the human condition in a way I've never before experienced in literature. In each book Beckett jettisons every literary convention (plot, character, time, setting) to see if maybe, hiding beneath one of them is the solution to the absurdity of existence.

He starts with Molloy, a man who says he is trying to find his way back to his mother's house but seems much more interested in discovering an effective method to suck on rocks, a dilemma he discusses for five straight pages. Next comes Moran, a detective assigned to find Molloy. Moron, however, eventually gets lost on his way to the job and becomes obsessed with establishing an abusive relationship with his son. Malone, in the second book of the series, is a dying man in a bed with only a notebook and a pencil to his name. His quest is to make a list of all his possessions before he dies which leads him into a deep scouring of his twisted brain. Finally, in The Unnamable, we have no names except the few the narrator arbitrarily decides to call himself only to abandon a few pages later. Whoever this narrator is has no arms or legs, can't talk or hear, and is sitting in some type of garbage can outside a chinese restaurant.

By the time The Unnamable begins the only remaining point of reference for the reader is that the words are still in English. Beckett's prose throughout the series resembles the structure of thought more and more until, in The Unnamable, even punctuation is largely abandoned. Throughout the trilogy, Beckett abuses and exhausts language as if it were a butter knife he's trying to use to hammer nails.

In the end, after Beckett has turned the novel-form upside down and inside out, the search for meaning proves inconclusive. Language still fails to communicate pure meaning. Pure meaning still doesn't seem to exist. I think Beckett is the only author I know of, however, who comes to this conclusion and makes it feel hopeful. The book seems to say, even if life's greatest dilemmas are no more meaningful than sucking on stones, at least there are plenty of stones to suck, and that is more than enough to justify existence, or as the last lines of The Unnamable read:
"I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."
*****
So I realize that blog post was really long and might not have made lots of sense, but since you read all the way through you get a surprise! If you are the first person to make a comment after this post goes up, you win a free copy of Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man! Can you believe that?! That book is awesome and you get if for free! The comment doesn't have to be anything meaningful, just say, "I want my free book!" or something.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New Poem of the Week that is three days late but still pretty good if you give it a chance!

Letter to N.Y. By Elizabeth Bishop

In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you're in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

-Wheat, not oats, dear. I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

Thanks everyone who commented on last week's post, all your first sentences were truly the most (notice the rhyme there?)

So to make up for being such a bad blogger, I picked one of my favorite poets for this week’s poem of the week. Although this poem isn’t really a typical example of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, what I consider to be her strongest qualities are definitely at work here.

What first catches my attention in Letter to N.Y. is the persona of the narrator, a mother writing to her daughter who is shockingly candid about what she means when she asks “where you are going and what you are doing.” She seems to have no misconceptions about what her daughter is really up to while away from home. “How are the plays,” she asks. “and after the plays what other pleasures are you pursuing.” Clearly the mother is not na├»vely asking for details of her daughter’s successes in the big city to share with the aunts and uncles at Thanksgiving.

As the letter goes on, the mother’s understanding of what life is like for an outsider in New York becomes even more penetrating. As she speculates about her daughter’s alienation, the language becomes characteristic of Bishop. With similes like the cab meter glaring like a moral owl in late night drives, and jokes as difficult to understand as dirty words rubbed off a slate, Bishop does more than convey these objects visually; she conveys them emotionally. We not only picture the glowing cab meter, we feel the sensation of watching the numbers on it spin with tired eyes returning home from a party.

The most stunningly effective image of the poem however is the morning sun on the buildings:

“and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.”

The poem shifts here from depicting a young woman seeking refuge from the dark, alien world of the city to describing the awe a person feels in a world of skyscrapers. The hurried tone of the descriptions of the alienation of nightlife in New York slows down and almost feels rural. Although the image of these buildings as a field of wheat is beautiful and majestic instead of intimidating like the cab meter or the trees in the park, it only further demonstrates the newcomer’s foreignness in the city. After all, like the mother says, “if it’s wheat it’s none of your sowing.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Top 7 First Sentences of All Time!

A few days ago I was perusing around in the bookstore, pretending -- quite convincingly in my opinion -- that there was no such thing as homework and that I actually needed a novel to read. I did such a good job convincing myself of this that I made the mistake of picking up Orhan Pamuk's "My Name Is Red." This is the first sentence of that book:
"I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well."

I say picking up the book was a mistake because after reading that sentence could I do anything by buy and read it? Of course not.
This experience got me thinking about how seductive first sentences can be. I started remembering various first sentences that also pulled me from other responsibilities like homework and into a novel.
I heard once that the best way to sell magazines is to make a top ten list. Because I couldn't think of that many, this is my top 7 list of what I consider to be some of the best first sentences, or first few sentences I've ever come across. Hopefully you'll still read them even though there are only seven. Obviously this list is far from authoritative or comprehensive so please post some of your favorite first sentences as well!

Let the count down begin!

7. Beloved by Toni Morrison

"124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children."

This is a perfect way to start Morrison's haunting masterpiece. The short, shocking sentences leave you no time to recover before the next one assaults you. These three sentences are a primer to allow the rest of the novel to unfold as emotionally wrenching and beautiful all at once.

6. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

"See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves."

"Blood Meridian" was my first encounter with Cormac McCarthy. As soon as I read those bizarre first sentences I knew everything I heard about McCarthy's unbelievable skill as an author was true. The tone of the novel, as with these sentences, keeps the reader at a far distance from the characters of the novel but doesn't spare him/her the grizzly details of the horrible things that happen to them.

5. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Could you ever find a better sentence to sum up Holden Caulfield than this opening sentence? That's a rhetorical question because it's been a long time since I read the book and there could be several. But still! Right away Salinger introduces you to Holden's exhausting cynicism, harsh wit, and pitiful self-denial in one sentence. Although this sentence in the context of a conversation would immediately drive me away from the speaker, as the first sentence of a novel its irresistibly endearing.

4. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind."

This first time I read these sentences, I had a similar experience as with "My Name Is Red." Although I was in the middle of finals, I couldn't help but read on. In these powerful words Ellison at once establishes one of the most memorable characters of American literature and speaks for all the millions of people oppressed in 1952 when the book was published. I've never experienced the kind of hatred inflicted on blacks in the 50s and I doubt that I'll ever be able to understand it. But if I've ever come close to such an understanding, it was while reading "The Invisible Man."

3. Hunger by Knut Hamsun

"All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania - that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him."

If you've never heard of "Hunger," I highly, highly, highly, highly recommend checking it out. This unsettling opening to the book introduces one of the most frustrating characters I've ever read about. The book is a harbinger to the works of Kafka, Sartre, and Camus and in my opinion surpasses them in many ways. The candid voice of the narrator expressed in this sentence lasts the whole novel and endures homelessness, an mortally serious case of writer's block, and, of course, starvation.

2. The Stranger by Albert Camus

"Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday."

The Stranger is one of my favorite books, and I wish I could read it at least once a month. Because time is short, however, I often settle for just these amazing first few sentences. The narrator's awkward disregard for the death of his mother seems so foreign at the beginning, but by the end of the book Camus has the reader thinking with the same cold, detached logic.

1. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect."

This simple statement, in my opinion, is the best first sentence of all time. In 17 words Kafka has pulled the reader into his bizarre universe where nothing could be more commonplace than waking up as a huge beetle. The sentence is both funny and macabre and despite its absurdity seems to make total sense.

Well we made it! Like I said, I'm sure there are lots of other great first sentences and it's your job to point them out! Post them up!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Poem of the Week! Birthday Edition!

In Memory of a Spanish Poet by James Wright
Take leave of the sun, and of the wheat, for me.
-Miguel Hernandez, Written in prison, 1942

I see you strangling
Under the black ripples of whitewashed walls.
Your hands turn yellow in the ruins of the sun.
I dream of your slow voice, flying,
Planting the dark waters of the spirit
With lutes and seeds.

Here, in the American Midwest,
Those seeds fly out of the field and across the strange heaven of
my skull.
They scatter out of their wings a quiet farewell,
A greeting to my country.

Now twilight gathers,
A long sundown.
Silos creep away toward the west.

This poem was the obvious choice for the poem of the week first of all because it came from a book of poetry my dad gave me as a birthday present (for those of you who aren't in the fanclub, today is my birthday.) But even if my birthday wasn't today, this fits perfectly because for some reason Spanish Communism has been a hot topic throughout the week.

If this poem doesn't scream "Spanish communism" at you, let me fill in a quick history of it (the poem, not spanish communism.) First of all some background on James Wright: he was born and lived most his life in Ohio and started writing highly formal poetry in the 50s. Eventually he and a few other poets decided American poetry had become too impersonal and waaay too boring. They found a solution in borrowing the styles of Spanish poets like Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Miguel Hernandez, who he quotes at the beginning of his poem.

The influence of these poets definitely shines in this poem. His deeply descriptive, if somewhat unearthly, images like the "black ripples of the whitewashed walls" and "planting the dark waters of the spirit with lutes and seeds" are clearly a homage to similar descriptions Lorca uses in his book "Poet in New York."

Despite the similarities in style, however, there is a huge difference between Wright and his homies and the Spanish poets they looked up to -- Spanish Communism! I told you I'd tie it in! Pablo Neruda was exiled from Chile for having communist sympathies, Federico Garcia Lorca was killed by a Spanish firing squad for the same reason, and Miguel Hernandez spent several years and eventually died in prison for opposing Spanish fascism. The quote at the beginning of the poem, in fact, comes from Hernandez's last line of poetry that he carved into the prison wall before dying of tuberculosis. These obviously aren't the experiences you'd have living in rural Ohio.

What I love about Wright's poem is how he acknowledges the impact these men, particularly Hernandez, have had on his poetry but still admits his relationship to them is limmited because their universes are so utterly different. As he contemplates Hernandez in prison and his tuberculosis-yellowed skin, he looks out over the pastoral landscape of rural Ohio. Somehow these two images don't seem to be reconcilable in Wright's mind. For Hernandez to come to Wright, he first must bid farewell to the inspiration he found in Spain and greet the flat plains of Ohio. Wright's poem does a beautiful job of transmitting his anxiety from not living up to the poets that influence him because their lives were so radically different than his.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Poem of the Week!

A Line-Storm Song

By Robert Frost

The line-storm clouds fly tattered and swift.
The road is forlorn all day,
Where a myriad snowy quartz stones lift,
And the hoof-prints vanish away.
The roadside flowers, too wet for the bee,
Expend their bloom in vain.
Come over the hills and far with me,
And be my love in the rain.

The birds have less to say for themselves
In the wood-world's torn despair
Than now these numberless years the elves,

Although they are no less there:
All song of the woods is crushed like some
Wild, earily shattered rose.
Come, be my love in the wet woods, come,
Where the boughs rain when it blows.

There is the gale to urge behind
And bruit our singing down,
And the shallow waters aflutter with wind
From which to gather your gown.
What matter if we go clear to the west,
And come not through dry-shod?
For wilding brooch shall wet your breast
The rain-fresh goldenrod.

Oh, never this whelming east wind swells
But it seems like the sea's return
To the ancient lands where it left the shells
Before the age of the fern;
And it seems like the time when after doubt
Our love came back amain.
Oh, come forth into the storm and rout
And be my love in the rain.

There comes a time in every person’s life when he/she has to decide whether Robert Frost is just an annoying author of inspirational poster catch phrases, or if he’s one of the most amazing American poets of all time. Only recently have I realized that he is definitely the later, and that even in his poems that just beg to be quoted at high school graduation ceremonies, Frost manages to hide a deeper, more melancholy meaning.

“A Line-Storm Song,” which I read for the first time a couple of days ago, is a perfect example of this. Right away the poem won me over with its beautiful imagery of a rain soaked forest. Some of my favorite images are the boughs that rain when the wind blows, and the flowers wasting their blooms because they are too wet for bees to pollinate them. Frost also uses the song-like rhythm and rhyme scheme so well that every time the line “and be my love in the rain” comes you can’t help but get chills.

After savoring the scene Frost painted and the melody of his language, I re-read through the poem and noticed a tone of sorrow amidst all the beauty – the forlorn road, the quiet birds in the despairing wood, and again the flowers with no bees. The speaker of the poem seems to attribute these things to the constant rainstorm attacking the forest. However, he doesn’t speak with fear or resentment. He seems to have a degree of affection for the storm; he even invites his lover to join in him the rain.

Once again I find myself conflicted in a Frost poem. Supposedly the rainstorm is beautiful, but it also seems to be assaulting the forest. And beautiful or not, who would invite their girlfriend to hang around in a torrential rainstorm? In my opinion this is where Frost’s poem excels. Although the man is stuck in a storm, he wants his lover with him because he knows any storm is beautiful when he’s with the person he loves. Whatsmore, it seems like this couple has seen more than one storm together. The storm even reminds him of their life together: “It seems like the time when under doubt/our love came back amain.”

In the end Frost’s poem teaches the bittersweet lesson that life and love are full of storms, such violent storms that paths wear down and birds stop singing. But what else is there? All we can do is “Come forth into the rain and rout/and be my love in the rain.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Saul Bellow's Seize the Day

Fathers and sons in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day

I’m a sucker for critics. Nothing catches my attention like someone’s acclaim of a book, movie or album. I’m so attached to what other people think about things that I sometimes wonder if my own opinions become inauthentic. If any author could be called “acclaimed,” its Saul Bellow. His awards include a Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards (he’s the only author with that many), the National Book Award Foundation medal, and somewhere in their he snagged himself the Nobel Prize. Sufjan Stevens even wrote a song about him! Pretty impressive right? I thought so in the summer of 2009 when I read his novel The Dangling Man. The small book told the story of a Canadian living in America during the Great Depression. The story, written in journal entries of the main character, follows him in his struggle to overcome immigration laws in order to fight as an American soldier in World War II. Despite its shortness, the book took me almost two months to get through. I didn’t hate it but I definitely didn’t love it. But what about all the acclaim? Didn’t I have to love it?

Well I decided to give Bellow another shot a few weeks ago. Motivated once again by the all-powerful opinion of a critic I got a hold of a copy of Seize the Day. In his book, How Fiction Works, the critic James Wood calls Bellow “one of the greatest stylists of American prose, a writer who makes even the fleetfooted (authors) seem like monopodes.” He justifies this bold claim using passages out of Seize the Day like this description of a man smoking a cigar:

“A long perfect ash formed on the end the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty by the old man. For it was beautiful.”

The beauty of that passage alone, taken out of context, made me forget about my experience with The Dangling Man and seek out Seize the Day.

By the time I encountered that line in the book, Bellow’s style had already won me over. The novel is about a man in his forties named Tommy Wilhelm. The books starts with Tommy descending in an elevator to meet his father in the restaurant of the hotel they both live in. Tommy’s father is a successful surgeon while Tommy is a failed student, actor, and most recently salesman. As the story continues the roles of father and husband are added to his list of failures. Bellow uses the lunch conversation between Tommy and his father to show that Tommy is at the end of the rope and ready to try anything to pay his rent and alimony. The best hope he has his mercy from his tight-fisted but wealthy father, or the promises of an audacious and suspicious friend convincing him to “seize the day” by playing the stock markets.

Throughout the book Tommy's personality is torn by loyalties to both his father and his friend largely because there is a little bit of Tommy in each of them.

Tommy's friend, Dr. Tamkin, appeals to his brazen side, the side that motivated him years earlier to drop out of college to pursue acting. Despite his spectacular failure as an actor, Tommy goes into the stock market with Tamkin with his last $4000.

In Tommy's interaction with his father, on the other hand, he comes across as man who's learned to be sensible from a life full of mistakes. Its obvious that when he's with his father Tommy looks at himself with the same harsh judgment his father does.

Bellow uses a unique third person narration style to manages Tommy's complicated inner-duality. Unlike a traditional omniscient third person narrator, the voice of narration in Seize the Day seems to think just like Tommy. Instead of offering an authoritative interpretation Tommy and those around him, the narrator describes people with the same bias Tommy has. Using this style, Bellow leaves it up to the reader to decide, just as Tommy has to, how to read the people in the story. This makes the book feel more real and makes Tommy far more relatable.

By the end of the novel Tommy is worse off than at the beginning and he is left only with the option of begging his father for help. Tommy's desperation in the last pages of the book is heart wrenching. He completely unravels and transforms from a stoic victim into a desperate child seeking protection from his parent. As Tommy pleads with his father to help him financially it becomes clear that the story hasn't just been about a man who's down on his luck. The reader realizes simultaneously with Tommy, that his problems have nothing to do with money and everything to do with the fact that he is completely alone.

I probably haven't come even close to doingt the book justice so all I can say is read it!

If you want a smaller taste of Saul Bellow here is a link to a short story that's also great!


http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1978/09/25/1978_09_25_040_TNY_CARDS_000324521