Shortly after my last post here, I started a project for a longish blog post that would require a fair amount of reading, which has been taking up most of my time. I’ve begun and abandoned a few posts to fill the gap, but first the reading turned out to take longer and be much more absorbing than I’d expected (books in genres I don’t usually read, brick-like enough to encourage a glad switch back to the Kindle), and then real-life events intervened, and then the “quick” post I had in mind turned out to need longer to write than I have right now.
(Incidentally, here are things I’d like to see available on the Kindle, or whatever the next generation of e-book reader will be: More foreign books—it would be nice to be able to buy books from amazon.fr or amazon.de for my US-based Kindle. And more classics of history and social science from the past fifty years. There is already a good, though not perfect, selection of recent books on social science, politics, and history, which is probably something we can thank the hordes of tech-savvy wonks and bloggers for.)
So I could blog about the sudden breakdown of my clothes dryer with half my daughter’s wardrobe in it, and how if I’d done the laundry on Friday instead of Sunday, we would have had the whole weekend to shop for a new one—but, also, it might have broken while we were out of the house, and burned all the clothes. And how I wasted most of a day trying to research new washers and dryers online, figuring it might be time to replace the 1975-era washing machine too (which works perfectly well except that the “warm” water is better described as “cool,” and probably isn’t very efficient, and is so old and low-tech it just plain looks silly), only to discover that the question of the modern high-efficiency washer is a highly vexed one, and give up and decide to buy the simplest dryer I could find—only to learn that the online description of its dimensions was off by just enough that it wouldn’t fit through the door.
Or I could blog about how, at just about this time last year, and the year before, right after my daughter’s birthday party, I got sick, and how I ended up being sick almost continually last year from November until almost May—though this time I got sick two weeks before the party, and since then so far I seem okay. Or my attempts to determine whether the sore throat I’ve been waking up with every morning is from a cold, allergies, or acid reflux. Though it does appear to be the last of these (it can be preempted using Pepcid), and so far I’m not sick, just tired from pre-party cleaning and from swimming in my daughter’s swim class to the deep end of the pool with her, for the first time in half a year and ve-e-ery slowly.
I could write about the movie Howl, and whether it is somehow cheating to have the original Ginsberg poem’s imagery displayed for you on a screen so you can understand the metaphors without doing the thinking for yourself—and whether it is actually possible to read all the words of the Neal Cassady section of the poem without having them read for you as a voiceover to a cartoon.
But I will blog, fairly briefly, about modern literature, and women in modern literature.
One of the novels I value most these days is American Pastoral, by Philip Roth. The plot of the novel involves a successful Jewish-American businessman whose daughter, in the political turmoil of the 1960s, joins up with the Weathermen and bombs the local post office, killing the owner of the grocery store in which the PO’s located. She disappears, and twenty years later, he finds her living a life of squalor in a slumland squat, doing a kind of penance and renunciation through a form of Jainism (involving the refusal to do violence to any living thing) which she has worked out for herself through reading and introspection. Most of the novel consists of her father’s tortured attempts to work out what—in America, in his own parenting, in the belief systems of the other adults who helped her over the years—possibly could have resulted in both her crime and her unacceptable religious beliefs. He rakes over her situation with the utmost of empathy of which he’s capable, but ultimately he fails to comprehend the path she chose. He condemns her along with the society that made her that way, even as he is too much of a conformist to stand apart from society in any real way.
It’s the painstaking and thoughtful recreation of the emotional dilemmas faced by the girl and her father, the novelist’s willingness to implicate the father’s own beliefs and his way of life in actions he repudiates, and the selection of both male and female characters to illustrate various modes of being in the society he depicts, that I find appealing. The moral, if there is any, isn’t on the surface, any more than it is in any other novel—there are some obvious “morals,” if a reader had to have them, like don’t commit murder, or don’t trust in wealth to preserve your family from misfortune, but the question of what could have helped these characters more isn’t answered—and I don’t assume that I would agree in full with Philip Roth’s take on their lives if I knew it. (In fact, although I’ve been tempted to see these painstaking moments of empathy with female characters as a refutation of the broadly accepted notion of Roth’s general misogyny, I’ve ultimately concluded that they’re overwhelmed by the rest of his writing, that moments is all they are.)
But when I declared, on Internet discussion forums, that American Pastoral, along with The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound, were my favorites among all Roth’s novels, I was told, by male participants, in no uncertain terms, that I was wrong. Roth’s best novels are those, like Sabbath’s Theater, they said, that foreground the male id and the issues (in our society and given the realities of aging) that surround exuberant male sexuality. There was no discussion, there was no admission that a preference for one novel over another may largely involve subjective factors, there was only a flat statement that I was wrong. There was no explanation. The idea may have been that those novels are more characteristic of Roth’s writing—maybe given the long view of his work as a whole, maybe given the idea of Roth as essentially a novelist of exuberantly aggressive sexuality and rebellion—and maybe because they took those apparently more characteristic novels as a condemnation of the author, or maybe because they equated characteristic with best. The idea may have been that those themes always make for better literature, or the idea may have been that those novels are better because they are less political. The idea may have been that those novels spoke well for the men making the claim, a subjective claim, if surreptitiously so. Whatever the underlying reasons, if I tried to give reasons for my preference, their response was to insist that no possible reason could cause them to change their minds.
It seemed as if they were claiming that they could speak for the entire literary world, and that no alternative was possible. They did not seem to envision the possibility of discussion about the merits of one novel over another, or of one way of writing novels over another. They seemed, on the contrary, thoroughly invested in the concept of modern literature as the self-expression of a callow young man whose interests are eternally opposed to the needs of “the community”—entire shelves of novels the reader could take or leave depending on whether that character’s interests aligned with her own, but with which she could not dispute.
Maybe they were right. Or maybe they just didn’t understand.