Sunday, 8 July 2012

What Makes Joanthan Franzen Angry

I should say at the outset that I like Jonathan Franzen as a writer. I would not go so far as to say that I am his fan; however I have enjoyed reading his last two novels. I have reviewed Freedom, Franzen’s most recent novel, on this blog. I liked it; it was a well written, witty, and wise read that, while not exactly a page turner, still kept me very interested till the end. Freedom, without doubt, was one of the better novels I read last year. A few years ago I read Corrections, which, I believe, won a prestigious literary award in the USA. I remember enjoying Corrections, although (probably) not as much as I enjoyed Freedom. It was hilarious in parts; also thought-provoking; but there were also sections where the novel dragged a bit. That’s how I remember it.

Corrections and Freedom are the only two novels of Franzen that I have read and, on that basis, I’d say that he is a very good writer whose next novel I’d have no hesitation in buying, no matter what the critics say. (Doesn’t always work. Last year I bought Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil despite the roasting it had received, because I had loved his 2002 Booker winner Life of Pi. Beatrice and Virgil was a disaster from the beginning to end. The book was about as interesting as—to paraphrase Clive James—a conversation between two not very bright drunks.)

I have also heard Franzen talk (and, as seems the norm these days, take questions from the audience) on two occasions. The second time was when he was promoting Freedom. I can’t remember the first occasion, but I think he was, at that time, promoting a non-fiction (possibly a memoir) he had written between Corrections and Freedom. In both the programmes Franzen came across (to me) as an intense, brooding anal retentive, who took his vocation oh so seriously, and believed that because he wrote books it put him on a higher plane than hoi polli. (He is probably not the only writer who thinks about himself and his vocation in this manner. Although I have never heard him speak, I have read interviews of V.S. Naipaul, my most favourite writer, which suggest (to me) that Sir Vidia holds himself in very high regard and also holds the view that by dint of producing however many novels and works of non-fiction he has written,  he is the possessor of the noblest profession in the world. Was it Nietzsche who said that we all need our illusions to sustain us, without which we would simply collapse (as indeed he did and spent the last twenty years of his life in a catatonic state in a mental asylum)?)

In the literary programme where he was promoting Freedom, Franzen first read out an excerpt from the novel in a monotonous voice, his body language suggesting that he was not at ease doing it. He then took questions from the audience. He gave a good impression of being thoroughly irritated by almost every question that was asked. He nevertheless answered each question in detail. In great detail; in more detail than was necessary; in too much f**king detail, if you ask me; in a tone that suggested he was dictating an important letter; and there was the ever-so-slight air—so I felt—of condescension. (Again, I have no problem about it. I should wager that on the whole there are more mediocre than intelligent people in the world, and, from my (admittedly limited) contacts with intelligent people I have come to the conclusion that intelligent people—because they are removed from the Gaussian mean—find it difficult to adjust to the level of stupid people.)  There was one particular question—I can’t now remember what it was—which Franzen answered so sarcastically that the interviewer (a pallid looking man with a slight paunch and an air of an underperforming salesman) felt obliged to intervene and stop Franzen just as he (Franzen) was warming up to whatever it was that he was animadverting.

I thought of all this after I came across an article by Franzen in the Guardian. It is a long article, the first half of which Franzen devotes to questions that irk him the most when he goes on a literary tours (presumably promoting his novels) or is a speaker at literary festivals.

It would appear that most questions—questions that are most commonly posed, at any rate (based on my limited experience), in such programmes—raise Franzen’s hackles.

One of the questions, according to this article, which annoys Franzen is: who are Franzen’s influences? Franzen says he is annoyed by this question because it is apparently frequently asked in the present tense. He has obviously reached, having written two critically acclaimed novels, the level where he feels insulted by the notion that people might think he is still influenced by dead (or living) authors. They might have influenced him once, when his mother was still wiping his nose, but now? When he has written Corrections and Freedom, and has been on the cover of Time? The thought of it! He then reiterates the point (as if it was not already impressed) by saying that if he were still influenced by, say, E.M. Forster, he would certainly pretend that he wasn’t. Why, you might wonder. I think that is because Franzen now considers himself in the league of, for want of a better phrase, ‘established authors’, and considers any admittance of ongoing influences on his writing as injurious to his reputation. (As an aside, why on earth would anyone want to be influenced by E.M. Forster, an overrated British novelist, who wrote boring novels in the first decades of the twentieth century and would have sunk into well earned obscurity had the Merchant-Ivory film company not made two of his unreadable novels into semi-tolerable films? I have read A Room with A View and Howard’s End, both tiresome in the extreme. Reading a railway timetable would be more pleasurable than ploughing through the crap Forster writes.) I have to say that I am with Franzen on this one. I have never really understood the point of this question, unless, as Franzen points out, it is—depending on the ‘seniority’ of the writer—in the past tense. What difference does it make to you if the writer was influenced by X or Y? Are you going to start reading X (or Y) just because Franzen (or any other suitably famous writer) was influenced by him (or her)?

Onward to the second question that annoys Franzen. What time of the day he works, and what does he write on? He correctly guesses that people ask this question when they probably can’t think of anything else to ask. Yet this knowledge does not stop him from considering the question ‘disturbingly personal and invasive’.  The question—Franzen would have you believe—triggers horrendous images of –what?—him sitting down at his computer and writing at eight o’clock in the morning. I can see why Franzen considers such questions pointless (because they are; what difference does it make to you whether writer wrote his novel in his kitchen or in the garden shade or in the loo?) But for the life of me I do not understand what is there in this harmless question to get so disturbed about? Maybe there is something in the adage that artists have different temperaments from those of you and I (provided you are not a talented artist like Franzen). If you are tempted to call Franzen neurotic I’d urge you not to do that and consider, instead, the phrase ‘delicate sensibilities’.

Question number three: Do Franzen’s characters ‘take over’, ‘speak to him’ etcetera when he writes his fiction? This question sends Franzen’s blood pressure soaring through the outer stratosphere.  If you want to increase the chances of Franzen getting an instant coronary ask him this question, and it will induce in him in a state just this side of apoplexy. Why? Franzen explains. Firstly he traces what he calls the myth of characters taking over to E.M. Forster. (Is there no limit to this man’s crimes? Firstly he wrote novels reading which is akin to adding Mogadon to a pint of lager –he was also a ‘nasty homosexual who knew nothing about India’, according to an interview I remember reading,  of—you have guessed it!—V.S. Naipaul—he also started a myth which, hundred years after he (Forster) wrote his crap novels, runs the grave risk of sending a talented American writer to an early grave by raising his (the talented writer’s) blood pressure to dangerous levels.) There then follows—in the Franzen article in the Guardian—a long speculation as to what might writers mean when they claim that once they start writing their novels, they become slaves to their characters.  Franzen’s guesses are: the writers are mistaken; they are flattering themselves; or the eventual novel turns out to be different from what the writers had planned when they (the writers) began writing them (novels). Franzen would like to declare categorically, so that there is no ambiguity left on this very important matter and posterity does not make a mistake about his writing process and he does not even inadvertently contribute to the wholly unfounded myth started by a ‘nasty homosexual’, that his (Franzen’s) characters do not take over or start ‘talking’ when he writes his novels. He is in complete control. OK?

We now come to the final question that poses risks to Franzen’s circulatory system. How much of his fiction is autobiographical? Franzen answers this question in a curious fashion. He says that he would be immediately suspicious of any novelist who would honestly answer no to this question. (This raises, in my mind, a philosophical question: how does one judge someone’s honesty? And if you conclude—by whatever means available to you—that the person is answering the question honestly, why would you be suspicious? You would be suspicious if you are not wholly convinced of the honesty.) Yet his own answer to this question is no. Franzen does not clarify—at least not directly— whether this is an honest answer or a dishonest answer. (However, going by what he himself says, he ought to be suspicious of himself, as his answer is no. But then, if you study his first sentence, he would become suspicious only if the no is an honest answer. If it is a dishonest answer, presumably Franzen would not become suspicious (although, as we have seen, that would not be the response of most people who—I would put it to you—would become suspicious if they suspect dishonesty.) There then follows (again) a long explanation of what Franzen means when he says his fiction is not autobiographical, which, to quote from a Harry Belafonte song, makes the matters clear as mud.

It seems to me that Franzen is being disingenuous. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to promote his career by going on promotion tours; he wants to promote his novels by accepting invitations of literary programmes (and, in all probabilities, charging fees for his appearances); but he does not want people in the audience—who have parted with their cash which line Franzen’s pockets, well part of it anyway—to ask him questions which he thinks are stupid. It is like a criminal lawyer (by that I mean a lawyer who practises criminal law) saying he does not want to mingle with sleezeballs (and the clients).

Here is what Franzen could do. He ccould do what V.S. Naipaul (I think) does. Naipaul does not go on book promotion tours at all (although that could at least partly be because Sir Vidia is going deaf—so I have read somewhere—which would make it impossible for the interviewer to make himself (or herself) heard unless he (or she) sat in Sir Vidia’s lap and used a megaphone).

Franzen could follow Naipaul’s example (or of the famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon, Franzen’s compatriot, who does not go on any promotion tours or attends literary programmes).  Franzen could do that; but then he would be deprived of the opportunity to write a whining article in the Guardian.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Book of the Month: The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner)

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner’s fourth novel, is considered by many to be his finest work. When Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize of literature in 1949, The Sound and the Fury was mentioned in glorious terms. This was apparently Faulkner’s favourite novel; he described it as his ‘most splendid failure’: the novel depicts the decline of the once aristocratic Compson family. In 1945, sixteen years after the novel was first published, Faulkner wrote an “Appendix” titled ‘Compson1699-1945’, describing the family’s aristocratic past, and update on some or more of the characters described in the novel. Over the years The Sound and the Fury has attracted an abundance of critical response. Vastly varied views on and interpretations of the novel exist. Books have been written on how to read and interpret the book. 

It would be fair to say that The Sound and the Fury is an important piece of twentieth century literary fiction. ‘Modern Library’ included the book at the sixth position when it announced its critical list of hundred novels of twentieth century.

The Sound and the Fury is a difficult read, primary because of deliberate obscurity of the form in the first two sections of the novel. The novel is written in four sections. The first section is the present: an April day in 1928, narrated from the point of view of one of the Compson brothers, Benjy, who has, in the politically correct parlance, a learning disability. The second section is set in 1910 and describes, what is revealed (in an indirect reference) much later in the book, to be the last day in the life of another Compson boy: Quentin. In the third and fourth sections we are back in April 1928: the third section is narrated by yet another Compson brother, Jason, while the fourth and the last section does not have a narrator from within the characters in the novel—it is told by the omniscient, invisible writer himself.

Benjy’s narrative is associative, and remarkable for the total lack of chronology of events described in the section, presumably to highlight the point that Benjy is several sandwiches short of a picnic. Benjy merely records the conversations and reactions of his family, unable to provide any deeper insights. Thus, while individual sentences, or even paragraphs, make syntactical and grammatical sense, the reader, certainly the first time reader, struggles to make sense of the narrative from the time perspective. The sheer number of characters that appear in this section, some of whom have the same name, further compounds the reader’s difficulties. What stands out, though, in this jumble, is Benjy’s animal-like devotion to his sister, Caddy. The author does offer some help by changing from Roman to Italic type when there is a change in time; however the general picture that emerges is utterly confusing. It is probably a prosaic point, but if the reader is expected to believe that Benjy’s learning disability is so severe that he is incapable of leading independent existence (he cannot even speak), the reader might wonder if he is capable of any kind of inner, mental life.

Things do not get any easier for the reader in the second section. Quentin, the narrator, is far more cerebral than the intellectually challenged Benjy. However, his recollections and reminiscences of the past, which seem to centre almost completely on their sister, Caddy—and the incestual passions she arouses, unwittingly, in Quentin’s mind as she grows up, engendering guilt—, are so fragmentary as to make them almost incomprehensible. There are long anacoluthic paragraphs, without any punctuation. There is an especially long stretch, a conversation, in Quentin’s head, between him and his father, at the end of the section, where his father (in the imaginary conversation going on in Quentin’s head) indicates that he (i.e. the father) might have committed incest with Caddy, which is almost impossible to read. As in the first section the author provides some help by changing from Roman to Italic type when there is a change in time, but such is the odd juxtaposition of words and sentences—at times the words in italics (Quentin’s reminiscences) come in the middle of sentences in Roman (dealing with present)—that this section, if anything, is more difficult to read than the first section. I guess the author, through these experimentations of structure and form is trying to convey the disintegration of Quentin’s mind.

The third and the fourth sections have linear narratives, and, it is in these sections the fog created in the first two sections begins to lift. In the third section we learn that Jason, the youngest of the Compson siblings, is now the head of what was once a great Southern family, in its declining years; that Quentin committed suicide in 1910; that the children’s father drank himself to death two years after Quentin’s death; that their mother, an old woman, now, is a cantankerous hypochondriac; that Caddy had an affair with a local boy and got pregnant prior to her marriage to a wealthy businessman, who, upon realizing that she was carrying someone else’s child, left her; that Caddy is ostracized by the family, although her daughter, also named Quentin, is staying with the family. Jason is a bitter, sardonic man who blames Caddy for ruining his job prospects (the wealthy ex-brother-in-law reneges on his promise of arranging a big job for Jason when he divorces Caddy), and does not get on with his niece. Jason’s section is a pleasure to read, not least because of the droll style of narration and black humour.

The fourth and the last section, sometimes called as Dilsey’s section because of the prominence given to the black servant of the family, Dilsey, is a third person narrative, in which the decline of the family, the ungratefulness of senior Mrs Compson towards Dilsey who has served the family faithfully over the years, and the moral turpitude of Jason (he is stealing the money Caddy sends for her daughter, to him—it is not explained where Caddy lives and what she does that enables her to send large sums of money on a regular basis—which is a bit strange, as Caddy, as she makes it clear in the earlier section, does not really trust Jason) is described vividly. Faulkner’s narrative prose is simply brilliant for its brevity; it is amazing how he can convey so much in so few sentences. Towards the end, Jason is hot on the trails of Quentin who has stolen his money (actually her money, as it was sent for her by her mother) and run away with a performer in the show. The novel ends with Luster, the black servant (most probably Dilsey’s son, although the relationship has not been made explicitly clear) taking Benjy to the graveyard (where Quentin, Benjy’s brother, and their father lay buried), and Jason arriving (having given up the futile chase of Quentin, his niece) there at the same time. But Luster goes past a Confederate soldier on the “wrong” side, which causes Benjy to start crying. Jason approaches, hits Luster, and tells him to take Benjy home. The novel ends with the words: “[Benjy’s] broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and fa├žade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”

The title of the novel is taken from Macbeth’s soliloquy in act 5, scene 5, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The title, I think, is ironical: the last two sections of the novel are supposed to bring together the formless, positionless (and even timeless) shapes of earlier two sections. As the fog rolls away, and the pace of the story quickens, the reader is supposed to understand and realize more of Benjy’s ‘Sound and Fury’, and appreciate what it signifies.

Obscurity in art, in my view, is justified when it is the only method possible of saying in full what the author has to say. It shouldn’t be that the hapless reader drills through long, arduous mountains of passages, only to find a mouse. Whether this is the case with Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury the reader will have to find out for himself.