Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day": Book Review

It's set a hundred years ago but not much has changed. "This big parade of modern inventions, all spirited march tunes, public going ooh and aah, but someplace lurking just out of sight is always some lawyer or accountant, beating that 2/4 like clockwork and runnin the show." (33)

Investigating Anarchists in Chicago, Lew's "down in the deadfalls where the desperate malcontents convened, fingerless slaughterhouse veterans, irregulars in the army of sorrow, prophesiers who had seen America as it might be in visions America's wardens could not tolerate." (51) This novel fills with unease, unrest, and privation.

Modern chemistry replaces alchemy as capitalism "really gets going," true, as Merle says. But, Webb suggests: "Maybe 'capitalism' decided it didn't need the old magic anymore." He goes on: "Why bother? Had their own magic, doin just fine, thanks, instead of turning lead into gold, they could take poor people's sweat and turn it into greenbacks, and save that lead for enforcement purposes." (79) This tale pits the haves vs. the have-nots, relentlessly; both appear trapped by their ideology.

After their Arctic expedition by balloon, each of the Chums of Chance gaze "at the enigmatic miniature he had purchased, representing a faraway disposition of rocks he would probably never get to see, and try to glimpse, even at this degree of indirectness, some expression of truth beyond the secular." (126) The yearning for a higher meaning permeates this panoramic, unsettling, recondite, and arcane narrative.

It's as if a brane slithered next to our world for a slightly alternate history, a counternarrative full of what science fiction and adventure tales might have imagined for early 20c readers of pulps, westerns, and Oriental mystery. "Let us imagine a lateral world, set only infinitesimally to the side of the one we think we know, in which just this has come to pass." (230). The era described, at the end of the Victorian reign, sounds not much different than what transpired, in its "grim realities." Aging and Death are resisted, within "this all-enveloping pantomime" enacted by twin professors Renfrew and Werfner, England and Hanover, temporal flow of Time against sinister Power half-glimpsed.

This malevolent tension between those who favor the spirit and those who triumph by the sword permeates this plot. As with Asia, where "two distinct versions" endure: "one an object of political struggle among the Powers of the Earth-- the other a timeless faith by whose terms all such earthly struggle is illusion. Those whose enduring object is power in this world are only too happy to use without remorse the others, whose aim of course is to transcend all question of power. Each regards the other as a pack of deluded fools." (249)

Into this standoff, time-traveling agents enter. Mr. Ace: "Glossy black eyes, presented as weapons in a duel. The gently damaged, irrevocably educated eyes we associate with the visiting dead. When he smiled, or attempted to, it was not reassuring." (415) The trespassers back from the future do not bring solace.

Neither can science, even theories of higher mathematics where more than one character seeks answers. "Vectorism, in which Kit had once thought he had glimpsed transcendence, a co-existing world of imaginaries, the 'spirit realm' that Yale legend Lee De Forest once imagined he was journeying through, had not shown Kit, after all, a way to escape the world governed by real numbers." (675)

Meaning may beckon earthier pilgrims too. Shambhala in Central Asia possibly exists; the quest for a terrestrial paradise consumes the next chapters that particularly engrossed me. The Pure Land sought by Buddhists, the rebirth by penance, the advent of The Compassionate, Tibetan tales of wisdom all flicker as if in a comforting mirage, or fevered vision. But transcendence passes and again, war and murder stalk the Balkans and Venetian shores closer to the heart of a Europe to be torn by hatred and profited from by Capital.

Yashmeen leaves an Austrian passage as "she gazed backward at iron convergences and receding signal-lamps. Outward and visible metaphor, she thought, for the complete ensemble of 'free choices' that define the course of a human life. A new switching point every few seconds, sometimes seen, sometimes traveled over invisibly and irrevocably. From on board the train one can stand and look back, and watch it all flowing away, shining, as if always meant to be." (811) A very Buddhist concept, amid the chaos to be unleashed by spies and soldiers around her and her companions.

Contrast with Cyprian's filtered thoughts, from "this bottom dead center of the European Question, this bad daydream toward which all had been converging, murderous as a locomotive running without lights or signals, unsettling as points thrown at the last minute, awakened from because of some noise out in the larger world, some doorbell or discontented animal, that might remain forever unidentified." (845)

Later, out in Mexico during its revolutionary melee, Frank hears a 'brujo' muse about the destruction wrought by progress. He wonders: "who at some point hadn't come to hate the railroad? It penetrated, it broke apart cities and wild herds and watersheds, it created economic panics and armies of jobless men and women, and generations of hard, bleak city-dwellers with no principles who ruled with unchecked power, it took away everything indiscriminately, to be sold, to be slaughtered, to be led beyond the reach of love." (930)

Every few pages, no matter the convoluted plot or the erudite references, passages such as this leap out of the prose. This makes this book such a powerful read, a novel of ideas, yes, but one where-- and I differ a bit from conventional criticism of the book here-- you do care about the impact of lofty schemes upon little people. The characters do flit and pass and I wish I had a scorecard to keep track. The aims of this famously difficult author (thanks for those Wiki-linked annotations) may be ambitious as before, but there is an outrage at inhumanity which makes this much more than a parody of styles, a catalogue of registers. The Albanians watch the intruders from the West: "what were they doing out here this late in history?" (948) We, like them, wonder. Caught up as they all are in a geopolitical, intellectual, puzzling game, we have no clue either.

The Tree of Diana, in film-crazed Hollywood, will then blossom, silver amalgamated with quicksilver under a lens, nitric acid added to animate it. For this element too is alive: "Has its own forks in the road, choices to make just like the rest of us." (1060) Convergences and coincidences in a book begun and ended with the Chums of Chance fill this narrative. Even the natural world shares the patterns grooved deep.

It's a human book, for all its superhuman scale. Yashmeen's love for Cyprian, his for a higher calling, the familial ties that try to resist the juggernauts of death machines driven by Capital: touches of intimacy soften the epic, relentless, global scale of this ambitious novel. As with an epic, the individual struggles to stand out in a starring role. The cast threatens here to exceed thousands.

Pynchon attempts to straddle three decades of planetary chaos while focusing on a dozen or so people caught up in the whirlwind. The pace lags, as when the crew of the "Inconvenience" floats over the Great War and the refugees in its aftermath as if far too detached from the human suffering. I failed to feel as if I was in Mexico during the Revolution, or lost in the Balkans or studio-birthed L.A. except for momentary passages. The little men and women do get crushed, after all, on the other hand, and this plays into the difficulty readers may have in reconciling their humanist expectations for the novel to the pitiless, yet fitfully compassionate movements of this grand scheme. This telescopes and then draws back, over and over.

Years pass in a paragraph as the Soviets rise and the Tsar falls yet another paragraph is given over to a debate about potato salad among Iowan transplants to L.A. That paragraph, however, took place a mile from my house. So, I attest in the local geography back then applicable, the author got all his left turns right and knows to his dubious credit as we natives may that rats do nest up in palm trees.

In the end, as we know from the Colorado mines and Haymarket and the L.A. Times bombing all attributed to Anarchist terror rather than plutocratic suppression, the "commonwealth of the oppressed" succumbed. Scarsdale Vibe imagines above Denver where the strikers are to be mown down or driven off what may not be so much prescient ten decades ago as predictable: "Where alien muckers and jackers went creeping after their miserable communistic dreams, the good lowland townsfolk will come up by the netful into these hills, clean, industrious, Christian, while we, gazing out over their little vacation bungalows, will dwell in top-dollar palazzos befitting our station, which their mortgage monies will be paying to build for us." (1001)

Was it worth the dozens of hours? Yes, uneven as it was, it would not let go of my imagination. I'll take its ups and downs over smoother paths worn down by more timorous novelists and predictable thinkers anytime.

(Posted to Amazon US 4-28-10; P.S. On the current Tea Party resistance to Big Government and not Big Business, see Tamerlane's "A Thin & Weak Brew"-- and my comment re: this novel and anarchism.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Kevin Kiely's "Francis Stuart": Book Review

Kevin Kiely. Francis Stuart: Artist and Outcast. (Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2007) €22.95; paper. vii. 365 pp.
Review for Etudes Irlandaises 35-1(2010):195-6 published in shorter form.

A quarter-century of a friendship between a student and an elderly author frames this authorized biography of Stuart. His marriage to Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult, contentious relationship with Yeats, and imprisonment for anti-Treaty gunrunning earned this troubled young poet attention even before his stint in WWII Berlin. His broadcasts from the Nazi capital gained him infamy, his alleged collaboration and purported antisemitism continued to rile critics a half-century later, and he remained to the end of his long life, as Kiely’s subtitle situates Stuart, opposed to conformity.

All the while, he wrote, over twenty-five works. Most of his novels– often written in haste, for money, and under stress-- remain out-of-print, often deservedly; on the few in print, notably his autobiographical fiction Black List, Section H (1971), his vexed reputation rests. As an outsider committed to relegation to the margins as his portal into truth, aesthetically and personally, his stubborn refusal can annoy. Much of Kiely’s thorough account finds his patient biographer struggling to explain Stuart’s mind-set. As prickly as his prose-style can be in its hesitant, awkward, and determined expression of moral confusion, spiritual longing, and social malaise, Stuart’s ambiguous frankness permeates his best writings.

Kiely unravels what earlier studies, a short 1974 monograph by Jerry Natterstad and a basic 1990 life by Geoffrey Elborn, could not have revealed. With access to previously closed Department of Foreign Affairs files on Stuart copied from originals (destroyed in Berlin) by the Irish Legation who tracked him, and with intimate knowledge from long conversations over the decades, Kiely depicts a respectful, never fawning or ingratiating, portrait of enigmatic Stuart. Although lacking lengthy analysis of his fiction and other writings, it replaces Anne McCartney’s erratic 2000 thesis for a spare survey of Stuart’s literary production over nearly eight decades. Perhaps after Kiely’s arrangement of first-hand reporting building upon previous criticism and archival records, in-depth investigation into Stuart’s fiction may progress more confidently.

After introducing Kiely’s relationship with Stuart, the book moves chronologically. Thirty-three chapters divide up a life beginning in 1902, when his father, a struggling emigrant from Antrim to Australia, committed suicide. Stuart’s mother took him back to Co Meath; he was raised in British boarding schools. He dropped out of Rugby, and early on displayed an inability to settle down. Before he was eighteen, he courted Iseult Gonne, who already at twenty-five had fended off two of Yeats’s marriage proposals and had been a lover of Ezra Pound.

Kiely glosses over, oddly given his subject’s iconoclasm, Stuart’s sudden conversion before eighteen to Catholicism; his father was of Ulster Presbyterian stock and his mother from a British Loyalist military family. Sexually inexperienced, spiritually yearning, Stuart sought Iseult’s glamour even as he recoiled from Yeats’s grasp. Before nineteen, Stuart fathered a daughter, Kay; he was off at Maud’s Glenmalure cottage "trying to write and awaiting a permit for his motorcycle when he received the news by telegram" of her birth. (50)

His fecklessness repeated with his hesitant role in the Civil War; he supported De Valera while rejecting his Catholic-Gaelic vision. Jailed for fifteen months, he emerged from the Curragh with his poetry already published. Thanks to the patronage of Yeats, who had just won the Nobel Prize, Stuart emerged into a limelight he fled. Overwhelmed by Maud, Yeats, and Iseult with new son Ian, Stuart retreated to Wicklow’s Laragh Castle, bought by Maud for the family. He travelled to Paris, meeting briefly Joyce, but Stuart preferred the Dublin company of Liam O’Flaherty, Beckett, Con Leventhal, and Arland Ussher. His novels began to be published, garnering mixed reviews as they appeared in rapid succession. "As a writer, he eventually became dubious about ‘art’ and fine writing; and used language with expert suspicion as if it were borrowed, flawed and brittle. His mature writing style is reluctant and dissenting." (27)

His publisher, Victor Gollancz, characterized Stuart as more a "poet-philosopher" than a novelist. Pigeon Irish and The Coloured Dome (both 1932) revealed his mystical, utopian, restless spirit bent on apocalypse, purgation, and renewal. Try the Sky merged his initial Fitzgerald-Hemingway influences into the first Irish fiction about the Nazis, based on a Vienna visit. Glory deepened his fascination with dictators and fascists. This attraction influenced The Angel of Pity (1935) as nihilism contended against esotericism. His later 1930s novels about adultery, fraud, and horse racing reflected his fancies, but he needed a cause.

Kiely asserts that the "core events of Stuart’s life" began only after the death of Yeats. Iseult suggested her unhappy husband travel to Berlin on an academic exchange program in April 1939. His biographer reiterates how Maud and Iseult "can be accurately portrayed as typical of a minority of Irish people who were also pro-German because they were anti-British." (119) Kiely carefully cites Stuart’s distaste for Hitler. Kiely sets a context for Stuart’s opinion formed then that fifty years later would spark outrage: "if there was a Jewish idea, which was surely a contradiction, it was a hidden, unheroic, and critical one, a worm that could get into a lot of fine-looking fruit." (qtd. 121) Kiely relates this aspersion to Stuart’s distrust of romantic Iseult’s proud abstraction, as opposed to the subversive Jewish reliance upon the sensually concrete.

Stuart’s German years have been documented extensively, but Kiely adds details from copies of wartime files kept by the Irish government. (He makes a minor error with the "Republic of Ireland" [124] opposing at the outbreak of WWII the British seizure of ports; the de facto Republic was not declared officially until 1948.) The complications of Iseult’s affair with a doomed German spy while Stuart took a mistress, and while he commenced radio talks transmitted to Ireland, challenge elucidation. Kiely accepts that those charging Stuart with Nazi support can be justified, but Kiely rejects an equation with "sympathizer" for Stuart. "The issue of collaborator and traitor is another matter." (137) Such diplomacy permeates this biography.

A hanger-on among Irish and British disaffected expatriates, Stuart distanced himself from propagandist Lord Haw-Haw. Stuart imagined escaping Berlin for Moscow with a young student, Gertrude Meissner. Renaming her Madeleine, they commenced a relationship that would endure until her death in 1986. Interrogated by the Gestapo, an apolitical intellectual revolutionary disenchanted with collectivism or capitalism, Stuart sought dissension. The Irish Legation refused to help him as Germany’s defeat neared. The couple roamed as refugees until they were interned for eight months after the war in French-occupied Austria.

Seán MacBride, now seeking political power, disdained his sister’s unfaithful husband. Unable to divorce, fearing that her former lover Ezra Pound’s insanity brought on by his arrest as another fascist abetter would repeat with Stuart, and not knowing the full extent of Madeleine’s relationship, Iseult waited with Kay and Ian for Stuart’s peacetime repatriation. He, trying to create fact out of his fiction, insisted that his ménage à trois be imported into Laragh Castle.
Resisting deportation from Paris, Stuart welcomed Irish exile. "He had an instinct that his poetic destiny involved social ostracism." (qtd. 176) This self-appraisal from Black List energized his postwar novels. The Pillar of Cloud, Redemption, and The Flowering Cross, written in Freiburg, Austria, present the artist as outcast. As the titles promise, religious symbolism mixes with bohemian misfits grappling with evil in a war-ravaged Europe unable to understand their aesthetic communism and moral defiance.

Returning from Paris to Laragh, Stuart found Iseult finally resigned to her husband’s infidelity. After Iseult’s death in 1954, Madeleine and "Grim" settled in London. On the night-shift as a museum guard, Stuart labored in near-poverty while continuing, as always, to publish novels. In 1958, the married couple moved to Co Meath. Victors and Vanquished, with its Berlin Jewish family facing the Holocaust, previewed what in1961-62 became Black List, with Stuart assuming the role of "H." "Whether H is an outcast or traitor, as for Stuart, it is up to each reader to decide for themselves."(149) This stance sums up Kiely’s steady reaction to Stuart’s elusive convictions.

Stuart’s masterwork lacks sustained analysis here for its halting style. Its eerily transparent prose evokes an evasive teller’s attempt, in autobiographical fiction, to testify to his past. Kiely, although underplaying this unsettling impact of Black List, provides as he intends the details of its production, and Stuart’s decade-long effort to find a publisher.

The return of the Troubles, with one who had fought in them the first time, revived protest, first for Stuart’s well-titled play Who Fears to Speak (1970), and then his experimental novels Memorial and A Hole in the Head. Kiely finds that these two "dare go as close to deranged prose as composition will bear." (269) The 1970s found Stuart returning to Dublin and attention. (A small addition: Stuart translated then from French an account by Christian de la Mazière of his service with the Waffen SS, Le Rêveur Casqué, issued in Britain as Ashes of Honour; Kiely omits that an American printing appeared in 1974 as The Captive Dreamer.)

The new assembly Aósdana invited Stuart, and eager for the pension, he accepted despite his often-stated disdain for artists who glean honors. While he parodied it in his innovative The High Consistory, this and Faillandia, also preoccupied with alternative visions of an satirized Ireland, kept Stuart’s 1980s novels appealing to a small readership. A Compendium of Lovers presented another farrago of cosmic speculation, theological musings, and autobiographical fancy. Determined to defy expectations, fêted by Haughey while protesting Reagan, Stuart’s last decades would draw him back into public debate.

Kiely avers that Stuart lacked "a definitively prescriptive morality." (285) At 85, marrying Finola Graham, an artist born in 1945, Stuart upended expectations. He searched within "apparent failure" a reason to endure. Intrigued by Edward Schillebeeckx’s presentation of a human Jesus left behind on the Cross, Stuart in the puzzling polemic The Abandoned Snail Shell attempted to explain his understanding of the Risen Christ as one who in defeat found triumph.

The death of Kay was followed by a Channel 4 documentary about the Holocaust. His interviewer implied that Stuart’s residence in Berlin was antisemitic. This airing resurrected fury. In late 1996, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, wife of Conor Cruise O’Brien, rallied for Stuart’s resignation from Aósdana. The motion fizzled when few of his peers supported Stuart’s expulsion; Mhac an tSaoi herself left the guild. Many in the liberal media supported Stuart’s critics, others defended him. "A suitably penitent Stuart," after over a year of media frenzy, publicly repudiated any "imputed tendencies to anti-Semitism," Kiely remarks, "in his person or his writings." (312)

Stuart later won a libel suit against Kevin Myers of The Irish Times, but this affair took its toll on a very old man. Cared for by Ian, he went to Laragh, His son intervened as his father ripped up Iseult’s diary. Harboring guilt, Stuart appears never to have resolved his relationship with her. His final work, the novella King David Dances, explores the impact of Heidegger, typically combined with its protagonist’s search for his lost cat.

Back with Finola on the coast of Co Clare, Stuart looked out over Galway Bay. He fantasized sailing off to Aran with a cat and a crate of sherry. Nearly 98, after coming down with a Christmas flu, he died in 2002 in an Ennis hospital; "just on his last breath he opened his eyes so wide, as if at last he had seen something revelatory." (326-27) Kiely reports that The Irish Times reported his place of death as his flat at Fanore, another case of printed invention ending this author’s long tussle with unequivocal fact.