Category Archives: Fiction

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo (1904)

Nostromo

If Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness dramatize the difficulty of narrating a life, confronting that difficulty by dramatizing the various subjective, generic, historical conditions that frame our experience of the world, then Nostromo ups the ante, expanding the palate of narrators (13 main characters) and opening the stage to the history of a continent and the circuits of global trade. Nostromo is “constructed” in ways similar to Jim, but this novel is not so much interested in characterization, as it is interested in how the past becomes present, and the present becomes future, and how all the various characters deal with these historical becomings.

Conrad employs a basic rectangle of characters:

Nostromo   –   Decoud (loves Antonia)

Mr. Gould   –   Monygham (loves Mrs. Gould)

On the top, two men that are killed by the silver. On the bottom, two men who are able to resist that death. On the left, two idealists. On the right, two pragmatists. Acting outside of these rectangle, are the two women, Antonia and Mrs. Gould.

Nostromo the character is a composite of what other characters believe him to be. We see him consistently fail to live up to the idea of the hero–he is literally a “man of the people” to the degree that he becomes subject to the same temptations of the silver.

When the old Garibaldi soldier kills Nostromo (not knowing that he does it), Conrad is showing who the older foams of heroic revolution are not tenable under the new regime of global capitalism.

Discuss the difference between catching a moment out of the stream of time and Mrs. Gould’s beliefe that we need to see the past, present and future within every moment….this is a different way of seeing the relationship between particular events and history in general.

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Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited (1944)

In two parts, framed by a prologue and an epilogue that depict Ryder at war, having returned to Brideshead in order to repurpose it as a military base. Main themes include memory, war, religion, and painting. Sebastian Flight is the lovable drunkard with whom Ryder class in love as a young man at Oxford. But Sebastian slowly goes to waste and exits the novel almost all together. he dies off screen, or does not, one is not sure. His sister, Julia, takes center stage in the second half of the novel. Ryder, now a successful painter of houses and married to Celia, falls in love with Julia while on a boat. They become lovers, but when she returns to the Catholic faith at the end of the novel, Ryder and her (despite both getting divorced for each other) decide not to get married.

Curious book to put into dialogue with The Return of the Solider and other novels that mourn the loss of innocent after World War I. Here, it is War World II that triggers a memory that returns to that pre-war state. The portrait of Oxford is a bit anachronistic, compressing the days of Richards and Empson with the days Pater and Wilde. Anthony Blanche is the token “aesthete,” and Ryder finds himself caught up in a new decadence that will string between the two wars. The wars themselves seem to squeeze together to the degree that intervening years are reduced to a couple of family squabbles: Julia says famously, “I see the past and future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” Indeed, the finance capital vulgarians like Rex and the regressive Catholics like the Marchamids seem to be the only options for Julia and Ryder: they are therefore both unhappy at the end.

Use the meal with Rex to show the differences between Ryder’s older continental proclivities and Rex’s modernizing impulses, etc.

The novel gives the lie to the narrative that would reconsolidate England after the war. There are folks like Rex, who is similar to the Dalloways in his relationship to industry, his desire to ignore the war. The Marchmaid family, on the other hand, are trying to live an existence that belongs to another century. It isn’t that this lifestyle is unfit for 20th century, but that it in fact self-destructs: modernity must be described as “uneven development” with regard to its secularizing drive, etc.

As the war approaches, there is a moment in which Julia and Ryder, on the boat, no longer speak in their voices, but in the voices of the English who wish to deny that war is coming. They repeat in almost stichomythic fashion a battery of cliches about how the Germans have no money, etc.

Ryder is a painter of architecture. His painting can be seen as a synecdoche for Waugh’s mode of writing. He prefers drawing buildings that show the encrustations of each age–showing how each has made use of the building. Brideshead itself is shown repurposed multiple times, and the closing scene is of a lamp meant to be purely symbolic of epic and tragedy, hanging in a chapel, now burning in prayer for all the solders in France, etc. Relate this to Larkin’s poem “High Windows,” where he claims that each generation needs to find its own limits, and that there is not a single lyric voice that can consolidate their various attempts at self-transcendence.

 

 

Rebecca West – The Return of the Soldier (1915)

Chris suffers from shell-shock and when he returns to his wife and cousin (Kitty and Jenny) he can can’t remember the last 15 years of his life. Instead, he is living as if he is still in love with the lower class Margaret with whom he had a brief but intense relationship before he met his wife. Him and Margaret reconnect, ecstatically, but eventually a psychoanalyst intervenes and they “cure” him (by reminding him of his son that died when a child), which entails both the re-shattering of his youthful dreams and his incipient return to Flanders.

Talk about how the war pentrates domestic space. Not unlike the domestic space described in David Jones In Parenthesis or in Cummings The Enormous Room. Talk about how Fussel recounts the forceful making of English gardens in the trenches, etc…flowers that do not have nutritive purpose…the desire to create a domestic sphere that is impervious to war finds expression in the mirror image: real domestic spaces that are penetrated.

Talk about memory and its relation to trauma. The curing of Chris consonant with the death of love–the death of the object of desire itself. Interpretation in some sense kills that third term (talk about Laplanche)

The world that we thought the war killed is in fact simple another reality that has replaced an existence that was someone even more ideal than the England we thought we had lost, etc.

Talk about Hardy in reverse. In Hardy, his attempt o get into the melancholic modd reveals the impossibility of telling the difference between his current state of loss and the the loss that was always-already a part of his relationship with his wife. here, when the soldier returns (no longer a cause for mourning), the two companions realize that they were only ever substitutes for a love that already been lost. This can in turn be connected to Joyce’s “The Dead.”

The end of Chris’s life is the last day he can remember. Link this to Bergsonian notions of time, memory and durée.

Rather than read the trauma as a stark break with a past life, we can fact read it as revealing a thread of loss that was otherwise repressed. Chris as a young man had a sense of the “imminence of the improbable,” which shell-shock in some ways allows to occur–namely the rebirth of a prehistory that was otherwise consigned to wither away.

George Eliot – Silas Marner (1861)

PLOT: Silas Marner, a weaver living in Lantern Yard, is excommunicated after he is framed for robbery by one of the religious elders in his town, who eventually marries the woman Silas had been intending to marry. He leaves and goes to Raveloe, where he weaves on the outskirts of town, amassing a fair amount of gold in the process. Meanwhile, Godfrey Cass (son of Squire Cass) is in a monetary pickle after leading to his dissolute brother Dunsten. To get out of the bind, he lets Dunsten try to sell his horse, but he manages to kill it in the process. Desperate, he robs Silas Marner and goes out into the night. Silas comes home and is stricken with loss–his gold having been his sole comfort and companion. He goes into town, but the thief cannot be found. Meanwhile Godfrey sets about wooing Nancy, the town belle. There’s a big New Year’s party that’s interrupted when Silas comes to announce that a woman has collapsed outside and that a baby has crawled into his house, etc. The woman turns out to be Molly, Godfrey’s first wife that he has tried to hide. He is relieved, and deos not claim his child, who has telling golden hair. Silas raises Eppie. Sixteen years pass. Godfrey has married (no children) and Eppie has grown up. Godfrey finds the skeleton of his brother in the Stone Pits outside Silas’ house. The money is returned. Godfrey confesses all to Nancy, tries to go reclaim Eppie but she refuses. She marries a rustic boy from town named Aaron after her and Silas visit Lantern Yard and see that it has been replaced with a grim factory.

Written between Mill on the Floss and Romola, but it shares, strangely, many of the the mythical preoccupations of the latter historical novel. It is a short, concentrated portrait of rustic life, that is deliberately a-historical (as opposed to Middlemarch)

Gold: the golden coins get replaced by Eppie’s golden hair. The coins allowed him to withdraw from society, whereas Eppie forces him back into social “circulation.”  Connect to the “golden” water at the end of Mill on the Floss: the pastoral can only be accessed through the protocols of the aesthetic: in Silas Marner, deployed as myth and myth-making.

Myth: Not located in a particular time or space. Employs the “sixteen years pass” trope, recognizable from The Winter’s Tale, etc.

History: It consists of the breaking of brown pots and their reconstruction as memorials–c’est tout–or can consist of artistic intervention, plotting, etc (the novel as such). The intrusion of historical time at the end of the novel (factory churning out workers) stands in stark contrast to the de-historicized world of craft and agriculture (Eppie wants to be a gardener). Compare to the ending of Mill on the Floss.

Work: Silas’ work, the act of weaving, has meaning-making capacity. Talk about in terms of craft: Ruskin, William Morris, etc.

Double-plot: a paired down version of a device that will be exploited more fully in Daniel Deronda.

Repeated image of the rivulet: Silas’ mind is likened to a rivulet, which contracts and expands throughout. As Eppie grows up, his mind begins to unfold into things like memory and the social.

Catalepsy: why does Eliot need Silas to be cataleptic? Discuss as plot device.

Short-sighted: Silas is also literally short-sighted. Why these physical disabilities?

 

James Joyce – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Serialized in The Egoist just before Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr. Many different ways to approach text, also many ways to use it as way to talk about Modernism more broadly: nationalism, aesthetics, realism, plot to description, etc. Particular passages to remember and turn to:

The opening, where we join the young Stephen in trying to deal with raw sense data without convention. In sense, we are going back before the beginning of the bildungsroman in order to work back up to that genre and explode it. Language acquisition is foregrounded, as Stephen merely repeats words that he doesn’t yet know. Before Stephen becomes ossified in the dogma of the church, the narrative is content with assimilating sounds into little imagist poems: association leads to an aesthetic order that does not immediately refer to any real system or reality: “Pick, pock, pack, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in a brimming bowl.” This should remind us of the end of “The Dead.”

But as the novel goes on, Stephen begins to realize that his resources for poetic expression are constrained by his sensorial experience: his cry of need is derived from something scrawled in a latrine. He thus burrows into the religious practice of mortifying the senses, which is not completely in contradistinction to the act of creation, but in some systems, a precursor to creation as such. In this sense, we can see his religious fervor not in contrast to his refusal of the oil, but as a logical precursor to that decision: the refusal of a system, any system, in favor of the interior potential of the artist himself [talk about how “oil” returns in coil, platinoid, ellipsoidal, etc. as aestheticized forms). The end of chapter four, concluding in the bird-girl epiphany, shows how the sensuous anture of words has built itself into a system of linguistic poise: the pleasures of mere form. He realizes the potential of his own name, and, mixing up the story of Icarus, decides to be soaring and beautiful just like the artificer (this is to conflate Icarus and Dedalus into a single figure].  THEN THE BIRD-GIRL.

But this moment of expression almost immediately gets turned into a system inherited from Aquinas. From chapter 5, we get the artist pairing finger-nails, refined out of existence, like the God of creation. In order practice freely, Stephen realizes that he will need to practice “silence, exile and cunning.” A figure less like Icarus than Dedalus is now emerging. The final pages move to first person narration: Stephen finds his voice, become self-narrating, self-producing. “Amen. So be it. Welcome, O Life! I got to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated consciousness of my race.” We’ll see, upon opening, Ulysses, how Stephen fails.

Virginia Woolf – The Waves (1931)

Ongoing Post:

A curiously de-politicized Woolf, according to many. A novel that pushes the experiment of diffusive personality to such an extreme that “time and place” are obliterated almost completely. The title of the first draft was “The Life of Anybody,” pointing to the potentially formal qualities of art to wrench themselves from subjective content to the degree that any human can enter its structures. Yet the political reading has been offered by some: perhaps Woolf is toying with the idea of political collectivity, the potential for an individual to find meaning in larger wholes that are not immediately subsumed by identifiable institutions, or ossified into social groups with determinate programs. No matter how we read, it is clear that what binds the six characters together (it is a question whether this is critical or not) is their shared national, economic and racial coordinates. Perhaps Woolf is showing the sun set on the British Empire itself, as it self-destructs in and through its colonial enterprises. Rhoda does, after all, jump from the rock Gibraltar, the extreme edge of the british empire….

The opening lines disrupt traditional forms of representation: “The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it.” In the chorus-like interludes that punctuate the main narrative, these wrinkles, which grow into waves and  return to the vast ocean, take on a life that is meant to signify the “mirrors” tendency to move–i.e. the sea is not merely a reflection of the sky, but it has its own capacity to move: Despite the dispersal of identity, individual characters do take up different affective attitudes towards the interpenetration of subjectivity: Rhoda is inclined to resist any attempt to  shape her or overtake her…to her, the dinner party is a battle field of the social. She loves, envies, hates, etc. but she never “joins” her friends willingly. She “fears embraces.” Bernard, on the other hand, feels the violence of becoming separate, differentiated. He likes the formless.

The plurality of perspectives in The Waves gets subsumed under the single voice of Bernard in the final chapter. As the only straight British male in the group, he is the most conventional heir to literary authority. Further, he tells his story to an unnamed listener while on a boat to Africa, recalling the narrators of Conrad and Ford. This form of literary Imperialism counterpoints and imitates the political imperial project of Percival (who utters only the Everlasting “No” tied to destructive impulses, etc.). The argument could be made that the seemingly deracinated style of The Waves is only a stylistic effect of the suppression of plot and characters: the small-scale violence between consciousness, in language, etc. are connected to the political violence that make this sort of interpersonal dream possible at all. That is, we can read this text symptomatically because it seems to ask for it…. [Cf. Lacan, etc.]

That is to say, The Waves is not a poetic retreat, but something very much like Adorno’s Lyric, which in and through its attempt to express a utopian dream, dramatizes its impossibility.

TIME: Instead of the husk of time swallowing up Septimus, bernard experiences a “drop of time” on his head while shaving. Rather than shock precipitating time’s uninhibited victory, which obliterates psychological boundaries, the scene of Bernard’s shaving (shave, shave, shave) dramatizes habit’s uncanny ability to draw attention to those forms of time’s passing which escape habit’s ordering structures. “I have lost my youth,” he says to himself.

Samuel Beckett – Malone Dies (1951)

Malone, who is naked in bed, tells the story of Sapo, a student that spends some of his time time around the Lamberts, a farming family. When Sapo grows up, Malone changes name to Macmann, finding Sapo ridiculous. Macmann falls over and is taken to St. John’s hospital. He is taken care of by Moll, an old woman with whom he makes love. Moll dies and is replaced by Lemuel. Lemuel supervises a group of inmates on a short excursion. He kills a couple of people, steals a boat, and the text closes with Macmann and others stranded in the water.

—-

More barren than Molloy. All that sustains life, it seems, are stories and possessions (system of elimination and nutrition)–Malone delays his death (equivalent to both the wearing away of his pencil and the filling of his exercise book) through these distractions. Some lines to remember:

“What tedium” (a refrain repeated whenever Malone goes into the details of his own life)

“Nothing is more real than nothing” (Stevens-style, but needs to be related to the conflicted idealism of Jackson’s parrot. See next…)

“Nihil in intellectu” (without the famous restriction given by Aquinas, who argued that God could be proved by way of the senses)

“Groping” (if there is a verb that sums up the actions of the Trilogy, it is this one, cf. Adorno on the work of art’s essential “blindness”)

REST – death, sleep, rest become equivalent in Beckett subject. See Moran crawling, and also “passing from toil to rest in a single unbroken moment.”

“Life perhaps, the struggle to love, to eat, to escape the redressers of wrongs.” (the assumption being that guilt is inherent to human life)

“A few lines to remind me that I two subsist.” (Interesting dialogue could be staged between Browning and Beckett here: the relationship between artici creativity and life-sustaining activity…one is only alive in so far as they can represent their aliveness, or something like that)

“Two is company” (looking forward to later work, in which company is turned into a fiction, one that is unavoidable but inscrutable all at once. Can think of this whole novel as Beckett’s most rigorous attempt (so far) to delineate the bounds of the subject. But even then, the subject is not bound clearly.)