What I Have Been Reading, May 2010

Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler –  This is a novel for readers who take an interest in what it means to be a reader as such.  It forces the reader, directly, in the second person, to reflect on the role that readers plays in the creation of a novel, in the creation of a literary experience, and in the creation of literature as such.  Reading it was not always a comfortable experience for me.  There were several times, especially later in the novel, when I grew tired of being so directly manipulated, where I wished for the return of a more traditional kind of narrative.  Even so, the novel accomplishes something quite unique, and the narrative fragments that are woven in among the sections directed to the reader contain some wonderful examples of the gorgeous prose that has always captivated me in Calvino.  It is not an easy book, and I would not recommend it for the beach.  It requires too much from its readers for that.  On the other hand, it is very much a book worth reading with the proper time and attention, so I suggest that you set aside enough of both to do it justice.

Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge – This was my second Maugham novel.  I read the first, Of Human Bondage, almost two years ago now, when a friend was outraged to hear that I had not included it among the several hundred novels approved for my novel course.  I almost wish, however, that I had read them in the opposite order, because The Razor’s Edge is quite good, but it suffers in comparison to Of Human Bondage.  Both have the compelling characterizations that I am coming to regard as Maugham’s genius, and both follow the complexities of a young man’s search for truth and meaning, but Of Human Bondage is narrated by the voice of its protagonist, which creates a greater sympathy between reader and hero, while The Razor’s Edge is ostensibly narrated by Maugham himself and includes large portions that deal with several other lives as well, all of which creates a sense of detached observation that does not always allow for the reader to engage in the hero’s situation.  I found myself disliking Maugham’s voice by the end of the novel, wishing that it would suspend its cool detachment, even if only for a moment.  It is this coolness of tone, however, that ends the novel, and I would sincerely have wished it otherwise.

Irving Layton’s A Red Carpet For The Sun – I am a little dumbfounded by Irving Layton’s poetry.  Some of it, including almost all of his love poems, seem nothing short of puerile to me, as if they were written by a boy still young enough to believe that he will be manly if only he talks often enough and familiarly enough about a woman’s sexual organs.  These poems rarely have more to say than, “Here is what this woman looked like, and this is what I did to her.”  At the same time, some of his more reflective poems are quite powerful.  They have something of the same bravado about them, perhaps, but it seems better founded, like in “Boys Bathing”, where he says,

The sun is bleeding to death,
covering the lake
with its luxuriant blood;
the sun is dying on their shoulders

or like in “For Mao Tse-Tung,” the from which the book’s title draws its name, where he writes,

They dance best who dance with desire,
Who lifting feet of fire from fire
Weave before they lie down
A red carpet for the sun.

These poems, along with others like “Reconciliation”, “The Birth of Tragedy”, and “Metamorphasis”, have a sureness and a depth to them that justifies their aggression and arrogance of tone and that make them more than mere poetic playground talk.

John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction –  I have too much to say about this book.  It deserves and may yet be granted a post or two unto itself, but I will have to start by saying what I can in this more limited space.  It is, to be very simplistic, a book about how to write, but not at all in a technical sense.  Though Gardner was a famous teacher of creative writing, and though he has also published on the more technical aspects of the craft, this book is dedicated to the question of how the writing of fiction should be approached as a moral act.  To recapitulate his stance on this question would take too long and would probably spoil the read for those of you who bother to read it for yourselves, but it is the very fact that he is willing even to take such a stance that makes the book worth reading.  He does not, as so many critics now do, simply throw his hands up at ideas like truth and beauty because they cannot be made to stand as absolutes. Rather, he reasserts that the task of art is constantly to reiterate the true and the beautiful as best it can, precisely because these ideas cannot be approached as absolutes.  “Art asserts,” he says, “an ultimate rightness of things which it does not pretend to understand in the philosopher’s way but which it nevertheless can understand.”  While this way of talking runs counter to much of the critical writing now being produced, and while it is a position that is most difficult to defend from any vantage point beyond art itself, it is Gardner’s willingness to occupy a firm position on the moral place of fiction that is interesting in itself, and I would love it if some of you would do me the service of reading it as well, so that we can begin discussing it between us more closely.

Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World – I have been under substantial pressure for some time by some of my friends to read Philip K. Dick, whose work I have managed to avoid until now.  Unfortunately, I disliked the premise of  Counter-Clock World so much that I will likely have to read another of Dick’s books just to give him a fair chance.  The central idea of the novel is that time has reversed itself, so that the dead are being returned to life, and people are growing younger, and stomachs are regurgitating the food they ate long ago.  The problem is, for me, that the premise cannot possibly be held consistently.  It is not that the premise is strange or impossible per se that bothers me, because I delight in the strange and the impossible when they are well accomplished.  I just object to the fact that the novel cannot even maintain its own premise internally, falling into all kinds of absurdities.  Though I certainly recognize that Dick is merely employing a plot device, and that he is probably not terribly interested in the question of consistency, I cannot abide a literary world that falls foul of its own logic.  So, I will give Dick the benefit of the doubt, and I will try to find one of his novels that I can read in fairness.

  1. Brad Hess. said:

    Regarding “The Razor’s Edge”:
    Colorful narrating or not, Larry remains one of my all time favorite characters. This book was a actually part of the reason we travelled to India. One of my favourite ways to answer people’s questions regarding what we’d do there was to say,
    “We’ll loaf.”

  2. Brad,

    Yes, I would have liked the book to loaf with Larry more often and to ruminate with Maugham less.

  3. John Jantunen said:


    If unable to span the gap in logic in Counter-Clock World I fear that you may never be able to appreciate the subtle genius of a PKD. I suppose, there are worse fates than this but off hand I can’t think of one. As I said to you earlier, Dick is interested in the mundane within the fantastic: the sheer drudgery of having to cope with a world that no longer operates by the principals we have defined us. He was writing for the pulp sci-fi market until the seventies when his growing noteriety gave him a bit more leeway so his earlier novels (which is most of them) are always mired deeply within the conventions of the genre. For the uninitiated I would suggest his latter ones. Valis, Radio-Free Albemuth, Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, Scanner Darkly, The Three Stigmata Of palmr Eldritch and Confessions Of A Crap Artist would be good bets to start but that said, he’s still one of things that you either get or you don’t. Having read most (or all) of the 32 books he published in his lifetime and his five volumes of short stories I can only say that they’re a blur of characters and ideas, all seemingly taking place in the same world, whether its the present or the future its hard to say. It is a world very similar, I think to ours, in that, like his characters, we are also asked to believe in something that’s cracking at the edges and the more we see the slivers of light peeking through, warning us of our fall, the more, oddly, we strive to hold it together. PKD, rare among us, reveals the sheer folly of this enterprise and never leaves us with an easy solutions except to say that it’s only going to get weirder the more we try to pretend that there’s nothing weird going on.

  4. John,

    It is not that I object to a world that no longer operates according to the principles of our own. I object to a world that does not operate consistently according to its own principles. This is where I am frustrated by Dick’s novel, as I am with almost every fiction that tries to play with time.

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