Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando(Yes, my copy has this hideous cover)

The Great Modernists. I can appreciate them. I can comprehend and marvel at their skill. But like a peerless painting hung in a museum, I do not want to spend hours gazing (reading) upon them. I picked Orlando specifically because it contains many of my favorite hooks to a great novel — a sweeping historical narrative, a skilled writer of prose, humor, and a touch of the fantastic (Orlando is near four hundred years old by the end of the novel and inexplicably swaps genders halfway through).

Yet I went from moderately interested — the beginning chapters detailing a royal carnival upon the frozen-over Thames, before the ice catastrophically splits — to sort of ambivalent with the direction the book was taking, to utterly bored, to actually skimming the final few pages which I never do. The eponymous god-prince/cess wanders throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and barely learns anything. Nothing is ever explained and there’s no tension or plot, which I don’t necessarily need in a novel, but I do need something. The fantastical elements are never contextualized nor explained. The humor is excellent but rare, and while Virginia Woolf is a great writer, she’s not the type that resonates with me so acutely that I can read anything she writes and simply be enraptured by the sentence-by-sentence level prose itself.

The politics are dated. Orlando suddenly changing from man to woman changes very little (and that’s the point!). In fact, her clothes change her more. In an era when women are not prohibited from wearing pants, this is not particularly radical. This is not some sort of sexism is over! tirade — but the book was written in 1928, there’s not much new or profound on the political front. It is actually sort of infuriating how little Orlando actually acknowledges any sort of change. This is most pronounced when she mysteriously has a son towards the end of the novel. She’s never pregnant, and at least in the visible narrative, hasn’t been anywhere near any suitable men the entire time.

The whimsy just did not hold it together for me, I guess.

A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan

a-handbook-for-the-perfect-adventurer-3The existence of this book is, quite frankly, bizarre.

The preface introduces Pierre Mac Orlan — an influential but neglected French writer of the early twentieth century. A writer of absurdist tales and adventure novels, personal essays and accordion songs. Under pseudonym, an abundance of flagellation novels. Some of these novels were made into films including the semi-famous Port of Shadows. Yet almost none of his work was translated into English and that which was is all but impossible to find.

All of this is well and good, and the intro writer does a good job of conjuring curiosity and intrigue on the subject of Pierre Mac Orlan. I was ready. Give me the adventure. The flagellation and absurd.

So it came as a surprise that after all this hype, the book the publisher chose to translate was a pamphlet* steeped in a literary-philosophical conflict not of our time and filled with a constant slew of literary recommendations for novels and writers that would be incredibly difficult to track down, if they had ever been translated into English in the first place. The book was written in 1920 after all. There’s endnotes explaining each now-obscure point of reference or writer that contains nearly as many words as the main text itself!

Mac Orlan defines two different sorts of adventurers:

The active adventurer — The person (always a man, women are set pieces — more on this later) who goes off and has some adventure somewhere. He’s probably a sailor and quick with a sabre and off to lands unknown. Impetuous and with a low regard for personal safety, the book even comes with a list of traits these fellows show in childhood.

The passive adventurer — The one who does not travel anywhere farther than the local tavern (mythologized in loving detail), the one who coaxes the gullible active adventure on some perilous mission upon the high-seas and then writes a novel about it afterward. Their defining features are their voracious appetite for reading, their parasitic relationship to the active adventure, and their desire to put it all into writing.

Mac Orlan praises the passive adventurer as one who can write tales about lands he has never been to, who lives by reading and finds all the “research” he may need by familiarity with the great writers of his time (or, again, The Tavern). The introduction makes the comparison to Marcel Proust composing his opus without ever really leaving his bedroom. I would disagree with Mac Orlan, and surely that sort of attitude might explain the cringe-worthy books written by westerners of that time period (and now) about other countries that are hilariously inaccurate and probably racist. But I wasn’t really engaging with this argument because I can never tell when Pierre Mac Orlan is serious.

For he is always dry and mordant, and while he seems to be praising the passive adventurer and determining the active as foolish, there is also a World War I reactionary bent throughout. Is he applauding the passive adventurer or embarking upon a biting satirical take of the governments involved in the Great War — passive adventurers who gladly sent their captive active adventurers to their deaths en masse? The passive adventurer’s manipulation of (human) subject is stressed and at the end, Mac Orlan even warns that the active adventurer, should he survive his sojourn, occasionally comes back to beat the passive adventurer senseless.

This is a constant of the book. It’s impossible to tell if the man is being serious. Everything is written in a deadpan, deliberate tone. In one sentence, he is being a homophobe:

“An adventurer should never be made a homosexual, so as not to break with the prejudice that decrees that an individual with effeminate manners cannot act courageously.”

Then in the same breath, he contradicts his own edict:

“However, this vice has nothing to do with physical courage, which always leads to scorning death.”

Similarly, he refers to women as objects to be inserted into adventure stories like other “props”. His prime example involves comparing types of women to the accoutrements of a ship. Does he really mean it? I don’t know!

I’m still fascinated and Mac Orlan’s sentence-level writing is calculated wit and fun to read, so maybe this choice for translation was smart after all. Certainly it was cheaper than translating a full-length novel. I would like one of those.

*And pamphlet it is. Goodreads lists it as one hundred and one pages but there is an immensity of white space and blank pages. Seriously — there are five blank pages placed at the end of the book for no real reason other than to pad the sizing. The pages themselves are thicker than normal. It takes all of thirty minutes to read.

The Castle by Franz Kafka

castleK. is trying to get to the castle. The surrounding town’s streets are always deserted. It’s often snowing, often dark, and time starts to lose reason and constancy. Mystifying supernatural events occur without explanation — divide two youthful twins, and now they are individually old and grizzled, unable to split their combined age between them. The town has its own internal rhythm and customs and idiosyncrasies, or so it would seem. What is devastatingly obvious w/r/t to social etiquette and procedure to the villagers is inexplicable to K., and to the reader. K. is often compared to a child in how little he understands adult affairs. There are lengthy monologues, personal histories, and bureaucratic minutia explained page after page by one character, only to be contradicted in the same fashion by another character.

This is the meaning of Kafkaesque. Nightmarish, bureaucratic monotony.

I remember reading the Phantom Tollbooth as a kid. And all of Roald Dahl’s works, one by one from the school library’s bottom shelf. I was enchanted and found them entirely natural in their grim absurdity, peopled by heroic albeit vindictive heroes. They often lacked a cogent moral lesson and horrible things happened, both to the protagonists and as a result of their actions. All this I loved and felt was proper. This is a child’s version of maturity, but important nonetheless, since its absence in other age-appropriate works is obviously felt by children.

Much later, as an adult I read analyses of why Juster and Dahl are so popular with kids. They spoke to the fear and bedevilment and chaos and cruelty that are all inescapable components of everyday childhood life, rather than endless summer afternoons amidst the dandelion fuzz like adults like to wistfully recall.

This implies one of two things:

1. The bedeviled nonsensical world is merely one of children, and as we become adults, things make more sense even if it is a somber kind of sense.

2. As adults, we gain some sort of pathos or maturity that allows us to handle the bedeviled world in some fashion.

Franz Kafka proves both of these false. The adult world is just as baffling, nonsensical, insoluble, and unfathomable. There is a reason that K. is constantly compared to a child. Except, unlike childhood and its apposite stories, there is no logical end, however fraught. Alienation in perpetuity. There is death, which is the conclusion Kafka apparently had in mind for K. had he lived to finish The Castle. Darkly ironic, but still no conscious end.

(I’m on a bend of great authors posthumously published great works lately. See The Pale King.)

(Also, I did finally find an image of the cover despite earlier troubles, albeit artifacted and grainy.)

Book As Physical Object

this one

Reading an old 1959 copy of Kafka’s The Castle. It must be somewhat obscure. I cannot find an image of its cover online and the book itself only appears companioned by a fuzzy photograph on antique book sites.

The joy of the physical book confounds — the yellowed edges of the grainy-wood page, the elegant serifed typeface, and the papery book jacket that swishes and crinkles when the book is handled.

And the smell; that nostalgic blend of decay and dust and musty knowledge. It’s an avowal that the elements of the book were made from a living thing, damp and leafy.

It smells alive.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

palekingPreceding the main text is the editor’s note, which manages to be both hagiographic and self aggrandizing until it finally gets to the point in the very last sentence:

“But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.“

Paradox: We respect the man enough to treat his work with great reverence and it is a common reaction to feel connected to the author in a rare and unique way. Yet we don’t respect his obvious desire to not let us read unfinished work. It gets sort of extra questionable w/r/t publishing and capitalism and marketing (the paperback promises four unpublished scenes not in the hardcover!), but I can hardly act righteous or judgemental. I guess The Pale King is here and DFW is not.

A host of characters converge on the IRS Regional Examination Center of Peoria, Illinois, a drab and generic former factory town carved from the surrounding farmland. For reasons that never become clear (but are explained in DFW’s notes composed at the end of the book), there is a massive amount of transfers all arriving around this time in the mid eighties. All the main characters have various tragic or comic or incredibly self-absorbed backstories. There is a thematic bent to be explored through each of their situations (the character who is so incredibly nice and generous as to infuriate everyone around him, the character obsessed with finding people to “save” her, etc). The novel ends as you really start to know and establish attachments with the cast.

The IRS was undergoing massive changes in the mid-eighties. Another major theme is IRS as civics and as a noble, moral duty vs. IRS as profit generating entity run like a corporation to maximize profits by intelligently hiring and auditing and process-running. Thus the time period’s importance to the mid 2000’s era it was written in is exposed. Most of the cast are rote examiners, which involves examining IRS returns to determine which are worth auditing — a mind numbingly boring task. Boredom is the major question of the novel. Why is dullness so painful? Can it be overcome with some sort zen-type ultimate mindfulness? The content of the novel itself was supposed to embody this entire notion — instead of the normal building-tension-to-conclusion narrative arc, DFW’s notes explain the plot as:

“Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.”

The novel also runs a Princess Bride-esque gambit; William Goldman’s novel posits that it is not an original work at all, but an abridged version of the classic and impossible to find original written by one S. Morgenstern, which also happens to be a true account of real kingdoms. Likewise, Wallace, appearing in first person (“Author here.”), proclaims that The Pale King is not a novel. It’s is a memoir, detailing the year he worked at the IRS for a year when he was 20, with requisite backstory to explain getting kicked out of college and so on. While I knew most of the personal history was fictional, I had absolutely zero idea how much of the IRS minutia was — so the preceding paragraph’s IRS summary is probably false, at least in the real world. The Daily Beast has a fact checker on the issue.

The situation and real-life context here is impossible to escape. Every time a character contemplates suicide or knows someone who succeeded, there is a deeper pang than its mention in all of DFW’s other books and essays*. Worse though, is the finality, and contingent sadness. This is it. For the work and for the man even though he’s been dead a few years. Reading The Pale King means being sad for reasons that have nothing to do with the content itself**.

It is impossible to say how unfinished to the novel is. There’s occasional clunkiness or pacing weirdness that would likely have been smoothed out. The ghost, and I mean ghost, of a plot begins to materialize by the end — something considerably less solid than the plot of Infinite Jest, a novel notoriously low on cohesive and easy-to-ascertain plot. Its study of boredom and how to deal with it is not fully formed. The notes at the end reveal a major plot piece that is not even present in the existing text. In my imagination, The Pale King is at least as long as Infinite Jest.

*where suicide is seemingly omnipresent. Which sort of begs the question DFW poses in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again essay: Is it them or is it me? Is suicide — its ideation, contemplation, and fulfillment — a common but rarely intelligently addressed topic in general narratives (aside from maybe like tragic backstory or that one cousin or w/e) or is it specific to certain writers like DFW or is this all just a bunch of crap that I’m focusing too hard on because I know the writer eliminated his own personal map?

**I’ve rewritten this paragraph a few times because it sounds incredibly banal and rote. Of course it’s sad. A person died before their time. But it happens all the time. Maybe I’m just an uncaring monster, but I am feeling sadder than I do when most people I don’t know but know of dies. Like, I think, most people, death outside of my limited sphere of awareness is typically abstract.This is a cloudy sadness, a feeling of unfairness, and a deep feeling of unsettlement that something is wrong that will never be made right about the whole thing. The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has provoked a similar reaction in people. Like a hammer-blow. The world is not as it ought to be.