Tuesday, September 24, 2013

8 Novels for the Aspiring Writer

If one subject fascinates writers, it's becoming a writer. And so, here is a list of novels about writers, writing, and reading with much to offer to every aspirant to the literary profession. I've left out, as usual, a few of the more obvious and frequently cited novels about writers and writing, like Pale Fire, and I've included a number of novels that are usually dismissed as juvenile and definitely don't deserve to be.

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
Without a doubt, one of the best-known and most beloved books about an aspiring writer is Louisa May Alcott's classic novel and, while it's inspired many generations of girls to want to write, it's often dismissed as merely a children's novel. The evolution of Jo's writing from the macabre and sensational to the tender and profound is both funny and enlightened, a nostalgic treasure for all of us who "scribbled" when we were young. And as I've already discussed in a previous post, it's a milestone for feminists.

The Neverending Story - Michael Ende
A phantasmagoria of metaphysics, philosophy, and ecstatic imagery, Michael Ende's fantasy masterpiece is about Bastian, a fat, unpopular, and not particularly brilliant boy, who cuts class so that he can read a forbidden book. That book turns out to be The Neverending Story, which starts out as the story of Atreyu on a quest to save Fantastica and the Childlike Empress, but slowly draws Bastian into itself until he himself is creating the story. Ende's novel demands to be reread and it offers new revelations with every perusal.

The French Lieutenant's Woman - John Fowles
Brilliantly blending historical fiction, literary criticism, and philosophical reflection, this novel tells the story of Sarah Woodruff, a Victorian woman abandoned by her French lover, who fascinates Charles Smithson, engaged to be married to Ernestine. Fowles does not write a straightforward narrative, rather offering the reader multiple endings and interpretations, throwing out clues and red herrings, and even appearing as a character himself. This novel offers all the pleasures of a Thomas Hardy novel with the intellectual games and intertextuality of Umberto Eco's novels and criticism.

Letters from a Peruvian Woman - Francoise de Graffigny
This novel is told from the point of view of an Incan princess, kidnapped by the Spanish conquistadors, rescued by the French, and brought to Europe as a curiosity. Zilia records her trials and thoughts first with an Incan method of knot writing and then with European writing, grappling with the traumatic parting from her native world and her budding ambitions as a writer. Significant both for its sympathetic and complex portrait of a Native American and its fiercely feminist politics, Letters from a Peruvian Woman is essential reading for all women aspiring to be writers.

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
Anna Wulf is a writer living in London in the 1950s, struggling to synthesize four notebooks (on her memories of Southern Rhodesia, her involvement in the Communist party, material for an autobiographical novel, and her emotional life and dreams) into one work - the golden notebook. As Anna delves deeper into her project, the lines between reality and fiction begin to disappear, as the act of writing becomes the act of living. Lessing's novel explores Communism and Stalinism, the Cold War, the developing feminist movements and the politics of sex, maternity, work, and, most of all, writing.

Atonement - Ian McEwan
On the eve of World War I, Briony Tallis witnesses a sexual encounter between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, the son of the family housekeeper, misconstrues it, and wreaks havoc on both of their lives as a result. The novel is ultimately a meditation on the reasons a writer writes and what is accomplished by writing. By far, McEwan's finest work to date, Atonement is heartrending, poignant, and exquisitely written.

Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, Emily's Quest - L. M. Montgomery
Though other Montgomery heroines have literary ambitions, notably Anne Shirley and Sara Stanley, Emily Byrd Starr is the one that follows her desire for success the furthest and hardest. She is also the most like Montgomery herself. An exceptional rendering of the child's voice (and later the adolescent's) and an astute portrait of an emerging writer are only part of what makes these books so wonderful. Emily is one of those rare characters who becomes a real friend to her readers

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
Another book that has inspired countless young girls to write, Jean Webster's oft-maligned epistolary novel is certainly dated, but nonetheless delightful. Judy Abbott is an orphan given the chance to go to college, provided that she write regularly to her anonymous patron. Ornamented with comic sketches, Judy's letters chronicle her personal and artistic growth, and in particular her rigorously self-imposed reading and writing regimen. I disagree with critics who have deride the book as "anti-feminist" - Judy is independent, staunchly practical, and determined to be self-sufficient.

(As an aside, I'm almost positive that My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, which was made into a fabulous film by Gillian Armstrong, deserves to be on this list, but it is out of print and I have not yet located a copy.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Letters, Diaries, and Private Papers: Should We Publish Them?

In April of this year, a volume of Willa Cather's previously unreleased correspondence was published, despite her explicitly stated desire that it remain private. The editors of the letters, in defiance of her will, decided to publish them anyway, justifying their decision by arguing that her personal (and legally expressed) desires are of less importance than her place in the American cultural legacy. The editors make what is in these cases a frequent assumption - that Cather's position as a literary figure annuls her right to privacy, even when it is legally invoked in a will. Is it ethical, or at the very least justifiable, to publish private letters in such a case? The question is particularly perplexing given that interest in Cather's sex life is one of the main catalysts for publishing them.

 One of the most popular literary figures of all time, Jane Austen, is also one of the most elusive, thanks to the fact that her sister and closest confidante, Cassandra, burned much of her correspondence and other private papers. As a result, biographers and literary voyeurs can only speculate on many aspects of her private life. Cassandra's actions have been deplored by scholars and biographers, who have reproached her as short-sighted and prudish. But Cassandra was protecting her sister Jane (as well as her entire family circle), not the writer, not the public figure, but the private individual. We may regret the loss of the material, but condemning Cassandra is absurd, particularly given that she and her brother arranged that both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey be published after Austen's death. Cassandra looked after both the private and the public legacy of her sister in a way that, we can speculate, Austen would have approved. (It's worth noting that Austen's novels were not published under her name until after her death.)

In some cases, the ethical implications of publishing seem more clear-cut, especially when letters and diaries are testaments of a major historical event. Diaries and letters of victims of the Holocaust, most prominently The Diary of Anne Frank, have immense importance - they are testimonials of the millions of voices silenced in concentration camps and death marches. Of course, this situation seems clear-cut to me, but many may disagree. After all, we have many published testimonials by such brilliant writers as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Perhaps the line I've drawn is arbitrary - who gets to decide when an historical event is of such a magnitude that all related documents ought to be made public? One could argue that any public person's letters and diaries have significance to the public - whether the person is an artist, writer, movie star, politician, scientist, or soldier. Anne Frank, however, was a private person. Her status as a public person was attained only with the publishing of her diary. One could even argue that any diary or correspondence has significance as an historical record, something we routinely do with any written material more than a hundred years old. One could say that the expiration of a certain amount of time renders the issue of privacy null and void, but how do we determine that amount of time?

The traditional association of men with public life and women with private life has also led to differing attitudes towards private writing by men and by women. Men's diaries were more often records of their public lives, their careers and extracurricular concerns, meant to be passed down to male descendents, while women's diaries were records of private family life, their emotions and domestic concerns. Naturally there are exceptions, but the patriarchal imprint of an outmoded societal structure lives on today in our attitudes towards diaries and letters. The critical focus changes. We read C. S. Lewis's letters in order to gain insight into his writing and his Christianity; we read Sylvia Plath's letters in order to gain insight into her troubled marriage. These divisions are slowly breaking down, but there remains a tendency to treat women's private writing as more personal and more intimate, a reflection of the person rather than the writer (or artist or scientist, etc.).

When a public person chooses to publish diaries and letters, they are usually edited - potentially hurtful or libelous comments are excised, other people's secrets concealed, passages about sex are toned down. The writer is able to craft what he or she deems an acceptable persona. These are not dishonest representations; they are simply crafted for a particular audience, just as private diaries and letters are. In the case of some private individuals, names and other identifying information is changed - a classic example is A Young Girl's Diary, a diary that Freud felt was of the utmost importance in understanding the psycho-sexual development of girls.

In Willa Cather's case, the choice to publish her letters is unethical, but also inevitable. The thorny issue of publication has to be determined on a case-by-case basis, though if there is money to be made, publication will most likely always win. The significance of a person's private papers, to history and his or her cultural legacy, should be considered, but so should the expressed desires of that person, particularly if expressed in a legal document. At the very least, we, as readers, need to acknowledge the breach of privacy we necessarily commit when we read letters and diaries,no matter how old they are, no matter who has written them.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Best Works of the Best 20th Century American Writers

The thirteen writers on this list are, in my opinion, the finest American writers of the 20th century. They come from all over the United States, from Vermont to Pennsylvania, Georgia to Nebraska, New York to Indiana. Many lived abroad for much of their lives, while others stayed in their native states. These are their best, most fascinating and compelling works. In several cases, I singled out novels that are more obscure (i.e. Peony rather than the far better known The Good Earth).

Pearl S. Buck - Peony
Buck, daughter of American missionaries in China, wrote dozens of novels set in Asia and worked tirelessly to change negative Western perceptions of Asian countries and customs. Peony is set in K'aifeng in the 1850s, where there was a thriving Jewish community, which eventually assimilated entirely. The family of Ezra ben Israel takes Peony as a bondmaid, but conflicts arise when Peony falls in love with Ezra's only son. A fascinating depiction of cultural conflict and assimilation and a complex portrayal of  the virtues and vagaries of love.

Dorothy Canfield - Seasoned Timber
This is one of Dorothy Canfield's finest novels. Set in Canfield's native Vermont, the story is about Timothy Hulme, headmaster of the Clifford Academy, his love for a schoolteacher twenty years his junior, and the conflict he must face when a trustee leaves a much needed gift to the academy that would require the school to exclude Jews and girls, as well as many of the local students. Both a passionate defense of human rights and a moving portrait of a man afraid of life passing him by, Seasoned Timber is an essential and unrecognized American novel.

Willa Cather - The Song of the Lark
Thea Kronberg is a minister's daughter from a small town in Colorado, determined to develop her musical talent into a career. The ambivalence of leaving behind one's town, family, and old loves is beautifully drawn and Thea's transformation from innocent child to strong, independent woman is a feminist affirmation. Cather's gorgeous descriptions of Colorado and Arizona are merely the icing on the cake.

Pietro di Donato - Christ in Concrete
Di Donato, the son of immigrants from Italy, provided us with one of the greatest American novels about the immigrant experience. Written in the rhythms of Italian-American English, the book narrates the bitter experiences of an Italian family that comes to America to work in construction. The conflict between national and spiritual identity and the demands of mere survival in capitalist America is brought to a crisis in a tragedy rich in religious symbolism. Older editions include an introduction by Dorothy Canfield.

Theodore Dreiser - An American Tragedy 
This extraordinary novel is difficult to describe because it is much greater than the sum of its parts. Dreiser based his masterpiece partly on a notorious murder case, giving his protagonist the same initials as the defendant in the real case. Clyde Griffiths is deeply ambitious and desperate to leave behind the squalid poverty and Christian evangelism of his parents' home. Clyde works his way slowly up the social scale, but his passion for women (and his willingness to abandon them) proves his downfall. 

Ernest Hemingway - A Farewell to Arms
This largely autobiographical novel is set in Italy during the first World War, where American Frederic Henry has enlisted in the Italian army as an ambulance driver. When he's wounded, he's cared for by English nurse Catherine Barkley with whom he falls in love. The novel was suppressed in Italy by the Fascist regime, both for its anti-militarism and its portrayal of the Italian army. The modern edition is still censored, missing Hemingway's original four letter words. 

Henry James - The Wings of the Dove
All of James's characters and plots are developed with minute precision and subtle evolution, but The Wings of the Dove, one of his late masterpieces, is perhaps the most refined example of his technique. Kate and Merton are desperately in love and desperately poor. When they meet terminally ill and very wealthy Milly, they befriend her, though their motivation in doing so is murky and unscrupulous. In this novel James returns to some of his favorite themes, including the cultural clash between Americans and Europeans and the sticky entanglements of money and class.

Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird 
Lee's one and only published work to date is almost certainly the most widely read book that deals with racial prejudice in the US. Scout and her brother witness their father's defense of an African-American man accused of raping a white woman. The novel grapples with its incendiary subject with grace, courage, and compassion. There is also a strong feminist subtext - the characters that criticize Scout as unfeminine are also the most prejudiced about race and class.

Madeleine L'Engle - The Small Rain
L'Engle is better known for her many works for young adults, but her adult novels deserve equal recognition. The Small Rain was her first novel, started when she was still in college, though its sophistication makes it seem like a more mature work. It narrates the coming of age of Katherine Forrester, a gifted young pianist and actress, and her struggle to cultivate herself artistically. A real treat for readers who loved L'Engle's works as kids. There is also a sequel, A Severed Wasp.

Carson McCullers - The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
One of the most heart-rending depictions of small-town America, this novel follows John Singer, a deaf-mute who becomes the confidante of Mick, a troubled teenage girl, Dr. Copeland, an African-American physician, Jake, an alcoholic labor organizer, and other lonely people rejected and oppressed by the harsh injustices of their world. An unsparing and compassionate work, and McCullers's masterpiece.

John O'Hara - A Rage to Live
This novel set in small-town Pennsylvania tells the story of Grace Caldwell, an heiress whose rebellion against the rigid constraints imposed on the women of her time makes her notorious and involves her in numerous scandals. The graphic portrayal of Grace's sexual appetites was commonly interpreted as a depiction of nymphomania, a patriarchal reading that most women today will find simplistic and a bit paranoid.

Edith Wharton - The House of Mirth
Lily Bart is a poor socialite in 1890s New York determined to make a brilliant marriage and satisfy her desire for luxury, though she is tempted by the possibility of a love match with Lawrence Seldon, whose fortune isn't up to her standards. Like Louisa May Alcott's Work, this novel is a searing depiction of the crippling limitations women faced in a world in which their work was undervalued, underpaid, and under-respected and marriage their best chance at wealth. This 1905 novel was Wharton's first major work. 

E. B. White - Charlotte's Web
Charlotte's Web may be a children's book, but it transcends the limits of its intended audience and can truly be considered one of the great American novels. Wilbur, a barnyard pig, and his beloved friend Charlotte, a large grey spider, hatch a plan to save Wilbur from being butchered. Though its protagonists are animals, the book has a startlingly realistic edge and its unsentimental compassion and dry sense of humor raise it far above the typical standards of children's literature. Only slightly less brilliant is White's Stuart Little.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Best Battle-of-the-Sexes Comedies of the 1940s

The screwball comedy was slowly meeting its demise in the 40s, though it was still a strong genre at the beginning of the decade, but the battle of the sexes continued alive and well, provoking both comedies and dramas. It was a great decade for film: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger were hard at work in England, the neorealism movement was commencing in Italy, and Walt Disney was devising new animation techniques at breakneck speed. Hollywood was enjoying an influx of talent from Europe seeking refuge from World War II, from Erich Korngold and Fritz Lang, to Ernst Lubitsch and Peter Lorre. And Rosie the Riveter and Betty Grable were the contradictory female ideals. These are the best of the battle-of-the-sexes comedies from 1940s Hollywood.

10. The Pirate (1948)
Vincente Minnelli's musical extravaganza explores the fine lines between reality and fantasy and is a showcase for some of Gene Kelly's best and most avant-garde choreography, set to songs by Cole Porter. Set on a small semi-mythical Caribbean island, it narrates the romance between Judy Garland, infatuated with a legendary pirate she's never seen, and Gene Kelly, a less than scrupulous traveling player. When Judy finds out her paramour isn't a pirate at all, she lets him have it in a hysterical fight scene.

9. The Harvey Girls (1946)
Judy Garland joins the ranks of women heading to the Western frontier to work at Harvey's restaurants in this catchy musical and bit of Western kitsch. The Harvey girls begin a crusade to steer the menfolk out of the saloon and into the restaurant, but meet with staunch opposition from the local saloon singers and their devotees. The supporting cast includes Angela Lansbury, Marjorie Main, and Ray Bolger. This film has an unusually high number of tenacious female characters, all great fun to watch.

8. Heaven Can Wait (1943)
An elegant, sophisticated, and bubbly comedy, Heaven Can Wait is a prime example of the famed  Lubitsch touch. Don Ameche regales the devil with his life story and life-long fascination with women, convinced that he belongs in Hell. Gene Tierney, gorgeous as ever but with some very strange hairstyles, is his beloved and long-suffering wife. The supporting cast is a veritable dream team of character actors, including Eugene Pallette, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, and Spring Byington.

7. The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Joel McCrea stars as an architect who just can't seem to catch a break and Claudette Colbert plays his extravagant wife, who thinks she's hit on the perfect plan when she decides to divorce him and bag herself a millionaire in order to finance McCrea's latest architectural scheme. The marvelously witty script by Preston Sturges feels strikingly contemporary and Rudy Vallee is hysterically funny in a supporting role that has him singing every single verse of "Goodnight Sweetheart."

6. Pride and Prejudice (1940)
Greer Garson stars as Elizabeth Bennett opposite Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy, supported by a marvelous cast of character actors, in classic Hollywood's best rendition of any of Jane Austen's novels. Though the film makes a few significant departures from the most broadly comic of Austen's books, of all the many adaptations of the material, this one best captures Austen's scalding satire and the witty badinage between her romantic hero and heroine.

5. Woman of the Year (1942)
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play husband and wife reporters whose marriage hits the skids when Hepburn neither gives up her career or takes up housewifely duties. One of the rare Hollywood movies about marriage rather than the romance leading up to it, this film isn't terribly transgressive, but its ultimate message - that marriage will only work if both parties retain their essential selves - is as relevant today as it was in 1942.

4. His Girl Friday (1940)
This is, without a doubt, the best version of the hit stage-play, The Front Page. The dialogue is delivered at a machine gun pace by Cary Grant, as the suave and manipulative newspaper editor, and by Rosalind Russell, as his ex-wife and best reporter, supported by a deeply sincere Ralph Bellamy, as Russell's new fiance. There is no funnier movie.

2. Adam's Rib (1949)
One of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's best films, if not their absolute best, Adam's Rib is a snappy comedic romp through gender politics and bedroom manners. Husband and wife lawyers go head to head in a case that quickly evolves (or devolves) into a feminist dissection of the law. Judy Holliday and Tom Ewell are both splendiferous as the defendant and plaintiff of the case. Used to great effect is Cole Porter's "Farewell Amanda."

1. The Lady Eve (1941) 
Preston Sturges' hilarious comedy of the sexes (and the classes) stars Barbara Stanwyck as a sexy cardsharp and Henry Fonda as a gullible rich guy with a passion for herpetology, who meet on an ocean liner and commence a romance. When Stanwyck is exposed as a con artist, Fonda tries to reject her - but finds it much harder than one would think. The repartee is witty, Charles Coburn leads the supporting cast, and gender roles are reversed, the woman pursuing the man. This is one of the greatest Hollywood films.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: John Cassavetes' Faces

 John Cassavetes' Faces is a series of dramatically linked episodes, centered around Richard (John Marley) and his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin), and their lovers, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) and Chet (Seymour Cassel), each episode taking the plot in an unexpected direction. Richard and Maria have been married fourteen years and they are both bored, oppressed by the monotonous progression of their relationship, eventually seeking something not clearly defined (pleasure? intimacy? security?) with other lovers after Richard suddenly announces that he wants a divorce. The ubiquitous use of close-ups and a somewhat shaky cinema-verite style pull the viewer into the film, often in uncomfortable or even disturbing ways, even though reality television has accustomed us to being an intrusive viewer. Cassavetes invites us to enter ever more deeply into the slowly accumulating misery of his characters' lives, offering no respite or possibility of relief. Marriage, love, sex, aging, self-expression - these are the themes on which Cassavetes refuses to shine any optimism, however remote.

For a feminist, the film's primary attraction is its dissection of the very marital conditions and double standards that prompted Betty Friedan to write The Feminist Mystique. While Richard has a promising career and already feels entitled to his boys' nights out with prostitutes before asking for a divorce, Maria cooks, cleans, and discusses marital problems on the telephone. Richard feels entitled to more - more women, more nights out, more fun. Maria wants something, whatever it might turn out to be, that she can't have if she stays with Richard.

The black and white cinematography reflects the cinema-verite style of the film, but its grainy texture and less than crisp delineations are at times dizzying, almost as though one were watching a video of the projected film, rather than a clean print. The music is understated, but it effectively dramatizes the turbulent undercurrents of emotion carrying the film forward.

Undoubtedly, the film requires a lot of patience and a rather thick skin. Like Richard and Maria's marriage (and pretty much everything else in their lives), most scenes seem to take just a little too long, which is perhaps intentional, but nevertheless wearing.  In fact, the film's success is precisely what makes it so very tiring. Its portrayal of boredom is so viscerally accurate that the audience shares the boredom. An impressive artistic achievement, but a doubtful asset in a film that runs over two hours.