Saturday, March 30, 2013

Wild World: Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER

D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: That was strange.

Everyone knows the story. Lady Chatterley’s husband, Clifford, is paralyzed from the waist down due to blast in the Great War. Though she doesn’t seem to miss the sex, having seen what all the fuss was about in her youth, and she was never that keen on it anyway, she starts looking for someone or something to connect with physically, and after a brief and unsatisfying few romps with a family friend, she catches sight of her estate’s gamekeeper stripped to the waist and splashed with water, and after that, the lady just can’t help herself. Though the story is often remembered as an attraction of opposites or a scandalous bridging of the gap in social class, that’s more in the perception of others than in the facts; in truth, Mellors, though born in the working class, is educated (Mellors often speaks "broad," slipping into his lower-class accent, but he's slumming, doing it partly for effect and partly to comfort himself) and has been an officer, and Lady Chatterley, though of the landed classes, doesn’t wear easily the mantle of her husband’s title and expresses strong sympathy for the workers.

It’s a love story, replete with scenes of explicit sexuality and largely inexplicit sex, but larger crises are at work in the novel than the crisis caused by the affair. WWI has physically and emotionally damaged everyone involved, but Clifford’s inability to either stand or produce children is Lawrence’s way of saying that the entire class structure is hobbled and impotent. Intellectual discussions take place in the Chatterley’s Wragley Hall, but they’re weightless, modern in the worst possible ways (and strangely reminiscent of Brave New World, as these colorless upper-class twits discuss making children in bottles). As for the outer world, industrialization is stripping away whatever was beautiful in England. It’s also causing encroachment on the estates of old, which can no longer survive, and though the loss of these estates is painted in morbid tones, it’s clear that Lawrence doesn’t truly bemoan that world's demise. Sterile, out of step, and inward, the old England has nothing to recommend it, but neither does Lawrence find anything to recommend the world to come, nor the lower classes bound to inhabit it. They have babies, and they’re not a bad sort, but they’ve become unmannered, their lives governed by money (a foul word in this novel) and gossip.

I was often reminded of Orwell’s 1984, which, for all its interest in the politics and psychology of fascism, also has some of Lawrence’s concerns and solutions. Life too sterile? Go off to the woods for a romp among the flowers. Worried about the future? Eventually, this present structure will fade. But Orwell’s characters are all in the Party, making it easy to forget, for much of that novel, that most people are leading rather different lives than the protagonists. “Salvation will come from the proles,” Winston Smith thinks, but Orwell doesn’t tell us much about them, keeping them at arm’s length. Lawrence shows us something of working-class life, and the ability (and marked tendency) of the working classes to reproduce is pushed in the face of Lady Chatterley, who does want a child. And though salvation won’t come from “the proles,” we’re given to understand, in the novel’s strangely melancholy ending, that a return to honest work, and an embrace of some sort of honest relations between the sexes, will at least make life feel meaningful.

As most know, what got the novel in trouble was all the sex. Three pages in, Lawrence is waxing about the female orgasm. You have to sympathize with Lawrence, who wants to write about sex but doesn’t have any literary model to follow. In the early going, he seems to struggle with how to talk about it, even saying “orgasm” and “crisis” in the same sentence as if they were two different things. He often says that Lady Chatterley is moved “in her womb” or “in her bowels” when she feels sexual stirrings. There’s an odd vacillation between bluntness and euphemism. I think, though, that what Lawrence wants to have happen is for the language to become more direct as Lady Chatterley herself comes to embrace a more vivid sexuality than she’s previously known. Thus, though sex enters the story early, the scenes gradually become more explicit and the characters grow more comfortable with the language and with their own bodies. It often reads goofily, but it works better than I initially thought it did.

Further, the book is tonally ragged. It's funnier than I expected. There are sharp exchanges and clever observations, but there are also just silly moments in which you feel Lawrence’s revealing honesty. The characters are hard to picture, as Lawrence’s descriptions seem inconsistent. Characters speak inconsistently, too, allowing Lawrence to vent his spleen about some subject and then, moments later, take it all back. And the book ends without completing what would appear to be its climax, leaving the characters suspended between the choices they’ve just made and the consequences. That follows 40 pages of jumping about in a rushed way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the novel. Perhaps he just wanted to be done, having put everyone though quite enough hell.  

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Drop by Drop, History's Weight: Rachel Seiffert's THE DARK ROOM

Though billed as a novel, Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room is in fact a triptych, each of its three stories examining a different era in Germany's recent history—the early years of WWII, the aftermath of defeat, and modern life—in order to unpack German culpability and guilt. The questions raised by the stories might by applied to any culture which has, at some point, participated in terrors: How does one assign culpability? Is it transmissible? Can it be forgiven? How guilty should any one person feel, regardless of their proximity to the events?

Seiffert provides no direct answers, only questions that lead to other questions. Even when it appears she's about to provide a kind of moral formula, she refuses to yield to any such statement. The book reminded me, in this, of Toni Morrison's Beloved, a novel that confronts American slavery only to conclude, in part, there is no way to successfully confront such horrors, no matter how fine our intentions.

This is not a multigenerational family novel; though we move through time, we're never allowed that kind of continuity. We never see what we might expect, a familiar face from a prior tale. Instead, the book is bound together by its themes and by geography, a kind of moral topography like something out of Dante. The cities send forth their young men, defend their border, receive the Allied bombs, empty of people, endure years of deprivation, and rebuild atop mounds of memories.

Photographs form a motif that binds the tales. "Helmut," the first story, tells of a physically handicapped boy who learns, via a generous employer, the trade of photography. From his childhood documentation of the comings and goings of trains he moves to the documentation of the life of his city, learning how to capture its beauty even as he uses the evidence of his photographs to track the departure of the city's residents. The story's one weakness, though I suppose the author doesn't see it this way, is Helmut's naiveté. I'm fine with the idea that he supports the Führer and spouts his pronouncements, but he fails to truly see how people are being treated even as he's photographing them. It's meant as irony, the camera framing what he sees but also distancing him from his subject, but the execution of the idea strains credulity.

Photographs appear in the second story, "Lore," when young Hannelore, a child of privilege who must guide her siblings to safety in postwar German, joins a crowd of people studying photos from the death camps. Here again, reality is both documented and problematized: Who are these people? Are the photos staged? What possible narrative could they support? The characters themselves, Lore and her family members as well as the young man who joins them in their journey, prompt similar questions: In what context are we to see them? What have they done? What do they deserve? Lore doesn't even understand the context of her own life, though she'll gain some knowledge of it by the end. (This story was adapted for a new film, which is what led me to Seiffert's book.)

After reading that long middle tale, it was hard for me to enter the new reality of the final story, "Micha." (A shifting narrative focus is what led me to stop reading the recent novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie; though well written and full of vivid characters, the shifts in perspective that created a structure of a linked series of short stories kept me at arms length, and I had to stop reading. Though no characters bind the tales in The Dark Room, Seiffert won me over, three thematically connected stories being more compelling for me than a dozen connected ones.) The third story here provided me with some resistance, Seiffert's drip-by-drip approach to narrative finally feeling too slow, but once the story gets going in earnest, I flew along (perhaps too quickly, the terse but frequent dialogue and repetitious movements of the character allowing for skimming). Micha (Michael) wants to find out whether his grandfather, a member of the Waffen-S.S., participated in atrocities. Here we enter the problem of modern Germany, surely divided between those who want to move on from the past and those who want to remind everyone about it—and Seiffert does not make the morality of the situations simple. In Belarus, in search of "the truth," Micha meets a local man and his wife with their own complex past. Now the camera surfaces again, but what is pictured and what cannot enter that picture bespeak the limits of both vision and forgiveness.

At times, the narrative would have benefited from a shift in pace or some stylistic variation. However, Seiffert's largely direct, moment-by-moment style suits these tales, as one of their subjects is the slow accumulation of detail and where those details lead us, whether we are witness, victim, participant . . . or reader.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, by James Lasdun

Despite the title, and despite the first of this memoir's four sections, James Lasdun's Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked is not solely a tale of obsession and threat. If that's what you're expecting—and the book certainly sets you up for such expectations—you'll be disappointed. What I took to be a digression about D.H. Lawrence in the second section was really an announcement as to the book's true nature. Thus, assays into Lasdun's family history (especially his father), anti-Semitism, Sir Gawain, and the swamp of Israeli political become much of the book, the pursuit via internet by a former (clearly unhinged) female student slipping to the margins. And when Lasdun, mostly known for his (terrific) short fiction, says on more than one occasion that he ought to mention now something he failed to mention before, thus undermining our confidence in this chronology of creepiness, you aren't meant to fault the misleading structure of the book but rather, I think, recognize the Lasdun has taken this awful aspect of his present life and shaped it so it can fruitfully address larger issues.

In truth, we're never allowed to set aside "Nasreen," the former writing student who becomes obsessed with Lasdun, and whose infatuation turns, as such things do when humans become objectified, into bilious hatred. Even when Lasdun shifts to other matters, his aim is to show how Nasreen's endless, invective-filled e-mails become for him a pair of lenses on the world, lenses that he cannot remove. So Lasdun's concern about the amorphous issue of "reputation," his tense reflections on his responses to any attractive woman, his dream-life, and an article he researches on construction of a temple in Jerusalem's Old City—all are altered by Nasreen's narrative about terrorism, rape (both real and metaphorical), and plagiarism.

What comes through is Lasdun's personality. He's certainly naive in the early days of the relationship, though he's no fool; another writer, however, might have made himself seem either more insightful or more the victim. Lasdun, who's English, doesn't react as one imagines most Americans might, with anger and a desire for vengeance. He's a quiet sort who knows the pestering has become a prosecutable assault, but he's more driven by anxiety and dread and an unwarranted hope than the desire to fix the problem.

The story's end reminds me of Anne Sexton's poem "The Awful Rowing Toward God": "This story ends with me still rowing." The attacks, via e-mail, wikipedia, Amazon, and through colleagues, have been dialed back, but they haven't altogether ceased. Lasdun's temperament, though, allows him to see his story as part of a larger history of desire and violence; his intellect, which got him into this mess, allows him to stay sane.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Enduring Chill: Jan Costin Wagner's ICEMOON

German writer Jan Costin Wagner's novel Das Schwiegen was made into a movie in 2010 (The Silence, German); recently a trailer for the movie popped up, so evidently it's now in release in the States. Made curious by the film, a dark mystery about a missing girl, I sought out Wagner's work at the library and found Icemoon.

This is one of those mystery novels that makes me think I could write mystery novels . . . as long as there's no mystery. Very little actual detective work is done by the Finnish police detective who connects two murders; in fact, he works largely by hunch, often drifting from his work due to his despondency over the death of his young wife. Readers know who the killer is from the outset. There's some mystery as to his motives, but that's not a puzzle that leads to him being caught. If you're looking, then, for a novel of detection, don't look here. This did frustrate me initially, but then I chose to judge the book for what it aimed to be rather than what I'd expected.

The true mystery in this novel is death. Detective Kimmo Joentaa is with his wife when she dies, and he obsesses over both her memory and her last moments. He gets close to death, but can't truly enter the experience. This motif connects him to the killer as well as to other characters. Death is unfathomable and irreversible, and so it frustrates both the intellect and the intentions of every character—even the murderer.

There's much about the novel that reminds me of Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist's vampire novel, Let the Right One In. It's the same cold landscape (though here the daylight is long, as it's summer), the same separation of narrative that tends to isolate the characters, the same tendency to create character and plot threads that feel (and perhaps are) digressive, and even, at one point, the same concrete apartment building, backed by trees and facing a playground. 

The book flies by: The language is spare, the syntax straightforward, the details compressed. Also, it's not as long as it appears, relying on one-sentence paragraphs (a standard suspense-story form) to keep the tale artificially clicking along. 

The book is involving, and its characters linger. The mysteries at the heart of it, though, remained unsolved.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Signifying Nada: THEY LIVE (Carpenter) and THEY LIVE (Lethem)

In a converse of the usual advice, I proclaim: Watch the film, then read the book.

1988's They Live, which seems to beg for a concluding exclamation (in like fashion to the superior 1954 monster flick Them!), is a shaggy John Carpenter construction, a B-movie masquerading as a better B-movie than it turns out to be, a story of an alien invasion that turns out to be not a metaphor or symbol but the underlying truth about class warfare in the '80s.

And then there's Jonathan Lethem's They Live, the first book in the Deep Focus series, a set of books about film written by terrific writers who aren't film critics. Lethem—who loves the movie both in spite of its defects and because of the way the defects themselves entertain you and raise interesting questions—walks you through the film, breaking it into small segments, slowing down for key moments, analyzing oddities of plot and character and concept. It's a pleasure, and the film itself provides fertile ground for some weedy reasoning.

Though aware of the film (I still remember the original ad campaign, and I knew the basic premise that one man can suddenly see that the world has been taken over by "ghouls" who walk among us), I'd never seen a frame of it, and I started reading Lethem's book in the belief that I didn't need to watch the film to appreciate the text. But Lethem's details, and the way he describes his own love for the film, made me seek it out. There it was, in HD glory, on youtube. I thought I would go back and forth between film and book, but Lethem gives away key plot elements (few though there be) before he gets to them, so I watched the rest of the movie in toto, then turned back to the book.

I can't, in this space, comment as fully on the film as Lethem does, but I would like to provide some response to it. The difficult thing to get my head around is that this was made by the guy who did one of my favorite films, The Thing. Though that movie has a few tell-tale moments of awkwardness, mostly in the dialogue, by and large it's tight, professional, and utterly involving. The actors are great, the space feels real, and the threat is believably horrifying. There's a minimalist soundtrack that's effectively haunting. The practical effects remain a hallmark of how to make the fantastic believable in the age before CGI. How did Carpenter go from that to They Live? Certainly the low budget is one factor, and Lethem constantly mentions budget as a means to explain the narrow set of locations for the on-location shoot, the unimpressive "ghoul" makeup, and the lack of acting talent (aside from Keith David (of The Thing fame), who's mostly quite good, and Meg Foster, who is flat and unreadable). But is that valid? Hitchcock intentionally shot Psycho on the cheap, using his TV crew and a smaller budget. Does Psycho look like it was shot by undergrads? No.

Even when They Live is at its smoothest—smart framing of a shot, a nice pan, a seamless use of its one clever effect—it feels off. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper is partly to blame; from the first shot, he is so obviously a person trying to act rather than an actor. (As Lethem comments—or, if he didn't, he thought it—the character's lack of a name, only revealed in the credits as "Nada," suggests not only that he's a blank slate but that Piper's casting is a nod toward a kind of lumpen, amateur-hour verisimilitude.) Other non-actors litter the set, screaming with their very presence, "A friend of somebody's sister!" The script, pseudonymously by Carpenter, is built entirely of leaden lines. The sound is muddy and the editing jumpy. There's one great shot setting up one surprising moment; otherwise, it's like a toss-off TV movie from the '70s. And the story is oddly structured, taking its time in the first half hour, lurching into a shoot-'em-up for a few minutes, retreating into slackness, inserting the longest two-man fight in film history (purportedly; it certainly feels like it), seeming to build toward greater excitement, drifting instead into lazy sci-fi blahness, then ending weakly (and with a sardonic, poke-in-the-eye coda).

Lethem captures all of this and helps you see what's worth discussing about the film. He does it, too, with a minimum of "film language" (diagetic being the one exception; he unhelpfully, for non-film people, defines it in the notes at the back rather than at the time he uses it) and a minimum, too, of mere snarkiness or cleverness. He honestly wants to understand what's compelling about this misbegotten creature, and he wants you to join him on the sofa to talk about it.

I look forward to reading more books in the series. And I look forward to watching that goofy film again sometime with a bunch of friends.