Now that I’m no longer teaching literature, one of the things I miss most is critical commentary, the exercise in which you are given a chunk of text and invited to make of it what you will. I used to love doing this and one of the opportunities provided by the new Gaddis blog is the time and space and the right kind of book for just such a reading. When the students used to groan and say they didn’t know where to begin, I used to suggest that they think about the text as if it were a person they had just met, and they were required to give an account of his or her character as it appeared to them. Reading the opening segment of The Recognitions, a passage of about 20 pages (far too long for your average critical commentary, but we’ll overlook that), I was struck by how much the narrative voice lends itself to just such a treatment.
You see, I had the overwhelming first impression of having stumbled upon one of those loquacious old soaks in a dimly-lit bar, someone who relentlessly colonises a corner of a pub and keeps up a running commentary. By rights he should have a hint of an Irish accent and look magnificently destroyed by the vagaries of life. I felt as it I’d arrived in that bar on an indeterminate day, at an indeterminate time, the kind of time when a gloomy drinking hole was the last place I ought to be, and before I knew it, I’d been suckered in to listening to some epic tale whose beginning was lost in the middle of last week. Plunged into some stream of verbiage that didn’t quite make sense until I’d listened to the first ten minutes, because the point of the story, its point of orientation, didn’t reveal itself until the first couple of paragraphs had passed. And by then of course, it was too late, I was listening.
My first reaction was initially one of panic at the thought of listening to a densely-wrought, alcohol-sodden monologue, and one that had little consideration for my ease and comfort. What, 900 pages of this? Cropping up through the swift-flowing current of narrative were the wrecking rocks of a hundred references, nothing more than a word here or there, but enough to break the smoothness and send ripples of reading consternation. It’s funny how you can know that a reference to something unwritten, unexplained and beyond the scope of the story has just passed by your eyes, even if you have no idea what it actually referred to. Eventually, a landscape started to form, one of a reverend who set out to sail to Spain and lost his wife en route, who encountered tremendous difficulties finding somewhere to have her buried, who stayed then in the small town where she finally lay, ill with grief, beset by cunning locals hoping for tangible charity, until he was well enough again to return to America. Yes, I could imagine such a story coming from an enigmatic and yet all-too-open stranger in a bar. The manner of the telling, at first confusing and abrasive, gently began to reveal its charms. The intellectual gloss of the text was more than skin-deep – was the narrator an academic who has crossed the ill-defined line between genius and madness? There are enough of those. Or a lapsed priest? The narrative is thickly studded with religious imagery, religious concerns, above and beyond those necessary for the biography of a man of the church. Or was he simply a poet, so deeply embedded in his flights of lyric fantasy that he had forgotten to come up for air and threatened to suffocate the reader with him, in the mortal coils of his creativity? Academic, priest, poet, none of these voices necessarily negates the other; indeed they interweave well together, all marginalized but piercingly insightful perspectives on the grubby and glorious human soul.
But just when you think things are getting too serious, there’s a lot of cunning here, too. A sly tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase that reveals an amused fascination for deceptions of all kinds. The fact that Reverend Gwyon’s wife dies from an appendicitis operation performed by a fraudster skipping the country and masquerading as a doctor is treated ambivalently, as tragi-comic. Religion is described as ‘sincere theatricals’, and the monastery where he stays is run by an order whose ‘sense of guilt was so great, and measures of atonement so stringent, that those who came through alive were a source of embarrassment to lax groups of religious who coddled themselves with occasional food and sleep.’ There’s also a delight in excess, in the wilder reaches of the human condition that only sit well in this kind of rampaging narrative, like ‘Fr. Eulalio, a thriving lunatic of eighty-six who was castigating himself for unchristian pride at having all the vowels in his name, and greatly revered for his continuous weeping, [who] went blind in an ecstasy of such howling proportions that his canonization was assured.’ But for all the linguistic profusion of these dramatic, entertaining, alarming digressions, it is interesting how often they reflect some quiet but significant pillar of the narrative, how often they reveal the foundation stones that the story otherwise leaps over in a frenzied dance. When the reverend walks through the streets of San Zwingli we are told that ‘he stopped to watch children’s games on the pavements, seeking there, as he sought in the cast of roofs, the delineations of stairs, passages, bedrooms, and kitchens left on walls still erect where the attached building had fallen, or the shadow of a chair-back on the repetitious tiling of a floor, indications of persistent pattern, and significant form.’ Likewise we can see in the games the text plays with us, in the crumbling ruins of an old-fashioned, sturdy, narrative frame, something persistent and significant, something that only arises out of patterns dimly sought that we can piece together only in careful contemplation.
And just occasionally, amongst the play and the parody and the downright confusing bits, there are moments of great beauty: ‘False dawn past, the sun prepared the sky for its appearance, and there, a shred of perfection abandoned unsuspecting at the earth’s rim, lay the curve of the old moon, before the blaze which would rise behind it to extinguish the cold quiet of its reign.’ It’s still a bit over the top, the academic, the priest and the poet all working a bit too hard, or maybe just having a bit too much fun, but there is grandeur in the cracks and crevices of this narrative, a promise of something greater than the sum of its fragmented parts. It was enough that, closing the door on the smoky depths of the pub, as I closed the cover on this doorstep of a book, I was grateful for the quiet and the cool, still air, whilst knowing I would be drawn back to that manic monologue again.
Cross-posted at Reading Gaddis
Like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Dewey’s death. We got to know one another over the summer of 2007 when we realized we both taught French literature and were both suffering from chronic illnesses. That summer we exchanged a series of long emails, exclaiming over the coincidences in our lives, talking about the wonderful world of book blogging and discussing our shared love of reading. When the news had sunk in a bit, it seemed to me important that we should do something as a celebration of Dewey’s time in the blog world. Dewey was an amazing community builder and I don’t think any other blogger came up with so many inventive projects to get us all to interact. I was wondering whether it might be a nice idea to hold a special Bookworms Carnival in Dewey’s honour, as a tribute to her skills. Anyone who wished to could contribute his or her favourite post from among any of Dewey’s many schemes – weekly geeks, one of the tremendous read-a-thons, the bookworm carnivals – or indeed a post that remembered Dewey or was connected to her in any way. Just a few sentences to say why the post had been chosen would make a lovely addition and a memorial to her. I’d be happy to host and organize this, but I need your help. It may be that other people are planning tributes and if so, we could work together. I also don’t know how to spread the word to enough bloggers – any suggestions warmly welcomed. And fundamentally, if people think a special Carnival would be something they’d like to see happen, please do let me know.