Romance on Three Legs (More on Glenn Gould)

In my previous post, I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

In my previous post, order I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, sovaldi sale by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

To a classical concert pianist, pianos are much more than meets the ear. Apparently, this brand of genius can hear things, feel things, that are little more than dog whistles to the rest of us. Gould had a peculiarly light touch, which suited the baroque music he loved to play. He had unique demands for his pianos and gave Steinway technicians fits trying to meet them. He spent his entire career in search of the perfect piano.

As much a contemporary history as a biography, Romance on Three Legs, tells us much we already know about Glenn Gould, his brilliance and sweetness and sensitivity as well as his hypochondria, his phobias, and his strange strange habits. Author Katie Hafner dutifully describes his youth and early successes, including the splash he made with his mid-1950’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She covers his disdain for public performances and fascination with studio recording. She also includes his notoriously less-than-positive opinions of other classical composers and musicians (he once dismissed Vladimir Horowitz as a faker).

What is new however is the lengths to which Hefner goes to describe the inner workings of the piano and the arcane art of piano tuning. What's the best wood to use for a piano’s soundboard? What exactly is “bellying”? What does a piano “voicer” do? What are hammers, dampers, and jacks, and just how complex is a piano’s action, anyway? Indeed, this book teaches us almost as much about the piano as it does about Gould himself.

Hafner also treats us to a brief history of the Steinway company as well as to a lucid biography of Verne Edquist. She chronicles his riveting journey from sight-deprived lad on a desolate Saskatchewan farm, to door-to-door piano tuner in Toronto, to Canada’s top piano technician. His two decade-long collaboration with Gould resembled master mechanic to star auto racer. Behind the scenes, he was there for most of Gould’s recording sessions, making sure that old CD 318 never went out of tune. They were even competitive about it, seeing who can spot an out-of-tune-note first. Their conversations often revolved around how to tinker with CD 318 until its hammers traveled the right distance, until it achieved “an immediate bite” or sufficient “contrapuntal control”.

Gould was utterly reliant upon Edquist, who was finely attuned to Gould’s peculiar, and some would say mystical, needs. This relationship intensified after the fateful drop the piano suffered at the hands of negligent piano movers in the early 1970s. Like stubborn lovers in a doomed relationship, Gould would not give up on CD 318. He and Edquist toiled through endless tunings, tweaks, and desperate contrivances to salvage the damaged instrument and restore it to its former glory.

Hafner, of course, discusses Gould’s premature death at 50 in 1982, as well as the man’s legacy in music. She provides the obligatory where-are-they-nows of the major players in this odd little history, and gives due mention of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a biopic as quirky as its subject matter.

And what of CD 318? It was sold to the National Library of Canada in Ottawa. And when other concert pianists play it, sometimes they swear they can feel, in that intuitive–some would say mystical–way that pianists have, the old instrument pining for its beloved master.

On Lolita

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, in my opinion, is the most masterfully written English language novel I have read. What can I say about its prose? Jaw-dropping. Breathtaking. The control. The vocabulary. The pacing. The sharp sharp humor. And all from a non-native English speaking author. There's really little here that I can say that hasn't already been said before, so I won't. Except that Lolita is a wonderful novel, and you do yourself a disservice in not reading it.

So buy.

That said, I believe that Lolita, considered by New York Times as the 4th best novel of all time, has a fatal flaw. Two of 'em, actually. These flaws in my opinion will keep it from the Pantheon of Great Books when we're all done and all is over with. These flaws? Well, what is Lolita about, anyway?

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The control. The vocabulary. The pacing. The sharp sharp humor. And all from a non-native English speaking author. There's really little here that I can say that hasn't already been said before, so I won't. Except that Lolita is a wonderful novel, and you do yourself a disservice in not reading it.

So .

That said, I believe that Lolita, considered by New York Times as the 4th best novel of all time, has a fatal flaw. Two of 'em, actually. These flaws in my opinion will keep it from the Pantheon of Great Books when we're all done and all is over with. These flaws? Well, what is Lolita about, anyway? I mean, what is its heart and soul? Where can it bring us where we haven't been before? What does it offer us?

In 25 words or less: a pedophile thinks with poignant clarity and learns how to love too late.

Okay, so let’s parse this: The first part is “a pedophile thinks”. Yes, that does sum up Humbert Humbert, doesn't it? The man is, in many ways, the crowning achievement of Western civilization. Brilliant, sophisticated, urbane, multilingual, and broadly educated from the classical to the psychological to the philosophical. Dropping keenly observant erudite references in a way a bodybuilder flexes muscles, he must have an IQ off the charts. And yet, well…he's obsessively addicted to sex, especially with preciously young girls. He has a demented single-mindedness about it, too. It's really too bad, if you think about it.

Okay, so here's the first flaw: what can a protagonist like this offer anybody? Anybody who isn't a pedophile, that is? Humbert knows he's a criminal. He knows what he is doing is grotesque. He has no desire (at least by the time the story starts) to contribute to society. He is willing to live the vagabond life in automobiles and hotels just to feed his perverse obsession. This is a man who marries a woman just so he can get closer to her nymphet daughter, and then drugs her into a near coma at night just so he can get even closer to her nymphet daughter. Nice. Does he feel any remorse as he does this? Not really.

And when Lolita finally escapes his clutches, what does he do? Well, he drops everything and goes after her with murder in his heart, of course. Of course, he does this! Wouldn’t you? Wouldn't anyone? Because underground criminal hedonistic lifestyles must be maintained at all costs, even if it means living a cheap, cramped life incognito. Even if it means risking jail time. I mean, everyone knows that. Right? Right?

At this point in the narrative, that is, when old Hum is tracking down his lost Lola with a heavy heart and a loaded semi-automatic handgun, we are 245 pages into a 281 page novel (at least according to my 1983 Berkeley Books paperback). Clearly, our man has not undergone any great Raskolnikovian transformation. There's no redemption he's on his way to earning, no heroic sacrifice for the greater good, no deep-seated childhood demon he must face, no great moral battle he must win. Naah. It's just the same old humdrum Humbert trying to get his funky groove back, by the barrel of a gun if need be.

So I ask again. What in the world can a repulsive protagonist like this offer us? What can we learn from him? How could our minds thrive by contemplating a world in which a lunatic like this runs loose? Unless you are a pedophile looking for a role model, I cannot think of any satisfactory answers to these questions.

One litmus test I use for serious literature is imagining how I would feel if I ever met the characters I read about. I think about this constantly, especially when stimulated by great literature. Thomas Buddenbrooks, Huck Finn, Ignatious Reilly, Jay Gatsby, Nikolai Stavrogin, yeah we've had some great conversations. But a craven pervert like Humbert Humbert? I'd be sorely tempted to punch him in the face if I ever met him, knowing what I know about him. And if it were my 12 year-old daughter he were repeatedly raping, I would do a lot more than throw punches, that's for sure.

Emotions aside, I think I am standing on pretty good ground here when I say that upon meeting Humbert Humbert and knowing what we know about him, the moral thing to do would be to call the cops so they can separate this child predator from society forever.

So this is flaw number one: By placing the novel in the perspective of Humbert Humbert, it sacrifices the story's soul. The story is about the crimes and agonies of a man so far removed from the mainstream of modern civilization as to lack relevance to those of us not inclined to deflower prepubescent girls.

Flaw number two goes back to the second part of the logline, the “poignant clarity” business. Put simply, the book is too well written. Let me re-phrase that. The language of Lolita is far and away too magnificent to realistically pass for a first-person narrative. Who else can write so well in English other than William Shakespeare and a few dozen other guys throughout history? Are we to believe such beautiful prose can burst forth fully formed from Humbert Humbert's sex-addled mind? And if so, the thoughtful reader will be forced to ask why our droll libertine isn't a professional writer instead of some obscure literature scholar? He clearly has a genius with words and ideas. He clearly has a mastery of a whole menagerie of erudite topics. So why doesn't he write great novels or plays or something so he can move to a part of the world where abusing twelve year-old girls is less frowned upon and collect royalties at the same time? Doing such a thing requires rare talent, it is true. However, the talent and brilliance that composes the language of Lolita is rarer still. It's not like he lacks the money to support such endeavors. Further, Humbert Humbert is not faking it. He really does love literature, history, philosophy, and other highbrow topics. Wasn't one of his reasons for hating Clare Quilty was that Quilty wrote bad plays? Humbert Humbert has no reason not to become a great writer…except that author Vladimir Nabokov didn't want him to for whatever reason. And that's never a good reason.

There are two counter-argument to this objection that I can think of:

1) Humbert Humbert is insane and therefore cannot be expected to lead a truly productive life. I don't buy this. Old Hum is crazy for nymphets and nymphets only. Other than that, he is quite sane and capable. See his trip to the Arctic in Chapter 9 of Part 1 to see what he can accomplish when there aren't any nymphets around.

2) Within the idiom of the first person narrative, it can be argued that what you see on the page is the protagonist's pure perspective, not necessarily what he is capable of actually writing or saying. In other words, a first person narrative does not have to be a diary, it can be literature of the mind and we can accept it as such. The language of Lolita can be Humbert's ideas and recollections crystallized in art before his waking mind and limited talents can make a botch of them. Thus we see Humbert Humbert as God sees him, as the flawed, tragic, beautiful creature he 'really' is, rather than the shabby wretch he comes across as to his fellow man.

Imagine encountering someone who speaks your language, but with an exotic accent. Then later you try to recreate that accent to someone else. In your mind, the accent is perfect, just like you remembered it. But your recreation of that accent? Somewhat less than perfect, isn't it? What you get with a first person-narrative is that perfect version of the accent, not what actually spills from the protagonist's mouth or pen.

Okay, fine. I accept that if you view Lolita from this perspective then the second flaw I point out carries less weight. But I choose not to. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because we're proposing that Humbert Humbert is the omniscient third person narrator of his first person mind. And that, to me, seems to resist the very point of a first person narrative. A first person narration is supposed to be flawed and limited. I have always believed that a first person narrator tells two stories: the story he is aware of telling and the story he is unaware of telling. But with Lolita, you get one story, the story Humbert Humbert tells from on high. There can be no interpretation of what goes on because there is no second story here. Within the expanse between thought and expression, Humbert Humbert knows it all, and that's that.

I can respect it if that's your cup of tea. But it isn't mine.

One aspect of Lolita that I cannot let go in any discussion of its merits is how wonderful this novel is, despite its flaws. Yes, there is the language and the sheer vision behind it. Buy the book and experience this singular prose for yourself. But there is something else.

Part three of my little logline describes a man who learns how to love too late. That to me is what would be the heart and soul of Lolita if indeed it had a heart and soul. There is one passage in the novel, without which, in my opinion, the novel would be half as good despite its brilliance. Part 2, Chapter 29. Humbert tracks down his beloved nymphet after a two-year search. He meets Lolita face to face outside her ramshackle home with her yeoman husband. She's a grown woman now, no longer a nymphet, and very pregnant. And…what? He still loves her. He realizes he still loves her. His love for her goes beyond mere sex and his perverse obsessions. And he didn't realize it until that very moment.

If you are going to find a truly human moment for Humbert Humbert, this would be it. Here is where you will find pathos for the man. This truly is a tragic moment. A man engulfed by the prodigious sins of his past realizing too late that he was made of better stuff all along.

This is sad, but even here Nabokov gets it wrong. It happens too late, and Humbert Humbert never acts on this realization. So as a plot point it's worthless. Humbert Humbert had set out to murder Lolita's abductor, and by golly, that's what he does. The fact that he is now filled with contemplative remorse matters little in my mind. The only thing this newly discovered love does is grant him a sense of superiority over Clare Quilty. Pedophiles both, but Hum truly loved Lolita, unlike Quilty. So he is not as bad as that. Or so he says.

Remember the talk show host Morton Downey, Jr? The chain-smoking “loudmouth” who'd sometimes blow smoke in his guest's faces? Once a member of the National Smokers Alliance, he waited until he himself was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996 (when he was 64) before speaking out against smoking. And while this is a nice gesture, it came a little late in the game to be taken very seriously.

This is exactly how I feel about Humbert Humbert. His reunion with Lolita is such a poignant scene it should have led him to change himself or make an effort to right his wrongs or…something. Something other than a few chapters of elegant remorse followed by a murder and more elegant remorse.

Of course, elegant remorse couldn't save the life he ruined. The poor girl he began to love when it mattered least. More importantly, however, it couldn't save a novel burdened by its own brilliance, desperately searching for its soul.

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TRIO

In the afterward of TRIO, his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It's a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn't hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It's got plot, music, politics, warfare. It's got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there's enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

In the afterward of TRIO, generic his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, pills author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It's a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn't hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It's got plot, music, politics, warfare. It's got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there's enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

Starting with Clara Wieck as a 9 year-old traveling piano prodigy, Volume One takes us into the life of music at the dawn of the Romantic Period. It's 1828. Robert Schumann is young and passionate but undisciplined. Still unsure of his future (will he be a lawyer or a writer?) he finds himself falling for a maturing Clara and struggling with the notion that his child-bride might earn more money than he. Desai also shows exactly how ferocious Clara's father Friedrich was in opposing his daughter's marriage to Schumann. The couple's ultimate victory is sweet indeed.
As the plot progresses, Desai offers glimpses of the prevailing musical attitudes of the day. Here is a telling passage, taking place at a soiree:

An Italian sang next with the clearest tone accompanied by Kalkbrenner on the piano, but cluttered her songs with the trills and scales and cadenzas and ritardandos Italians found so salubrious and Germans so painful.

Another line that I have to repeat comes from Robert speaking his mind to Friedrich Wieck:

“If we do not make distinctions between the virtuous in music and mere virtuosity, we do not make strides, except backward. Might as well play the pianoforte with your feet. It is not easy, but neither will it make you an artist.”

This is very good. But did Schumann actually say it when he did in TIO? Probably not. But maybe he said something similar. Desai often feeds lines from letters and diaries into his character's mouths during dialog in order to convey the feeling of the character, the time, and the action. One cannot recreate history as it happened, of course, but Desai's technique is the next best thing. These were the thoughts that were running through Schumann's head during this time in his life, and Desai paraphrased them nicely in dialog.

Other composers appear either as part of the central plot or in interpolative chapters. Mendelssohn, brilliant and graceful, makes his benign presence felt, perhaps most poignantly when he meets a young Queen Victoria. Liszt, resplendent in his Mephistophelean glory, comes across equally as cunning schemer and genuine nice guy. Wagner, on the other hand, is well-nigh evil, the villain one loves to hate.

My favorite passage featuring Mendelssohn occurs when he is forced to listen to Clara play one of Robert's sonatas on the piano during a party. Despite both being in their early-to-mid-20s, Mendelssohn was already an established musician (having been a famous child prodigy). Robert on the other hand was still known mostly as a critic, and an impoverished one at that. He was still developing as a composer, and his most well known works were considered pretty and lightweight. Mendelssohn settled down for what he expected to be “a pleasant few minutes”. What he got however was this:

The sonata started as he might have expected, a motif of two notes, now rising, now falling, now maintaining the level of its pitch, played successively over a rumbling harmonic bass, but in a few moments it became evident that the motif in its various guises was only a prelude, and the first movement proper began with a muscular theme, a masculine theme, a gallop in concert, cavalry in triplets, far more satisfactory than anything he had heard yet by Robert, which developed generously and unpredictably. Found himself sitting up, listening intently.

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Mendelssohn asked to hear a movement from that piece a second time. I doubt Robert came down from the clouds in over a week.

Robert and Clara's story, of course, does not end well. Robert's mental health was never very stable, and after trying to end his life in the Rhine, he spent the last two years of his life in an insane asylum. But Desai does not focus simply on Robert's harrowing descent into madness, but also on Clara's difficulties raising a houseful of children without a husband. Despite this, Desai shows just how steadfast her love for Robert had always been, even in the worst of times. She was his wife and champion and a very strong lady in her own right. Included is the magnificent scene in which she marched alone through a war zone to return her children to safety.

Volume Two chronicles Clara's relationship with Johannes Brahms within the broader politics of music in the late 19th-Century. It was the New German School of Wagner and Liszt against the Conservative hold-outs Clara and Brahms. Things begin passionately for Clara and Brahms (Known affectionately as “Hannes”), but they soon realize they aren't right for each other. Their 40-year friendship is as bumpy as it is smooth, and Desai makes us feel every bit of it.

Bittersweet, too, is Brahms' bachelorhood. Why did he never marry? Why was he not right for Clara, the woman he could so easily enthrall and frustrate? Among the intellectual and political elite of Central Europe Brahms always remained one step from the shipyards and cheap apartments of his lower-middle class upbringing. Desai gives us some of that too, as well as Brahms' first experience with a prostitute. Apparently, this was an experience he never could overcome.

But he was Brahms. He didn't need to. He didn't kowtow to anyone, not the aristocracy, not academia, and not royalty, especially musical royalty. This reactionary attitude made him stand out among Europe's elite like a ragamuffin at a gala ball, only one expertly wielding a baton. His ratty clothes, his cruel japes, his straight-as-an-arrow honesty, he refusal to put on airs. Brahms once claimed that he had no friends, but if you were something like a friend to him, he could be loyal and generous. Violinist Joseph Joachim once complained that when he and Brahms toured together, Brahms' slow pace made it harder for him to make money (which he desperately needed with a family to support). So Brahms insisted that they keep the slow pace, but that Joseph take in two-thirds of the purses rather than half.

Brahms is a complex character, and Desai gives it to us with a side of boiled cabbage. Once when a friend wanted to learn more about Brahms and his life, Brahms took him to a seedy bar where he, Brahms, the toast of Vienna and the greatest composer of his day, played bawdy songs on a upright piano into the wee hours of the morning. Nobody there knew who he was.

Then there is the question of whether Brahms and Clara were ever indeed lovers. People love to speculate about their relationship, but no one knows for sure, largely because they burned so many of their letters. There is no direct evidence that they were lovers. On the other hand, if they were never lovers, then why burn so many letters?

(Unforgettable is the scene in which Brahms and Clara as old fogies return their letters to each other as part of some earlier agreement. The air is thick with mixed emotions as the pair haggles and stalls before the final barter. You see, they say they don't want to give up the other's letters because they know the other will destroy them. Yet really they just don't want to give them up…and they really really want to burn theirs.).

So what does Desai do to solve the mystery of Clara and Hannes? Were they lovers or were they not lovers? Desai's answer is yes. You'll have to read the book to learn more about that.

Desai also does a wonderful job of describing the music. Of course, any descriptions come up short when compared to the real thing, but the language of TRIO is so vivid it makes one want to explore a composer's repertoire. Schumann's Carnaval and Sonata in F sharp Minor and Brahms' German Requiem and Symphony #1 get some evocative descriptions. So do the performers themselves. Clara's meticulousness, Liszt's power and bravura, Brahms' perfection at the piano as a cocky young virtuoso, his sloppiness as a old man. Mendelssohn's spot on imitations of Liszt and Chopin are breathtaking as well.

In his Afterward, Desai makes it clear that despite thorough research, there are some apocryphal scenes. In these cases he draws reasonable conclusions according to the scant evidence we have. He makes his case, but really doesn't have to. TRIO is a novel about some of the greatest figures of classical music. Like the music, it is meant first and foremost to be enjoyed. And on this account, it certainly does not fail.

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Modern Lit and Me

My typical mantra when it comes to modern literature is that it usually disappoints. And by “modern” I mean anything published during or after 1960. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't enjoy modern literature. I've posted about recently published novels I've enjoyed here and here. There are others as well, of course. It's just that with modern novels I tend to wrap my mind around them pretty easily and always find much to criticize. Upon reflection, the characters and situations seem to take a backseat to style of some sort, whether it’s structure, prose, or attitude. And to me, that’s cheap. Either that, or I have a blind spot where familiarity breeds contempt, and modern fiction just doesn't do it for me for that reason.

Keep in mind I'm talking only about literary fiction, as opposed to genre or historical fiction. My favorite novels fall this category: Moby Dick, The Possessed, Huck Finn, The Secret Agent, The Plague. Pretty much the A-list from your high school AP lit and college survey classes. So finding the next great literary novel is a real holy grail for me. The search and its inevitable disappointments evoke a loneliness as well, making me feel, as Brian Wilson once sang, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.”

Why do I react more strongly to-and feel closer too-long-winded Russian, English, or French novels from the 19th century than I do to the supposedly great works of today? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with for fifteen years. I mean, I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. I don’t want to live in the past. And I certainly don't wear the burden of constant disappointment like a badge of honor. But when I meet someone who raves on and on about a fashionable literary novel that I know to be a piece of bombastic, pretentious hackwork, well, I can never take that person’s literary tastes seriously.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

My typical mantra when it comes to modern literature is that it usually disappoints. And by “modern” I mean anything published during or after 1960.

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Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy modern literature. I’ve posted about recently published novels I’ve enjoyed here and here. There are others as well, of course. It’s just that with modern novels I tend to wrap my mind around them pretty easily and always find much to criticize. Upon reflection, the characters and situations seem to take a backseat to style of some sort, whether it’s structure, prose, or attitude. And to me, that’s cheap. Either that, or I have a blind spot where familiarity breeds contempt, and modern fiction just doesn’t do it for me for that reason.

Keep in mind I’m talking only about literary fiction, as opposed to genre or historical fiction. My favorite novels fall this category: Moby Dick, The Possessed, Huck Finn, The Secret Agent, The Plague. Pretty much the A-list from your high school AP lit and college survey classes. So finding the next great literary novel is a real holy grail for me. The search and its inevitable disappointments evoke a loneliness as well, making me feel, as Brian Wilson once sang, “I just wasn’t made for these times.”

Why do I react more strongly to-and feel closer too-long-winded Russian, English, or French novels from the 19th century than I do to the supposedly great works of today? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with for fifteen years. I mean, I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. I don’t want to live in the past. And I certainly don’t wear the burden of constant disappointment like a badge of honor. But when I meet someone who raves on and on about a fashionable literary novel that I know to be a piece of bombastic, pretentious hackwork, well, I can never take that person’s literary tastes seriously.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

Would it exonerate me a little if I said I couldn’t help it? That I am simply being honest? I certainly wouldn’t say this about other art forms. We are currently in a golden age of serial television. It’s my opinion that the 1990s produced the best situation comedies ever on television. The 1990s can also rival the 1970s for rock music. The best comic art (i.e., graphic novels) has been unsurpassed since the 1980s.

So it’s only literature. Only literature.

The thought that scares me is that the best literary novels were written from 1800 to around 1950 because that was the time when people needed them the most. This was also the period in which they had the most time for literary fiction. This was the Age of the Novel, so to speak, implying that the literary novel today is an antiquated art form that has lost whatever it had that made it crucial to Western culture. Either that, or our society has degraded to the point we can’t appreciate literary fiction the way we used to.

Both options stink, to be honest. And I am not inclined to wholly believe either of them. But the fact remains that a Moby Dick or a Crime and Punishment, if being peddled by an unknown author, would never get published these days. They wouldn’t be worth the risk a publisher would have to face getting them on bookstore shelves. And this is a Bad Thing.

Fortunately, every once in a while I find an amazing modern novel that gives me hope. I have found several that almost make it, as brilliant as they are. Very rarely do I find a novel that seems to be fully-formed as if it had just sprung from the head of Zeus. Disgrace by South African writer J.M. Coetzee is one such novel.

This is an infuriating, maddening novel that will haunt you. After reading it, I replayed it in my mind for days. It won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, and I am surprised that something so raw and something so frankly racial could have garnered such a mainstream accolade. Further, something occurs in it that is so purely evil-and so devastating-that I dare not to give it away to those who haven’t read the book yet.

Suffice to say it’s in my top 5 novels (so far) published since 1960 (the others being A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, and Vienna Days by Kim du Toit).

In 1897, to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called “Recessional” which more or less took account of the British Empire at the very zenith of its powers. You can read more about it here. The poem’s point was essentially…well, what is the point of poetry, anyway? Different people read into it different things. The Empire was God’s Will. The Empire is barely holding on. The Empire is too warlike. The Empire is about to fall apart.

This is the genius of Disgrace, only taking place in post-Apartheid South Africa. There’s a lot to talk about with regards to that, and will be the subject of an upcoming post.

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