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Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Poetry, by Billy Collins...

I finished "Sailing Alone Around the Room" a few days ago, but I have been unable to post about it. Nevertheless, I absolutely adored it and the only thing that has kept me from coming here and spewing pseudo-idolatry praise about Billy Collins is the fact that work has kept me away. But before I begin to write my list of hyperbole about his poetry, I am going to let the man speak for himself. Believe me, if you listen closely, these will be the best 8 plus minutes you've ever spent in front of a computer.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Ideology and Madame Bovary

There's much to say about the obligations of love. I suppose that Charles Bovary's response to his wife's death seems normal from our point of view, albeit its over-dramatization. I half-expected Charles to go mad much earlier than he did. It wasn't until the past started showing up when I thought about the potential of him discovering all of that which was his wife's past. It all started simply, with Charles discovering the letter from Rodolphe simply stating that he didn't want to become a source of grief for her (slick bastard). Charles discards it as platonic and self-indulgent (rather misplaced) juvenelia. Mistake, mistake, mistake. Leon's resurgence in the story begins with a wedding announcement; he married a woman from a well to do family. Later, however, Charles discovers all of Leon's letters and immediately loses that mythology that he had ascribed to his wife when she died. He goes literally mad, as Homais explains. I loved the passage that has Charles "thunder[ing] against the spirit of the age, and [he] never failed, every other week... to recount the death agony of Voltaire, who died devouring his excrements..." This reminded me of a very old quote (credited to Mozart, although I doubt it) in which a son tells his father: "Voltaire, that godless pig, has died, and, since his death, has written no more poetry." The encounter between Charles and Rodolphe (after Charles also discovers more explicit letters from Rodolphe) is priceless--in today's society, it would have ended with a homicide.

I wasn't surprised to see Lheureux, the creditor, make a comeback in the story. Of course it is to be expected; the equivalent of credit card collectors calling at all hours harrassing those who owe money. The day of the funeral, both Rodolphe and Leon are sleeping peacefully, etc. Of course Charles would go crazy--anyone else, for that matter.

I haven't read the five page afterword because I want to digest the plot and finish "fleshing out" Charles Bovary with whom I find a literary attraction like no other character in the novel. Homais can go suck on an egg--that pompous ass ends up being the only one who wins in the story. The last line of the novel crashes through the page... especially if you don't like Homais.

These weeks have found me under the pressure of much work, so I am far behind on my reading list. I hate beginning the year behind on my reading list. At this point--January 18th--I have just finished my first book when I should have been on my third. And people say to me, "don't rush it," or "why does it have to be on a schedule?" I simply say that I have an agenda this year; an agenda which includes publishing a book. I have not a day to waste when it comes to my reading. I enjoyed Madame Bovary tremendously, and I am looking up to the next book with much hunger. I love the reading life.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Two Edges of the Writing Knife

It happens some times that when writing things begin to look so sharp one has to shade one's eyes. Hemingway used to starve himself almost to death in order to see things in a fresher, crispier light. I am not sure how much of that to take as fact, since most of "A Movable Feast" has been deemed fiction or half-invented lies. Can't hold that against Hemingway for too long; he was a first rate artist, and a fifth rate human being. At any rate, I was writing last night and trying hard not to fall asleep in order to complete the hour I proposed to do when, all of a sudden, I saw one of the characters' face staring back at me in my mind's eye. Many of my friends who know about my "clandestine novel writing" have asked me if I know what my characters look like (physically) and I can't say that I had given too much thought to this. It was strange because until it was mentioned to me, I hardly gave a thought to what John Purcell looked like (I mean his face and expressions). Last night, Parmita (the Indian girl he meets at Oxford) stared back at me as if in a tunnel. I saw the lines of her face clearly defined, and her bright eyes took a loving form. I wish I could see John as well, and perhaps I will. Perhaps soon.

It is final examinations week here at the Academy. The students are restless, and I suppose I am as well. We are not getting a holiday (at least not in the real definition), but three days can be a satisfying reprieve from these difficult days. It is snowing now--big, flopping flakes of snow coming down like missiles.

I was able to also read a bit of "Madame Bovary" last night. It is taking me far too long to finish, but I am enjoying every word. I am up to the part where she takes the poison and is now dying a slow, demented and torturous death. Charles, of course, next to her, losing his mind at his wife's death. He is, perhaps, dying of grief himself. I am not too far off the end, but I am expecting for Rodolphe or Leon to show up in the last minute... perhaps I am waiting or hoping for too much. Oh well, what is reading if not enjoying tremendously and getting lost in a world of words. More on Bovary later.

Update: I started this entry a couple of days ago and I haven't really done much with Madame Bovary. The last few pages feel as if I didn't want to let go of the book. I decided to read Billy Collins next and try to absorb as much poetry as possible to start the next semester because I won't be teaching poetry then.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Madame Bovary's Credit Rating

I've enjoyed Madame Bovary tremendously. One of my New Year's resolutions was to stop stressing out so much about work (I mean, after all, what ever is so stressful about teaching young people literature, poetry, history and philosophy?). I think I simply became obsessed with work, and imagined that if I didn't feel stressed out, I wasn't teaching right. So, I am much more relaxed now--even people I didn't get along with before seem to bother me little (or at least some of them, anyways). I've spent the last 30 days or so feeling this way--much less stressed and generally happy.

I am uncertain about what the terms of the credit arrangement between Madame Bovary and Monsieur Lheureux are. I find Madame Bovary signing away note after note in an effort, it seems to me, to cover one debt with another. I don't understand enough about French law to begin to imagine what the penalties (besides impounding of her property) would be. Did people still go to jail for debt back then? I might do a little research and find out. I am much more interested in the process of Madame's loss of Rodolphe and her renewal of the affair with Leon. Her rendezvous with Leon seem to me much more passionate and with that certain amount of desperation that--given enough of it--might drive a reader crazy imagining all sorts of outrageous promises and words whispered between lovers. I can understand clearly why Rodolphe leaves her: she becomes pushy and demanding, but he didn't have any intention to create a life with her to begin with. Rodolphe was just in it for whatever he could get at the moment. I like Leon better, but it disappoints me that even at this point (Book 3, Chapter 8), he is drifting away from Madame's desperation.

The writing is going well. I drew up a new beginning and it makes much more sense to me than the first one. I sent it to a friend who commented it was far more engaging, despite the fact that the protagonist is even more of a pig than the previous beginning. I had felt stuck for a while regarding this writing business. This past Friday, I went to see the Cleveland Orchestra (free tickets) play Dvorak's #9, and an assortment of other short pieces. I can truly say that the concert cleaned out my system. Saturday morning I wrote like no other weekend. It's truly refreshing!

Well, I have taken my time finishing Madame Bovary because my reading list is much shorter this year and I have "kilometric" books to read which will take far more time to finish. I will write about the end of Madame Bovary next, and my first collection of Billy Collins' poetry.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Flaubert's Bovary and the Clash of Technique

It isn't my place to bash a master like Gustave Flaubert, but "Madame Bovary" has been a bit of a disappointment so far (I am 2/3 through it). What I mean to say by this is that almost immediately I had a sense of confusion as to who was narrating the story. Flaubert begins with "We were in class when the headmaster came in, followed by the 'new boy,' not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk." I could be wrong, but my sense was that a schoolmate was going to be telling the story of young Monsieur Bovary, and that that would be the voice the rest of the way. Also, this is a translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, and unless I read it in French, I shouldn't be stating the aforementioned deficiencies. Perhaps I missed something, but the "we" turns into an omnipresent narrator later in the book. Again, I might have missed something but it was quite confusing when the shift took place. I do like his description very much, and I have spent a great deal of time studying how he "paints" a scene. In this sense I have much to learn from this book. Chapter 8 of part 2 of the book has a very funny (not intended) and nicely written dialogue where three things are happening at the same time. There's a fair taking place and some prizes are being bestowed, all the while Madame Bovary and Rodolphe were exchanging lines:

"Just now, for example, when I went to your house."
"To Monsieur Bizet of Quincampoix."
"Did I know I should accompany you?"
"Seventy francs."
"A hundred times I wished to go; and I followed you--I remained."
"And I shall remain tonight, tomorrow, all other days of my life!"

Etc.,etc. This was highly entertaining and very nicely written. The passage moves on smoothly to the next scene and leaves one with a delighted sense of "I didn't have to go back and re-read that... I knew what was going on." These are the simple joys of reading, I believe. As for the entire story itself I cannot yet say. This is one of those classics I always meant to read but never did and now I am doing. Of course the story if familiar enough to me to know where it is going. What I am concentrating on is trying and learn how to describe so wonderfully. Perhaps the next entry on this will deal with the outcome and existential questions.

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