1.31.2016

Briefly Scrutinizing the First Sentence of It Happened in Boston? by Russell H. Greenan



How's this for an opening line:

"LATELY I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me."

That's the first sentence zinger from It Happened in Boston? (1968), the debut novel replete with astonishing zinger sentences from one of the most unjustly neglected* writers of the past fifty years, Russell H. Greenan.


Image of my first printing, 1968
Greenan's first published sentence in a book zings for many reasons; allow me to zero in, briefly, on a few.  First, the sentence serves as a microcosm, in thirteen lucky words, for the brilliant, intentionally unbalanced, balance of the 273 page novel.  If I explained in too much specific details what I meant by "microcosm" it just wouldn't match the captivating kookiness of Greenan's novel on the one hand, and its genre-bending erudition on the other, where the contemporary art world, world history, mystery, mythology, mysticism, and "fantasy" in the old-school, James Branch Cabell or Jorge Luis Borges sense of the word—the fantastic— intermingle in our narrator-artist's transformative "reveries" that propel him, within the span of minutes, to other planets, alternate realities, the Middle Ages, and back to antique galleries and public gardens (when he's not in some psychiatric ward) in the backstreets of a photographically rendered Boston as fully realized as Leopold Blooms' day in Dublin.

Secondly, notice that Greenan used the word "feel" instead of "think" or "believe" in the first sentence. Why "feel"?  Why not "perceive" or "observe" or "notice"? Probably because He, our oddball but genius narrator, is an artist.  That he is an artist is not a delusion.  Like many artists, he feels things deeply—more deeply than most.  He also sees things more deeply than most.  Things that ordinary souls would call delusions, hallucinations.  Not only are the pigeons spying on him (and later haranguing him), but he can travel through time, throughout the eons of recorded history and a myriad of cultures.

"One day I dined with Aristides or with Vespasian, the next I ate with the Yorubas or gnawed a reindeer bone in the Dordogne. In swift succession I looked upon the glory of Cyrus the Great, the savagery of Chaka, the courage of Cortez, the splendor of Sheng-tsu, the folly of Nero, the fury of Timour and the cunning of the Medici. I heard Mozart play and Dr. Johnson talk. . . ."

Clearly, our narrator is as erudite as he is nuts.  But, lest I stray further from the first sentence of It Happened in Boston?, let me say lastly that in its amazing microcosm of an even more amazing book, I'm reminded of what Lydia Davis accomplishes less effectively in her short short story-abstracts in which implications billow out from a brevity of words, and interpretations are trusted solely to the reader's knowledge and imagination.  Imagine an entire novel of first sentences like that, how artistically twisted (a compliment) that could become—sort of like the off-kilter visual of the apartment building on the front cover of the first edition's dust jacket—and that is, without question, the exciting experience of reading It Happened in Boston?

* Russell H. Greenan's most recent novel, his fourteenth, Nether Netherland, was published in England in 2014, when he was eighty-eight.  He's ninety now.  Visit him at his excellent website that chronicles the entirety of his unique career.

1.24.2016

Where Faith and Fatalism Collide: The Accident by David Plante



Isn't it uncanny how the authors we sometimes just happen to be reading in tandem together collide out of the blue outside of what we're reading and we discover, without any prior knowledge, that the writer's lives, beyond their fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, intersected intimately?  Leaves me wondering aloud if sometimes what we've chosen to read, being the lifelong passionate readers we are, was somehow nudged in one way or another by the books themselves upon our shelves and nightstands? Before anybody scoffs or labels me nuts (and for the skeptics, I'll grant you, in a spirit of magnanimity offered in the hopes you'll continue reading, that I'm nutty) keep in mind that William H. Gass, a titan of Literature and Philosophy among post-1960 Artist-Thinkers of the Earth, conceptualized the animate possibilities of books in an essay "The Book as a Container of Consciousness" that he began as an address to a "conference on the book," hosted by the J. Paul Getty Center, and later polished up for publication in his 1996 essay collection Finding A Form. Theoretically, therefore, books could in fact be in possession of their own "minds" so to speak; and having minds, couldn't they vie for our attentions, and perhaps mysteriously attract our attention to specific spines on our bookshelves?

The most recent instance of books attracting books that I've encountered was while reading and becoming enrapt by Stephen Spender's book length analysis of T.S. Eliot's poetry in T.S. Eliot. At the same time, I'd been reading an exceptional, introspective, novel, The Accident by an author — David Plante —brand new to me.  When a writer new to me excites me as much as Plante has, I begin reading up on everything I can find about them.  In so doing I found The Guardian's fine review of Plante's recent memoir Becoming a Londoner: A Diary.  In it, the reviewer revealed  the personal, perhaps intimate, connection that had existed for many years between Stephen Spender and David Plante. Plante, in fact, had "stolen" one of Spender's lovers, the Greek poet, Nikos Stangos. Again, when I'd begun Spender's T.S. Eliot and Plante's The Accident I had no clue of their deep connection, and yet there it was, and I had just happened to be reading books by both writers at the same time. Coincidence, or something more?  For an instance of possibly "something more" I'll refer the reader to an old post, "Meeting Terri Inside a Book (or, When a Book Lures You, Listen!)" in which I was drawn to an obscure work of literary criticism on Henry James and upon opening the first page, revealed it to be formerly owned by a mentor from my past.

After reading the first sentence of The Accident, I had the impulse to rush here and quote it, but I kept reading.  Then I had the impulse to quote the first paragraph, the first page, the entire first chapter, but I had to keep reading.  Over halfway through this slim novel, I still wanted to quote every word of it, but how absurd and impractical would that be?  Instead, I'll honor my first impulses and quote the first sentence, the first paragraph. . . .
"WALKING ALONG the Seine, close to the swiftly moving but heavy water that slithered against the quai, walking round the couples sitting at the edge with their arms about each other, one young man with his hand inside the unbuttoned blouse of the young woman and holding her breast, I longed for what I felt couldn't be fulfilled even by making love, only by throwing myself into the river, not to die, but to be taken somewhere else on its current, which, out at the center, streamed in smooth, shining, infolding waves."
The Accident is a distillation of language; it's a short novel that's been aged long.  That the sentences go down smooth in "shining, infolding waves" isn't to say they lack a complex of flavors because their finish lingers.  The Accident examines in deep psychological detail the consequences of faith and its opposites atheism and nihilism over the course of a semester in the 1950s at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, in the lives — and in the ruins — of four students from the States: Tom Domlon, Karen, Vincent, and an unnamed narrator.  It is the unnamed narrator's austere, philosophical rumination from his unspecified future vantage, looking back at what he lost and also learned from the wreckage, that moves the psychological action along.

In critiquing "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Stephen Spender describes the "failure" of Prufrock, "for which he despises himself, is failure to relate either with another person or with the Absolute.  He is isolated, he cannot communicate".  And the same could be said of David Plante's unnamed narrator — a conflicted self-loather mad at himself for once believing and now for his unbelief, and unnamed, perhaps, to emphasize not only his lack of identity but his rejection of any identity, Catholic or otherwise, he could have claimed — who likewise, surrounded by his classmates almost desperate to know him, who in fact go out of there way to engage him, cannot — no, he will not — open his tortured heart to them, until it is too late.  Spender wrote of Prufrock that he was "superior to the inhabitants of his world because he is conscious of being inferior," which again, describes (and the similarities between the two characters are uncanny to the point I can't help but wonder if Plante purposely fashioned his narrator after Eliot's Prufrock) the convoluted, paradoxical psychology, of David Plante's No-Name narrator in his torn, tugging desires that, in turns, make him in one moment want to belong with his college comrades, and the next remain apart, alienated.

What follows is the Reaper's abrupt arrival in a blinding light on an otherwise starry tranquil night in the French countryside near Paris, where finally, we understand, as the dramatic yet understated tension that David Plante, in his enchanting poetic prose, has built and built and built toward its climactic crash, why he titled his beautiful brilliant novel as he did.  Where faith and fatalism collide, there's going to be a terrible accident.