Saturday, February 13, 2010


Hamlet: Poem Unlimited is a too, too self-limited little book from Harold Bloom Ltd., the one-man critical industry that has given us such essential titles as The Anxiety of Influence, The Visionary Company and The Western Canon, as well as the seemingly unlimited Bloom's Critical Views series, which almost no one (I suspect) actually reads. (I hope I'm wrong about that.) As is the case with all of Bloom's books, Hamlet contains in its 150 pages much to agree and to disagree with. Highly questionable assertions, phrased in self-parodic Bloomian hyperbole, lie alongside readings that are deeply and genuinely insightful. Although, due to size limitations, these are rarely followed up. Why, one wonders, did the obsessively prolific Bloom turn in so short a book on so central a work? Perhaps because Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human was really a long commentary on Hamlet and Falstaff disguised as a consideration of all the plays. I would've preferred a 400-page book in which Bloom performs a microscopically close reading of the play and expands upon his insight--this little book's best moment--that the "How all occasions" soliloquy is the point at which Hamlet's theatricality parts ways with his inwardness. Bloom is very good on the theatricality here, but the exact nature of that inwardness seems to defeat the self-proclaimed Brontosaurus Bardolator--a defeat Bloom shares with virtually everyone who has thought deeply about the play. The great difficulty of Hamlet --and Bloom knows this, because his work taught it to me--lies in the fact that Hamlet's mind encompasses infinite space while ours, whoever we may be, are relatively nutshelled. Mr. Harold Bloom writes with relish of the internal organs of poems and novels, but Hamlet: Poem Unlimited is one of those rare instances where he writes less than enough.


Of O'Neill's 'four haunted Tyrones,' Mary impresses me the most on this reading. She's the best-written and most complex of the four, her lightning-fast changes of mood and personality in the middle acts presenting an extraordinary technical challenge to any actress brave enough to attempt the role. O'Neill pressures all four Tyrones until their masks shatter, until the bad actors they 'really are' are forced to reveal themselves, but Mary is the only one to show flashes of a tragic self-consciousness that has moved beyond impotent self-pity. And this self-consciousness, this position from which she is able to acknowledge that her only hope lies in accidental overdose, is the thing she must escape from. This is the knowledge from which she flees into morphine and Catholicism. (O'Neill was enough of a Marxist to know they are two forms of the same thing.) And by play's end both drugs bring her back to the beginning of her troubles, sitting in the living room that none of the Tyrones can ever truly leave, a one-room trap.

I'm also impressed on this reading by two seemingly contrasting elements in the play: its deep understanding of resentment and its Gothicism. O'Neill understands the dynamics of resentment inside families, and he understands the importance of resentment in the construction of the self, an importance that may be paramount. Our resentments might tell more about us than anything else. I'm tempted to say: if you want to understand someone, don't bother finding out what he loves, find out what he resents. As for Gothicism, the play is also a long day's journey from a rather flimsy surface realism to a deep and haunting Gothic Expressionism. As O'Neill strikes through his characters' (and his audiences') various masks, exposing them as the bad actors of their melodramatic little lives--every man his own James Tyrone, tragically trapped in a hack role that, for a few days in the distant past, seemed absolutely perfect for us--the play becomes increasingly Gothic, mirroring that most Gothic of all locales, the human mind. O'Neill gives us night and fog and even a madwoman in a distant room, the hoariest of all Gothic devices. And the last act's structural similarity to "The Fall of the House of Usher" is surely not accidental, given that Poe is one of the many writers named in the text. This idea that the psyche laid bare reveals itself as a house of Gothic horrors must have influenced the work of Ingmar Bergman, especially Persona (another journey into psychological night set in a sometimes fogbound house by the sea), Hour of the Wolf, and the middle section of Fanny and Alexander. O'Neill was highly regarded in Sweden in Bergman's formative years, and Long Day's Journey was premiered in Stockholm in a production directed by Bengt Ekerot, who played Death in The Seventh Seal, so it's somewhat surprising to discover, leafing through the chronology at the back of Bergman's autobiography, The Magic Lantern, that he didn't direct an O'Neill play until 1988. Unsurprisingly, the play was Long Day's Journey into Night.


And now for something completely different: a screenplay written for the Beatles by Joe Orton in the months before Halliwell's silver hammer came down upon his head. (Was that 1969 song from Abbey Road inspired by Orton's 1967 murder? Given his connection to the Beatles and the fact that he met McCartney, who wrote the song, it's quite possible.)

Up Against It is one of those posthumous publications that should probably have remained in manuscript. It doesn't really add anything to Orton's tragically small oeuvre. A later rewrite of a screenplay originally written for the Beatles (and judged too risky and risque by their management), it has some passages of sharp dialogue and a few laugh-out-loud funny moments, but not enough of either. The satire, while often as absurd as Monty Python, seems much more dated, and the entire script reads like a rather mediocre early Python movie. This is very minor Orton, to be read only by completists. The rest of us should stick to the plays, which are wonderful, the delightful diaries, and John Lahr's deliciously titled biography, Prick Up Your Ears.


One truly chilling aspect of the first chapter of Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (all of which is great and essential reading), in which Shirer writes of Hitler's childhood and youth, is the extent to which this reads like the childhood and youth of any artist--albeit in Hitler's case a talentless one. Tragically talentless. If he had been accepted by the Viennese academy (as many equally mediocre artists undoubtedly were), the entire history of the modern world might have been changed for the better. Indeed, it might've been changed if someone, anyone, had spoken the following sentence in Vienna ca.1910: "You know, Hitler, you're a good painter, and if you work at it, you could be great." Such encouragement might've kept his imagination focused on canvas, where his monstrosities would've hurt no one. My kingdom for a time machine...

RABBIT, RUN by John Updike

My standard (and fairly harsh) assessment of John Updike is as follows: I used to think Updike was a great novelist--and then I turned fifteen. When I first read Rabbit, Run as a teenager, I thought it was a very good novel (but I much preferred Rabbit is Rich, which I considered great); re-reading it in my twenties, I found it a well-written but fairly standard work of post-Joycean literary fiction, not a book that should blow anyone's mind. Having just completed a third reading, I'm reminded of Harold Bloom's remark (in his very good Paris Review interview) that Updike is "a minor writer with a major style." Rabbit, Run is an extremely well-written book (Just about every page contains a sentence or two that most writers would sell their souls to have written--this much of the book is indeed mind-blowing), and it's better conceived and constructed than most of Updike's later novels, but it also has an unmistakably 'minor' feel. No reader would confuse it with an undeniably 'major' work like Absalom, Absalom! or Moby Dick or Sabbath's Theater. Updike has none of the rambunctious recklessness of the truly 'great' Great American Novelists. It's a small, claustrophobic story. And while this claustrophobia, this sense of entrapment, works to the novel's advantage--it is, after all, the story of the title character's entrapment in an unbearably claustrophobic life--it may also work against the novel by making the book seem as small and enclosed as the lives it represents.

It also occurs to me on this reading that Rabbit Angstrom can be seen as a tragic hero whose fatal reversal comes early, when he turns his car around and heads back to Brewer in the first section of the first Rabbit novel. The rest of Rabbit, Run and all of the subsequent three novels depict, over three decades of American life, the fatal consequences of that turning. Something crucial in Rabbit's soul is killed early in the first book when he defeatedly turns home, and the later three novels depict an increasingly posthumous life.


Claire Bloom's tell-some memoir, Leaving A Doll's House, leaves me thinking that the ostensible author is either disingenuous or hopelessly naive. Someone, at some point during her long relationship with Philip Roth, should've tapped her on the shoulder and informed her that she was in a relationship with Philip freakin' Roth. Maybe then she would've been less surprised, shocked, devastated, etc. to learn of his affairs and labyrinthine erotic stratagems. Putting aside the very real physical and psychological problems Roth suffered during their relationship, Bloom's Roth is a portrait of a highly disciplined artist (Bloom uses the adjective 'ascetic' to describe this side of him), and the book can be read as a cautionary tale about falling in love with such a person, since a relationship will necessitate the partner's placing himself or herself under the artist's discipline. (I'm intentionally using old Communist Party rhetoric here, a double tribute to Roth's I Married A Communist and Bloom's fellow traveler character in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.) Because Bloom couldn't abnegate herself in this way, couldn't accept that she would always be at best second to writing in Roth's life while he would accept nothing less than being second to nothing in hers, the relationship was doomed from the start--as most are, in retrospect. Reading about this doomed marriage of artistic minds is like watching a slow motion film of a car crash. There's a certain sick fascination in it.

The New English Translation of THE SECOND SEX

More than half a century too late, we finally have a complete English translation of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. That's the good news. (It has been common knowledge for years that the original American publishers, not translator H.M. Parshley, cut about 10-15% of the French text from the classic English-language edition.) The bad news is that the new translation, according to Toril Moi in the current London Review of Books, is a botch job. Moi points out howling errors and major misunderstandings, but the most damning evidence against the translators consists of quotes from the new English text. It appears to be very badly written, a grave disservice both to the book and Beauvoir. English readers deserve better; Beauvoir deserves better; feminism and existentialism deserve better. I don't blame the new translators (too much); I blame the publishers who could have chosen an experienced translator like Richard Howard, Lydia Davis, or any of the writers Moi mentions. This is a big disappointment. I was looking forward to finally reading a complete English edition, but now I'm not going to waste my money on this unreadable piece of junk. I guess I'll pick up a French edition the next time I'm in Paris. That's the only way I'll ever get the complete text.