Burton Shulman is a master of short fiction. Just read his collection, "Safe House" if you doubt my veracity. But when asked to talk about books he's a mad of many words, all of them delicious. Forget Barney's Version, and try Burt's:
1) Moby Dick
Melville pretty much had it all -- surpassing gifts for language, characterization and narrative propulsion. The latter two initally made him a hugely popular writer of sea adventures. But when his truly Shakespearean gift for language blossomed, it changed his writing almost overnight and essentially destroyed his professional career. Yet the first thing that struck me about Moby Dick was the humor. In fact, the range of emotions and sensations that book pulls the reader through comes pretty close to encompassing the full spectrum of human experience. Such massive inclusiveness delivers nearly everything one (well, this one) could ask of a book. At the same time, it's easy to understand why most of Melville's first reviewers concluded that the irreverent, tale-telling Herman they thought they knew and loved, had quite simply flipped his wig. The book begins innocuously, establishing the narrator Ishmael as a wit, and in my case actually making me giggle (in later chapters, axiomatically, Ishmael also makes me cry). But very quickly the story shifts almost into a tripolar swing from excitement to humor to dread and back again. It begins to seem as if, against his conscious will, Melville is beginning to draw this story from some buried pool of archetypes. His characters come alive despite various forms of outlandishness (Starbuck and his self-soothing soliloquies, the funny / weird / tragic Queequeg, the tormented Ahab who even when he's just tossing a lit pipe overboard hears it hiss back at him from the brooding, perhaps Satanic ocean darkness; and that massive, vengeful force of nature, Moby Dick himself). At times Melville's prose both observes and mimics its cold ocean world, operating with the precision of a Darwinian empiricist, curling and sliding, hardening and softening as if tracing the outlines of physical forms through its shifting blend of rhythm and word choice. At times the prose is mimetic not just in denotative meaning but in sentence structure, as if the words are bubbling up from the depths of the book's mythical ocean and Ishmael is just taking dictation. The ocean is both the book's setting and its central character, the analogue for Melville's ambivalent, manichean, indifferent, or -- most heartbreakingly for Ishmael -- possibly non-existent God. Ishmael never seems to quite decide about God, which is part of the power; we're witnessing someone desperately trying to understand nothing less than the naked foundation of existence. The Epilogue makes things explicit, starting with a quote from Job: "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee."
2) The Brothers Karamazov
Dostoevsky generally started his books with an idea, but in The Brothers Karamazov he really bet the farm: he set out to prove the truth of Christianity by contrasting the virtues of a Christian life with the torments of lives lived under the default alternatives. He seems to have been certain that an honestly written novel could only validate his faith; fortunately for us, his honesty and courage were uncompromising, and he ended up diving deeper into the dark corners of the human soul than he – or perhaps anyone – ever had before. And once he started, his dogma was overwhelmed by his merciless creativity, and he ended up with an amazing tale that explores the brutal ambiguity at the center of the struggle between faith and reason. The novel follows four brothers, ostensibly representative "types," who quickly slip their dogmatic handcuffs and come to unruly life: 1) Dimitri, who is tortured by a longing to devote himself to the spirit, but lives by his addiction to the flesh; 2) Ivan, who has renounced faith in favor of ice-cold reason -- but whose teachings lead to the book’s central tragedy for which he feels responsible; 3) Alyosha, who is deeply religious but tormented by the pain he sees around him and his inability to mitigate it; 4) Smerdyakov, the scorned, illegitimate half-brother, drowning in a kind of half-life marked by loneliness and envy, whose worship of Ivan leads him to conclude that murder is justifiable in a world without God. Dostoevsky’s gifts for story and narrative are in full flower, and as always he isn’t fooling around. His commitment is felt in every line; you feel him living and learning through his characters -- writing for his life, and refusing to retreat from wherever his story leads. Funny, terrifying and tragic, a book born out of dogma ends in an ambiguous transcendence.
3) Anna Karenina
Blasphemy alert: I don't agree with Tolstoy's opening premise, and I even think it’s probably an unnecessary sentence, though there's some uncertainty about whether or not he meant it ironically: "All happy families are alike; but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." However he meant it, I suppose it's an attention-grabber, echoing the opening of Pride and Prejudice ("It is a truth universally acknowledged..." which was definitely meant ironically.) But for me it’s a bit of misdirection because I don’t think the book is really about families -- it’s about Anna. When Tolstoy writes from her perspective she takes on a depth that I'm not sure anything else I've ever read reaches. Her portrait isn't colored by sentiment or judgment, which I find remarkable not just because of the era in which he wrote, but because of how nearly impossible that kind of objectivity remains. When he enters her mind she's immediately alive; I remember that as I read, my attachment to her became so intense that her death caused real pain; a wonderful human being, for all her cruelties and imperfections, she’s in some ways quite ordinary -- and key to Tolstoy's gift is the brilliant light he's able to shine on ordinariness, so bright and sharp that his books remind us that the word "ordinary" is meaningless. Levin, apparently a stand-in for the author, seems mainly a comic figure now, but unlike some readers I actually enjoyed his endless discussions of "agronomy". I read the book years ago, and the two most vivid moments that I recall are the magnificent section which tracks Anna’s ruminations on the train, a feat of imaginative empathy that anticipates Flaubert's Bovary and the later Joyce / Woolff / Faulkner "stream-of-consciousness" experiments; and an odd little throwaway moment in which Tolstoy actually enters the mind of a dog. For just a moment, he gives us the dog's thoughts -- convincingly, as I recall, so that it seems completely natural. There's no real narrative need for Tolstoy to do this; perhaps he did it as an experiment and left it in because it seemed to work.
4) The Adventures of Augie March
I love this book, which I think is far and away Bellow's best and one of the glories of the American novel. My infatuation starts with the language. There’s nothing else like it, not even in Bellow's own later books. The prose of Bernard Malamud, his contemporary, has some similarities, but in Augie, Bellow burst through to a rolling, exuberant multi-clause cadence that famously combines high and low culture, Yiddish grammatical forms with high English rhetoric, and the life of the street with the life of the mind. And the book is most certainly alive. It teems -- with characters, anecdotes, settings, digressions, events, dramas and especially comedy. The characters are often hilarious, their concerns at once deep and shallow, Olympian and petty. In a particularly powerful scene Augie rides the rails, and Bellow paints a picture of Depression America in which the prose rises to a pitch that, to my ear, yields as great a tone poem as I've ever read. To me, Bellow at his best he could write sentences that could stop your heart, and in Augie every gift had was in full flower. He could capture light and shadow in shimmering descriptive clauses; he could conjure a living a character in half a sentence. In a way, the book’s language sounds a bit like Damon Runyon raised to the level of genius. As an exploration of early / mid 20th Century America, I don't believe this book really has a peer. "I am an American, Chicago born," Augie says at the outset, and looking at even those six words -- or better, listening to them internally -- you know you're in the presence of something still fresh and new.
Joyce wrote Dubliners under the spell of Chekov, who I believe died in the year Joyce drafted most of the book. First bit of sacrilege: I'm not a fan of A Portrait of the Artist, which I consider precious, self-important and written in prose that becomes increasingly purple the deeper you go. Second bit of sacrilege: I've only read parts of Ulysses, though much of what I've read is pretty amazing, despite Joyce's structural conceits and verbal games; I think it's a much, much better book than Portrait. Third bit of sacrilege: using the word "despite" in the last sentence instantly brands me as a jackass in the view of any self-respecting Joycean, since his technical innovations are widely accepted as his greatest contribution (though not by me). In fairness to myself, though, I should also say that I appreciate the wonderful music of Finnegan's Wake, particularly when read aloud, though here again I can't help feeling that people who spend their lives studying that book the way Joyce insisted they should, are engaged in a pursuit no more or less useful than building minutely accurate model trains, schooners and bi-planes. I admire the focus and tenacity, I can enjoy what they produce, but I wish they would either write their own books -- or else write more about Dubliners, since I consider Dubliners one of my five favorite books. These stories are as close to perfect as any I've read. Sentence by sentence, Joyce can break your heart even if you can't say exactly why or how. His theory of the "epiphany" was in full flower here -- a notion that's essentially the same as "grace" except without God. Despite religious roots, Joyce wound up earthy, profane and hedonistic – one of the great poets of the human condition. In a Joycean story (and Dubliners includes the only ones he wrote) the epiphany replaces what even today is still called the "climax" or "turning point" in more mainstream stories. Codifying this was, in a way, Joyce's first major innovation – his working out of the functional apparatus hidden within Chekov's stories, which were tremendously moving and funny, yet initially seemed to have no structure at all. Joyce’s epiphanies are much like the moments captured in the best haiku: they occur when ordinary elements lock together for an instant to create moments of breathtaking but ephemeral beauty that, if accurately captured and properly positioned within a narrative, can fuel stories at least as heart-stopping as those that are structured around the more familiar rising-action, climax and denouement. For me, Dubliners (like Chekov's stories) proved the point forever. The book eventually influenced everyone, particularly American writers like Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner and Dos Passos (the last two also being greatly influenced by Ulysses). Now, I can't end this without zeroing-in on what's probably my all-time favorite story: The Dead. It closes the book, is the last one Joyce wrote, and he actually wrote it roughly 10 years after the others. "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet," we learn at the start, though she wasn't, not “literally” -- except it's Lily who was thinking this, and that's how she saw it so that’s what the invisible narrator tells us. That invisible narrator is actually quite unusual – for the most part he or she adopts the basic language and cadence of the characters, but in very subtle ways he or she keeps telegraphing cues to the reader that though the voice is in third person, this story is indeed being narrated. The most important character – Gabriel, who is both a witness to, and vessel of, several epiphanies – soon becomes the narrator’s “host” for the remainder of the story. Though he seems reasonably bright he projects a fairly ridiculous air of self-importance, and is anything but self-aware – and self-awareness is ultimately the story’s “subject”. Very little needs to “happen” to Gabriel for everything to change in his life. You can make a case that in this story, Joyce moves closer to a traditional climax than to an epiphany, except that the turning point is a driven by several epiphanic moments in which we see Gabriel’s wife through his eyes at particular moments that show us how much he feels for her. Yet only a few sentences later, his wife’s quiet confession slaps him awake from his lifelong dream of himself so that, at the end, he is brutally self-aware; possibly for the first time, he sees how things really are. One miracle of the story, to me, is that it’s exactly at the moment that Gabriel shrinks in his own mind that he grows in ours. He becomes aware of his own general foolishness, of the inevitability of death, of how much that inevitability affects how one lives, and of the presence of mysteries he has never noticed before in his wife. Watching her sleep, he sees that he doesn’t know her at all. The moment arrives late, but when it does, it switches on like a huge spotlight that pins Gabriel under the intensity of a religious awakening without the religion. And like Gabriel, it catches us too. Without our noticing, Joyce has been patiently setting the stage for this from the beginning, so the illumination is not only Gabriel's but ours.
Thanks, Burt! For more on the craft of writing, please check out my book, Bang the Keys,
Bang the Keys as well as the new APP it rode in on:
and until next week, I ask you: what are your TOP FIVE books of all time?
You must be a registered user to add a comment here. If you've already registered, please log in. If you haven't registered yet, please register and log in.