Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Frank O'Reilly

This is the definitive book on The Battle of Fredericksburg. Incredibly detailed, exhaustively researched, and vivid in its description of the horrors of war. In a lot of ways, it’s the ultimate anti-war book. I can’t imagine reading this and thinking the carnage is cool. Although it delves deep into the minutia of troop level movements and battle strategy, Frank’s writing style keeps you completely engaged, and his extensive use of directly quoted accounts from the participants brings a real humanity to this 150 year old battle. Also, if you are ever in Fredericksburg and have the opportunity to take a tour of the battlefields led by Frank, don’t skip the chance.

One Vast Anguish

I read Madame Bovary because of de Maupassant and I read de Maupassant because of Maugham. I was not disappointed in Bovary. I’m not sure if everything of Flaubert’s is like this but Bovary was everything I hoped it would be and some things I didn’t expect. Some observations.

Madame Bovary is a surprisingly modern novel in that it identifies a problem familiar to modern readers. It’s about an unfulfilled woman, a woman who yearns for some kind of actualization but, denied this, seeks it instead first in fantasy, in “emotional affairs” and then in outright physical adultery. You can argue all you like if Emma Bovary does this because she is stupid or cruel, fed by romantic notions, confusing material affluence with intellectual and spiritual achievement or if, as I see it, her time and place, 1800s France, left her no options – Emma’s choices are to become a nun or a wife, and the maker of a modest home at that. Her husband, Charles, spends his days as a country doctor traversing the land helping people and being a figure o f importance. Emma sews.

Not the kind of plot I usually dig, but what really kept me turning the pages is what usually keeps me turning pages: the language. My God, the language! I don’t know how Flaubert reads in his original French but in the English translation of Lowell Bair it is…

Not too beautiful. It’s clear, has a nice flow, is relatively simple, makes terrific use of observation, of detail, of what I think is called le mot juste, “the right word.” Isn’t that how it’s done, whether you’re Flaubert or anyone else, whether you’re producing capital-L Literature or advertising copy? At times it is plain, at times soaring, Flaubert simply puts it together in a way that I love. He describes Emma:

Accustomed to peaceful sights, she was drawn to scenes of contrast and unrest. She liked the sea only because of its storms, and verdure only when it was scattered among ruins. She had to be able to extract some kind of personal benefit from things, and she rejected as useless anything which did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, for her temperament was more sentimental than artistic and she sought emotion, not landscapes.

Again, with just the right detail, he so perfectly captures her character and state of mind:

Her carnal desires, her longing for money and the melancholy of her unfulfilled passion merged into one vast anguish, and instead of trying to distract herself from it she concentrated her attention on it, stirring up her pain and always looking for a chance to suffer.

It’s also wonderfully erotic in that restrained 19th century way. This is among its sexiest passages:

The bed was a large mahogany one, shaped like a boat. Red silk curtains, curved at the bottom, hung down very low from the ceiling beside the flaring headboard; and there was nothing in the world so lovely as her dark hair and white skin against that crimson background when, in a gesture of modesty, she brought her bare arms together and hid her face in her hands.

I think I also didn’t expect the book to be so wise. It’s full of knowing observations about the world and the psychology of its characters.

What next? An investigation into Zola. Then, perhaps, more Flaubert? More de Maupassant surely? And who are Flaubert’s great–grandchildren? Who is continuing to turn out prose and stories like that? Maybe what’s on display are the principles of writing and storytelling that I enjoy in anyone’s hands.

Faulkner As Is

I have a well thumbed copy of the Collected Stories of William Faulkner, Vintage edition that I have spent time with sporadically for years. Every time I pick it up I read a little more, always planning to spend more time on Faulkner, explore the novels beyond As I Lay Dying, which I’ve read twice, and never quite getting to it. Time to change that.

I guess my appreciation of Faulkner’s stories has grown with each reading and, in the case of many of these stories, re-reading. I think most of us think of Faulkner as a great “Southern writer” most known for setting much of his work in the same continuum – the recurring characters and lineages of the fictional Yoknopotophaw County, in Mississippi. But he’s so much more than that; he’s the Nobel-winning author that made significant contributions to literature in time, pace, setting, psychology and character – and this, too, obscures him, for at the one end of appreciation he is too small and at the other too big.

What you need to get under you is just that these stories are so damn good, by themselves. For starters, there’s the language. Always, the language, the prose, the ability to make great sentences. Here’s one that blew me away the other day, from “Victory:” “The dark earth bites into the sun’s rim.” A sentence like that, you can hold in your hands. More:

The sun is setting. The village rises in black silhouette against the sunset; the river gleams in mirrored fire. The bridge across the river is a black arch upon which slowly and like figures cut from black paper, men are moving.

Faulkner puts his words together the way a poet does, he selects details a poet would notice that convey a world of meaning and upon which entire scenes and experiences hinge.

So he’s a great writer. But he’s also very accessible. That’s key, I think. My most recent re-readings have driven home to me that though Faulkner is a giant among literary figures, his works are also entertaining and readable and, dare I say it, good examples of Virile Lit. For he writes stories about thieves, con artists, tough men, stories that wouldn’t be out of place in the Western or crime genres. He has here a number of amazing stories about war and about a fictional tribe of native Americans – read “A Courtship” for a story that could have walked out of the pages of a 1930s adventure serial.

I’m not saying they’re all adventure stories, but he maps the human heart the way James M. Cain does. Ostensibly, Cain’s work is “crime fiction,” but that’s just Cain’s particular perch, from which he navigates the terrain of his characters, and often the crimes Cain portrays are not transgressions against the law at all – they are the crimes of basic humanity, greed, emotional violence and manipulation. Faulkner is the same way – you’ll just never find them together on the same shelf in the book store.

What I think Faulkner achieved, what I will read more of to find out, is a perfect balance between literature of great artistic merit, heavy language, and work that is enjoyable, even thrilling. If so, it’s no wonder he is numbered among our greatest writers – but don’t let the fact that he is canonical keep you from appreciating him just as is. That’s my intention.