Thursday, March 3, 2016

Retrogressive Progression

I usually sense something of a duty in these posts to promote the literature I read. There are a small number of notable exceptions. I lavished no praise on Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. But then that was just a bit of bookstore-shelf-browsing whimsy, not a Great Book on anyone’s list of Classic Literature. On the other hand, Charles Darwin’s books find their place on every attempt at a western canon that I’ve seen, and I haven’t had kind things to say about them, either. (See here, for instance.) Are there others? Oh, yeah! I gave Oswald Spengler a very hard time.

But I’ve written over 550 blog posts, most of them positive. My main purpose is to celebrate and share great, neglected literature. So why, I ask myself, did I write so negatively of James Joyce’s Ulysses last week? I suppose I just needed to express myself honestly, and at that moment, some 40% of the way through the book, I was very frustrated. I was frustrated with the length, with the obscurity of the language, and with finding that the musings of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom didn’t move me at all the way Joyce’s beautiful Dubliners does.

But two significant things have happened in the last seven days that have changed the situation. First, my friend Sarah I. wrote a comment on that first post that reminded me how much I believe that art doesn’t have to “move me” emotionally in order to delight or intrigue me. And second, the book suddenly got better for me the very day after I wrote the previous post. The next episode referenced Rabelais’s (I confess that I do not know the proper way to make an English possessive out of a French word ending in a silent ‘s’) Gargantua and Pantagruel, which I love. Its Gargantuan lists were often appealingly funny, and the subject of conversation – how Ireland has declined and how much of it can be blamed on the English – interests me.

But with the next episode, it suddenly seemed as if I got what was going on. The chapter begins with almost normal narrative prose describing two teen-age girls babysitting some toddlers at the beach. Their dialog essentially uses standard English, while that of the children is broken baby-talk. But then Gerty's interior monologue finds its way into the narrative, and every once in a while strange words, solecisms, elisions, and non sequiturs crop up. Once she gets consumed with showing off her legs to a stranger in church, her grammar – I think it's safe to use this phrase – breaks down. (Joyce called it “retrogressive progression.”) Then the reader finds out that the stranger is Leopold, who wants to do more than just look at the legs, and complete sentences and grammatical coherence disappear. Baby-talk has returned. Sex has degraded the human mind. Suddenly I got the idea that the fractured prose style itself made a point that the modern man is not what he could be. The next episode a mirror up to the process and traces the development of the English language (in narrating a human birth!) through forty paragraphs each representing the style of a different technique, genre, or specific author from history. I recognized many of them and definitely followed the centuries one Joyce got to Malory.

The book is still twice too long for me. Having read that Joyce said he put in enough enigmas and puzzles to keep the professors busy for a century didn’t help; I don’t think music professors were exactly the kind he had in mind. But all that just means that I’m not pausing to catch every reference, not having a spare century to spend on that project. And length per se doesn’t make a book bad in my eyes. As a matter of fact, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival tomorrow of an unabridged translation of The Count of Monte Cristo, all 1296 pages of which I plan to enjoy reading this coming January.

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