The Journey: Ida Fink
The memory moves in mysterious ways: I could not recall reading The Journey, nor did I have any factual memory filed under Statistics related to The Journey. However, upon closer inspection, I could not only perfectly recall The Journey word for word, but punctuation mark for punctuation mark. A revelatory and pleasant surprise as significant as the fact that I was reading The Journey at all.
Word for word, and punctuation mark for punctuation mark, is a slight exaggeration. Certain passages were blank spaces in my own mythology, and others were recorded only as facts or related events; discussions on German xenophobia and modern Holocaust propaganda.
Both of which The Journey is remarkably free of. Only three moments are particularly abhorrent, and can almost be excused as pertinent to characterisation. But would one excuse an attempt to downplay—or downright deny—the mass slaughter of six million Jews by the Nazis? One would hope not. So Ida Fink should not be afforded any more sympathy when she bathes in ignorance of the slaughter of Slavic Poles, and the chances of a conscripted Nazi infantryman's survival as compared to that of a Jew's: only twice as good if you're counting. In this context, even Harlan Ellison agrees that ignorance is as good as denial.
Such disgusting propagandas so prevalent in post-1950s Holocaust literature are utterly devoured by the prose, characterisation, and immersive, unreliable sense of memory: perhaps a happy accident that grows from the characterisation.
To avoid capture, Ida Fink's fictional analogue must regularly change identity, and this creates a wonderful sense of immediate confusion: not so much as to Ida Fink and her sense of self or others—for that remains clear throughout due to the powerful characterisation (one's identity is harder to hide than one might imagine)—but as to the factuality of proceedings.
It is not a question of whether Ida Fink's current persona is this or is that, but whether Ida fink was, herself. The epilogue describes Ida Fink's return to a location from towards the end of The Journey, where what she encounters was not accurately recalled as recounted in The Journey. How much of this was because of the place itself changing, and how much of this was her own unreliable memory?
The prose itself is just as effective at avoiding the common pitfalls of holocaust literature. The simple pleasures of the rhythm with which each passage is written, and the poetic repetition that returns not merely to certain themes, but to prosaic aesthetics as well, combined with a focus as much on the sensory delights and horrors of the world as the delights and horrors of the historical context, provide ample objectivity to moral musing: of which there is almost none.
Although Ida Fink's own emotions are projected onto the environment and the weather, the weather and the environment remain separate entities distinct from Ida Fink's emotions. That she might experience a brief moment appreciating beauty in winter or in summer, or hide terrified in a hay bale as night envelops her in darkness, yet each of these moments be illustrated just as beautifully and powerfully in their sensuous caressing of the senses, is a poignant achievement.
The Journey is a truly remarkable composition of modern prose (read: backhanded compliment), and an incredibly original post-1950s example of Holocaust literature. But is it young adult fiction? The cover and the typography say yes. The sensory and technical qualities of the prose say maybe. And yet Francine Prose proves that she has some use after all by contributing to the exceptional translation with Joanna Weschler. And would Francine Prose pollute herself in the pubescent waters of young adult fiction? I should think not!
Speak, Memory: Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov and I should be kindred spirits. We are both goalkeepers (though he embraces all the poetic, romantic fantasy that such a position is oft associated with) and share a love for games, wandering tangents, trains (real and imitation), convolution and non-sequitur commentary or obscure, irrelevent inside jokes. And that's not to mention the synaesthesia, the arrogance and self-importance strong enough to deny outside praise and criticism alike, the seething hatred for Freud and psychoanalysis, or the mud he revels in flinging at genuine holy cows from Dostoevsky to Darwin.
But Vladimir Nabokov is also a coward. An unabashed aristocrat who looks like the worst sort of Oxford-snob when rowing in England, and the most intellectual of vapid poets when at home in Russia. Worse still, his cowardice allowed the New Yorker's famous editors and fact checkers to shape Speak, Memory—and their influence is universally negative.
In the search for American facts, and a crushing sense of utterly pointless and meaningless history so as to mask cultureless flaws, the New Yorkers' editors successfully littered Speak, Memory with over-descriptions, over-explanations, and bizarrely repeated informational facts. Some deliberate and highlighted, some seemingly included by accident. Most offensive to the sensibilities is the American mode of familial history: name, date of birth, and occupation.
Although Nabokov's memory demonstrates impressive powers of recall, there is illustrated here that strange disconnect from which some people suffer when comparing themselves to the person who they recognise—but do not understand—as themselves pre-puberty. Although rich with colours and a dearth of details, the pre-pubescent passages are conspiciously devoid of tangible characterisation, and Nabokov's voice is utterly suffocated by the rambling American prose, with objects and people being described into oblivion; the glimmer of their reality consumed whole.
The grandiosity of the prose is at times so ridiculous that it becomes gaudy and kitsch. After several increasingly limp descriptions of a genuinely grandiose fragment of reality, Nabokov has the tendency to complete the errant description with a simile that weakly flaps about like bewildered butterflies set loose in an alien zone, at the wrong altitude, among an unfamiliar flora. This American form combined with Russian metaphors is genuinely funny at times; unfortunately, the intention is to bewitch.
The power of the post-pubescent characterisation allows the voice to overcome the verbose, unwieldy prose. As he wanders the streets with a contemporarily abandoned love, the world exists in its painful entirety; the prosaic mumblings meander on and on, but are utterly inconsequential: once reality has poked visibly through, not even the New Yorker can hide it.
The final passage is genuinely beautiful. Not only does it powerfully surmise the entirety of the book up until this point (to the point where its failings feel all the more unbearably consuming), but the prose is successfully simplified. Still entirely American in its form, the discordant European imagery and flow lives happily within the simplicity; alive and vibrant—coughing now and then under the weight of crushing similes, but never choking to death.
Bookending Speak, Memory are an introduction and a review, both by Vladimir Nabokov. The former displays his caustic wit; the latter demonstrates his cowardice: is teaching James Joyce as geography over politics a genuinely progressive act? It is still teaching Joyce. A writer who is shamelessly name dropped in a rather irrelevant, off topic rambling.
The typography of my ******'s edition is poor. Nabokov's long, Victorian paragraphs wander far too close to the edges of the page for such humungous blocks of text, and the justification is unacceptable: one line tracked the text so that the kerning between sentences was equal to the average kerning between letters of an individual word elsewhere, and the kerning of letters within a word was almost nonexistent. Literally worse than SquareSpace!
Dandelion Wine: Ray Bradbury
I recalled reading Dandelion Wine in its entirety: filed under Statistics. The content itself was a complete mystery; discovered for the first time—but for the epiphany and the murders. A powerful demonstration of my brain's progress. As my eyes wandered over a paragraph in utter illiteracy, I could stop and begin again until literacy returned. Incredible.
Ray Bradbury as a literary entity functions in two equally important modes. The first mode is that he symbolises the original power of American literature, where the crushing cultural void of post-secession America is filled with irrelevant history, bravado and unflinching sentimentality.
Although now sentimentality has become a word steeped in negativity, sentimentality in art has often been a highly idealised aesthetic quality, and nostalgia (the coward's sentimentality) has been received in the same way that sentimentality is now: because nostalgia necessitates an easy, deliberate admission of subjectivity, and pleasurable delusion. When one composes a lie (fiction) it's best not to admit it.
Ray Bradbury does not shirk sentimentality. Dandelion Wine is filled with adults who decry sentimentality, who obsessively try to stamp it out; to destroy it whenever it rears its ugly, powerful head. But Douglas himself is saved by two types of bottles filled entirely with disposable sentimentality. Douglas' revelation without sentimentality is a terrifying one that almost acts out its final prophecy through its sheer power: death. Without sentimentality, Americans are cultural Patrick Batemans.
In place of culture, sentimentality can offer the same aesthetic qualities. Where culture might provide beauty within a hollow shell of artwork, sentimentality can perform the same function perhaps just as powerfully. With sentimentality, an appropriation of foreign culture in the guise of reincarnation—but in actuality American historical immortality—is not merely two mistimed lovers' pleasure and suffering, but that of humanity's; just as it would be if that metaphor was infused with the cultural identity of any given country that has such a thing.
American literature without sentimentality is hollow because American literature without sentimentality is literature without culture. Powerful vision and voice can survive, but those who cannot infuse each word with reality require culture to take its place and infuse the hollow words with which they fill in the rest of their tract with the reality that they themselves cannot supply. Being an artist is easy if you aren't American.
And what better marriage for a country that lives in a perpetual state of cultural stagnation: referring to history as culture, and believing history to be factual and indisputable reality; a country that worships the very things that render history fictional: journalism, education, politics in place of monarchs, and charismatic tellers of tall tales? Sentimentality excels with history. It provides history with feeling and reality, without any sense of trepidation: perfect for American sensibilities.
The second mode that Ray Bradbury functions in is that of the perfect teacher of literature. Ray Bradbury unashamedly uses genre-specific aesthetic and structural conventions and devices. The completely accessible and constantly overt nature of his writing makes it obvious how any and all literary techniques which he uses are applied to every single character (here: unspecifically in the typographical as well as narrative senses).
And yet Ray Bradbury's voice is constant and powerful; infusing almost every word, yet never hidden—which has lead to a great deal of critical derision: Ray Bradbury is not only happy to metaphorise constantly, he also complements the metaphors with similes, and never does he come close to disguising a metaphor; and never is a metaphor lopsided with the reality or the unreality of the metaphor being in any way stronger than the other.
If a voice is not only strong, but the prose is as well—yet entirely accessible—then what use is there in praising it? Everyone feels it is good, after all, and there is no critical superiority that can be gained by praising Ray Bradbury, when any illiterate pleb can see he is a great writer, too.
Much like Mary Poppins, Dandelion Wine has claims to being a novel—divided into chapters of short stories with a relatively vague overarching narrative that cannot in good conscience be described as singular enough to be categorised structurally as a single story. The momentum, unlike most Ray Bradbury novels, ebbs and flows: it does not build endlessly to a single point of one final [anti]climax. Each individual short story is structurally self-contained.
The two most wonderful things about Dandelion Wine are the commas and the similes. The commas are compositional, awe inspiring perfection, demonstrating the sinuous, sensuous quality of a punctuation mark that has become so common—so offensively used—that it is hard to take seriously. Ray Bradbury uses a comma where one might just as easily place a full stop, a semi-colon, a colon, or any punctuation mark at all. It provides the prose with a wonderful feeling of elasticity that fits so sumptuously with the rising and falling momentum, and unending beauty.
The incomprehensible multitude of mostly successful similes sometimes indulges in something that American literature tries so very often to achieve, yet few other brands of literature ever attempt because they are smart enough to understand that only sheer, utterly idiotic genius can pull it off: the mad, wandering, and meandering simile that might be broken up by several punctuation marks, combine several metaphors, and convince one that the metaphor is false, the simile aesthetically ugly and structurally irredeemable, and then, with the last punctuation mark and passage, turn it all on its head to somehow actually work—it's as satisfying for the reader as for the writer. Present company politely excluded, perhaps only Eminem does it as well.