A page from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s outstanding graphic novel From Hell, an encyclopedic account of the Jack the Ripper murders. In this scene, our evil protagonist Dr. Gull undergoes a transcendent experience, and appears to William Blake, inspiring The Ghost of a Flea.
I pulled the image of From Hell from this fantastic detailed review by Miguel at St. Orberose (far better than my own my own meager tackle at writing about the book). Plenty more images there, along with a comprehensive analysis of (what I take to be) Moore’s best work.
The strongest and strangest literature usually has to teach its reader how to read it, and, consequently, to read in a new way. Jason Schwartz’s new novella John the Posthumous is strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth—entomology, etymology, gardening, the architecture of houses, the history of beds, embalming practices, marital law, biblical citations, murder, drowning, fires, knives, etc.—and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.
What is the book about? Was my list too choppy? Our unnamed, unnameable narrator tells us, late in the book: “Were this a medical, rather than a marital history—you might then excuse so conspicuous a series.” (His series, of course, is different from mine—or perhaps the same. John the Posthumous, as I’ll suggest later, is a series of displacements).
So, John the Posthumous is a marital history. There. That’s a summary, yes? Ah! But there’s conflict! Yes, this is a book about adultery, about cuckoldry! (“Cuckoldry, my proper topic . . .”). Adultery is threaded into the titles of the three sections Schwartz divides his novella into: “Hornbook” — “Housepost, Male Figure” — “Adulterium.” There’s something of a poem, or at least a poetic summary just there.
Do you sense my anxiety about writing about the book? Some need to deliver a summation? Perhaps I’m going about this wrong. How about a sustained passage of Schwartz’s beguiling prose. From the first book, the “Hornbook”:
The lake is named for the town, or for an animal, and is shaped like a blade.
Adulterium, as defined by the Julian Statute, circa 13 B.C., offers fewer charms, given the particulars of winter, not to mention various old-fashioned sentiments concerning execution. Mutilation, for its part, is more common—the adulterous wife, or adultera, to use the legal term, surrenders her ears or nose, and, on occasion, her fingers—with divorce following in short order. Some transcriptions neglect the stranger, or adulterer, in place of graves—a simple matter of manners, this, not withstanding the disquisition upon the marriage bed. Others relate ordinary household details—dismantling the chairs, and visiting the windows, and departing the courtyard.
A gentleman, remember, always averts his eyes.
Cuckold’s Point, near Brockwell, in London, is most notable for its gallows—the red sticks recall horns—and for the drowning of dogs.
Schwartz’s narrator’s sentences do not seem to flow logically into or out of each other. They seem to operate on their own dream/nightmare logic, as if the words of John the Posthumous were the concordance to some other book. The single line paragraph about the lake (source of its name not entirely determined; its shape best expressed in simile) shifts into a horrific legal history of adultery and then into Cuckold’s Point, a bend in the Thames that owes its name to a simile.
Simile is perhaps the dominant mode of John the Posthumous. Schwartz’s narrator condenses and expands and displaces his objects, his characters, his themes. Sentences sometimes seem to belong to other paragraphs, as if multiple discursive discussions wind through the book at once. Our narrator tells us that
The common wasp measures roughly two hundred hertz. This is well below the frequency of, say, a human scream. Anderson compares the sound of a dying beetle with the sound of a dying fly. (The names of the families escape me at the moment.) The common bee, absent its wings, is somewhat higher in pitch. (Carpenter bees would swarm the porch in August.) The true katydid says “Katy did” — or, according to Scudder, “she did.” The false katydid produces a different phrase altogether, something far more fretful. Wheeler concludes with the house ant and the rasp of a pantry door. Douglas prefers a hacksaw drawn across a tin can. (We found termites in the bedclothes one year.) A sixteenth note, poorly formed, may be said to resemble a pipe organ or a hornet. The children set their specimens on black pins.
Here, entomologists (note how Schwartz always pulls his language from his reading, his research) try to describe the language of insects. Interspersed we get images of mutilation and impalement (“The common bee, absent its wings”; “The children set their specimens on black pins”) along with interjections of insects infesting intimate domestic spaces (“We found termites in the bedclothes”). The passage also picks up the novella’s motif of sharp objects (“a hacksaw drawn across a tin can”). There’s something simultaneously banal and horrifying about the tone of this passage, its language a juxtaposition of scientific observation and cloudy personal recollections—all contrasted with “the frequency of, say, a human scream.”
Infestation, violence, and betrayal shudder throughout John the Posthumous, erupting in strange moments of deferral and transference: “When the horse becomes a house, furthermore, termites appear on the floor,” reads one bizarre line. “A woman says ‘dear’ or perhaps ‘door,’ and then two names—or perhaps only one,” we’re told. “Even the earliest primers compare the heart’s shape to a fist or to a hand waving goodbye,” the narrator points out.
At one point, the narrator laments: “how I regret these grisly, inexpert approximations.” In context, he’s working through a series of etymologies (linking shroud to groom and wishing that dagger had some connection to dowager), but the phrase—“grisly, inexpert approximations”—approaches describing the narrator’s program of deferral and displacement.
Etymology repeatedly allows the narrator (an approximation of; an attempt at) a basis of description:
The doorframe disappoints the wall, as the wall disappoints the door. The mullions divide the yard into nine portions. But portions—or, if you like, portion—is an unlovely word. Guest and host, for their part, issue from the same root—ghostis. Which means stranger, villain, enemy—though naturally I had believed it to mean ghost. And the figure in the corner, lower right, is neither my daughter nor her hat, but just a paper bag in the grass.
The passage is remarkable. We begin with the mundane but symbolically over-determined image of a doorframe, along with an equally mundane wall and door—all connected, bizarrely, with the verb disappoints, producing an uncanny effect. The mundane mullions that divide the yard reveal the perspective of our narrator. He is looking out. He seems to be trapped in a house, but the house is always displaced, shifting—it’s many houses. Portion leads him etymologically to ghostis (a root I’ve long been obsessed with), a word that condenses a series of oppositions—and, as the narrator points out, provides its own imaginary ghost. The final sentence shifts us again; it seems to belong to another paragraph. But perhaps not. Perhaps we continue to survey the wall, the door, the mullions—do we look out the window and see the figure that is not (and thus, in the realm of the narrator’s program of imaginative displacement, is, or rather, approximates) his daughter or her hat? Is it a photo on the wall? Both?
I’m tempted to keep on in this manner, pulling out passages from John the Posthumous and riffing on them, but maybe that’s a disservice to its potential readers, who I think should like to be assimilated by its strange strength on their own terms. Schwartz’s narrative doesn’t cohere so much as it enmeshes the reader, who must learn a new way of reading, of grasping (or releasing) his series of objects and histories and rumors and rituals.
The novelist and editor Gordon Lish (who has championed Schwartz) famously advised: “Don’t have stories; have sentences.” Great writing happens at the syntactic level, which cannot be separated from plot—the language is the plot. John the Posthumous embodies this aesthetic, creating its own idiom, composed from the real and the imaginary and the symbolic, an idiom that refuses to yield a straightforward calculus or grammar. The effect is wonderfully frustrating; the novel nags at the reader, confounds the reader, haunts the reader.
Haunt has its own strange etymology, likely deriving from the Old Norse heimta, “to return home,” through to Old French hanter, “to be familiar with,” popping up in Middle English haunten, “to use, to reside.” We can take it all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root kei — “lie down, sleep, settle, hence home, friendly, dear.” Etymologically, all houses are therefore haunted—the series of houses (all different, all the same) in John the Posthumous especially so. This is a horror story, a haunted house story, a story larded with killers and connivers and adulterers. Another passage (I promise just to share this time and withhold remarks):
In the cellar: a pull saw and a hasp, a jack plane, a wrecking bar, and a claw hammer. A tin contains a cap screw and a razor blade. A jar contains the remains of a carpet beetle.
I dismantle the chairs and place all the parts in a crate. I station the broom beside the garden spade.
The killer in the cellar, in folklore, is discovered by a mute child. The prisoner in the cellar survives a fire or a storm—but is later mauled by wolves.
There were fleas last year, and squirrels the year before that.
I feel like I’ve offered enough of Schwartz’s uncanny prose here to appropriately intrigue or repel readers. The vision here is dark and the prose imposes an alterity that the reader must work through. This book is Not For Everyone, but it might be for you—I loved it. Haunting, frustrating, and disturbing, John the Posthumous is one of the best new books I’ve read this year.
The Seventh Trumpet, another mystery from Peter Tremayne. Publisher Minotaur’s blurb:
When a murdered corpse of an unknown young noble is discovered, Fidelma of Cashel is brought in to investigateIreland, AD 670. When the body of a murdered young noble is discovered not far from Cashel, the King calls upon his sister, Fidelma, and her companion Eadulf to investigate. Fidelma, in addition to being the sister of the king, is a dailaigh—an advocate of the Brehon Law Courts—and has a particular talent for resolving the thorniest of mysteries.
But this time, Fidelma and Eadulf have very little to work with—the only clue to the noble’s identity is an emblem originating from the nearby kingdom of Laign. Could the murder be somehow related to the wave of violence erupting in the western lands of the kingdom? The turmoil there is being stirred up by an unknown fanatical figure who claims to have been summoned by “the seventh angel” to remove the “impure of faith.” Fidelma and Eadulf, once again grappling with a tangled skein of murder and intrigue, must somehow learn what connects the dead noble, a murdered alcoholic priest, and an abbot who has turned his monastery into a military fortress. When it appears that things cannot get more complex, Fidelma herself is abducted, and Eadulf must rescue her before the mystery can be solved.
“On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth” by Thomas De Quincey
From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavored with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.
Here I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most to be distrusted; and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else; which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes. Of this out of ten thousand instances that I might produce, I will cite one. Ask of any person whatsoever, who is not previously prepared for the demand by a knowledge of perspective, to draw in the rudest way the commonest appearance which depends upon the laws of that science; as for instance, to represent the effect of two walls standing at right angles to each other, or the appearance of the houses on each side of a street, as seen by a person looking down the street from one extremity. Now in all cases, unless the person has happened to observe in pictures how it is that artists produce these effects, he will be utterly unable to make the smallest approximation to it. Yet why? For he has actually seen the effect every day of his life. The reason is—that he allows his understanding to overrule his eyes. His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is known and can be proved to be a horizontal line, should not appear a horizontal line; a line that made any angle with the perpendicular less than a right angle, would seem to him to indicate that his houses were all tumbling down together. Accordingly he makes the line of his houses a horizontal line, and fails of course to produce the effect demanded. Here then is one instance out of many, in which not only the understanding is allowed to overrule the eyes, but where the understanding is positively allowed to obliterate the eyes as it were, for not only does the man believe the evidence of his understanding in opposition to that of his eyes, but, (what is monstrous!) the idiot is not aware that his eyes ever gave such evidence. He does not know that he has seen (and therefore quoad his consciousness has not seen) that which he has seen every day of his life. But to return from this digression, my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect, direct or reflected. In fact, my understanding said positively that it could not produce any effect. But I knew better; I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it. At length, in 1812, Mr. Williams made his début on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway, and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must observe, that in one respect they have had an ill effect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by the deep crimson of his; and, as an amateur once said to me in a querulous tone, “There has been absolutely nothing doing since his time, or nothing that’s worth speaking of.” But this is wrong; for it is unreasonable to expect all men to be great artists, and born with the genius of Mr. Williams. Now it will be remembered that in the first of these murders, (that of the Marrs,) the same incident (of a knocking at the door soon after the work of extermination was complete) did actually occur, which the genius of Shakspeare has invented; and all good judges, and the most eminent dilettanti, acknowledged the felicity of Shakspeare’s suggestion as soon as it was actually realized. Here, then, was a fresh proof that I was right in relying on my own feeling in opposition to my understanding; and I again set myself to study the problem; at length I solved it to my own satisfaction; and my solution is this. Murder in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason, that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; an instinct, which, as being indispensable to the primal law of self-preservation, is the same in kind, (though different in degree,) amongst all living creatures; this instinct therefore, because it annihilates all distinctions, and degrades the greatest of men to the level of “the poor beetle that we tread on,” exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude. Such an attitude would little suit the purposes of the poet. What then must he do? He must throw the interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with him; (of course I mean a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which we enter into his feelings, and are made to understand them,—not a sympathy of pity or approbation.) In the murdered person all strife of thought, all flux and reflux of passion and of purpose, are crushed by one overwhelming panic; the fear of instant death smites him “with its petrific mace.” But in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will condescend to, there must be raging some great storm of passion,—jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred,—which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look. Continue reading ““On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth” — Thomas De Quincey”
Okay: So I’ve been meaning to get to this one for awhile, but my review stack has just been too big.
Anyway, Michael J. Siedlinger’s My Pet Serial Killer is pretty weird stuff so far, but also compelling and very readable.
At Word Riot, Edward J. Rathke gave the book a favorable review, writing:
My Pet Serial Killer is a psychological thriller as pickup game as college days romance as media study as violent porn as metahorror as the most bizarre and cruelest master/slave relationship I can remember reading since John Fowles’ The Collector. Claire Wilkinson, a forensics graduate student, plays the pickup game but she searches for a very specific kind of lover: a serial killer. She finds her Gentleman Killer, tears him apart, and rebuilds him, hoping to mold the greatest serial killer ever, causing a media frenzy, and furthering her own academic career. Twisted without being overly violent, haunting without the ghosts, Claire is a narrator and protagonist that we race along with, burning through pages at a dizzying rate only to see what she does next.
The book also got a good write-up at HTML Giant, which declared “Seidlinger is the sickest of the fucks. Few can compare.”
It is not, perhaps, entirely because the whale is so excessively unctuous that landsmen seem to regard the eating of him with abhorrence; that appears to result, in some way, from the consideration before mentioned: i.e. that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light. But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on his trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does. Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras.
But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult
From “The Whale as a Dish,” Chapter 65 of Melville’s Moby-Dick.
“My Favorite Murder” — Ambrose Bierce
Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years. In charging the jury, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away.
At this, my attorney rose and said:
“May it please your Honor, crimes are ghastly or agreeable only by comparison. If you were familiar with the details of my client’s previous murder of his uncle you would discern in his later offense (if offense it may be called) something in the nature of tender forbearance and filial consideration for the feelings of the victim. The appalling ferocity of the former assassination was indeed inconsistent with any hypothesis but that of guilt; and had it not been for the fact that the honorable judge before whom he was tried was the president of a life insurance company that took risks on hanging, and in which my client held a policy, it is hard to see how he could decently have been acquitted. If your Honor would like to hear about it for instruction and guidance of your Honor’s mind, this unfortunate man, my client, will consent to give himself the pain of relating it under oath.”
The district attorney said: “Your Honor, I object. Such a statement would be in the nature of evidence, and the testimony in this case is closed. The prisoner’s statement should have been introduced three years ago, in the spring of 1881.”
“In a statutory sense,” said the judge, “you are right, and in the Court of Objections and Technicalities you would get a ruling in your favor. But not in a Court of Acquittal. The objection is overruled.”
“I except,” said the district attorney.
“You cannot do that,” the judge said. “I must remind you that in order to take an exception you must first get this case transferred for a time to the Court of Exceptions on a formal motion duly supported by affidavits. A motion to that effect by your predecessor in office was denied by me during the first year of this trial. Mr. Clerk, swear the prisoner.”
The customary oath having been administered, I made the following statement, which impressed the judge with so strong a sense of the comparative triviality of the offense for which I was on trial that he made no further search for mitigating circumstances, but simply instructed the jury to acquit, and I left the court, without a stain upon my reputation:
“I was born in 1856 in Kalamakee, Mich., of honest and reputable parents, one of whom Heaven has mercifully spared to comfort me in my later years. In 1867 the family came to California and settled near Nigger Head, where my father opened a road agency and prospered beyond the dreams of avarice. He was a reticent, saturnine man then, though his increasing years have now somewhat relaxed the austerity of his disposition, and I believe that nothing but his memory of the sad event for which I am now on trial prevents him from manifesting a genuine hilarity. Continue reading ““My Favorite Murder” — Ambrose Bierce”
“A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” by Carson McCullers
It was raining that morning, and still very dark. When the boy reached the streetcar café he had almost finished his route and he went in for a cup of coffee. The place was an all-night café owned by a bitter and stingy man called Leo. After the raw, empty street, the café seemed friendly and bright: along the counter there were a couple of soldiers, three spinners from the cotton mill, and in a corner a man who sat hunched over with his nose and half his face down in a beer mug. The boy wore a helmet such as aviators wear. When he went into the café he unbuckled the chin strap and raised the right flap up over his pink little ear; often as he drank his coffee someone would speak to him in a friendly way. But this morning Leo did not look into his face and none of the men were talking. He paid and was leaving the café when a voice called out to him:
“Son! Hey Son!”
He turned back and the man in the corner was crooking his finger and nodding to him. He had brought his face out of the beer mug and he seemed suddenly very happy. The man was long and pale, with a big nose and faded orange hair.
The boy went toward him. He was an undersized boy of about twelve, with one shoulder drawn higher than the other because of the weight of the paper sack. His face was shallow, freckled, and his eyes were round child eyes.
The man laid one hand on the paper boy’s shoulders, then grasped the boy’s chin and turned his face slowly from one side to the other. The boy shrank back uneasily.
“Say! What’s the big idea?”
The boy’s voice was shrill; inside the café it was suddenly very quiet.
The man said slowly. “I love you.”
All along the counter the men laughed. The boy, who had scowled and sidled away, did not know what to do. He looked over the counter at Leo, and Leo watched him with a weary, brittle jeer. The boy tried to laugh also. But the man was serious and sad.
“I did not mean to tease you, Son,” he said. “Sit down and have a beer with me. There is something I have to explain.”
Cautiously, out of the corner of his eye, the paper boy questioned the men along the counter to see what he should do. But they had gone back to their beer or their breakfast and did not notice him. Leo put a cup of coffee on the counter and a little jug of cream.
“He is a minor,” Leo said. Continue reading “Read “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud,” a Short Story by Carson McCullers”
1. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—
Did I read it before? In high school? Not in college, not in grad school, I’m certain of that.
That I could have read Notes from Underground in full three times, but not Crime and Punishment—how?
I vaguely recall wandering into Crime and Punishment as a young man. All those Russian names though. My attention was on other matters.
And so reading Crime and Punishment this month I repeatedly felt a strange anger or shame at all my younger selves for lacking the attention or the will or the discipline to stick it out . . . and these words, attention, discipline, will, they don’t seem like the right words, because the book compels, commands, rewards . . .
2. You are familiar with the plot of course:
Our hero, our anti-hero, young Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker, an old woman; in the rush of the crime, he fails to close the door, and the pawnbroker’s innocent sister sees him. So he murders her too. The rest of the novel deals with the psychological fall out of this crime. Sure, there’s a sister and a mother, a failed marriage plot, a detective, a friend, and a love interest, a prototypical hooker with a heart of gold, etc.—but that’s it. That’s the plot.
3. What impels Raskolnikov to murder the pawnbroker?
Perhaps I shouldn’t answer here. Perhaps it’s better to suggest you just read the book if you haven’t yet—because is not this the driving question?
(Oh you’ve read the book? I’ll continue then).
4. Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker not because he is an indigent student in need of funds. He murders her to test his theory—or rather, he murders her to test his place within the scheme of his theory.
5. Raksolnikov’s idea:
I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it. . . . I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. . . . The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood . . .
Raskolnikov believes that “extraordinary men” have the right, the duty, even, to transgress law—even to the extremes of murder (even mass murder) in order to bring about a new word, a new idiom, a new philosophy, a new paradigm, a new zeitgeist, even a New Jerusalem.
Raskolnikov wants to know if he is one of these “extraordinary men.”
6. But Raskolnikov, like Macbeth or a figure out of Poe, is plagued by doubt, misgiving—and more than a touch of insanity and egomania.
His instability and his psychological and moral dilemma is summed up neatly in only the second chapter of the book:
“And what if I am wrong,” he cried suddenly after a moment’s thought. “What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.”
7. The word or an iteration of the word psychology appears 25 times in the Constance Garnett translation I read.
Crime and Punishment was published in 1866, when Sigmund Freud was ten years old.
(I am not naively/stupidly suggesting that Freud invented psychology, by the way. I’m just riffing).
8. What Crime and Punishment does so well:
Harnesses the intellect of its protagonist Raskolnikov, shows us his fevered mind in revolution, shifts us through his moods and dilemmas and despairs and strange joys.
9. And it’s not just the interior of Rakolnikov’s skull we get such access to—Dostoevsky gives our lead a marvelous, taunting foil in the detective Porfiry, a loyal and empathetic counterpoint in friend Razumikhin, a despicable enemy in the poseur Luzhin, and a dark-future forecast in Svidrigaïlov.
Each of these characters represent viewpoints and attitudes about psychology and morality without ever falling into being mere allegorical sketches or mouthpieces for Dostoevsky’s ideas.
10. Dostoevsky—unlike certain contemporary novelists I’ll neglect to name—doesn’t tell us that his character is brilliant (or troubled, or confounded, or fucked up). And he goes beyond showing us—he actually lets us experience the character’s psychology.
11. A marvelous, frightening episode that illustrates point 10:
12. This isn’t to say that Dostoevsky’s handling of characterization is flawless.
His women appear less fully-realized than his men, as if he perhaps cannot inhabit their minds so fully or exercise their brains, their souls, their voices.
Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya, for example, is a bold, more perfect, more more moral, more stable version of her brother, a woman who seems able to withstand conflict, disappointment, and misfortune with ease—too much ease. Raskolnikov’s mother, in contrast, is something of an idealized blank—not just a mother, but the mother figure: nonjudgmental, loving—her character summed up in her hugging her son and forgiving him for what she cannot forgive.
It’s the depiction of Raskolnikov’s love interest Sonia that I find most troubling though. Dostoevsky renders her an unsubtle merging of the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. Her alcoholic father forces her into prostitution to save the family, but she never appears bitter or angry or even upset. Dostoevsky rarely affords her a speaking role, and in her biggest scene she reads the entire parable of Lazarus. Sure, she makes the words her own, but she’s being ventriloquized. The strings show. She’s pure symbolism, really, and stands in stark contrast to the dark, flawed humanity of Raskolnikov.
13. Re: Point 12 above: If Dostoevsky shows a certain weakness in his depiction of women, he perhaps compensates in other areas. For example, Luzhin’s roomate Andrey Semyonovitch, a utopian socialist, serves as a mouthpiece for emerging feminist ideas. And if Dostoevsky mocks would-be reformers in his novel, it’s not always with vitriol, but sometimes with understanding, and even perhaps love. After all, this is Raskolnikov’s pretension—to be a reformer of others, to step over the line of law, to be a great man.
14. But Raskolnikov is a failed reformer, or at least is unable to live with his trespass, his sin. Crime and Punishment’s epilogue emphasizes the Jesusian theme of the possibility of resurrection, even as it subdues or complicates that possibility.
We get the final image of Raskolnikov “mechanically” taking up Sonia’s copy of the New Testament; he doesn’t open it to read, but instead reflects on the possibility of a new life with Sonia, a life that “would cost him great striving, great suffering.” Dostoevsky does not let his protagonist off the hook, even as he offers the reader a final comforting vision of “the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.”
15. There’s a strong temptation to see the epilogue as tacked on, as a sentimental gesture to the reader’s sense of stable morality, as a bit of window dressing that covers the ugliness of the narrative.
And perhaps this is true.
I’d argue though that Dostoevsky gives us a cold, ugly ending in the figure of Svidrigaïlov, who more or less commands the final moments of the narrative, moments that lead inexorably to his suicide—the self-erasing gesture that Raskolnikov cannot commit to. I think that Svidrigaïlov’s suicide might stand as a placeholder for Raskolnikov’s—an exchange of sorts.
And Svidrigaïlov’s death is not without a small measure of redemption—the redemption of other-directedness, of giving, of selflessness. It is far more complicated and troubling than the Jesusian resurrection that Dostoevsky implies as a possibility for Raskolnikov, but it also strikes me as far more real.
Dubious History by P.H. Denson. This sucker is thick; 550+ pages of conspiracy theory driven thriller. I read the first few pages this afternoon; the writing is much better than the swollen publisher’s description below—
Drawing on the secretive and intriguing mysteries of the Masonic brotherhood, the fast-paced, brilliantly layered storyline and its fascinating central characters have proved a big hit with readers who like to have their wits challenged and to be kept guessing right to the end. The story begins with what appears to be a hit-and-run ‘accident’ and moves rapidly to reveal a chilling web of serial murders and a deadly Masonic secret. George Fairfax, a Pulitzer nominee researching the history of a small American town, falls victim to a hit-and-run. When his nephew Zach steps in to complete writing the town’s history, he quickly becomes suspicious of his uncle’s ‘accidental’ death. Zach begins to unravel a spiderweb of clues that point to a dangerous Masonic secret which may also be responsible for the mysterious deaths of a number of other members of the Masonic lodge. Can Zach decode the clues to the two-hundred-year-old secret in time to find the serial killer before he claims his next victim? And what twists await at every turn as each clue uncovers more of the shocking truth behind the killer’s real end-game?
From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, “The Part About Fate, pages 266-267:
“We’ve gotten used to death,” he heard the young man say.
“It’s always been that way,” said the white-haired man, “always.”
In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through the fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn’t want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings. Of course, most of the serial killers were never caught. Take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear. What does a child do when he’s afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he’s about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. And the funny thing is, the archetypes of human madness and cruelty weren’t invented by the men of our day but by our forebears. The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. You could say the same about madness. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. Maybe it’s because polite society was so small back then. I’m talking about the nineteenth century, eighteenth century, seventeenth century. No doubt about it, society was small. Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century, for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale, to Virginia, say. And that didn’t get anyone upset or make headlines in the Virginia papers or make anyone go out and call for the ship captain to be hanged. But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor and then went galloping back home, dismounted, and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total, Virginia society spent the next six months in fear, and the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations. Or look at the French. During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police. The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner. How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn’t tell you.
Even if Phil Spector hadn’t given us the recent spectacle of an outlandish murder trial, Mick Brown’s Spector biography Tearing Down the Wall of Sound would still make for a gripping read. Brown’s biography, simply put, is the definitive Spector book. At nearly 500 pages (including endnotes and an extensive bibliography), Tearing consistently treads the thin line between exhaustive and exhausting, but the source material–Spector’s insane life–is simply too compelling to ever earn a yawn. Just when it begins to feel that Brown has given us too much detail, we’re rewarded with yet another tale of Spector’s lunatic shenanigans. And whether he’s pulling a gun on the Ramones, drunkenly berating Michelle Phillips, praising Ike Turner and Yoko Ono, or fighting with the Beatles, Spectors’s crazy mischief is exactly the kind of stuff we love to read in a celebrity biography. However, lurid stories never trump the real reason to read this book: Spector as musical genius. There’s plenty here to please hardcore audiophiles, including long discussions of the evolution of Spector’s famous “wall of sound” and the producer’s tumultuous relationship with arranger/songwriter Jack Nitzsche. All the episodes of Spector’s life are here–his early teenybopper days with the Ronettes, his “making” of Tina Turner, his battles with the Beatles (both as a group and individuals), his “comeback” shot with the Ramones, and even his late disillusionment with, um, Celine Dion. These segments are bookended with a detailed consideration of Spector’s recent troubles, beginning with a secretive Spector secluded in his California mansion right before the alleged murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, and a lengthy, journalistic afterword explaining the events of Spector’s much-publicized trial, right up to the September 2007 mistrial ruling. Heady stuff.
Photograph by Brad Elterman
Ultimately, Brown crafts Spector’s strange life into a bizarre bildungsroman; he paints Spector respectfully but never reverentially, revealing a Promethean hubris in his subject that veers into self-annihilation. At the same time, Brown’s Spector is an utterly American story, a classic reinvention tale. Even when Spector is at his most petulant, paranoid, and downright awful, Brown never lets us lose sight of the man’s sheer force of will and his enormous contribution to American music and culture. Brown’s book reminds us of the myriad ways Spector transformed our notions of pop music, but he leaves us wondering if Spector will indeed be able to rise like the phoenix from his latest debacle or if his upcoming retrial will be the end of the music.