V.—That Obscure Object of Desire

Swedish Book Cover for Thomas Pynchon’s V.

I have just finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963). This is one of those works which is so disturbing to readers who feel they must understand every reference, every symbol, every character. And what if the novel has hundreds of characters, most of them with highly fanciful names like Herbert Stencil or Benny Profane or Rachel Owlglass or Pig Bodine. For good or ill, something happened in the twentieth century that resulted in a great divorce of art from the common everyday experience of reality.

One can find it in James Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake), Samuel Beckett (The Unnamable), Georges Perec (Life: A User’s Manual), William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!), and Gertrude Stein (The Making of Americans). And, in fact, all over the place.

Because my academic training is in film history and criticism, I was able to make a connection to one of my favorite directors, the Spaniard Luis Buñuel. In an interview with André Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze that appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma in June 1954, Buñuel wrote:

For me it is natural to tend to see and to think of a situation from a sadistic rather than from, say, a neorealistic or mystical point of view. I ask myself: What must this character reach for? A revolver? A knife? A chair? In the end, I always choose whichever is most disturbing. That’s all…. [Quoted in Ado Kyrou, Luis Buñuel: An Introduction (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963)]

Film Director Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

If one looks at Pynchon’s novel V., one finds a search for a feminine entity referred to as V., presumably because that is the first letter of her name. In the course of the novel, there are dozens of characters who could qualify, and Pynchon is in no hurry to identify which one is right. The candidates include Victoria Wren, Vera Meroving, the goddess Venus, Veronica Manganese, a rat named Veronica in the sewers of New York, Madame Viola, Hedwig Vogelsang, the Blessed Virgin, or ??? Then again, V. could be a place, such as Valetta (Malta), Venezuela, the mysterious Vheissu (never explained), Vesuvius, or the V-Note Jazz Club in Manhattan ???

Thomas Pynchon is not terribly interested in providing closure, but he does know how to suck you in and keep turning those pages until you get to the strange death by waterspout of Sydney Stencil in 1919.


Filling In the Gaps

No One Considers This To Be One of Faulkner’s Best

If one has read a whole lot of books, as I have, one eventually gets to the point of filling in the minor works that are not highly regarded by the critics. In William Faulkner’s case, that includes his first two novels, Soldiers’ Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927). It was only when he began setting his stories in his mythical Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner’s reputation began its steady ascent. And even then, he was not frequently read until he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 that Americans decided to start reading his work. Since that point, his work has remained in print.

What is to be gained from reading an author’s minor works, especially at the beginning of his career? I enjoyed Soldiers’ Pay only because I love Faulkner. I better understand the steps he took to be able to write The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom! Absalom! (1936), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down Moses (1942).

I will continue to “fill in the gaps” in my reading of Faulkner’s work. In the next year or so, I plan to read Mosquitoes, Pylon (1935), and A Fable (1954). At the same time, I’ll re-read one of the great novels just to remind myself what I am trying to do.

William Faulkner

I am doing the same thing with the opus of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but in a slightly different way. I am midway through Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of the writer and am reading or re-reading his work in tandem with the biography. I am about to re-read Notes from the Underground (1864).


The Trilogy from Hell?

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

I finally finished reading Samuel Beckett’s “trilogy” of novels: Molloy (1955), Malone Dies (1956), and The Unnamable (1958). The years are for the English versions written by Beckett of works originally released in French.

In recommending it to you, I am doing you a favor, or I am doing you no favors, or you are probably wondering about my sanity, which you might well do, as I do myself even on changeable days in the spring. Have I gone too far? Or have I not gone far enough?

It took me many years to read this trilogy, though I only started in 2010. (It took me eight years to read 414 pages? I must be slipping.) I owned the edition below since the 1970s at least.

The Evergreen Black Cat Edition I Read

Molloy wasn’t too bad. At times, it even resembled a novel as I knew it, or thought I knew it:

And if I failed to mention this detail in its proper place, it is because you cannot mention everything in its proper place, you must choose, between the things not worth mentioning and those even less so. For if you set out to mention everything you would never be done, and that’s what counts, to be done, to have done.

Malone Dies are the thoughts of a dying man (who must actually be pretty healthy to remember so many thousands of words in his “condition”):

For I want as little as possible of darkness in his story. A little darkness, in itself, at the time, is nothing. You think no more about it and you go on. But I know what darkness is, it accumulates, thickens, then suddenly bursts and drowns everything.

With The Unnamable, one is on altogether dicier terrain. There are paragraphs that seem to go on for a hundred pages and sentences that go on for two or three pages. Molloy and Malone had actual human existences at some point, but the unnamed character in the final novel, who may once have been called Mahood and who may once have been called The Worm, has one arm and one leg, or no arms and no legs. At one point he has a single lidless unblinking eye, and he seems to have ears and a mouth, or maybe not. There isn’t a lot to hold on to in The Unnamable. Except, of course, the language:

…I don’t feel a mouth on me, I don’t feel the jostle of words in my mouth, and when you say a poem you like, if you happen to like poetry, in the underground, or in bed, for yourself, the words are there, somewhere, without the least sound, I don’t feel that either, words falling, you don’t know where, you don’t know whence, drops of silence through the silence, I don’t feel it, I don’t feel a mouth on me, nor a head, do I feel an ear, frankly now, do I feel an ear, well frankly now I don’t, so much the worse, I don’t feel an ear either, this is awful, make an effort, I must feel something, yes, I feel something, they say I feel something, I don’t know what I feel, tell me what I feel and I’ll tell you who I am…

Now all of that is just a small part of a single sentence near the end of The Unnamable. Can you wrap your head around a hundred and twenty pages of that? I managed to and even loved it. This is a “story” in which nothing happens, in which everything ventured meets its opposite. It’s like a collision of matter with anti-matter. Boom!


An Excerpt from My Book List

My Excel List of Books I’ve Read Since Early March

I know it’s a little fancy, but I’ve been messing with computers since 1964, when I was a junior at Dartmouth College. There are a lot of abbreviations and symbols which may not make sense, but which I will try to explain here:

  • Col B: A star indicates a new author I have never read.
  • Col D: If an entry is in Italics, I read it on my Kindle. A Commercial-At (@) indicates a re-read.
  • Col H: Either a miniature Guatemalan flag for my vacation reading, or a 2-character country abbreviation. FR=France, AS=Asian, GE=Germany, IS=Iceland, IT=Italy, RU=Russia.
  • Col I: My rating from 0 (worst) to 10 (best).
  • Col K: Genre. FIC=Fiction, MYS=Mystery,BIO=Biography, TRA=Travel, SS=Short Stories, AA=Anthropology & Archeology, SFF=Sci-Fi and Fantasy, DRM=Drama, YAF=Young Adult Fiction, and so on.

The first column is a counter indicating I have read 2,096 works since 1998, when I started. Now that I am retired (for now), I am reading more than ever.


Among the Night Witches

A Young Adult Novel About Women Night Bomber Pilots for the Russians in WW2

I don’t usually read Young Adult fiction, but circumstances dictated that I read Among the Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz. First of all, my friend Bill Korn recommended it to me and suggested that I visit the author at last weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The which I proceeded to do last Saturday. Gwen was there in a shared booth, and I purchased a hardbound copy of her book.

Yesterday, I finally had a chance to start the book. Given Bill’s recommendation, I expected it would be interesting. It was actually written well enough to almost qualify as standard adult fiction. The book was about what the Wehrmacht troops invading Russia called the Nachthexen, the Night Witches. The term referred to young women who flew primitive old bombers at night behind enemy lines. The heroes are Valka (Valentina) and Iskra, a pilot and navigator who knew each other from childhood. Valka corresponds with Pasha, a friend from her home town who is conscripted into a rifle company.

Almost half of the novel consists of letters between Valka and Pasha, which gradually turn into love letters as Valka begins to realize how much her childhood friend means to her.

Valka (Valentina) , the Heroine

Many of the events described as well as many of the minor characters are taken from real life. Although I do not know much about the women flyers in the VVS (short for Военно-воздушные силы, or Military Air Forces), I felt that Gwen Katz did a creditable job researching her book. Added to that were interesting and diverse characters and well-plotted-out action that was exciting without being too subject to shallow wish fulfillment.  The ending, in which Valka and Iskra fly to rescue Pasha in German-held territory might be a bit much; but it is well within the standards of YA literature.

Author Gwen C. Katz at the L.A. Times Festival of Books

I am curious to see what Miss Katz will do for her next novel. And I will be looking out for it.


Serendipity: The Writer Gives an Interview

Jorge Luis Borges Giving an Interview for Spanish Television in 1967

I was just looking through V. S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South (1989) when a passage on page 57 suddenly struck my eyes. Toward the end of his life, Jorge Luis Borges was blind. During this time, he gave many interviews which were published (I have at least a dozen of them on my shelves). My guess is that he saw the interviews as an easy replacement for having to write the stories, essays, and poems for which he was famous.

It was something I had worried about that these figures of Atlanta, because they had been so often interviewed, and though they might appear new to the out-of-towner, might in fact have been reduced to a certain number of postures and attitudes, might have become their interviews. Like certain writers—Borges, to give a famous example, who had given so many interviews to journalists and others who, in the manner of interviewers, had wanted absolutely the set interview, the one in the file, had wanted to leave out nothing that had occurred in every other interview, that he, Borges, had finally become nothing more than his interview, a few stories, a few opinions, a potted autobiography, a pocket personality. Which was the way, I had been told, the media created two or three slogans for a politician and reduced him to those easily spoken words.

Fortunately, Borges was wily enough to give a series of varied interviews which, though they had some common elements, especially in the area of “a potted autobiography,” are still capable of entrancing the reader.


A Gathering of Readers

Looking Out from the South Entrance to the Festival of Books

For the first time since the event moved from UCLA to the University of Southern California campus, I attended both days of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It was exhilarating to see so many people in one place who were united by the simple fact that they liked to read. Also, many of the attendees brought their children along because they wanted them to read as well.

Based on what was on offer, many of the books were not to my taste. I did buy titles by Jeddu Krishnamurti, Gabriel García Marquez, Magda Szabo (a fellow Magyar), Gwen Katz, and Dorothy B. Hughes; and I will probably read all five within the next couple of months.

On Saturday, I attended two panels by Times reporters, one on world travel and one on homelessness. Because the seat next to me was vacant at both panels (was it my deodorant?), I found myself answering the inevitable question as to whether I was saving the empty seat with something obscene in Hungarian.

Times Panel on Editorial Policy

Most of the time, I was in remarkably good temper. I didn’t like buying my lunch from food trucks, as there is a certain mediocrity built into the delivery medium. Three of the best remaining bookstores in L.A. were represented with interesting selections: Vroman’s Bookstore from Pasadena, Book Soup from the Sunset Strip, and Kinokuniya from Little Tokyo.

There were a lot of booths manned by authors who were using the Festival to push their books. I felt a little sorry for them, but I can understand how they felt, dishing out so much cash for so little return. (I make one exception: Gwen Katz, who was recommended along with her book by my friend Bill Korn).

It’s great that the MetroRail Expo Line is now fully operational, as I would much rather pay $1.20 for public transportation than $12.00 for parking in a distant structure. I am already looking forward to next year’s Festival.