Friday, June 5, 2015

The Comps Reading Project part 1

This coming November is my PhD comprehensive exam, the most foreboding part of which is the massive reading list.  The list is composed of 2 parts: 1) 70-100 books of novels, poems, plays, and scholarship on a specific historical period--in my case, Irish and Latin-American 20th century literature; and 2) 30-odd books on another "special topic"--in my case, the "canonization" of Transatlantic Anglo-Modernism.  I am attempting to read all of the novels and at least some of the major criticism over the course of this summer, before Fall semester begins.  My goal is to average at least 4 books a week.  To keep myself accountable, I will publicly record what I've read each week here, along with my brief, general, grammatically-erratic impressions of each.  Here's what I've completed since the summer began:

El general en su laberinto [The General in His Labyrinth], Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

There is a surprisingly robust sub-genre of Latin-American novels about famous Latin-American dictators; it's debatable as to how Marquez's 1989 novel fits into that sub-genre.  Engaging in free indirect discourse, the novel's sympathies seem at first blush to be primarily with Simon Bolivar, the legendary "liberator" of South America from Spanish rule, now old and sick and on his death bed, as he goes on one last river ride after being forced from office, his dream of a United "Grand Columbia" of South America collapsing and fragmenting into its current political matrix.  The intent of this novel would appear to be provide a humanizing, pathos-ridden portrait of a great man in his final defeats.

Yet I also remember how Marquez warned of his earlier novel Love in the Time of Cholera that "you have got to beware of my trap," as his tale of long-deferred love causes you to sympathize with a character who is, by all textual evidence, a sexual predator.  Marquez clearly enjoys manipulating his readers into identifying with the monsters, and I suspect El general continues that game; for Marquez makes no bones about the fact that Bolivar sought to set himself up as dictator-for-life of Grand Columbia, believing that the form of representative government recently established in North America was unreproducible in the South.  Bolivar's life may be a tragedy of epic proportions, Marquez seems to imply, but part of that tragedy was self-inflicted--as was the mess of Caudillos who followed in his wake, following his example.  (Man, what I wouldn't give for someone to write a similar sobering portrait of George Washington...)  The novel also features 2 Irishmen who were close confidants of Bolivar, part of my larger project of analyzing the intersections and overlaps between both literary traditions.

The King of Ireland's Son, Padraic Colum.
First published in 1916, this children's novel is very 1001 Arabian Nights-esque in its intricate series of nested stories interweaving in and around each other.  If Joyce was constructing labyrinths in his prose, Colum here is doing the same with structure.  It is a written Book of Kells of sorts, one that interweaves many old Irish myths and folk-tales for the benefit of the youth of Ireland, in the same manner as the illuminated manuscripts of old.  (As you can probably tell, the theme of the labyrinth in both Irish and Latin-American literature will be a predominant theme in this project).

El sueño del celta [The Dream of the Celt], Mario Vargas Llosa
It's probably not going to get more directly relevant for me than this: Vargas' 2010 novel (the same year he finally won the Nobel) is the Peruvian author's fictionalized account of the Irishman Roger Casement, the real-life explorer and activist who first brought British popular attention to the horrific abuses of rubber-harvesters by Belgium in the Congo, and again to the abuses by Peru (Vargas' homeland) in the Amazon.  For his efforts, Casement was knighted by the British Empire and became an international celebrity, but this did not prevent him from becoming radicalized against all colonialism, inevitably resulting in him becoming an ardent Irish Republican executed after the 1916 Easter Uprising.  The irony is that Casement opposed the timing of the Uprising, preferring to hold it off until he could convince the Germans to distract the English with a counter-offensive during WWI--for which treasonous activities he was summarily executed.

The novel's structure involves a trade-off between chapters of Casement sitting in an English prison, anxiously awaiting to find out if his numerous friends can commute his sentence (spoiler: they can't), and longer chapters recounting his anti-colonial activities and adventures.  Over the course of the novel, Casement begins to slowly befriend the prison guard who hates Casement in part because his own son was recently killed by Germans in the war.  Although Vargas' own epilogue acknowledges that the debate continues to this day as to whether the journals that revealed Casement's homosexuality and possibly pederasty were faked by the British in a nefarious plot to discredit him, the actual novel's text plays it straight, as though the journals were true.

The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner.
Oh my goodness, why can't all criticism be this fun to read?  This is scholarship as inventive, wild, and insane as its topic.  This 1971 book is widely considered instrumental in formally canonizing Ezra Pound as central to the entire Modernist movement.  It does not attempt to skirt his fascism, only explain it; it has many a fascinating close-reading of the Cantos; you learn much about Joyce, TS Eliot, and others by means of the labyrinthine prose and structure ("Thought is a labyrinth" is the closing line); it's not quite a biography, nor quite a study, but a bizarre sui generis all to itself that no summary of mine can possibly do justice to--like the works of Pound as well.  Serious, this book was a revelation to me, and I'm so happy I got to read it!

The Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism, ed. Joe Cleary.
See, this is what most criticism is actually like--organized, clear, distinct, informative, dry, dull, and kind of a chore to get through.  Don't get me wrong, this 2014 collection is cutting edge in how it seeks to define Irish Modernism as clearly distinct from the more general British Modernism it usually gets lumped with.  The book also does well at cataloging the many fascinating contradictions of the era--how it could be so provincial and international, so backward-looking and forward-facing, all at the same time.  Nevertheless, once you've read The Pound Era, you can't help but wish these scholars couldn't maybe be as fascinating to read as their subjects.

La casa verde [The Green House], Mario Vargas Llosa.
Here's where I started to get sick of Vargas--and where I started to realize that his whole schtick appears to be that of bouncing back and forth in time between marginally-connected episodes and characters.  Maybe it was inventive the first time he did it in 1965, but the formula started to wear on me quickly--and the tale of a whore-house in early-20th century Peru and of the jungle and of a nunnery's self-righteous mistreatment of Native children never quite cohered for me--and the fact that it probably was never supposed to cohere didn't really help me get through it, either.  Yes, it's very well written, but (and maybe this marks me as irredeemably Anglo) I'm gonna have to side with Team Marquez in the great Marquez/Vargas literary rivalry (and the fact that Marquez is such a bigger household name in North America compared to Vargas is probably worth exploring).

La fiesta del chivo [The Feast of the Goat], Mario Vargas Llosa.
And now to totally contradict myself: all of Vargas' atemporal tricks and schticks that I found so irritating in La casa verde I actually really enjoyed in this 2000 novel.  Maybe it's the more fascinating subject material: the text bounces between the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo (the titular goat) on the eve of his assassination in 1961; the assassins themselves in wait and in the immediate (and horrific) aftermath; and to 1996, focusing upon the fictional daughter of one of Trujillo's closest advisers, revisiting Santo Domingo (and her own father) for the first time in decades.  She was sexually assaulted by Trujillo as a young girl, as part of her father's attempt to curry favor with him, prompting her to escape to the U.S. and cut off all contact with her family.  The novel, then, telescopes in from the widest geopolitical (Kennedy, Castro, and Europe are all major players in this novel) to the most intimate, in painting a picture of Trujillo's tyranny.

The Dublin Trilogy ["The Shadow of the Gunman," "Juno and the Paycock," "The Plough and the Stars"], Sean O'Casey
These three plays, written in 1922, '24, and '26 respectively, are commonly grouped together as The Dublin Trilogy, inasmuch as they all deal with the fallout of the civil wars that plagued Dublin in the Civil Wars post-Easter-Uprising, specifically with how they affected the working classes.  O'Casey writes heavily in dialect, both Irish and English.  In all 3 plays we encounter a rigorous, remorseless de-romanticization of the Easter Uprising, of the failure of rhetoric and poetry in the face of such violence.

"The Shadow of the Gunman" is a sort of bottle play, concerning a pair of roommates in a Dublin slum in 1920.  Donal is a young poet often mistaken for an IRA gunman on the run, which he does not refute, as it helps with his popularity and romantic prospects with a certain Minnie Powell.  Of course, this cannot last, as someone hides a bunch of bombs in his apt. just as the diabolical Auxies raid the place.  Minnie makes off with the bombs herself, and is tragically killed trying to escape.  In Donal and his roommate Seamus we get a sort of contrast between theory and praxus, idealism and pragmatism, in a manner reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre's Dirty Hands decades later.

"Juno and the Paycock" likewise concerns poor Irish tenants during the Irish Civil War, in this case the Boyle family.  The patriarch Jack is an old sailor, a character as colorful as he is ultimately insufferable.  He never works anymore, and the family suffers because of it; that is, till they learn a relative has left them a substantial inheritance, prompting them to go on a spending spree on credit.  Of course, it turns out this is an empty promise, as the will only specified the "my first and second cousin," of whom there are many competing claimants.

The inheritance is eaten up by legal fees; the neighbors who had sold to them on credit come with a vengeance to reclaim their goods; a son who had lost his arm in the civil war but had also betrayed one of his comrades is caught by the IRA and executed; the daughter is seduced, impregnated, and disgraced by the English lawyer who had drawn up the fraudulent will--the latter presented himself as an enlightened figure, but (like all the English) shows his vile true stripes.  Believing in false promises--both Irish and English--is a recurring theme in these plays.

"The Plough and the Stars" is the largest of the 3 plays--both in length and in staging.  Long, patriotic quotations of Patrick Pearse are utilized ironically as civilians are caught in the crossfire of the Easter Uprising.  Unionists, Republicans, and Communists are each in turn bitterly mocked in equal measure.  All the wrong people are killed.  

No comments:

Post a Comment