Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Catcher in The Rye lives...

My son who's almost 14 had to read this book for school and at first told me he hated it, that it wasn't relevant to this time, that the guy, Holden Caulfield, was crazy, also whiny and boring, that he went on and on. Then he reread it, changed his opinion, wrote a longer report than he's done all year and got an A. What happened? Holden doesn't have any media, not a computer, let alone a smartphone. Yet my son found something on rereading he could relate to. I decided to see if I could figure out what, since I have no recall of this book and could use some insight into the male teenage mind.

When first you meet Holden Caulfield, he's resting some unspecified place. His Hollywood brother with the Jaguar will be taking him home in a month. He's telling what happened to him before he got sick and had to rest. He was leaving Pencey, a prep school, and wasn't sorry about it. He shows you why; there's the handsome, unethical roommate, who by coincidence was preparing for a date with a girl Holden likes, the wierdo next door who enters without asking, pimply and argumentative, who Holden pitie, his disgust of the rah-rah athletic ethic and the rich kids, one of whom stole his warm coat and gloves. His life is mostly lousy and full of phonies. He fears his beloved brother, who's making it in Hollywood is becoming one, writing movies, instead of his very good stories. Holden hates movies because they are phony and you believe them. He also hates that he's leaving Pencey because he's failed four subjects and must again disappoint his parents. He's got a long weekend before the Wed he's supposed to be home and money. Holden decides to go back to NYC but not home. He's wants a good time, before seeing his parents. He says goodbye to a professor who is concerned about him, but rather than focusing on what is being said about his behavior, he flees citing the "lousy" appearance of the old guy.

A lot of this book is about Holden Caulfield's flight. He tries to avoid what's going on in his life, again getting kicked out of school, by losing himself in the adult world or trying to. He gets a hotel room and smokes and drinks, not eating much. He takes cabs to a jazz club and tries to pick up women. He's drunk on his way to his room, when a bellhop offers him a girl. He agrees then doesn't know how to deal with her and ends up socked in the stomach. He has a date with Sally, a pretty girl his age, to see a movie with the Lunts but hates the phoniness of the movie and the actors. Holden says the legendary Lunts are the kind of good actors who know they're good so they're not as good. And when Sally runs into a stylish boy from a better prep school and they have an enthusiastic "phony" exchange, Holden is angry with her. It is his date, though he's not really in love with her--or is he? He tells her he is, when he necks with her in a cab, and then calls himself a madman, because he also knows he doesn't like her so much.

This is what the book's about that constant shift from one emotion to another, unsure which is real or authentic, yet having an acute sensitivity to hypocrisy in people, schools, and, unhappily in one's self. Which is what he's avoiding in his cab rides up and downtown. In Central Park, deserted an icy, he tries to see where the ducks go when the pond freezes over. He also contemplates his own death in some pond or freezing in the park. Throughout, he's trying to grasp what might be true. There's his neighbor Jane, the girl his roommate was dating, who he held hands with in an authentic way. There's his other brother, the one who wrote poetry on his baseball mitt, who died a year ago. Holden was so upset, he badly damaged his hand. He feels the loss and thinks there was never anyone so good, smart or talented as this brother. He also keeps coming back to his little sister Phoebe. He is disappointed in almost everyone else. One reason is that he has a hard time reconciling good and bad sides of people. There's his former teacher, a family friend, who's married in NYC and has helped Holden in the past. He goes to his apartment in the middle of the night, thinking to stay there until Wed, but when the guy touches his head in a way that seems "Flit" meaning gay to him, Holden again flees. He can't stomach ambiguity and literally has nausea and pain in his stomach. He spends the night in Grand Central station, not caring of his bag checked days before.

Phoebe is the one person he knows loves him unconditionally, She "kills me" meaning she makes him laugh. She's also innocent--something he feels he's lost. Phoebe believes in him and he respects her, though she's eleven. In those days before Wednesday, Holden gets no sleep, gets sicker on more alcohol and cigarettes and spends all his money. He sneaks into his parents' apartment and asks Phoebe for money, ashamed he's doing i. Hhe gives her his red wool hunting hat and is shamed, towards the end of the novel, when she puts it on him. Her way of showing she knows he needs to be taken care of. He's told her he's not going home but will go out West. He will hitch through the Holland Tunnel and make it to cowboy country or pump gas.

When he meets his sister at Museum of Natural History to return her eight dollars, she says she's going with him. He gets the horror of her not going back to school. Facing his own failure, Holden finally goes back home. All sense of time and place are dissolved. He comes back to it in the rest place. My son said he's in a mental hospital. Might be a sanitorium, but you get the idea what's been happening isn't as simple as a mental breakdown. It's more about a person without their inner compass. He can't, as he explains, make a point without digressing, that digressions are what's interesting--not setting a target and getting there. Holden is a lost soul. But you get the idea, once he figures out what's the point of life, he'll be able to get somewhere. Whether he will or not, is the question. As he tells the psychologist, who asks whether he'll be able to apply himself at school; how do you know until you're there?

And to me this is the point of the book. Being lost and maybe finding out what's got meaning is the eternal quest--and not just for adolescents. One of Holden's well wishers says scholars do better than creative types, because they have more to hold onto. Holden does well in English but language isn't enough. He has to find out what's good and true. The catcher in the Rye, is from a song about kids playing in a field of Rye. He has a dream where he catches them so they don't fall over the cliff. In this he knows he must somehow save himself. Salinger's like a shrink who uses the poetry of the soul to diagnose his tortured adolescent. And you get the idea Holden will pick himself up and try again with truer aim. What else is an adolescent's journey? Or anyone starting over in life. My son didn't say why he liked it better the second time, he just did, This stays on the classics list for me. Glad I read it again, as a grown up


Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Art of Fielding, the game of champions

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, is a coming of age sports novel that transcends the category. It has been praised by almost every major critic in every possible publication. I mostly join that chorus. I like the gentle humor in this book, the sly homage to Melville's Moby Dick, the empathy aroused by his characters, the sure plotting that unhurriedly moves the story to an ending that's unexpected. Harbach's inarticulate hero, Henry Skrimshander is a great surprise, a ball-player stand-in for the artist as mystic. Henry's an outsider. He's the kind of visionary who's uncompromising, self-sacrificing and, for a short-stop, ungrounded in planet earth.

Like a Sam Shepard hero, he comes from the obscure West, Lankton, South Dakota, with working class parents, and few aspirations but one. From the age of 9, when he got his glove with Aparico Rodrigues inscribed on it, he wanted to play shortstop like the famous player, whose book, "The Art of Fielding" becomes his lodestone. He calls the glove Zero, after his answer to his mother when she asked him how many errors he made in a game. Always his answer was Zero and it became a mantra for him, a result of his constant meditation on the perfect game. Henry's life, when he meets Schwartz, an unofficial scout for Westish College, was spent studying how "the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so he knew in advance whether he should break right or left..." He already plays the game with an effortless impossible grace that fascinates Schwartz, yet, he becomes his acolyte.

Their meeting is like a ball fitting a glove. Schwartz, who's inspiration is Homer, is dedicated to the great endeavor of baseball. He has a talent for managing people but not the transcendent ability he recognizes in Henry Skrimshander. But Henry, a short skinny boy, needs to develop the heft and polish of the professional athlete.Their friendship is about winning for Westish, but more than that, developing Henry to his highest potential. Henry has the potential to not just make the big leagues but enter history. For Schwartz this is a mission worth any price. Besides endless practice, Henry builds muscle with killer regimens; skull crushing weight lifting, endurance runs, inedible protein drinks, as well as keeps up his academics and washes dishes for money. He has no social life but Schwartz's edicts are his gospel. Schwartz to him is Like Melville, Westish's guiding light, and Moby Dick, the unknowable force. When he plays for the Harpooners, he's part of something bigger than himself.

Henry shares his room with Owen Dunne, who introduces himself as "your gay mulatto roommate." Owen proves to be the opposite kind of ball player, an independent intellectual, who doesn't follow the coach's instructions. He's so unflappable, he reads while on the bench. But he's excellent in all he does, which somehow never perturbs his tranquillity. Owen's a seeker of the authentic and his inspiration is the President of Westish, Affenlight. The man who discovered Melville's connection to Westish, has lost his original mission.

In this novel, where alter egos learn from each other. Owen and Affenlight are Platonic in the sense of sensuality serving the life of the mind. This, not that it's a gay affair, is what's subversive about this book. It's clear that Owen is Affenlight's only gay affair--he loves the boy's beauty and brilliance. The relationship is pedagogical on both sides. Affenlight's authentic passion is a great counterpoint to the locker room casual obscenity and the usual cliche about homosexuality underlining sports teams. Which is not present in the life of the Harpooner team. It has importance that there's a fraternal bond about the game. This book's underlying theme is about that bond.

Perhaps that's why I found Affenlight's daughter, Pella to be an off note. There's her name, which everyone remarks is beautiful, and is never explained, though I somehow recall it from art history as having some meaning. She's the prodigal daughter, who unlike the boy-men in this novel, doesn't know what she's doing in her life, except recovering from a dead-end marriage. She's described as smart and rebellious but easily swayed by men and emotionally dependent. She ran off with a lecturer and is now without a high school degree, let alone a college education. Pella's at a dead end. She goes back to her father's world, so she can regain her life, and the life of the mind.

In The Art of Fielding, she falls for Schwartz, though when she meets him he's at his most sad sack state, just rejected from law school. He's not at his dynamic best, but his amber eyes are charismatic and though she's beautiful and brainy, she falls for him first out of sympathy. Pella can empathize with a man, who like herself, has not just hit bottom but lives there. In this book she's in this role with Schwartz, her father to some extent, and Henry. After he succeeds beyond his imaginings, he loses his faith and gives up all he has worked for. Paradoxically, the only way up for Pellas is to manage not to lose herself with a man. She learns, she can't remake or save anyone but herself, a theme of this book. That's fine but I found her the least convincing because she's a kind of prop or catalyst for the deeper emotional connections between the men.

Pella's enormously compassionate, but I didn't believe her continual self-sacrifice in this area. It bordered on masochism, not Mother Teresa. The deepest relationships in this novel are first between Henry and Schwartz and then Affenlight and Owen. When Henry and Schwartz are estranged, it's more about him leaving baseball, than about Henry's "mercy F" with Pella. Another issue I had with this book is the assumption that the older generation somehow has to die for the younger to come into their own. Pella can pursue her academic destiny as a tribute to her father.
Seemed a bit cliched in this book that turns so many around.

But the false notes are few. At the end Henry fulfills Rodriguez' words about the transcendent ball player as the rare one, who goes from " thoughless, to thought and then thoughtless." It's the kind of mystic language of knowledge as as a circle. Here it means Henry can again play ball. This is a very satisfying novel. As a reader with no knowledge of sports, I loved its investigation into the evolution of the human spirit. Baseball's both metaphor and reality.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Anna Karenina is astonishing! No better novel about love and the mysticism of nature

How can I say this? Probably because I never read it before. Tolstoy wasn't on my high school reading list. And I studied art in college. I've spent years reading for truth, when this book existed; luminous, transcendent, full of dirt and tragedy--like life itself. Tolstoy doesn't open with Anna, but her brother Stepan and it's brilliant he does so, because Stepan, Anna's brother has some similar proclivities. Stepan is a pleasure-loving family man, a sensualist easily moved by passing sentiments, and a philanderer. He's presented as attractive, a fun aristocrat with the usual indulgences of his class. In society he's liked for his easy-going personality and Stepan understands how to network and use connections. You almost agree with him that he's right to have a mistress or two, because pretty women are attracted to him and his wife has lost her looks, disposition, and has little of interest to say to a man of his cultured intelligence.

You may sympathize, until you meet Darya, his poor wife. The mother of six children, impoverished by her husband's lifestyle, burnt out from managing their household. She has little leisure to think of her looks and no desire to think about her husband's formal indifference. When she finds a letter from his mistress, her kids' governess,she has to pay attention, the pain is too acute. With little idea how to manage, she decides to leave her husband. Darya can't live with the incredible deceit. Yet Stepan wakes up on the couch, unsure how he got there and then, remembering, his concern is for his discomfort. The household in an uproar and he needs to restore his peace of mind.

The solution presents itself with the impending visit of his sister, Anna. When he informs her of his domestic trouble, she accepts the mission to broker a reconciliation. Though it's hard for her to part from her beloved son, Seroyzha, she wants to help Darya. While Stepan awaits her train, he meets his friend Veronsky, a handsome calvary officer. From Vronsky's first glance at Anna, he's smitten. Her dark curls framing an "exquisite" face with dark eyes and eyelashes, her graceful figure and movement, her small white hands, all dazzle Vronsky. A rake, habituated to barracks life, master of horses and pretty women, Vronsky loses his cool and becomes like an eager dog.

Kitty, Darya's 18 year old sister, thinks of Vronsky as her fiancee. She is under the intoxication of first love and assumes he would not monopolize her attentions the whole social season if marriage wasn't his object. Tolstoy, without judging, shows how Vronsky, who has never known family life, has no thought of marriage. On the night Kitty believes he will make her an offer, he's completely entranced by Anna. Though innocent Kitty is devastated, she accurately says there is something "uncanny" about Anna. Her dashed hopes lead her to collapse, when she realizes that previously she refused Levin's offer of marriage, a man who loves her. A friend of her deceased brother, Levin is a country gentleman, who farms his ancestral estate.

Vronsky pursues Anna with the all-consuming passion he puts into riding a race horse. He is fixed on her seduction with little thought of her situation--that she's married to a prominent politician and is devoted to her son. But Anna, a young woman married to a man 20 yrs her senior, is awakened erotically. Their relations make intolerable her perfunctory marriage. Alexy, her husband, is a cerebral man so fearful of emotion, the sight of tears makes him feel disturbed. His affected speech and patronizing manners become intolerable to Anna, though her disgust wars with her sense of shame.

With a sensuality like her brother's, yet Anna is not so superficial. She can't be a hypocrite about her feelings and is soon unable to preserve the outer forms of her marriage. Her basic honesty about who she is and wants, makes her an outcast, a "bad" woman. Leaving husband and son, she gains Vronsky but loses her world--even the right to see her son. She is tortured that she cannot live with the two people she loves, lover and son. When she opts to live with her lover, she cares little for her arrogant husband's humiliation. But when she almost dies in the birth of Vronsky's daughter, she is tortured with her treatment of him and wants forgiveness. Alexy experiences a state of grace. He can forgive her, accepts the baby, and they are briefly reconciled. But through the meddling of a hypocritical society woman, Anna does see Vronsky before he's to leave for a career promotion.

Rather than goodbye, the lovers reconcile. They flee to Europe, but Vronsky must give up his career, and Anna all hope of a legitimate place in society. Though they enjoy all the luxury and freedom of expats, the couple is soon dissatisfied with a life without meaning or focus. Love is not enough.

Meanwhile Tolstoy contrasts this story with Levin's life, working the land, respecting the peasant's knowledge of nature, and his own sweat at managing his land and wresting a living. A man of natural science, Levin also writes an agricultural study of the worker's relation to the land. His work is full of original ideas not quite ordered, just as Levin's personality is of great and changing feeling. Moods of happiness alternate with tempests of darker emotion, until he finally is able to marry his beloved Kitty. Then his life of solitary contemplation becomes a full and happy house. Kitty's family, Darya, her children, are all his responsibility to take care of. This weighs on him, when he experiences not joy but pity at the sight of his newborn son. Levin ponders the meaning of his routine life. A nonbeliever, he pursues theologies, philosophy, and finds no answers. Though he's a happy family man, he feels a bit desperate and even suicidal.

One day, he lies on the ground looking up to observe the globe of the sky. He has an unexpected "peak moment," an accountable joy and sense of the meaning in all around him. The moment passes, then, after a cloudburst, when he thought his family was dead but finds them intact, he understand his previous experience. It is a positive intimation of immortality, an intuitive sense of underlying reality. He thinks of this as a cosmic "good" he can evoke at any time. It changes his life and is the end of the book.

Levin's revelation is the opposite pole to Anna's fate. Outside of society, without a purpose beyond her love, and to serve as the loveobject of Veronsky. When he comes into his estate, he makes it as materially perfect as possible.
Anna's life is rich but artificial, haunted by the loss of her son and society. She and Vronsky long for the deliverance of a divorce. When she learns her husband won't grant one, Anna loses hope. She becomes obsessed with fear that she will lose all she has left--Veronsky's love. Since they can't marry, she decides he will leave her and she will have nothing, not even herself. With opium, she becomes further detached from reality. Death become her only way out of a life of fear and despair. When Anna lies down in front of a train, her last thought is of a nightmare vision of an evil peasant pressing on her.

Anna's "larger than life" love could not substitute for a world, where all doors had shut against her. In Tolstoy's vision, what dooms her is her lack of connection to nature--her affection for her son--and being solitary with the emotionally contained Vronsky. Beauty, glamour, sensitivity and intelligence could not save her. Her honesty means awareness of shame at her notoriety. She's tortured, divided from her own idea of herself. At that time, she briefly meets Levin. He is enthralled by what an amazing woman she is, her intelligence, and beauty. Though she knows she could make him fall in love with her, it's no satisfaction. Anna is wretched and goes mad in her life with Veronsky. Meanwhile, Levin and Kitty are nurtured by each other, and their closeness to the land. At the end, Veronsky with a toothache in his formerly perfect teeth, is going off to a war to die--his spirit destroyed by Anna's suicide.

Though Tolstoy was a Christian, he obviously had mystical beliefs about nature and man. To my mind there's also a kind of social Darwinism at work in this novel. In Levin's shining self-redemption is echoes of Dreiser's far less aware creature of nature, Sister Carrie, or even Scarlett O'Hara with that ball of dirt in her hand.