APRIL is the cruellest month

The New York Times Book Review has a regular feature where two, usually very different, authors respond to a question like: is there too much violence in graphic novels; or, which Ayn Rand novel did you find most ridiculous; or even, what pop-up books do you remember from your childhood. This week the question was

Which Books From Your Past Do You Read Now With Ambivalence?

EliotFirst up was Adam Kirsch who contended that “The Waste Land, with its showy references and sexual dread, seems like a kind of young person’s performance.” Kirsch in a side note also appeared to agree with me in suggesting that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was juvenile fluff but valuable to use when introducing poetry to the young and dumb (well, maybe he didn’t go that far but then again, I did say it was a suggestion and not a firm statement).

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Christine Brooke-Rose

EPSON MFP imageChristine Brooke-Rose falls under the category of being one of the best writers of the Twentieth Century that no one reads. I think part of the problem is that Brooke-Rose is challenging: her prose is exact, manipulative, and obscure; she is postmodern but her works suggest the nouveau roman; her insight is always on target but if you don’t put in the effort, you won’t get the benefit.

Apropos to a recent discussion (in another venue) Christine Brooke-Rose is NOT the author anyone who reads and praises Harry Potter or Stephen King will want to read. But if you like your literature more demanding, intellectual, imaginative, and unique, then Brooke-Rose is for you.

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Invisible Man

The story is that Ralph Ellison, disillusioned by the promise that the Communist Party would overcome the racial inequities in the world, started writing what became Invisible Man in 1945 when he was still in the Merchant Marine service. Five years later it was published in full to great acclaim, winning the National Book Award for 1953. It’s an important book but why is it on the Modern Library and many other lists of the best literature in the twentieth century?

Ellison suggested that the novel was experimental attitude. It does start in the middle and rely upon a first-person narrator that knows how it all turns out. That’s not unusual. It was Ellison’s background in music, and especially jazz, which inevitably forms the structure and texture of his writing. Here is what Wikipedia says:

In his speech accepting the 1953 National Book Award, Ellison says that he considered the novel’s chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest—as Ellison would later put it—he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeing the highly regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting to speak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created an open style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but was more free-flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on was a style based heavily upon modern symbolism. It was the kind of symbolism that Ellison first encountered in the poem The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot. Ellison had read this poem as a freshman at the Tuskegee Institute and was immediately impressed by The Waste Land‘s ability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music and literature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set to words. When asked later what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded:  imagery, and also improvisation—techniques he had only before seen in jazz.

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