Saturday, April 24, 2004

Even though it was just yesterday that I resolved to myself, Never, never again will I drink coffee, just a short fifteen minutes ago, probably less than twenty-four hours after I made that resolution to myself, I was drinking coffee. However, it was only one cup - and I am going to try to limit myself to just one cup a day, as opposed to the usual three or four.

I could not give it up cold turkey. I had a raging headache that I knew was from the lack of coffee, and sure enough, as soon as I had that cup, headache gone.

Right now, I am reading the first novel in Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, Justine. I alternately like and dislike it, both usually for the same reason - the tone that ex-pat literature tends to take, an outrageous self-absorption with one's own social circle in an alien setting. There are obviously problems of how the Other is regarded, which I try to ignore, try to remind myself that I don't have to stomach everything the narrator says, and that bad politics does not a bad book make. This after reading Lionel Trilling's essay, "Hemingway and his Critics," which reminded me of this point that I sometimes make secondary to concerns of the politics of a novel:

One almost wishes to say to an author like Hemingway, "You have no duty, no responsibility. Literature, in a political sense, is not in the least important. Wherever the sword is drawn it is mightier than the pen. Whatever you can do as a man, you can win no wars as an artist."

Very obviously this would not be the whole truth, yet saying it might counteract the crude and literal theory of art to which, in varying measure, we have all been training ourselves for a decade. We have concieved the artist to be a man perpetually on the spot, who must always report to us his precise moral and political latitude and longitude. Not that for a moment we would consider shaping our own political ideas by his; but we who of course turn for political guidance to newspapers, theorists, or historians, create the fiction that thousands--not, to be sure, ourselves--are waiting on the influence of the creative artist, and we stand by to see if he is leading us as he properly should. We consider then that we have exalted the importance of art, and perhaps we have. But in doing so we have forgotten how complex and subtle art is and, if it is to be "used," how very difficult it is to use it. (14)

While it is very easy to see Harold Bloom making the same argument, something that makes me hesitant about embracing this totally, Trilling is so thoughtful and deliberate in what he says. Lately, I have really come under the sway of Trilling and his mode of literary criticism. He writes really lovely essays that from criticisms of specific works sprawl out and make these really intelligent observations about life, society, and art's relationship to both. And now I see what people are mourning when they are complaining about the absence of something from current literary criticism. So much of it is incredibly banal and couched in academic parlance to hide that fact. Maybe this is just because I read a book of essays about Portnoy's Complaint, not one of which was not terribly flawed.

But anyways, even though the narrator does make the occaisonal comment about the Orient to induce cringes, there are remarkable instances of beauty in this book. In ex-pat lit, you see this loneliness in a vibrant society that is human loneliness magnified to a greater and more visible extent. These characters are the gay kids in the country, the punks in the suburbs - they don't fit into their surroundings (or they choose not to be viewing themselves as distinct from these Others), and go about creating their own community. And so there are some really touching moments when they talk about love or engage in it.

And really, can I let you in on a little secret and let you know the reason I started to read this book in the first place? It is because many moons ago, when I first met Kevin he told me that The Alexandria Quartet was his favorite book, and I had not heard of it and was a little embarrased by that, as I usually am when I am not familiar with books someone is talking about. And more often than not, when it is someone I think is cool and/or intelligent, I will usually end up eventually picking up this book just to erase my unfamiliarity with it. But also, I really like reading the favorite books of boys I have or have had crushes on. Sean's favorite writer was Raymond Carver, who I then read, and then came to love, and came to like Sean all the more because he liked this writer. And with this book, during those poetic meditations on human relations, I think that wow, this is what Kevin said was his favorite book, he read these same pages and liked them. And maybe the book is sort of re-sparking an interest in Kevin, as if he wrote the book himself. And yes, this is silly, to feel like you know what type of person someone is better after reading their favorite book, but hey, when did I ever claim to not be silly?

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