Daniel Williams

Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

‘The Masterpiece’ (1886) Émile Zola

In Book Review, French, Literature, Review, Writing on 26/09/2011 at 20:55

This is the fourth novel by Émile Zola I’ve tried to read and only the second I’ve finished. This novel is part of the Le Rougon-Macquart series, which are twenty novels that follow various members of family, as well as exploring different aspects of French society; each can be read individually or as part of a bigger picture. The Masterpiece aka L’Œuvre (1886) is the fourteenth novel and deals with art and artists.

The painter Claude Lantier, and his friends, despise the current state of art and long to create something new and original. Claude wants to paint a masterpiece that will unify his ideas and visions. He also meets a young woman, Christine, on a dark and stormy night in Paris and their relationship blossoms before becoming compromised by Claude’s obsession.

The Masterpiece is supposedly the most autobiographical of the Le Rougon-Macquart novels because of Zola’s friendships with several famous painters. One of the characters in The Masterpiece is Pierre Sandoz, who is pretty much a 19th century Mary Sue. Sandoz is a novelist, who is described in at various points as been wise, kind, and lyrical. Not only that, but he is the only one of his friends who becomes a ‘true’ success both financially and artistically because of his familiar sounding series of novels. I couldn’t really take to him because every character liked and trusted him.

It’s only the second novel of Zola’s I’ve finished, the others I gave up on, which is not something I often do. My feeling is that I admire his work as oppose to liking it. I think his series is a brave undertaking, and I find the idea of showing inherited traits throughout a family fascinating. The main problem for me is that I don’t like his style. I can’t help my groan whenever I see a paragraph that goes on for a page or more, and there are a lot of them. In the other novel of his I finished, The Drinking Den aka L’Assommoir (1877), it followed the same structure- characters are at their happiest about a third of the way through the story, and then the rest of it follows their disintegrating lives. Also, I think he fails on the old Creative Writing motto of ‘show, don’t tell’ because he normally tells us about a character before we have a chance to see them interact.

There is much I respect about the novel. I like what it does have to say about art, be it painting, music or writing, and how’s it a thin line between passion and doomed obsession for something unobtainable. Claude is an interesting character, and his progressively erratic behaviour was well played out. But still, I just can’t fully embrace it. Like the old break-up routine- it’s not you, it’s me. I just can’t get to grips with Zola’s style no matter how much I admire what he’s trying to achieve.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon

In American, Essay, Literature, Writing on 18/09/2011 at 16:13

It don’t think it’d be fair to review an unfinished novel. If truth be told, I still don’t know how I feel about unfinished work been published posthumously. As a writer myself, I’d hate to think of my unfinished work been read. But if it were posthumously published then I wouldn’t be in much of a position to care. As a reader I can’t help but be interested in reading whatever else an author I like has written, especially in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald- I’ve read his four completed novels, so it only remained to read the unfinished one. I enjoy reading the fragments of the novel. There were flashes of Fitzgerald doing what he does best- quiet lyricism.

I think my opinion of The Last Tycoon (1941) was always going to be a positive one. Not only as a fan of Fitzgerald but also I really like stories about the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was Fitzgerald who got me started on this with his short stories about the down-and-out screenwriter Pat Hobby. The Last Tycoon is not nearly as cynical about Hollywood as the Pat Hobby stories and reveals more about the process of running a studio and the making of a picture.

Reading The Last Tycoon means that I’ve now read all of Fitzgerald’s novels. I’ve loved all of them apart from Tender Is the Night (1934) which I felt was all over the place, but I was all over the place when I read it, I’ll have to come back to it in a few years. The Last Tycoon seems more of a fitting epilogue to Fitzgerald’s work than Tender Is the Night because of the central character of Monroe Stahr- a gifted producer who gained early fame, much like the author himself. Like Jay Gatsby, Stahr is a dreamer; unlike Gatsby this does not lead to his ruin but certainly plays a part in it.

This is personal conjecture, but I always see F. Scott Fitzgerald as an outsider, but an outsider on the inside. He writes about the rich so often you could believe he was a part of them, but there’s too much observation in his work to make me believe he was truly an insider. Sometimes, especially in the short stories, he wants us to see him as a F. Scott Fitzgerald character rather than F. Scott Fitzgerald. I like thinking of him as an outsider. I like an outsiders view because I try to write with one myself. Reading The Last Tycoon made me realise that his work appeals to me so much because it’s what I’d like to write myself. In stories and plays I’ve written I’ve had writer characters who want to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of their generation. I never thought before that it might actually be me who thinks that.

The Last Tycoon is only really for completists, fans and critics. But if that’s why you’re reading it, it won’t disappoint.

Eugene O’Neill: The Playwright’s Playwright

In American, Essay, Literature, Playwrights, Theatre, Writing on 09/09/2011 at 16:39

Eugene O’Neill had balls. I could probably find a more literate way of expressing this sentiment, but it gets the point across- Eugene O’Neill had balls, more so than any other American playwright of his time. His ambition exceeds every one of his contemporaries.

He started off writing naturalistic drama and won the Pulitzer Prise for Drama twice in three years; he moved onto writing experimental expressionist plays before digging deeper into the history of drama by writing a nine-act soliloquy-fest, Strange Interlude (1928), then writing a trilogy of plays, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), which updates The Orestia (458 BC). O’Neill then planned to write a play-cycle following the fortunes of a family; his plans grew to include eleven plays in this cycle. Illness forced O’Neill to abandon the cycle and only two unfinished plays survived his burning of material. Whilst working on the play-cycle he also wrote The Iceman Cometh (1939), one of the most highly regarded plays in American theatre. With his magnum opus abandoned and a tremor in his hands making writing painful, he turned to write about what he had really been writing about his whole career, namely his own family. The play was Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941), for which he wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama four years after he died. What other American playwright has a career like that?

Like many of the great American writers O’Neill was a big drinker. Unlike many of them, O’Neill gave up drinking and wrote his most well-known work sober. Yet these later-plays, written while sober, are probably the drunkest plays in the history of theatre. The Iceman Cometh is set in a bar and A Touch of the Poet (1942) is set in a tavern. Long Day’s Journey features a family of two alcoholics, one heavy drinker and one morphine addict. His final play, A Moon For The Misbegotten (1943), follows one of the alcoholic Tyrone’s from Long Day’s Journey and features copious amounts of drinking. I suppose with sober eyes he could really see the effects of alcohol that caused painful tremor in his hand and caused the death of his brother. But these plays are not finger wagging ‘alcohol-is-bad’ plays. They are works of a damaged man writing about damaged people.

Sometimes my feelings towards O’Neill’s work are mixed. There’s a lot of good to say about him, but his work can be quite dry and the length of his plays really can be an endurance test. The later-plays of O’Neill’s are intense. Because they are intense and lengthy they can be painful plays to watch. I like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but it’s so exhausting to read, I couldn’t imagine been able to sit through a full-length production. The play is quite humourless. O’Neill never really gives the audience a break. This, and other of his works, feels like O’Neill barking ‘THIS-IS-DRAMA!’ He reminds me of Dostoyevsky in that, despite the flaws, you have to admire the sheer power they create.

My favourite of his plays is A Moon For The Misbegotten. This play gets unfairly forgotten. In what material I’ve read on O’Neill, it’s normally dismissed as weak in comparison to Long Day’s Journey and Iceman, but I prefer it to both of them. I think A Moon for the Misbegotten is one of the most beautiful, sad and haunting plays I’ve ever come across. It’s not as long as the others and offers something different at the end than the other two.

Recently I finished writing a play for my thesis. This play was about a dysfunctional family. I looked at Long Day’s Journey a lot while writing this play, because, despite its problems, it is the touchstone for all semi-autobiographical plays about family.

My perspective on O’Neill is a playwrights’. I imagine an actor’s response or a critic’s response would vary. As a playwright I stand by the belief O’Neill is a playwrights’ playwright because of the sheer scope of his ambition. To conclude- Eugene O’Neill had balls.

Summer Reading Challenge

In American, Indian, Literature, Miscellaneous on 04/09/2011 at 17:15

In my borough (and in other parts of the country) the libraries are having a summer reading challenge for children. For the challenge they have to read six books over the summer. For doing so they get stickers, bookmarks, a medal and a certificate. I decided to try and read six books myself, despite not receiving any stickers, medals or certificate. But I did take a couple of bookmarks for my troubles. My six books:

1)      Knight’s Gambit (1949)- William Faulkner: I can’t say I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a fan of Faulkner’s prose style, I find it unnecessarily difficult, though I’m sure many a scholar could tell me why I am wrong about this. I wanted to read this book because I’d heard they were Faulkner’s only attempt at crime stories.

2)      A Special Providence (1969)- Richard Yates: The story is about an 18 year-old dreaming of success in World War 2, with the middle chunk of the novel about his mother and his upbringing. I’m a big fan of Richard Yates and thoroughly enjoyed this book. Possibly the best book out of the six.

3)      The Long Fall (2009)- Walter Mosley: I wanted to read a crime novel as a break from the heavier stuff. I’ve read one of Mosley’s books before and I preferred that story. This didn’t really engage me like Blonde Faith (2007).

4)      The Painter of Signs (1976)- R.K. Narayan: A charming and funny little story about the relationship between a sign painter and a young woman devoted to the promotion of family planning. It was quite sweet in places.

5)      A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)- Jennifer Egan: I did write a review of the book on here, but to summarise- it’s great.

6)      Across the River and Into the Trees (1950)- Ernest Hemingway: This was the sixth novel by Hemingway I’ve read, and it’s my least favourite. I didn’t really think much of the quite thin story, and the character of Renata only existed to be in love with the hero. This was quite a disappointment because I am a fan of Hemingway.

4 Haiku

In Haiku, Poetry, Writing on 02/09/2011 at 11:01

I’m a big fan of Japanese haiku. Here are a handful I’ve written. If you don’t read my haiku, go read some by Kobayashi Issa. He’s great.

Seaside
Water sparkles
crystal in sunshine,
but wait an hour-
stupid sandwich

Blonde On Blonde
thin wild mercury
swaggers, swoons, lusts, loses, loves,
suffers New York blues

Simple Man
I am a simple man.
I like your smile, your eyes and
the things you say.

Haiku haiku
Still trying to write
haiku that isn’t too weird
grasshopper starlight

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