To avoid painfully obsessing over the Iowa caucuses, I read my first novel by Stendhal this week, The Red and the Black. My summary: It’s a novel set in France during the Bourbon Restoration (early 19th century) in which the book-reading son of a carpenter is invited to teach Latin to the children of the local mayor. From this stroke of fortune he launches improbably upward through the social order, using only his excellent memory, combative and resentful pride, and attractiveness to women. He idolizes Napoleon and wishes he’d been born just 20 years earlier, when a man like him, regardless of social position, might see himself a general “at six and thirty” — but now, in a post-heroic age, boudoirs are battlefields and hypocrisy is a greater virtue than courage. Like Napoleon, Julien Sorel’s astonishing rise is followed by an equally astonishing fall.
I approached Stendhal more or less cold (which is how I prefer to approach books widely considered to be classics — to get a fresh impression before drowning in the commentary). All I knew was that Stendhal was a pseudonym; that The Red and the Black had something to do with Napoleon and is often called a novel about ambition; and that, according to Auerbach in Mimesis, Stendhal is the origin of one dimension of “realism”: the portrayal of a character wholly embedded in their social, political, and economic circumstances. I suppose I’ll have to reread that chapter of Mimesis now.
Anyway, The Red and the Black really worked for me. Often reading ostensibly satiric narrative means spending half your time in the footnotes. But Stendhal illuminates post-Napoleonic France, the provinces and the capital, the church and the state, like a flash-bulb. You just understand what he’s showing you: and not just the Bourbon Restoration, but the pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, and Napoleonic eras that preceded it, too. I think this is because Stendhal focuses on the conflicts these transitions were caused by and in turn caused: the conflicts between Jesuits and Jansenists, say, or between “liberals” and “ultras,” or between the newly ennobled and the old aristocracy, or between the citizens who carry the embers of revolutionary equality hidden inside them and the oligarchs and aristocrats who want to restore the stratifications of pre-revolutionary France. It’s all very vivid and clear. A novel about Stendhal’s more-or-less present which has the retrospective clarity of good historical fiction.
Writing for a living is like swimming in an ocean in the middle of the night with no land visible: are you moving? in a consistent direction? and will sharks eat you before you get there?
I’ve tried measuring mapping and motivating my work in may different ways. Nothing really works except keeping a writing journal: When I sit down to write, I state my location and how I’m feeling and the things I want to get done and why. When I’m done writing, I state what I did and how I’m feeling about that. The journal builds like a snapshot narrative of my career (such as it is). If I’m feeling at sea some morning, I just flip back a few pages and read recent entries, which orients me in a sort of narrative arc. It works.
This essay by Simon Reynolds on the ideological underpinnings and creative richness of ambient music made me realize that I’ve been listening to ambient music. I hadn’t even conceptualized it as music, to be honest. A year ago I started listening to generated ambiences from mynoise.net to help me concentrate in noisy public places. (I recommend Irish Coast or Rain Noise.) After a few months I started to feel annoyed by the monotony of the noises, and I stumbled across various online radio stations (like the Drone Zone on somaFM) which I thought of as background-noise-makers that slowly evolve as you listen to them. Anyway, it turns out, per Reynolds, this is a whole vibrant subgenre of music, and now I suppose I’ll have to start taking it seriously and not just letting it form the soundtrack to my thinking.
Reynolds’ essay is great. If you like ambient music or good music criticism in general, I recommend it.
I’m not quite an urban explorer but I spend a lot of time walking around cities just for the hell of it. Yesterday I found an abandoned church. Half the windows were boarded up, and the others featured half-shattered panes of pale blue glass. I couldn’t help myself: I looked in one of the windows — and discovered the entire building had been filled up to my eye level with trash. So much trash. Years and years of people tossing shopping bags of crud, old beer cans, doggie bags, and candy wrappers into a broken window. I haven’t been that surprised on a walk since I heard some scrabbling under a porch in Boston, leaned down to peek, and was visually assaulted by an actual rat orgy.
On that note, see you next week.