Sunday, June 27, 2010

Spender on Eliot

Stephen Spender wrote of Four Quartets:

The language . . . moves on two levels: one is the creative level of poetry in which images and delightful objects are created which give us pleasure, the other is the level of philosophic thought. These two levels are sustained throughout, and thus the language has a kind of transparency

I would suggest something of this transparency is in the mind of Cormac McCarthy when he is writing his fiction. At its best - in Suttree - there is a mysterious flow between registers, with storytelling giving way to philosophising and back again, in the course of a few sentences. In this way McCarthy tells us, simultaneously, the single story of Buddy Suttree and the universal story of all of us. Take this passage, in the cemetery where Suttree has just seen his son buried:

They went on among the tilted stones and rough grass, the wind coming from the woods cold in the sunlight. A stone angel in her weathered marble robes, the downcast eyes. The old people’s voices drift across the lonely space, murmurous above these places of the dead. The lichens on the crumbling stones like a strange green light. The voices fade. Beyond the gentle clash of weeds. He sees them stoop to read some quaint inscription and he pauses by an old vault that a tree has half dismantled with its growing. Inside there is nothing. No bones, no dust. How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.

This is brilliant writing. It moves from the personal, in the past tense, through to the universal, in the present tense, accompanied by a narratorial shift so that the identity of the maker of the last point is ambiguous. This happens throughout the novel, with frequent shifts into the first person so that Suttree becomes the narrator and the narrator becomes Suttree. There is a beautiful and seamless melding of stories at work.

At its worst, of course, it is a very different matter. There are times when McCarthy's obsessions become too great for him to handle and they simply splurge onto the page. Most often, this takes the form of the endless and interchangeable conversations with various (usually blind) prophets who accost all of McCarthy's main characters at some stage.


Mark P said...

I keep looking for Suttree in my used bookstore, but I may have to break down and buy it new as McCarthy's novels seem to show up one day and disappear the next. I have yet to see Outer Dark or Child of God show up there, which are his other novels I have not yet read.

I'm in the midst of Everyman right now and intend to read your post on that when I'm finished.

Mark P said...

I should add that I find Four Quartets an underrated masterpiece.

Tom Conoboy said...

Suttree is well worth buying. It's his best novel, by a long way.

Outer Dark is a very odd one. I liked Everyman, I have to say, though it's not bundle of laughs.

I've been reading The Waste Land and Four Quartets a lot recently. Although there's something seductive about TWL, I find that as I read on I get more drawn to the Quartets.

Mark P said...

An American literature professor friend just recently said the same thing of Suttree. I suppose I could shell out the money for a new copy.

Everyman, by the way, was as depressing as I expected and a good bit more disturbing. I'd heard it described as an essay on illness and death, which it is. I think I'd describe it, though, as the attempt to empty a life of meaning. Roth is good at this kind of thing.

Per Eliot, seductive is a great description of TWL. It's become quite fashionable to dismiss it as a convoluted, derivative mess. While I think it's true that some of it may just be wild gibberish, I don't think it's pointless babble at all. And, oddly enough, the people saying that rarely have anything but the highest praise for Ulysses. One reason why I am, like you, more drawn to the Four Quartets is that it is decisively not gibberish. Rather, it has a pretty clear point pretty consistently–and gorgeously–followed.

rob said...

I think Blood Meridian is McCarthy's most enduring and important work, but Suttree is the one that tackles the existential issues that have become so important to the young American male. It gets out of hand at times, and it is not a perfect book like Blood Meridian, but it is the most beautiful and (as one critic put it) sad of his books.

Child of God is something else entirely, and it is a perfect book, but its scope is far smaller.

Outer Dark is strange. You might call it an experiment. But honestly I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. The easy answer is that it was his second book and he was trying his hand at something more apocalyptic than The Orchard Keeper, and he really hadn't mastered it at that point. But then it is not without a certain (albeit extremely eerie) kind of draw, and there's lkely to be a lot more than I picked up on first read.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Rob, thanks for commenting.

For me, Suttree is McCarthy's most enduring and important work. Nothing he has written since can match it. Blood Meridian is remarkable, to be sure, but it is flawed by the relentlessness of the never-changing violence. He makes the same point over and over and over. It's like being forced to stay in and do remedial classes in algebra long after you've worked out how to do it.

I think Child of God may come, in time, to be seen as one of his best books. And Outer Dark is a clear fore-runner of both Blood Meridian and The Road.

thanks again