Tom Williams

Triangle Offense Day

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Why Triangle offense? Because there will be triple posts.

Okay, I erred in promoting my latest blog post. I said the next writer would be the author of three novellas in one collection, when I should have said two. (My next selection will be, however, about a trio of novellas–so there.)

But, as is evident from the title of this post, I’m talking about Francine Prose, and the book in question is Guided Tours of Hell, which collects the title novella and its companion, “Three Pigs in Five Days.”

I remember meeting Ms. Prose once, at the University of Houston, and being wowed by her physical presence–she looked like a writer: angular, black clad, great hair. Of course, I hadn’t read a word by her then and spent some serious time wondering if she’d been born with that last name or if it was of her own devising. (Back then, I had a hard time saying what prose was, anyway.) The book that sent me to her was Blue Angel–a book worthy of its own post–and another that has offered me no end of pleasure is her collection of stories, A Peacable Kingdom. In everything of hers that I’ve read (and what’s worth noting is that I’m not a completist: I read deeply and with great fascination a few books by everybody), she has that singular ability to be funny, frank, moving and grave without ever seeming to vary in her, ahem, prose style. What I’m saying is that her writing seems effortless, as if she never stalls in her composition, just waits for the next right word to form itself on her pages.  Naturally, this makes me think Prose is a constant reviser who worries over each sentence. Whatever way she gets black on white, I always read her with a busy highlighter, hoping for occasions on which to steal her insights and elegant syntax.

I’ll start with “Three Pigs in Five Days.” What sets this apart for me is that Prose manages to  exploit the novella form’s capacity for rendering a contemporary scene vividly and richly (her mid- 90’s Paris is as splendid as the city itself) while balancing that with a stunningly evoked historicity. Sure, Paris often allows one to do that, but in Prose’s hands, and with her American central character, the magazine writer Nina, one senses that this is Prose’s Paris, not just your guidebook variety, not your I-visited-for-a-week-and-was-totally-blown-away variety.

And let’s not forget the sexual/romantic interplay on display. If there’s a funnier writer about the species’ inability to maintain and sustain relationships, I don’t know. Her Nina is neither total victim nor totally in control. You’re repelled by Prose’s Leo on one page, understanding Nina’s devotion to him on the next.

This passage, as Holden Caulfield, my favorite literary critic, would say, just kills me:

Everywhere on the planet, people were agglomerating in gummy alliances based on sex or nationality, ethnic origin, history, or religion, some of it more or less violent and about us versus them. It was naive to imagine a world without combination and exclusion occurring constantly, unstoppably, on the lowest biological level, a world of humans running about, pretending to be complex organisms but really no more than gametes swimming toward fertilization, toward that moment, that shattering pop between the sperm and the egg that signals all the others to just keep on swimming by . . . .

I’m losing my mind, thought Nina.

Moreover, this novella, as well as its companion, “Guided Tours of Hell,” bravely confronts an issue often avoided–the Holocaust. Not nearly as much in “Three Pigs,” but to some extent, while in “Guided Tours,” the action literally takes us into the death camp, led there by both the central character, Landau, and his antagonist, Jiri, “that terrible poet and memoirist,” according to Landau, “whose only claim to fame is that he survived two years in the camp, where he somehow conducted a love affair with Kafka’s sister, Ottla.” Landau, too, is a writer, a dramatist who secured an invite to the first annual Kafka Conference based on his play, To Kafka from Felice. If all Prose did was invent this situation, I’d be amazed but too she keeps us guessing with whether Jiri–who cheerfully leads the tour through the camp where he once suffered daily: is he a fraud or the real thing. Landau wants him to be a fraud, of course, if for no other reason than to endorse his world view over Jiri’s, but Prose also maneuvers the question back to Landau: how genuine is he? As an artist? As a Jew? As a world citizen of a century of horrors?

I can’t end this post without saying something about third person. What’s remarkable about it is that one could see either of these novellas told in first person, especially given how intimate the language is when it touches upon individual insight. Yet Prose is up to something wise in both novellas: each central character has a blind spot. It’s so close to themselves that they can’t see it, even though they are ninety percent right on the money in their characterizations of themselves and others. But every so often Prose pivots her narrator away from the character’s vision and presents us what’s what:

Then Landau has–well, forces–a vision: sekeletons in mirrors, hollow-eyed male bags of bones reflected in rows of dark glass. Another phony metaphor: In fact they weren’t skeletons, not the prisoners here, who were kept above starving weight, again for the Red Cross inspectors.

I love that “well, forces,” to undercut Landau’s vision, followed by the judgment: “Another phony metaphor.” This is why third person, in the end, is always, for me, the superior POV choice. One gets all the intimacy of first and can just draw back a little to get the clarity and context of third.

And is there another writer who better uses the colon and the dash than Francine Prose?

Next up today: A list of novellas I should write on but am too busy–well, lazy–to include in these last few Novella Month days.

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