Contrasting Dynamics between Old and New Literature

I’ve recently been reading the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and the 19th century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev.  I’m finding a marked contrast in the development of the stories that each tell.  I am sad to say that I fail to understand the artistry of the contemporary novelist Murakami, while I am stimulated and captivated by the 19th century novelist Turgenev.

In the first chapter of Turgenev, there are four developing story tensions: 1) youth and age, 2) aristocracy and peasantry, 3) social grace and casual social insouciance, 4) science and art.  All this is evolving through four characters.  I can’t wait to see how these tensions play out.  By contrast, I am half-way through Murakami and there are no plot tensions; there have been a long succession of characters who appear then fall out of the narrative; and the story is a succession of episodes with nothing driving them other than the main character’s fascination with a woman who has something wrong with her.

The New York Times likes Murakami, and that makes me think that I’m missing something.  But I’ve read no critical commentary on Turgenev and I’m hooked.  Am I witnessing a clash of aesthetics between contemporary art and 19th century art?  Have my sensibilities failed to keep up with contemporary culture?

In my own aesthetics, a work of art commands attention by its own presentation.  I don’t need to read a book of art criticism to admire a Rembrandt painting–or a Monet landscape.  But I do, in order to appreciate Miro.  I don’t need to read criticism to enjoy Hemingway or Turgenev or Shakespeare or Tom Wolfe.  But someone needs to tell me why I should keep reading Murakami, because the author himself isn’t compelling my attention.

With so much art, I seem to leave off with early modernism.  Perhaps I am living witness to the plot tension in Turgenev between youth and age.  But then, that would commend Turgenev’s 19th century aesthetic.

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Shelley and that Contentment Surpassing Wealth

Shelley makes reference to “that content surpassing wealth/The sage in meditation found,/And walked with inward glory crowned” (Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples).  The poet laments that he doesn’t have that content, but notices that, “Others I see whom these surround–/Smiling they live, and call life pleasure.”  It’s likely not my place to say whether I walk with inward glory, but I do number myself among those who have that content surpassing wealth.  That is, usually I have that content surpassing wealth.  Lately, I’ve been telling my acquaintances that I’m wealthy.  When they raise their eyebrows, I clarify by saying that I feel wealthy.  I have everything I want.  An outside observer, looking at my possessions, likely would wonder how I could feel that way.  My condo is small, I drive a 10-year-old Honda, my material possessions are few, my clothes are not expensive.  But the possessions I do have satisfy my wants superbly.  The contentment surpasses wealth probably because it depends on a certain attitude toward wealth.

 

When an individual isn’t concerned with wealth, then lacking it doesn’t sting.  Then there are the other things a person can concern oneself with that don’t cost much, but reward much.  A good paperback book doesn’t cost much.  And the satisfaction one receives from a good book contributes greatly to the contentment sages in meditation find.  A good book and reflection on it, is a sagely undertaking.  A Beethoven symphony can be downloaded for $9.99.  Time spent with a Beethoven symphony is a sagely undertaking.  Each piece of great art works on the soul, making the individual different after each encounter.  Art and knowledge form a person’s psyche.  A psyche who seeks an encounter with something spiritual, like a Turgenev novel, will find contentment.  My edition of Turgenev cost me $21.00, and will last me weeks, and then the lasting satisfaction my soul will enjoy after my encounter with it.  But a psyche who chases wealth, power, status, and fame will likely not find contentment.  They are all unquenchable cravings, and no matter how much of each one possesses, it will never be enough.

 

Lately, my spiritual seeking has been leading me into discontent.  I am planning to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which is being held in Toronto this year.  Finding lodging I can afford, securing a flight, and negotiating the public transportation of a foreign city are all anxiety provoking, and a strain on my modest finances.  But having attended the previous one in Salt Lake City, I anticipate an ultimately rewarding and fulfilling experience in Toronto.  The temporary anxiety that goes into the achievement of this spiritual goal will be rewarded with a lasting spiritual formation in my soul, during and after the event.  With my aspirations set on humanistic and spiritual acquisition, I expect to continue through my life, as I do now, according to Shelley’s words, “Smiling they live, and call life pleasure.”

Entertainment Value in Literary Classics

Let’s agree that there are classics of literature.

I’ve just started reading the Russian classic, Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev.  I didn’t know what to expect when I bought it.  I was surprised with what I found in the first pages.  It was spellbinding!  I really enjoyed reading this classic!

I have had the idea, like a lot of people, that classics of literature are boring and dense and you have to plod through them.  And that’s true of some.  But not many.

Can it be that classics are classics because they are entertaining?  Another way to phrase this is to say that classics are entertaining because they are written well.  The artful style of telling a good tale is what makes the classic entertaining.

I first noticed this with Hemingway.  I discovered Hemingway in graduate school, at the age of 27.  I still remember sitting in the student lounge late at night reading, For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I couldn’t put it down.  At the time I was reading Hemingway, he was considered great literature.  In fact, Hemingway did win the Nobel Prize for literature, and a Pulitzer Prize.  Today, some scholars are debating Hemingway’s literary standing because in an age of feminism, his work is too macho.  But his innovation with language, I believe, will secure his place in the literary pantheon regardless of whether he is too macho or not.

I notice an analogous entertainment value in the works of Tom Wolfe.  His works are artistically plotted, and riveting to read.  It’s always risky to try to discern the artistic value of contemporary writers, but I think that he may well be considered a major author of our time.  He is most certainly a popular and successful writer.  But I believe that his works will be considered classics after this age passes into history.

In fact, I find Shakespeare equally entertaining.  If it isn’t the pace of the psychology, Shakespeare is an entertainer.  A sword fight will break out after a heavy scene, or when psychology becomes too overwhelming.  I don’t need to say anything about Shakespeare’s union of sense and sound.  If we lived in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s language wouldn’t be hard to read or hear in a performance.  With footnotes, contemporary readers can follow the story and discover the delights that the Bard offers.

Great literature delights.  Maybe that’s why such literature is considered great.  Much could be said about why literature delights–accuracy to the human situation, plot tensions that we feel . . . But that is material for another blog.  This one is about the entertainment value that great literature possesses, that makes literature great.