If you’re an exceptional writer and you’re compelled to revisit your fictional world, to expand on it, polish it, or tinker with it, do something different, for crying out loud, something interesting and formally inventive. Marilynne Robinson is a good case in point. She revisits Gilead, Iowa and the Boughton family and in particular Jack Boughton from a different point of view, with a different narrator, and in a different genre altogether. The result is a glorious amplification of fictional realities. Agnar Mykle, I’m afraid to say, is a bad case in point. In the transition from Lasso Round the Moon to The Song of the Red Ruby, Mykle spurns the heavy lifting of artistic creation. He merely lengthens the original novel by adding a couple hundred pages to the narrative so that we can glimpse another year of Ash’s virility in action. He uses the same narrator and the same point of view, and writes in the same genre, and even uses the same framing device. If your writerly treatment is uninspired, why should my readerly attention be any different?
Published in 1956, The Song of the Red Ruby by Agnar Mykle is a sequel to Lasso Round the Moon, a book that earned my full-throated endorsement not long ago. One part bildungsroman and one part barbaric yawp, The Song of the Red Ruby returns to Ash Burlefoot and his insatiable appetite for life, for food and friendship, for music and literature, and for sexual adventures with all manner of women: With stately plump women, with warm, apple-scented women, with women who have nut-brown hair and blue eyes, and even with women slightly beyond their prime. You know, cougars in their late twenties and early thirties whose “bodies are slightly rancid.” Nary a feline beast Ash won’t bed, that’s for sure.
The gift of youth’s pathos
In Proust’s Search, there’s a scene in “The Captive and the Fugitive” where Marcel identifies Dostoevsky’s gift, the unique thing he gives the world. According to Marcel, it’s woman’s dual nature, capable as she is of sincerity and playacting, and the vivid reality of homes, whose private anguish is made public. That’s Doestoevsky’s gift, says Marcel. Mykle’s gift, on the other hand, the unique thing he gives the world, is a candid treatment of youth’s exuberance, of the often bewildering fluctuations between hope and optimism, on the one hand, and uncertainty and despair, on the other, of youth’s amatory impulses and sexual calisthenics. Thankfully, Mykle’s treatment is taken up in naturalistic terms:
Spring seethes quietly in the dark soil and rises like fermenting wine in stems of the plants, in the trunks of the trees and in peoples’ limbs: sap and milk and blood
Mykle’s raging heart on
In Mykle’s prose, the intermittencies of the heart reign supreme. The heart frets, worries, and hopes. It longs, yearns, and wonders. It praises, condemns, weeps, sorrows, blusters, laughs, and of course ejaculates. There’s nothing the heart doesn’t do, and that’s the problem: the novel is all heart, surging like a cataract after a rapid snow melt. There’s very little intellect, and by this I mean there’s no rigorous causal sequence of events. As a result, the plot line, if such a thing can be said to exist in Mykle’s Song, is very faint, indeed—consisting mostly of loosely assembled episodes that are only weakly organized by causality. A sure sign of this defect is that a vast majority of the scenes can be transposed without doing any violence to the story. As regards plot, it’s materially indifferent whether Ash goes to the dance before or after the poetry reading, or ravishes Wilhemine before or after Constance, or goes to the Socialist’s Students Group before or after a trip to a cabin in the mountains.
Because causality is next to nothing, I have the suspicion, which I don’t care to defend because I know it’s true and so will happily assert it, that Mykle too easily finds in Ash a vehicle for thinly disguised autobiography. Many of the episodes in the novel have the form, “I remember when…,” and then Mykle rifles through his card catalogue of memories, finds a 3X5 with a suitably vivid anecdote, and then shoehorns it into place, with a spit, buff, and a snap. Now I’m as kindly disposed to Dionysian frenzy and wistful memories as the next guy, but for the greater glory of literary art, they’d better find their Apollinian counterpoint in causal orderings.
Which is why I prefer Lasso to Song—and that by a goodly shot.
One of Nietzsche’s ambitions is to give life a more richly secular meaning. Instead of losing our intellect in deep space blind, i.e., in theological musings about the nature and existence of god, as well as in sweeping moral judgments about life, which he regards as “stupidities,” Nietzche urges readers to pay careful attention to the things that are closest to us. Things like place and climate (Nietzsche migrated with the seasons), diet and exercise (he ate bread and drank tea for breakfast, and often philozophized while walking in the mountains), and literature and classical music (he loved Montaigne, Wagner, and Beethoven). One of the delights of regional literature is descriptions of the simple things in life. Like Nietzsche, Mykle believes that food is enormously important for human happiness. “There is more of God in a well-roasted suckling pig than in a newly turned harmonium.” And if hot, greasy pig doesn’t sate your hunger, there’s a hell of a lot more in Mykle’s kitchen, you
There were long dishes of slices of cold meat, red roast beef, pale veal, thin slices of reddish brown smoked venison, speckled sausages, brawn and liver paste. There was smoked eel and smoked salmon, herring swimming in slices of chalky onion and peppercorns as black as night, herring in dill sauce, in wine sauce, in tomato sauce, and there was caviar. There were big cheeses and small cheeses, brown and yellow and white; there was Italian salad, Russian salad, shrimp salad, and herring salad topped with slices of beetroot and hardboiled egg; there were pickles and sausage in tall brown glasses and yellow pyramids of butter sweating cold tears on little plates.
So sumptuous that even a vegan would rejoice!
Because I’m a rat-bastard, I don’t feel I really know a book (or a person for that matter) until I can pinpoint a flaw—or three. It seemed in poor taste to call out stylistic infelicities of Lasso Round the Moon in my previous post, when I strongly believe that it’s well worth your time. But I do have a few grievances with Mykle’s prose. He’s excessively sentimental. He’ll evoke all 13 shades of melancholia and all eight shades of remorse only to say that the character who is suffering from these profound emotions is weighted down by melancholy and remorse. Yes, I get it. I got it before you said it. In the world of adspeak, this tendency is castigated as mawkish see & say. What’s more, Mykle is prone to clichés that should be eliminated from the language entire. “Heart of hearts,” no thank you. Or Ash “smells the smell of” a woman, or beer, or salted cod, or roasted reindeer, or whatever it is that he smells the smell of. Expressions like these are dreadfully lazy, right up there with “thinking outside the box,” which makes me wince whenever I hear a box-dweller utter it. Lastly, Mykle’s framing device creates the effect that the book is all middle. There’s a brief intro and a brief outro, and in between them is the massive middle girth of a middle-aged man who should eat less carbs and do more sit ups. But because the sentiments in Mykle’s prose are so right, so true and honest, although excessive, and because of the extraordinary aesthetic effect of the closing scenes, I forgive Mykle his see & say, and forgive him his stupid clichés, as well as his spare
tire. I do.
The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.
Book reviews are disguised commands. How nice, then, would it be to rip away the sweet, beguiling facade—and instead simply tell others what to read by imperative alone. There are times when it’s entirely appropriate to thunder like Mussolini from the balcony, “Read this damn book now!” Problem is, only one or two, and probably really only one, of my readers know and love me well enough to do exactly as I say. So, mom, read Lasso Round the Moon by Norwegian novelist Agnar Mykle. He’s good, really good.
For those of you who don’t know or love me well enough to obey me, shame on the whole lot of you. Now I have to compel you by
You probably haven’t read Lasso Round the Moon. And if you haven’t heard of Mykle, don’t feel too bad. I hadn’t either, until the man currently known as E-R-I-K, a student of J.M. Coetzee and an unabashed lover of punk rock music, called it one of his all-time favorite novels. He had me at hello. So I scoured Amazon for a half-way
It arrived in splendid condition, smelling of wetted ashes and looking like a piece of moldering fruit, with its blackened cover and wrinkled binding, and with the outer edges of its pages bruised a deep avocado green. (Why did publishers do that in the long ago, dye them like that?) I turned the pages slowly, carefully, for fear they’d turn to dust. Fortunately, a deliberate approach is rewarded by Mykle’s treatment and subject matter.
He combines slow narrative pacing and long Proustian digressions with candid sexual descriptions. His technique and prose style contribute nicely to the development of his central theme, namely, yearning, exploration, and self-discovery—and the costly toll of insight
Structuring his narrative with a framing device, Mykle opens and closes the story with Ash Burlefoot’s return home after a twelve year absence. We first meet Ash in the late 1940s to early 1950s. He’s a 33-year old musical composer and conductor, on a platform in Oslo as he readies to board a night-train. He’s alone. The weather is cold and blustery; the mood, dark, gloomy, and oppressive.
When a Norwegian has recourse to … a night-train, it’s always due to some urgent duty, a summons. A heavy, black-gloved hand has been laid on his shoulder from behind. A Norwegian never travels by night-train for pleasure.
“Always” and “never” are absolute terms that cast a distinctive pall on the scene. Although we know very little about Ash, we know something about his imminent future. He will travel by train across a vast distance. At the end of the line, something terrible awaits him, a loss, a sickness, or a death.
No wonder his “heart is bursting with stark, naked dread.”
In order for readers to feel Ash’s agony and participate in the powerful and intensely moving closing scenes, we need to know something about Ash’s past. Flashback 12 years, a farewell scene, with hugs, handshakes, and back slaps. Ash, a younger man, is embarking on a journey to Inner Pool, where he’ll assume a post as the country’s yougest principal and business teacher.
Throughout the long flashback, which covers a year of lived experience and comprises the whole middle section of the novel, memories rise like flames, emotions rise like flames.
We learn about his mother, who is desperate to knit everyone into a big happy family, who dearly wants to maintain a grip on Ash, to possess him, everything he is and will become. She “gorges on young son-meat,” and is a “suctioning valve,” an “immense vortex.” We learn about his father, who is a hard, stern taskmaster. He is sad, ponderous, and grave—and profoundly unhappy, because stunted and repressed. We learn about Groo, who is a girlfriend “foisted” on Ash in childhood. She has a “strong octopus-grasp” from which he seems unable to escape.
Ash is caged by his hometown, by his parents, and by Groo. He wants to bust out. To escape. Like every young adult worthy of being a thinking and feeling person, Ash is a seething cauldron of desires. He’s a welter of hopes and dreams and aspirations, vague and inarticulate, but no less strident for that. As you and I know (having been there, done that), there’s simply no better way to thumb your nose at convention, no better way to lay waste to vanity, conceit, and superficiality than to have sex—preferably a lot of it.
Just as there are many different musical registers, so there many different sexual registers, too. There’s the breathless excitement of one’s first overture.
Only rarely did he dare let his hands cautiously explor her, only once had he thrust his hand round her bare breast. They had sat there a long time, perhaps a whole hour. She laid her hand over his and thereby gave him to understand that they were guarding something precious, something tremendous and secret together.
Then there’s the bold excursion into unknown possibilities.
He drove her hard and spurred her on; she sank groaning beneath him, scratched him with her nails and in the end was overcome by a convulsive jerking.
When the spasm of pleasure has passed, there’s still more sexual gymastics to attempt, like that newfangled French position, you know, “something called the wheelbarrow” and after that “maybe a back bend.” Under the influence of sexuality, every cramp-inducing Twister position is an incitement, every surface looks pleasant and inviting, even a bed of broken glass.
And finally there’s the rising crescendo of the morally illicit.
He was in a strange half-world where elbows and knees were all mixed up, an underwater ballet and carnival, a dark half-world that swam and rocked and creaked, he did not know where he was, and in one such moment he woke to clear sweetly painful awareness of her mouth; he hampered her, he warned her that he was close, but she did not draw away, she whimpered; he put his hand on her head and shoved her away, but she came back, begged him, she must be allowed to, she pushed closer and her fingers took delicious hold, for one fearful moment he was paralyzed, split between made sexual desire and intolerable fright, his heart stopped beating, he was powerless against her. He clasped her head … He cried out!
As he should! Felatio even sounds like an Italian musical movement. That, or a scoop of gelato (white roses?). Because most of us are on this side of the sexual revolution, we may think it quaint that Ash, a 20-year old principal and teacher of business subjects, is scandalized by the soft, warm mouth of a 35-year old woman, who has a healthy, wolfish appetite for sex. But a young man from a parochial town, whose head is stuffed with preconceived notions, and whose heart yearns for beauty, meaning, and purpose, and carries within it the kernel of a rhapsody that must be created at all costs, such a man will have many jolting encounters and a rude awakening, before his chrysalis finally bursts.
The power and glory of Lasso Round the Moon reside in the last 30 pages. To give you an idea of how magnificent they are, know this about me — there are several things I don’t do. I don’t lift cars with he-man strength, and I don’t cry. Once I was punched in the nose, and my eyes didn’t even water. But when Ash confronts himself and the remorse and bitter regret that shadows the Faulkner epigraph above, I must confess, I sort of, kind of — well, I didn’t actually cry — but something like an apricot pit or a dry piece of bread formed in my throat, and I coughed a little. That’s how moving the book is.
Is a rhapsody in B major for orchestra, harp, and French horn worth any number of mothers, any number of fathers, any number of brothers?