Tuesday, April 27, 2004

LIT CORNER: CRY ME A RIVER. I've been reading The Late George Apley, which I understand to be out of print. (That endears it to me, as does the fact that, in the old Modern Library edition I'm reading, the word "role" is printed with a circumflex over the o, thus: rôle.) It's a great pleasure, and makes good use of that old standby of English Lit classes, the unreliable narrator (a device which some of us, e.g. Whit Stillman, have been educated to notice).

This puts me in mind of a more recent, popular unreliable-narrator novel, The Remains of the Day. The more I read the Marquand, the more I'm convinced Ishiguro was inspired by it, though I've never heard that he admitted it.

There are a lot of things I like about Remains of the Day, not least that the author had the nerve to plant toward its end a sure-fire tear-jerking moment, which is utterly lost in the movie version. The butler Stevens has been a complete stick throughout the book, observing from a seemingly distant remove the loss of his father, his beloved Miss Kenton, and the English Empire, with a sangfroid that must seem frustratingly ridiculous to moderns (the Time review of the movie had an appropriately glib title: "I say, Jeeves, bit of a wasted life, what?").

Late in the story the aged Stevens has the opportunity to meet with the long-married Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), and to at last venture to tell her, in the rain at a bus-stop, that he has been unhappy and that he notices her unhappiness as well. Mrs. Benn admits that she has sometimes thought of a better life that she might have had -- "a life I might have had with you" -- but that over the years she has learned to content herself with her lot.

Stevens then tells us:
I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, these words were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed -- why should I not admit it? -- at that moment, my heart was breaking.
I remember reading that, years ago, seated in a steel chair in the sunny Worldwide Plaza near 49th Street, and bursting into helpless tears. I still sniffle a little to think of it.

And this makes me think: what art makes people cry anymore? There are a lot of old movies that can still make me cry: Broken Blossoms, City Lights, Casablanca, Young Mr. Lincoln, and (perhaps harder to understand, but still it moves me) WR: Mysteries of the Organism.

It's not just old movies, either. Dickens, contra Wilde's great crack about Little Nell, can still set me blubbering. Regard with dry eyes, if you can, the death of Jo in Bleak House. Nabakov used to read that passage out loud to his students at Cornell, and afterwards observe, "This is a lesson in style, not in participative emotion" -- a comment that would not have been necessary if the scene were not literally pathetic.

For that matter, while I feel shielded by years of experience and layers of irony from jukebox weepers like "Teen Angel," Joan Morris' version of the ancient parlor song "After the Ball" still rouses in me some absurd sorrow for the lonely maiden.

Do any new songs do that? Does any new anything do that? I can't imagine a writer of this moment in any medium trying or expecting or seeing the point in making his auditors "get out the handkerchiefs," as they used to say. I suppose some TV shows try for this effect, but I can't imagine that they achieve more than a nodding acknowledgement that what they've portrayed is "sad."

Am I wrong? Do people make "weepers" anymore? If so, what are they?

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