Saturday, September 02, 2006

ARTS ROUNDUP: MAHFOUZ, FRIEDMAN, KISS KISS BANG BANG (NOT PAULINE KAEL'S). Last week Naguib Mahfouz died. Years ago, I read a bunch of his books and got caught up in his rhythm, at least as rendered by translators. I remember the books less well now than I do their effects:

The one big novel I got through, The Palace Walk, first in the Cairo Trilogy, had the sort of stiff grandeur that I associate with Henry James, that is, all foreboding explained and announced in silent-film intertitles, e.g. "Even so, she tried to drag out the discussion, guided by false hopes." The language in general felt stiff too. But it was grandeur nonetheless. The effect of the upheavals in postwar Egypt on family lives of the sort we Westerners call bourgeois would excite any novelist, and Mahfouz exquisitely did the epochal novelist's job of catching the lightning, then using it to marble a portrait of his society.

Large-stepping as The Palace Walk is, Mahfouz found time for grace notes, mostly expressed through the consciousness of Kamal, the young man who is widely considered to be Mahfouz's alter-ego. Check this, when Kamal learns that his sister Aisha's labor has begun:
He had once seen a cat give birth when he was not quite six. She had attracted his attention with her piercing meows. He had rushed to her, finding her on the roof under the arbor of hyacinth beans, writhing in pain with her eyes bulging out. When he saw her body part with an inflamed bit of meat, he had backed away in disgust, screaming as loud as he could. The memory haunted his mind, and he felt the same old disgust. It was a pesky, distressing memory, encompassing him like a fog, but he refused to let himself be frightened. He could not imagine any connection between the cat and Aisha, except the slight relationship between an animal a human being, which he believed to be as far apart as earth from heaven...
This is, as I said, stiff, in the classic manner, but also true and human enough to pierce the heart of anyone who has learned to read outside his time's own idiom.

The other, smaller Mahfouz books I read -- Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs, and Wedding Song -- belong more to a Kamal's-eye point of view, though history still serves as canopy over, and infiltrator of, the lives on display. The Thief and the Dogs is short and easy to comprehend, especially for those of us steeped in Camus and Genet and Burgess -- and maybe Dostoyevski and Lagerqvist -- and the whole 20th Century literature of the dispossessed.

In The Thief and the Dogs, Nasser reigns, the revolution is institutionalized -- and still there are thieves. Said Mahran is one such, newly freed; once he was allied with the revolutionaries, but his former mentor, Rauf, is embarrassed by him and what he represents (and frightened -- Said breaks into his house). Detectives harass him; his daughter disowns him; his spiritual leader, the Sheik, shoves him off with the Koran. He steals, kills, pledges himself and his hopes to a prostitute, who forsakes him, out of need perhaps or betrayal. He steals a uniform, uses it to brave the unfriendly streets. He is belligerent, and for a long time carries the dream that his survival is tied to that of his nation -- "Whoever kills me will be killing the millions. I am the hope and the dream, the redemption of cowards; I am good principles, consolation, the tears that recall the weeper to humanity..." His dream reduces to survival for himself -- "At last exhaustion conquered his will. He forgot his determination to get the uniform and fall asleep..." The dogs get him in the end. I mentioned Lagerqvist before; The Thief and the Dogs is a nice bookend to Barrabas. Like Lagerkvist, Mahfouz won the Nobel. Good call.

More present in my mind is Bruce Jay Friedman's 1964 novel A Mother's Kisses, which I just read. Friedman came out of the same 60s chute as Philip Roth, the one marked "Urban Jewish Neurotic Humorist." Both these UJNHs wrote for New York magazines, were funny and a bit difficult (trendily so) and got into novels. Roth muscled his way into the Great American Writer top-ten; Friedman's route was more circuitous. He wrote two excellent plays, Scuba Dooba and Steambath, that were Broadway hits in that little 60s window of opportunity for UJNH playwrights. Later, Friedman sopped up some Hollywood gravy with Splash and The Lonely Guy, then devolved to teaching, occasional writing (really good occasional writing) and the care and feeding of Josh and Drew Friedman, his brilliant sons.

A Mother's Kisses is an excellent, though little remembered, example of the genre -- on the same pitch as Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint. Joseph, a New York Jewish kid of early 60s vintage, lives in a two-room apartment with his mother, father, and sister (Joseph sleeps on a board that juts from the pantry into the kitchen). Joseph wants to go to college, but only applies to Columbia and Bates -- making the latter choice solely on the basis of a guy he once saw playing pick-up basketball in a Bates sweatshirt, "a short, scrappy fellow with heavy thighs... Joseph had come to think of the school as a scrappy little heavy-thighed college full of fast little fellows who pressed their opponents."

Joseph places in neither school, and has to spend more time with his mother, a "heavy-breasted" harridan who disastrously handles Joseph's affairs while loudly announcing, in psuedo-wised-up, passive-aggressively negative terms, her achievements, real and potential, and aspirations for her loved ones:
"...Your mother has nothing to do in the city? I don't have organizations waiting for me that if I wanted to condescend and become their type there aren't women who'd give their right arms to have me at their side? There aren't charities right now that are passing out for your mother's interest? Real poor ones, my kind, on the Lower East Side, that could break your heart? That when I go to them with bundles when nobody's looking I don't have to insert an ad in the paper telling everyone to look what I did? There isn't a job waiting for me in my millinery shop for sixty-five dollars a week that Polly knows good and well she could get it back, times ten, with the trade your mother's charm would lure into the store?..."
Joseph's mother -- she is known by no other name -- wheedles him into a place at Kansas Agricultural Land Grant College, accompanies him on the trip there and, despite his ceaseless protests, lives with him in a small hotel room until he becomes enraged enough to throw her out. This is as classic an example as I've ever seen of what postwar types called "Momism" -- even better than Jim Backus in an apron in Rebel Without a Cause, or Ruth Gordon kissing George Segal's ass in Where's Poppa? One could take it as a precursor to the negative notion of the "mommy" or "nanny" state, or as a natural complement to the patricidal furies of the later 60s, or as plain misogyny, or all of these, and have ample evidence for any case.

That Friedman was responding to Momism, or Mom, is plain, but in A Mother's Kisses he also creates a whole, painful world of male and female grotesques in which Joseph's mother is only the preeminent horror. (Friedman also wrote a book called A Father's Kisses, which I haven't read but am very eager to find.) Most memorable among these is Joseph's self-appointed college pal "Gatesy," a Philadelphia kid defined by self-referential tics who insists that he and Joseph are real "New York guys," and has slang-stuffed speeches that rival those of Joseph's mother for lunacy -- though it's a lunacy that Joseph, on balance and because of his stage of development, comes to prefer. A Mother's Kisses turns out to be a UJNH bildungsroman that ends in something less than maturity, as Joseph chases his mother's train out of Kansas:
...he began to holler things after his mother, first softly, then at the top of his lungs, anything he wanted to: "What was the rush?" and "You're not great at all."

"I never enjoyed one second with you," he shouted, and kept on, fairly much in the same manner, until the shriek of the engine no longer covered his words.
Being a son and sort of an anti-Momist myself, I found this rather touching.

Speaking of kisses, I finally saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which greatly pleased me by temporarily lifting the heavy cloud over L.A. Noir that had closed in with James Ellroy and L.A. Confidential and is bound to descend again with Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia. I love L.A. Confidential, but I figure if we can't have Chandler straight-up -- and, alas, it appears we can't -- then let us have something like Altman's The Long Goodbye, which revivified the original mix with hints of Bukowski and Joan Didion, as this film does with cheaper equivalents (Tarantino and -- fuck, I don't know who else). Robert Downey, Jr. has perfected and apotheosized his fuck-up routine; fat Val Kilmer, like fat Elvis, has discovered the joys of self-parody. The L.A.-specific supernumeraries -- like the reverse greeter who tells the beaten-up Harry "Have a better night," or the rap-poisoned macho gangsters who are undone by Gay Perry's ploy -- give all the local color I need. The narration engages and the resolution disgorges. If I have a better time learning who killed George Reeves, I'll be very surprised.

No comments:

Post a Comment