Saturday, March 28, 2015

Two Vernal Verses for the Turning of the Year

Here's a pair of poetic fragments for everyone shiveringly awaiting the arrival of meteorological spring:

Gone is the winter of my misery,
My spring appears; O see what here doth grow!
                  --Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella, no.69

If it's ever spring again,
       Spring again,
I shall go where went I when
Down the moor-cock splashed, and hen,
Seeing me not, amid their flounder,
Standing with my arm around her;
If it's ever spring again,
       Spring again,
I shall go where went I then.
                                          --Thomas Hardy

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

BEOWULF, translated by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was one of my favorite contemporary poets, and I've long considered his 'bog people' poems of the 1970s ("Punishment," "Bog Queen," etc.) among the strongest English-language poems of the past 50 years. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I finally read his translation of Beowulf and found it largely unimpressive. Oh, there are some very good lines, some places where Heaney pulls marvelous modern poetry out of the old Anglo-Saxon. Heaney's "havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere"(l.594) probably can't be bettered; there's a wonderful harsh music in the alliteration, and the vowels seem to gasp at the carnage they signify. Similarly, Heaney has his horde of slaughtered sea monsters "...sleeping / the sleep of the sword..."(l.565-6), a phrase that sings like sunlight on calm water, despite its surely deliberate echoing of a modern cliché, "the sleep of death." But elsewhere in Heaney's translation, this sort of thing ceases to be an echo and becomes a blatant tendency to translate Anglo-Saxon verse into contemporary American cliché. At lines 26-27, for example, Heaney tells us "[Scyld] was still thriving when his time came / and he crossed over into the Lord's keeping." Questionable Christianization aside, that 'when his time came' is a vapid 20th-century funeral home euphemism, and Heaney's 'crossed over' is even worse, making the Beowulf poet sound like a Californian guru of the afterlife. Later, Heaney has Hrothgar refer to Aeschere as "my right-hand man"(l.1326), a truly jarring anachronism, akin to having Hrothgar call him 'my main man' or 'my soul brother.' These examples leapt out at me, but Heaney's text is riddled with flat, uninspired, and/or clichéd lines. So I can't agree with Andrew Motion's blurbed contention that Heaney "has made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece." At times, in fact, Heaney has taken the first major work of English literature and turned it into a bit of a mess.

What is the best modern translation of Beowulf? This is not a rhetorical question; the four translations I've read over the years have failed to impress me as poetry, and I would sincerely like to learn of a better one. I've sampled Tolkien's, but it seems too pedantically literal, a donnish crib. Maybe now, almost a generation after Heaney's attempt, it's time for another poet to try her hand. Someone needs to build a better Beowulf. Famous Seamus seems to have left the job undone.

THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville

China Mieville (he's a Brit; the name signifies French ancestry, hippie parents, and a guarantee that Americans will think of Moby Dick the moment they see his name on a dust jacket) possesses one of the most impressive imaginations in contemporary SF. Anyone who has sampled even a bit of his Bas-Lag trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council) will not soon forget his weird inventions and uncanny ability to leap inside the perceptions of nonhuman characters. In The City and the City--best pigeonholed as an SF police procedural, the subgenre that includes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Soylent Green ("It's PEOPLE!")--that imagination is wonderfully displayed in the central conceit, two mutually antagonistic cities occupy the same physical space and citizens of each are socialized to 'unsee' buildings and people in the other, even when those buildings abut their own or those people pass them on the sidewalk. It's a fantastically suggestive idea, worthy of Calvino or even Kafka, and Mieville milks it marvelously. This conceit is also by far the best thing about the novel, and therein lies the work's weakness. In sharp contrast to the originality of its setting, The City and the City's characters are flat, its plot formulaic (and as such, a bit too predictable), and its prose rarely rises above the average level for its genre(s). There were several sentences in which an obviously tortured syntax left me wondering if Mieville was writing deliberately 'badly' in order to defamiliarize the language of his text as a parallel to his defamiliarization of our world in his topolganger (his coinage, and a good one) cities. This may have been his intention, but my margin of readerly doubt measures the distance between intention and execution. If linguistic defamiliarization was his target, he didn't quite hit it here. But it's clear that Mieville is damn good, and his writerly craft is still on the up escalator. When he reaches the top, watch out.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Three Kinds of Imagination

A few months ago while I was skim/skip-reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, that 1980s nerd favorite now almost forgotten (even I, once a card-carrying 80s nerd, had all but forgotten that I still owned a copy), it occurred to me that we might classify imaginations, specifically artistic imaginations, into three categories. Loosely analogizing these categories to art-historical periods, I will call them Classical, Baroque, and Mannerist.

Classical imaginations tend toward simplicity, austerity, elegance. Think of the exquisitely balanced compositions of Poussin's Madonna of the Steps or The Judgment of Solomon, the supersmooth abstraction of Brancusi's Bird in Flight, the stripped-down staccato prose styles of Hemingway or James Ellroy (in Hemingway's case, stripped-down from the lush baroque overplus of Henry James's prose), or the epiphanies of beauty teased out of ordinary pots and pans in Chardin's still life paintings.

Baroque imaginations tend toward complexity, contradiction, even hysteria. We find this tendency in the style of Henry James's fictions and in the matter of Thomas Pynchon's, in Picasso's wildest cubist and surrealist flights, in the overwhelmingly elaborate Capella Sistina in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, in the enormous, mind-boggling ceiling painting on the vault of St. Ignazio di Loyola (also in Rome), in the impressive authorial outpouring of imaginative gusto in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.

Mannerist imaginations tend toward paradox, frustration, impasse. Here we find the inescapable nightmares of Kafka's Metamorphosis and The Trial, the ice-blue untouchable eroticism and interpretive impenetrability of Bronzino's Allegory with Venus and Cupid, David Foster Wallace's "The Depressed Person" and much of Infinite Jest, M. C. Escher's inescapable etchings, and the impossible paintings of Rene Magritte.

These are but three kinds of imaginative tendencies. There are many more possibilities (depressive, comic, tragic, etc.), and none of these categories should be taken as anything more than a fuzzy, loose, contingent kind of intellectual shorthand. Powerful imaginations tend to dissolve such categories and set all pigeonholes aflame.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

An academic article on W. G. Sebald's untranslated academic writings

Here's a link to James R. Martin's very interesting 2013 Cambridge Literary Review article, "On Misunderstanding W. G. Sebald." Martin, who seems to have read the entire corpus of Sebald's as-yet-untranslated academic writings, argues that while the author's transformation from Frankfurt School-influenced academic to Kafka-, Nabokov-, and Bernhard-influenced writer of fiction was accompanied by an intellectual modulation in his understanding of the Shoah, there are also important continuities between the 'two Sebalds'. While I don't entirely agree with Martin's article and find his concluding paragraph a bit harsh, I highly recommend the article for the glimpses it provides of the large amount of Sebald still available only to German readers. I eagerly await the English translations of Sebald's complete critical writings, so I can attempt to judge these matters for myself. (Unfortunately, I may be waiting a very long time.)

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Books that Choose Us

On this 133rd anniversary of the birth of James Joyce, I'm thinking about my conviction that I didn't choose to read Ulysses. It chose me.

The line has been repeated so many times it's almost a cliché: We don't choose the books that are important to us; they choose us. I've experienced this phenomenon at several moments in my life, when Ulysses or Austerlitz or Sentimental Education seemed to choose me as their reader, seemed to solicit my interest and compel me to read them. But this solicitation in the library stacks or bookstore aisle, like the outward signs of Hamlet's grief, merely seems, and it is important that we not let be be the finale of its seeming. For we, of course, are the ones who choose. We choose to read certain books for reasons we do not understand. We choose them for unconscious reasons. And into the oblivion of our motivation, to fill the gap our repressions create, we pour the illusion of an inanimate object choosing a subject. We spontaneously grant the book an illusionary agency because the roots of our actual agency must be prophylactically disavowed.

But this can't be the whole story. The idea that books choose us is a retrospective construction. It occurs to us only after we have read and been deeply impressed by a given book, after we have been emotionally affected by its power. And works of art possess powers we do not grant to them. Something in their representations solicits us also, captures us in its sticky web. And we respond, for reasons often disavowed, in an interaction much like erotic attraction. We say we "love" this book, we speak of "falling in love" with it, and part of our classic overestimation of this particular desired object is the harmless delusion that it chose us, not the factually accurate vice versa.

All of which brings me back to my old intuition that art and love run off the same circuit. The aesthetic and the erotic are profoundly interrelated, intricately knotted, inextricable. As Proust's Swann knew (and little good the knowledge did him), we can love a woman because we love a work of art, and anyone with the least amount of aesthetic sensitivity has experienced the opposite effect (attraction to an art object that reminds us of a loved one). Maybe this erotic motivation is exactly what we are repressing about the books that (seem to) choose us. Does something in these books provoke or solicit a desire that we must disavow? Think about this, and think about the deeper, potentially embarrassing reasons why you chose the books that 'chose you.' We may be trespassing onto dangerously private property here. I hope so.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Few Thoughts on THE GREAT GATSBY

Three of the greatest American novels--Moby Dick; Absalom, Absalom! and The Great Gatsby--can be easily interpreted as variations on a single 'deep' narrative: the failed quest for an obscure object of desire. In the cases of Melville and Fitzgerald, this is quite obvious, while for Faulkner's novel the interpretation would be more complex, as the book contains multiple questers and objects (including Quentin Compson, seeking a truth he can only create in the telling--somewhat like Nick Carraway during his last-page rhapsody, perhaps).

The tragedy of Gatsby, as I reinterpret it now upon my umpteenth reading, lies in the fact that the self young James Gatz creates is a pure subject of desire for a single object. His desire for Daisy is obsessive, fanatical, and as he attempts to mold himself into the object of his (mis)understanding of her desire (like all infatuated lovers, he assumes her desire to be the mirror of his), he creates a self so single-mindedly object-oriented, so inhuman, that it inevitably shatters--not, as Nick thinks, on the brutal hardness of Tom's personality, but on the human complexity and contradictions of Daisy's messy self.

Aside from these more 'theoretical' concerns, it must be noted that Gatsby is, of course, a fantastically well-written and extremely well-constructed novel. (Because it's so often read in U.S. high schools, these qualities are usually taken for granted; they shouldn't be.) The first chapter is a nearly perfect opening: a brief prologue establishes the narrative voice and teases us into desire for the story to come; the next section admirably sets the geographical and social scene; the dinner scene introduces all the major characters and many of their conflicts; and the ending shows us Gatsby as the self he has constructed, a pure subject of pure desire, beckoning toward the desire of his object, willing Daisy  to turn her desire permanently his way, like the green light on the end of her dock. This is what nearly perfect narrative fiction looks like. As Hunter S. Thompson, who shared a language and an addiction or two with Fitzgerald, appreciated, The Great Gatsby is a great course in novel-writing. And it's one hell of a lot cheaper than an MFA. One of the book's principal lessons is "shock the formula." One wouldn't guess from Gatsby's opening that this Jamesian / Horatio Alger narrative would transmute into a melodrama of gangsters and bootlegging and multiple killings before modulating into pathos and tragedy. But that's the winding road Fitzgerald speeds us down. After many re-readings one loses the shock of the Fitzgeraldian new, but for its first readers, Gatsby must have been a deeply surprising novel, a high-speed collision of Whartonian rhetoric and Jamesian irony with the blood-drenched gangster stories of the gutter press. It is a measure of Fitzgerald's artistry that he can, with seeming effortlessness, turn such an unlikely collision into a novel both moving and beautiful.

Ontological Dream, Metaphysical Nightmare

Last Christmas night I had the ontological dream, the metaphysical nightmare. I dreamed I awoke in the middle of the night and felt my way blindly through the coaldark house to the brightly lighted kitchen. The incongruity of a ceiling light burning sunlike in the middle of the night, while the silent house slept, unsettled my dreamself to the extent of setting off a fit of metaphysical anxiety. Like so many Nabokov characters, I began to suspect the hyper-reality of my seamlessly mimetic world. Maybe I'm not awake, I dreamthought. Maybe this is a dream. To test the oneiric nature of this 'reality,' I reached up to the lightswitch chain, thinking, If this is a dream, the light won't turn off. I pulled the chain. Nothing happened. I pulled again. Nothing happened. The house around me, to the horizon of the light, rested in absolutely convincing mimesis. I pulled the switch yet again. No change. A frenzied panic flowed into me as I repeatedly jerked the chain to no avail. I was trapped in a dream from which I could not awake, even as I madly told myself, This is a dream! This is a dream! and continued pulling the lightchain. My memory of the dream ends here, trapped in terror.

The dream was horrifying in its simplicity, unbearable in its banality, unheimlich in its utter familiarity. As Kafka knew, the familiar is the place from which terror most effectively erupts.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Only Paul Thomas Anderson Interview You Will Ever Need...

After New Year's resolving to waste less time online, I spent nearly two hours yesterday evening listening to Marc Maron's marvelous WTF interview with director Paul Thomas Anderson. (In my own defense, I've contracted a respiratory virus and have been a Dayquil zombie for the past few days, so I wasn't really capable of doing much beyond veging in front of the intertube.) Among the surprises revealed: while Anderson was a student at Emerson College (Boston) in the early 1990s, one of his English teachers was the not-yet-Charlie-Rosed David Foster Wallace (that's one for the 'Small World' file); Anderson's father was Tim Conway's straight man in the early 1960s, and Anderson grew up around the cast of the Carol Burnett Show; the elder Anderson was also a Cleveland, Ohio local TV personality who hosted horror movies under the name of 'Ghoulardi'; the reason why Anderson's first feature, Sidney, was released under the title Hard Eight (a good movie by any name); Anderson speaks at length about Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice, and he pointedly refuses to say anything about any personal contact he might have had with Thomas Pynchon. He also mentions that if he had a time machine, he would use it to travel backward a few decades and work with Sterling Hayden.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

And one more hit o' the old Maileriana for the road...

The back cover dust jacket of my prized first edition of George V. Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle boasts a blurb from Norman Mailer that could only have been written in the early 1970s:

"What dialogue! Higgins may be the American writer who is closest to Henry Green. What I can't get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz."

The fuzz. How quaint that word seems in this era of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and militarized police forces that act like occupying armies. Like 'honky' and 'spade' and 'groovy,' fuzz is a linguistic artifact of late-60s-early-70s American Hipster English. Another notable usage occurs in the Woodstock documentary when Arlo Guthrie speaks from the stage about "rappin' to the fuzz" that the New York State Thruway is closed, man.

But Mailer's usage is perhaps not entirely correct. When he published the book, Higgins was an Assistant U. S. Attorney, and before that he worked organized crime cases in the Massachusetts State Attorney General's office. (Or as one of his characters might've put it: Oh yeah, he knew Whitey. You bet he knew Whitey. He knew Whitey before Whitey was Whitey...) So, to be precise, the late great George V. wasn't merely the fuzz, he was the superfuzz.

Also, I wouldn't have pegged Mailer as a Henry Green fan, but I guess he was. This must be the only thing Norman and John Updike had in common--aside, possibly, from a literary groupie or two.

Monday, October 27, 2014

More Mailer Stuff

Continuing a Mailer theme from the previous post, here are a couple of Norman Mailer-related YouTube items that might be of interest. First, his 1970 film Maidstone, a mostly failed experiment in improvisational filmmaking that is memorable only for the late scene in which a young and stoner-eyed Rip Torn physically attacks Mailer while the camera rolls. Neither of these gentlemen is exactly a brawler. To say that they fight like little girls would be an insult to little girls. The whole movie is worth watching once, though, the way a time capsule is worth opening--but only once. (The fight begins at about 1:34:00.)

Second, and considerably more entertaining, is this mid-1980s clip from The Tonight Show in which the late Joan Rivers attempts to interview Mailer (who's plugging Tough Guys Don't Dance) while Shelley Winters interrupts with a fantastic (in all senses) 'memory' of Mailer meeting Marilyn Monroe at a Henry Wallace rally in 1948. Mailer's response is pretty good, but Rivers is, of course, funnier.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Harold Bloom on Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings

I just discovered that Harold Bloom's highly enjoyable and erudite 1983 review of Norman Mailer's endless Egyptian novel, Ancient Evenings, is available in its entirety on the New York Review of Books website. Click here to read it. I remember devouring Ancient Evenings like Zero Mostel at an all-you-can-eat buffet when it was paperbacked in '84 (I was fifteen and already a literary hipster; big books aren't a problem when you're young enough to think you're immortal), and Bloom's old review encourages me to give Norman's Big Book of Bumbuggery another look.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Belated Bloomsday 2014: They Do Joyce in Differant Voyces

The commodious vicus of time's recirculation sped me past this year's Bloomsday without a blogpost, so here's this year's delateful Joycean ejaculation, exactly four months late.

This year I'm thinking about the vast diffusion of Joyce's influence over the literature of the last hundred years. Let's take our cue from T. S. Eliot's early title for The Waste Land and imagine a survey of the past century's literature under the title "They Do Joyce in Different Voices." Consider the Joycean debts owed by these landmarks of the modern literary mind:

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. The most influential English-language poem of the first half the 20th century was decisively influenced by Joyce's deployment of mythology in Ulysses, which Eliot read chapter-by-chapter in little magazines before its 1922 book publication. Of course, if we wish to take the ironic, deflationary deployment of myth and history as the defining rhetoric of Modernism, we should gaze back behind Joyce and seek Modernism's genesis in two paintings by Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. In the spring of 1863, Manet was painting the latter in his studio while hordes of philistines were savaging the former at the Salon. Accordingly, I arbitrarily cite May 1863 in Paris as the time and place of Modernism's birth.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf leveled a few unimpressive and snobbish criticisms at Ulysses, but that didn't stop her from ripping off Joyce's central idea (a day in the inner lives of urban characters) when she wrote Dalloway. Woolf's novel, read from our present distance in time, seems as much a complement/compliment to Joyce's novel as an implicit (if rather obvious) critique.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. By the time she wrote this later work, Woolf had internalized Joyce's techniques, combined them with Proust's, and made them her own.

The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien. In this monument to one Irish writer's monumental anxiety of influence, O'Brien imagines a Joyce who survived the war and lived on to absurdly disavow his literary achievements.

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien. Joyce liked and praised this proto-postmodern work that rises directly from the soil of the 'Cyclops' and 'Circe' episodes in Ulysses.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett. Joyce reportedly memorized the closing lines of this, Beckett's first and most clearly Joycean novel. Beckett once said that in fiction Joyce tended toward omniscience and he, Beckett, tended toward ignorance. The impressive range of reference in Beckett's early prose suggests he was still decisively under the Joycean influence when he wrote Murphy. It is arguable that he never really fought free of the influence, that he spent his entire career dialectically propelled by Joyce, like a moth repeatedly approaching then fleeing from a dazzling flame.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Miller was merely the most audacious of the American expatriates who learned from Joyce's work. The urban stream-of-consciousness style of Miller's horny-man-on-the-street rhapsodies descends directly from the early chapters of Ulysses.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. It's probably not too much of a stretch to call this an American answer to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Faulkner's representation of Benjy's fragmented consciousness would have been impossible without Joyce's experiments in the first half and last chapter of Ulysses.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The darkest of the Dubliners stories lie somewhere behind much of Hemingway's best work. To take just one example, read "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in the light of Joyce's "Counterparts."

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. The best parts of Barnes' experimental novel (which seems stranger to me with every re-reading; it's that rare book that becomes more difficult the better you know it) are the chapters dominated by Dr. Matthew O'Connor, an Irish-American monologuist who sounds like Joyce's Buck Mulligan on a roll.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. No writer more clearly desired to be dubbed the 'son of Joyce,' and this is perhaps the only novel in English that has succeeded in doing something both original and interesting with the linguistic techniques pioneered in Finnegans Wake.

Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Joyce's reduction of narrative point-of-view to the thoughts in a single mind, his consequent expansion of the representation of individual consciousness, his epiphanic elevation of the mundane to the level of the symbolic--all of these characteristic Joycean strategies fed into the radical reductions of the French nouveau roman.

Night by Edna O'Brien. Directly influenced by Molly Bloom's monologue, this is the next generation's and the other gender's reply to Ulysses. Every Irish writer must wrestle with James Joyce (if only, like Roddy Doyle, to petulantly dismiss him), and O'Brien did so at length in her very good, concise book on Joyce for the Penguin Lives series.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. In his most formally original work, that noted Humbutterfly Hunter Professor V. Nabokov (AKA several sirenical pseudonyms), who taught Ulysses to undergraduates at Cornell, twisted Joycean formal experimentation to his own comically obsessive ends.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. The definitive Californian queering of Ulysses. Isherwood takes the original idea for Ulysses--the thoughts of a single man on a single day--and creates a pioneering masterpiece of what I suppose we must still call 'gay fiction.' I'd prefer to call A Single Man 'great fiction.'

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. In his greatest and most difficult book, Pynchon rewrites Ulysses for the age of aerial bombardment and nuclear warfare. Tyrone Slothrop is what happens to Stephen Dedalus after the Bomb.

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney. Joyce is a spectre haunting Irish poetry. Heaney evokes him beautifully in the last section of "Station Island."

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Joyce's influence on Borges might almost be called 'spiritual.' Joyce showed Borges that the transcendent might reside at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin and suggested to him that an Aleph might exist on an ordinary basement stair, that infinity might be found among the dusty volumes of a library, that a book might be the most dangerous labyrinth of all.

Couples by John Updike. As soon as the novel's first couple sexlessly hits the sack, Updike shifts into a few pages of Joycean pastiche. Joyce's influence on Updike was huge, and he may not have successfully assimilated it until Rabbit got rich.

The Tunnel by William H. Gass. Gass's prose owes much to the musical stylings of James the Joyous, and Gass's formal experiments and titanic streams of consciousness clearly descend from the Joycean precedent. It would be a mistake, though, to call The Tunnel a 'stream' of consciousness novel; this is no sibilant stream, no burbling brook; it's a Mississippi River of consciousness roaring toward its oceanic mouth. Don't drown in it.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. Sal the Man takes Joycean linguistic exuberance back to Bombay. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Joyce's languages derive ultimately from Indo-European.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin. Doblin's best-known work is the Berliner Ulysses. It exercised a decisive influence upon Gunter Grass, among many other writers.

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Bloom uses the Viconian structural paradigm of Finnegans Wake to organize this collection of insightful, idiosyncratic essays on Western literature.

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth. The freedom claimed by Joyce and enlarged by Henry Miller and Jean Genet bears strange, darkly comic fruit in Roth's greatest (and probably funniest) novel, a book that explicitly references Ulysses.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. After 40 years, it's time for this book to start receiving the respect it deserves. Forget anything you might have heard about it and read it. It's a major, serious and seriously funny work of literary fiction in the long comic tradition that begins at Aristophanes and reaches one of its peaks on Mount Joyce.

Saturday by Ian McEwan. This post-9/11 'one day in a Londoner's life' novel contains multiple Joycean allusions that are much more subtle than the book's obvious structural debt.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. Even James Wood is sometimes capable of astute criticism. When he remarked that Wallace deliberately threw open his prose instrument to the degraded languages of the American present, he identified the deepest debt Wallace owed to Ulysses (especially the strategies of the 'Eumaeus' episode and the first half of 'Nausicaa'). The bandannaed one seems to have gotten his Joyce at secondhand, via the American academic postmodernists (Barthelme, Barth, Coover) who hoed their various rows in the satirical-pastichey ground broken by Auld Blind Jim.

The House of Ulysses and Larva by Julian Rios. If Joyce had not existed, would Julian Rios have a career? Would he be known, even ever so slightly, outside a tiny Spanish-reading coterie?

The Surrealists. Joyce's relation to Surrealist literature closely parallels Picasso's relation to Surrealist visual arts: he was an older, already accomplished master who both influenced and was influenced by the artists of the Surrealist group.

Ulysses Gramophone: Two Words for Joyce by Jacques Derrida. And just for the hell of it, let's throw the Old Derridadaist into the mix. (For anyone interested in the critical connections, all of Derrida's writings on Joyce have been collected in English in the book Derrida and Joyce, edited by Andrew J. Mitchell and Sam Slote.) It seems to me that one of Derrida's unacknowledged projects was the introduction of Joycean linguistic play into philosophico-critical discourse. Regardless, Joyce remains the more entertaining philosopher--by far. (Readers of Derrida will understand why the penultimate word in this post's title is not misspelled.)

Slacker and the Before films, directed by Richard Linklater. And just for the unholy Joycean hell of it, let's end this post at the movies. Richard Linklater's deeply Bunuelian film Slacker signals its Joycean influence with a reading from Ulysses, but the Ulyssean influence is more subterranean (and thus more effective) in the wonderful series of Before movies starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Joyce and Eric Rohmer seem to stand side by side somewhere behind all three of these conversation-driven, single-day tales.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Additional Adversaria from the Summertime Notebook

In a novel, originality of form and language are fine and necessary, but in the absence of an interesting story they are frosting without a cake.

In the words of biologist J. B. S. Haldane, "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose." I would say the same of Henry James.

Having just re-read J. G. Ballard's "The Garden of Time" and "The Drowned Giant," I find myself agreeing with Anthony Burgess that these two stories should surely be considered canonical. They exist on a level with the best of Kafka, Borges and Calvino. (Any writer who convinces me to compare him with Kafka is a master worthy of the highest respect.) Ballard is one of the very few 20th-century writers whose work can be as good and strange and cutting as Kafka's without also being derivatively 'Kafkaesque.'

Certainty is a vice of fanatics and fools.

Neal Stephenson's late (1992) cyberpunk novel Snow Crash begins promisingly, oozing supercool attitude and Tom Robbins-y metaphors. But the novel founders about 100 pages in, when Stephenson loses his cool, dials down the hyper-troping, and falls into a narrative rhythm of clumsy, repetitive exposition interrupted by increasingly ridiculous action scenes. Snow Crash may not have been intended as a parody of cyberpunk, but that's how most of the novel reads.

In the reverently silent cathedral of the tragic I give myself cramps trying to stifle a fart.

Picasso's relation to Surrealism, like Joyce's, follows the paradigm of Manet's relationship to Impressionism. He is the 'outside member,' part of the group yet apart from it, influencing it yet also influenced by it.

It is a fact of American life, exemplified again and again, that high school geeks become cool adults and high school coolios become mindless conformists and assholes.

This morning I gave myself an object lesson in the decline of American literary prose. I read the first page of Mary Gaitskill's Veronica (2005) and then the opening half-page of Stanley Elkin's The Franchiser (1976). One might expect at least a faint family resemblance between two works of literary fiction by two well-reviewed American writers, but these books differ in ways more fundamental than can be satisfactorily explained by the 30-year age difference. They spring from different aesthetic worlds. Gaitskill's prose is tediously typical of contemporary litfic: that lame, tepid, unadorned, faux-naïve bullshit that MFA students, editors, agents, etc. have all been brainwashed into thinking excellent. It is a prose that excels in nothing, except perhaps slavish conventionality (and this from a writer with a reputation for 'transgression'!) What a contrast flashes from Elkin's first page: he's manic, word-drunk, smart, witty, perceptive, a little loopy; he's fun and generous, and his prose sets off strings of linguistic firecrackers like New Year's in Chinatown. You can almost nose the hazy gunpowder. Elkin's prose makes me want to leap up like a pentecostalist at a revival meeting and holler, "Yea-yess! I can feel the spirit!" Next to Elkin's energy, Gaitskill seems constricted, her prose constipated, a slow, painful extrusion of strings of similar syllables. (Get her some stool softener, please!) She's shooting for insinuation instead of exaltation, but that's a conventional, academically-approved (and, today, positively old-fashioned) gambit. We need novels that grab the reader at sentence one and don't let go. We need to put some life back into our language--and from that living language build a literature that lives and laughs, loves and lusts, and leaves us wanting more.

No one will ever admire your fasting. Get busy.

Disease is the body's way of telling the mind, "Check it out, motherfucker, I'm in charge here." The body is very Al Haig.

In my most pessimistic moods I think of the human race not as nature's botched science experiment--that's too kind--but as a sixth-grade science fair project that got way out of hand. We're a baking soda volcano that won't stop erupting.

A negative reaction to a given book may signify nothing more than an inopportune reading moment. Encountered at a more appropriate time (for the book and the reader), the same book might blow us away. To be impressed by a book, we must read it at the right time. This is the unspoken element of contingency in all criticism. The positive or negative valence of a critic's first reaction to a book--the 'gut reaction' that his review will attempt, unconsciously, to rationalize--arises from a vast number of factors mostly unrelated to the text in question.

Art is life punching back at death.

"Every writer creates himself as best he can, all by himself, following no one's advice. And that's excruciating, but there's no other way." -- Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy

Jonathan Franzen writes the kinds of books Anne Tyler might have written had she been an English department grad student during the 1980s. Franzen is Tyler plus postmodernism.

The reason almost all pornography is both grimmer and less awkward than actual sex is that pornography is fundamentally an elaboration of pre-sexual fantasy, the sexual fantasies of 13- and 14-year old boys.

The greatest American literature is a controlled madness. It's a thing of great formal beauty built out of bad craziness and apocalyptic visions. The greatest American literature has always 'worked the dark side' of our national consciousness, the side that D. H. Lawrence saw and imagined so well one hundred years ago in his little book on American lit. The great American artists burrow into those lightless caverns cut by genocide and slavery, by capitalism gone insane and madness in the name of gods. From Captain Ahab to Judge Holden is but a step, and those two points sufficiently define the main line of our literature. It is a line carefully sidestepped, avoided like a third rail, by the tepid suburban social realists continuously churned out by the MFA machine. Poor writers will always be with us, but good writers need not notice them. They should ponder instead the darkness that is their inheritance as Americans, the darkness without and the darkness within. (Written immediately after reading August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone.)

The novels of Russell Banks are the works of a literary Naturalist who thinks he's a Great American Symbolist. He may think he's writing in the tradition of Melville or Faulkner, but his imagination runs in a groove closer to Cather or Dreiser. In novels such as Affliction, his obvious Symbolist ambitions are constantly frustrated by an overly Naturalistic imagination.

The trouble with Nabokov as critic: He was a literary Mikey who hated everything.

"I am on the side of angels and dirt." -- Stanley Spencer.

In case the name doesn't ring Hector Salamanca's bell, the painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was one of the great originals of 20th-century British art. His range encompasses Blakean visions, WWI military scenes, Lawrencian nudes, Riveraesque industrial murals, attractive landscapes, and the only truly impressive religious paintings of our time. (Check out his late Crucifixion (1958) or any of his bizarre and unheimlich Resurrection paintings.) The 2001 exhibition catalogue Stanley Spencer, edited by Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright, is the best introduction to the full range of his work. Be warned, however, that too many of the illustrations are unfortunately printed across the gutter between pages, and parts are inevitably lost.

The art critic Leo Steinberg on Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, from his 1972 essay "The Philosophical Brothel": "The picture is a total wave of female aggression; one either experiences the Demoiselles as an onslaught, or shuts it off." Good luck shutting it off. I've spent a lot of time at MOMA being stared at by Pablo's women, and even when I turn my back on them and walk toward another gallery I can still feel their eyes drilling into me.

Critics allegorize; artists imagine.

Our culture of overspecialization has assigned Marxism to humanities professors so that two birds can be more economically murdered with a single stone.

The best songs by The Band, like many of Bob Dylan's best, seem to have been built out of baling wire and old tractor parts and held together with secret spells. They're as American as Grant Wood and as Gothic as Edgar Allan Poe.

"...dreaming is another kind of remembering..." -- Sigmund Freud, "Wolf Man" case history

In his American Masters documentary, Philip Roth speaks of Chekhov's idea of the duty of the writer: "the proper presentation of the problem." The problem, not the solution. Solutions are for fanatics and math teachers. Problems are more interesting.

Belief is much more dangerous than doubt.

I'm attracted to the idea that the fearsome void of nothingness can be understood dialectically as the origin point of authentic being. The void appears hellish only to those who see it through glasses ground by Paul, Augustine & Aquinas, lensmakers to the Lord. The fear of freedom is theirs; it need not be ours.

Alienation is out of style. If it weren't, it wouldn't be alienation.

In the end, as in the beginning, making art is about trusting yourself and following your vision, your imagination, your worldview. But the vision must be yours. Mine, perhaps the only thing besides my body that I can truly call mine, is my vision of reality as a place where maddening nothingness alternates unpredictably with intoxicating beauty; my idea that art and sex, aestheticism and eroticism, run off the same circuit of desire; my knowledge that corporate dominance, like religious and state hegemony in the past, is devaluing and degrading individual human life; my idea (stolen from science and Sartre but now mine by long possession) that all of life is meaningless, a product of pure chance, a lucky coup de des of astronomical and biological variables, but that individuals can produce meaning in their lives by acting in freedom. And the first act must always be the act of freeing oneself--first, last, and lifelong. Freeing oneself is a fight to the death.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Pulling a Le Clezio: The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature

This morning the Swedish Academy 'pulled a Le Clezio' and awarded this year's literature Nobel to French writer Patrick Modiano, an author well-known in France and little-read outside it. Only a handful of his books are available in English translation, so this award might have the very positive effect of encouraging further translations and possibly even introducing English-language readers to an unknown masterpiece or two. I haven't read Modiano, but what I've read about him this morning is intriguing, and I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, October 6, 2014

MINDFUL PLEASURES Returns: Adversaria from the Summertime Notebook

As is obvious from the datestamp on the last post, I've been away from Mindful Pleasures for a while. The reasons for my absence range from inter-equinoctial indolence (as Nabokov might've phrased it) to Durer-esque melancholia to 'blog fatigue' to food poisoning (bad Chinese... really, really bad Chinese... like General Tso's chicken getting its head cut off by a band of Red Guards) to the worst cold virus I have ever experienced (I want my pseudoephedrine back!) to the desire to waste less time online (and waste more of it in the real world) to the comically catastrophic Forsteresque collapse of one of my largest bookcases (call me Leonard Bast--on second thought, don't) to the fear that online writing was chomping away at time I should have devoted to 'real' (i.e., imaginative) writing to my usual psychological basket case mélange of self-destructive impulses and crippling insecurity and anxiety at everything to a temporary bitter resentment at 'writing for free' partly fueled by this hilariously outrageous YouTube rant by Harlan Ellison:

But anyway, I'm back now. As autumn arrives in western Ohio and the skies cloud to the color of television static (I think I just stole that comparison from a William Gibson SF novel I read 20 years ago), I'm foolishly ignoring Harlan's sage advice and writing for free again. (I've also been writing, like everyone else except Dr. Johnson's blockhead, for the marketplace. Those books will become available for purchase at Amazon as soon as they are finished to my satisfaction, and I'll be writing more about them in future posts. I've taken a profane oath [my left hand raised, my right on a copy of Dante] not to speak of anything I'm writing until it's published and available for purchase, so you'll just have to wait...)

A large backlog of reading notes, random thoughts, opinions, ideas, epigrams, quotes, etc. has built up in my notebook over these months of postlessness. Here's a hopefully interesting selection:

Adversaria, from the Latin adversaria scripta, "things written on the side," denotes, according to The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, "[m]iscellaneous collections of notes. The kind of things that most writers accumulate in a notebook, day book, journal or diary." These notes, then, are the adversaria of my blogless summer.

Imagine an SF space opera that takes seriously the all but insurmountable obstacle of space's vastness, the idea that practical interstellar travel would require voyages lasting centuries or millennia, that onboard civilizations would rise and fall during these voyages, that new cultures would evolve and struggle en route aboard vast space vehicles the size of Long Island, or even Australia. Has this novel already been written? Probably, but it never rose out of the genre bin far enough to flash a blip on the 'literary' reader's radar.

D. T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace informs us that DFW told his writing classes that "a novelist had to know enough about a subject to fool the passenger next to him or her on an airplane." This is good advice. I've tried to fool passengers who've shared my armrest, and either it's harder than it sounds or I'm a poor liar. Probably both.

Stephen King is a good writer when he takes the time to be. But when he dozes, the clichés multiply like maggots in a murder victim.

As a novelist, Updike is a benevolent creator-god who loves all his children equally and expects his readers to love them likewise. This high aesthetic stance, which I admire, may blind him to the actual repulsiveness of his characters. This is one of several priggish criticisms laid against the late John by Wallace, Franzen and other Oedipal sons. I tend to disagree. By contrast, I see Updike at his best as an American Balzac. Yes, Updike--not that twitty, white-suited, self-promoting, right-wing honky Tom Wolfe--is the closest thing to a Balzac that postwar America produced. Updike is the writer who, to some extent against his rhapsodic, celebratory inclinations, provided the most damning portraits of the American white middle class in the age of affluence. The complaint that Updike seemed not to appreciate the repulsiveness of his characters can be rephrased along these lines: Updike the rhapsodist seems unaware of Updike the social critic. But can this really be possible? Surely a litdude as savvy as Uncle John would've known exactly what he was doing. Many of his critics are attacking, unknowingly, not the author's moral repugnance, but his vision of theirs (and ours). Wallace's notorious review, for example, might profitably be read as an unconscious attack on the aspects of Wallace's own personality that were most like those of Updike's characters. Wallace isn't criticizing Updike; he's laying into the Updike in himself.

Jean Genet, too often and too quickly pigeonholed as a 'gay writer,' might be best understood as the most beautiful of all surrealist prose writers. Genet, not Cocteau, is surrealism's aesthete.

Whenever I wane nostalgic (better and smarter than waxing that way) for a time when titles by Updike, Mary McCarthy, Bellow, Philip Roth and Gore Vidal occupied the bestseller lists now permanently reserved for the latest products of James Patterson's potboiling pseudoliterary sweatshop, I should remind myself that neither The Group nor Herzog nor Couples nor Myra Breckenridge nor Portnoy's Complaint topped those lists on the strength of its prose artistry or structural originality or incisive analysis of the Great American Mess. No, those books sold (and sold well, and kept on selling, and still sell today) because they were (in the term of the groovy day) 'racy,' they were (as Dr. Joyce Brothers would've said on The Mike Douglas Show) 'sexually frank.' Each of those titles was a succes de scandale. Those books bestsold not for their prose but for their pussies and pricks. They were among the first books by major American literary writers to deal openly, maturely and non-euphemistically with sex and adultery, realities not invented by the Sixties (as some of our contemporary conservatives seem to believe) but first freely and explicitly and non-judgmentally entering American literature in that decade. These novels generated excitement because they participated in a sexual, rather than a literary, revolution. By the Seventies and Eighties, when sex scenes were obligatory and old hat, literary fiction went the way of serious 60s and 70s cinema: it all but disappeared from the bestseller lists, vanishing under waves of blockbusting 80s kitsch.

William Carlos Williams' Paterson doesn't entirely succeed, and that may be the least important thing about it. The first three books are very good, the latter two less so, but the climactic third book, that dark and fiery "beautiful thing," was strong enough to carry me through. Those first three books are an exhilarating experience, a priceless artifact of the Good America that exists in my head as a rebuke to the Bad America of the Bushes and Cheneys and Limbaughs. Paterson, at its best, IS the city on the page. It is an epitome of American pluralism, a multivocal collage of the voices in America's head.

I increasingly distrust interpretation. Too often (or always?) interpretation interposes an abstracted representation of an artwork between the work and the audience. All interpretations are selective abstractions, and one of the pleasures of reading a widely interpreted book (Hamlet, Ulysses, Gatsby) is watching the text devour its interpretations--or better, drown them in the concrete overshoes of the text's superabundant materiality. The pleasure of a book or a painting lies not in the temporary illusion of mastery that interpretation provides. It resides, rather, in the moment by moment, sentence by sentence, passage by passage, page by page experience of the work. Criticism, while always parasitic, can be true to the work and nonreductive to the extent that it records these experiences, thinks about them, argues from them.

Beauty, like death, charges our lesser existence with meaninglessness. But unlike death, beauty does this in the name of life.

Whenever an artist lists rules for his art (e.g., Elmore Leonard's 'Rules for Writing'), we must understand these as descriptions of his own art rather than prescriptions for ours. Misguidedly 'following' such 'rules,' as too many novice writers do, is an easy and seductive way to relinquish your individuality and ensure that you'll never write anything worth reading, anything truly authentic. An artist must be egotistical enough to listen only to himself when he writes. My rule: trust your instincts and work from them; if you don't have any, don't write.

On May 19 of this year, I received an email from a fiction reviewer for the New Statesman (UK), informing me that in a new book by John Sutherland, ironically titled How To Be Well Read, a passage from my long-ago blog post on David Foster Wallace's Broom of the System is quoted at length but attributed to, of all people, Martin Amis. Some personages might be pissed off by mistakes like this and try to turn them into tempests-in-a-thimble, but my personage finds the whole thing rather amusing.

"The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power." -- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

Morrison's critical readings in Playing in the Dark are compelling, if occasionally overstated. The worst thing about the book, surprisingly, is its prose. Morrison seems to deliberately hobble her usually gorgeous prose to make it sound more typically academic, repeatedly using the ugly "X-ed and X-ing" rhetoric of critical theory. The result is exhausted and exhausting, irritated and irritating, etc-ed and etc-ing ad nauseam...

An American writer who does not attempt to imagine his way into the lives of traditionally 'othered' peoples (African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, lower-class whites, etc., etc.) is shirking his duty as an artist in a pluralistic society. That sentence seems so obvious to me that I hesitated even to type it. And yet it must not be obvious at all, for publishers' midlists and the NYT books pages overflow with novels restricted to the writer's ethnic group, class, or even life (the me-me-more-me syndrome). Writers need to think outside themselves, outside their families, outside their neighborhoods. Writers must gorge themselves until their imaginations grow as big as America, as big as life.

Late spring is my favorite time of year. The foliage tricks itself into tropical lushness before summer's droughty browning, and the land becomes a birdsong symphony in green.

Most people pass through life without the disturbance of a single original thought. A few others are socially crippled by their own authenticity. I find the latter more interesting, also more frightening. Updike's Rabbit books chart the trajectory of the first kind of life.

"The old, weird America," Greil Marcus's great phrase for the imaginative place that produced the Anthology of American Folk Music and Dylan's Basement Tapes, is a country I have accessed via Robert Altman's films, Sam Shepard's plays, the poetry of Whitman, Dickinson, Williams and Crane, Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," Ellison's Invisible Man, Faulkner's novels, Moby Dick and Bartleby and Billy Budd and Benito... There are a thousand and eleven points of entry to the old, weird America, that sepia-toned, race-haunted place. It's like a black thunderhead bristling with lightning, every bolt a pathway to the interior. Grab hold of one and ride. Here's a flash of weird American lightning to get you started:

Ten Essential American Books, or The Real 'Common Core' (in chronological order):
  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays
  2. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings
  3. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
  4. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  5. Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems
  6. Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson
  7. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
  8. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
  9. James Baldwin, Collected Essays
  10. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Monday, May 12, 2014

Your Summer Reading List, 2014

Here is our first annual Mindful Pleasures summer reading list, a handful of books not necessarily light, but definitely enlightening. Read 'em at the beach. (Click on the titles to shop for the books at Jeff Bezos' humble little website.)

  1. Fado Alexandrino by Antonio Lobo Antunes
  2. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
  3. A Sport and A Pastime by James Salter
  4. Crash by J. G. Ballard
  5. Birds, Beasts and Flowers by D. H. Lawrence
  6. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Why these books? I put Lobo Antunes' dazzling novel at the beginning of summer because it's the most difficult novel on the list--and also the most beautifully written. (The last book on the list is neither a novel nor difficult--it's sui generis and impossible.) Lobo Antunes, Portugal's greatest living novelist (and, in my opinion, Europe's), is a marvelous, provocative, original writer with a gorgeously metaphorical prose style and a musical understanding of novelistic form. Fado Alexandrino, which can be described as a Portuguese Sentimental Education combined with a Portuguese Ulysses, is probably his masterpiece. It's time for the English-reading world to discover him. Likewise, we need to (re)discover Delany, who might just be the unacknowledged Melville of our time (with the endless, legendarily difficult Dhalgren as his Moby Dick). Babel-17 is earlier and much shorter than Dhalgren, but also outstanding, a classic of 1960s New Wave science fiction that says interesting things about language, consciousness, gender and sexuality. James Salter's Mad Men-era expatriate novel is a surprisingly lyrical combination of Hemingway and Henry Miller. At first the prose seems almost too spare, but once you become accustomed to Salter's style you begin to appreciate its poetic, painterly effects. This novel also features one of the most unreliable narrators I've ever encountered, a compulsive fantasist whose unacknowledged homoeroticism (and, in one scene, racism) crucially inflects his perceptions, thoughts and elaborate erotic fantasies. Thus, Salter admirably brings to the surface of his narrative the unreliability and homoeroticism that Fitzgerald keeps implicit in the Nick Carraway-Jay Gatsby relationship. After Salter, we take a hairpin turn at 120mph and slam head-on into one of the strangest erotic novels ever written, Ballard's magisterial meditation on the eroticization of technology and the technologization of eros. David Cronenberg's film was good, but Ballard's book is both more disturbing and more beautiful. Today, when we seem to be losing the ability to think of technology as a problem, to question its effects upon us, Ballard's novel is more necessary than ever. As a kind of antidote to the world of Crash, we next turn to some of the most erotic nature poetry in English, Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers (also available in the big Penguin Complete Poems, which is pricey but worth it). At this point in my reading life, I prefer Lawrence's poetry to his prose, and Birds, Beasts... is probably his most impressive group of poems. Finally, summer's declining days bring us to the impossible sixth of our list. But how better to fall into fall than with a book that 'begends' with the fall "of a once wallstrait oldparr"? Come on. You've put it off long enough. It's time to finally plow through this monstrosity so linguistically complex that almost every word is a labyrinth of meanings and so lyrically composed that it can almost be sung. And perhaps that's the best way to approach the Wake. Think of it as the wordy music to the weirdest opera you'll never see. Think of it as Ovid with a lot more dick jokes. Think of it as the book that took the free play of the signifier to its ultimate limit at a time when Jacques Derrida had not yet outgrown his pedal car. Think of it as the alpha and omega of postmodernism. Just don't think too much about each individual word, or you'll never make it past page one. Read it aloud and let the music be the meaning. You'll be surprised by how much you understand--and how often you laugh (if you think something in the Wake might be a dirty joke, you are almost certainly interpreting it correctly). And if for long stretches you fail to understand Joyce's text... well, join the freakin' club. No one, I repeat, no one really understands Finnegans Wake. No one can. Academics chew at its edges and offer advice to potential diners, but the full meal would turn anyone into Mr. Creosote. Satisfactorily interpreting Joyce's linguistic smotherlode would take several lifetimes. Fortunately, the book is filled with local pleasures. On every page there's something funny, witty or beautiful. So relax. You'll make it through.

If you decide to accept my challenge and read all six books, please post your reactions to them in the comments section below. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


Harold Bloom once called Holocaust fiction an "all-but-impossible genre." Georges Perec, who lived much closer to the violence of Nazism (his father died fighting the Germans; his mother died in a concentration camp), seems to have experienced this impossibility as a fracture at the core of his being. For Perec, history was a very personal trauma, and the writing of history could only be an X-ray of his shattered self.

Or perhaps we should call it a W-ray.

The French pronunciation of the letter 'W' (double-ve) puns with double-vie, 'double life,' and the shape of the letter diagrams the doubled structure of Perec's book, separated into two parts that internally alternate between Perec's fragmented autobiography and the description of a imaginary land called W. (The W narrative itself also bifurcates, the first part written in a thriller or adventure novel mode and the second part in the rhetoric of ethnographic description.) At the same time, W signifies the two Vs/vies, two truncated parental lives, that conjoined to produce the writer who can barely remember them. They exist only in memory traces and faded photographs, their reality concealed behind the very signs that evoke them.

Those last words take us to Derrida-land, an appropriate place from which to read this book. For Perec's Shoah fiction arises not from the intellectual milieu of his parents' generation, the era of Occupation, Collaboration, Deportation, Sartre, Camus, Resistance and Liberation. No, Perec was a boy then, and he can gaze into the darkest of backwards only through the intellectual spectacles of his own generation, the writings of Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault. W or The Memory of Childhood is thus a kind of book I have heretofore considered impossible, a great, readable, tragic French novel fundamentally informed by poststructuralist thought. The influence of Levi-Strauss is most obvious in the second part of the W narrative, where Perec pastiches structuralist anthropology to describe, in chillingly deadpan language, a tyrannical state organized according to the ideology of the Olympics. (This is also, of course, an implicit Popperian critique of the Greek/Platonic roots of authoritarian government.) Likewise, Derrida is paradoxically 'present' whenever Perec writes of the slipperiness of the signifier, as in his memory of misreading a Hebrew letter or the passage in which he plays, somewhat hysterically, with the shapes of letters. (This latter passage, on page 77 in the hardcover, at first seems to be a great example of the jouissance of the liberated signifier, the shape of the letter X metamorphosing over an abyss of meaning. But meaning simultaneously insists. The slippery signifier slips into signs of Nazism, and the passage becomes more Dali-esque 'paranoid critique' than Derridean play.) Jacques Lacan's thought impinges upon the overall structure of Perec's text, in that Perec writes around an almost unspeakable loss, a loss that tragically defines the consciousness that constructs both the factual and fantastic narratives. Finally, Foucault comes to the fore when the land of W is revealed as a society controlled through the careful deployment of ultraviolent public spectacles, a terrifying realization of the Great Gallic Cueball's Discipline and Punish.

Perec's slow, steady unveiling of the horrors of the land of W brings the two narrative lines to a final conjunction that can be described in Lacanian terms. We realize by book's end that the land of W is the univers concentrationnaire of Nazism transferred out of the unimageable Real and into the Imaginary register. The horror that killed Perec's parents resists representation in the Symbolic register of language and memory, but it can be approached by the liberated play of the imagination. And this play is, paradoxically, always and inevitably a construction of language, a tragic game of words. We can represent the Real only through a medium that also protectively conceals it, just as the W of Perec's title both represents and conceals the two crucial V's, the two parents, the two lives, the two deaths.

An Amazon search shows that this novel is currently out of print in the United States. This is unfortunate. Perec's W or The Memory of Childhood deserves to sit on the short shelf of truly great Holocaust literature, alongside such titles as Elie Wiesel's Night, Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved and his Auschwitz trilogy, Jean Amery's At The Mind's Limits, Paul Celan's poetry, David Grossman's See Under: Love, W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story. Here's hoping Perec's novel becomes available again soon.


I had high hopes for Machado de Assis, but a reading of his best-known novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (earlier translated into English under the title Epitaph of a Small Winner), leaves me less than enthusiastic. The most immediately impressive and surprising thing about this novel is its publication date. The book is structurally so Modern, so Postmodern, so bizarrely and specifically and impossibly Nabokovian, that a reader is constantly forced to remind himself it was published in (gasp!) 1880. Even more than Moby Dick and The Confidence Man, Bras Cubas reads like a 20th-century novel written 75 years ahead of time. The intrusive, hyper-self-conscious narration; the 'magic realist' matter-of-factness toward impossible events (such as a narrator who begins writing only after he dies); the cavalier compression of space and time; the persistent provocation of readerly disbelief (the 'I am a book' gambit that produces a proto-Brechtian effect)--all of these characteristics signify literary modernity to modern readers. But we should probably remind ourselves that these same devices were likely seen by the novel's earliest readers as old-fashioned provocations, atavistic Tristram Shandyisms in an age of Realism. Machado's novel is as much a throwback to Sterne and Cervantes as an anticipation of Nabokov and Fuentes. Furthermore, if we look beyond the admittedly amazing formal experimentation, we find at the book's core a fairly conventional novel. Machado's aesthetic radicalism is a largely technical overlay upon a rather standard linear narrative that plays with the same golden balls of eros and inheritance that Balzac batted around, juggled, and sometimes dropped. The core of Bras Cubas is a story we've read many times before. (The narrator seems aware of this, but he can do nothing about the fact that his life is commonplace. He is, after all, dead.)

One aspect of the novel that will certainly shock and alienate modern readers is the matter of factness with which the characters view human slavery. This is surely Machado at his most realistic. The upper-class white inhabitants of 19th-century Brazil portrayed in this book see slavery as an unproblematic fact of life; they accept it implicitly and speak of it without a hint of anxiety or critical consciousness. This touch of realism, rather than Machado's much-discussed experimentation, may be the most mind-bending thing about his novel today.

More Great Movies You Probably Haven't Seen

Life's too short for stupid movies. Here are some intelligent ones you might have missed. All of these are rentable from Netflix.

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche), 2013. A stunning, smart, complex, realistic, beautiful, erotic film--and also the best cinematic love story of this century, so far. Love on the border of adulthood has never before been so intelligently dramatized on film.

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray), 1956. One year after Rebel Without A Cause, Nick Ray made this undeservedly obscure study of an American high school teacher who undergoes a frightening change. Attentive viewers will see parallels with the series Breaking Bad. (The water heater in James Mason's kitchen, for example, looks like the same one Walter White replaced in season two.) The Criterion disc features an excellent brief discussion by writer Jonathan Lethem.

Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman), 1975. This long, deliberately static and repetitive film is a slow, sustained assault upon the viewer. Stick with it and it will take you to a place beyond boredom. It also contains one of the most shockingly unexpected denouements I have ever seen.

Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat), 2004. A very, very French erotic film. Imagine Eric Rohmer, Marguerite Duras and Georges Bataille collaborating on an extremely disturbing feminist erotic fairy tale. The dialogue sometimes slips into dry intellectual discourse, but the film's cinematic intelligence overcomes this flaw. It's one of the smartest erotic films ever made.

Examined Life (Astra Taylor), 2008. Speaking of smart, here's a film that consists of a handful of very smart people speaking. It's a collection of brief, cleverly filmed monologues by philosophers and critical theorists (Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Zizek, Avital Ronell, Cornel West, several others). Taylor films and edits the piece like a long jazz composition in which each philosopher takes a highly intellectual solo.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Sophie Fiennes), 2010. An amazing documentary on the recent work of German artist Anselm Kiefer--who is, in my opinion, the only living artist to whom the word 'great' can be unhesitatingly applied.

Patriotism (Yukio Mishima), 1966. Kudos to the Criterion Collection for releasing Yukio Mishima's notorious 1966 short film. This 27-minute silent film is a work of sublime and almost unbearably violent cinema.

Poison (Todd Haynes), 1991. Todd Haynes' early masterpiece of Queer Cinema remains his most formally original feature, dialectically intercutting three independent narratives that implicitly comment upon one another. It's an affecting, campy, bizarre and unforgettable work.

House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello), 2011. An impressively realistic look at life in a fin de siècle Parisian brothel as seen from the prostitute's point-of-view. This is the feminist flip-side of traditional, hedonistic, customer-centered depictions of upscale prostitution.

Satantango (Bela Tarr), 1994. Bela Tarr's 7-hour epic of rural Hungary in the 1980s (based on a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai) is a film you will either love, hate or turn off after two hours. On my third try, I made it all the way through and fell in love with it. Forget everything you think you know about cinema and allow yourself to drift into the total immersion experience of Satantango. Yes, it's deliberately static, but most of those static shots are as beautifully composed as 19th-century paintings.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami), 2010. This recent film is the kind of movie that made me fall in love with European art films of the period 1955-75. It's Kiarostami's homage to Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard. But more than that, it's an original, highly-intelligent and always challenging exploration of art and authenticity, performance and reality.

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas), 2008. Another brilliant French art film in the Rohmer tradition (a tradition that now includes the three Before films of American director Richard Linklater), this one plays contemporary globalized capitalist reality against an older, more aesthetic, pastoral vision represented by two Corot paintings in the home of a family matriarch played by veteran French actress Edith Scob.

Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan), 2011. One of the best American films of recent years. Its release was delayed for several years while everyone involved sued everyone else, a controversy that sadly overshadowed the movie. Forget about that and watch the film. Scene by scene, performance by performance, it's absolutely wonderful.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Judging Books By Their Covers, part deux

Sequeling a post from 2012, here are some more scans of favorite and/or interesting book covers from my collection. Some are vintage, some relatively recent, all are cool. (And yes, 'sequeling' is a word; necessity mothered the sucker two sentences ago.)

The author photo on the back of John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality has long been a classic of 1970s gay geek-chic. Has any scholar's author photo (Camille Paglia's aside) more boldly invited campy commentary?

Vintage SF covers, as everyone knows, often feature truly stunning artwork. Here's a 1970s Ace paperback of Le Guin's classic.

And here's the first paperback edition of Disch's wild ride.

For the 334 cover, Disch's publishers went for more of a Robert Crumb vibe, but it's a cleaner, technologized Crumbiness.

The front cover of Gaitskill's best-known book is fairly obvious, but the back cover (below) contains the author photo that made her every litgeek's imaginary girlfriend back in the late 80s. This is the straight male/lesbian equivalent of the John Boswell pic. 

Vintage Contemporaries hit a home run with this lovely evocation of American emptiness. And that bus with laser taillights is a truly weird and chilling machine in our wasted and paved-over American garden. A perfect match of cover and text.

The cover of my well-read and heavily taped paperback of Gass's chilly collection wears a psychedelic rainbow and conceals in its innards a handful of literary hallucinations that go deeper than anything induced by Owsley's Best.

Oxford chose a caressable Canova for this appropriately and beautifully restrained cover.

This vintage Kerouac cover goes all Orientalist on our asses while attempting to appeal to a "sex, drugs and long novels" demographic that I wish still existed. That and Jimi Hendrix's life are just two of the things about the 60s that should've lasted.

This is how Bantam tried to market Pynchon's hyperintellectual drunken sailor novel back in the 70s. I love the cover, but you'd never guess from it that two of the novel's best scenes involve a nosejob and an alligator hunt in the NYC sewers. Instead, this cover suggests a feminist Dune.

This 1958 paperback of Crane's poetry is a book that has traveled many miles in my carry-on bag, been read at 30,000 feet and halfway up a New Mexican mountain and, of course, in a plane soaring over the Brooklyn Bridge on the approach to La Guardia

I love this great American photo that someone at Scribners chose for Annie Proulx's first novel. Cover and text are studies in rural desperation.

Check out the marvelously suggestive still life photo on this Penguin edition of Salter's late, late expatriate novel.

 The very attractive minimal front cover of Sontag's first essay collection is outshone by the absolutely gorgeous, quietly charismatic author photo on the back (below). It looks like a still from an Antonioni film.

That great arm intruding across the foreground of Stephen Barker's cover photo perfectly parallels the narrative within, positioning us as the voyeurs and partial creators of the scene we think we are seeing. Fabulous.

Faulkner's dogs seem to have been bred and posed to illustrate the title of Irwin's study.

And here's my nominee for the creepiest cover ever glued to a work of literary scholarship. Be afraid, be very afraid...of the art department at Vintage Books.