Thursday, December 22, 2011

FINNEGANS WAKE film and Samuel Beckett's FILM online

Among the wealth of interesting stuff at UbuWeb (a site I've just discovered) is a complete online version of Mary Ellen Bute's obscure ca.1965 film Passages From James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Also viewable online at the site is Samuel Beckett's inventively titled Film, starring Buster Keaton. In my brief initial visit, I also discovered--and listened to the zippy-paced first page of--a complete reading of Finnegans Wake performed by Patrick Healy. The 'Joyce Sound' page also features the soundtrack from the Strick Ulysses film and the well-known recording of Joyce reading from the Wake. Elsewhere on the site, visitors can watch Jean Genet's short film Un Chant d'Amour and clips from the later films of Orson Welles in the One-Man Band documentary. Check this site out.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Three Reasons to Learn German

There's an old European joke that becomes less true with every passing year: A person who speaks three languages is trilingual, a person who speaks two languages is bilingual, and a person who speaks one language is American. I'm an American who speaks English, French and enough Italian to make myself understood by silk-suited mafiosi on the Amalfi Coast (long story), but recently I've been regretting that my knowledge of German is limited to what I've picked up from old movies and reruns of Hogan's Heroes. (And let's face it, "jawohl, mein kommandant!" is not exactly a useful phrase in the Germany of today.) I've read most of the canonical krauts--Goethe, Holderlin, Trakl, Kafka, Mann, Grass, Celan, Sebald, Jelinek, Handke, Bernhard, et al--in English translation but now I'm frustrated by the fact that the following three major works of twentieth-century German literature have yet to be completely translated:

The Aesthetics of Resistance by Peter Weiss. Weiss is best known in the English-reading world as the author of that wild and crazy Sixties play Marat/Sade (which is still outraging Brits after all these years in a 50th anniversary RSC revival), but The Aesthetics of Resistance (a novel which can count W.G. Sebald among its admirers) is surely his prose masterpiece. A three-volume fictionalized account of leftist resistance to the Nazis (but that description hardly does it justice; it's like saying Sebald's The Rings of Saturn is a travel book), Weiss's book digresses into topics much further afield and begins stunningly with a description of the Pergamon Altar at the Berlin antiquities museum that cinematically 'pulls back' to show us the central characters walking and talking in and around the altar. It's a brilliant opening to a fantastic book, but unfortunately only the first volume has been translated into English. (And it's only available in a seriously pricey edition from the University of Chicago Press.) I hope translator Joachim Neugroschel and U. of C. Press intend to English the rest of this brilliant novel.

The History of Sensitivity by Hubert Fichte. This monumental nineteen-volume work of fiction and nonfiction (That's right, 19 freakin' volumes!! I guess the dude was pretty sensitive) is described on the flap copy of the Serpent's Tail edition of Fichte's Detlev's Imitations as "a dialogue with Proust's Remembrance of Things Past" that has "established [Fichte] as one of the great European writers of the twentieth century." Sounds like it's worth at least a partial translation, n'est-ce pas? Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any of these books in English.

Zettels Traum (Bottom's Dream) by Arno Schmidt. The magnum opus of one of the 20th century's most original writers, this 1334-page Finnegans Wake-influenced novel might just be the single most important German literary work of the last century not yet translated into English. John E. Woods, whose recent English versions of Thomas Mann have won great acclaim, is reportedly at work on a translation to be published in the near future, presumably by Dalkey Archive Press. I eagerly await it.

THE KINDLY ONES by Jonathan Littell

Many critics were much too kind to The Kindly Ones. Not only is Jonathan Littell's trainwreck mash-up of Ernst Junger, Gert Ledig, Georges Bataille and Aeschylus not a great novel; it rarely even rises above mediocrity. Littell's prose is bland and boring, and the narrative this toneless instrument is forced to carry achieves the rare feat of being both unimaginative and unbelievable. The prose (which I assume is as flat in the original French as in English translation--probably a safe assumption these days) might be defended as a deliberately bland narrative voice, an appropriately banal reflection of the evil banality of an SS bureaucrat's mind, but there are two major roadblocks on the way to this artistic justification: first, Littell's narrator, Maximilien Aue, is not a typical Nazi bureaucrat but an aesthete among the fascist elite, so one would expect his voice to be more florid, baroque, even Proustian; second, the opening line of the novel ("Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.") suggests that what follows will be a novel 'spoken' in a recognizable, idiosyncratic voice, a la the voices of Humbert Humbert or Dostoyevsky's underground man. Instead, Littell quickly loses this tone, and the prose becomes a merely competent, workmanlike wordstream remarkable only in its Nilotic length. The fact that this is exactly the kind of unremarkable, transparent prose we find in popular fiction (and no, I'm not going to invoke Gide, Camus, Robbe-Grillet and 'degree zero' writing; Littell's effort isn't good enough to merit that defense) suggests the proper way to read The Kindly Ones. For this is not really a 'literary' novel at all; it's a work of genre fiction, a big, bloated, research-intensive historical novel of the kind James Michener and Leon Uris used to write. It's tricked out in literary drag--allusions, quotations, intertextuality, philosophical discussions--but barely hidden beneath these gaudy rags is a book that Slavoj Zizek might call the "obscene supplement" of Herman Wouk's War and Remembrance. And about the novel's oft-mentioned 'obscenity,' its sexuality and scatology, perhaps the best that can be said is that fascism as anal sadism is a familiar and questionable idea, and it hardly merits a thousand-page dramatization. (Reading this novel, one gets the impression that Littell believes the classic psychoanalytic interpretation of fascism is an original idea he thought up one morning while masturbating in the shower.) All of that said, when The Kindly Ones is read as a historical novel, it's not all that bad. The historical reconstructions are well done and utilize the latest scholarship, and the meetings and discussions among SS officers probably come close to the reality of Nazi evil in its banal, bureaucratic form. If readers can overlook all the poorly digested research that the characters disgorge like Aue's many vomited meals, it's a decent piece of historical fiction. But there's really no reason for it to be 975 pages long. It's not War and Peace; it's not even War and Remembrance.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

W. G. Sebald at 17, a photograph of a photograph

From 8mobili's photostream on Flickr, here's a photograph of W. G. Sebald's 1961 blood donor card, containing a photo of the author as a 17 year-old young man. Since the only familiar images of Sebald show him in the last two decades of his life, there's a slight shock in realizing that he was once this moody-looking Bavarian youth.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

INDIGNEZ-VOUS! by Stephane Hessel

This week of nationwide police repression of the U.S. Occupy movement, a reminder from Mayors Quan, Bloomberg et al that all repression is local, seems a perfect time to read Stephane Hessel's universal call to (nonviolent) arms. Hessel's tiny book--so small you can stuff it in your pocket where it will be safe when Billionaire Bloomberg's robothugs come to toss all your other books into a garbage truck--delivers a simple and important message that has already resonated around the world: Get angry...and then channel that anger into political engagement. As Hessel writes, "...there are unbearable things all around us...If you spend a little time searching, you will find your reasons to engage. The worst attitude is indifference. 'There's nothing I can do; I get by'--adopting this mindset will deprive you of one of the fundamental qualities of being human: outrage. Our capacity for protest is indispensable, as is our freedom to engage." If that passage sounds rather Sartrean, there's good reason for it: Hessel was influenced by Sartre (and Merleau-Ponty, and Hegel, and surely a host of others) during his long-ago Normalien years. Indeed, the nonagenarian Hessel has lived so long that he comes to us now like a revenant from a gone world, a time of authentic heroism (he fought with the French Resistance), unspeakable horror (he was tortured by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Buchenwald and Dora), and triumphant intellectual accomplishment (his father knew Walter Benjamin and was a translator of Proust). Hessel comes out of this past now fading from memory to myth with a warning that we not betray the spirit of the Resistance, not turn a blind eye to injustice at home and abroad, not follow the siren songs of consumerism and accumulation. There are no new ideas in his pamphlet--just good ones. The same might be said of many books that changed the world. It's not a manifesto but a call to authentic action, with the emphasis on authenticity. The Tea Party 'acts,' but its actions are transparently inauthentic, born of Murdochian misinformation, channeled by political demagoguery and funded by corporations. The current Republican presidential debates are little more than a Koch Brothers Muppet Show, a sorry parade of corporatist drones--let's see if any of them can talk while David Koch drinks a glass of water. Don't bother seeking authenticity there, especially not from the probable nominee, Mitt "Corporations are people, my friend" Romney, who if elected will be a worse president than George W. Bush. Domestically, a President Romney will act as corporate-raider-in-chief, and internationally he will resurrect Bush's foreign policy team to foment more international disasters. Anyone who liked Dubya will love Willard. Today, if you seek authenticity, look in the streets. It was there in the encampment at Zuccotti Park until Bloomberg turned the park into a police state: a utopian experiment in noncapitalist life, a reminder to the millions that there is another way of living. This is the message the millionaires find insufferable, and that's why the batons flew Monday night. In The Middle Mind, Curtis White writes, "We will know we have succeeded in saying something that matters when we are told that it won't be tolerated." On Monday night, Occupy Wall Street received the bluntest possible confirmation that what they are saying matters. It matters profoundly. It matters so much that in order to stop it Michael Bloomberg left his 'reasonable man' reputation in tatters and acted--as John Hodgman said on last night's Rachel Maddow Show--like a papier mache puppet in an anarchist parade. The Occupy movement, wherever it moves from here, is meeting Hessel's challenge.

A piece of Hessel trivia: Stephane Hessel's father Franz Hessel was involved in a very Parisian menage a trois ca.1910 with the painter Marie Laurencin and the writer Henri-Pierre Roche. Roche later fictionalized the relationship in a novel titled Jules et Jim, the basis for Truffaut's great film. Stephane, then, is the son of 'Jim.'

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Progress of Work on Work in Progress (not an exagmination round my factification...)

After a month's work on the book announced in my previous post, I've written my way through two distinct conceptions before finally arriving at a third that's good enough to take all the way to completion. First, I began the book as the digressive travel narrative vaguely outlined in the post below, but after about 25 pages it became a creature of tangents without a center. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is in this case. I was trying to put everything into the book and succeeded only in drowning the narrative in details and digressions, factual and fictional. So I started over, this time writing a more narrowly focused nonfiction travel book, less Sebald and more Paul Theroux. But it wasn't long before this book went completely, manically fictional in a gonzo Hunter Thompson kind of way. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but not the book I want to write at this time. The swerve toward fiction in this (and the first) false starts, however, showed me what this book really wants to be: a novel. And that's what it is now. The third conception, of which I am now on page 40 of the rough draft (written in my nearly microscopic, often illegible hand on that quasi-Luddite cliche of cliches, the yellow legal pad), is the story of a man named Steiner, a chemical engineer working for an oil company in the Midwest, who, nine months after the deaths of his wife and twin daughters in a car crash, takes a trip into the west for reasons he does not completely understand. The novel is about what happens to Steiner after the Tragedy (as he thinks of it), after his personal and professional lives suddenly crash down around him. I'm giving him my route and many of my experiences--Steinerized, seen from the perspective of a smart, shy, geeky, middle-aged engineer who is suffering intensely and who is also that rare thing in literature, a genuinely and complexly good man.

That's where the thing stands today. And that's probably all I'll be saying about it until the rough draft is completed. My new working title: Steiner's Journey.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When Faulkner Met Gable

From Shelby Foote's Paris Review Interview, a classic collision of Hollywood and Literature:

FOOTE: ...You’ve heard that thing about Faulkner and Clark Gable haven’t you? Howard Hawks was taking Faulkner out on a quail shoot and came by to pick him up a little before dawn to get to where they were going by first light. Clark Gable was in the car, and Faulkner in the backseat. As they rode along, Gable and Hawks got to talking. Gable said, You know, you’re a well-read man, Howard. I’ve always been meaning to do some reading. I never have really done it. What do you think I ought to read? And Hawks said, Why don’t you ask Bill back there. He’s a writer, and he’ll be able to tell you. Gable said, Do you write, Mr. Faulkner? Faulkner said, Yes, Mr. Gable. What do you do? 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Real Problem with HUCKLEBERRY FINN

The real problem with Huckleberry Finn has nothing to do with the novel's notorious and historically accurate 219 uses of the word 'nigger.' (About which, Twain's comedic descendant Stephen Colbert said it best: "Mark Twain isn't just a great writer; he's a great rapper.") No, the real problem, the problem that remained unspoken in the highly-circumscribed media 'debate' over the book, is the fact that this widely-acknowledged 'great American novel' does not deserve the first of those adjectives. While it contains some great moments (Huck and Jim on the island and the raft in the book's first third, Huck's famous "All right, then, I'll go to hell" turning point scene later), the novel as a whole is fatally flawed by a series of poor authorial decisions. Once the two con men climb aboard the raft, the novel goes south faster than the flooded Mississippi, and Twain must have seen it floating swiftly away, because at this point he began to pad furiously. The last two-thirds of the book contain more padding than a room full of Victorian furniture. The misadventures of the duke and dauphin are bad enough, but when Tom Sawyer arrives, the book's quality drops like a boulder down a well. Tom's annoying schemes and his good-naturedly sadistic tormenting of Jim are like a long, painfully unfunny joke drawn out to soporific length--and then drawn out even further. I'm surely not the only reader who ends the book hoping that Jim's first act as a free man will be to whup that little white boy's ass all the way back to Missouri. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one-third great and two-thirds tiresome. While acknowledging that it's an essential and highly influential work of American literature, we should not overestimate its quality.

Pap Finn, Prophet of the Tea Party

One of the many things Huckleberry Finn can teach us is that the worldview of American reactionaries has undergone remarkably little change in the past 150 years. Huck Finn's father--one of Twain's supreme creations, a character equally comic and terrifying--at one point launches into a rant that could, mutatis mutandis, issue from the mouth of any of the millions of present-day Americans (about 20% of the voting population, it appears) who constitute the rank-and-file of that amalgamation of corporate tools, right-wing anarchists, nativists, gun rights hysterics and others who seek shelter under the Tea Party's umbrella:

"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio--a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane--the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me --I'll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger--why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way. I says to the people, why ain't this nigger put up at auction and sold?--that's what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn't be sold till he'd been in the State six months, and he hadn't been there that long yet. There, now--that's a specimen. They call that a govment that can't sell a free nigger till he's been in the State six months. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet's got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and--"

Imagine Pap Finn's reaction if someone told him that the president of the United States was a "mulatter p'fessor" and you will begin to understand the dark circuit of American memory from which the Tea Party draws its power.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My favorite scene in BLOOD MERIDIAN

My favorite scene in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is one of the few that doesn't end with blood spurting from an opened artery or a handful of brains blowing out the back of someone's head. It's the marvelous scene in chapter 19 that McCarthy laconically titles "Brown at the farrier's." When the murderer Brown arrives at a San Diego farrier's workshop and orders him to saw off the barrels of a shotgun he has stolen, the craftsman is dumbfounded and appalled. For the gun is a thing of beauty, a masterpiece of the gunsmith's art. Sawing off its barrels would be tantamount to cutting off Michelangelo's David at the knees or wiping one's ass on a canvas by Monet. The farrier refuses and flees (the only sensible thing to do when one sees a Cormac McCarthy character coming one's way), and Brown is left to hack off the barrels himself. This is one of the few scenes in the novel in which McCarthy orchestrates a stark conflict of worldviews and value systems. (It's also one of the very few in which an unarmed person stands up to a member of the Glanton gang and lives.) It is a collision of cultures. Brown is a nihilistic killer from out of the American desert places. For him, the value of any object resides solely in its capacity to inflict terroristic violence. The farrier, by contrast, is an urban businessman and craftsman, a believer in the rule of law and the pure value of exquisite artisanry. Compared to Brown, the farrier is an aesthete; compared to the farrier, Brown is an imbecilic monster. I also suspect that the farrier is the only character in the book who comes close to being an authorial stand-in. He is the book's only authentic artist, standing both within its violent world and critically apart from it. Perhaps we can begin to read Blood Meridian properly only when we read it from the farrier's point of view.

BLOOD MERIDIAN : Cormac McCarthy's Critique of Capitalism

One of the themes of Blood Meridian is the fundamental nihilism inherent in all ideologies of power: Manifest Destiny (most obviously in Captain White's ill-fated filibustering expedition); imperialism; capitalism; Christian morality. When the Glanton gang commandeers a Colorado River ferry late in Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy gives us a little allegory of the nihilistic contradictions of capitalism. Here's the relevant passage:

...Glanton took charge of the operation of the ferry. People who had been waiting three days to cross at a dollar a head were now told that the fare was four dollars. And even this tariff was in effect for no more than a few days. Soon they were operating a sort of procrustean ferry where the fares were tailored to accommodate the purses of the travelers. Ultimately all pretense was dropped and the immigrants were robbed outright. Travelers were beaten and their arms and goods appropriated and they were sent destitute and beggared into the desert. The doctor came down to remonstrate with them and was paid his share of the revenues and sent back. Horses were taken and women violated and bodies began to drift past the Yuma camp downriver... (262)

If Glanton and the boys were alive today, they would be oil company executives. Come to think of it, ex-Exxon CEO Lee Raymond does look a bit like a slightly more hirsute Judge Holden:
Lee Raymond: former Exxon CEO, Jabba the Hut impersonator
Well, the Judge told us he would never die, didn't he?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy

Don't look away. We are not speaking in mysteries. You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar which bonds?... What do you think death is, man? Of whom do we speak when we speak of a man who was and is not? Are these blind riddles or are they not some part of every man's jurisdiction? What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward? Look at me.
--Judge Holden in Blood Meridian

Judge Holden 'makes' Blood Meridian. Without him it would be a beautifully written western with a violent, Peckinpah-ish lyricism; with him, it's a great and fascinating novel that deserves shelf-space among the best works of Melville and Hawthorne. Judge Holden ('Judge' is possibly his first name, significantly mistaken for his title by the novel's other characters [cf, bizarrely enough, Judge Reinhold]), this seven-foot, 332-pound, dancing, declaiming, murdering masterpiece of malevolence, this ice-blooded preacher of the gospel of war, this terrifying and terrifyingly familiar embodiment of American nihilism, is by far the most impressive character in Blood Meridian and probably the greatest in McCarthy's entire oeuvre. Don't trust Holden when he claims not to speak in mysteries, for how else can he speak when he is himself the greatest mystery, appearing first to the Glanton gang as their satanic deliverer sitting calmly on a rock in the wilderness and proceeding to instruct them in the improvised manufacture of gunpowder from its natural plutonic elements? This story in chapter 10, which Chaucer might have titled 'The Ex-Priest's Tale,' is in my opinion the point at which the book blasts out of its 'revisionist western' subgenre and achieves true greatness. And the judge provides the powder for that blast. He seems bigger than the book, in the same way that Shakespeare's greatest characters are so much larger than the borrowed plots that struggle to contain them. And like Hamlet and Lear he is constantly performing, irrepressibly theatrical--even at one point declaiming naked upon a battlement in a raging thunderstorm a poem that could only be the storm scene from Lear. (McCarthy is artist enough to describe this performance only vaguely and indirectly, letting the reader connect the literary dots. The Lear connection becomes more obvious later when we see the Judge wandering with his 'fool.') Also like those Shakespearean creations in their respective plays, Holden is the only character in Blood Meridian whose consciousness seems uncannily to contain the book in which he appears. When he tells his fellow killers that "Books lie," only he seems to appreciate the delicious irony, only he seems to realize that he is a character in a book. What else could be the meaning of his mysterious smile as he speaks these words? Even more interestingly, it might be argued that Judge Holden is the 'narrator' of Blood Meridian, that the book is 'spoken' in the voice of his polymathic, polylingual consciousness. He is, after all, the only man still alive at the end, still dancing, still talking, and still insisting that he will never be stilled.

(This hypothesis might clear up one of the book's concluding mysteries: Why does the scene-synopsis at the head of the last chapter describe the last scene in German? Obviously, this is another example of the multilingual Holden showing off. The fact that the line's 'Ich' refers to Judge Holden seems to confirm the hypothesis. This is McCarthy's way of identifying the narratorial consciousness at novel's end.)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

IT'S YOUR MISFORTUNE AND NONE OF MY OWN: A NEW HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN WEST by Richard White

Richard White's King Ranch-size volume of  'New Western History' is an interesting, enlightening, sometimes exciting, sometimes boring book that badly needs two things: 1) a proofreader and 2) an author who can write like Patricia Nelson Limerick. I read White's book immediately after Limerick's seminal The Legacy of Conquest, and It's Your Misfortune... suffers from the inevitable  comparison. Most obviously, Limerick is a witty and engaging writer, while White's prose lopes along like an starving pony. (It may seem beside the point to criticize a historian's prose, but it's not. Historians are, by definition, writers, and the quality of their prose should enter into the evaluation of their works.) Passing from medium to content, White's work can be read as an often-ponderous elaboration of ideas presented more snappily--albeit much more summarily--in Limerick's book. In short, The Legacy of Conquest provides the thesis statement of New Western History, and White professorially marshals the facts and stats to support it. While that's probably not an unfair description, it does slight the undeniable strengths of White's book. This is an insanely wide-ranging work that finds interesting and unfamiliar things to say about events as disparate as the California Gold Rush and the Dust Bowl, Japanese-American internment and the fictional life of Billy the Kid, the founding of the National Park system and the slow death of Indian Territory (as what's now Oklahoma was once known). It's probably best not to read this book cover to cover (as I just did) but to treat it as a revisionist encyclopedia of Western history, dipping into the index to find White's take on the Mormon settlement of Utah, the transcontinental railroad, the rise of Reagan, etc. The passages that most interested and intrigued me were White's occasional exemplary asides: he has a wonderful eye for the telling historical anecdote. His account of the California 'Indian hunters' Hi Good and Robert Anderson and Good's richly deserved end reads like a tale taken from Blood Meridian, and his mention of Juan Cortina's War equally piqued my interest. Also, White's brief description of the strict gun control that existed uncontroversially in many Western towns is the best kind of history writing--the kind that complicates our present political uses and abuses of the past.

Friday, August 19, 2011

OUTER DARK by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy suffered no sophomore jinx. Quite the opposite, in fact. Three years after his highly promising 1965 debut, The Orchard Keeper, McCarthy delivered Outer Dark, his first great book and the work in which he first struck the seam of surreal apocalyptic violence that he would continue to mine for the next 40 years. A double-picaresque that follows both a young woman's wanderings through Appalachia in search of her abandoned baby and her brother's wanderings in search of her, Outer Dark is a marvelously lyrical tale of American terror. It's the kind of book Paul Bowles might have written had he never gone abroad, the kind Stephen King might have written had he been a better and more Faulknerian writer. The panoply of horrors to which McCarthy, like a loathsome god, delivers his protagonists begins with the usual Southern Gothic incest and insanity, moves on to murder and lynching, and doesn't cease until we've been subjected to a scene of vampiristic cannibalism that anticipates both the sublime terrors of Blood Meridian and the horror movie excesses of his more recent works (e.g. The Road). On the final page of Outer Dark McCarthy shows us an image that might represent the entire novel: a road disappearing into a gray, deathly, impassable swamp. This is the Cormackian Rome to which all the author's roads lead, a miserable sink of death. This swamp is the true and only setting of Outer Dark. The reader has spent the preceding 241 pages wandering feverishly through it, smelling the sulphur reek of this miasmic "spectral waste." It should also be noted that the swamp, which is approached by the male protagonist but not the female, is described in explicitly female terms. The mud that sucks Culla Holme's shoe is described as rising in a "vulvate welt." The swamp, like the pond with the "singing willow rim" in Hart Crane's "Repose of Rivers," is an image of female genitalia as the site of an incestuous return to origins, of male penetration as a violation of the incest taboo. It's a fundamentally misogynistic and puritanical image of the vagina as a thing to be fled. And since the novel contains obvious allusions to the Oedipus myth (the baby abandoned in the wilderness, for one), it should surprise no reader that the thing these characters flee will be the thing to which they are inevitably returned. The forbidding vulval swamp is both the provocation and the only end of Culla's wandering. Like his sister Rinthy, it is the female object that equally attracts and repels him--consciously repels and unconsciously attracts. It is the motor that will keep him moving through the Dantean hills of McCarthy's Appalachia until he finds at last his final swamp.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"The Last Good Country" by Ernest Hemingway

While "The Last Good Country" is included in two collections of Hemingway's short stories (the Finca Vigia Edition Complete Short Stories and The Nick Adams Stories), it is in fact neither a story nor complete. It seems to be the beginning of a novel that Hemingway never came close to finishing. (I base this conclusion on the published text, with the knowledge that Hemingway's posthumous publications sometimes represent only a portion of the manuscripts from which they are edited, as was the case with The Garden of Eden--see the highly illuminating endnotes to Frederick Crews's essay on Hemingway in The Critics Bear it Away.) If he had finished it, "The Last Good Country" may well have been his Huckleberry Finn, a much less comic and much more erotic Finn in which the youthful central character lights out for the unspoiled wilderness in the company of his younger sister and in which the pastoral retreat features incestuous desire, gender-bending and a literalization of Huck's Fiedleresque homoeroticism. It's tempting to grasp at this eroticism and argue that Hemingway was unable to finish this piece because its sexual themes cut too close to the authorial bone (as it were). But I suspect that "The Last Good Country" might have been abandoned for more purely aesthetic reasons. The finished novel/novella would have alternated between the narrative of Nick and his sister in the woods and that of the game wardens' search for them (centering on the town), a classic American contrast between 'wildness' and 'domesticity,' 'country' and 'town,' 'civilization' and 'savagery.' The problem lies in the fact that the 'wilderness' scenes greatly overpower the rest of the story. Everything memorable in the published text, everything interesting, everything original, takes place between Nick and 'Littless' in the woods, and Hemingway surely realized this, surely saw that the form to which he was married required him to spend too much time with characters and situations that were insufficiently inspiring, too many pages with the game wardens and the townsfolk. And so he let this story go and moved on to something else, leaving us with this tantalizing fragment that shows occasional flashes of greatness and leaves me wishing he had lived to reconceive it. It could have been brilliant.

Monday, August 1, 2011

THE BLACK DAHLIA by James Ellroy

The first book in Ellroy's already-classic LA Quartet (The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz are the others), The Black Dahlia is a very pleasant surprise. It is easily the equal of any noir mystery ever written, even the genre-defining works of Hammett, Chandler and Cain. The pacing is swift, the prose taut and sharp, the narrative voice almost completely convincing. The seeming ease with which Ellroy slips into the 1940s, recreating its atmosphere of deep and blatant racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, casual brutality (happy days are most definitely not here again in Ellroy's LA--or ours, for that matter) should cause all period novelists to turn at least slightly green. There is much to praise in this book, and much to criticize, but the aspect that most puzzled and intrigued me is the novel's false ending. As anyone who has read it knows, The Black Dahlia seems to come to a satisfying conclusion 100 pages before its end, with the title murder unsolved (as it officially remains in un-Ellroyed reality) and the hero married. I suspect that I'm not the only reader who arrived at page 258 and wondered what the remaining third of the book could possibly contain. To read these pages and find that they contain a rather typical (if finally surprising) solution to the crime was disappointing at first--as though Ellroy, having written a novel that departed from genre conventions, was compelled to bring his story back into line. But there is another, more interesting way to read the double ending of The Black Dahlia. Maybe the story does in fact end with Bucky and Kay's wedding, and the remainder of the novel is pure fantasy. The last 100 pages might be interpreted as Bucky Bleichert's fevered, obsessive, psychotic, noirish fantasy of solving the Dahlia murder. The final denouement is thus not so much Ellroy's genre-fulfillment as Bucky's wish-fulfillment. Unable to solve the case in novelistic 'reality', he solves it in writing, creating a compensatory narrative that relates to his own life much as the novel The Black Dahlia relates to Ellroy's life--a narrative compensation for the unsolved murder of his mother.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Forget About It : My Very Short List of Annoying Novelistic Cliches

I usually oppose prescriptive approaches to art, but even I have limits. Here are a few literary cliches that contemporary fiction writers should probably avoid:
  1. A shot rang out. No it didn't. Gunshots don't ring; landline telephones and Salvation Army bells do. Shots snap, crackle, and pop (like a cereal commercial); they also explode, echo, ricochet, erupt, burble, and whistle (past the ears of those lucky enough not to be on the receiving end--which is what Hemingway meant when he said you never hear the one that gets you), but they never really rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiinnng.
  2. Any sentence beginning with the word 'suddenly.' Especially overused by thriller writers, as in "Suddenly a shot rang out. Thompson dove for cover. "Let's get outta here," he grunted to the blonde, already hot-footing it for the door."
  3. "Let's get outta here." Don't say it; make like Nike and just do it. This and all closely related lines of dialogue are the novelist's easiest and cheapest way to signal a shifting of scenes. If you can't accomplish this simple task more artfully, you shouldn't write.
  4. Stage directions, such as 'he rose,' 'he walked across the room,' 'he staggered,' 'he sat,' 'he stood,' 'he opened the door,' 'he closed the door.' These bland but necessary directions cast a pall of boredom over any page on which they appear. Why can't we write 'he sank into his naugahyde Barcalounger and relaxed to a Pat Boone LP,' or 'he took a sip of fine Kentucky bourbon and neighed like a Derby horse,' or, less whimsically, 'he dragged his left foot to the front of the room'?
  5. Paragraphs composed entirely of short simple sentences. Or, in James Ellroy's case, fragments. Of short. Simple sentences. During the 1980s heyday of minimalism, whole novels were written in this facile 'see Dick run' prose. Critics straightfacedly hailed their strength. And vigor. Now it's over. Thank Dog.
  6. Authorial moral earnestness. The most serious novels are, in Kundera's great phrase, "an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become." A novel should not exist primarily as a platform for authorial posturing (though we all do strut a bit; we're only human). The author's morality (and his/her politics, philosophy, etc.) informs every sentence of a good novel. It need not be billboarded. If you write well enough--and authentically enough--the ideological/intellectual stuff will take care of itself.
  7. Postmodern Self-Consciousness. After almost half a century of novels in which writer-characters write the novel we are reading and/or make fictional appearances to comment upon their own fictions, etc., etc., this sort of thing has hardened into a blood clot in the aorta of contemporary literary fiction. Still something of a subversive strategy when Salman Rushdie used it in Midnight's Children, its status as cliche was clearly signalled by its deployment in Neil Simon's Jake's Women (which was, to be fair, superior Simon). Whenever a technique appears in a Neil Simon play, it has ceased to be subversive.
  8. Academic novels. These days, most well-reviewed, 'serious' writers of 'literary fiction' are either graduates of MFA programs and/or pay their bills by 'teaching' at colleges and universities (living off LitFic is incredibly difficult; even David Foster Wallace had a professorial day job). This sorry situation has led to a glut of campus novels (even Denis Johnson wrote one[!]). Like every other genre, this one boasts a few very good books (David Lodge's Small World and Chabon's Wonder Boys come to mind), but most fail to rise above mediocrity.
  9. Suburban social realism (or as Parisians might call it, le roman de Franzen). I think everyone has had enough of the bland banlieues americaines, n'est-ce pas? The only original suburban novel still possible is an utterly tasteless Pynchonian allegory in which all the boring, bourgeois characters, ashamed of being trapped in such an imaginatively impoverished genre, commit mass suicide at the end of chapter one. In the second chapter, fire destroys the suburbs. The rest of the novel tells the story of a family of neurotic rabbits who hop around madly and shag each other silly amidst the ruins of the human world. The book ends with the triumph of lapine fascism and a song-and-dance number titled, "When Rabbits Rule the World (It'll be Auschwitz Time for Kitty Cats)."
  10. Insert Your Least Favorite Literary Cliche Here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

THE SUNSET LIMITED by Cormac McCarthy

The Sunset Limited is that rare Cormac McCarthy work that doesn't go far enough. Ol' Cormac is usually dependably excessive, to say the least. Blood Meridian is the most surrealistically excessive Western in our literature, just as Moby Dick is our most surrealistically excessive sea story. The unlimited pneumatic mayhem of No Country For Old Men (or for any other men--or women--except Anton Chigurh) served to indict our entire culture, but even that wasn't enough for McCarthy. Not content with laying waste to a part of a part of the country, he let the entire world have it in The Road. And sometime in between these works, he crafted this odd, unplatonic dialogue that he calls 'a novel in dramatic form.' Well...Sorry, Charlie, but it's nothing of the kind. Judged as a novel, The Sunset Limited is a thin, weak concoction. It comes off much better when we read it as what it really and obviously is, a play. It's a promising script for a potentially great dramatic production, provided the actors and directors play it with minimal solemnity and maximum irony (there is much dark comedy here, even a Beckettian note in White's frequent attempts to leave the room). The biggest problem is that McCarthy fails to take these two men far enough into themselves. Neither recounts the worst thing he has ever done, and neither presses the other to do so. This final reticence may reflect well upon the two men's humanity, their mutual respect and capacity for empathy, but it robs the play of a potentially shattering dramatic crescendo, a pair of glorious, Sam Shepard-style titanic monologues in which Black and White recount their worst moments. As it is, the text is haunted by these lacunae, the monologues that never were. Leaving them out is an entirely defensible artistic choice, but I don't think it was the correct one in this case.

THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code is garbage, utter tripe, a book so poorly written that it can be read as an unintentional parody of pop thriller writing. I read it several years ago, and I have yet to receive a reply regarding the bill I subsequently sent to Dan Brown, charging him a (fairly reasonable) dollar value for my wasted reading time and demanding payment in full. A blurb on the cover of my copy quotes Nelson De Mille's hysterically effusive description of the novel: "This is pure genius." To which I can only reply: If this is pure genius, I'd hate to smell crap. I have retitled the book Thriller Written with a Mixmaster, because it reads as though Dan Brown tossed an average thriller, a tourist's guidebook and a volume of dotty art history into a Mixmaster and pressed 'Puree.' This is not to say, surprisingly, that the book is entirely without merit. (Nothing that riles the religious right can be entirely without merit.) But its few noticeable merits--superfast pacing, clever puzzles--shrink to subatomic size in proportion to its most glaring demerit: the absence of any perceptible authorial talent. To call The Da Vinci Code 'junk food for the brain' is an insult to junk food. This is a cheap, disposable thriller so poorly written that it doesn't even qualify as a guilty pleasure. If I rated books with stars, I would give it a black hole.

Monday, July 11, 2011

STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE by D. H. Lawrence

"The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it." -- D. H. Lawrence

The biggest problem facing readers of D. H. Lawrence's nonfiction is the separation of the author's invaluable insights from his errant crackpottery. Studies in Classic American Literature contains a surprising number of the former and far too much of the latter. As a testy, polemical, provocative examination of several essential 18th and 19th century American books, this 88 year-old text remains highly valuable. As a basic primer on how to read these books--trust the tale, not the teller; great advice for reading anything--it is probably unbeatable. As an exercise in American cultural criticism, it is a fundamental and prescient volume. "Can you make a land virgin by killing off its aborigines?" Lawrence asks at one point, posing the question of American genocide at a time when Wounded Knee remained a living memory. In his essays on James Fenimore Cooper, Lawrence anticipates (and perhaps exceeds) Leslie Fiedler's signature insights into race and myth in American literature. He uses the Leatherstocking novels to define an endlessly suggestive 'myth of America': "[the novels] go backwards, from old age to golden youth. That is the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth." Near the end of the same essay, Lawrence gives us his darkest reflection upon the obsidian mirror of American fiction: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." These two sentences can teach us much about the contemporary American right and its psychotic, suicidal, anti-American cruelty--a psychosis that often manifests itself in a drive to smear all liberal aspects of government and society with rhetorical excrement and then complain that they stink. Sarah Palin brandishes all the firearms, but the telegenically cruel Paul Ryan (who eerily reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis's Patrick Bateman) is the real Natty Bumpo of contemporary American fascism. That old fascist cyborg Dick Cheney is so enamored of Ryan's hard, isolate stoicism that he has stated, "I worship the ground Paul Ryan walks on." (Which I guess clears up all the confusion about the true religion of the American right, n'est-ce pas?) As this brief digression suggests, the best parts of Lawrence's book remain more relevant than anything in any other octogenarian work of criticism. But these best passages are embedded in far too much of the aforementioned crackpottery: long anti-feminist tirades, a bit of anti-semitism, pages and pages of blather about the Lawrencian "Holy Ghost," a bunch of bizarre, bitchy non sequiturs... Amazingly, the book is still worth reading. It is worth our time to separate the true Lawrencian gold from the resentful, forgettable dross.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My Proust Questionnaire (Happy 140th, Marcel)

In honor of Marcel Proust's 140th birthday, I've decided to submit to a version of the infamous Pivotian, Liptonian, Vanity Fairian 'Proust Questionnaire.'
  1. Your most marked characteristic? None of your business
  2. The quality you most like in a man? Wit and sensitivity
  3. The quality you most like in a woman? Friendliness and wit
  4. What do you most value in your friends? The fact that they are my friends
  5. What is your principle defect? Perfection
  6. What is your favorite occupation? Turning sentences around, making worlds of words, liking that other world.
  7. What is your dream of happiness? I have more interesting things to dream about
  8. What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes? Total paralysis or the disintegration of the mind
  9. What would you like to be? An enigma
  10. In what country would you like to live? England, specifically London, even more specifically Bloomsbury, most specifically of all Bedford Square
  11. What is your favorite color? The deep blue of shadows cast by evergreen trees upon freshly fallen snow
  12. What is your favorite flower? Queen of the Night Tulip, the most decadent flower in the world
  13. What is your favorite bird? The one between my index and ring fingers
  14. Who are your favorite prose writers? Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Walter Pater, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, many others
  15. Who are your favorite poets? Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke, Celan, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot, many, many others
  16. Who is your favorite hero of fiction? Tyrone Slothrop
  17. Who is your favorite heroine of fiction? Fanny Hill
  18. Who are your favorite composers? Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Wagner, Mahler, Morton Feldman
  19. What is your favorite symphony? Beethoven's Ninth
  20. What is your favorite opera? Wagner's Tristan und Isolde 
  21. Who are your favorite painters? Picasso, Titian, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Fragonard, Goya, Manet, Van Gogh, Beckmann, many others
  22. Who are your heroes in real life? A 'real life' hero is a dangerous thing to have.
  23. Who are your favorite heroines of history? Ditto
  24. What are your favorite first names? Alexandra, Marina, Natasha, Miranda
  25. What is it you most dislike? Today's Republican Party, a surreal collection of Burroughsian Talking Assholes
  26. What historical figures do you most despise? Hitler, Stalin, and many other religious figures
  27. What event in military history do you most admire? It's difficult to find anything admirable in human slaughter
  28. Who are your intellectual heroes? Jean-Paul Sartre, Noam Chomsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, Emma Goldman, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins
  29. What natural gift would you most like to possess? Perfect vision
  30. How would you like to die? As Bartleby said, I would prefer not to...
  31. What is your present state of mind? Weird to surreal, a Gaudi palace of spiralling dreamstone
  32. To what faults do you feel most indulgent? Excessive love, and any other 'fault' born of authentic passion
  33. What is your favorite word? Superflux
  34. What is your least favorite word? No
  35. What is your motto? Doubt Everything

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Celebrating Marcel Proust's 140th Birthday

No one outside the hardcore Proustian community seems to have noticed yet that this Sunday, July 10, 2011, is the 140th birthday of Marcel Proust. I suggest celebrating the occasion by taking a long swig from the Modern Library 'Proust Six-Pack':

This is a box set of the complete In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu) in six sturdy paperback volumes, as translated into English by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and subsequently revised (twice) to bring it into line with the most recent French edition. (Ideally, of course, one should read Proust in French; I'll be working on that for the rest of my life...) I have my quibbles with some of Moncrieff's choices, but his translation remains the best Proust in English. I've sampled the other recent translations and found them flat, bland and unsatisfying, a weak stew. Moncrieff's work, on the other hand, is sinuously, Art Nouveau-ishly impressive enough to be a monument of English prose.

A single sentence in Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New convinced me that it's impossible to really know Proust until you've experienced Art Nouveau  architecture at its excessive best. So one might also celebrate Marcel's cent-quarantieme by watching Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara's great and beautiful 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudi. (It's available from the Criterion Collection and can be rented from Netflix.) This is an almost entirely wordless 72-minute visual essay that plays like a poem or a modernist symphony (or a Proustian novel), piling image upon image upon image, allowing breathtakingly photographed examples of Gaudi's works to speak for themselves. When a narrator's voice enters near the end, it seems to come only to demonstrate the superfluity of words. The images are the thing.

This would also be a good time to study some of the Old Masters that Proust especially loved: Chardin, Rembrandt, Vermeer. Look at Vermeer's View of Delft and try to find Bergotte's little patch of yellow wall (but don't kill yourself doing it):
That's how I'll be marking a date that should be as important as Bloomsday on the literary calendar.

HAPPY PROUST'S BIRTHDAY!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A thought on Terrence Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN and Henry James's THE WINGS OF THE DOVE

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal..." -- T. S. Eliot, "Philip Massinger," The Sacred Wood

By the Eliotic standard, filmmaker Terrence Malick must be considered a 'mature poet,' even in his early work. Malick's second film, the beyond-beautiful Days of Heaven, boldly steals its central love triangle from Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (a novel written, appropriately, in the same general period in which the film is set [within a decade or so]). Genders are switched, and the action is shifted from London drawing rooms and Venetian palazzi to the harsh world of the early 1900s Texas Panhandle (portrayed credibly by Alberta, Canada), but the attentive and literate viewer will have little difficulty seeing the wealthy, doomed Sam Shepard as wealthy, doomed Milly Theale, the conspiratorial Richard Gere as conspiratorial Kate Croy, and the lover-turned-conspirator-turned-lover Brooke Adams as lover-turned-conspirator-turned-lover Merton Densher. Critics have often pointed out the thin, elliptical nature of Days of Heaven's narrative, a story so slight as to be dwarfed by the stunning visuals, but it seems less elliptical and more intertextual (not to mention more interesting) once one identifies the Jamesian intertext.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory of English Literature : A Satyrickall Diversion

Ben Jonson spilled the beans four centuries ago in an unwritten letter recently discovered bound between the endpapers of a nonexistent book in the London Library: The Looney Hypothesis is all true, every bit of it. The Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays and Shakespeare wrote Marlowe's plays and Marlowe wrote Middleton's plays and Tommy the Kyd wrote John Webster's plays between rackings in the tower; Ben Jonson wrote everyone else's poetry and John Donne wrote Ben Jonson's; Donne also wrote most of George Herbert's poems (the ones not written by Marvell), Marston wrote all of Tourneur's works, the Countess of Pembroke wrote Sidney's Arcadia, Spenser wrote Francis Bacon's essays, and Bacon wrote Queen Elizabeth I, who wrote nothing save death warrants; Addison wrote Steele's essays and Steele wrote Addison's; Marvell wrote Milton's epics while Milton wrote poems, pamphlets and precious little else, being blind (surely no one still believes that Bennettian wives' tale about the blind bugger's dreary dictation to his dutiful daughters?); Alexander Pope wrote Homer's epics and Samuel Johnson wrote Swift's satires and Henry Fielding wrote Tristram Shandy and Sterne wrote Richardson's Clarissa over a single sleepless weekend; Wordsworth and Coleridge were inventions of William Blake, while Hazlitt and De Quincey were prosey aliases for Byron and Shelley; Keats wrote every Romantic poem but found criticism Byronically 'killing'; Mary Shelley wrote all of Percy Bysshe's poems and Percy wrote the tale of Frankenstein; Jane Austen's books were written by George Eliot, Eliot's by Anthony Trollope, Trollope's by Thackeray, Thackeray's by Dickens, Dickens's by Lewis Carroll, Carroll's by Michael Jackson, Jackson's by Walter Pater, Pater's by John Ruskin, Ruskin's by Marcel Proust, Proust's by James Joyce, Joyce's by Virginia Woolf, and Woolf's by a dustman from Sydenham named Willie Stoat; Flann O'Brien wrote the half of Finnegans Wake that was not written by Myles na gCopaleen, Brian O'Nolan wrote all of Flann O'Brien's works, James Joyce wrote Brideshead Revisited as a piece of high satire, and Graham Greene wrote the rest of Evelyn Waugh while vacationing in Jamaica; in the beach bungalow nextdoor, Ian Fleming invented John Le Carre as a pseudonym for a former spook from Cornwall, while James Bond begat Kingsley Amis who begat Another Amis, who wrote all his father's books; and Salman Rushdie wrote everything, including the Koran.

I hope this clears things up.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pour Joyce: Eighteen Joycean Thoughts for Bloomsday

Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931. (Toledo Museum of Art; Toledo, Ohio). The sitter is Cadmus's lover, the artist Jared French. This nakedly intimate, surprisingly complex and deeply erotic painting is my favorite artistic image of the novel that has given a name to today.

In honor of Bloomsday 2011 here are eighteen thoughts inspired by Ulysses, one for each chapter. Pour them into the porches of your rears.

1. TELEMACHUS. Who is Stephen Dedalus's third 'master,' the one who wants him "for odd jobs"? He pedantically identifies the first two masters (Pope and King) for the benefit of Haines, but his cryptic reference to the third flies far over the Englishman's low-altitude head. It's one of the many teasing riddles Stephen leaves unsatisfactorily answered, and thus several answers suggest themselves. (This shows that Joyce has learned well the secret of Shakespearean motivation: the less an author explicitly tells, the more labyrinthine the reader's guesses.) Stephen might mean Ireland, the unchosen country of his post-collegiate funk (Yes, Stephen Dedalus is 20th-century literature's archetype-defining 'slacker'), or he might be referring to his literal boss, the decidedly odd Mr. Deasy; or, at a stretch, Buck Mulligan, who depends on Stephen's job to finance his Thursday night carousing. The best answer, though, is literature, the artistic master to whom he has yet to offer a sacrifice, save his grandiose 'epiphanies' and the odd little scraps of poetry composed on library slips (and torn typing paper) during stolen moments on Sandymount Strand.

2. NESTOR. Every good reader of Joyce is, like Stephen, a learner rather than a teacher. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while great and re-readable, are less than infinite works. They don't demand a lifetime of re-reading. Ulysses, by contrast, is a book one can re-read even beyond the Biblical threescore and ten. (Fortunately, it's better than the Bible, and funnier.) And Finnegans Wake surely requires several lifetimes (as well as proficiency in many languages), many cycles of recirculation before we begin waking to the Wake. We are all learners of Joyce, attempting with each reading to understand his books in toto and always moderately succeeding before always colossally failing. For however well we may read, Joyce reads better; however cleverly we may interpret, Joyce interprets more cleverly. He knows all of our tricks and is always several steps ahead of us, occasionally turning to mock us, always scribbling determinedly on...

3. PROTEUS. An excellent example of the vast network of cross-references that ties Ulysses together appears in this passage from 'Proteus': "Pico della Mirandola like. Ay, very like a whale. When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once..." Taking the middle sentence first, this Hamlet line seemingly thrown up by random association refers back to the first chapter, where a peninsula is described as lying "on the water like the snout of a sleeping whale." More obviously, it sounds the novel's Hamlet motif and joins the Hamletisms of chapter one to the motif's gargantuan thematic expansion in 'Scylla and Charybdis.' The mention of Mirandola in the first fragment signposts the third sentence, which is a pitch-perfect parody of Walter Pater's essay on Pico della Mirandola in The Renaissance. This parody of Paterian prose precurses the parodic style/structure of 'Oxen of the Sun' (where Pater is among those specifically parodied) and might also remind us of Pater's oft-quoted line (from the essay on Giorgione in The Renaissance) about all art aspiring to the condition of music, a possible conceptual inspiration for the 'Sirens' chapter. And wherever there is Paterian aestheticism in Ulysses, one gets a whiff of the novel's Wilde motif and the closely related motif/theme of homoeroticism, two aspects of Ulysses that have been insufficiently explored.

4. CALYPSO. The tolling churchbells that end this chapter resound Westminstered through the pages of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf disliked Ulysses (her well-known statements about it are shallow and class-prejudiced, not Woolf at her critical best), but she was deeply influenced by it, writing in Dalloway an anglicized, bourgeois-centric, feminacentric, more formally traditional, more sharply focused, and much more concise 'revision' of Joyce's novel. Joyce's exact contemporary (Woolf was also born in 1882 and died in 1941) was hardly alone in being decisively influenced by the the book of Mr. Bloom's day. Ulysses was influencing writers even before Sylvia Beach booked it. Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot read it as a work-in-progress in manuscript and magazines, so the Joycean juxtaposition of myth and modernity stands behind two of the great poetic monuments of Modernism, The Waste Land and The Cantos. Is there any other novel that has had a comparable influence on the history of poetry?

5. LOTUS EATERS. When Bloom, walking near Trinity College, sees an unimaginative poster for a sporting event, he thinks, "Damn bad ad. Now if they had made it round like a wheel. Then the spokes: sports, sports, sports: and the hub big: college. Something to catch the eye." The poster he sees is too obvious and representational: a "cyclist doubled up like a cod in a pot." The one he imagines is more abstract, even avant-garde, the sort of thing the Italian Futurists or Russian Constructivists might have conceived. In other words, it's au courant for the time of the novel's composition, but too early for that of its setting. If Joyce learned from Shakespeare, he also learned from Dante: a writer can easily make his characters seem ahead of their time (or in the Florentine's case, make them peerless prophets) by setting his tale a few years in the past. This tiny scene is also a demonstrative commentary on how quickly the most radical artistic ideas can be turned to the stuff of advertising. Capitalism can digest anything.

6. HADES. Consider a single paragraph from Mr. Bloom's ride to the cemetery:

"The stonecutter's yard on the right. Last lap. Crowded on the spit of land silent shapes appeared, white, sorrowful, holding out calm hands, knelt in grief, pointing. Fragments of shapes, hewn. In white silence: appealing. The best obtainable. Thos. H. Dennany, monumental builder and sculptor."

Note the sudden whiplash turns of tone and register, the unexpected collisions of discourse--all perfectly appropriate for a description of something seen from a speeding carriage. We begin with neutral, tourguide-like description, then jarringly lapse into the discourse of auto racing (a motif of the funeral procession). After a mere two words, our temporary sports fan of a paragraph spills into lyrical description ("Crowded on the spit of land...") that crosses over into a parody of elegiac sentimentality ("sorrowful, holding out calm hands...In white silence: appealing"). This register is hewn by the more descriptive fragment "Fragments of shapes, hewn," and after a brief return to the elegiac, we immediately lapse into the language of self-promotion, advertising, Leopold Bloom's professional discourse: "The best obtainable." And we end with a passing glimpse of Mr. Dennany's business sign, a capitalist banality that bathetically undermines the lyrical beauty of the preceding lines.

7. AEOLUS. Here's a truism I'm tired of repeating: Modernism at its best was always already post-Modern. Joyce becomes postmodernly self-conscious in this chapter about newspaper production, printing, writing and (above all) rhetoric. Wandering among the newsmen of Dublin, Ulysses achieves self-consciousness and reflects upon the means of its own production. At the most explicit moment of formal involution, editor Myles Crawford pulls Stephen Dedalus aside and asks him to write "something with a bite in it" and proceeds to prophesy the novel in which he appears: "Put us all into it, damn its soul. Father, Son and Holy Ghost and Jakes M'Carthy." Mr. McCarthy's compatriots are of course well represented in Ulysses, fathers and sons constitute one of the novel's major themes, and the ghosts of Homer and Shakespeare are holy enough for Joycean work. Among the other spirits present at the seance, one should mention Stephen's mother, Bloom's father and son (that theme again), Oscar Wilde, Parnell, Paddy Dignam, and an unholy host of others.

8. LESTRYGONIANS. When Bloom pauses to watch a typesetter in the 'Aeolus' episode, his mind returns to a memory of his father reading Hebrew, and he reflects upon Old Testament morality: "Justice it means but it's everybody eating everyone else. That's what life is after all." Sweeney Todd couldn't have said it better. This Hebraic Hobbesianism is explored further in 'Lestrygonians,' when Bloom enters the Burton and witnesses a panoramic Darwinian spectacle of the eaters and the eaten: the munching men are compared to animals at their feed. This may be what life is, after all, but Bloom decides to have none of it and retreats to Davy Byrnes's "moral pub" for a gorgonzola sandwich (not recommended for the lactose intolerant). It might be possible--but not terribly interesting, perhaps--to interpret this chapter as an allegory of the birth of ethics as a dialectical response to the Hobbesian state of nature. But like all of Ulysses, it's much, much more than that.

9. SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS. Joyce has already Brechtianly revealed the stage machinery of his novel (most explicitly in 'Aeolus'), so it should come as no surprise when Stephen begins his discourse on Shakespeare by mentally invoking that unlikeliest of muses, the most secret father of Joycean naturalism, Saint Ignatius Loyola. Buck Mulligan is absolutely right about Stephen (and his creator): he has the cursed Jesuit strain in him, but it's injected the wrong way. It's ferociously secular. And just as Stephen Loyolanly meditates upon Shakespeare's London, Joyce the novelist Loyolanly 'composes' his own earlier Dublin. Ulysses is, among much else, a demonstrative secularization of the Loyola meditation technique known as 'composition of place' (which Stephen explicitly cites in the same line). This, I am convinced, is the compositional key to Joyce's realism. This is how he 'achieves' Dublin on the page. Joyce the apostate sat in Trieste-Zurich-Paris from 1914 to 1921 and performed Loyolan compositions of place on the Dublin of 1904.

10. WANDERING ROCKS. Before he ends this most peripatetic of episodes with a tour de force tour de Dublin, Joyce takes us inside the consciousness of Master Patrick A. Dignam, son of the encoffined and engraved stiff from 'Hades' ("First the stiff; then the friends of the stiff."), in a 'juvenile' prose style reminiscent of the early pages of the Portrait. It also, to my ear, sounds like a typically pitch-perfect Joycean parody of Gertrude Stein's prose. Judge for yourself. Here's the son recalling the father's death and encoffinment: "His face got all grey instead of being red like it was and there was a fly walking over it up to his eye. The scrunch that was when they were screwing the screws into the coffin and the bumps when they were bringing it downstairs." This also sounds a bit like mid-period Samuel Beckett, the Beckett of Molloy. But the art of the sentences is pure Joyce: notice that "screwing the screws" sonically and visually analogizes the repetitive screwdriver turns of the action it describes, and that the b's in the second half of the sentence 'bump' against its smooth sonic flow like the coffin against the stair walls.

11. SIRENS. One obvious question arises from this section: Where is "Ulysses: The Opera"? Answer: it's right here, waiting for a composer Wagnerianly ambitious enough to music the 700-page Joycean libretto. Seriously, a novel this musical cries out for operatic adaptation. We have had two attempts at film adaptations (by Joseph Strick and Sean Walsh); both are watchable and interesting but neither comes close to the book's level of artistry. A less 'realistic' adaptation for the operatic stage might work much better. It might, in fact, given a sufficiently Brechtian director, come much closer to the novel's artistic heart. Imagine an operatic Ulysses conceived like Berg's Wozzeck, with eighteen scenes that play like self-contained mini-operas, each in a different style. I will ask my question again: Why doesn't such an opera exist? Why isn't it already part of the Met repertoire?

12. CYCLOPS. A few years ago, in a basement gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, I encountered a photograph that absolutely destroyed me, tore at me until I felt fragmented, ripped me apart like an angry child's least favorite toy. The photograph was taken after World War II by David Seymour (known professionally as 'Chim'), and it showed a young girl named Terezka standing before a chalkboard on which was scrawled an indecipherable jumble of tangled, spiralling lines that superficially resembled some of the abstract expressionist paintings in the galleries upstairs. The wallcard informed me that Terezka had been photographed in a home for disturbed children after spending most of her young life in a concentration camp. She had been asked to draw a picture of 'home' on the chalkboard. These words helped me understand the image, but the image itself blew all that understanding away as soon as I looked into Terezka's eyes. Her haunting and haunted stare, directed straight into the camera, is one of the most deeply horrifying things I have ever seen. These are eyes that have seen far too much, that have been forced to drink so deeply of human horror that they can only project that horror outward. These are eyes blighted and blinded by experiences most human beings can hardly imagine. Looking into them was like staring into the sun. I couldn't bear it for more than a few seconds at a time. I left the gallery, left the Art Institute, and walked aimlessly north on Michigan Avenue. By the time I reached the Water Tower I heard another voice, a counter-tone, rising up inside me to meet the unspeakable horror of Terezka's eyes. It offered itself as a kind of answer to the image. It was the voice of Leopold Bloom from the 'Cyclops' episode, answering the anti-semitic arseholes at Barney Kiernan's by defining love as the opposite of historical hatred. Love. It's a kind of answer.

13. NAUSICAA. After his Gerty-enabled ejaculation on Sandymount Strand, Bloom tries and fails to write her a message in the sand with a phallic wooden 'pen.' He throws the wood away, accepts that they will never meet again, and slips into a doze. (The parallels between his encounter with Gerty and his later and longer one with Stephen Dedalus are instructive.) His sleep-slipping mind immediately fires off a machine gun barrage of motifs (beginning "O sweety all your little girlwhite up I saw dirty bracegirdle made me do love sticky...") to create one of the novel's most extraordinarily avant-garde passages. This brief paragraph is beyond the rest of Ulysses, beyond surrealism, beyond even Finnegans Wake; the nearest analogy that comes to mind is William Burroughs' 'cut-up' method. As Bloom sleeps, Joyce leaps.

14. OXEN OF THE SUN. This chapter is Joyce's gift to English majors. A good part of its lit-geek fun comes from trying to identify all the styles parodied. Even the best-read of readers probably won't correctly identify them all. Fortunately, Gifford and Seidman's Ulysses Annotated (an essential reference) does a wonderful job of separating the pseudo-Lamb from the cod De Quincey, the faux-Ruskin from the false Carlyle. Joyce's takeoff of Carlyle is particularly hilarious: "By heaven, Theodore Purefoy, thou hast done a doughty deed and no botch! Thou art, I vow, the remarkablest progenitor barring none in this chaffering allincluding most farraginous chronicle. Astounding!" Astounding indeed. This is parody so perfect that it passes into criticism and forces the reader to wonder why anyone ever took Carlyle's maniacal fustian seriously.

15. CIRCE. If 'Sirens' sings out a demand for operatic adaptation, 'Circe' demands an imagistic alchemization at the animating hands of Terry Gilliam. It's a script for the greatest cartoon Gilliam will never draw. Much, much more than this, "Circe" is Joyce's farcical response to Goethe's already rather ridiculous Faust, Part Two, as well as a parodic take on Flaubert's weirdest work, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. More immanently, this longest section of Ulysses--taking up more than a fifth of the book's total length--is the novel's outrageously Freudian dream of itself. Or as a Reagan-era public service spot might have said: this is Joyce's brain on drugs, really good drugs, premo shit, hardcore hallucinogens cooked up especially for Ol' Jimmy Boy by Albert Hofmann's predecessor at Sandoz Labs. But this isn't really Ulysses unhinged. Joyce never loses control. This is Ulysses uncensored, a dreamtime bursting of the imaginative strictures, the rational rules of fiction, under which much of the novel is written (especially the more 'realistic' sections; Joyce here shows us that adherence to the rules, not to reality, is what defines 'realism.') For me, 'Circe,' 'Penelope' and 'Proteus' are the novel's three most liberating chapters...

16. EUMAEUS. ...and this chapter is surely its most boring. Intentionally so. If 'Cyclops' and 'Circe' are the inspirational takeoff points for Thomas Pynchon's wildly imaginative flights, then 'Eumaeus' and the first half of 'Nausicaa' might be considered the birthplaces of David Foster Wallace's accomplished and irritating experiments in imitative form. This chapter is a resting place in the night, a cabman's shelter where the novel pauses to catch its breath after the metamorphic frenzy of 'Circe.' It is also--and this may be the most interesting thing about it--the last piece of traditional narrative fiction Joyce ever wrote. After this comes the catechism of 'Ithaca' and the deluge of 'Penelope,' and then the labyrinthianly idiolectal Finnegans Wake. 'Eumaeus,' then, might be read as a demonstration of the exhaustion not merely of Bloom and Stephen but of the naturalistic narrative tradition as a whole. Joyce comes not to praise the tradition but to bury it. This is Joyce turning the final screw in the Paddy Dignam coffin of traditional fiction.

17. ITHACA.

What is the significance of the four full-page initials, U, S, M, and P, that decorate respectively the title page and the first page of each section of the standard 1961 edition of Ulysses?

Anagramming most obviously as 'sump,' the letters codedly signify a pit to which liquid wastes are drained, a cesspool, and might therefore constitute a puritanical designer's critical commentary on the book's content. Another view reads the letters in order to form an acronym describing the central character: Unreconstructed Sado-Masochistic Paddy.

Why does the 1961 edition of Ulysses end this chapter with a greatly enlarged period?

That's not a period, my daffy darling. It's a wormhole that bypasses the 'Penelope' episode and takes the daring reader directly into the loonyverse where sleepers never wake, Finnegan's, there to meet sinbad the sailor and jinbad the jailer and tinbad the tailor and--you get the picture.

18. PENELOPE. Here's a highly arguable assertion about the overall structure of Ulysses and its relationship to twentieth-century literature: Ulysses begins in Modernism (the first six chapters), passes through the Postmodern dissolution of the autonomous self (chapters 7-17), and ends, in 'Penelope,' with a compelling Post-Postmodern recovery of the subjectivity dissolved in the previous chapters. Discuss. ("Oh, rocks! Tell us in plain words.")

And while you're discussing it, I'll take this opportunity to lament the fact that the 1975 edition of Joyce's Selected Letters, edited by Richard Ellmann, is currently out of print. By virtue of its inclusion of the uncensored texts of Joyce's wonderful erotic letters to Nora, this is quite possibly the only volume of author letters in existence that might conceivably sell a commercially respectable number of copies, so I find its absence from the market puzzling, to say the least. Surely this book would be a natural for the New York Review Books Classics imprint. I wonder why they haven't picked it up. Until this book is brought back into print, the Joycean literary landscape will be like a home without Plumtree's Potted Meat.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

American Writers and American (Sur)Reality : A Premature Ejaculation for the Fourth of July

"..the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist. Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine? Dwight David Eisenhower?" -- Philip Roth, "Writing American Fiction," (1960), collected in Reading Myself and Others

These are Philip Roth's most famous nonfictional words, a classic statement of the American novelist's eternal complaint: how can I write about a reality that constantly outruns my imagination? The best answer to this is a short, Beckettian one: Imagine more. Fail better. This was the path taken by Roth's more experimental contemporaries (Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme) and eventually by Roth himself in Portnoy and after. But even fifty years later Roth's complaint remains quotable, continues to resonate, and even finds unexpected confirmation in Roth's own later Nixon satire, Our Gang, the imaginary outrages of which were quickly overrun by the surreal reality of Watergate, the Plumbers, and the "cocksucker!"-sputtering Nixon of the tapes. While Roth's list of cultural and political figures is hopelessly dated (Adams and Goldfine have dropped completely off the radar; Cohn and Schine exist only as minor cloven-hoofed creatures in the demonology of the American Left; Charlie 'Quiz Show' Van Doren has been reduced to a name on dust jacket blurbs; and everybody today seems to like Ike [except Guatemalans]), the thrust of his argument still cuts to the American bone. Indeed, Roth's words are--as the cliche goes--even more relevant today. Just look at the tame, conventional fictions that are being touted as 'great American novels' (I mean you, Jonathan Franzen) while the central characters of truly great novels strut and preen and perpwalk across our TV screens every evening at 6:30: Bernard Madoff, Donald 'the chump' Trump, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John Ensign, Anthony 'the aptly-named' Weiner, the unnamed soldier who is killing or dying in Afghanistan even as I type this...the list is pretty much endless. What American novelist living or dead could have imagined the life of Barack Obama? Not Faulkner, not Fitzgerald, probably not Toni Morrison, not James Baldwin, maybe Ralph Ellison. Who among our novelists could have imagined that a morbidly obese, radio-ranting drug addict would become arguably the most important person in the Republican Party? David Foster Wallace surely could have, ditto Thomas Pynchon, but who else? The life of Hillary Rodham Clinton would have taxed the imagination of Edith Wharton and been denounced as a feminist fairy tale had Joyce Carol Oates written it. If Pynchon had written a novel in which America is illegitimately ruled for eight years by two guys named Dick and Bush, his readers would've chuckled and thought, "Where does he get this stuff?!" More seriously, has any American novel of the past twenty years surpassed in political perception and tragic knowledge Naomi Klein's two-volume nonfiction anatomy of corporatism, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine? Given that corporatism (or globalisation, or global corporate capitalism, or late capitalism, or whatever you want to name the poison) is the hegemonic ideology of our time, any novelist interested in politics should be on this topic like a Blakean fly on Joycean shit. Where are the fictional explorations of the profound psychological impact of corporate thinking on the way we live today? There should be as many novels about corporatism today as there were about capitalism and communism during the Cold War. Who will be corporatism's John Le Carre? Who will be its Pasternak, who its Nabokov, who its Orwell, who its Sartre? What writer will rise to our dreary day and make herself the equal of the current crazy mess? As our political discourse has become increasingly insane over the last three years--a good starting point for the downward slide is the day in 2008 when John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, apparently choosing her name at random from a Juneau phonebook--I have had one recurring, pseudo-Wordsworthian thought: Nathanael West, thou should'st be living at this hour: / America hath need of thee... If you listen very carefully in the stillness of three o'clock in the morning (where all the clocks stop in the dark night of the American soul) you can hear a faint whining sound that after a while resolves into the threnody of America's few remaining readers literally calling out for a book that gives our current political landscape the kind of satirical skewering Nathanael West gave the crazies of his day in A Cool Million, still the greatest of all American political satires. Of course, the West-ern treatment is made considerably more difficult today by the fact that our contemporary political culture not only beggars the imagination but also secretes its own satire. A character as ridiculous as George W. Bush makes an American Swift or Voltaire redundant; everything Dubya says is satire by virtue of the fact that it issues from his face. The same is true of Cheney, but transposed to a darker key. Our coronary cyborg of an ex-Vice President is a headbirth of Joseph Heller at his deadliest. And what of Sarah Palin, the egregious failed governor of Alaska who still basks in the cultic devotion of her millions of foolish followers and luxuriates in the mindless attention of the very 'lamestream media' she thinks she despises? Palin, the puritanical conservative in stripper boots who dog-whistles apocalyptic rhetoric between shopping sprees, the Christian moralist whose electoral appeal boils down to a Morse Code-winked "vote for me because you want to fuck me," seems to have escaped from an unwritten late chapter of Gravity's Rainbow. And how about those psychologically damaged Bobbsey Twins of right-wing demagoguery, the sad fatboy Limbaugh and the delusionally paranoid Beck? Not really self-satirists, these two little boys are case studies in abnormal psychology, more pathetic than comic. Rush Limbaugh will always be the fat kid who wants to be cool and uses his verbal facility to impress the jocks with his outrageous comments. Listen to Big Rush and you can almost hear the 1960s high school football players saying, "That Limbaugh kid, man, he'll say anything. Silly little fucker." Of the paranoid stylings of Glenn Beck more than enough has already been said; it is sufficient to point out that this man sincerely believes that the 1930s kitsch decorative art at Rockefeller Center (of all places!) is part of a Communist plot of imagistic indoctrination. (It worked like a charm, an apotropaic one; Rockefeller Center is the Vatican of corporate capitalism.) Beck's silly hobbyhorses, though, are but so many special cases of the grand delusion affecting too much of the American right: the idea that self-styled 'conservatives' (who at their intellectual best/worst are not conservative at all, but rather constitute a kind of right-anarchist vanguard envisioning a taxless, governmentless corporate utopia) are a powerless, embattled minority fighting valiantly against overwhelming odds. This is obviously risible: a minority they certainly are (witness the returns from the last five presidential elections: Clinton, Clinton, Gore, barely Bush, Obama), but the anti-democratic force of corporate cash skews the odds ever so slightly in their favor. Nor can they be called 'embattled,' since no one really fights them. The centrists who dominate the Democratic Party bend themselves into knots appeasing the right, and the 'American left' is much more a right-wing fantasy than a viable political force. A political discourse free of ideological hallucinations would be a refreshing change, but I don't see the sun of that day rising any time soon. The best image for our current impasse may be Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann's affectless, trancelike stare: a zombie leading the blind. Yes, the goofballs of the right are their own best satirists; they are the unintentional Voltaires of themselves. If they had no real power, they would be as perfectly ridiculous as the hopelessly obscure, utterly powerless hardliners of the American left. But because the rightists do have power, because they are financed and supported by corporations and individuals with theoretically bottomless pockets, they should alarm and energize anyone who cares about freedom. On this upcoming fourth of July, let's rededicate ourselves to saving what's best about America from the so-called 'conservatives' (cue the sound of Burke spinning in his grave) who would destroy it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"the gelatinous, contractible threat of the shapeless octopus of dreams" : On the Prose Style of FADO ALEXANDRINO by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Fado Alexandrino is an amazing novel, brilliantly written and masterfully conceived and executed. Even if it had been less well-written, the novel's impressive formal originality (Lobo Antunes' montage-like narrative style in which temporally and spatially disparate scenes are conjoined in a single page, a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence) would have been sufficient to earn it 'must read' status. The author takes a hint from one or two chapters of Joyce's Ulysses and, exhibiting a Kirk Varnedoe-esque 'fine disregard' for the rules of novelistic fiction, transforms that hint into the hallmark of his style. Fado Alexandrino is the Sentimental Education of the Portuguese revolution, the Ulysses of 1970s Lisbon. It's one of the most important European novels of the past 40 years. And it is also a singularly exhausting reading experience.

I am not saying that the book is especially difficult. (It is a difficult novel--relative to, say, the works of Martin Amis or Ian McEwan--but it's not extraordinarily difficult. After 15 or 20 pages, readers attuned to post-Joycean fiction will become accustomed to the Antunesque style and have little difficulty navigating the cubistically shifting planes of his narrative.) My readerly exhaustion might have something to do with the work required to follow the novel's four distinct but simultaneously narrated storylines, but I suspect a more likely culprit in the very aspect of Fado that makes it so exhilarating and impressive, the author's maniacally metaphorical prose. The metaphor I quote in the title of this post is an admittedly extreme example, but pretty much every page of the novel exists under the gelatinous, contractible threat of Lobo Antunes' octopoid metaphors. (I know it's problematic to comment on the prose of a work read in translation, but Gregory Rabassa, who beautifully translated Fado, is one of the world's most highly regarded literary translators, so I assume that his English version is very faithful to the author's Portuguese.) Antonio Lobo Antunes doesn't write like someone who consciously invents metaphors, who deliberately pauses during the writing process to construct a clever image or a startling simile; he writes like someone who naturally thinks in metaphors; he writes like a man possessed by a metaphorizing demon. Lobo Antunes writes like a demiurge who hovers above every blank page and commands his images to be fruitful and multiply. He is the writer as orgymaster, a Sade of the simile, letting linguistic copulation thrive while his metaphors metastasize into figurative octopi that threaten to strangle the meaning of his serpent sentences beneath an insufficiently diaphanous linguistic veil that sometimes becomes as impenetrably dark as the mouth of the River Tagus on a gloomy winter night... Yes, reading Lobo Antunes at his most manic feels something like that. Reading him, in other words, is both exhausting and exhilarating. It's like good sex. But not the safe, bodiless, postmodern wordsex that academics call 'transgressive.' That's hardly Antonio's style. His prose is strictly bareback, down and dirty linguistic fucking from the wrong side of the tracks. If Jose Saramago is the only contemporary Portuguese literary writer you've read, you definitely need to give Antonio Lobo Antunes a try.