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

W or THE MEMORY OF CHILDHOOD by Georges Perec

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.

THE POSTHUMOUS MEMOIRS OF BRAS CUBAS by Machado de Assis

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 si├Ęcle 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.