Sunday, September 20, 2015

A wide-ranging Philip Roth interview online at Web of Stories

Readers interested in  Philip Roth should check out the long, wide-ranging, and apparently little-known interview he gave in 2011 to the website Web of Stories. It's a 2-3 hour-long goldmine of Rothiana: 163 mini-videos (length ranging from under a minute to a few minutes each) in which Roth reflects on his life, work, opinions, attitudes, influences (including Henry Miller), the death-haunted genesis of Sabbath's Theater, writing about sex, arguing Vietnam with Updike, and much more. To give a taste of the whole, here's a sample from the transcript of the video titled "Living With the Character You Invent" in which Roth speaks of the unique way that both writers and readers can 'know' fictional characters:

ROTH: ... you invent the character and you live with the character. And the fact of the matter is that there's no one in this world you know, including yourself, as well as you know the... that character. We don't know people outside of books, of fiction, the way we know them when we either write the book of fiction or read the book of fiction. Everybody who's ever read Madame Bovary knows Madame Bovary better than they know any other woman in their life. This is the... this is the great charm and value of fiction, among others, and that is that we know in ways... the reader knows in ways he or she can't know in life.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


A superficial undergraduate seminar on Joyce's Ulysses presented in lightly novelized form, The House of Ulysses might be of interest to first-time readers seeking a reader-friendly guidebook to Joyce's great novel, but experienced Joyceans will learn little here. Considered as a novel, Rios' book is even less interesting. He gestures toward character-creation but fails to sufficiently differentiate his multiple speakers; he never successfully turns them from 'speakers' to 'characters.' And the book overall fails to achieve even the most limited autonomy from the far, far superior text it parasitizes. Rios seems to have been shooting for a Calvinoesque novel-as-seminar, an If On A Winter's Night a Traveler... of Ulysses; but he clipped the target on a corner, flipped it upside down, and produced this seminar-as-novel, a readable, jargon-free intro to Ulysses, and nothing more than that.


According to legend, the late Elmore Leonard switched from writing Westerns to a life of crime immediately after reading George V. Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle. It's easy to see what impressed the Dutchman. Coyle is a crime novel, of course, and a good, atmospheric one. Higgins has a way with words and sentences that sets his book above the genre mean. But mostly this is a novel of talking, a book about the way people in a certain milieu (Boston organized criminals and the prosecutors with whom they exist in symbiosis (e.g., the career of James 'White Rat' Bulger)) talk amongst themselves. The story is told almost entirely in dialogue, good, colorful dialogue--as good as David Mamet at his best--and thus we receive the narrative obliquely, akin to the way we receive it in avant-garde fiction (John Hawkes' The Lime Twig , for example, or, more to the point, William Gaddis's JR). We get the whole story, but it's told in pieces by bent people who tell it slant. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a novel we overhear. Reading it is like listening in on a very high-quality wiretap. I recommend it. (I also recommend the remarkably faithful 1973 film adaptation by Peter Yates, starring Robert Mitchum in the title role and the ubiquitous Peter Boyle as Dillon, the part-time contract hitter who takes Eddie out. There's a beautiful Criterion Collection DVD rentable from Netflix.)

SPIDER by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath's Spider is a superior psychological thriller, but considered as a 'literary' novel, as a work of narrative art in prose, it's pretty good but not mind-blowing. Formally, it's a monologic and fairly obvious unreliable narrator novel that contains a few genuinely chilling images of psychosis (I found the Battaile-esque descriptions of Spider's anatomical delusions to be especially powerful). It depicts, with creepily convincing success, the first-person consciousness, the twisted inwardness, of the type of psychotic most of us would surely cross the street to avoid. Ralph Fiennes did perhaps his best and riskiest work to date portraying this character in David Cronenberg's adaptation, a film that, far from 'spoiling' the novel, actually adds ironic sharpness to a few early, carefully understated passages. Knowing the story, we notice ironies we would probably have missed on a 'cold' first reading.

LUST by Elfriede Jelinek

Grim, grim, grim, unrelievedly grim, Elfriede Jelinek's Lust is a pornographic satire in the nauseating mode of Pasolini's brilliantly disturbing film Salo, but Jelinek's novel, unfortunately, is not brilliant enough to be truly disturbing. Lust is a deliberately ugly, intentionally unassimilable 200-page anti-bourgeois, anti-heterosexual diatribe that reads at times like the outrageously perverse sermon of a radical leftist puritan. Jelinek seems to have intended to compose a pornographic satire, but her ideas about pornography and sexuality are so ideologically warped in the direction of 1980s anti-porn feminist discourse that her pornographic imagination contains not an iota of lightness, not the slightest flash of comedy--not even dark, absurdist comedy (and human sexuality is nothing if not absurd). (The sole ludic element in the novel, Jelinek's wordplay, seems clumsy and clunky in Michael Hulse's translation and may be deliberately so in the original German.) Unlike her earlier, psychologically acute novel The Piano Teacher, which I admired after a second reading, Lust is little more than an ideological sermon: monotonous, humorless, soporific. There is no space for psychology here. Her characters are reduced to cardboard cut-outs and their actions are mechanical, robotic. The world of Lust is so (I repeat it) unrelievedly grim, so one-dimensional, so alienated from any recognizable human reality that Jelinek has defeated her own satirical purpose and produced a work of weird sexual surrealism, an unfunny cartoon in words, the unlovable bastard child of the Marquis de Sade, Robert Crumb and Andrea Dworkin. Jelinek called it Lust; if Roman Polanski hadn't preempted the title she might more properly have named it Repulsion.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Nabokovian Singularity

Consider the singularity of Vladimir Nabokov's achievement: the Humbutterfly Hunter went from being one of the major Russian writers of the twentieth century to being an even more major English-language writer. If he had never written an English word (not a single plaintive and, not a single breathy the) his Russian novels alone would have assured his canonical status in world literature--and the same is arguably true of his English novels, if, by some strange historical accident, he had never written a Cyrillic nyet or a funny-looking da. It's a critical commonplace that Lolita, Pnin, Transparent Things, and (for some critics) even Ada are uncommonly fine, but less common, for some reason, is the idea that Despair, The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading, and The Gift can stand alongside any other Russian-language works of the grey and gloomy Soviet years--even Bulgakov's supreme The Master and Margarita and (to name a work Nabokov surely despised from the Olympian height of his brow) Doctor Zhivago. Offhand, I can think of no analogous case of a dual-language major novelist. There are multiple examples of novelists writing in 'non-native' languages: Conrad, Beckett and Kundera form a very strange troika of such double-tongued ones. But Conrad, as far as I know, wrote little of note in Polish; Beckett's English work is (probably unfairly) less highly regarded than the books he wrote originally in French; and Milan K. seems to have traded his position as a major Czech novelist for a late-life minor niche in the cathedral of French literature. Is Vlad the Inscriber's achievement unique, or is there an analogous case that's stubbornly staying out of my mind?

(A half-hour after sending out this post, a possible contender comes to mind: Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who has written major works in both English and the Gikuyu language of his native Kenya. And there are surely other examples from the formerly-colonized world...)