Wednesday, February 20, 2008


While I quarrel with some of Tony Judt's historical interpretations and find him too eager to see in the contemporary world a 'post-ideological age' (contra Judt, I see one ideology--corporatism--achieving hegemony), I still found Postwar a wonderfully informative, engaging, educational book. In short (please!), it taught me some things: the consummate cynicism of Mitterrand, the dual-culture tension inside Belgium between now-prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders and now-poorer francophone Wallonia, the left-wing officers' coup that overthrew the fascist Portuguese dictatorship in the 1970's, the ease with which former Communist strongmen repositioned themselves after 1989 as nationalist leaders (Milosevic was the best-known example, but the trend was international), and much more. I even experienced a permissible amount of Judt's proscibed nostalgia as I read about the fall of the Eastern European dictatorships in 1989, a moment that seems ever more magical as it recedes in time and that great moment of optimism is drowned in the rhetoric of the demogogues, Western toadies and corporate tools who quickly rushed in to fill the Soviet void. What happened to the spirit of 89? It was shot by a sniper in the Sarajevo market.

One major problem with the book (which Judt only addresses in passing) is his frequent--one might almost say 'kneejerk'--conflation of the Western left (a heterogeneous enough group) with Stalinism or Soviet-style Communism. With some hardline exceptions (so powerless that they only hurt themselves), Western, non-Soviet leftism was an altogether different, more libertarian thing, tending toward anarchism. As these tendencies would have been anathema to any Soviet leader (and given that the hardline PCF turned its back on the Left Bank during Mai 68), greater distinctions must be drawn between Western democratic and Soviet totalitarian leftism. Philosophically, it may be the difference between humanistic Marxism and its authoritarian Leninist perversion. (Marxism is a philosophy of revolution from below misinterpreted by Lenin as a justification for terror from above.) In any event, Judt's frequent hamfisted lumping of the 'Western left' into a single group plays along with a very contemporary right-wing tune: the attempt by rightist ideologues around the world to tar the entire 20th-century left with the black brush of Stalinism. This is a cynical distortion of the history of Western political idealism, and it cannot stand. (Because most people know nothing of the nuances of history, however, this particular 'big lie' appears to be headed for the collective mental trashheap labelled 'received ideas', the mental dunghill of cultural decline...Okay, I'll go easy on the metaphors.)

Despite these reservations (or because of them, for history lives by informed argument), I enthusiastically recommend Postwar--especially to American readers, most of whose acquaintance with European history ends where this book begins.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Gunter Grass's too controversial, much-heralded memoir, Peeling the Onion, is disappointing overall. It's not a great Grass book in the way that Palimpsest is a great Vidal book. It's too long, contains too many unsatisfying digressions and shameless plugs for Grass's other books, is too redundant (an age-old Grassian vice: what in Thomas Mann was a musical repetition of motifs becomes in Grass an exercise in mechanical redundancy), and finally doesn't tell us enough about some of the most interesting questions it raises. (e.g., What did Grass and Paul Celan talk about in Paris all those years ago while The Tin Drum was struggling to be born?) One interesting/provocative/troubling aspect of this self-described 'memoir,' this explicit confession, this story presumed to be true, is that Grass repeatedly--indeed, obsessively--provokes our disbelief and even explicitly demands our skepticism. It's as though he wants us to read the story of his life with a greater disbelief than even his most experimental novels provoke. As I read I found myself wondering if this was merely a self-protective device, a way of distancing himself from his own memories (especially those of his time in the Waffen SS), or if it was, rather, Herr Professor Grass's final lesson to us: all propositions should be initially treated as doubtful, especially those presented as self-evidently true. Is Grass constructing for himself in this 'memoir' a new role, that of author-without-authority?


Peter Biskind's fast, juicy, gossipy, readable blockbuster of an inside Hollywood book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, forces me to consider the reactionary nature of many of the great films of the 70's. It seems that the only genuine maverick among the 'generation of '71' is Altman. With all of his complexities and contradictions, Altman is the guy who made the most deeply radical films (and paid a price for it--not in personal wealth but in creative freedom). By turning a deconstructive eye to genres, by making an Altman detective film (The Long Goodbye), an Altman war movie (MASH), an Altman gangster movie (Thieves Like Us), an Altman western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), etc., etc., he also incidentally (and perhaps malgre lui) criticized the ideologies that constructed and informed the conventions of those genres (capitalism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, militarism). This is the way in which Bob Altman, by no means an intellectual, becomes the Derridean anarchist of American cinema, while Billy Friedkin, old friend of Studs Terkel, becomes a creator of reactionary corporate product disguised as transgression--French Connection, Exorcist, etc. ad nauseum.

Biskind's book convinces me that great movies are like laws and sausages (and novels): you don't want to see them being made. By pulling back the curtain on The Godfather, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, and showing us what contingent, jerry-built, cut-and-paste jobs these (and all) movies are, and by showing us the necessary collaboration involved in moviemaking, with its inherent tensions and confusion of creditation, Biskind is really telling me much more than I needed to know. Fortunately (or unfortunately), it's a compulsively interesting book. I only wish he'd concentrated as much on the aesthetic as on the economic side of things. But, as this book constantly reminds me, they don't call it the movie business for nothing.

HOW TO READ LACAN by Slavoj Zizek

I've read enough of How to Read Lacan to be unimpressed by the hyperactive Zizek style, that cool, fast, glib skimming across the surfaces of texts (mixing high and low culture, from St. Augustine's Confessions to Ridley Scott's Alien) that scoops out only what one needs to exemplify one's (Lacanian) theory before moving on to the next text. Zizek writes philosophy for the age of channel surfing. He doesn't linger long enough to let his examples drag him down. If he did, some of them might drag him into a critique of Lacan, as great art always exceeds interpretations. The Slovenian Supernova is an enthusiastic follower, not a leader.

After finishing Zizek's book on Lacan, I think I've learned more about Zizek's style than Lacan's thought. Zizek quotes someone else as saying that Lacan's writings show us how he thinks more than what he thinks. In this sense, SZ (oh, those Barthesque initials are perfect for a poststructuralist!) may be the truest Lacanian of them all (meaning, of course, the phoniest).

STONER by John Williams

John Williams's Stoner is a good minor novel. Not great, but an excellent example of the best aspects of American regionalism: psychological and sociological insight married to an almost poetic lyricism. It's the kind of novel Thomas Hardy might have written had he been a midcentury American academic. (Bizarre thought.) It is a quite well-written novel, but not an extremely well-constructed one. The narrative is too episodic and lacks sufficient integration of the various themes. Also, Williams's physical 'marking' of the antagonist Lomax (and his protege Walker) with a physical deformity seems a bit overdone, the sort of thing we might find in the medieval texts Stoner studies but which strains credulity in the naturalistic 20th-century context in which Stoner appears. There's also a nasty little puritanical implication of homosexuality between the cripples--something Williams fails to explore beyond ambiguous innuendo. Indeed, the Walker character is left hanging as a narrative loose end, isn't he? So, despite a recent NYT rave, Stoner is not a 'perfect' book. It's not one that compels re-reading, either.

Monday, February 4, 2008

ON THE YARD by Malcolm Braly

Thanks to the New York Review's book publishing wing, NYRB Classics, I've discovered another great, unfortunately neglected novel, Malcolm Braly's On The Yard. A prison novel originally published in 1967 and long out of print until rescued by NYRB, this book may be the last great monument of American Modernism. As decentered as an Altman film, with a cast of dozens and no real central character, the novel treats the prison as a Joycean city and takes its structural cues from "Wandering Rocks" and Mrs. Dalloway, allowing the point-of-view to 'float' among the characters without seeming to privilege any one consciousness. This allows Braly to wander at will all over the prison universe, from the warden and the guards to the saddest and the most nihilistic inmates, creating a novel that seems almost too rich for its 300-odd pages. Surely the best and most surprising book ever written on the American prison system, this is a truly great novel, an unfairly overlooked masterpiece of American literature.

IT ALL ADDS UP by Saul Bellow

Bellow's nonfiction collection It All Adds Up leaves me even more mystified by the knee-jerk awe with which St. Saul of Chicago's name is invoked by reviewers and critics. Apparently, in the world according to Bellow, 'it' all adds up to Neoconservatism, accompanied by the hoary claim of all ideologues (usually left implicit by Bellow) that one's own idelogy is not an ideology at all but a description of self-evident, unmediated reality. Why, oh why, do so many people think Bellow is so good? Am I missing something? Okay, I'll admit to liking Seize the Day and being slightly more than indifferent to Augie March, but Herzog? Henderson the Rain King?? Humboldt's Gift??? The Dean's December????? Ravelstein???????????????? You gotta be kidding... And as for Saul's nonfiction (the point of this post), anyone who considers the late neocon disinformation artist Allen Bloom a great political thinker has truly abandoned all critical discrimination and need no longer detain us (to use a favorite formulation of Harold Bloom). To end, I note in passing that after the obligatory funereal encomia a blanket of silence descended over Bellow's work. His posthumous reputation seems headed for a probably deserved oblivion. He's a period piece. The general consensus is, as so often, dead wrong.

Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN and the Kabbalah

I'm attracted to the dialectical and heretical implications of the Lurianic kabbalist concept of tsimtsum. The idea that the proto-creative act is one of deific withdrawal suggests a universe that can be defined as 'the place where God is not.' (This is, I immediately remind myself, an overly dualistic caricature of tsimtsum, an act which, according to Scholem's reading of the mystics, leaves a residue of God in space, a divine Derridean trace.) Strategically ignoring the later stages of the Lurianic creation myth, in which the fallen world is infused with sparks of divinity, I want to linger on this first act, this originary withdrawal in which God creates the void. Dialecticizing, there is 'God' and 'not-God'; both imply and depend upon the other, but the space of creation is 'not-God.' This also seems to be the setting of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. The novel describes a world from which god has withdrawn, leaving only traces and ruins. (Doesn't the novel begin with falling stars, a meteor shower, sparks of light falling out of heaven? "God how the stars did fall," indeed--a kabbalistic image on the first page, which seems intended to be misread as Miltonic.) McCarthy's world is a place in which God exists, but not for us, not here. This is McCarthy's true theology, however Christian he may think he is.

POETICS by Aristotle

One surviving manuscript of Aristotle's Poetics breaks off just as the author turns to comedy. This suggests deliberate censorship, perhaps performed by a puritanical monk during the Middle Ages or later. The lost treatise on comedy would have told us much, of course, but even more importantly, its existence would have granted to comedy the seal of Aristotelian authority that tragedy has always enjoyed--an authority that survives even today in the privileging of 'serious' novels over 'funny' ones. (Count the number of comic novels that have won the Pulitzer prize; you can probably do it on one hand, maybe one finger.)

It's also interesting that even in the most famous passage of the discussion of tragedy, the stuff of comedy creeps in. Aristotle's word katharsis, signifying the supreme benefit of tragedy, also carries the signification of purgation, the action of a laxative. So scatology, the lowest of comedy, invades the heights of tragedy; the generic line is crossed even as it is being constructed.


Updike's Witches of Eastwick disappoints. It's a very well-written and very poorly constructed book, a fact that suggests Updike spent so much time polishing his prose (to an admittedly lovely shine) that he had none left to devote to story construction, narrative arc, sufficient character development, and all the other things that good narrative fiction requires. And Updike can't weasel out of responsibility with a "postmodernist's pass." This is no work of Kunderan or Calvinoesque avant-gardisme; it's a traditional American Romance (infused with a particularly nasty strain of traditional misogyny and Reagan-era anti-liberalism), and it's not built well enough to pass muster. I suspect that the book was well-reviewed and remains highly regarded (this was the one Updike novel included in Harold Bloom's notorious 'canon,' for example) because readers are blinded by Updike's stylistic pyrotechnics--i.e. his highly figurative prose--and cannot see that he has no real story to tell.

MERCIER AND CAMIER by Samuel Beckett

Beckett's little-known novel Mercier and Camier, written in 1946 but not published until the 1970's, is in its own way an even stranger and darker work than Waiting for Godot. Similar themes, images, and even lines of dialogue appear in both works (perhaps the reason for Beckett's sitting so long on the novel), but the novel is more unforgiving, more violent, more brutal and fatalistic, ending with a kind of death that's indistinguishable from life, just as the previous chapters' life was flatly, drily nightmarish. A very impressive book on this 2nd reading.

A quote: "What can be said of life not already said? Many things. That its arse is a rotten shot, for example." A nice Beckettian twist on 'shit happens.' Life shits aimlessly, pointlessly...

On finishing Mercier and Camier my desire is to flip the book over and read it again. High praise.


Flann O'Brien's The Dalkey Archive is far from literary greatness. To use one of the author's favorite words, it's a 'desultory' performance, formless, rambling, seemingly unplanned. It's a poorly edited, ill-conceived book that contains the suggestion of a truly great work only in the Joyce subplot. If the de Selby stuff had been jettisoned as so much melodramatic dead weight and O'Brien had expanded the 'resurrection of Joyce' idea into a full-length novel, then he might have had a genuine comic masterpiece on his hands. But as it is, the book is a fitfully funny mess.

THE FINAL SOLUTION by Michael Chabon

Chabon's Final Solution, though a slight, minor work, ultimately impresses me with its imagined confrontation between Sherlock Holmes, epitome of 19th-century rationality, and the genocidal 20th-century irrationality of the Holocaust. Chabon keeps the Holocaust theme subtle in his text (if not in his title, which terribly gives the game away), treating it more subtly than I would have (and I would've been wrong, overemphatic), touching the terror, in fact, in an oblique, Sebaldian way that preserves its irrationality, that doesn't try to contain the horror within a framework of 19th-century realism--the subtle but serious flaw of most ficitional treatments of the Holocaust. At the end, Holmes, limited in this new and terrible world by his antiquated hyper-rationality, cannot achieve this final solution, cannot quite grasp the horror. It is good, surprisingly so, and I find myself wishing it were longer, more complicated (Chabon can complicate a narrative with more facility than just about any writer alive, as evidenced by the first 80 pages of Wonder Boys), the characters better developed.


Portnoy's Complaint, on what I guess is my 3rd reading, still holds up, still surprises. It's as outrageous, inventive and infuriating as ever, a comedy that crosses all the lines, the first appearance of the Dionysian Roth who will repeatedly rear his phallic head at intervals during the writer's subsequent career--most notably in My Life as a Man, The Professor of Desire, Sabbath's Theater and The Dying Animal. It's a cry of literary liberation that begins as a whine and ends with a scream, and it's all wonderfully (or morbidly, depending on your literary politics) self-conscious. The structure (a psychoanalytic monologue exaggerated into a stream of consciousness novel) is original and free while still following a generally chronological progression, a narrative that begins in the speaker's childhood and ends in his adult present as he begins analysis.

What 'saves' the character of Portnoy for us readers, finally--even after Roth alienates us from the character by showing us his attempted rape of the Israeli girl--is Portnoy's humor, his appreciation of the absurdity, the impossibility, of his situation and his ability to joke about it. Even when language fails and he screams out at the end, he's able to deflate the pathos with a punch line--which is more than that: a statement of beginning at the end, it forces a Joycean curcularity upon the text, a cycling back to the origin of neuroses in childhood, the movement that neatly defines Portnoy's prison. Serious stuff, for a farce.