Tuesday, July 1, 2008


The Nobel committee has finally encouraged me to try The Golden Notebook again, and I find it much better than I did on my abortive first reading ten years ago. Lessing is surely the most Lawrentian writer alive--an idea that greatly delights and surprises me. That's probably what Harold Bloom sees in the book: Lessing as a female re-writer of Lawrence, revising Women in Love in an age of self-consciousness.

My verdict upon finally finishing the book? A very good novel. It's too long, of course (a typical Lessing weakness), and there are some boring parts (especially in the first and last 100 pages), but the novel's highs are very high and original and almost unutterably strange. Lessing strikes off some wonderfully poetic images: intense, unforgettable stuff, such as the image of madness as a crack in the self through which the future of humanity might burst like water through a failing dam. Her exploration of human complexity, including but not limited to sexuality, at times surpasses that of her great precursor, Lawrence. Really, I'm stunned at how much good stuff is hidden in the inner sections of this book. There are even some hilarious comic scenes that show us Lessing revising and correcting her precursor's dire humourlessness... And to top it all off, at novel's end Lessing leaves us in a position of deconstructive uncertainty as to the relation of any of the book's narratives to 'reality'. Is Free Women a literary act of controlled hysteria in which Anna tames and suppresses the wild chaos of the later blue and golden notebooks, or are the notebooks artful exaggerations of Free Women's milder 'reality'? Lessing leaves this question and all related ones open, so that we readers ultimately find ourselves in the position of Free Women's 'Anna' during her brush with madness: in a space papered obsessively with texts that have an insolubly problematic relationship to reality. That way Derridean madness lies. The 'solution' found by the narrator of Free Women (whom Lessing in her 1971 intro identifies with Anna) is an ironic stoicism, a very British stiff-upper-lip soldiering on in the face of meaninglessness. It's a position akin to Rortian irony. But this ending is heavily, almost sarcastically, ironic; and the entire final section is seriously undermined by the unforgettably surreal imagery of madness that has gone before... Yes, it's one hell of an interesting book.

THE CONFIDENCE MAN by Herman Melville

Melville's Confidence Man is the literary equivalent of the Big Con. (If you don't know what that is, go to a video store and rent The Sting.) Anyone who reads past page 50 eventually sees that the joke's on him, that the book is tiresomely repetitive and peppered (or should I say 'papered'?) with passages of dry, failed pastiche that are too imitative to be funny. As on my previous embarkations aboard the Fidele, I find myself wanting to like this book but being repelled by its transparently conning nature. Melville makes a serious mistake early in the game when he shows his hand to all careful readers; his narrative voice is so rarely poker-faced that we can't really give him our readerly confidence. The book, in other words, is a failed confidence game at the reader's expense and its narrator an incompetent con man. We don't--and shouldn't--believe him for a minute. The first sentence, with its outlandish 'Manco Capac' simile, is fair warning. The major artistic problem with all of this is that an incompetent con man isn't interesting, just irritating. (By contrast, the expert conmen in David Mamet's House of Games and Glengary Glen Ross interest us because they successfully con us into identifying with them--which is, not incidentally, a pretty good description of the actor's job.) If the narrator were a better con man, we would let him entertain us; as it is, after 60 or 70 pages (or sooner) the only thing we want to do is put the book back on the shelf and re-read Moby Dick or Bartleby the Scrivener or Billy Budd.


"Seeking what is true is not necessarily seeking what is desirable." -- Camus

On this reading of The Myth of Sisyphus I'm thinking about the relative strengths and weaknesses of Camus' absurdist arguments against suicide. In addition to arguing that suicide is 'unethical' in an absurdist understanding of ethics because it 'settles' the problem of the absurd (a rather dogmatic argument that depends on Camus' assertion that living in the absurd is an unquestionable good), Camus argues that an appreciation of life's transience, meaningless and absurdity, far from making life valueless, makes it more worth living. Such a consciousness of absurdity infuses every moment of existence with the aura of ultimate transience: this kiss may be the last kiss, this rose the last rose, etc... It's a compelling argument, but I doubt if it would matter to someone suicidally depressed, someone who has already been living for some time in that curious state of hypersensitive lethargy that is the pre-suicidal consciousness.

A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway

What a surprisingly strange and disjointed book this is! A collection of obviously carefully worked fragments that never quite cohere into an overall narrative, A Moveable Feast is both an occasion for its author to settle old scores (against the dead-by-publication Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein, as well as other lesser names) and a sometimes highly illuminating look at writerly process. The book frequently falls into bathos; indeed, some sections seem to take bathos as a formal principle: beginning with incomparable lyrical description, moving on to an encounter written in strict Hemingwayan dialogue rhythms, then ending in anticlimactic triteness with Ernie and Hadley sharing a typically saccharine exchange.

Two sections especially intrigued me on this reading: the long Fitzgerald section, in which Hemingway devotes a quarter of the book to the project of taking back everything he says in the section's opening elegiac paragraph, and the odd, contradictory, conflicted "Birth of a New School," in which the author puts his own homophobic hysteria on display and then retreats into an image of himself mothering his baby. In other words, he takes a traditionally female role in a domestic space immediately after publically putting down a local queer. Very suggestive and self-deconstructing, the section reveals a bit more, it seems, than the author might have intended.

DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

This is a truly great novel, a highly-intelligent, complex work that constantly surprises the reader. Coetzee's lovely, allusive, Modernist prose (justified by his protagonist's literary profession) binds the work into the European tradition, from Goethe and Wordsworth to Kafka, but as I read I also found myself comparing its 'deep structure' to that of a novel Coetzee never references, The Charterhouse of Parma. Like Stendhal's work, Disgrace begins as one kind of book (a 1990s academic PC scandal narrative a la Oleanna, The Human Stain, one of the storylines in The Corrections, etc.) but then unexpectedly shifts gears to become quite another kind of story (an exploration of power, race and sex in post-Apartheid rural South Africa). This conjoined disjunction sets up a powerful series of ironic echoes as each narrative reflects upon the other. It's a profound, very disturbing and unsettling reading experience, a thoughtful book that (like all great novels) demands re-reading.

INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is no better in the $10 tenth anniversary edition than it was in the hardcover I bought remaindered a decade ago for $6.95. To correct a couple of the critical hyperboles of the mid-90's: the book is no Ulysses; nor is it a Gravity's Rainbow, however much it tries to be. No, it's just a big, bloated, unsurprising hodgepodge of elements very much like things we've read before in Pynchon, DeLillo, Nabokov, etc. The biggest problem is Wallace's lazy prose, a language typed rather than written, a prose so weak and, like, hiply inarticulate and, like, condescending to the point of, like, insult, you know... A little of this faux-demotic goes a long, long way. Listening to DFW 'talk cool' is like watching John Kerry drink beer--vaguely painful. After reading 100 pages (a tenth of its length) I've returned IJ to the shelf convinced that I'm not missing much, that the book hasn't aged well (its technology has already been superseded by the internet and DVDs), and that a week spent reading it would be a wasted week... And yet, all other things being equal, if DFW could write like Nabokov I'd read his damned book, no problem, even if it were longer than Proust. And if he were as talented as Vlad the Inscriber and as outrageously funny as Jonathan Swift or Philip Roth, then IJ would be a great book, but DFW sets his sights lower, aiming toward the second-rate academic comedians (sic) of the Seventies: Profs. Barth, Barthelme, Coover--writers no one off-campus ever reads...

THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

Upon finishing The Corrections I hereby retract my earlier characterization of it (in conversation and online) as a 'truly awful, overrated book,' an opinion based on an aborted first reading several years ago. While certainly flawed and too worshipful of the fictions of Don DeLillo, it's a good novel overall. It's good, not great, and certainly not the landmark work of American literature that it was proclaimed by many reviewers. No, what we really have here is a Joyce Carol Oates-type social realist novel (the least adventurous kind of 'serious' American literature) dosed with DeLillo-esque paranoia and spiced with a few scenes that pastiche the 'edgy' pantheon (Pynchon in the 'talking turd' scene; Heller in the 'ship's doctor' scene). This combination creates a few jarring tonal disparities (as though scenes from an earlier, more satirical draft have been spliced into the more somber final narrative) and lessens the novel's impact, making it read at times more like a first novel than a third one. So, while The Corrections is not a masterwork--and is not, I suspect, as adventurous a novel as Franzen is capable of writing--it is still well worth reading.


Mann's Buddenbrooks, which I've finally gotten around to reading many years after buying a copy, is quite good--indeed, it is at times absolutely masterful, completely assured and amazingly good, for a first novel (important condition)--but it's far from beyond reproach. Without further ado, then, my reproaches: the Dickensian grotesques Mann uses to fill minor roles are all equally irritating; after a great beginning and an extraordinary first third, the narrative drags during the book's second half (and second third); the long epilogue-like chapter depicting Hanno's schoolday greatly disturbs the book's overall formal unity and reads like a late addition, an almost-independent fiction employed to pad out the volume. Still, it is a good book, an exceptional family saga with some indelible scenes and characters and a very good business novel that dramatizes the Christianity-Capitalism conflict (thus problematizing Max Weber).

I also noticed that Mann's characterizations become more psychological as the book goes on, as though he taught himself psychological characterization during the act of composition. Further proof of the only real rule of writing: Inspiration and discovery occur during the act of composition, not before. That's one of the things that makes the act so addictive...

THE WAVES by Virginia Woolf

I've finally gotten around to Woolf's The Waves only to discover that it wasn't worth the wait. Yes, it's a beautiful book...but unfortunately it's not a very good one. It's a beautiful failure. The whole thing is simply too overwrought--the prose tries always to overflow, burst its banks, while the author forces it into a stylistic and structural straightjacket. The Waves is a marked artistic falling off from the heights of Dalloway and Lighthouse, a regression to symbolism that negates the symbolism/naturalism Wilsonian Modernist melange of the earlier novels. (That's Edmund Wilson, by the way, not Woodrow. Edmund adumbrates his theory of Modernist literature as the synthesis of symbolism and naturalism in Axel's Castle.) Woolf rejects her earlier Modernism and drowns it in a symbolist tidal wave. (I could be all too playfully clever and call it a 'title wave,' but I do have a small amount of taste.) The novel reads like a transcript of a seance with the author as medium: all the voices are a single voice, all the consciousnesses are Woolf's, and because of this lack of differentiation--worse, this lack of emotion or personality-- the novel fails to solicit our sympathy and even transforms its moments of pathos into laughable Woolfian self-parody. As an unintentional comic novel, it's almost as good as D.H. Lawrence's best/worst efforts.