Sunday, December 14, 2008

SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladimir Nabokov

Having commanded Mnemosyne to speak, Nabokov seems unable or unwilling to make her shut up. This work, the least impressive of Vlad the Inscriber's longer prose compositions, is distinguished by a desultory, rambling quality which none of the novels possess. Whenever Nabokov's fictional narrators wander tangentially away from the main line of a narrative, there's always a good reason for--and much of interest in--the digression, but when Nabokov-as-narrator wanders into genealogy, the joys of boys' western novels or the finer points of chess problems, this reader nods. There is too much that is boring and underexamined in this mis-subtitled work. (It's no kind of 'autobiography' at all; it is in fact the last example in the Western tradition of that quintessentially 18th-century literary form, the aristocratic memoir.) And it's surprising that Nabokov, who can ironize anything in his fiction, seems unable to cast a colder eye upon his childhood world. Instead, he gives us, for the most part, beautifully-written sentimentality, an almost ahistorical idyll, a record of a childhood paradise lost to the forces of ideology. Of course, the Nabokovian idyll rested on the backs of those barely seen servants, but Our Memoirist prefers not to notice the politics of his idyll--a repressive strategy as doomed as Zhivago's pastoral retreat... This is an odd, obsolete work, redeemed only by the beauty of its prose; even Nabokov's worst book is better written than the best book of just about any of his contemporaries... The biggest problem with Speak, Memory is the lack of any narrative arc. Rather than being a kind of postmodernism avant la lettre, this lack is better understood as a result of the book's piecemeal production. Each chapter, written at a specific time for a specific magazine, still bears the stamp of its occasion and resists integration into an autobiographical narrative. This is a recipe for boredom and redundancy. Also, Nabokov is simply too sentimental to subject those he loves (and those places he loved) to the burning ironic acid he deploys in Pale Fire and Lolita. This is as 'nice' as Vladimir Vladimirovich gets, and the work suffers for it.

There is, of course, another side to this book. There are sparkles in the Nabokovian mist: a few brilliant descriptive passages; an almost anthropological (or phenomenological) description of the life of the pre-Revolutionary Russian upper class; some passages that appear to have influenced W.G. Sebald who, in a rare critical lapse, pronounced this book (or at least parts of it) 'sublime'. (Maybe not so much of a lapse, if thus qualified.)

HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy by Philip Pullman

I like Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy so far (I'm about halfway through vol.2). The Subtle Knife, thus far, lacks the inventiveness and originality of The Golden Compass, but I'm still reading...The anti-theological satire seems more pronounced in book two, a trend which I hope continues, because Pullman has hit upon a fascinating idea for an alternate Earth: What would Europe look like if the Reformation had failed? No schism in Christendom, no Enlightenment, science referred to as 'experimental theology' and priestly spies posted to all science laboratories. This is all marvelous stuff, and Pullman handles it so subtly that only adults or attentive teens will pick up on it all.


Having just finished The Subtle Knife, I'm beginning to appreciate the Romantic audacity of Pullman's project. He is rewriting Paradise Lost in Nietzschean terms, imagining a story in which 'Adam' and 'Eve' bring about the death of God, destroy 'the Authority.' Magnificent. If he can pull this off, I will remove my hat and humbly eat it. This is a Romantic act worthy of his own daimonic Lord Asriel. Upon book three, The Amber Spyglass, rests the question of the success or failure of Pullman's Miltonic rebellion.


Well, Pullman didn't quite pull it off. The trilogy runs very well for most of its length, with few missteps, but then in the last third of The Amber Spyglass Pullman prematurely climaxes his most adventurous storyline, leaving the book to limp toward an anticlimactic, unsurprising denouement. A truly disappointing ending--and damn bad narrative construction. Until the last 100 pages, though, His Dark Materials is superior fantasy, illuminated by flashes of strong, strange greatness that lift it out of the genre bin and onto the literature shelf. Specifically, I'm thinking of the alethiometer and its interpretation, which can be interpreted as an allegory of reading; of the mulefa world, an invention worthy of Calvino; of the 'subtle knife' itself, a Borgesian space-time instrument that cuts like a moviola between different narrative worlds; of the very Borgesian concept of the possibly infinite number of parallel worlds; of Iofur Raknison's grand, gaudy, filth-strewn bear palace; of the dismal 'refugee camp' of the dead. This is all marvelous stuff--intelligent, literary fantasy at its best--and it's wonderful to think that kids and teenagers will read it and perhaps move on to investigate the works alluded to (Milton, Blake, Keats, etc.). Just as Jim Morrison led me to Blake many years ago, Philip Pullman might pull contemporary young people toward the canon. Harold Bloom's fulminations over Harry Potter's success seem overly curmudgeonly in light of the fact that some Harryheads will inevitably become Pullmaniacs and have their appetites whetted for the old books that inform Pullman's new ones. As a bonus, there's some biting anti-Christian satire in these books that simply delighted me.


In this fine, terrible, chilling book, Glover points out an important and compelling distinction between Nazism and the other major totalitarian ideology of the 20th century, Stalinism. The communist genocides (Stalinist and Maoist terrors and famines, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot's 'Year Zero') can be tenuously traced to Enlightenment utopianism, albeit in nationalistically twisted forms. Part of their horror lies in the fact that these governments created hells in the name of building paradises. The Nazi terror was of a different philosophical order. It was a pre-Enlightenment movement fueled by a vision of ultimate German dominance, the 'thousand-year reich.' For the Nazis, the creation of hell on Earth was the end, not the means. Obviously this is a quibble from the point of view of the millions of victims of these regimes, but I think it does suggest a reason for the special horror the Nazi atrocities evoke in us. The Nazis, in the middle of modern Europe in the middle of the Modernist century, prided themselves on their anti-Utopianism. To adapt Martin Amis, they built an autobahn to the animal brain, and millions of people eagerly speeded to the end of that road.

LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov

Upon re-reading Lolita yet again, I'm impressed by Nabokov's modernization of Flaubert in his characterizations of Charlotte Haze (especially) and Lolita. Nabokov (or Nabokov's novel, by no means the same thing) appreciates the extent to which our selves, as we perform them, are imitations of mass media prototypes. Recall the scene in which Charlotte and Humbert can communicate 'deeply' only because his expressions and her consciousness have been cribbed from the same sources: sentimental movies, cheap novels, popular magazines--the massmedia of midcentury America.

There's really nothing new or 'post-modern' about this. It's a concept as old as long-form fiction, and a history of the novel might be written with this theme as its through-line: the novel as a critique of 'the culture of the novel,' the culture in which novels and other media products aid in the production of the self, the process that we over-optimistically call 'socialization.' This is a concern--although not, of course, expressed in these terms--of Western fiction from Don Quixote (driven mad by books) to Madame Bovary (destroyed by sentimental fiction) to Huckleberry Finn (a Cervantine critique of Walter Scottish novels) to Lolita, and then there's The Great Gatsby, that little primer on the construction of the self under capitalism. Nutshelled, the idea is that while only a few human beings make books (or movies or TV shows), books make millions upon millions of human beings. Again, this is hardly a new idea; Oscar Wilde had it more than a century ago. But the persistence of the theme from the birth of the novel in Renaissance Spain to its death(?) in the hypertextual 2000s (Is it death or transfiguration? Calling Richard Strauss... If it's anything, this carping on the death of the novel or the death of reading is a symptom of Western provincialism and intellectual exhaustion; the novel is very much alive and constantly metamorphosing around the world today; the reports of its death emanating from American academic ghettos are all greatly exaggerated.) suggests that there's something in the basic structure and/or ideology of the novel (all novels) that is self-conscious, reflective, self-referential, that the novel is an inherently critical medium, perhaps the only essentially critical narrative form. One aspect of the novel's work is to produce a mirror of that work, reflecting the dangers of its reading back upon the reader. Is this a result of novelists' barely conscious Platonic/puritanical 'bad consciences', their anxieties about the negative results of the representations they struggle so mightily to produce? Or is some other mechanism at work? Is the structure of the novel something like the structure of the mind? The mind, thinking, reflects upon its own thought processes, inventing fictional characters such as Mr. Mind, Ms. Thought, the whole vague Memory Family, in order to better dramatize and comprehend a process that is--according to the best science we have--a business of webby tissues and chemical baths. The structure of the novel mimics the structure of the mind--not to be confused with the brain, creator of both.

Well, as I was saying before my brain fired off that cognitive digression, this 3rd or 4th reading of Lolita revealed a few things I hadn't noticed before, such as the central lag in the book's structure. Part One is very good, but the first half of Part Two disappoints (as I believe it did on my previous readings, but the book's better parts relegated it to oblivion in my memory). The long, Whitmanesque catalogs of motels and roadside attractions that begin the section, while often funny, quickly blur into a gray haze of American white noise, information overload. The section is a Nabokovian travesty of Flaubert's famous "He travelled" passage near the end of Sentimental Education, but the beauty of the source lies in its unrealistic brevity. Humbert's travels, by contrast, are more exhausting than enjoyable. And yet...and yet, even as I write this I wonder if that might not be exactly the point...It may be impossible to definitively criticize a work so endlessly ironic; any critique feels like a foot placed squarely into a beartrap laid by the shadowy V. Siren (or is it the umbral Vivian Darkbloom?)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

THE BLANK SLATE by Steven Pinker

The deafening silence that accompanied the 2002 publication of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (If there was an outcry, I didn't hear it.) was the unmistakable sound of a paradigm shifting. If this book had been published 20 or 25 years earlier, it would have ignited furious scholarly denunciations, critical conferences, even public demonstrations, but it seems that sometime around the millennium a new paradigm slid into place, and the ideas that ignited the 'sociobiology wars' of the 1970s-80s in academe have achieved broad acceptance. This book does seem to be the final and decisive nail in the coffin of a kind of radical social constructionism that creeped from sociology and literary theory into biology in the 1970's-90's. It replaces the concept of mind as a tabula rasa written upon by patriarchal capitalist society with a more nuanced approach to mind informed by recent research in neuroscience, genetics, cognitive science, evolutionary theory, etc. In short, Pinker compellingly argues that genes and heredity and evolutionary history ('biology' in the broadest sense) are more important in determining the construction of the self than any of the current 'star' thinkers in the American humanities have been willing to admit. If the self is likened to a computer, all of the hardware and a significant percentage of the software is assembled and loaded at the genetic factory; culture and society load the rest of the software and tinker with the hardware, but who we are is profoundly genetic. This is a chastening notion for anyone who has come into self-consciousness in an intellectual world dominated by Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and their American disciples--even for someone like me who reads them with a large bag of rock salt--but it's good and healthy (it is meet, as Shakespeare might have said) to be intellectually chastened every once in a while. The nature-nurture debate is by no means over (and I suspect Pinker underestimates the importance of environment), but the massive amount of evidence he marshals from anthropology, biology, medicine, etc. should make it virtually impossible for anyone to argue that the biological component of personality and behavior is negligible or that there is no fundamental 'human nature' shared by all homo sapiens regardless of culture. The book is already forcing me to re-examine my existentialism. Yes, Virginia, there is an 'essence' and it precedes our individual existences by tens of thousands of years. There is, in other words, a human nature, and its existence is powerfully demonstrated by the many columns of cultural universals in the back of Pinker's book (some of which are, admittedly, highly abstract and arguable). So the fundamental principle of Sartrean existentialism is incorrect. Can I 'save' Sartre, save what's valuable for me in existentialism (its godless ethics, its insistence on free will, 'thrownness' and the absurdity of existence)? I think I can, even in the face of the idea that not only what makes us similar but what makes us individual (tendencies toward aggression, melancholy, happiness, etc.) may well be genetically programmed. The key to saving an existentialist outlook lies in the realization that we are hardly the slaves of our genetic inheritance. First, we must appreciate that the genetic inheritance is complex and contradictory. We have evolved frontal lobes, for example, that control and repress the violent impulses in the brain's limbic system. (Incidentally, this is a good example of contemporary neuroscience independently confirming Freud's theories of repression and showing their material basis.). Second, we have developed self-consciousness and the abilities to reason, to empathize, to feel compassion, to love irrationally. All of these may be genetic inheritances, but we have the freedom to put them into play against other, darker inheritances. That's where the crucial existential choices come in.

What are the downsides of Pinker's book? His theories can be easily misused by the far right (and even left) to justify differential social and legal measures, but one hopes this is a characteristic only of the wacko political fringe. There are a few passages in which I think Pinker comes very close to racism, and overall the book does seem to be concealing a neoconservative bias. From a methodological standpoint, Pinker is seemingly oblivious to the dangers of his own 'paradigm creep', even as he decries the creeping paradigms of the 'blank slate' and the 'noble savage'. This is especially evident in the chapter on art, which reads like an afterthought that should have been excised. Pinker is far outside his area of competence here, and it shows.

THE GOD DELUSION by Richard Dawkins

One of the things that has long attracted me to Richard Dawkins--and which is on frequent display throughout The God Delusion--is his intellectual pugnacity. His seemingly fearless straightforwardness comes like a refreshing breeze into a public sphere where too many academics fear offending their colleagues, superiors, the public, the mullahs (Muslim and Christian), etc. Dawkins is not 'nice'; that is, he doesn't tiptoe across the linguistic eggshells of politically correct discourse, trying above all not to offend. The P.C. disease, rampant in the American academy a decade ago, happily never made it to Dawkins's Oxford office. This undoubtedly reflects a cultural difference between the fervid fundamentalist-tending U.S. and the more laid-back relative secularism of contemporary Britain. (These are of course gross generalizations, but I'm thinking out loud one should expect rigor.) This thought leads me to wonder about the hypocrisies of P.C.: wasn't this (isn't this) really conservatism in radical leftist drag? Whatever leftist intentions may have been behind P.C., by the time this doctrine of inoffensive blandness became institutionalized it was already a reactionary conversation-stifler, an attempt to embrace everyone and everything while discouraging incisive criticism in the names of pluralism, multiculturalism and 'respect'. Pluralism is my philosophy; multiculturalism is the reality in which we live; but respect need not be accorded to horrendous ideas and practices (female genital mutilation, circumcision, the suicidal fantasies of David Koresh) in the names of pluralism and multiculturalism. And perhaps we can best show our respect for other human beings (who are more worthy of it than any religion) by giving them a candle and a key, showing them a possible way out, an alternative worldview, another way of living.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Sebald's On The Natural History of Destruction is almost as astonishing and moving as his prose fictions. Beautifully controlled by Sebald's magisterial prose, it's a guided tour of hell that never lapses into hysteria--and is all the more horrible for that. I note a connection between what Sebald works toward in the title piece (a 'natural history' built out of the powerfully evocative images into which history has crystallized) and American philosopher Walter A. Davis's emphasis in Deracination on the power of images to communicate history's horrors. Thinking about this similarity sets me wondering if Sebald might have read Davis's 1989 magnum opus, Inwardness and Existence, a book that seems to be slightly better known in the British academy than the American (the current Archbishop of Canterbury has referenced it). It's possible, but I suspect the similarity is born of the fact that two writers of the same era and age (I think Davis is 2 or 3 years older than Sebald) who read many of the same books may arrive at similar ideas, even if they live a hemisphere apart. Anyway, the Natural History sits as both complement to and commentary upon Sebald's fictions, and as such it evokes a particularly Sebaldian melancholy in this reader when he considers how much was lost in those few seconds on an English highway in late 2001.


This is a very well-written but rather minor novel. It's also tiresomely overwritten in places, with characters commanding rhetorics far beyond their years. While reading it I frequently asked myself, How can a novel this short be this boring? The answer: Musil 'tells' us too much instead of 'showing' us the characters' psyches via observed actions. There's also a certain desultory quality in the narrative structure that drains away intensity. Musil takes about 40 pages, for example, to reach the point at which the book should have begun. But there are consolations in the book: some passages of prose-poetry are quite impressive; and the final interview scene, in which each of the instructors attempts to enlist Torless's thoughts into his own weltanschauung while Torless resists and insists upon the individuality of his experiences (and is consequently drummed out of the institution), is a nice bit of Musilean irony.

A personal note: Upon beginning this book I remembered reading it once before but could recall absolutely nothing about it. I now believe that this must be because I hadn't actually read it. I must have abandoned it after a few pages back in the autumn of 2001, a time when national hysteria rendered the goings-on at an Austro-Hungarian boys' school rather beside the point...(Or maybe the novel's juvenile martial setting cut a little too close to the post-9/11 bone.)

WILL IN THE WORLD by Stephen Greenblatt

Unlike most of his contemporaries in the academy, Stephen Greenblatt writes a clear, attractive prose. His style is illuminated with glimmers of mild wit and carries surprisingly uncluttered arguments. In short, the man writes well, and this makes his book worth reading. As for his arguments, he's too eager to place the young Shakespeare in a world of Catholic conspiracy (probably because it's an entertaining subject that Greenblatt wants to write about), but his identification of Robert Greene as an original of Falstaff is as clever as it is compelling. The biggest problem with Greenblatt's book is its generic classification. This isn't 'nonfiction' at all. It is as much a tapestry woven from authorial supposition and educated guesswork as Burgess's Nothing Like The Sun and deserves to be placed alongside that novel as an imaginative improvisation (albeit by a narrator more sober than Burgess's) upon Shakespearean themes. All Shakespeare biographies are finally historical novels; given the paucity of significant information about the subject's life, they can be nothing else. Greenblatt's book might have benefitted from more self-consciousness in this area.

BELOVED by Toni Morrison

And now it's time for a little heresy:

Toni Morrison's Beloved is not a great novel. In fact, it's not even a very good one. It's too slow, too long, contains scenes of such overripe melodrama that any other literary writer would be chastised for including them, and--now I commit the heresy of heresies--it's not even especially well-written. That's right. Morrison's much-lauded prose doesn't impress me much. Even in her celebrated lyrical passages she seems to be forcing intensity into her lines through obvious rhetorical devices such as repetition (writing "slowly, slowly" when a simple "slowly" would do). There's also one glaring logical problem with the narrative, unresolved at the halfway point: surely one of Paul D's acquaintances or coworkers would have informed him of Sethe's past very soon after his arrival in Cincinnati. Paul's ignorance is simply not credible and exists solely so Morrison can manipulate her readers by slowly lifting the curtain on her murder scene.

INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison

Rereading Invisible Man, I find it even more intriguing and impressive than on my first reading, even though I'm now better equipped to spot its flaws, such as the Faulkner pastiche at the beginning of chapter five (Ellison sounding more like Oxford Bill than KC Ralph, exactly what one would expect of an American working on his first novel ca.1950) and the way Ellison explicitly states the subject of the next chapter at the end of each. Both are rookie errors and should be covered under the slack that readers must always grant a promising first novel, regardless of the reams of praise and commentary it has accrued.

But even with all its flaws--the intriguing minor characters who breeze past us and are lost to the narrative like missed exits on a freeway, the passages that sound too Faulknerian or Hemingwayesque, the rookie mistakes--Invisible Man remains a great novel that contains moments of awesome, astonishing power. Its greatness is on a level with The Tin Drum but not with Ulysses. Upon finishing it, I wonder if the ideology of liberal individualism expressed in the final pages is sufficiently exemplified by the preceding narrative, or if Ellison's flights of imagination lay the book open to deconstructive readings that might push the novel's ostensible liberalism into something more radical and militant (a kind of anarchism, perhaps) or more conservative (considering the novel's condescension toward its female characters). I suspect that the final fiction is less ideologically stable than Ellison intended, hence the explicit statement of ideology in the epilogue.

That said, Ellison's improvisations, his imaginative flights, his surrealism, all of this is marvelous. The novel is a better blend of naturalism and symbolism than Edmund Wilson achieved in Hecate County, and it approaches Kafka in its nightmarish intensity and inventiveness. This is the way to write an American novel.

MY LIFE AS A FAKE by Peter Carey

Carey's My Life As A Fake is surprisingly good, considering the lukewarm-at-best reviews it received upon publication. It's a very enjoyable, original, quite clever literary novel--perhaps too clever for its own good, since it apparently flew over the heads of most reviewers. They failed to appreciate Carey's deliberate, often subtle, sometimes intertextual, provocations of disbelief, his many signals that the text we're reading is, like all the other narratives and texts it contains, a 'fake,' a fiction the validity of which must be questioned and the motives of its teller examined. It's a delicious book, delightful, maybe the most purely enjoyable thing Carey has yet written.

There are so many levels in this deceptively simple narrative that I can only acknowledge Carey's preeminence as the most audacious faker of them all. Carey leads us into his fictional Barnum house, his fabric of potential falsehoods, his narrative of blind alleys, hidden sanctuaries, dubious texts, just as (in one possible interpretation) John Slater leads Sarah Wade-Douglas into the labyrinth of Kuala Lampur in order to use her as the bait in his plot to avenge himself on Christopher Chubb for the Noussette affair, when Chubb successfully 'played' him. This interpretation only came to me in an 'aha' moment a couple of hours after finishing the novel, and I think it's a valid solution--and Carey's failure to reveal it in the text is also justified, since his narrator is unable to see herself as a mere pawn in Slater's malicious plot. She doesn't ask herself the right questions, she fails to appreciate the fictitious nature of her reality--a glaring failure, to the attentive reader. What a wonderful novel!


Reading Morris Berman's almost unrelievedly pessimistic--and, tragically, almost completely convincing--volumes of social criticism, The Twilight of American Culture (2000) and Dark Ages America (2006), I feel as though I'm being infected by Berman's hopelessness, his too-compelling vision of an America already too far gone to avoid cultural death. Surely he's being too pessimistic, focusing too much on the very dark 'dark side' of contemporary America while not recognizing that he can only make his case with information gleaned from the works of those who represent another side, one he slights, the embattled and marginalized but still active left-liberal side of the American sociopolitical spectrum. (Berman would doubtless counter that he doesn't ignore this side at all, that in fact he's a charter member of it.) Also, for all of Berman's pessimism, he still seems to hold onto one last metaphysical guarantee: a dialectical theory of history which ensures that a New Enlightenment will eventually come, a guarantee that ultimately justifies the work of his "new monastic individuals". But what if his structural analysis is wrong and we are in fact just whistling into an endless dark, our best works destined to become exhibits in the Deng Xiaopeng Memorial Museum of Western Decadence (est. 2143)?... The best we can do, I guess, is work authentically for our own sakes and for the work's sake--which is exactly what all artists worthy of the name have always done. Anyway, although I fear Berman is right, I hope he's wrong and that the current darkness will end sooner than he thinks... At least there's this modicum of hope: even when we can't see the light, we can still be the light. (I know, it sounds like Jesse Jackson, but I think W.H. Auden would probably agree with it.)


Mailer's Armies of the Night stands up to a second reading, although it does not demand one. There's a lot of good stuff in the book, all of it dominated by Mailer's greatest creation: his colossally insecure, obsessively self-regarding Self. Mailer (or should I say "Mailer"?) comes across like a pugilistic Woody Allen, a nebbish who has read too much Hemingway. He's willing to laugh at himself, but not too boisterously. His reveries about technology, totalitarianism and American life are often insightful, sometimes original and (unfortunately) still relevant. But the book's greatest value for me on this reading lies in Mailer's voice: that reckless, intelligent, prodigal, American voice, that voice that frequently tiptoes to the farthest border of authorial control and occasionally slips over. This voice is the book's greatest contribution, and when it goes away, replaced at page 240 by Mailer's intentionally dry 'Historian' voice, my interest dwindles. This late change of tone and persona is the book's biggest flaw; it's boring and unnecessary because Mailer has already 'shown' us the kind of history/journalism he is writing against--he has shown it to us by writing its diametrical opposite. There's no need for him now to become what he has just demolished. So pages 240-275 are the book's most skim-worthy...But Norman redeems himself at the end. His analysis of the official violence that ended the final phase of the demonstration is some of the best and most disturbing work of his career.