Monday, December 28, 2009

INDIGNATION by Philip Roth

"We are here to be insulted."--Philip Roth, in conversation with Harold Bloom

I suppose it's time to attempt a nutshelled overview of the career of Philip Roth. First comes the Apprenticeship, a trio of works (Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go, When She Was Good) that obey the rules for midcentury American fiction and establish Roth as an only moderately adventurous member of the School of Bellow. Then, in the Woodstockian year, came Portnoy the Wanker. With Portnoy's Complaint, another Roth emerges, a restless experimenter with no rules and few limits. He transforms a character into a gigantic mammary (The Breast), does a bitter Swiftian satire of the Nixon administration (Our Gang), produces a complex (and still underrated) work of autobiographical metafiction (My Life as a Man), and writes a linguistically exuberant baseball novel (The Great American Novel). The first Zuckerman trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and the epilogue novella The Prague Orgy) constitutes a triumphant synthesis of Roth's traditional and experimental impulses. In the late 1980s Roth inaugurates his second experimental phase, this time blending fiction and autobiography in a series of category-defying works (The Counterlife (the most formally experimental fiction of his career), The Facts, Patrimony, Deception, Operation Shylock). After this period culminated (and fizzled out) in Shylock, Roth shifted gears to produce a one-off, magisterial burst of far-beyond-Portnoyesque outrage, Sabbath's Theater (my candidate for Roth's greatest novel; The Ghost Writer is my candidate for his most perfect book). This is followed by the much-lauded 'American trilogy' (American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Human Stain) three Bellowesque novels that threatened to turn their author into a fatally respectable 'American literary treasure'. Roth responded to the threat with a delightfully lewd novella, The Dying Animal, that marked him as a writer less assimilable than his recent works had made him appear. It also inaugurated the phase of his career that we can now call 'the late novellas' (including Everyman, Exit Ghost, and the subject of this post, Indignation). The obvious joker leering up from the deck of this understanding of Roth's late career is The Plot Against America. It fits my scheme in neither size nor my scheme must be wrong. Time will tell, as it always does.

Roth has always written novellas (e.g. Goodbye Columbus and the first Zuckerman trilogy), so his late concentration on the form is not terribly surprising. In contrast to his earlier novellas, though, the late novellas are 'terminal' works, narrative meditations that circle obsessively around themes of decline, disease and death. Indignation, which begins in a lighter mode as a typically Rothian Newark coming-of-age narrative, soon reveals itself to be the recollections under morphine of a soldier dying in the Korean War. The story has a couple moments of instantly classic Rothian outrage (an interview with a college dean that ends with the protagonist spraying the office with vomit; a minor character who breaks into the narrator's dorm room and covers his belongings in semen), as well as some elements and scenes that are nothing short of masterful (the book's explicit intertextual relationship to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; the collegiate snowball fight that becomes a campus version of Korea before modulating into a tamer (but more outrageous to the administrative powers that be) panty raid). Indignation is certainly not a bad book. It's better than the overrated Everyman, and I enjoyed it and found a lot to praise in it, but it is clearly one of Roth's lesser achievements. It doesn't approach his heights (The Ghost Writer, Portnoy, Sabbath), and even among the late novellas it's surpassed by Dying Animal and Exit Ghost. Roth's biggest problem here and in the late novellas generally might be something Aristotle could've diagnosed: Roth is trying to write tragedies as if they were comedies; he's telling tragic tales as though they were comic ones, and his style often jars against his subject matter. A good example of this is the long, ironic sentence in Indignation describing a minor character's death in a hellish automobile accident. The effect may well be deliberate (the dying or dead narrator's way of trivializing the death of an 'enemy'), but the irony sucks the tragedy out of this death--and, by implication, out of all death, surely not an authorially intended effect.

CONSIDER THE LOBSTER by David Foster Wallace

Color me surprised. After more than a decade of being disappointed by the works of David Foster Wallace, I've finally discovered one that I can, more or less enthusiastically, recommend. The quality of the nonfiction pieces collected in Consider the Lobster, along with those in his earlier collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, suggests that Wallace should probably have jettisoned his baggy and rather unoriginal fictional experiments in favor of the kind of original journalism and criticism exemplified here. In these occasional pieces (on the 'adult' film industry and its euphemisms; John Updike (whose name sounds like an adult film industry euphemism); dictionaries; Joseph Frank's monumental Dostoyevsky biography; the 2000 McCain campaign, etc.) Wallace was finally able to bring his prose up to the level of his thought--a considerable achievement, given that his previous works all left me with the impression of a guy who thinks better than he writes. Damned if I'm not starting to miss the dude now. He should've lived longer and written more.

THE NAME OF THE WORLD by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson's short and rather forgettable academic novella The Name of the World is, surprisingly, not a bad book. It has its good moments: a wonderfully observed dinner party; a departmental coffee klatsch during which the protagonist learns, via a farewell toast, that his contract will not be renewed; a wonderfully concise and devastating brief description of an academic Marxist (sic) conference ca.1990; and Johnson does provide an unexpected denouement to his variation on the horribly overused 'middle-aged-male-professor-and-young-female-student' scenario. But it's still a decidedly minor performance. Only rarely, in a few isolated passages scattered through the book, does it approach the excellence of the best moments of the touchstone Johnson work, Jesus' Son.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is Hamlet's Flesh Solid or Sullied?

Here's a Mindful Pleasures first: an entire post about a single word. The word is 'solid' or 'sullied' or even 'sallied,' and it occurs in Hamlet, act one, scene two, line 129:

O, that this too too {solid/sallied/sullied} flesh would melt...

The First Folio reads 'solid,' which seems straightforward enough, but the early quartos read 'sallied,' a word that doesn't seem to make any sense at all in this context but that editors understand as a variant of 'sullied.' I've always recoiled at the 'sullied' reading. I find it too clever by half (in its too blatant and too early sounding of the note of fleshly corruption that permeates Hamlet's ruminations) and, more importantly, it's an editorial imposition that sullies a reading the First Folio seems to have gotten entirely right. 'Solid' is the only word of the three that fits naturally into the metaphorical texture of the lines:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew...

The flesh, being too solid rather than too sullied, will not easily turn to liquid and annihilate itself in a vaporous dew. Again, this is a very straightforward, self-evident reading, and the imposition of 'sullied' merely introduces further unnecessary complications into the interpretation of the line. By Occam's Razor, the First Folio and Kenneth Branagh are right: it's 'solid.'

And there's also the possibility that solid/sallied/sullied is not a variant at all but a Shakespearean pun variously rendered. Perhaps the words 'solid' and 'sullied,' similar sounding even today, were homophonically close in Elizabethan London. If so, the Shakespearean 'solid' would have carried a double significance akin to that of the truly Finnegans Wake-ish a dew/adieu pun that 'resolves' the sentence. Either way, 'solid' must be the primary signifier, as it's the only logical choice to initiate the figure that undergirds the lines: flesh likened to water in its various states. The 'solid' reading is solid. Don't sully it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

EVEN MORE NOTES ON PROUST -- SWANN'S WAY, "Swann in Love," "Place Names..."

The beginning of the Swann-Odette relationship (and perhaps its entirety) reveals Jacques Lacan’s enormous debt to Proust. Swann’s initial attraction to Odette, a woman famously "not his type," is rooted not in his desire for her but in her desire–for whatever reasons–for him. His desire desires her desire. Or as Proust puts it, "the feeling that he possesses a woman’s heart may be enough to make him fall in love with her." The other’s desire creates a desire for that desire.

"Swann in Love" is, among much else, a parable about how art can change our lives–for the worse. Swann is an aesthete, a member of that generation of French and English aesthetes (Walter Pater was another) who ‘rediscovered’ Vermeer and Botticelli, a generation from which Proust learned much. Whenever an art object–Vermeer’s paintings, Vinteuil’s sonata–becomes an object of Swann’s desire, he wishes to know everything about it, a characteristically scholarly desire that functions well within the confines of the archive and the art museum but that becomes disastrous when transferred to the erotic realm. Since Odette is not Swann’s type, he rationalizes his attraction to her by mentally comparing her to a Botticelli he loves, despite the fact that "his desires had always run counter to his aesthetic taste." Odette aestheticized then becomes an object of obsessive research. Swann must know everything about her, regardless of how much the knowledge will torture him. (Recall also how Vinteuil’s little phrase 'liberates' Swann’s mind so he can more readily chain himself to Odette.)

All of Proust’s gardens have serpents. Even within the Debussy-esque loveliness of Vinteuil’s sonata is hidden a snake–as the dimwitted Forcheville’s "sonata-snake" pun reveals. Swann’s way contains no unproblematic pastorals.

While Swann is a sort of Romantic rationalist, the aesthete as researcher (rechercheur), Odette’s aesthetic tastes are more fashionably decadent. Her preference for orchids and chrysanthemums, flowers that look artificial, powerfully echoes the tastes of that uber-decadent, Huysmans’s Des Esseintes.

In "Swann in Love" the desire "to possess exclusively," the desire for monogamy, is portrayed as the ultimate perversion, a form of obsessive jealousy that we have been taught to call ‘love.’ In this vast roman fleuve of lesbian, gay and sadomasochistic sexualities, the heterosexual relationship between Swann and Odette (and the relationship it prefigures, that between Marcel and Albertine) may be the most perverse of all.

When Proust writes of "the act of physical possession (in which, paradoxically, the possessor possesses nothing)"(p.281), he magisterially throws off in a dependent clause a phrase that suggests an entire erotic psychology. It would take at least an essay and probably an entire book to unpack the implications of this ‘little phrase.’

The writing motif from the Combray ‘overture’ returns in "Place Names: The Name" with a significant variation: Gilberte has replaced Maman as the addressee of Marcel’s texts. It begins with Marcel doing what millions of young lovers have done, writing the beloved’s name repeatedly in his school exercise book, an activity Proust implicitly figures as a form of masturbation. His verb "traçais" should remind the reader of the "trace naturelle" of semen on the currant branch in "Combray." Likewise Marcel’s own description of this writing as "something purely personal, unreal, tedious and ineffectual." A few pages later, satisfaction comes in the form of a letter sent by Marcel to Gilberte. When she shows it to him and he sees her name written in his hand now obscured beneath postal marks and notations, he feels a rising exaltation far beyond anything a used envelope should cause. His writing, the artificial trace of his desire, his substitute for the substitute of masturbation, has now passed into Gilberte’s hands, and even the traces of the mundane system that delivered it now shine out with an erotic glow.

MORE NOTES ON PROUST -- SWANN'S WAY, "Combray," part two

I pause for a moment over the perfect and perfectly beautiful sentence that begins part two of ‘Combray.’ The image of the village seen from a distance looking like a flock of sheep crowded around a shepherdess-steeple brings to mind Apollinaire’s contemporaneous "Zone" with its similar metaphor for the Eiffel Tower. But where Apollinaire’s metaphor modernizes an archaic convention, Proust’s takes an already old-fashioned place and pastoralizes it, a tendency underscored by the archaizing and literally medievalizing comparison of Combray to "a little town in a primitive painting." The problematic modern pastoral tendency that dominates the entire section–the problem of Romantic nature in a Modern world--begins here.

It’s impossible (for me, anyway) to read of the invalidism of Marcel’s great-aunt (she who gives him the madeleine and sets the memory machine in motion) without thinking of it as an ironic and deliberate self-portrait of the invalid author. This adds an extra chill to the scene in which Marcel spies on her as she has a (comic) nightmare.

The long description of the church at Combray shows the obvious influence of Ruskin, whom Proust translated and whose influence on late 19th century thought was more widespread than most people realize today, but the Ruskin of the Recherche is Ruskin Proustified: eroticized and paganized. In other words, it’s Ruskin Pater-ized, a sublime synthesis of the two opposing currents in late Victorian aestheticism. (It also rings out gloriously against the Curé’s later philistinism about his own church.)

The great description of reading in ‘Combray’ (pp.97-103) includes Proust’s answer to Hamlet’s essential question on the power of art, art and emotion, actor and audience, text and reader: "What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,/ That he should weep for her?" (Proust’s answer, which both attracts and repels me, comes in the passage that begins with the sentence starting "The novelist’s happy discovery...") This entire ‘reading at Combray’ episode is one of Proust’s moments of nearly blinding brilliance. While reading it I feel that I’m being taken to a horizon of art, as far as language can go. It’s a reflection on reading that causes the reader to reflect on reading (including his readings of himself). It’s also the focus of Paul de Man’s essay on Proust in Allegories of Reading, an essay well worth reading even though it does seem ultimately to be an exercise in not seeing the forest for the trees.

On p.107 Proust describes that distinctly Parisian intellectual condition, the mal de Foucault, when he speaks of "the age [at] which one believes that one gives a thing real existence by giving it a name." This is an age Michel Foucault never entirely outgrew.

On p.144, Proust’s gorgeous, painterly description of asparagus culminates appropriately with what must be the most lyrical description of shit in all of Western lit: "I felt that these celestial hues indicated a presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form....all night long, after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume." This passage and the image of the semen-smeared currant branch show us in a very direct way how much Jean Genet owed to Proust.

The masturbation scene in the "little room" is the logical culmination (the climax, as it were) of this section’s ultra-Romantic eroticization of nature and landscape (recall Marcel caressing the hawthorn blossoms). Through the window of the little room, Marcel also sees one of the church steeples that are the phallic master motif of this section from its first sentence to its end, where Marcel’s birth as a writer occurs with a composition inspired by a vision of steeples. (The circularity here is beautiful, and it repeats in relative miniature the circular form of the entire Recherche, a vast narrative that ends with its narrator resolving to begin it.)

The Montjouvain sadism scene is a crucial moment of anti-pastoral (Sadism is just one of the serpents in Proust’s Garden of Love) as well as a first sharp sounding of the notes of lesbianism and voyeurism that will become increasingly important in the later volumes. The ritualized black mass of parental profanation directed at Vinteuil’s photo is a photonegative of the narrator’s cult of Maman, hence his immediate understanding of it. Marcel’s voyeurism here also rhymes with the crucial scene thousands of pages in the future (in the final volume) where Marcel spies on Charlus as he’s beaten by a hustler in Jupien’s brothel.

A thought on the section’s two ways: "Swann’s way" is an erotic labyrinth in which explorers are trapped; the "Guermantes way" reveals writing as a way not out but in–to the self. But more than this, I think, writing is shown as a technique that can objectify the trap so it can be scientifically investigated. As Charles Swann will eventually learn, however, knowledge only gives us the illusion of power.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I'm reading Swann's Way again and finding it, as on my previous readings, an even richer, more complex and more beautiful book than I remembered. I began the day reading Middlemarch, but after 50 pages I returned its world of Protestant rectitude to the shelf and dove immediately into Proust's oceanic pool of decadent catholicity. Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New compares Proust's prose to the leaping, spiralling, organically multiplying forms of art nouveau architecture, a comparison that hits several bullseyes (formal and social historical, most obviously). Before the glories of Proustian prose even George Eliot, a writer of often startling nuance and ironic perception, seems something of a primitive. Indeed, the only Victorian novelist who seriously competes with Proust in this area would be late Henry James, but at this point in my life I prefer Marcel (and even margarita) to the Master.

Rather than attempt any kind of summary treatment--a mug's game with a work this massive--I'm going to take a more fragmented approach in this and the next few posts, presenting some notes and thoughts that came to me as I read:

"Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure."
"For a long time, I went to bed early."
A flat, banal, uninteresting sentence. (I'm surely overstating its vapidity.) Has a novel this brilliant ever begun less auspiciously? It's an instantly forgettable first line that we remember only because its blandness sticks out of Proust's bejewelled prose like a lump of coal among diamonds. Great, enormous novels should begin with lines like "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" or " 'Eh bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than family estates of the Bonapartes' " or even "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." Prior to Proust, Flaubert's Sentimental Education takes the palm with a first paragraph that reads like the opening of a not very interesting newspaper item. All the same, Proust's is a perfectly and ironically straightforward first line for this labyrinthine 3000+ page novel.

Every time I reread Swann's Way or any of the other volumes in the Recherche, I'm impressed anew at the way Proust states or implies almost all the major and minor themes of the entire work in the seemingly desultory opening section. Love, memory, death, jealousy, desire, frustration, even a brief misdirecting mention of Charlus that implies (rather than explicitly states) the theme of homosexuality. It's all here in the overture at Combray. And the early paragraph that begins "These shifting and confused gusts of memory..." implicitly positions the narrator as a scientist of consciousness and writing as his technology, the stop-motion camera with which he will analyse the social equivalents of the race horse's galloping run.

The "little room" at the top of the house in Combray is mentioned early (on page 12 in my edition) and associated with the narrator's "sensual pleasure," but only on page 189 does Proust give us the long-delayed money shot. (He must've been a great lover.) Only after almost 200 pages do we return to the little room and see the track of Marcel's semen on the leaves of the currant branch that thrusts phallically through the room's window. The semen--"une trace naturelle" in the original French, a phrase that Jacques Derrida would've found pregnant with nonmeaning--is compared to the track of slime left by the passage of a snail, suggesting that Marcel doesn't ejaculate directly onto the leaves but rather wipes his hands on them after masturbating.

A minor matter of translation that has always bothered me: When Francoise mentions that Swann has dined with a princess, Marcel's aunt replies (in the original) "Oui, chez une princesse du demi-monde!" The best translation would be the most literal: 'a princess of the demimonde' or 'a princess of courtesans'. Scott Moncrieff and his revisors, however, choose the much less direct and more sarcastic "a nice sort of princess." I don't understand why. If this was because of the era of censorship during which the Moncrieff translation was originally published, it should have been corrected when the Moncreiff was "revised and updated." This brings up the issue of translations and editions. I'm a Scott Moncrieff partisan. I consider the translation of the Recherche by C K. Scott Moncrieff, as revised by Terence Kilmartin (in 1981) and D.J. Enright (1992) to be by far the most beautiful edition currently available in English. Moncrieff's Proustian prose is so intoxicatingly beautiful that it deserves to be considered a high-point of 20th-century English literature. This is the translation most easily purchased in the six-volume Modern Library trade paperback format, sold on Amazon as the "Proust six-pack" (and a pretty good deal at under $50). My page numbers in these posts might vary from the Mod. Lib. edition since I'm reading a Vintage UK trade paperback edition of the same translation. (Now that we're all sufficiently confused, let's move on.)

The scene in which Marcel sends his mother a note requesting a bedtime kiss is a marvelous example of writing as presence in absence and as a technique of desire, the "exquisite thread" of ink that joins mother and son, carries the son's desire to the mother, and is so cruelly snipped when she refuses to answer. This refusal precipitates what I think is the novel's first gender crossing, when Marcel compares his distraught self to a 'poor girl' receiving a similar message from a powerful man. This 'exquisite thread' of writing will become one of the major motifs both of this volume and of the entire work.

Little Marcel's 'one night stand' with Maman, his temporary and unforeseen Oedipal victory, has as its first fruit Marcel's absolution via the Medical Word. He is no longer responsible for his unhappiness, because it has now been verbally 'inscribed' into the discourse of medicine as a "nervous condition." The Catholic discourse placed alongside the medical in this passage has the effect of ironizing both, a strategy of rhetorical collision that is one of the defining characteristics of Modernism, beginning (if we must choose an arbitrary origin) in the paintings of Manet (Olympia, Luncheon on the Grass).

Walter Benjamin, a great reader of Proust, was surely influenced by Marcel's grandmother's theories on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as described on pages 45-47. Indeed, we should probably read Benjamin's most widely anthologized (but by no means best) essay as an extended meditation on this passage of Proust.

One of my favorite moments in Scott Moncrieff's translation comes on page 47 when Proust writes of "those old forms of speech in which we can still see traces of a metaphor whose fine point has been worn away by the rough usage of our modern tongue." It's a wonderfully witty moment in which the concept of concealed metaphor is exemplified by the construction of a concealed metaphor for concealed metaphors (the hidden metaphor is implicitly likened to the nib of a pen worn away by hard use--and this isn't the only implied metaphor in the passage). It's great, and most of it is Moncrieff. The French passage reads: "les vieilles manieres de dire ou nous voyons une metaphore, effacee, dans notre moderne langage, par l'usure de l'habitude." So it seems that Moncrieff's "fine point" is his own invention, a translator's teasing out of the implications of Proust's word 'effacee,' which carries the meanings 'effaced, erased, worn away.' I suppose there are two ways to look at this: either accuse Moncrieff of taking unnecessary liberties, or conclude that Proust was very lucky in his translator. I'm of the latter opinion.

On the petit madeleine and Marcel's rush of memory: Just as the taste of madeleine brings Marcel's Combray childhood rushing back to him, the word "Madeleine" might have had the same effect on Marcel's creator. For Proust's childhood home in Paris (9 Blvd Malesherbes) was just a short walk from the church of the Madeleine, that imposing Napoleonic Parthenon that stares down its boulevard at the Place de la Concorde. Proust would probably have passed the church every day on his walks to and from the Champs-Elysee; it would've been the major monumental architectural presence in his Parisian childhood.


Monday, November 23, 2009

THE SONNETS by William Shakespeare

I began this re-reading of Shakespeare's sonnets with the idea that contemporary readings of Shakespeare tend to overcompensate for centuries of puritanical commentary by overemphasizing the same-sex elements. Every generation creates its own Shakespeare, and our Shakespeare is perhaps too gay... Well, having just finished a sustained, single-sitting reading of all 154 sonnets, I am now of the opposite opinion. The 'Shakespeare' imagined/implied by contemporary criticism is not nearly gay or bisexual enough. When read the only way they should be read, in sequence and in totality, the sonnets reveal themselves as a brilliant, complex, sublime narrative of the agonies and exaltations of bisexual love. And while the poem's eroticism is clearly bisexual, it is also just as obviously overwhelmingly homosexual. Roughly two-thirds of the work narrates a relationship between men; the historically overemphasized "dark lady" narrative doesn't begin until sonnet 127, and the element in this relationship that most puts the poet-speaker on the erotic rack is the fact that it's a triangular relationship in which the lady is also the poet's rival for the "man right fair." So even the 'straight' sonnets are also crucially gay. (I'm leaving aside for the length of this post the problematic question of projecting modern sexual categories into the past. For the nonce I'm more Boswellian than Foucaultian. Pun intended.) It's probably not possible to overemphasize the gayness of this particular Shakespearean work, and that's a fact too important to remain hidden in the hortus conclusus of academe. The word needs to get out that these very famous poems are very famous gay poems. Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"), for example, is read by every American teenager in junior high or high school, but how often is it taught as a love poem 'spoken' by a man to a man? In my own public school encounters with the poem (during the 1980s), it was carefully decontextualized, ripped out of the sequence and presented as an ostensibly independent work, the better to mask its object's gender. Decontextualization and selective emphasis were the usual strategies for 'straightening the canon' at My Horrible High School (and probably at yours too). The unwritten rules went something like this: Read Chaucer, but pay no attention to that gay Pardoner behind the curtain; read a few of Shakespeare's sonnets, but don't mention the gender of the beloved; read some Marlowe, but certainly not Edward II; read Paradise Lost but not Lycidas; read Idylls of the King but not In Memoriam; spend far too much time reading Jonathan Edwards; ignore Swinburne; for god's sake, don't even mention Oscar Wilde; pretend Hemingway's Garden of Eden doesn't exist; and the most important rule of all: end the class ca.1940 so as to avoid any openly gay contemporary writers. Thus was the canon sanitized for the protection of Reagan's America, and in most of the country the situation is probably the same today.

Returning to the text, corrupt and typo-ridden though it is in my edition of the Complete Works, I note on this reading that while the narrative through-line is stronger than I've noticed before, the amount of connection between contiguous sonnets can vary greatly. This variance can mask the larger narrative unity. Sonnets 15, 16 and 17, for example, lock into a tight rhetorical sequence of statement, counter-statement and synthesis, which then issues in Sonnet 18, an example of the speaker's deathless, death-haunted verse. Sonnet 19 beautifully varies and restates some of 18, but then comes the appropriately jarring Sonnet 20, which has little rhetorical relationship to the immediately preceding verses. This disjunction works because in narrative terms Sonnet 20 constitutes a reversal; it tosses a phallic spanner into the erotic works. The editor of my edition cites Sonnet 20 as evidence that the speaker's homosexual love is unconsummated. I beg to differ. Sonnet 20 describes a moment of frustration in the narrative, but it is a moment definitively overcome in Sonnet 33, which I read as a homosexual aubade describing a hasty and troubled consummation ("...he was but one hour mine").

Another point of contention comes at the very end of the sequence. The last two sonnets are generally considered bathetically insipid, a disappointing whimper of an ending after so many big bangs. But I would argue that this may be exactly Shakespeare's intention. The two mythological sonnets exemplify exactly what they narrate: a failed retreat into pastoral. They thus constitute a final turn of the sequence's screw. By the end of the sequence, the erotically tormented poet is stretched out on the rack of his desires, and Shakespeare leaves him there. There can be no arcadian relief, no magical mythological cure. Even the thought of his beloved young man, which once (in the sublime Sonnet 29) brought him spiritual ecstasy in a world of pain, can now only redouble his torment. And the last two sonnets close off his final escape route. There is no exit.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

CHILD OF GOD by Cormac McCarthy

Forget Bret Easton Ellis. Forget him completely. The real 'American Psycho' is this 1973 novel by Cormac McCarthy. Lester Ballard, McCarthy's "child of God much like yourself perhaps," is the frontier hero as psychopath, Natty Bumpo as necrophile, Huck Finn as transvestite serial killer. He's the classic American mountain man and pathfinder as refracted through the same blackened glass that will later show us that most nightmarish of all American Westerns, Blood Meridian. Lester Ballard's story is also the closest McCarthy has ever come to a psychological novel. Although Ol' Cormac has always been more mythographer than psychologist, and while characterization is not his strongest suit--and this book is no exception to either rule--Child of God does contain a compelling case study in the sexual psychopathology of serial killing. McCarthy cuts to the paradoxical core of Ballard's murderous desire: his need to have sex with a woman who is both dead and alive, who both exhibits a literal kadavergehorsamkeit before his god-like power and presents him with the warmth of living flesh. This is the paradox that makes him a serial killer: he murders repeatedly in a quest for the heat of the freshly killed. This desire, with its ideal, continued fulfilment always just out of reach, is also artfully underscored by the Echo and Narcissus motifs that McCarthy threads through the fabric of the novel. (And that I did not entirely catch on my first reading.)

One structural anomaly bothered me as I read. The novel begins with two alternating narrative voices: the lyrical authorial voice familiar from McCarthy's other novels, and a plainer, chattier, more rambling, cracker barrel storyteller's voice. This second voice, which contains the book's best humor, drops out at the end of Part One, presumably because McCarthy (or his editor) thought a comic counterpoint would detract from his progressively grimmer central narrative. I felt the loss of this voice in the book's second half. Perhaps Cormac wants us to feel its absence as his story goes completely insane.

I suppose it's now possible to divide McCarthy's work into three distinct periods. First comes the Southern Novelist who wrote The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God and Suttree. Next is the Western Novelist of Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy. And now in our current dispensation we have the Popular Novelist, the Pulitzered and Oprahfied and proxy-Oscared author of No Country for Old Men and The Road. I never thought I would see the author of Child of God in the audience at an Oscar ceremony, but there he was back in February 2008, sitting with his young son in the fifth or sixth row and pumping his fist when Javier Bardem's victory was announced. But surely the evening's most surreal conjunction came earlier, when McCarthy walked along the red carpet and passed just behind Regis Philbin. If those men had met, it would've been like matter and anti-matter colliding. 2012 would've come early.


Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet is a philosophical prose poem disguised as a work of literary criticism--and vice versa. Fortunately, both disguises are highly accomplished. Of the four books by Carson I've read (Glass, Irony and God; Plainwater and The Beauty of the Husband are the others, all poetry collections), this is the one I would most enthusiastically recommend. A fittingly elusive and allusive text about the paradoxes of desire, the book moves like its author's mind--poetically--as it presents readings (often impressively close) of texts from Sappho to
Plato and in the process throws off sparks that reach as far as 20th century literature and philosophy. The entire book might be fruitfully read in conjunction with Shakespeare's sonnets (unmentioned by Carson), Wuthering Heights (ditto), Proust (a startlingly unspoken presence in Carson's text), Lacan (mentioned only once in passing), and Derrida (unnamed). In the case of the last two, Carson's text appears to be (in her book's own terms) erotically 'wooing' Lacan and Derrida, coyly and indirectly invoking and implicitly critiquing their ideas. In her reading of a Sappho fragment, for example, Carson briefly (too much is too brief in this book) outlines a theory of the erotic genesis of self-consciousness--desire in grasping for an object knows itself as lack--that resonates with Lacan. More subtly, her repeated invocations of 'edge,' 'fold,' and (less subtly) 'difference' signal toward Derrida's texts (specifically, the essays in Dissemination) without mentioning his name. Likewise, the pointed absence of any direct reference to Jacques le Mort in her extended discussion of the Phaedrus (which no contemporary academic can mention without bowing to "Plato's Pharmacy") appropriately inscribes Derrida into her text as an absent presence. We might even argue that Carson's text constructs a highly paradoxical 'desire' for Derrida that can only be sustained by keeping him unnamed and thus 'outside the text.' The Great Deconstructor floats like Sappho's apple just out of reach, in the 'nothingness' of the very hors-texte which he famously claimed did not exist. This is a damn clever book.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

REMAINDER by Tom McCarthy

Jonathan Lethem’s front cover blurb on the US edition of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is exceptionally misleading. It reads: "A stunningly strange book about the rarest of fictional subjects: happiness." The Kirkus Reviewer on the back cover appears to have read a different book: "An assured work of existential horror....Perfectly disturbing." Which is it, happiness or horror? The Kirkus reviewer is more to the point, but Lethem is not entirely wrong. For Remainder is ultimately a novel about the happiness that comes from committing acts of horror.

When I finished reading Remainder I wanted to say "Wow!" This is that rare thing, a truly great ‘postmodern’ novel. It’s also the best first novel I’ve read in years, and the fact that it was first published in Paris in 2005, had to wait a year for British publication and didn’t appear in the US (as a paperback original, the publishing industry’s version of direct-to-video movies) until 2007 is a situation that should force the British and American publishing industry to hang its collective head in shame. (This will never happen, of course. Bertelsmann AG bought shame and liquidated it a long time ago.) Remainder’s greatest interest lies in the fact that while it touches most of the usual ‘postmodern’ bases (self-consciousness, radical uncertainty, metafiction, simulation, the construction of the self and reality, personality as performance, De Lillo-ish paranoia, Will Selfish satire), it more importantly inscribes the postmodern condition as an affliction that must be overcome to achieve authenticity. The overall form of the narrator’s search for an escape from extreme self-consciousness might be understood as a classic Hegelian triad. The first 100 pages state the thesis: a will to authenticity in a postmodern world. The next hundred pages describe an antithetical drive to dominate other human beings (the narrator becomes a totalitarian child playing with living dolls) that soon turns thanatotic, becoming a desire to annihilate self-consciousness by "re-enacting" his own death. The final third of the novel executes a terrible synthesis, combining the drives to authenticity, domination and death in acts of violence, murder and terrorism, all exquisitely aestheticized in a way that Walter Benjamin identified as typically fascistic. (The novel’s most chilling moment comes when the narrator imagines the beautiful spectacle of passenger planes exploding in midair. September 11 is very close here, and we are reminded that Osama bin Laden, like our narrator, was a man with enough money to turn his fantasies into reality.) In his ultimate, terroristic incarnation, the narrator can finally accept the material world from which he has previously fled, because that world has now become the ‘simulation’ in which he acts. His flight from postmodernism ends in the only way it can, as a full-armed embrace of the always already inauthentic postmodern world.

This is just one possible interpretation--and not an entirely satisfying one. (Like Stephen Dedalus, I don't believe my own theory...) To use the book’s own terms, it leaves a large textual remainder, a troubling residue of matters unaccounted for. (Any interpretation of anything leaves such a remainder, that hermeneutic surplus for which this novel provides an encyclopedia of images.) What are we to make, for example, of the ending of chapter three, where the narrator’s admission of fictionalization places the remainder of Remainder under a cloud of radical uncertainty. Do the subsequent events happen in the novel’s ‘real’ world, or are they too an elaborate narrative fantasy in the narrator’s mind a la the long fantasy sequences in Rushdie's Satanic Verses? The best answer is surely "Both," but with a narrator this utterly unreliable we can be sure of nothing. My own reading tends to demote this moment in importance, since these metafictional leaps are such a hoary postmodern convention by this point that perceptive readers can’t possibly take them seriously. Overuse has fatally ironized metafictional irony. That may be the anti-postmodern point of the episode.

I was also struck by the monkish sexlessness of the narrator (and, for the most part, the novel). This asexuality is a blind spot as gaping as the one in which the exact nature of the narrator’s absurd trauma lies buried. Perhaps his eros has passed entirely into thanatos, revealing itself as an apparently asexual drive to dominate and kill. This would be yet another characteristic of the inescapable postmodernity the narrator exemplifies. And it also suggests a more psychological interpretation of the novel, focusing on that unspeakable trauma and the narrator’s overpowering repetition compulsion...

And there’s also the matter of this novel’s similarity to Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. This seems to be a case of two artists independently and simultaneously arriving at the same central conceit. Kaufman was asked about the similarity in an interview and said this:

"This script, for the record, [was] written before that novel came out. I saw a review of that thing [Remainder]; I was freaked out. I intentionally did not read it. I have not read it. I hadn’t made the movie yet, and I didn’t want to have any kind of influence [from] it. But like I said, this script was written before that came out. I saw it online and I thought, A) oh fuck, and B) this is a book that I would read, normally. This sounds like a cool book. But I won’t. And I haven’t. And I probably at some point I will, but I don’t know…now it might be awful to read it. It might be like, Oh, he had this great idea that I didn’t have and I cant do anything about it." (From Anthem interview with Charlie Kaufman)

Friday, October 23, 2009

EUROPE CENTRAL by William T. Vollmann

Europe Central should have been titled Big Bill Vollmann's Bag O' War Stories. It is exceptionally well-written (like all of Vollmann's books), but the points Vollmann makes, the ideas he explores and even the tales he chooses to tell are often less interesting and original than the prose that constitutes them. Less a novel than a collection of loosely related stories and novellas, Europe Central suffers from the lack of any overall, unifying structural architecture. Vollmann attempts to make it all cohere into a kind of contrapuntal form, as outlined in the Table of Contents, but he seems to have lost the thread of this structure at some point during the writing process. The result is a bloated book about Nazism, Stalinism, art and ethics that contains many interesting parts (a novella about Shostakovich; the story of Walter Benjamin's sister-in-law, an East German judge known as 'the red guillotine') and far too many pages that deserve to be skimmed or skipped. In other words, it's a typical Vollmann book: beautifully written, very smart, and baggier than a strip club patron's pants.

It's also telling that the book's longest sustained narrative of the Holocaust is the tale of Kurt Gerstein, an ineffectual 'renegade' SS officer who is one of Vollmann's personal heroes. Gerstein, as Vollmann imagines him, is a complex and conflicted character, but the choice of his story as a lens through which to view the extermination camps serves to place Vollmann's narrative in the long line of Holocaust stories that use the Nazi genocide to reaffirm the humanistic ideals that the camps so casually slaughtered. Spielberg's Schindler's List, in many respects an extraordinary film, is the best-known example of this kind of narrative. By way of contrast, I want to mention a darker, more intense film that finds absolutely no affirmation in the ice-cold reality of genocide. I'm speaking of Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone, a movie that came and went in 2001 with little fanfare and that may be the grimmest and most impressive representation of the Holocaust yet achieved by an American filmmaker. Focusing on the prisoners of the Auschwitz sonderkommando, it depicts characters who are both more deeply conflicted that Schindler and more impossibly heroic than Gerstein. It deserves to be much better known.


The ambivalence that I and many on the left feel toward Christopher Hitchens is perhaps best summed up in this post by a reader of the Guardian (UK)'s books blog:

"Hitch is a pretty amazing character. His output is immense, his commitment unwavering and he should be applauded for this and held in high regard. I really like the guy.

He's also clearly a massive, massive twat. Anyone who genuinely thinks he is a good person needs to have his head examined.

If Hitch was given the slightest whiff of power, we'd all be his underslaves while a host of elected 'worthies' including Dawko, McEwen, Rushdie and Stephen Fry fed each other grapes, composed atonal music and played with each others balls.

Does anyone else think he should change the record too? He's delivering the same lines over and over again. I've heard the North Korea gag a thousand times over. And the Hubble telescope nonsense. Yeah, I've seen the pictures too. They're kinda shit. Not a patch on the wonder of Jurassic Park.

PS His literary criticism is cracking by the way. Stick to that."

My own view is that Hitchens is a knowledgeable political analyst, a talented writer and a wonderful polemicist who has been unfortunately mistaken for a public intellectual. (It's an easy mistake to make in America, a country without an intelligentsia. We have a professoriat, which is a different and much tamer animal.) I admire the passionate energy of Hitchens's polemics against religion, Kissinger, etc. while deploring his support of the Iraq War and his recent cosiness with the neocon right. (I essentially agree with him on Afghanistan, though...) Anyone with an interest in the man or his work should read this cover story from the May 2008 issue of the British magazine Prospect, which elucidates Hitchens's thought processes better than anything else I've read.

And I suppose I should eventually get around to the stated subject of this post. Unacknowledged Legislation is the unwieldy Shelleyan title for a grab bag of Hitchens's literary criticism from the 1990s. There are some good pieces here on Wilde, Raymond Williams, Anthony Powell, Kipling, Martin Amis, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, etc., but the collection's greatest joys come (as one would expect) when Hitchens unloads mercilessly on a more or less deserving target of his wrath. The Reagan-worshipping Tom Clancy and the self-worshipping Tom Wolfe receive devastating bombardments, but the most furious polemical barrage is reserved for the egregious Norman Podhoretz. A high-point is Hitchens's casually parenthetical reference to "the engulfing, mandible-destroying blowjob that [Podhoretz] would...bestow on Ronald Reagan." And yet, even as I enjoyed this evisceration of Old Poddy I reflected that Hitchens's imagery had been rendered fatally ironic by his own later performance of the same service upon the corpus of George W. Bush. (Anyone who doubts the abjectness of Hitchens's period as an apologist for the Bush administration need only view a tape of Hitch's New York debate with George Galloway, during which he defended even the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.) Near the beginning of his piece on Isaiah Berlin, as he considers Berlin's support of the Vietnam War, Hitchens writes of hawkishness as "the most lethal temptation to which the contemplative can fall victim." I'm surely not alone in wishing that Hitch had been more contemplative on the issue of Iraq.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

ONE LAST NOBEL PRIZE POST (and then no more about it until next October, I promise)

What can we conclude about the Nobel Prize from a list of the last 25 winners? (Click on each name to see the writer's official page at the Nobel foundation's website.)

2009 - Herta Müller
2008 - Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
2007 - Doris Lessing
2006 - Orhan Pamuk
2005 - Harold Pinter
2004 - Elfriede Jelinek
2003 - J. M. Coetzee
2002 - Imre Kertész
2001 - V. S. Naipaul
2000 - Gao Xingjian
1999 - Günter Grass
1998 - José Saramago
1997 - Dario Fo
1996 - Wislawa Szymborska
1995 - Seamus Heaney
1994 - Kenzaburo Oe
1993 - Toni Morrison
1992 - Derek Walcott
1991 - Nadine Gordimer
1990 - Octavio Paz
1989 - Camilo José Cela
1988 - Naguib Mahfouz
1987 - Joseph Brodsky
1986 - Wole Soyinka
1985 - Claude Simon

It's an eclectic list that at first appears to defy generalizations. True, more than half are Europeans, so the prize is certainly Eurocentric, but does anyone really expect a prize awarded by Europeans to be non-Eurocentric? More troubling to me is the fact that the prize seems to have 'contracted' into a strictly European award during the last few years. Looking at the 1980s through 2000, we see laureates from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, China, Japan--and even one lonely American. But since 2001 Europeans have dominated. Not a single writer from the Western hemisphere has won the prize since V.S. Naipaul (who although born in Trinidad is, by general agreement, more English than the English); no American has won since Toni Morrison; no one from Central or South America since Derek Walcott; only two East Asian writers have won in 25 years. And even the non-Europeans who have won recently (Pamuk and Coetzee) are writers deeply indebted to European literature. The Swedish Academy needs to look outward or risk closing itself into a European box.

Herta Muller Wins Nobel

Proving once again that nobody, absolutely nobody, can predict the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy has just awarded it to Romanian-born German novelist Herta Muller, a writer who wasn't on anyone's list of Nobel possibilities. Having never read Muller, I can say nothing about her work, but I predict that there will be a lot of blather spoken today by people who are only slightly better informed than I am. This is a selection that's going to have readers scratching their heads and saying 'Who?' and going to Wikipedia for a quick info fix. So I guess the Swedish Academy has done the best thing they can really do. They've introduced me and the world to a writer who might be very good. I just hope she's better than Elfriede Jelinek...

Saturday, October 3, 2009


The winner of this year's Nobel Prize for literature will be announced on Thursday October 8. Israeli writer Amos Oz is the predictors' favorite this year, which means he probably doesn't have a chance in hell of winning. Whatever one may think of the Nobel committee's choices, they are almost always surprising. Last year's win by J.M.G. Le Clezio (a writer I still haven't read) sent me and millions of other non-French readers to Wikipedia to find out exactly who the hell this dude with three initials was and what he had written that was so nobelisable. Likewise the recent wins by Elfriede Jelinek and Imre Kertesz, writers little-known outside Europe. Doris Lessing's and Harold Pinter's wins were surprising for their extreme tardiness; Orhan Pamuk's Nobel, by contrast, seemed to come surprisingly early.

So if Amos Oz can be safely counted out, who might the other contenders be? British bookmaker Ladbrokes is giving odds on Oz, Assia Djebar, Syrian poet Adonis, and perpetual American mentions Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates. Philip Roth, a favorite in years past, hasn't been mentioned recently, so this may be his year. But the pool of nobelisable writers is broad, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the following walked away with this year's award: Carlos Fuentes, Chinua Achebe, Milan Kundera, David Grossman, Korean poet Ko Un, Juan Goytisolo, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie (but that would take real courage, so it's unlikely), Adrienne Rich, Milorad Pavic, Peter Carey, Edna O'Brien, Wilson Harris (Guyana), Ernesto Sabato (who at 98 would be the prize's oldest recipient)... But I suspect the winner's name has not yet been mentioned in this blog.

And all this speculation raises another question: What does the Nobel mean? It's an amazingly good payday for the winner, and it's undeniably prestigious, but is the prize's prestige really deserved? The negative case is easily made: simply list a few of the great writers who went to their graves un-Nobeled. The list is a veritable Who's Who of twentieth-century literature: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Alain Robbe-Grillet, James Baldwin, D.H, Lawrence, Ralph Ellison, Andre Breton, Paul Celan, Antonin Artaud, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Simone de Beauvoir, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, George Orwell, W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, Witold Gombrowicz, and the list goes on... To put the case as succinctly as possible: Why should we grant so much prestige to a literary award that preferred Pearl Buck to James Joyce? Now, some readers will surely consider that question 'elitist.' They will be correct. The question is elitist, and in matters of art, so is the questioner.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


After starting and quickly abandoning The Savage Detectives a few months ago, I had an intimation that I would be returning to the book in the near future... Well, the near future is now. I gave it another chance, and I'm very glad I did. This is one of those rare novels that after a rather unpromising beginning progressively improves until it eventually touches greatness. And even the opening section impressed me more on this reading. The first 140 pages didn't impress me enormously (my mind remained unblown), but they were good enough to keep me reading--as good as they needed to be. This time I can see beyond the lazy diary form of the first section and enjoy Juan Garcia Madero's naive and unreliable narration (an unreliability signaled by his literally incredible sexual athletics) and the mysterious, apparition-like entrances of Arturo Belano (obvious authorial stand-in) and Ulises Lima, the leaders of the obscure (but not entirely fictional) 'visceral realist' poetry movement in 1970s Mexico City. Their enigmatic appearances in Garcia Madero's narrative prepare us for the roles they will play throughout the book: never speaking directly but always spoken about, always seen obliquely through the distorting lenses of others' eyes and minds and often enveloped in a weedy haze. Bolano's sex scenes in this first section are also good, and their range--from comic to horrific--is impressive. But the novel doesn't really take off until its four central characters climb into a Chevy Impala and flee Mexico City for the dubious haven of the Sonoran desert. At that point, the first section abruptly ends, the narrative breaks, and the novelistic form radically explodes into a long, 450-page collection of monologue fragments in which multiple narrators, most of whom are extremely minor characters, recount various stories of the lives and wanderings of Belano, Lima and the other visceral realists. The form is successfully entropic--a rare achievement--as it negotiates an original pathway between the Scylla and Charybdis of traditional coherence and postmodern fragmentation. This section is the novel's heart and Bolano's triumph, as impressive as his nearly perfect novella By Night in Chile. The various voices--sentimental, bitter, bitchy, pompous, angry, enigmatic, uncomprehending--sound out against each other in cacophonous chorus, recounting the litany of failures and temporary stays against failure that constitute the characters' lives after the collapse of their movement. As I read, I was reminded repeatedly of Flaubert's Sentimental Education and began to see The Savage Detectives as a contemporary Mexican Sentimental Education and the long second section as a gigantic expansion upon the famous "He travelled..." passage in which Flaubert glosses over the years of Frederic Moreau's aimless and disappointed wanderings. This is a Sentimental Education focusing on what happens after the dreams collapse: the life of flight and poverty on the margins of our globalized world.

"Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy," says Bolano's fictional critic (and Arturo Belano's dueling opponent) Inaki Echeverne, and the novel bears out this pronouncement even as it attempts to dilute it with self-protective irony. The chapter that contains this line, one of the book's very best sections, ends with a tale told by the Chilean Arturo Belano, a tale of two writers, one Peruvian and the other Cuban (unnamed but clearly Reinaldo Arenas), both of whom suffer equal but opposite forms of ideological attack. At the story's end, Bolano's Chilean listener tells him "You and I are Chilean...and none of this is our fault," thus completely missing the point of Belano's tale and reaffirming his own sense of ideological purity, a sentimental leftist illusion of purity born (irony of ironies) in the destruction of the Chilean left at the hands of Pinochet. Scenes like this, and especially the brilliantly hellish Liberian episode near the section's end, ultimately lift the book beyond the level of comic literary roman a clef to an examination of the tragedy that life has become in the modern world. This is post-magic realist, anti-utopian dissident fiction, and it's marvelous.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: SELECTED LETTERS 1917-1961 edited by Carlos Baker

One of the rare highpoints in Hemingway's published correspondence is his 28 May 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

"Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously, But when you get the damned hurt use it--don't cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist--but don't think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you."

That's the most often quoted passage, but there's equally good stuff in the rest of the letter (written on the occasion of Hemingway's reading of Tender is the Night, about which he says, with typical helpfulness, "I liked it and I didn't like it").

"...good writers always come back. Always." Thus spake Hemingthustra. This is demonstrably untrue, but it's interesting that Hemingway needs to believe this. It tells us more about Hem than Scott.

"You see, Bo [Hem's nickname for Scott], you're not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write." The good common sense of that last sentence is cruelly negated by the abysmal character judgments in the other two. Within ten years of the letter, Fitzgerald would drink himself to death; Hemingway, on the other hand, would commit suicide the way a character in The Sun Also Rises went bankrupt: gradually at first, and then suddenly. But again, it's telling that Hemingway needs to believe this about himself.

"Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best--make it all up--but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way." I especially like this one. It reminds me of a story Hemingway surely knew: when someone remarked to Picasso that Gertrude Stein looked nothing like his portrait of her, Picasso replied, "She will."

"Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises."

"You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, Bo, and they have all these other acrobats who won't jump."

And then Hem's attempt at friendship-saving irony: "Jesus its marvelous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc."

I also like the way Hemingway's pen/mind slips twice and he writes 'right' for 'write.' The same thing happens to me whenever I right about righting.

WONDER BOYS by Michael Chabon

The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer, The Yiddish Policemen's Union earned reams of good reviews, but in my opinion Wonder Boys remains Michael Chabon's best book. It's one of the most purely enjoyable American novels of the past 20 years, and in terms of craft it's a novelistic masterpiece: the first 80 pages are a textbook example of how to complicate a narrative, and the remainder is a master class in the inventive extension and ultimate resolution of those complications. That said, this is no groundbreaking, mind-blowing work of literature, no Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses, nor is it meant to be. Rather, and no less impressively, it's a masterful work of 'traditional' narrative craftsmanship, as well-written and expertly constructed as any of the novels in Philip Roth's 'American trilogy.' It's a book that engages not only on the macro level of novelistic structure, the pleasure of watching a writer successfully juggling a host of characters and situations, keeping them all in the air, and bringing them to a fitting denouement, but also at the micro level of sentence and image. Chabon's comic metaphors rarely misfire and are sometimes painfully apt (e.g. Tripp comparing his bearlike self and a young student to Picasso's blind minotaur being led by an angelic girl). And at a level somewhere between the macro and micro, Wonder Boys offers a plenitude of surprising local pleasures. The brief tale of the washed-up writer Joe Fahey, who waves a loaded gun at his writing students to instruct them in fear, is an example that comes immediately to mind. But enough praise. We don't really do a novel justice until we can see where it fails, where its ostensible intentions break apart and other, perhaps unintended, meanings peek through. Where does Wonder Boys fail? What are its weaknesses? One is immediately apparent: This novel narrated by that pseudo-Faulknerian novelist Grady Tripp is, like all of Tripp's other works, excessively 'male.' Chabon/Tripp's women--even the most complex of them, Sara Gaskell--don't rise far above the role of detachable male appendage and object of desire. Also, I doubt that Chabon fully considered all the implications of the novel's consistent depictions of adult male happiness as a regression to adolescence and a flight from the feminine: Irving Warshaw's spring house, James Leer's basement, Tripp's endless and apparently rather juvenile Wonder Boys manuscript, Terry Crabtree's life. By novel's end Tripp seems to have broken out of this regressive trap, but such a reading is undermined by indications that his new life is even more deeply regressive: he has returned to his childhood home, accompanied by the only maternal figure among the major characters. The ending is sentimental, matrimonial, classically comedic, but it remains haunted by the old unrest and self-loathing that eat at Tripp's matricidal heart.

It might also be interesting to consider this theme of male regression with respect to the shape of Chabon's career to date. Beginning with an impressive Fitzgeraldian debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he fulfilled most of its promises with Wonder Boys. But then something strange happened. Instead of continuing along this path and sharpening and polishing his literary chops, Chabon flew off on a series of tangents, writing the kinds of books and stories that minor characters in Wonder Boys might have written. It has been a disappointingly unoriginal, regressive course, from the MGM 1940s comic book world of Kavalier to the alternative history / detective noir pastiche of Yiddish Policemen's Union and so forth. It is as though Chabon has entered his own novel and become several of his characters--a fate that Wonder Boys recognizes as an occupational hazard. But Chabon is still relatively young, he still has talent to burn, and there's still a chance that he'll return to comic realism and write the great novel that's still inside him.

A couple more random thoughts:

Grady Tripp is not a standard unreliable narrator; he's an accurate, lucid narrator stoned into unreliability--Chabon's clever method of showing us the effects of the various drugs Tripp ingests.

Another thing that impresses me about this book is the wisdom of its reflections on writers and writing, on writerly self-loathing and self-destruction, alcoholism, the "midnight disease," and on the most perverse thing in the world: the unaccountable attraction of it all.

Monday, August 24, 2009

MEMORY OF FIRE by Eduardo Galeano

"Each day of life is an unrepeatable chord of a music that laughs at death." --Eduardo Galeano, Century of the Wind (Memory of Fire, volume three).

Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy ( a history of the Western hemisphere with a corrective emphasis on its southern half, comprising Genesis, Faces and Masks and Century of the Wind) is very good, at moments sublime, and extremely important, showing us a new way to write and understand history: in vivid fragments, vignettes, poetic images. The act of authorial selection is foregrounded by the form, so there’s no traditional historical legerdemain suggesting that this is the history of the Western hemisphere and no others need apply. It’s a beautiful, nuanced book that shows us just how poetically powerful history writing can be. Galeano takes history out of the hands of the professoriat and makes it sing. He’s a bluesman, and his composition, in three long movements, is a vast blues for the Western hemisphere. On first reading, the work seems sui generis, like what might have happened if Borges and Garcia Marquez had collaborated on a history book–an impossible possibility, given their strongly opposed political views.

The third volume, Century of the Wind, covering the 20th century, is the most impressive of the trilogy. Its vignettes range from beauty to horror, from the exhilaration of successful revolution to the unspeakable sadism of the torture chambers, from summary executions and casual slaughters to a little town in South America called Yoro where, from time to time, it rains fish. "[In] America," Galeano writes (and by ‘America’ he always means the entire hemisphere), "surrealism is as natural as rain or madness." He has written an appropriately surreal, sublimely beautiful and terribly true book that is as artful as it is educative. I wish there was more history like this.

AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Autumn of the Patriarch, while not as surrealistically inventive as One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a great novel in its own right and deserves to displace the overrated Love in the Time of Cholera as the ‘other’ Garcia Marquez novel. If Solitude synthesizes Faulkner and Kafka, Patriarch leans more toward the Faulknerian side of things, its prose heavily influenced by Absalom, Absalom! (In Gabo’s geography, Faulkner is not a ‘Southern writer’ but a writer of the northern Caribbean basin. In terms of the location and duration of his influence, this is probably the best way to think of Faulkner. He's the northern grandfather of the late twentieth-century Latin American novel.) The long, run-on, convoluted, marvelously lyrical sentences in this novel give a Baroque flavor to a nightmarish, Gothic story, a combination reminiscent of Old Bill at his darkest. Gabo’s prose makes this a more difficult read than Solitude, but it’s a familiar, Modernist kind of difficulty, the difficulty of complexity, of multiple narrators and a (somewhat) non-chronological narrative, a difficulty that finally enriches rather than obscures.

I admire the way Gabo’s incredibly long-winded sentences–the last 50-page chapter is a single sentence–are like a sea on which the reader floats and in which he is occasionally submerged. We drift into the prose and let it flow over us, let it dominate our consciousness. There’s something genuinely overpowering in this lyricism, as powerful as Faulkner at his best; it’s an insinuating power, that of a melody that moves from the background to become the center of the song...But I prefer the oceanic metaphor. Gabo’s sentence rhythms are tidal, like the rhythm of the sea the general is forced to sell (to Americans who set it up in Arizona, a marvelous bit of satire that Gabo prodigally throws off in a subordinate clause), and the loss of the sea near the end of the book foregrounds this rhythm with an image that tropes the last chapter’s single-sentence structure: a terminal tide that streams out never to return. And this is also, obviously, an image of life, which occurs once and once only, no repetition (unlike my last phrase), no resurrection–a point stated, perhaps too explicitly, at book’s close.


I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude for the 2nd or 3rd time. It’s the Great Columbian Novel, a fact often obscured or missed by North American and European critics who designate it a “Latin American” novel. While Gabo deliberately generalizes his tales, never explicitly naming the country in which the novel is set, many of the background events (Liberal-Conservative wars, banana massacre, etc.) are recognizable incidents from Columbian history. I wonder how many North American readers appreciate this, understand that they’re reading a kind of ‘national epic’ of 19th and 20th century Columbian history rather than a generalized, mythologized, ‘South American’ fable.

The most serious flaw I find in this reading is that Gabo forces too big a cast upon himself. There are simply too many Buendias, and the author doesn’t sufficiently individualize them all. (He’s great, but he’s not Tolstoy.) So as we reach the halfway point, the Aurelianos and Arcadios of various generations tend to blur together, and I find myself repeatedly turning back to the genealogy chart in the front of the book. If Gabo had cut out a generation, this flaw might have been less noticeable, but which scenes would we want to lose, which beautiful images would we eliminate?

Reading the book after the 2000-2001 Bushite takeover of the U.S., I feel an eerie shock of recognition in some scenes, particularly the stolen election that leads Col. Buendia into rebellion (so much like the events of late 2000 in that most Caribbean, that most Latin American, that most magic realist of our United States). A new, deep-freeze chill also accrues to the banana massacre and its Kafkaesque aftermath of delusional official denials. Here is where magic realism becomes realism proper, reflecting hallucinatory reality.

Again and again the book surprises me, even upon re-reading. It is a triumph of the engaged imagination, a great left-wing novel that is also (rare thing) a great novel, fully deserving its prestige. Its strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses, rendering them negligible, barely worth mentioning beside the great plagues of insomnia and amnesia, the suicide attempt of Col. Aureliano, the ascension of Remedios the Beauty, the train of corpses, and so much more.

This is a novel as lush and fertile as a Columbian rain forest (and filled with as many intoxicating substances), a book of Dantean inventiveness and richness. Yes, I’m gushing now, but this novel deserves it. Gabo’s inventiveness does not flag (as Grass’s does in Tin Drum); even the last two or three chapters contain marvels: the “brothel of lies”; Aureliano and Amaranta’s amour fou in the house that succumbs to nature exactly as they do and is destroyed along with them; the old Catalonian bookseller with his shopful of treasures that the citizens of Macondo see as so many piles of printed junk; the tour de force ending in which the last Buendia reads of his own death at the moment it occurs–a very tidy clearing of the stage.

The book is a supreme example of writing that is both politically engaged and wildly imaginative. There is enough melancholy and wistfulness in Gabo’s tone to keep his fantasy from becoming mere whimsy. And it’s a melancholy born of the nightmares of Columbian history, a history like a freight train packed with corpses (a central image of the novel’s second half), a wistfulness born of what that history might have been. It’s not a perfect book (I’ve mentioned a few flaws above), but it is one of the very greatest.


Having read the first two books of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, I find the work tedious, monotonous, redundant, tiresome, boring, soporific, get the picture.

There are brief passages of genius, truly inventive and outrageous comic scenes (the journey into Pantagruel’s mouth stands out), but these joyous moments are, to coin a phrase, few and far between. Even if we consider ‘Master Alcofribas’ (a name that makes me think of alcohol and freebase and Richard Pryor aflame) the most unreliable narrator of all time and the book a massive deconstruction of itself, the text does not become a bit more interesting. This is a book made to be skimmed, scanned, skipped-through, sampled, sipped, tasted, tested, tippled, tinkled-upon, etc, etc, etc,...

One non-comic aspect of the book that does interest me is the way that some elements of Rabelais' style analogize with contemporary trends in the visual arts. Rabelais’ sartorially detailed descriptions of clothing and nauseatingly clinical depictions of wounds (this last surely a comic device meant to satirize the goreless slaughters of medieval romance) can be seen as analogous to the trompe l’oeil, photographically exquisite details of Mannerist painting (the draperies in Bronzino’s portraits, for example). Like all books, G&P is of its moment, an artifact of the first half of the 1500's in France, the Mannerist Fontainebleau era.