Sunday, May 24, 2009


One hidden precursor of Nabokov's Lolita is the 'suppressed' chapter of the Dostoyevsky novel translated variously as The Possessed, The Devils and Demons: "At Tikhon's (Stavrogin's Confession)." While Nabokov usually spoke derisively of dusty Fyodor, that boiler of Petersburgian pots, the Lolita-Matryosha link is fairly obvious. It's so evident, in fact, that Lolita might profitably be read as a secret satire on Stavrogin's confession and thus as Nabokov's ultimate killing satirical stroke at all that he so publicly and haughtily despised in the "great Russian novels," a phrase he would surely put in very scary quotes indeed... Reading Lolita in the light of Dostoyevsky also illuminates the fact that Nabokov is himself quilty (ah, so Nabokovian a slip of the finger, typing 'quilty' for 'guilty') of the very excesses he would denounce in Dostoyevsky. Nabokov, of course, would worm his way out of this difficulty by stepping one square to the left and attributing authorship to the previous square, now occupied by a white pawn labelled "H. Humbert" that was moved there by the invisible hand of John Ray, Jr....These Russian writers have an answer for everything.

"BENITO CERENO" by Herman Melville

Melville's "Benito Cereno," which I've finally gotten around to reading, is a brilliant, weird, original story, an unexpectedly subtle and ironic critical portrait of a benign racist. Captain Amasa Delano is a 'genteel' or 'liberal' racist, a man whose unquestioned racism blinds him to the reality before his eyes, the elaborate ruse played by the mutinous slaves and their leader, Babo. The story is yet another Melvillean take on race, interpretation and the limits of knowledge, yet another fine fiction that reveals the Old Salt as a postmodernist one hundred years avant la lettre, the most amazingly ahead of his time writer America has ever produced, a dude who made the 'hermeneutic turn' way back in the days of wind power. A powerful and original parable of the blinding effects of racism even in its milder forms, "Benito Cereno" is also, perhaps inevitably, a racist tale. As with Heart of Darkness, however, this is a case in which the tale destabilizes the ideology which it also, in a minor key, perpetuates. A very interesting and complex 'mystery' story.


It's difficult to romanticize or sentimentalize depression once you've seen its banality up close. For this kind of madness is indeed banal--and in a way that evil usually is not. Depression is obsessive, redundant, infuriating. Days go by like the pages of an unwritten book: identical, white, blank. Days like a diary of nothingness, or better, like a diary in which the same entry appears on every page with only the slightest differences in handwriting to distinguish one day from the next. Depression is boredom become totalitarian, raised to the level of a transcendent worldview. It is thus the opposite of art. It opposes that artistic impulse which, at its best, is a fist or a finger raised in protest against the anaesthetic and anesthetizing boredom of modern life. But even as I type that sentence, I want to argue with it, with myself (another aspect of the artistic impulse: this constant questioning that can itself devolve into a paralysing madness). I've just defined the artistic impulse (and ridiculously referred to it using a definite article) in a way that is simultaneously time-, culture- and class-bound. The idea of art as a protest against boredom could only arise from a modern, bourgeois, capitalist "subject position." It's by no means a universal truth. In fact it's probably a vestige of Romanticism, art's first concerted protest against capitalism, then in its nascent urbanizing and industrializing phase (This is a very Marxist view of Romanticism, and no less correct for that). Romanticism was too often a sentimental protest that easily turned into reactionary conservatism (The career of Wordsworth is probably the paradigmatic example here), but the elements of its protest established patterns that repeated like varied themes through the symphony of the next two centuries: the preference for nature and the natural; the quest for authenticity; the interest in altered states of consciousness; the critique of urbanism; the celebration of individualism and nonconformity even for their own sakes; the idea that art should express an artist's personal vision rather than adhere to the dogmas of one's parents' generation (an idea that quickly and paradoxically became a dogma); the generational divide...and so on. The High Moderns, thus, were considerably more Romantic than they would ever have cared to admit. And Rothko is more like Turner than either of them could have seen.

Back to depression...Much as I oppose facile readings of the work from the life, I find myself thinking that the boredom of David Foster Wallace's work must spring from his attempt to write authentically from a depressive self. This would explain the disconnect between the slow, somber, sad sections of Infinite Jest and the more hyperactive 'postmodern' or 'hysterical' sections. In the former, Wallace is writing from the self, while the latter find him cutting and pasting from the culture--in other words, writing from TV and the library. Contrary to most readers' Romantic expectations, the 'boring' parts are Wallace's authentically 'mad' writings; the crazy, frenetic stuff is a Pynchonian put-on, DFW at his least authentic.


"Fiction is essentially a means of deconstructing the aggregate fictions of a society."--E.L. Doctorow (sounding like Herbert Marcuse), interviewed in St. Petersburg (FL) Times, 11/16/08

Edgar sounds excessively professorial here. I essentially agree with him, but he sounds like a character in one of his novels, a dogmatist whom he would portray with understanding and compassion but not with enthusiasm or authorial endorsement.

I spent a few hours reading in Doctorow's most formally experimental fiction, The Book of Daniel, and I found its Barth-and-Cooverism a little tiresome. It's a very Seventies novel, and today it seems dated, too self-consciously self-conscious, too proud of the postmodernism it flaunts, just too damn pleased with itself. All of this may be deliberate, of course. Doctorow knows exactly what he's doing, and having his rather annoying central character narrate a book that is itself more than a little irritating may be both a paradoxically 'realist' touch and a swipe at the annoying self-righteousness of the Barth-and-Cooverites... Barth, Barthelme and Coover. Sounds like a lawfirm. "Barth, Barthelme and Coover. Your postmodern personal injury specialists. Call 1-800-SUE-THE-BASTARDS, that's 1-800-SUE-THE-BASTARDS, the number again is 1-800-SUE THE BASTARDS..." Anyway, The Book of Daniel, for all the interest of its subject matter, reads more like a formal experiment than an interesting novel. By the time of Ragtime, Doctorow had shifted his ironies away from the level of form to that of language, creating subtler but equally subversive effects. This strategy also, in Ragtime and Doctorow's subsequent novels, allows him to retrieve more traditional forms, if only to subvert them. (Surely there's a parallel with the films of Robert Altman here.) I suspect, however, that few readers read Ragtime closely enough to see Doctorow gesturing at them through the text. But that's all right. Some of us did notice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

Ol' Cormac's Pulitzer- and Oprah-winning The Road is a good literary horror novel with some brilliantly written passages (as one would expect from McCarthy), but it founders in its attempt to construct a Christian allegory out of pulp horror materials. Too often the keenly observed scenes of horror are artificially alleviated by scenes of rather sappy sentimentality, reminding me as I read that dystopias are exactly inverted utopias. This 'insight' may not be as banal and obvious as it sounds, so let me expand it a bit. If a utopia is the result of sentimentality projected outward into a beneficent imaginary world, then a dystopia might result from the retreat of sentimentality into the self, a vacuum-like sucking of every last particle of sentiment out of the world until only the author and his/her surrogates are capable of human emotions. The problem inherent in attempting a Christian allegory in such an inhuman world is obvious, and McCarthy fails to overcome it. His richly imagined pulpy mayhem drowns his ostensible Christian intentions. But his book is still a damned interesting failure. In fact, considered as a horror novel instead of a work of literary fiction, it's not a failure at all--more of a flawed success. As a work of literary art, it's a potentially great novel marred by the author's ideology/theology.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

DIARY OF A BAD YEAR by J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year is very impressive, better than Elizabeth Costello and maybe as good as Disgrace. Coetzee has invented a wonderful contrapuntal form for this novel, dividing the pages into first two and then three registers to present different voices that echo, clash, interpenetrate and finally deconstruct each other. That last verb brings to mind an obvious possible source for Coetzee's form in the similar formal experiments of Jacques Derrida (in the essay "Living On: Border Lines," the book Glas, etc.), a connection that takes us immediately to the deeper concerns of Coetzee's novel. For this book is much more than just another rehearsal of the aging writer-younger woman scenario. Coetzee's challenging, polyvocal form foregrounds the acts of reading and (mis)interpretation, the problems of writing and criticism and language in ways that subversively deepen even the text's apparently deepest moments. There is, for example, this paragraph in which Coetzee's text appears to cut deeply into the writer's notoriously dour self:

"As a young man, I never for a moment allowed myself to doubt that only from a self disengaged from the mass and critical of the mass could true art emerge. Whatever art has come from my hand has in one way or another expressed and even glorified in this disengagement. But what sort of art has that been, in the end? Art that is not great-souled, as the Russians would say, that lacks generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love."

A startling passage of Coetzeean self-reflection, no?... Well, probably not. Coetzee's Coetzee-like narrator (not, obviously and importantly, Coetzee himself) seems to cut into himself here, but the novel's overall foregrounding of rhetoric forces us to look again, whereupon we note the incrementally increasing sentimentality of the passage's final triad ("...lacks generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.") and its nakedly self-pitying extortion of readerly sympathy. Whenever a character in a Coetzee novel talks about celebrating life, readers should put themselves on high alert.

I'm also impressed by the subtle way the book overturns itself, so that by the end the two lower registers of the page have been overtaken by the female typist's voice, while in the upper register the male writer undermines his own authority in a passage on the rhetoric of Dostoyevsky. Of course, he's also undermining all the other voices in the book, so this might be read as a final deconstructive power play, a last ditch effort to salvage some form of authority... This is a surprisingly good and complex little book. I'm sure there's more going on here than can be captured in a single reading.


I'm plowing through Simon Schama's 3-volume A History of Britain and finding it a highly readable, entertaining and informative work punctuated with flashes of dark, dry humor. It does everything a popular history might be expected to do with such an enormous subject, and it's a pleasure to read.

Schama writes without any delusions of encyclopedicity (if that's not a word, it is now). His is a highly selective history, a personal view, very good on the late Anglo-Saxons, Edward I, Richard II, Henry VIII, Elizabeth and the two Marys, while slighting such standard BritHist fare as the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years War. Surprisingly, given Schama's fine eye and mind for art as displayed in Citizens and especially Rembrandt's Eyes, this work also virtually ignores British art and literature. Ultimately, Schama's books are really rather traditional 'history from above' illuminated with a few brief glimpses of/from the lower depths. The contemporaneity of the work--at least in the first volume--is more a matter of style than substance. Schama's prose frequently and flashily descends into the contemporary colloquial, but his historical understanding is, as even he admits, rather Whiggish. It's still, however, a very good and interesting read.

Volume two of Schama's history is markedly superior to the first volume. It's a more thoughtful and thought-provoking work in which the author re-examines the traditional history of Britain from the Stuart ascendency to the colonization of India and reads events against that traditional grain. Mining recent academic literature to fill the lacunae of the received historical text, Schama gives us an eighteenth century in which Enlightenment and 'New Augustanism' is shadowed by genocidal repression in Scotland and the various hells of West Indian slavery, and in which economic takeoff and industrialization are shadowed by the Atlantic slave trade. He also shows us a Cromwell who's as much Parliament's destroyer as its defender and a Robert Walpole who sounds like Boss Daley in a periwig. This is marvelous stuff...

The third volume of Schama's history is on a level with the first, but fails to achieve the greatness of volume two, which may be Schama's masterpiece (along with Rembrandt's Eyes). This final volume seems less original overall, more of an obligatory concluding act than an exercise in sustained argument and illumination. After volume two's magisterial recreation of the 17th and 18th centuries, volume three reads more like an extended coda than the continuation the reader has been led to expect.