Wednesday, December 22, 2010


To begin with something other than words words are two great paintings:

The top one is Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' 1832 portrait of Louis Bertin; below it is Pablo Picasso's 1910 portrait of Ambroise Vollard. The great historical change that intervenes between these two paintings and makes the Picasso possible is the birth of Modernism.

Most English-language fiction written today--even today, one hundred years on--is written as though Modernism never happened: as though Joyce never wrote Ulysses; as though Woolf never read Ulysses; as though Kafka was just another bureaucrat with a nasty cough; as though Pynchon never discovered the Keebler elves pissing in the pot of gold at the end of his Rainbow. Whenever we read a contemporary novel, we should ask ourselves, "Would Jane Austen have easily understood this book?" If the answer is 'yes,' we're probably reading a 19th-century novel in modern dress. The ranks of these imposters are legion. Leaving aside genre fiction (leaving aside, that is, most of the novels that are actually written and read--a bizarre thing to do, admittedly) which is all essentially a pop survival of Romantic and Victorian literature (the romance novel is degraded Bronte and Austen; the mystery comes out of Poe and Doyle and Collins; science fiction descends from Verne and Wells; the historical novel from Scott and Hugo; the horror novel is the screaming issue of a menage a trois among Poe, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker), it's easy to see the pre-Modernist essence of such popular 'literary' writers as John Irving (Dickens in tranny drag), Jonathan Franzen (a Trollope with a hard-on), Sarah Waters (a Victorian sans censorship), or Salman Rushdie (a Bollywood production of a Tristram Shandy presentation of a Henry Fielding film). This is not to say that I don't greatly admire the above writers. Irving's books are enjoyable, satisfying reads; I liked much of The Corrections; Tipping the Velvet was great, juicy fun (readers of that novel will appreciate the dirty double entendre); and Salman is, needless to say, The Man. I just want to point out that Jane Austen probably wouldn't have had much difficulty understanding their works. (Although Rushdie, to his credit, would likely give her the most trouble.) Faced with Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, however, the esteemed Ms. Austen would surely respond with an indignant, "Wh-Wh-What?!?! This is not a novel; it is not even written." Modernism was a bomb that blew the gaudy Victorian Revival mansion of literature to bits. But most of our writers today prefer to ignore this fact and continue to take tea at four o'clock in the ruins of the old living room, obliviously sipping their oolong from a charred and broken cup while the rubble smoulders around them.

Having thus mocked these writers, let me now rush to defend them. There's nothing morally wrong (or even necessarily politically retrograde) with writing as though Modernism never happened. Art, as the sage Wilde observed, has nothing to do with morality. (Except, I would add, when it does.) Literature does not grow organically, and metaphors that figure the history of literature as a kind of tree or plant or evolving animal lie at the root (to indulge exactly such a metaphor!) of countless critical errors. The novel is not a snake that sloughs off the dead skin of one era and slithers onward never to return. Sometimes novelists create their most startlingly original effects by squeezing into old snakeskin. (W. G. Sebald's acknowledgement of the influence of Adalbert Stifter and Gottfried Keller is a good example of this; an even better example, in another medium, is the way the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has recovered the aesthetic of silent film and put it to ultramodern uses.) Literary history is not linear; it's a crazy, spiralling curve that crosses and recrosses itself, but never at the same point. It's a doodle, not an axis.

That said, we should also recognize that the Modernist challenge was so radical, so explosive of past artistic forms (now's the time to scroll up and look again at the paintings by Ingres and Picasso--or to read any chapter of Anna Karenina alongside any chapter of Nabokov's Ada), that to ignore it or to take it for granted as a safely 'historical' phenomenon is to shirk one's artistic duty and risk becoming a high-class hack. So I think there is something aesthetically wrong with writing pre-Modern novels in modern dress, James in jeans, Trollope with trollops, etc. This kind of writing avoids the challenge of developing new forms for a new time and rests easily in the old, dead paradigms of the past. However lively it may seem, it is a coffined literature, the novel on a bier.

When I look around for books that buck this trend and show signs of life (which has nothing necessarily to do with 'realism'), I note the ghastly irony that two of today's brightest lights come from beyond the grave. W. G. Sebald and Roberto Bolano, both of whom were killed by their bodies while their minds and imaginations were still green, accepted the challenge of Modernism and set about inventing new forms to fit the mess of modernity. Among the living, Thomas Pynchon continues to kick against all the pricks (long may he weave). And William T. Vollmann may be the most ferociously ambitious writer alive. His energy and curiosity seem boundless, and his talent burns like whale oil--it's so bright we have to wear shades. If any American writer of our time is truly a child of Melville (that arch-Modernist a century ahead of his own time), it's Bill Vollmann. When I read his book (the word 'novel' doesn't quite capture it) The Atlas recently, I experienced a rare transport of cultural optimism. There are other writers I could mention, all fighters of the good fight: Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Carlos Fuentes, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Samuel Delany, Stephen Wright, the currently-underrated E. L. Doctorow, and many others both living and recently dead. The real stuff is out there (but for how long?), and if we can see past the screen of banal novels and commercial products pitched in the few remaining newspaper book sections, we might find something that will truly blow our minds.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Mitchell Zuckoff has composed a biography worthy of its subject. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is the most compulsively readable 'inside Hollywood' book since Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. I found it almost literally unputdownable. It's an appropriately Altmanesque bio, a book of overlapping, often contradictory voices that sum into an exceedingly complex portrait of one of the world's greatest filmmakers. (And make no mistake: Altman is up there with Welles, Eisenstein, Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock and Bunuel, among the very greatest of the greats. Here's the supporting evidence for this evaluation: Short Cuts, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Secret Honor, Thieves Like Us, The Player, Gosford Park.) We come away from Zuckoff's book with a surprisingly balanced portrait: there's Altman the genius and Altman the asshole; warm, nurturing Bob and cruel, drunken Bob; here's Altman the filmmaker of uncompromising moral vision, and here's Altman the con man who overbilled his financers, underpaid his employees, and pocketed the difference. Most actors who worked with Altman are effusive in their praise; but one of the book's most interesting moments is Sam Shepard's harsh but cogent (and, I think, entirely fair) criticism of Altman's directorial style. There are many wonderful, funny and sad stories herein, but the perhaps the biggest surprise is the full story of the MASH theme song, which unexpectedly becomes the story of Michael Altman's life. And like all of Altman's films, this bio is replete with memorable images: Sterling Hayden enveloped in a cloud of hash smoke on the set of The Long Goodbye; Kathryn and Robert Altman getting stoned on psychedelic brownies in the front row at the 1993 Oscars; Altman assembling his entire family in the living room of his house in the early 1970s and informing them that if it ever came down to a choice between them and making movies, he would choose movies; and of course Altman's priceless, instantly legendary response to a studio executive's directorial suggestions: "Fuck you. Rude letter follows." This book rarely attempts to interpret Altman's films (as the man always insisted, that's the viewer's job), but it succeeds in painting an indelible portrait of their maker.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens

The story of A Christmas Carol is so familiar to us that we've lost an appreciation of its conceptual audacity. To celebrate the Christmas season, a time of "goodness and light," Dickens gave his readers a gloomy Gothic ghost story complete with rattling chains. Dickens explicitly refers to Hamlet in the book's opening pages, but in truth his ghosts have a slightly less exalted pedigree. A Christmas Carol, with its weird spirits and night journeys and climactic conversion, reads like a pagan Halloween tale grafted onto a Christian conversion narrative. It is also, of course, a great Liberal fairy tale. It seems clear to me, for example, that Scrooge is working late on Christmas Eve because he's busily drafting the 2012 Republican Party platform. ("Are there no prisons?...And the Union workhouses, are they still in operation?...The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?") Scrooge is a "greed is good" laissez-faire capitalist, a 19th-century Gordon Gekko who by story's end is converted into George Soros. (If Ayn Rand had written this story, the Scrooge of the first chapter would be her straight-talking hero and the charitable Ebenezer of the last chapter would be a traitorous villain. But then, if Ayn Rand had written this story, it wouldn't be worth reading. She was a marginally talented hack; Dickens, on the other hand, was a very highly talented hack.) The socioeconomic moral of A Christmas Carol is that the problems of capitalism (poverty, greed) are amenable to capitalist solutions. Dickens preached reform rather than revolution. Unlike his reader Karl Marx, he tells us that social evils are best alleviated not by a general social upheaval but by the transformation of capitalism into a more benevolent, charitable, liberal system--a social transformation that exactly parallels Scrooge's personal one. Dickens dreams of a capitalism without Scrooges, a Christianized, Christ-like capitalism. It's a dream that seems, in the age of Madoff and Goldman Sachs, even more pipe-derived than Marx's most utopian moments.

It's also interesting that while Dickens may have set out to compose a fable about the Christianization of capitalism, the tale he actually wrote reflects exactly the opposite process: the capitalization of Christianity. A Christmas Carol is a chapter in the long and not exactly magical transformation of caritas into cold cash. The charity that equals love becomes a few bucks on the collection plate to buy off one's capitalist bad conscience. In the terms of Dickens's tale, Scrooge's conversion is dramatized largely through monetary transactions. Scrooge's consciousness in the final chapter is not one whit less money-centered. In fact, by spending his money more liberally now, the newly Christianized Scrooge becomes more fully engaged in capitalism: both a liberal spender and a conservative getter. Christianity, it seems, is less about who we are than how we spend. It's the 'charity and moderation' branch of capitalism. That many of the scriptural tenets of Christianity are inimical to capitalism (the line about rich men and the eye of a needle; the exemplary poverty of Jesus) is but one complication that Dickens chooses to ignore, preferring to end his tale on the day after Christmas, before the cultural contradictions of Scrooge's new life make themselves felt.

One other way in which Dickens tries (unsuccessfully, I think) to write his way around these contradictions is to implicitly portray Scrooge's conversion as a redemption of the tale's entire fictional world. Dickens's nervously capitalized insistence at story's end that Tiny Tim "did NOT die," that the child was somehow saved by Scrooge, resurrected Lazarus-like from a death we have already witnessed (albeit in the 'future'), marks the new Scrooge as a redeemer with messianic powers. If Scrooge can save Tiny Tim, what can't he do? The sad death and late salvation of Tiny Tim is also the story's cheapest and most transparently manipulative element. It's almost as phony as the ending of the book of Job.

I'll end with a brief note on sex in A Christmas Carol. What am I talking about? There's a very curious scene in the second chapter where the daughter of Scrooge's former love is "pillaged" by the other children. The narrator's description of this roughhousing is blatantly eroticized. He even breaks into first person and confides in the reader his desire to join in the fun. Real sex is, of course, even more severely repressed in this eminently Victorian fiction than in Victorian society, so it seems that this odd little scene provides an outlet for all the eroticism that's deeply submerged elsewhere. Something very similar occurs in the sensual description of foods early in chapter three.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Of the enormous library of criticism, commentary and biography that has grown up around James Joyce's Ulysses, only three books are truly essential: Richard Ellmann's James Joyce, Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses (which is as close as we can come to an 'authorized' reading--meaning it should be read with at least a few grains of salt), and Don Gifford and Robert Seidman's Ulysses Annotated. These books aside, very little of the Ulysses criticism I've read has genuinely enriched my reading of Joyce's text. Hugh Kenner's Joyce books will teach you much about Professor Kenner, his likes and dislikes, but the time you'll spend reading them would be better spent re-reading Ulysses. (This raises yet again Italo Calvino's great and essential question, a question that should shake all professors of English to the bottoms of their soles: Why should we read books about books when we can read the books themselves?) Likewise, virtually all the volumes and articles written about Ulysses tell us much about the favorite critical theories of their authors but little about Ulysses that can't be learned by a close re-reading. In other words, just about everything published in the academic Joyce industry exists not to be read but to burnish its author's CV.

The somewhat distinguished Declan Kiberd, Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature at University College Dublin (Jam Juice's allmust mutter, no less) comes promising to remedy this situation, but unfortunately he fails miserably. The best thing I can say about Ulysses and Us is that it's not entirely a steaming lump of elephant dung. The cover is very well designed, and the cover photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading Molly Bloom's soliloquy is enough to "make me do love sticky," but this is one book that should definitely not be judged by its cover. If I so desired, I could list all of my disagreements with this book, page by page, but such a list would quickly run to hundreds of items and would be almost as useless as Kiberd's ill-considered production. Why do I hate this book? (And 'hate' is not too strong a word in this case.) We can start with its infinite condescension. Kiberd poses as an anti-academic academic, a regular guy who wants to show the world that Ulysses is a book for "ordinary men and women." Kiberd uses this phrase over and over (like the word "everyday," it's one of his fetishes), and every use stinks to the sky with the odor of an ivory towered twit lowering himself to lecture the proles. More importantly, Kiberd's idea of returning Joyce to his imaginary "ordinary people" (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore?) is to interpret the book in such a way that it's easily digestible by a middle-class corporate readership. Kiberd's reading banalizes Ulysses, turning one of the great books of world literature into a Dale Carnegie primer. I'm not exaggerating. Here's Kiberd on the "Eumaeus" episode: "[Joyce's] Ulysses was not just an example of a high-risk business venture but also a sort of 'self-help' manual, in which an older Irishman teaches a younger one how to live and blossom." When I read this jaw-droppingly stupid sentence, I scrawled in the margin, "Oh Christ!--this is a thoroughly philistine reading--Kiberd isn't recovering Ulysses from academy so much as turning it over to the corporate kitsch self-improvement mentality--Joyce spins in grave." Again, I could multiply this example many times, but what would be the point? Ulysses and Us is useless. I think I'll do to my copy what Leopold Bloom does to Titbits (wipe my ass with it). Joyce's novel deserves much better than this turd of a book. And Declan Kiberd deserves to be stripped of his position at UCD and forced to beg for change from the tourists on Grafton Street. Hell, I'll give him a euro if he sings "The Croppy Boy" for me....No I won't.

Monday, December 13, 2010


"In 1989, Bob Flanagan nailed his penis to a wooden board."

That's probably the single best sentence in all of Peter Gay's Modernism (it's certainly the most enjoyable), and unfortunately, both for Gay and the reader, it's a quote from another writer's article. This fact suggests the biggest problem with Gay's book: it is for the most part a compendium of received opinions, with hardly an original or provocative idea in its 500+ pages. Less a history of Modernism than a historian's extended commentary on that 'movement of movements,' Modernism reads like a very, very, very long New York Review article: it's an interesting, readable, and fairly fast-paced commentary that (unlike most NYR pieces) contains no revelations among its pleasures. Aside from Gay's discussions of Le Corbusier's Vichyite collaboration and Hamsun's enthusiastic Hitler-worship, there's very little here that will surprise anyone already familiar with the literature on Modernism. And if the book is considered solely as an introductory survey, other problems arise. For all its impressive breadth, Modernism's coverage of this international movement remains spotty and mostly shallow. Confining ourselves to the Bs, we note that Brecht is only mentioned in passing, Balthus not at all, and Bacon only in a list of artists not covered. British and American Modernism are slighted: no mention of Wyndham Lewis, very little of Pound, no Stein, no Dos Passos or Faulkner or Wolfe, no John Marin, no O'Keefe or Stieglitz, hardly any Man Ray, and Virginia Woolf is forced to stand for all of Bloomsbury. Gay ignores the currently accepted academic division of 20th-century culture into Modern and Postmodern, and while I commend him on this (I think of 'Postmodernism' as Late Modernism), I find his discussion of Pop Art grumpy and geezerish. These pages especially would have benefited from deeper thought and less reliance on the critic Gore Vidal delightfully refers to as 'the Hilton Kramer hotel.' Gay also belabors a paper tiger in his repeated insistences that Modernism was "not democratic." No one who knows enough about the trend to read this book will be under the impression that it was, not after the well-publicized (and now very old news) revelations of Pound's black shirt, Yeats's blue shirt, Eliot's anti-Semitism, Woolf's snobbery and Hamsun's fervent Nazism, to list just a few of the most prominent examples. (Any list of great Modernist artists with at best equivocal relationships to totalitarianism must also include Shostakovich, Richard Strauss and Eisenstein, and no viewer of Birth of a Nation can be unaware of David Wark Griffith's dipshit racism.) On a more abstract level, Gay's two defining characteristics of Modernism--the "lure of heresy" and a "principled self-scrutiny"--might have been synthesized into a single, more focused idea--the heresy of inwardness--that may well have produced a better and deeper book. As it stands, this unoriginal and mostly unshocking work is a most un-Modernist survey of Modernism.

I'll take this opportunity to recommend two better books on the Modern: Robert Hughes's instantly classic The Shock of the New and Peter Conrad's lively and learned Modern Times, Modern Places.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bolano's SAVAGE DETECTIVES and Jack Miles' GOD

Near the beginning of God: A Biography by Jack Miles (a book that's about as interesting as an extended exercise in reification can be), the author discusses the form of the Hebrew Bible as though that compendium of disparate texts were a single, coherent work. This intentionally ahistorical approach (I think the book would've been much more interesting if it had taken a more materialist, social historical approach) leads to this observation:

"The beginning and end of the Hebrew Bible are not linked by a single, continuous narrative. Well short of the halfway point in the text, the narrative breaks off. What then follow are, first, speeches spoken by God; second, speeches spoken either to or, in some degree, about God; third, a protracted silence; and, last, a brief resumption of the narrative before a closing coda. The narrative suspense that lasts from the Book of Genesis through II Kings is succeeded, past that point, by another kind of suspense, one more like the kind jurors experience in a courtroom as different witnesses take the stand to talk about the same person. A sequence of testimonies--each in its own distinctive voice, with its own beginning and end--can be as effective as narrative in suggesting that the person about whom the words are spoken does not stop where the words stop."

Now, Miles's project of reading the Bible as a kind of novel (instead of what it is, an anthology) and the Bible's God as a coherent novelistic character (instead of what he/it is, a combination of the various god-figures in different stories by different tellers) seems more than a little dubious to me, but the passage I've just quoted reads like a marvelously observant and prescient commentary--not on the Bible, but on a book written about the same time as Miles's "biography" and published three years later, Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives. The narrative that begins strongly, breaks off unexpectedly, and then resumes near the end; the long middle section consisting of voices speaking about the central character(s), like witnesses called to testify--is this not uncannily like the form of Bolano's novel? And isn't Miles's description of the effect of this form uncannily like the effect of reading the midsection of Savage Detectives? I seriously doubt that there could've been any direct influence here, and I have no reason to think that Bolano based his form on the Bible, but the similarity between Miles's description and Bolano's novelistic form is almost too remarkable to be coincidental. But then again, aren't all coincidences exactly that remarkable? (Because if they were less remarkable, no one would remark upon them.)

[Insufferably pedantic comment on this post's first sentence: Yes, I suppose that technically it's not reification but hypostatization. I stand corrected--by my own insufferably pedantic self.]

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


First, a facile deconstruction of this book's foundational premise. In his "Polemical Introduction" Frye rejects all schools of literary criticism that apply 'extraliterary' ideologies to literature. His catalogue of hermeneutical ill-repute names the "Marxist, Thomist, liberal-humanist, neo-Classical, Freudian, Jungian [and] existentialist" schools. These he rejects on the grounds that a valid theory of interpretation must "grow out of the art it deals with." The attentive reader might immediately object that all the hermeneutics in Frye's list 'grow out of' literature, broadly defined: Marxism out of Hegel and the 19th-century social novel, Thomism out of Aquinas and the Bible, liberal humanism out of the canon of Adler-approved Great Books, neo-Classicism out of Aristotle and his centuries of epigones (including the one who gave his name to Thomism), Freudianism out of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Jungianism out of the very fruitful Golden Bough, and existentialism out of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. But leaving this argument aside, we soon notice that Frye's own supposedly 'intrinsic' method grounds its authority in an appeal to science, an ideology further from literature than any of the occupants of Northrop's Hall of Shame. Frye's insistence upon the intrinsicality of the method he will present in these pages is fatally undermined by the scientism that pervades his argument. (And it's a rather odd scientism, curiously old-fashioned even for the Fifties, when this book was published. Frye's 'science' is a Victorian caricature, a deterministic, totalizing worldview innocent of quantum uncertainty and Popperian scepticism.) That's one easy way to deconstruct Frye. A second, more strictly De Manian approach might focus on Frye's denial that criticism is a parasitical growth on literature and his simultaneous figuring of his ideal criticism as "grow[ing] out of" literature, very like a parasite. (The knowing deconstructor will refer to J. Hillis Miller's discussion of parasitism in "The Critic as Host.")

But the fact that a philosophical or theoretical text is fundamentally wrong and occasionally dotty (as Frye's book is) doesn't mean it's not worth reading. If we were to condemn all the philosophers who got the Big Stuff wrong, who before Nietzsche would 'scape whipping? Who after him? At the beginning of The Renaissance Walter Pater (pater of us all; ghostly father of Modernism) writes that the true value of all abstract aesthetic studies lies "in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way." Frye's work remains valuable precisely because of the suggestive, illuminating things he says along the way to his explication of an archetypal mastermyth. There is, for example, his valuable distinction among terror, horror and dread: terror is "fear at a distance;" horror is "fear at contact;" dread is "fear without an object." (We might concretize this by saying: Nazi society was a place of terror, the concentration camps places of horror, and a world in which Nazism could occur a place of dread.) There is the bravura passage in which Frye outlines a reading of Lycidas that unfolds into an encyclopedic history of the pastoral. (Moments like this suggest that Harold Bloom's theories of influence represent a 'secularization' or 'disenchantment' of Frye's archetypal structuralism. Bloom is a Frye who privileges Romantic poetry over the Bible and Jung.) There is this brilliant insight about Paradise Lost: "the real basis of the relation of Milton's God to his Adam is the relation of the tragic poet to his hero." And there is also the great readerly schadenfreude evoked by such jaw-droppingly wrong ideas as "Racks and dungeons belong in the sinister vision not because they are morally forbidden but because it is impossible to make them objects of desire." How can anyone who has read Sade, Freud and Proust write that sentence? And there's the even greater schadenfreude that comes when Northrop stumbles over his blind spots and we watch his clumsy pratfalls: the later passages on satire are skewed by authorial prudery, and Frye astonishingly dismisses The Satyricon in a single obtuse sentence. But what of Frye's beloved schema, his allegory of the four seasons of literature, the reason he wrote this book and the only thing most readers have taken away from it? I think every reader is free to take it or leave it. Aside from giving Frye a structural backbone to build a book on (cf. the function of The Odyssey in Ulysses or Wagner's Parsifal in The Waste Land), it's not essential and can be knocked away like the scaffolding Frye himself likens it to in his introduction. And that thought leads me to suggest that Frye's Anatomy might more profitably be read as an example or artifact of Modernism than as a paradigm for criticism. Alternatively, we might pay close attention to the first word of Frye's title and read the book as an "anatomie" akin to Burton's vast work on melancholy. Despite his scientistic pretensions, Frye has written not a clinical dissection of literature but a wide-ranging and highly compressed compendium of thoughts and ideas, some powerful, some worthless. I found it worthwhile to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


"I guess I'm just ahead of my time." -- Samuel M. Steward

In the early 1990s when I was a student at Ohio State University, I received my first vague hint about the amazing life of Samuel Steward. A professor in the English department remarked during a lecture that a 1930s graduate student at OSU had befriended Gertrude Stein, attempted unsuccessfully to correspond with James Joyce, and later become a legendary writer of gay porn novels. A short time later I became aware of, but did not read, a volume of letters from Stein and Alice B. Toklas to a friend named 'Sammy.' A few years after that, I read in Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's fine biography of Alfred Kinsey a graphic account of the activities of Kinsey informant Samuel Steward, whom the author identifies as a friend of Stein and Toklas. Thus, over the course of fifteen years I had acquired many of the pieces of the Steward puzzle, but I never followed up on any of these hints; I never put the pieces together.

Justin Spring puts all these pieces together and reveals many more in his absolutely fascinating biography. Secret Historian is more than a great gay life; it's a great American life, the Whitmanian breadth of which is measured by the facts that Samuel Steward spent an afternoon in the 1930s with Thomas Mann and many late nights in the 1960s with Sonny Barger. During the Great Depression he wrote his master's thesis on Spenser and his doctoral dissertation on Cardinal Newman, and thirty years later he was the official tattoo artist of the Hell's Angels. His friends ran from High Modernists to high motorcyclists. He had a tete a tete with Andre Gide and a sadomasochistic relationship with a former Nazi stormtrooper. He had sexual encounters with Rudolph Valentino, Rock Hudson, and the aging Lord Alfred Douglas, and that's just the tip of this book's phallic iceberg. Steward is one of those people who seems to have known everybody and blown at least half of them. Spring expertly guides us through the many contradictory changes of Steward's amazingly multiple life, from his smalltown Ohio childhood to his years as a Chicago orgiast, from his scholarly studies of Spenser and the Oxford Movement to his volumes of hardcore gay porn (Camille Paglia, for one, would have no trouble making the connection between Spenser and porn; see the Spenser chapter in Sexual Personae), from his years as a professor at Catholic universities to his second career as a highly regarded tattoo artist, from his decades of truly dangerous sexual outlawry to his final years as a friend of the San Francisco Police Department and organizer of a neighborhood watch program, from his passionate midlife attraction to black men to some late in life remarks that sound identical to those of so many racist "Reagan Democrats." Along the way we are afforded eye-opening glimpses of Chicago police corruption, the Chicago gay underworld, Oakland in the dangerous years after the Summer of Love, and much more. This book is an embarrassment of riches, and I close it thinking that while Samuel Steward may never have found 'success' as a literary artist, he successfully followed the dicta of his first master, Oscar Wilde, and made an artwork of his life. And that life was a fucking masterpiece.

I have one criticism upon finishing the book. Spring tells us of Steward's "common law wife" and long-standing friend Emmy Curtis, but he seems to downplay her role in Steward's life--including, importantly, his sex life with her. Steward's sexual activity was overwhelmingly gay but not exclusively so, and the extent to which he had sex with Emmy Curtis is the extent of his bisexuality, one level of sexual complexity that this book (perhaps following Steward's lead) almost completely ignores.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


For a long time now, I've wanted to read this too-familiar poem very slowly and see what develops.

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Frost's titles are sometimes merely obligatory, but this one is a crucial part of his text. It effectively sets the scene and permits an immediate passage into the first line's interior monologue. The ease of this passage (so transparent most readers probably don't notice it) is the exact opposite of the typically Modernist move: hurling the reader unaided into the speaker's mind to create a maximum of initial disorientation. Frost's movement is more traditional, more Victorian, a Browning motion.

Whose woods these are I think I know.

The first two words signal a question--whose woods?--which the inversion of the next two words--"these are" instead of "are these"--turns toward the declaratory. But it's a weak, uncertain declaration that ends the sentence. In a nice contrast of form and content, the last four words tell us in ironically strident, marching iambs that the speaker only thinks he knows the owner's identity. (When I read this line aloud, 'think' receives the strongest emphasis, even stronger than 'woods'.) Frost's decision to open the poem with such a Rumsfeldian statement of self-assured uncertainty (the owner's identity is a 'known unknown') should put the reader on guard. It's a yellow sign that flashes: CAUTION: UNRELIABLE NARRATION AHEAD.

His house is in the village though;

Notice how smoothly the narrator slides past his uncertainty and in the snowy white space between two lines transforms a 'known unknown' into a 'known.' (Rumsfeld, the Don of Doubletalk, would be proud.) The shadowy man who may or may not own this woods is an absentee landlord, a townsman with country capital. And it's important that the poem initially and repeatedly inscribes him in the possessive case (whose woods, his house, his woods). He's a mysterious avatar of capitalism defined solely by what he owns.

He will not see me stopping here

Finally, in the third line, the personage who dominates the first stanza receives a pronoun that's neither possessive nor interrogatory. This is as close as we will ever come to seeing his miserly face. "He" will remain hidden behind pronoun and possession, a pure creation of language who possesses everything save a proper name. And our speaker is concerned about being seen by him. Wait a minute... What the hell is the speaker afraid of? Does he seriously expect us to believe that this ghostly owner is so possessive that he objects to passing drivers who pause to look at his property? Are we to imagine signs nailed to the trees reading "No Visual Trespassing"? The speaker may hope we believe such nonsense, but Frost surely does not. The irrational fear and anxiety on display in this line further displace the speaker into a position of unreliability and allow us to interpret the owner as a projection of the speaker's anxieties. The woods surely have an actual owner who may or may not live in the village, but that's irrelevant. The salient fact is the speaker's use of this owner as a blank screen upon which to project his own psychological conflicts. (There is much more of this sort of thing to come in the following stanzas.) In Marxian-Freudian terms, the owner represents the speaker's punishing capitalist superego, his internalization of all those Yankee maxims about the necessity of hard work and the inadvisibility of being a lazy bastard who stops in the middle of a country road to stare at a woods.

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Our speaker likes to watch. This is all the speaker wants to do, a perfectly innocent activity, so why should a part of his mind object? Why feel guilty about such an innocuous (and invisible) act? One easy answer: that old-time religion. The puritanical protestant work ethic that our speaker imbibed with his New England mother's milk specializes in the demonization of innocuous, solitary, unproductive acts. The analogy to masturbation, a solitary act that the Victorian era repressed in some truly hellish ways, is obvious, but it's perhaps more interesting to interpret our watcher-wanker as a stand-in for the poet, one who engages in arduous solitary activity that brings little or no financial reward. There's no money to be made in loafing and inviting one's soul, our speaker's internal Good American Capitalist would point out, so get off your ass and sell it to my company. It thus seems fitting that our ghostly owner is once again reduced to the possessive in this line ("his woods"). After becoming almost a person in line three's "he," the phantasm is knocked back down a peg to capitalist caricature (he is what he owns). The owner then unexpectedly vanishes as completely as a ghost in a snowstorm. We hear no more of him. The speaker seems to have won round one of his battle with the superego, but a hint that there is more to come occurs in the odd choice of "fill up" to describe the snowfall's effect on the woods. It's clearly an overstatement (and there's more of this to come, too): if the woods were literally to fill with snow to the tops of the trees, the speaker would be consumed and blinded by that overwhelming whiteness. The ground is being covered, a few inches (or feet) of trunks are being concealed, but surely the woods is not 'filling up.' I interpret this strange overstatement as a textual 'bump in the rug' that both conceals and indicates the presence of the temporarily repressed superego that the speaker has hastily swept under it. It's also a bit of wish-fulfillment: a woods-filling snowfall just might be deep enough to bury the speaker's anxieties--along with everything else in his world.

My little horse must think it queer

Unless we intend to grant our speaker the power of cross-species telepathy, we can only read this line as yet another act of projection. (Granted, he does hedge a bit with the 'must,' but later developments (lines 9 and 10) reveal this as a quickly forgotten hedge, akin to the 'I think' of line 1.) The property owner was too dangerous a blank screen, too human, too close to the speaker's self-image, so now he projects his anxieties, his sense of the queerness, the strangeness of his act, upon an animal under his command. Theorists of the Queer might seize upon the final word to produce an interesting queer reading of this poem (I've already suggested one tactic for such a reading in my masturbation analogy), but I'll leave that for another day, as I still have miles to go before putting this reading to sleep. It's not the last but the first adjective here that captures my attention. Why is his horse 'little'? As an understatement, its concavity matches nicely with the previous line's convex overstatement, but surely it's doing something other than completing a purely notional formal circle. The horse is 'little,' I think, because the speaker must see himself as 'big,' powerful enough to defeat the desert places in his mind, and the easiest way to enlarge oneself is to belittle others. Further, and contrarily, the speaker unconvincingly projects his own feelings of smallness and weakness onto the horse, an animal surely larger and stronger than he.

To stop without a farmhouse near

This is an unusual occasion. Our speaker is not a man ordinarily given to revery. Hence his anxiety about this pitifully minor lapse witnessed only by himself. He's not the kind of man who stops before arriving at his destination. Not a Frostian poet given to deep thoughts about nature, man and the cosmos. He's the sort who would rather get on with it and leave the loafing to beggars and bums. On this one evening, however, he has stopped in the middle of nowhere...

Between the woods and frozen lake

...and it's a deeply inhospitable kind of nowhere: land and sky filled with snow, the lake frozen. It's a landscape that tends to force viewers back upon themselves, and is thus dangerous for those not given to introspection. And has Frost mentioned yet that the sun has already set?

The darkest evening of the year.

Only now, halfway through the poem, do we discover that it takes place in Rembrandtian darkness. The poem is so well-known that the shock of this is lost, but it's like the sun going down unexpectedly in the middle of the poem. It's not just 'evening' but after dark, and not just any darkness, but the very darkest of the year's evening darknesses. Again Frost ends his stanza with an overstatement. This is no more objectively the 'darkest' evening (whatever that could possibly mean; how would one measure it?) than the woods are literally 'filling up' with snow. This darkest of darknesses is a subjective perception created by the speaker's darkened consciousness. At this central point in the poem his projections turn from specific animate objects (owner, horse) to the Great Blank Screen of Romanticism, capitalized Nature.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.

The speaker's projection of his anxieties upon the horse goes overboard into crude anthropomorphism. The horse has now been granted a human mind and human intentions, and the speaker has enough sense to end this projection immediately before we slip any further into Doctor Doolittle territory. There has indeed been a mistake: the speaker's mistaken projection of his anxieties onto an object still close enough to himself to embody those anxieties without relieving them. As chosen objects, the owner and the horse are mirrors that reflect the speaker's psyche back at him. He needs an object inhuman enough to absorb his projections and large enough to swallow them without a trace. He needs Nature, and in the next two lines Nature blows in on the breeze.

The only other sound's the sweep
of easy wind and downy flake.

This stanza separates perfectly into two sentences, a question and an answer. The horse's troubling question is answered by a perfectly lovely apparition of nature that beautifully blows the troublesome beast away. (The horse, like the owner before him, now disappears from the poem.) The wind 'sweeps' but does not bite; it's more 'easy' than cold; even the snow is now 'downy,' falling like feathers to stuff the pillow on which we sleep. Read the lines aloud and hear their soothing music: the slow, open o's and soft, sleepy sibilants sweep the third line along, and the long e's of 'sleep' ease into line four's 'easy,' an internal rhyme with 'downy,' which itself harmonizes with the earlier 'sound's.' The music of these two lines is so different from the previous two that the end-rhyming 'flake' sounds almost like a false note.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

The vision is as entrancing as the music that creates it. Punctuation is extremely important here. To demonstrate this, insert a comma after 'dark.' Contrary to a superficial reading, the woods are absolutely not "lovely, dark, and deep." The woods are 'lovely.' 'Dark' and 'deep' characterize that loveliness. They are lovely because they are dark and deep. We should linger over this line, because it's certainly the poem's most important. Here the speaker's trajectory of projectional objects finishes its course from human to inanimate, from man to horse to woods. He finds in the final object a thing dark and deep enough to beautifully conceal his anxieties. Like a black hole, the woods reflect nothing back. And also like a black hole, they exert a dangerous attraction. Aye, there's the rub. If they're so lovely, why not stay here and listen to their siren song forever? Why not pass easily into that lovely dark depth and cease upon the midnight with no pain? The projection of anxiety now threatens to become the dissolution of self, a process not necessarily identical with death. An anxious self, that is, might be dissolved to make room for one less riven by anxiety, or at least a self more conscious of the reasons for its riving, which is probably as much as psychoanalysis can achieve. (Readers who interpret the poem as I always had before this close reading, as a dramatization of a death wish, are probably correct on some level, but there's more going on.) Frost's speaker stands at a parting of the ways. But unlike that other speaker who took the road not really less traveled, this choice actually might determine the further course of his life (if any). It's a genuinely existential choice. So he cannot be permitted the freedom to make it.

But I have promises to keep,

Enter the superego to save the day for conformity. The power of convention is far too great for the speaker to oppose. Years of internalized social rules versus a few seconds on a snowy road. Which side would you bet on? The speaker is given a chance to change his life, but his choice against change is determined by the same force that determines all his other actions, the anxiety producing superego. It's time to move on. Andrew Carnegie didn't get where he is today by staring at a fuckin' woods, buddy. The conformist tape that pays 24/7 inside this guy's head is more effective than any motivational seminar. Who needs Dale Carnegie when Carnegie's ideas determine the architecture of our selves? Get moving, hustle, sell, sell, sell. Because if you don't sell, you're sold. The deal is done, and then it's really dark woods time. So why sell yourself short? Get going. Keep those promises, every blessed one.

And miles to go before I sleep,

Miles and miles and miles, and every mile is another trip down the darkest road on the darkest evening of the year. What a wonderful future this guy has to look forward to. (That last sentence was sarcastic, in case the tone didn't come through.) And after all of these miles, before that sleep of death comes as a blissful annihilation...wait for it...wait for it...That's right, there's even more! Tell him what he's won, Don Pardo...

and miles to go before I sleep.

According to the editors of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, from which I take my text, "Frost always insisted that the repetition of the line in the last stanza was not supposed to invoke death but only to imply a somnolent dreaminess in the speaker." Yeah, right. In fact, the Hamletian question of life or death is moot here, since the speaker's "miles and miles" of future life are the equivalent of a living death, a drearily conformist rut from which he cannot turn. His wheels are too deep in the groove, and his inner puritan is always waiting to terrify him into motion. If the repetition is indeed somnolent, that only serves to underscore the years of soporific boredom that stretch ahead of him like a long, flat, straight American highway lined with billboards repeating Sarah Palin's vacuous visage unto the unimaginable horizon. C'est la vie--and not only for people in poems. To some extent, this is life for most of us, isn't it? This poem is the record of a defeat. And to a greater or lesser extent, it's a defeat we all share.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

READING RILKE by William H. Gass

Reading Gass reading Rilke is a double dip of delightful. This volume is subtitled "Reflections on the Problems of Translation" (presumably to scare away any prospective readers), and while there is some consideration of the technical problems of translating Rilke into English and some comparative criticism of previous translators, and while the book culminates in Gass's own shiny brand new translation of the Duino Elegies (a rendering inferior to Stephen Mitchell's, in my view), the important thing to note is that this is no dry, academic treatise that spends pages expatiating on the proper translation of kandelaber. Most of the book consists of highly interesting and very well-written critical essays on the works of Rilke. The Elegies, the Requiem, and the "Archaic Torso" are all considered, of course, but Gass also writes of (and translates) lesser-known works, and the opening essay, "Lifeleading," is an impressive bit of critical biography. Repeatedly, I found myself disagreeing with Gass's translational ideas and agreeing with his critical ones. His analysis of the 'philosophical' side of the Elegies, for example, is one of the clearest and most compelling I've ever encountered. But his decision to translate a line in The First Elegy as "Every angel is awesome" turns Rilke's elevated diction into Dude-speak. I also quarrel with Gass's contention, thrown off in an aside, that the paintings of El Greco "contained angels worthy of the Elegies." I've seen many El Grecos, but none of his angels are either awesome or terrifying. Perhaps the most truly terrifying angel in all of Western art is Piero della Francesca's Saint Michael in the London National Gallery. Go to London and look into his eyes. Goofy red boots aside, he is a supremely inhuman badass. (And about the translation of kandelaber? Gass informs us that it was a 19th-century streetlamp with two gas-lit globes suspended from an arching bar. Shining out against the night sky, the lights would've resembled two glowing eyes in a ghostly face, a "legendary head" that "we cannot know." This specifically visual 'sense' of the image is lost in English.)


The best moments in David Rieff's Swimming in a Sea of Death, his memoir of the final illness of his mother Susan Sontag, are those all-too-few passages where Rieff quotes from Sontag's journals. During her first cancer treatment in the 1970s, for example, Sontag writes, "People speak of illness as deepening. I don't feel deepened. I feel flattened. I've become opaque to myself." I detect a perhaps deliberate Beckettian austerity in both the style and substance of these sentences. The tone drones of drained, defeated self-alienation. It is a writing of and from illness rather than about illness. If more of this exists in Sontag's unpublished journals, I can't wait to read them.

There are also a few moments in the book when Rieff, a capable writer but no master, approaches eloquence. Here's one such moment: "And in the end, those of us who loved her failed her as the living always fail the dying, for we could not actually do the only thing she really wanted, which was to stave off extinction for just some time longer..."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Top Shelf, and Why These Novels Are On It

Here, in more or less random order, are the novels on my top shelf, the best of the best, along with a few reasons why I value them so highly:

  1. Ulysses by James Joyce. It's a cliche to begin a best list with Ulysses, but it's an unavoidable cliche. Ulysses is the Rosetta Stone of Modernism. Once you begin to crack its codes and understand it (a process that, as Joyce knew, can take a lifetime of re-reading), most of the rest of Modern and Postmodern literature will come relatively easily to you. This is the master key to the 20th century's multitude of literary languages. And it is also, at times, blindingly funny. The "Circe" episode is especially outrageous. Formally derived from Flaubert's great, bizarre Temptation of Saint Anthony, "Circe" looks backward to Rabelais and forward to the Philip Roth of Sabbath's Theater. Theorists of 20th-century literature privilege the concept of discontinuity, but Modernism is more importantly about continuity in the face of radical change. Ulysses exemplifies and participates in this process.
  2. The Trial by Franz Kafka. All of Kafka is worth reading (and The Metamorphosis is a more perfect and finished work than The Trial), but The Trial means more to me because it was my introduction to the world of Kafka. Joseph K and his perfectly plausible adventures in the realm of the rationally insane impressed me more deeply than just about any book I had read at that point in my life. Kafka's deadpan mixture of the mundane and the surreal perfectly captures the texture of my nightmares. Every time I re-read The Trial it impresses me more--and that's a good working definition of a great book.
  3. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. The first great postmodern novel, and still the best. Sterne's subversions begin with the title and continue to burble in the reader's brain long after the final page has passed. (Most of the opinions herein are expressed by others while sad Tristram takes an inordinately long time getting himself born.) I think it was Milan Kundera who wrote that the twin genealogies of the European novel begin with Richardson and Sterne. While the former is the progenitor of Victorian 'high seriousness' and the seer-yus 'social novel' from Austen to Oates, the latter inaugurates (taking invaluable cues from the Mother/Father of All Novelists, Cervantes) the equally important comic tradition that encompasses everyone from Fielding to Rushdie. Tristram Shandy is the book the members of Monty Python might have written had they been a group of 18th-century litterateurs.
  4. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Probably the greatest novel to emerge from Russia during the Soviet period, certainly the greatest satire of Stalinism written in Russia during Stalin's lifetime (Talk about writing dangerously!), Bulgakov's masterpiece is a book so imaginative, so endlessly inventive, that it must be read to be (dis)believed. I have written elsewhere that this book might be the reason writing was invented. Surely the Sumerians didn't go to all that trouble just so we could read Danielle Steele (or Decision Points).
  5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many years from now, when I face the firing squad, I will remember that distant day when I discovered Gabo. William Kennedy blurbed that this book should be required reading for the entire human race. I agree. An overwhelming example of imaginative prolificity, this book reads like a Borges story exploded to novel length without any loss of tension or inventiveness. The phrase 'endlessly imaginative' must have been coined to describe Gabo's masterpiece. (And the unfairly neglected Autumn of the Patriarch is, in its own way, equally extraordinary.)
  6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The greatest American novel of the 19th century and one of the two greatest novels ever written by an American (I'm not going to apologize for any of the hyperbole in this post; it's all deserved), Moby Dick succeeds where the writings of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith failed: it is a New American Testament, the true American Bible. Dark, nihilistic, obsessive, bloody-minded, violent, insane, rational, beautiful, bizarre. Pick an adjective, any adjective, and it will probably apply to Moby Dick. And if it applies to this novel, it will probably also apply to America. This encyclopedic attempt to land the white whale with a harpoon of words is an Encyclopedia Americana printed in the blackest of inks. This novel establishes the "nihilistic tradition" in American literature; Cormac McCarthy is Melville's direct descendant. Ahab: "If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me..." This great and terrible speech should be as well known as the Gettysburg Address.
  7. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. I've already blogged at some length on Swann's Way, so I'll simply repeat here that A la recherche du temps perdu in the English translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff (revised and updated, and available in America as the Modern Library Proust) is one of the great works of 20th-century English literature. Proust's roman fleuve flows out of France and into the world. Great art has no respect for borders; its beauty is its passport (forever valid); and it has nothing to declare but its genius.
  8. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. The greatest American novel of the 20th century, Faulkner's labyrinthine meditation on the construction of history through the stories we tell (Faulkner beat Foucault to the concept of discourse construction by at least three decades) contains some of his most gorgeous prose. In one of my favorite sentences, Faulkner distills the tragedy of a man's life into the story of his Sunday coat: "One morning he would merely appear at breakfast in the decent and heavy black coat in which he had been married and had worn fifty-two times each year since until Ellen married and then fifty-three times a year after the aunt deserted them until he put it on for good the day he climbed to the attic and nailed the door behind him and threw the hammer out the window and so died in it."
  9. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. The greatest of all 19th-century novels. I read this over the course of two weeks when I was 20 years old, and while it might be an exaggeration to say that it changed my life, it certainly changed the way I read and judged novels. A historical novel, a war novel, a philosophical novel, a romance novel, an extended essay on history--War and Peace is all of these things. Like an enormous and exquisitely detailed 19th-century history painting, War and Peace engulfs its audience. Cancel all appointments, dates, meetings, etc. before you start reading, because you won't want to tear yourself away from Tolstoy's world.
  10. Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. Woody Allen's character in Manhattan lists this novel as one of the things that makes life worth living. I consider it the greatest of 19th-century French novels (which means merely that it impresses me more often and more deeply than anything I've read by Stendhal or Balzac or Zola). The masterfully composed and bitterly ironic story of Frederic Moreau's disappointed life is the paradigm-establishing novel of modern disillusionment--even more so, perhaps, than Balzac's Illusions Perdues. (More than one reader has noted that "Lost Illusions" would've been a perfect title for Flaubert's magnum opus.) One of this novel's overarching lessons is that we will be able to possess the objects of our desire only when we no longer desire them. It's yet another 'pivotal' work in literary history, looking simultaneous back to Balzac and forward to Proust.
  11. Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There is no such thing as a perfect novel. No work longer than 300 pages is free of longueurs. There are however quite a few perfect (or nearly perfect) novellas, and Dostoyevsky's Notes is one of them. The entirely original bifurcated form--half monologue, half narrative--sets up a remarkably complex series of ironies as the two halves reflect upon each other like facing mirrors. I suspect that no reader will ever reach the 'bottom' of the Notes because its ironies are bottomless. And they are bottomless in a way the reactionary author might not have entirely intended. (There's a weird parallel here to the relationship between the radical satire of Victorian conventions in Lewis Carroll's Alice books and the utterly conventional opinions of the books' author.) Sometimes the best books (and the best parts of books) are the ones that get away from their authors.
  12. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. And speaking of bottomless irony, Russian literature and the Alice books, here is the glorious intersection of those three roads. "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." Even more than the most auditory chapters of Ulysses, Lolita is a book to be read aloud. Listen to the incomparable music of Nabokov's words, Humbert's "fancy prose style" that is the very definition of lyricism. It seems almost beside the point to remark that our narrator is profoundly evil, and that state of moral suspension is exactly the Nabokovian trap into which we readers joyously throw ourselves. We all become Humbert, to a certain extent, as we read. Aesthetics trumps ethics.
  13. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Judge Holden is one evil son of a bitch. No reader of this novel will ever forget him, though some might wish they could. I've met the fat bastard in my nightmares. He might be the most frightening creation in all of American literature. Beside the Judge, the human monsters of Stephen King are so many haunted house zombies made up to scare small children. For several days after finishing Blood Meridian, I felt that I was still walking around in the bomb crater left by this book. It's that good.
  14. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Everybody has read Gatsby, but most Americans read it in high school, before we're old enough to appreciate it. Before you can read Gatsby the way it deserves to be read, before you can read it with your whole soul, you must personally experience the kind of failure that only adults can bring upon themselves. Utter failure. That's what Gatsby is about. Yes, the novel has many well-known layers. It's a critical primer on the construction of the self under capitalism; it's a study in desire and obsession; it's an East Coast version of the journey from "green breast of the new world" to "valley of ashes" that also lies at the core of Blood Meridian. But I'm interested in a question rarely asked about this book (and the other canonical "great American novels"): why are so many of them studies in failure? Why does a culture that prizes "success" at any cost give rise to a literature of success's polar opposite?
  15. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. This book and Mrs. Dalloway are equally brilliant, and both belong on the top shelf. Woolf at her best (and these two novels are, in my opinion, her very best) writes the most beautifully polished prose of all the English-language Modernists. She takes the formal freedom won by Joyce, the intensity of the 19th-century Russians and the inwardness of Proust and combines them into this glittering, filamented, dew-bejeweled style that is also as English as the freakin' Union Jack, descending from all those writers she credits in Orlando: Browne, Gibbon, Pater, et al. The beauties of her prose are breathtaking.
  16. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. One of the very few great books ever to have been adapted into a truly great film (directed by Philip Kaufman), Kundera's novel is, to the chagrin of some on the Czech literary scene, THE novel of Czechoslovakia before, during and after 1968. It is one of the great political novels of our time, a brilliant investigation of the personal-political nexus. And it contains one of my favorite statements of the function of fiction: "The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become."
  17. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth. It's appropriate to segue from Kundera to Roth, since Roth introduced Kundera to the English-reading world in the 1970s. Sabbath's Theater is probably Roth's greatest novel, his most outrageously funny and intoxicatingly reckless performance, but The Ghost Writer is my candidate for his most perfect book. This is a lovely, funny, polished, intelligent gem of a novel. And in its own way, it's every bit as outrageous as Sabbath. Consider the sheer chutzpah, for instance, of Roth/Zuckerman's reimagining the life of Anne Frank. Indeed, this goes beyond chutzpah and into a kind of secular blasphemy. Few other writers would even have attempted this; Roth pulls it off with seeming effortlessness. (An effortlessness which surely conceals great effort.)
  18. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. Perhaps the most unexpected literary development of recent years was the emergence from East Anglian academic obscurity of Winfried Georg 'Max' Sebald, the last great writer of the twentieth century. I recently blogged here on Austerlitz, so I'll keep this mention brief. I could have put any of Sebald's four long fictions on this list. The Emigrants, Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn are all as beautiful, disturbing and repeatedly re-readable as Austerlitz. And his poetic triptych After Nature is also very good. Sebald's haunting, mourning novels--all of them are like Shostakovich's 14th symphony: songs of death--are perfect examples of the kind of book that gives this blog its name. They are distinctly mindful pleasures.
  19. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Midnight's Children has received more praise and awards (perhaps because it's 'safer' to admire), but in my opinion Satanic Verses is Rushdie's most powerful, exuberant, imaginative and complex fiction. It's also markedly more original than Midnight's Children, which is conceptually too much under the shadow of The Tin Drum. Enough (more than enough) has already been written about the fatwa, and it looks like the final word will be Salman's (he's reportedly working on a memoir), so let's forget about the circumstances that made this book a household word and read it as what it is: one of the great novels of the late 20th century.
  20. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. I could have put Gravity's Rainbow on this list--it's equally masterful--but I chose Against the Day because I consider it the greatest novel of the 21st century, so far. Pynchon's enormous, endlessly intelligent, satirically provocative orchestration of the Western novel, the historical novel, the boys' adventure novel, the adult adventure novel and the postmodern comic novel raises the bar for American literature so high that most writers won't be able to see it anymore. Who cares what the author looks like? Who cares about his life? The books are the thing.

And now for a bit of shameless self-promotion...

Some readers of Mindful Pleasures have already noticed that this morning I inaugurated a new blog. Titled Epigrams for Atheists (And Other Extraordinarily Intelligent People), it will be an intellectual "quote of the day" spot. If you like Mindful Pleasures, you'll probably dig this one too. Bookmark it and check back daily for thought-provoking lines from great writers and thinkers. For as Kafka once wrote, "In a world of lies the lie is not removed from the world by means of its opposite, but only by means of a world of truth." Ideally, I would like every quote on this new blog to be a foundation stone for a world of truth.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

SNOW COUNTRY by Yasunari Kawabata

Let us consider the cinematic leitmotif in Kawabata's Snow Country. (And then let us ignore all blog posts that begin with an archaic-pompous 'let us' instead of the demotic, Dude-like 'let's.') The most immediately impressive thing about this novella is Kawabata's linguistic landscape painting. This is an intensely visual work, deliberately cinematic. It reads like a lyrical prose description of a Fifties or Sixties Japanese art film by Kurosawa, Teshigahara or Oshima. And from first scene to last, a pattern of explicitly cinematic imagery runs through the novel. The first scene's filmic superimposition of Yoko's reflection upon the passing landscape establishes a leitmotif in which Shimamura is repeatedly positioned as a viewer/voyeur who is pierced by images reflected in mirrors or framed by windows or--as in his devotion to occidental dance--printed in books. At the novel's climax, a makeshift cinema in a warehouse burns to the ground after the film literally catches fire in the projector. The carefully constructed motif seems to self-destruct by spontaneous combustion. All the various screens that have enabled Shimamura's voyeuristic life are thus symbolically incinerated, and his consciousness is opened to a transcendental vision of the Milky Way. That's one way, I suppose, to interpret the novel's conclusion, but I find this interpretation unsatisfactory. My most serious objection is to the jarringly abrupt, seemingly arbitrary appearance of the Milky Way as a kind of astronomical deus ex machina bringing the action to a supposedly sublime and satisfying close. I think we should interpret this transcendental conclusion much more sceptically. The sublime night sky is better interpreted as the novel's final, culminating screen. It is a movie screen infinitely larger than the world, and it functions, like the train window in the first scene and the never-seen, already incinerated movie screen in the last, to screen its viewer(s) from the mundane messiness and absurd tragedies of life. Kawabata deliberately and subtly sets the first and final scenes in parallel by describing the light that seems to emanate from Yoko's reflected eye in the first scene as a "distant, cold light." It is akin to the light of an evening star--and to the light of the multitude of stars in the final scene's Milky Way. The novel's climactic tragedy necessitates its largest screen. The transcendental leap in the final pages is not a religious-humanistic act of acceptance but yet another image of flight, an escape into the supernatural that protects Shimamura from the full impact of the tragedy he witnesses. The burning of the cinema throws Shimamura back upon a natural Romanticism that is every bit as escapist as the movies. And so the novel ends with him still running, still fleeing an inescapable life.

(A probably unnecessary disclaimer: This interpretation, like all interpretations of great art, is highly arguable and partial. It is presented not as the final word on Snow Country but as one more word, one more hopefully interesting, and possibly provocative, thought.)