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.)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

UNITED STATES: ESSAYS 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal

"What matters finally is not the world's judgment of oneself but one's own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long in America." -- Gore Vidal

The above line is from Vidal's review "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisements" (1960), reprinted in United States, a wrist-achingly large volume that I keep within easy reach of my writing desk because it's a great book to pick up and read at random. Almost every one of its 1271 pages (not counting index) contains something perfectly phrased, elegantly provocative, deliciously witty, and/or shockingly true. United States is one of my bibles, and I frequently turn to it for leftist inspiration. Along with his fabulous memoir Palimpsest, this is the essential nonfiction Vidal (there's no such thing as 'essential Vidal' in fiction; his novels are so varied and consistently good that pretty much everything is essential, from Julian to Myra Breckinridge to Creation to Lincoln and beyond), and the vast intellectual range in evidence both here and in his novels marks Vidal as that rare thing, an authentically cosmopolitan writer, a literary citizen not just of America, but of the world. Those European critics who accuse American writers of insularity and provincialism (Nobel bigwig and all-around Swedish dork Horace Engdahl comes to mind) should be politely reminded that Vidal and Paul Bowles and W. E. B. Du Bois and William T. Vollmann and even Paul Theroux are all, yes, American writers. And their wildly cosmopolitan works, as much as the more domestic fictions of Updike, Carver, Oates, et al, constitute American literature.

True, Vidal calls the book United States, and the 'matter of America' is a focus of much of the work herein, but these essays also range from modern Rome to modern Mongolia, from the mafia-infested Italy of Sciascia to the fantastical one of Calvino, from the far out worlds of Doris Lessing's science fiction to the even farther out ones of neoconservative homophobia (in the deserves-to-be-classic essay "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star"). Vidal was writing against the neocons before most people even knew their collective name. He was criticizing and satirizing the French new novel at a time when most readers were still trying to understand it. (Myra Breckinridge is, among much else, a killing parody of the ecole de Robbe-Grillet.) And his warnings about the dangers of the academicization of literature now appear dismally prescient. Elsewhere in this endless Borgesian book of sand we find entertaining memoirs of Vidal's friends Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles, a survey of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, essays on Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy (another friend of Vidal's), an assessment of Yukio Mishima, an account of a 1963 trip to Egypt, and a scathing polemic against monotheism. It's all here, most of it's true, and every word of it is worth reading. If you don't already own a copy of United States, get your hands on one ASAP. It is not to be missed.

NOVA by Samuel R. Delany

Considered 'New Wave' when first published in 1968, Delany's Nova reads like an old classic today, a space opera that would be completely accessible to fans of Star Trek. (I speak of the one and only original Trek, of course.) Although the Tarot stuff is boring--to me, anyway--and the revenge plot entirely predictable, Delany's a good enough writer and his future worlds are well enough imagined to hold my interest for the duration. Delany's exportation of dialectical materialist history into outer space (Draco as aristocratic, Pleiades as bourgeois, Outer Colonies as proletarian), is but one of the nice touches that delighted me here. A Marxist reading would also note the vulgarly materialist method by which Lorq Von Ray upsets the universal economy (dumping tons of a rare and valuable material onto market); and no Marxist critic worth the name would miss the complex and ironic critique of the alienation of labor stated by Katin (the book's intellectual Spock-figure and internal literary critic) in his discussion of the development of cyborg sockets near the novel's end.

Much more than this book's political framework marks it as a product of 1968. If we focus too much on reading Nova as a precursor of 1980s and 90s cyberpunk (which it obviously is), we might miss the full significance of its psychedelic and countercultural aspects. Mouse is a Hendrix-like virtuoso who plays enthralling acid visions on his syrynx. Prince Red's party on the Ile St. Louis is straight out of a 60s Fellini film. The drug Bliss is an imaginative combination of weed, acid and cocaine. And like all good science fiction, Nova is an attempt to think critically and imaginatively about what technology can do to and for human beings, another major concern of the sixties New Left. SF writers have always been better informed than Heidegger on this subject, so perhaps we should listen to them. The real questions concerning technology are better posed and answered by Delany and Dick and Ballard and Gibson than by the former rektorfuhrer.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

THE ATLAS by William T. Vollmann

I'm tempted to demonstrate the excellence of Vollmann's The Atlas by opening the book four times at random and quoting the first lines I see. Here goes:

The songs were sung by a Cambodian woman with a shrill yet beautiful voice whose turned vowels reminded him of a harpsichord's metallic loneliness. (p.75)

Outside the hotel window an Indian girl was saying: Pay me, and a white man said, It's in the car. I'll get it, I promise. No, don't come with me, bitch, you just stand there and wait. (287)

Between Malachi and Winnitoba, which is the first town in Manitoba, he recollected for accidental reasons Diesel Bend, Utah, where he'd gone north through the green fields walled in by trees, the little farms and white houses all embraced by those chalky cliffs in which fossil fishes are sometimes found; these, too, were tree-greened...and farther ahead lay the blue blue mountains that made you know you were going north. (217)

Vanna's nipples were long and thin as he remembered; they were the beautiful rusty bloody color that he remembered (Cambodian rubies tend to the brownish). (78)

And two more passages, not chosen randomly:

Your little skull's a light-globe to help lead me as you did when I was your brother, older than you but small like you, afraid of the toilet's cool skull-gape at night. (102)

Too much contemplation of any object, however unwilling the gaze, may reveal a secret. Better to change the angle of view as often as possible. -- That was why I so frequently ascended mountains without seeing inside them. (In the Norse sagas people go "inside the mountain" when they die.) (295)

Not everything in The Atlas's 455 pages is as good as these quotes suggest. Some sections are better then others, and some of Vollmann's far-fetched similes fall flatter then deflated balloons, but when this book is good, it's very good indeed, and when it's bad it's sometimes even better. (Mae West's line seems oddly appropriate here.)

Formally, Vollmann's fragmented postmodern travel book is a vast palindrome in three parts. The twenty-seven sections of part one are intended to thematically mirror or somehow find their echoes in the corresponding sections of part three. (The connections are more apparent in some sections than in others; a few corresponding sections seem unrelated, at least on a first reading.) At the book's center is it's longest unbroken part, an extended Romantic-Symbolist prose poem that takes a rail journey into the Canadian north as a narrative main line from which the author departs for a series of beautifully-written stream of consciousness excursions. This is by far the book's most impressive performance, and anyone who wants to know what a contemporary Romanticism might look like should read it. But as Vollmann more than implies, this physically central section is not the 'center' of The Atlas. The book's hermeneutical 'center,' its interpretive crux, lies elsewhere. Perhaps it can be found in the sole fragment narrating (in a rhetorically distanced style) the signal traumatic event of Vollmann's childhood--and probably of his life--the accidental drowning of his younger sister. This event is the ultimate source of the narrator-writer's irrational guilt and the consequent desire for punishment and self-destruction that provides the motive force for his turbocharged travels. He keeps moving, as he tells us, because changing the 'angle of view' is the best way to avoid deep psychological penetration. And he keeps moving toward death--in the forms of violence, war, extreme weather, AIDSy sex--because the psychological forces he can't bear to see are doing their best to destroy him.