Thursday, May 26, 2011


Don't let the Yale University Press logo and the author's academic Gay Studies credentials fool you. This is not yet another entry in the More Foucaultian Than Thou sweepstakes. A History of Gay Literature is an extraordinarily intelligent, well-argued, clearly written and enjoyably readable book. Indeed, this is about as close as literary history comes to a page-turner. A possible reason for this pleasant divergence from the run of the Queer Theory mill may lie in the author's nationality. He's a British Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies, and unlike too many of his American confreres he still values linguistic clarity and apparently still believes in that Phantom of the English Department, the 'common reader.' With a global reach and a range that runs from ancient Greece to contemporary New York, this ridiculously learned and near-encyclopedic book is a single-volume education in gay literature. The obvious writers and works are covered-- Shakespeare, Marlowe, Wilde, Genet, Ritsos, Arenas--as well as many less familiar names. However well-read you think you are, I guarantee that you will find discussed herein a great writer or book you have probably not read. (In my case, I discovered Hubert Fichte, Herve Guibert and Virgilio Pinera.) Even more impressive than the book's range is the author's critical acumen. Woods's reading of Eliot's The Waste Land as a gay pastoral elegy is worth the price of the book. Likewise his discussions of Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's sonnets, of which he writes, "Reading the sonnets will always flush out the reader's attitudes to homosexuality. To that extent if no further, this sequence of poems is the key gay text in English literature." When I finished this book, I wanted more. I wished Woods had gone deeper into Samuel Delany (especially his key queer text, The Mad Man), explored the gay themes in Clive Barker's SF/fantasy novels, etc., etc. At nearly 400 pages, this book is still too short. It could have been almost twice as long. (Yes, I'm perfectly aware of the gay phallic rhetoric barely concealed by the loincloth of this complaint.) This is a marvelous book that might just change the way you read. It will certainly add at least a few more books to your to-read list. And isn't that, finally, the most important function of criticism at the present time?


James Salter has long been described as a 'writer's writer,' which sounds too much like the opposite of a 'reader's writer.' In fact, he's a very good and highly readable writer who has developed a prose style that's both more staccato and often more beautiful than Hemingway's. A Sport and a Pastime is a derivative novel, descending very obviously from the European-set fictions of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Miller (not a bad trio to emulate, by any means), but the familiarity of setting and subject is overcome by the sheer force of Salter's art. His prose, which at first looks almost as stripped-down as James Ellroy's, soon reveals an unexpected poetic lushness, a painterly sensuality that reminds me of Bonnard (a painter explicitly referenced in the text). Almost every page contains a quotable example of Salter's eye. Here are a few selected at random:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. (Did I mention that this book was derivative? Yes, this sounds too much like Proust when taken out of context, but within the flow of Salter's short sentences the line of descent is obscured.)

Her body, portions of it, seem to become luminous in his mind. Everything he touches or looks at, the fork, the tablecloth, somehow, by their homeliness, their silence, seem to celebrate that flesh which only a single layer of cloth conceals, does not even conceal, proclaims. (a very long sentence, for Salter)

Mornings with clouds. Windy mornings. Mornings with black wind rushing like water. (This is Salter-style at its most distinctive, like lines from a plein air painter's notebook. The sentence that immediately follows these teeters on the brink of cliche, a brink Salter's prose knows a bit too well.)

Beneath his trunks is a white like fresh bandages. His buttocks are like the inside of an apple. (This lilywhite ass is some of Salter's best work, poetically strong enough even to overcome the silly word 'buttocks.')

Friday, May 13, 2011

What's Wrong With Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST

"...a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it..." -- Randall Jarrell

You don't touch the Torah.
That's why I rarely write about William Faulkner.

If there is a grand secular American scripture, it must surely contain Faulkner's works of the 1930s, Melville's Moby Dick and The Confidence Man and his shorter fictions, the essays of Emerson, Thoreau's Walden and "Walking" and "Civil Disobedience," the poems of Whitman and Dickinson, the best novels of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison, Miss Lonelyhearts and Gravity's Rainbow. That would be enough to found a real religion upon--more than enough--if we needed a religion.

In that nearly unbelievable run of great books Faulkner wrote between the late 1920s and the early 1940s--a period that reached its artistic peak at Absalom, Absalom!, my candidate for the greatest American novel of the 20th century--Light in August is not among the (here comes the annoying pun) most august lights. The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying shine more brightly. They are crisper, tighter books. Absalom is better written. In Light in August Faulkner seems to have given himself permission to stretch out and write at Dickensian length, and while he achieves much that is great and beautiful and intelligent and terrible and sublime in these pages--enough to make any criticisms seem almost nitpicky--the book suffers from this authorial freedom in three important ways. First, it's simply too damn long. The second half of the novel could have been shortened by at least 100 pages without losing anything essential. There are entire scenes that could and should have been reduced to a few sentences of exposition. (This is heresy, I know, but sometimes we must risk the stake.) Second, in a surprisingly clumsy piece of novelistic construction, Faulkner brings his novel to its bloody climax more than 40 pages before the end. The final two (two!) chapters are less catharsis and loose-end tying than an authorial inability to shut up. It's as though Faulkner put himself in a writing trance and couldn't break out until he brought us full circle to Lena Grove on the road again. I admire the symmetry, but I yawned at its execution. Third, and most importantly, Faulkner gives us too little Joanna Burden, one of his most interesting, complex and mysterious characters, and far too much Rev. Hightower, a relatively uninteresting Andersonian grotesque. (Many of Light in August's characters are, in fact, grotesques that might have flowed from the mind of Faulkner's early mentor Sherwood Anderson (Hightower, Mr. and Mrs. Hines; Byron Bunch, Lucas Burch, Percy Grimm); Faulkner might almost have titled this book Winesburg, Mississippi.)

These faults would probably have sunk a lesser novel, but this is not a lesser novel. This is Thirties Faulkner, our greatest writer in his greatest decade. Light in August, with all its faults, is still better than many other writers' best works. It's an essential part of the modern canon, a must-read. Indeed, it's good enough to be read more than once.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A New (well, pretty old, actually) Pynchon Pic...but don't get excited, it's just his arm...

The above photograph, which was published on the LA Times website last week, was taken somewhere in southern California, ca.1965. The porcine pinata is named Claude. The foxy lady in the Oedipa Maas dress and flaccid-armed sweater is one Phyllis Gebauer. The right arm crooked around the open door in the shadowy background (look closely) is allegedly attached to the unseen body of noted non-recluse Thomas Pynchon. While this photograph might initially appear to be merely a jokey demonstration of the author's near-Yahwistic aversion to representations of himself, a close semiotic analysis reveals encoded in its seemingly banal, snapshot-like exterior a carefully constructed series of references both to Pynchon's past and future works and the history of Western art. Just as the Pynchonian arm is both an exercise in synecdoche--using a part of the body to represent the whole--and a delightfully skewed reference to the first line of the Aeneid, the two fingers raised to signify 'peace' and/or Churchillian 'Victory' simultaneously represent the entirety of Pynchon's oeuvre through a synecdochic display of the title of his first novel, V. The aforementioned foxy lady on the landing is likewise simultaneously a reference to the caryatids on the Porch of the Maidens at the Erechtheum (Athens) and, as suggested above, a possible original for the protagonist of Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. The pudgy pink porker pinata, its presence as puzzling as a pope in a peignoir, presumably precurses the Pynchonian protagonist's piggy performance in the insufficiently alliterative Gravity's Rainbow. Unsurprisingly, the pinata also obviously signifies that ubiquitous Pynchonian dramatis persona, Pig Bodine. The lumpy V formed by the pig's erect ears (which like the earlier Erechtheum allusion sounds the erection motif of Gravity's Rainbow) leads the viewer's eye by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to the V of Pynchon's fingers. And so the end of our ocular voyaging is to arrive at the place where we started and know that place anew as a sign signifying Pynchon's 1990 novel Vineland. We might also notice the angle of Pynchon's signifying gesture: the rigid middle finger can be read as an 'I' as well as one half of a 'V'; the two together thus monogram Pynchon's most recent novel, Inherent Vice. The woman's expressionistically tilted shadow on the sunny California wall at lower right surely references the German Expressionist motif in Gravity's Rainbow, and this disturbing combination of southwestern sunlight and fascistic shadow should bring to mind the closing section of Against the Day. (Note the way her shadow-head is violently penetrated by the knife-like sawtoothed metal banister that seems to levitate magically above the unseen steps.) In perfect opposition to this, the photograph offers at upper left the shadowy secular cross cast by the window's crossbar on a blind that rather heavy-handedly signifies a world blind to the joyous, magical, transforming grace, the goofball good luck, that is the most positive force in Pynchon's novels. And what are we to make of that other, even more mysterious shadow, the oblique black line running across the wall at right, above and roughly parallel to the banister? Is this merely the shadow of an awning support, or could it be the Hiroshima-flash imprint left by the vapor trail of a screaming that has just come across this peaceful California sky?

Now everybody--

(I also like the way the Sixties flower decal on the door seems affixed to the woman's forehead like one of those large metal reflectors worn by doctors in Marx Brothers movies.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

LITERARY CINEMA : A List of Great Film Adaptations

Mediocre books make great films and great books make mediocre films. That's the general rule, the first half best exemplified by The Godfather (which even Mario Puzo admitted could've been a better book) and the last half by the career of Joseph Strick. Most film adaptations of great books succeed only as illustrated versions of the source novel. Here are a few exceptions to this rule, some truly great films from great books.
  1. Time Regained (Raul Ruiz). A beautifully photographed adaptation of Proust's endless novel that succeeds in finding a visual stylistic analogue for Proust's prose style.
  2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman). A great, smart, sexy adaptation of Kundera's great, intelligent, sexy novel.
  3. The Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci). Bertolucci's beautiful film captures the beauty and menace of Paul Bowles.
  4. William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh). Branagh, not Olivier, made the only truly great Hamlet in cinema history.
  5. The English Patient (Anthony Minghella). Now that the Miramaxed hype has been forgotten, we can enjoy this great film without Harvey Weinstein's shadow hulking over us.
  6. Doctor Zhivago (David Lean). "How did you come to be lost?" A great exploration of the many ways people can be 'lost' in the whirlwind of revolution.
  7. The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese). Scorsese's truly impressive range has yet to be generally acknowledged. This guy went from Rupert Pupkin to Jesus Christ to Henry Hill to Edith Wharton to the Dalai Lama, and all five films were marvelous.
  8. Short Cuts (Robert Altman). Altman's masterful adaptation of several Raymond Carver stories was the best American film of the 1990s.
  9. The Wings of the Dove (Iain Softley). James would certainly not have approved, but it's still a great film.
  10. The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion). James would probably not have approved, but...
  11. Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle). The My Dinner With Andre team reunites for this 'workshop' version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that will move you to tears.
  12. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick). A fairly faithful and endlessly ironic adaptation of Anthony Burgess's Finnegans Wake-influenced futuristic novel.
  13. The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff). Not a complete adaptation, but still a  great, one-of-a-kind film.
  14. Howards End (James Ivory). James Ivory's masterpiece.
  15. Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson). Brilliant adaptation of Chabon's excellent novel. How many other mainstream American films can you name that include a knowing reference to Jean Genet?
  16. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese). This is the only Jesus movie worth watching. Even better than Pasolini's. All others drown in kitsch.
  17. The Decameron (Pier Paolo Pasolini). Beautifully filmed version of some tales from Boccaccio.
  18. Les Enfants Terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville). Silly beginning, brilliant ending. Melville's film has the strengths and weaknesses of Cocteau's story.
  19. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt). Classic spy film from a classic spy novel. Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and the first cinematic representation of George Smiley make this one especially worth watching.

Some Great Films Most People Haven't Seen

The title of this list pretty much explains it...
  1. Cowards Bend the Knee (Guy Maddin)
  2. Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin)
  3. L'Age d'Or (Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali)
  4. The Fire Within (Le Feu Follet) (Louis Malle)
  5. Faithless (Liv Ullmann)
  6. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson)
  7. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
  8. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
  9. The Grey Zone (Tim Blake Nelson)
  10. Padre Padrone (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani)
  11. Once Upon a Time in America (restored 4-hour version)(Sergio Leone)
  12. Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
  13. La Roue (Abel Gance)
  14. Eraserhead (David Lynch)
  15. Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar)
  16. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Sergei Parajanov)
  17. Secret Honor (Robert Altman)
  18. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini)
  19. Playtime (Jacques Tati)
  20. Cache (Michael Haneke)
  21. Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  22. By Brakhage: An Anthology (Stan Brakhage)
  23. Experimental Films (Maya Deren)
  24. Six Moral Tales (Eric Rohmer), especially Claire's Knee, La Collectionneuse, My Night at Maud's, and Love in the Afternoon
  25. Les Biches (Claude Chabrol)
  26. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  27. Vivre Sa Vie (Jean-Luc Godard)
  28. La Guerre Est Finie (Alain Resnais)
  29. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
  30. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader)
  31. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
  32. F For Fake (Orson Welles)
A few notes: Guy Maddin may be the most exciting and original filmmaker currently working in North America. The Fire Within is Louis Malle's early masterpiece. Faithless is from a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman. La Guerre Est Finie ("Lenin is not a prayer wheel!") is one of the most intelligent political films of the 1960s. Bad Education may be the absolute masterpiece of Queer Cinema. Peeping Tom is a self-consciously cinematic thriller that out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock. Pasolini's Salo was intended to be 'indigestible'; I consider it one of the most disturbing and important explorations of fascism ever filmed. F For Fake is Welles's great late masterpiece, the secret father of all postmodern documentaries. All of these movies should be available from Netflix. Check them out.

THE 50 GREATEST FILMS -- A Personal Canon

Here's something new for Mindful Pleasures, the first of three "great movies" lists. This one is devoted to my selections for the 50 greatest films of all time. The list begins with my three candidates for the greatest movie ever made, but after that it's in no particular order.
  1. Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
  2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
  3. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
  4. The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage)
  5. Napoleon (Abel Gance)
  6. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir)
  7. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Sergei Parajanov)
  8. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel)
  9. The Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
  10. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  11. City Lights (Charles Chaplin)
  12. The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein)
  13. Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio)
  14. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)
  15. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)
  16. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini)
  17. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman)
  18. Murmur of the Heart (Louis Malle)
  19. Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Sergei Eisenstein)
  20. My Dinner With Andre (Louis Malle)
  21. The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel)
  22. Treasure of Sierra Madre (John Huston)
  23. Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel)
  24. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman)
  25. Man With A Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov)
  26. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo)
  27. Umberto D (Vittorio de Sica)
  28. Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut)
  29. Annie Hall (Woody Allen)
  30. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
  31. Three Colors : Blue, White, Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
  32. An Angel At My Table (Jane Campion)
  33. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman)
  34. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
  35. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
  36. Ran (Akira Kurosawa)
  37. The Godfather trilogy (Francis Ford Coppola)
  38. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder)
  39. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
  40. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl-Theodor Dreyer)
  41. Doctor Zhivago (David Lean)
  42. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
  43. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols)
  44. Short Cuts (Robert Altman)
  45. The Searchers (John Ford)
  46. Greed (Erich von Stroheim)
  47. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)
  48. Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
  49. Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
  50. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
A few notes: Persona, Kane and Vertigo tie for the top spot. Brakhage's short film (available in the essential Criterion Collection release By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One) is probably the most harrowing, shocking, unforgettable documentary I have ever seen. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is one of the great masterpieces of 20th-century cinema and deserves to be much better known. All of Bunuel's films are worth seeing, especially the post-1960 work. De Sica's Umberto D is the saddest movie I have ever seen. An Angel at My Table is Jane Campion's masterpiece, an indelible account of a journey through madness. It's still fashionable to deride the third Godfather film, but upon recently re-watching it I found it an excellent complement to the first two (and Sophia Coppola isn't really that bad, either). Many consider Lawrence of Arabia David Lean's greatest film, but I prefer Zhivago, despite the fact that all the Russians are played by a bunch of Brits, an American and an Egyptian. If I hadn't arbitrarily limited myself to fifty titles, many other films might have made the list: Claire's Knee, Unforgiven, Last Year at Marienbad, Synecdoche New York, Blue Velvet, There Will Be Blood, La Dolce Vita, Cleo From 5 to 7, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, etc., etc....

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Reading William Deresiewicz Online

Some of the most interesting and insightful recent writing on American higher education has been the work of William Deresiewicz. He's also a superlative literary critic, with a clear, direct reviewing style reminiscent of Edmund Wilson (yes, he's that good). When his articles are eventually collected in book form, I'll pre-order a copy. In the meantime, here are links to my favorite Deresiewicz articles and reviews available online:

"Love on Campus" (from The American Scholar). An essay that begins with pop culture cliches and expands to explore the complex reality of the erotic side of education.

"The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" (from The American Scholar). The title pretty much describes it...

"Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education" (from The Nation). A marvelous and depressing tour d'horizon of the current American university crisis. Should be required reading for anyone considering an academic career.

And after googling to find these articles, I discover that Deresiewicz has already posted links to these and more at his website, rendering this post redundant. Check out the essays here and the reviews here. If you haven't read Deresiewicz, follow these links and treat yourself to one of the best critics writing today.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


First novels tend to be derivative, autobiographical, or both. Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, Joyce's Portrait, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead excellently exemplify each of the three tendencies. The Poorhouse Fair, John Updike's first novel--a novella, really--is an exception to this rule. This young man's novel about old people, this Harvard grad's tale of the impoverished, also rather remarkably avoids social realist cliche, but it does so by indulging quite a bit of Cold War-era anti-socialist cant. Updike mocks the kitsch of Fifties America--popular culture, bureaucratic efficiency, commodified nostalgia--while seeming blind to the kitschiness of his own Christian-inflected anti-modern nostalgia. (If the novella doesn't collapse over this contradiction, it's only because there's just enough irony here to keep the cardhouse standing.) Set in a very thinly sketched near-future socialist America, The Poorhouse Fair is, politically, a kind of Updikeanly genteel Animal Farm with an all-human cast. There's even a scene--the book's most surprising--in which the poorhouse inmates revolt and literally stone their paternalistic warden. (This being an Updike novel, the stones are small, and he's not seriously hurt.) So this is a work of Updike the center-rightist, a sort of American Christian Democrat, a writer who has not yet morphed into that very American contradiction, the prurient puritan of his major novels (Couples, Rabbit is Rich, The Witches of Eastwick). The Poorhouse Fair is well-written (Updike was always Mr. Style) and formally innovative in its American context (importing into Fifties fiction the day-in-the-life time frame and floating point of view of Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses), but it's still a minor work, pale but promising.

The idea of mature Updike as a prurient puritan sets me thinking about the essential American-ness of this description. Prurient puritanism, or puritanical perversion, is the dialectical contradiction at the core of Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's recognition, in his interesting biography of Prof. Alfred Kinsey, that the United States is both the most puritanical and the most licentious society in the developed world. (The assertion is, of course, highly arguable. Japanese culture unites traditional conservatism and schoolgirl porn. German culture marries sado-masochistic pornography to the puritanism of Ratzinger... But let's indulge the idea for the length of this paragraph.) These two opposites coexist, as they must, because puritanism requires prurience, it mandates an obsessive, panoptical voyeurism directed toward the self and others--especially sexual selves and others. Puritanism and perversion feed off each other in an ultimate confusion of host and parasite. I'm tempted to say, 'You can't have one without the other,' but this ignores the fact that sexual variation exists outside the puritanical context. Puritanism is a cultural construct. Sex, powered by intertwined cultural and biological circuits, outlives its antagonists.

Monday, May 2, 2011


When Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon was published in 2001 it must have set some kind of record for impressive blurbing. The back cover of the first edition dust jacket is festooned with effusive praise from William Styron, Harold Bloom, Larry McMurtry, Louise Erdrich, Naomi Wolf, Adam Gopnik and Kay Redfield Jameson. On the back flap, DNA co-discoverer James Watson calls the book "A brilliant, kaleidoscopic portrayal of the human experience of depression," while the front flap features praise from constant blurber Edmund White and (the piece de resistance of blurbs) the soon-to-be-late W. G. Sebald, who called the book "astonishing." Anything that astonished the astonishing Mr. Sebald is of interest to me, so I decided to give Solomon's book a try, reasoning that a work so highly praised would either live up to its blurbs or quickly sink beneath their weight. (My exact thought went something like "either this is one of the greatest books of the past decade, or somebody been osculatin' mucho posteriori...") Rarely an optimist in these matters, I expected the book to sink like a millstone.

My expectations were pleasantly disappointed. (I seriously doubt that posterior osculation was exchanged for advance praise.) The Noonday Demon is both a harrowing personal memoir and a readable journalistic account of the phenomenon of depression considered from many angles (biological, historical, sociological, political, psychological, etc.). Despite the author's pro-pharmacological bias (about which he is admirably up-front), it's a surprisingly balanced book that both lauds the efficacy of antidepressants and criticizes contemporary psychiatry's flight from 'mind' to 'brain,' from psychological causation to pharmaceutical treatment. It didn't criticize this quite enough for my taste, but that's my bias. The book is quite well-written, with some passages of great beauty (these are concentrated, for some reason, in the opening chapters; the last few chapters impressed me less), and the chapters on suicide and the history of depression, while heavily reliant on familiar sources, have a disturbing (and in the latter case, surprisingly Rabelaisian) power. Does The Noonday Demon live up to it's blurbs? Perhaps. Is it worth reading? Yes, especially for those who have never been to the depths. Solomon at his best almost succeeds in taking us there.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Argentine novelist and intellectual Ernesto Sabato died yesterday, April 30, less than two months short of his one-hundredth birthday. The Washington Post obituary can be read here. An international literary figure, he deserves to be remembered for three incomparable novels, The TunnelOn Heroes and Tombs, and The Angel of Darkness. All were translated into English years ago, and all are currently out-of-print in the U.S., a fact that reflects poorly on American publishers and readers. Sabato should be as well-known as Mario Vargas Llosa and was equally worthy of the Nobel Prize--indeed, he was more deserving than a few recent laureates I could name. In Argentina, he is being remembered not just as a writer but as an important public intellectual who headed the commission that investigated the atrocities of the 1970s-80s Argentine dictatorship. This indicates once again the vast gulf between the status of major writers in Latin America and their status in the overspecialized lands north of the Rio Grande. Can you imagine any American novelist being asked to investigate, say, the crimes of George W. Bush? (The Pynchon Commission, perhaps?) Can you imagine any American writer being named a U.S. ambassador? (Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes were both Mexican ambassadors; the closest American analogue would be John Kenneth Galbraith, who was much more an economist than a novelist.) When a major news story breaks, do Americans expect Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy to comment upon it? The very idea is risible. In Latin America, however, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes have for decades been major public voices on the issues of the day. With the death of Sabato, an important Argentine voice has fallen silent forever. Adios.