Saturday, June 16, 2018

Summer Reading Recommendations, 2018

Summer is coming (even to Westeros, eventually), so it's time for some non-light but highly enlightening summer reading. This year I'm suggesting a handful of books from other languages in translation. (But if you read the other languages, then by all means read 'em in the original.) Click on the titles to buy the books at Bezosworld.
Okay, second things first. I know The Tale of Genji is enormous and because I'm challenging you to read Royall Tyler's unabridged translation, it will take up most of the summer. But relax. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. The other five books are much shorter; all of them are under 200 pages. So it's a challenge, yes, but not an impossible load. Back to the beginning. And it is indeed a beginning, for the four non-Orestean tragedies of Aeschylus lie close to the origins of Western literature. Reading them is like witnessing a literary primal scene. After our extended excursion to Lady Murasaki's Heian Japan, we cross the continent to Iran and read Hedayat's Blind Owl, a horrifying fever-dream of a novella that's widely considered one of the greatest works of 20th-century Persian literature. Next we speed to Pinochet's Chile for Bolano's nearly perfect novella in the form of the interior monologue of a dying Opus Dei priest. Then it's back to Europe and our own time to end with a pair of German-language jewels, Sebald's verse triptych After Nature and Ledig's panoramic WWII combat novel Die Stalinorgel, 'the Stalin organ' (the German Army nickname for the Red Army's mobile Katyusha rocket launchers), published by NYRB as The Stalin Front.

Bloomsday 2018 : Streaming/Screaming

...yes and I'm streaming straight from my cuntsciousness Mollyblooming on this bluetiful boomsday (shifting out of mockwakish into my natural tongs) when the state of the arts in America shares the general mood of crisis and stupidity unbound yes as the leftish side of America responds to that Ringling Brothers embodiment of repressive desublimation in the White House by tightening its own ass, slapping a buckled hat on its head, and witchburning Junot Diaz (who is, ironically, a full-on, true believing, academic identity politics writer, and whose offenses, as far as I can tell, amount to a couple of failed passes and, horror of horrors, publicly arguing with a woman at one of his book signings...) Bad days... If I could give a Bloomsday gift to every leftist in the country, it would be a Xerox of two essays, Herbert Marcuse's "The Aesthetic Dimension" and Adam Phillips' "Against Inhibition". Introduce them to the idea that there is also a liberating desublimation, that it's a force behind and within works of art (late Picasso spurts it like come), and that when it's blocked, art dies. (Check out that 16th-century dumbshow, The Murder of the Renaissance, as performed by the Council of Trent. Ungod knows what might've happened if that murdering sodomite Caravaggio hadn't come along to shake things up ca.1600.) Yes, art dies. It dies into kitsch (American translation: 'happy horseshit') and propaganda, exactly the functions of art our p.c. academics most prize, valuing only those books that don't offend them, reinforce their ideologies, and/or provide positive images of people like themselves--the last a laudable goal, for kitsch and propaganda... Harold Bloom, a better prophet than Jeremiah, decried all of this 30 years ago--and was treated like a portly Cassandra... And now I see that publishers have begun adding morality clauses to writers' contracts. That's a fine way to kill the novel. Who amongst the Modernists would've 'scaped whipping? Let's see: Joyce (living in sin!), Pound (unspeakable spokesman for fascism), Eliot (terrible reactionary), Wharton (anti-semite), H. Miller (ditto and sexist), Papa Hem (double ditto), Picasso (abusive), Woolf (classist and racist), Lawrence (abusive), Stein (racist), Lowry (violent), Faulkner (drunken corncob fetishist), Genet (bum, burglar, and bumburglar), Proust (obsessive control freak), Hitchcock (ditto and poster boy for morbid obesity), Welles (triple ditto), Griffith (white supremacist), Riefenstahl (Nazi bitch), Cocteau (collaborator).... If the Modernists had had morality clauses there would've been no Modernism--and that's exactly the point of moralistic 'criticism' of the arts. As the woefully underrated Jack Klugman would've said, "This isn't art criticism, Sam. This is murder..."

Such is my thoughtspew this second Bloomsday of Trumptime, Year Two of the reign of Dear Leader Kim Jong Don, that 'Biblical' pornstar fucker and 'good Christian' destroyer of families (or is it the other way around?), a fake president so stupid he probably thinks stupid is spelled with two O's. (May his reign be short and quickly undone.) And I'm also reminded of this little list, slightly amended from an old blogpost:

A Thirteen-Step Cure for Political Correctness:
  1. The Satyricon by Petronius
  2. The Metamorphoses by Ovid
  3. The Decameron by Boccaccio (Musa/Bondanella unexpurgated translation)
  4. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia
  5. The London National Gallery's collection of paintings by Titian
  6. Dialogues by Pietro Aretino (Rosenthal translation)
  7. Shakespeare's plays and poems
  8. The Dunciad by Alexander Pope
  9. The paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and pottery of Picasso
  10. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  11. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth
  12. The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany
  13. The director's cut of Lars Von Trier's film Nymphomaniac

So, HAPPY BLOOMSDAY! to all and to all the wish that by this time next year Americans will have regained their senses at least as far as art is concerned. I'm not optimistic, but neither am I immune to hope. The future is, as Phillip Roth said, the domain of the great unforeseen. Maybe in twelve more moons, the left's moralistic anti-orgy will have run its course and they will be able to focus on the real problem facing America: defeating Trump and discrediting Trumpite fascism, making the ideology so toxic that not even a brain-dead asshole with "Wite Powr" tattooed on his forehead would touch it. The left must pull itself together and focus on the one true opponent: not Harvey Weinstein, not Junot Diaz, but Donald Fuckface Trump. Send the person packing (preferably to prison) and perhaps the cult of personality will dwindle and die. It's possible.... It's hope.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

SAND IN THE WIND by Robert Roth

Add one more title to the list of undeservedly obscure American novels. Robert Roth's Sand in the Wind, the first major American literary work to emerge from the Vietnam War--before Dog Soldiers, before Dispatches, long before Tim O'Brien went after Cacciato--was a Book of the Month Club selection upon publication, but then both novel and author slipped into obscurity. (Perhaps the novel was a victim of its own precocity: in 1973-74, who wanted to spend 600+ pages in a war the U.S. had only yesterday extricated itself from? If Sand in the Wind had been published a few years later, it might have become canonical.) A Google search turns up more than one "Robert Roth" who might be the author of this novel but does not definitively connect any of those men to this book, so I can't answer the question "Whatever happened to Robert Roth?" He seems to have laid this one amazing book on us and promptly Houdinied himself out of the literary scene. Whatever and wherever its author is today, Sand in the Wind is a remarkable novel punctuated by scenes of astonishingly assured power. Fitting his combat experience to Edmund Wilson's textbook definition of Modernism, Roth synthesizes the Naturalistic war novel of Crane, Hemingway, Mailer and Jones with a sometimes sneaky Symbolism that looks back to Melville and Poe. This synthesis holds until about halfway through the novel, when a gruesome act of group cannibalism by an American platoon, depicted as an event of giddy, obscene enjoyment in the darkest Lacanian sense of the word, bursts the book apart in a manner akin to the breaking of the film in Bergman's Persona. After this central traumatic scene, the aesthetic of the novel seems to shift from Modernism to a kind of Postmodernism. The narrative attempts to re-establish itself, but cannot overcome its fragmentation into various types of pastiche: Heller pastiche, Altman pastiche, James Jones pastiche, etc. All of which can be easily interpreted as a flight from the unassimilable knowledge of that descent into cannibalistic horror. After such knowledge, no forgiveness--only the attempt to deny the past by leaping manically aboard any available fragment of narrative that seems to offer a moment of sense and sanity. Above all: don't look back. The novel thus uncannily predicts its own oblivion: given the chance to look back upon the trauma of Vietnam by reading Roth's book, most readers turned away and reached for a copy of Carrie. A (re-)discovery and re-evaluation of this complex novel is long overdue.

Two by Updike

Can something be made of the fact that John Updike's most explicitly religious, even theological, novel, 1975's A Month of Sundays, is also his most experimental and--in tone, style and narrative form--his most Nabokovian? Largely ignored today, a joker in Johnny's deck, this may be Updike's freest and most exuberantly playful work of fiction. It's a bit long at just 271 pages and Updike pads it with golf and poker near the end, but the first half of this novel is typically dazzling and very funny.

The Centaur, published in 1963 and written at the end of the author's twenties, reads like an A-student's exercise in the rhetoric of High Modernism. Updike, perhaps 20th-century American literature's consummate professional, our buttoned-down, 9 to 5, civil engineer of fiction, here designs an interesting textual trolley that pauses at just about every stop on the Modernist line: ironic mythological parallels, surrealism, scatology, stream of consciousness, flashbacks, literary allusions, sexuality, etc. And Updike's masterfully competent deployment of other writers' innovations is, in its way, satisfying. And his natural lyricism, the beating heart of his talent (Who in his generation wrote better lyrical descriptions--of just about anything--than John Updike?), is impressive, as always... But in the end, for me, the mythological aspects, at their most explicit, disappointed by failing to satisfactorily mesh with the realistic narrative, the most lyrical parts of which are the novel's best moments. As in all of Updike's works, there are impressive scenes and sentences (as well as a few outdated passages apropos race and gender sure to send P.C. contemporary readers into fits of apoplectic rage), and the central character, based on the author's father, is an accomplished portrait in pathological self-deprecation (one gets the feeling that this guy has spent his whole life kicking his own ass), but the novel as a whole seems more a deliberate technical exercise than a necessary work of art. Young Johnny gets his gold star, but the novel is not top drawer.

The Author of the Crime

My Collins paperback Italian-English dictionary informs me that while the word autore is, unsurprisingly, Italian for 'author,' the phrase autore del furto (literally, "author of the theft") means "person who committed a robbery." This Italian usage appeals to me, and I wish it were operative in English. For just as every Platonic poet is a liar, every autore is del furto. Jean Genet, career criminal, metaphysical wanker, and author of novels that read like the works of a raunchy, proletarian Proust (read Swann's Way and then Our Lady of the Flowers and you'll see exactly what I mean), is only the most obvious example of a general type. Every author is a thief. He steals from his predecessors and calls it influence, from his life and calls it recherche, from his family and calls it Patrick Melrose, from his country and calls it Ulysses, from his birthplace and calls it Lonesome Dove, and from all the claptrap coating the caverns of his mind he mines more volumes of formulaic genre fiction than anyone would care to count. A writer will steal anything from shit to Chopin--to paraphrase that lyrically stercoraceous klepto, Henry Miller--so writers' relatives and friends, lovers and haters, should hardly be surprised when it happens to them. As Czeslaw Milosz once said, in a line Philip Roth liked to quote, "When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished." Or maybe 'finished' is too extreme, too melodramatic, Maybe they're merely stolen. Like the Gardner Rembrandt, they'll turn up eventually. You might see them a couple years from now in the window of your local pawnshop--or, more tragically, in the bargain bin at your favorite remainder bookstore.

Roth, to whom my thoughts still return as obsessively as Portnoy's circle back to his childhood (That's the 'secret' psychoanalytic structure of Portnoy's Complaint. Everyone knows the novel takes the superficial form of a psychoanalytic monologue, but that's only the manifest form; Roth was smart enough to also give his novel a latent form mimicking the shape of Portnoy's infantile obsessions.), wrote about this phenomenon at great and comitragic length in the Zuckerman Bound books and The Counterlife, his major works of the 1980s.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Hemingway Daiquiri

I find it perversely pleasing and queerly appropriate that Ernest Hemingway's signature alcoholic beverage is a daiquiri, which I've long considered the quintessential "old white lady" drink. (Probably because it's the only thing harder than Pepsi that I ever saw my Mom drink.) Websters informs me that the word daiquiri entered English from Cuba as recently as 1921, so in Hem's day the drink still had an aroma of avant-gardism about it. It was still a Modernist and not yet a Mom-ist beverage. Here's Hemingway's recipe:

Single serving:

3 3/4oz Bacardi White rum
juice of 2 limes
juice of 1/2 grapefruit
6 drops of maraschino liqueur

Add ingredients to blender 1/4 full of shaved or cracked ice. Blend on HIGH until mixture turns cloudy and light colored. Serve cold in a large glass (preferably not Marcel Duchamp's).

On the Great American Novel

Philip Roth wrote one back in the seventies, a big baseball novel for the decade of Quaaludes and 'caine. He even called it The Great American Novel, just so we'd know. And in an irony he surely lived long enough to appreciate, it stands alongside Letting Go and When She Was Good as one of Roth's least read books. Even I haven't read it, but I have an almost irrational suspicion that it might not deserve its oblivion.

The hoary old notion of the Great American Novel--a concept originated by the now very obscure 19th-century American novelist John W. De Forest (What, you haven't read his Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty? It's a Penguin Classic.)--seems to be taking over my mind this first afternoon of June. For all its rebarbative nationalism (why must literature respect borders? why shouldn't we privilege cosmopolitan novels over national ones?), ideological jingoism (everyone knows America's the greatest country in the history of the universe (cue a groping group of drunken frat boys shouting "WE'RE NUMBER ONE! WE'RE NUMBER ONE!" while acting like so many number twos), so it must have great novels too), and unproblematic use of Dickassface Donald's favorite adjective (stolen, unsurprisingly, from a cartoon tiger who pimps sugar to pre-diabetic children: "Fascism, it's GRRRRRR-eat!"), the idea of the GAN still attracts me. More, it exerts a kind of Einsteinian gravitational influence on my imagination, curving my mind around its shadowy shape. This is likely due to my long-held contention that any American writer who isn't aiming in the general direction of Melville and Faulkner (in terms of artistic achievement, not crude imitation) is aiming too low.

There are several online lists (as ridiculous as most) of 100 or even 200 supposed GANs, and the best that can be said of them is that all the listed titles are in fact novels and were written by Americans. About the Trumpian adjective, most readers of these lists will harbor doubts. Regardless, any three- digit number is absurd. There are at most 25-30 novels that deserve to be called GANs (by my criteria: novels of the highest aesthetic value and international stature dealing with America and/or Americans). Stretching a bit, I can list about 50 (after the first three, in no particular order):
  • Melville, Moby Dick
  • Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
  • Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
  • Wharton, The Age of Innocence
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • Melville, The Confidence Man
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson
  • Dos Passos, USA
  • Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
  • Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  • Faulkner, Go Down, Moses
  • Toomer, Cane
  • Barnes, Nightwood
  • West, A Cool Million
  • West, The Day of the Locust
  • Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
  • Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
  • Pynchon, Against the Day
  • Roth, American Pastoral
  • Roth, The Human Stain
  • Morrison, Beloved
  • DeLillo, Libra
  • C. McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  • C. McCarthy, Suttree
  • Mailer, The Executioner's Song
  • Kerouac. On The Road
  • Burroughs, Naked Lunch
  • Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Warren, All the King's Men
  • Styron, Sophie's Choice
  • Updike, Rabbit is Rich
  • Wallace, Infinite Jest
  • Gass, The Tunnel
  • Gass, Omensetter's Luck
  • Nabokov, Lolita
  • DeLillo, Underworld
  • Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner
  • Roth, Sabbath's Theater
  • Oates, You Must Remember This
  • Yates, Revolutionary Road
  • Proulx, Postcards
  • McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
  • Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
  • Johnson, Angels
  • Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
  • Banks, Continental Drift
  • Baldwin, Go Tell It On The Mountain
  • James, The Ambassadors
  • Gaddis, The Recognitions
  • Franzen, The Corrections
I don't necessarily think all of these novels are perfect, but as a list of GANs I think mine is pretty much argument-proof.