Friday, August 22, 2014

Lore packages

Charles Finch on the fiction of Norman Rush. (Via Nick D.) Here's a bit I especially liked, but the whole piece is thought-provoking:
The ideas in Rush’s second novel, Mortals, are as subtle and rich as those in Mating. But there is something slightly diminished in its ultimate effect by comparison; unlike the earlier book, Mortals is written in the third-person, and it is perhaps in this transition that a glimmer of trouble appears. Every mode of narration has its virtues and defects, of course, and there may be readers who find the first-person of Mating claustrophobic. What it offered Rush, however, was concealment—a means of expression for his own fascinating, intercalating, uniquely essayistic voice, which nevertheless, because a reader could ascribe all of its decrees to the narrator, existed naturalistically within the novel.

The free indirect voice offers Rush some shell for this style, but not enough. In Mortals it becomes a minor problem; in Subtle Bodies, very nearly a fatal one. That’s the blemish on Rush’s career, perhaps, an inability to recede behind his characters. The constant interruption of opinion into his work means that he never quite vanishes into the third person and therefore never achieves the fluid multivocalism that gives each character equal weight, what Bakhtin praised as polyphony. Rush’s natural pendant, another white-bearded novelist of lower Africa, J. M. Coetzee, is by contrast exquisitely skillful at self-concealment, at the neutral clarities of third-person fiction. By either method there is some price to pay. In Coetzee’s case it’s a chilliness; in Rush’s, a diminution of realism. Rush’s loss may be the greater.
I must confess I have never read Rush; this essay gives me a great desire, though, to reread some Iris Murdoch!

Strange fruit

Pears that look like babies.

Biography, genius

At the TLS, the ever-brilliant Michael Hofmann on a new biography of Bertold Brecht. I am persuaded that the book is a must-read, but I am not at all convinced it is going to change my mind about Brecht! (Tyler Cowen's thoughts are remarkably similar to my own!) Here is an especially interesting bit:
So we aren’t given Brecht the old unscrupulous automaton, the theatre shouter and “indoor Marxman” (Malcolm Lowry’s phrase, not about Brecht), the arid and grasping authoritarian and hypocrite. Instead we get a wholly fresh and absorbing sense of what it might have been like to be Brecht, from the sickly child to the prematurely old, dismally undiagnosed heart patient. Parker’s book is green, not grey. Certain themes are sounded insistently, implacably and rightly throughout: Brecht “the extravagantly gifted child”, his “extravagant intelligence”, “this hugely gifted boy”, “his extreme talent”. It may sound like a lot, like overkill, even, but it is only just, and anything less would have been remiss. Brecht was a prodigy to set beside Rimbaud and Keats, a superior and controlled and reflexively self- invented being, a “singular sensibility”. Parker is careful not to say that Brecht was brilliant because he was unwell, but unwellness is part of his picture of the man and his genius, as it tends to be part of ours nowadays, no matter the individual.

The way Brecht negotiated his conditions (weak heart, panic attacks, dizzy spells, the twitching and trembling associated with Sydenham’s chorea, renal and urinary tract infections, lack of appetite) was – another one of Parker’s running themes – to pretend all was well, to ration his excesses discreetly after his roaring adolescence and early twenties, and to ask as much of himself as though he had been well. Parker shows how easily Brecht might have become the Late Romantic, private, neurasthenic type of poet he despised; it was what nature had equipped him for, to be a Stefan George, a Gérard de Nerval, a Charles Algernon Swinburne, a poet of Night and Storm and Sickness and Mother. Reading and discipline and mental strength and his own rebellious orientation fixed that. Interest was some where else; originality was somewhere else; autonomy and usefulness were somewhere else. Moreover, emotionalism, the despised “swill of feelings”, simply used him up, leaving nothing, no residue, no achievement. Chopin, Wagner and Dostoevsky were prime instances of unhealthy art; they simply made him ill; Brecht even took his temperature to prove it. He had to run himself carefully, as his life turned into “a gamble played out between weakness and strength”. His “cult of coldness” was actually self-preservation.
Bonus link: my favorite Hofmann review, the devastating takedown of Stefan Zweig! I still haven't read George Prochnik's book, though I have a copy at home - I feel I owe it to Zweig to hear the other side of the story - but I don't think I've ever read a negative review I enjoyed quite so much as this one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Random thoughts

The cumulative effect of Clarissa involves an unabashed sublimity, at least for me, and yet one of the interesting things about the novel is that it is full of stretches of embarrassingly bad writing, especially in the letters of Lovelace. Context for this would be not just the caviling of some of Richardson's contemporaries about his failure to create a plausibly upper-class male rake's voice, but an older critique of similar in something like the record playwright Thomas Shadwell left of Dryden attempting and failing to capture the obscene wittiness of Rochester et al.: supposedly at Windsor one day, while Dryden was working on Marriage-a-la-Mode and spending time with the wits of the court circle, somebody asked how they would spend the afternoon and Dryden said “Let’s Bugger one another now, by God."

Good example of the sort of passage I have in mind - it makes me laugh and cringe, it's amazingly over-the-top in a way that I think is not tonally within Richardson's control or comprehension, though that is of course debatable:
Let me perish, Belford, if I would not forgo the brightest diadem in the world for the pleasure of seeing a twin Lovelace at each charming breast, drawing from it his first sustenance; the pious task continued for one month, and no more!

I now, methinks, behold this most charming of women in this sweet office, pressing with her fine fingers the generous flood into the purple mouths of each eager hunter by turns: her conscious eye now dropped on one, now on the other, with a sigh of maternal tenderness; and then raised up to my delighted eye, full of wishes, for the sake of the pretty varlets, and for her own sake, that I would deign to legitimate; that I would condescend to put on the nuptial fetters. (706)
In other news, the minor woe of the last few days: the amazingly named seabather's eruption!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Time passes

I think I liked Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life better the first time I read it - I occasionally find myself defending him to others, and I do think it's a little unfair that he is so widely loathed when it is possible that we should consider his archness in the light of a failing he cannot help rather than an affectation for which he should be despised (he seems to serve as arch-nemesis for several writers I know)! It is an insubstantial work, in any case, but I have found in it a good epigraph for TTWC (alongside this one perhaps!):
Whatever the merits of Proust's work, even a fervent admirer would be hard pressed to deny one of its awkward features: length. As Proust's brother, Robert, put it, "The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time."

Rival schools of empire

At the Nation, Sam Moyn on David Bromwich's Burkeanism.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The 'switch-on'

An amazing essay by poet and musician Josephine Dickinson about hearing with a cochlear implant (via Shanna C.):
The extent to which the brain compensates for indistinction I discovered by listening to birdsong. The first time I heard a blackbird with my new high-frequency bias, I was stunned by its clarity and beauty, and by the fact that it was so loud. In a healthy ear the arrays of thousands of hair cells operate according to a ‘volleying’ mechanism, taking it in turns to transmit the very fast-moving energy impulses of high-frequency sound. The electrodes of the implant cannot do this. Yet by looking at spectrograms of birdsong, I can see that a large proportion of the sound is within the frequency limits of what I can distinguish, albeit crudely, and that is enough for me to take in and interpret these songs, many of which I have no memory of hearing before.

The missing notes for chapter six

Pretty much as soon as the style book was published, I started receiving emails from readers gently noting that there were no endnotes for chapter six! Alas, as per Alice Boone on the progress of error, somehow this omission eluded all of us as we read proofs.

In any case, I wanted to make sure that the information was available somewhere for searching, and it should be corrected in subsequent printings.

(Now that I have really looked through and pulled this stuff from the manuscript, I have a theory about what happened - note 8 is the anomaly here, it was a parenthetical aside in the manuscript and I dimly recall my editor suggesting that it should be either cut or moved to a note, but this was after I had already submitted my final manuscript and I would have sent changes by email rather than integrating them into the file myself - I suspect that tinkering with that text may have precipitated the larger omission.)

Notes for Chapter Six, "Late Style: The Golden Bowl and Swann's Way," Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

1. Theodor W. Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven,” in Essays on Music, intro. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002), 565-67.

2. Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 456.

3. Henry James, The Golden Bowl, ed. Ruth Bernard Yeazell (London and New York: Penguin, 2009), 3.

4. Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967), 280.

5. Alan Hollinghurst, “The shy, steely Ronald Firbank,” TLS (15 Nov. 2006).

6. Ronald Firbank, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926), in Five Novels (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, [1949]), chapter 1, 333-34. The following paragraph reveals that the entity being christened is “a week-old police-dog."

7. Quoted in the introduction to Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin, 2004), xiv.

8. When my brothers and I were small children, our Scottish grandmother used to give us a sort of sachet or envelope labelled “Japanese Water Flowers” full of colored snippets that would magically unfold into blossoms when placed on the surface of a bowl of water; they are most commonly made out of paper, so that there is perhaps something additionally and self-consciously literary about the notion of reading the past from such signs.

9. André Aciman, letter, NYRB 53:6 (6 April 2006), as given at

Closing tabs

I have been remiss in the matter of closing tabs! Partly because I have a draft blog post open that I haven't gotten around to finishing - this is unusual for me, mostly I just whip 'em off, but I am due a correction for a missing chapter's worth of endnotes that vanished from the style book, I pasted in the notes but need to add numbers and check carefully so that I am not piling error upon error. Partly because I am having what is basically an amazing writing and exercise retreat in Cayman, with many posts at my other blog and much typing of quota (it's not draft as such, more notes and thoughts, but it is accumulating at a fine rate - I am at about 18K and if I keep working steadily I should have gone through the whole novel before school starts, which is the idea - sometimes I can keep writing quota for some weeks into the semester, but this September I have two major triathlons and a brand new lecture course with a clutch of seminar leaders to work with, and it is not going to be sensible even to try!).


Rebecca Mead on why it's silly to distinguish rigidly between reading for pleasure and reading for self-improvement, especially in adolescence.

A great interview with Coach Dave and his fiancee Megan, who have been burning up the trails this summer! It's the first time I've worked with a coach for quite a while, and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

Twin novelists: an interview with Lev and Austin Grossman.

David Gerrard on the badness of Geoff Dyer's most recent book.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Tower poppies

Blood swept lands and seas of red. Wish I could see this one in person! (Link via B.)


Seven black women science fiction writers everyone should know. Two I have not read at all, will follow up on those recommendations....

Big ideas

Very nice Frank Bruni piece for the NYT about the work my Columbia colleague Roosevelt Montas is doing with students from the Double Discovery program.

The thrill

of opening a new folder on my computer for a fresh book project, creating new files and typing up 2500 words in the first day's production of quota!

Working in this ad hoc fashion is going to lead to a huge and chaotic draft, I'm afraid, but I want to get a proper start on this now so as to maximize the chance that I will be able to write some pages every week in the spring semester as I am teaching Clarissa.

Why, oh why is August already so far underway?!?

I have two more full weeks in Cayman, plus a weekend and a few days of a subsequent week, twenty-two days all told: if twenty of those days involve the successful production of quota, it is possible that I could have a partial draft of 40-50K by the time I go back to New York, even if it's mostly going to have to be cut and rewritten later on - but I just don't feel right without a book in progress!

Thursday, August 07, 2014


At the LRB, Ferdinand Mount on David Bromwich's Edmund Burke (subscription only):
If politics is a science, then it is a kind of geology. As J.W. Burrow puts it, ‘the common law is not a creation of heroic judges but the slow, anonymous sedimentation of immemorial custom; the constitution is no gift but the continuous self-defining public activity of the nation.’ Burke is a sedimentalist, just as he is, in a non-pejorative sense, a sentimentalist. The sentiments of the people, himself included, are political facts accreted over time, which cannot be ignored or easily overridden in the interests of abstract principles, however desirable. The thought experiment so beloved of philosophers from Hobbes and Locke to John Rawls, of men in the state of nature coming together to conclude a social contract, would have seemed to Burke a sophistical fantasy. Burke foreshadows the 19th century in seeing everything – law, morality, solidarity – as historically evolved, the outcome of experience rather than design.

Closing tabs

Lev Grossman on how not to write your first novel.

100 actual titles of real eighteenth-century novels (and some nineteenth-century ones).

10 lessons from life as a dominatrix.

Molly Crabapple on the guest workers of Abu Dhabi.