Monday, November 12, 2018

"A mathematician offers the game"

Karr's memoir book also includes a superb list of memoirs (she stars the ones that are exceptional as books as well as personal histories - I find a high degree of congruence between her tastes and my own). One that I hadn't read and immediately obtained and devoured was G. H. Hardy's heartbreaking A Mathematician's Apology, which comes with a wonderful introductory essay by C. P. Snow.

Snow on Hardy: "His life remained the life of a brilliant young man until he was old: so did his spirit: his games, his interests, kept the lightness of a young don’s. And, like many men who keep a young man’s interests into their sixties, his last years were the darker for it." And this striking description of the relationships Hardy had with a handful of young men over the years:
These were intense affections, absorbing, non-physical but exalted. The one I knew about was for a young man whose nature was as spiritually delicate as his own. I believe, though I only picked this up from chance remarks, that the same was true of the others. To many people of my generation, such relationships would seem either unsatisfactory or impossible. They were neither the one nor the other; and unless one takes them for granted, one doesn’t begin to undertand the temperament of men like Hardy (they are rare, but not as rare as white rhinoceroses), nor the Cambridge society of his time. He didn’t get the satisfactions that most of us can’t help finding: but he knew himself unusually well, and that didn’t make him unhappy. His inner life was his own, and very rich. The sadness came at the end.
The charm of Hardy's style of thought: “The proof is by reduction ad absurdum, and reduction ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician’s finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.”

Here is Hardy on the morality of mathematics:
... there is one purpose at any rate which the real mathematics may serve in war. When the world is mad, a mathematician may find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne. For mathematics is, of all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote, and a mathematician should be of all men the one who can most easily take refuge where, as Bertrand Russell says, ‘one at least of our nobler impulses can best escape from the dreary exile of the actual world’. It is a pity it should be necessary to make one very serious reservation—he must not be too old. Mathematics is not a contemplative but a creative subject; no one can draw much consolation from it when he has lost the power or the desire to create; and that is apt to happen to a mathematician rather soon. It is a pity, but in that case he does not matter a great deal anyhow, and it would be silly to bother about him.

"A stubborn little bulldog of a reviser"

Thinking memoir these days - Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir was helpful not least because of how much it encourages you to write bad pages in the wrong voice first and worry later about how it is all going to come right! "Carnality" is her term for what makes memoir come alive - can you feel it through the five senses? My own personal carnality (yes, of course there are sounds and smells and colors as well) is overwhelmingly in words and ideas....

Some highlights:
Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice…. The secret to any voice grows from a writer’s finding a tractor beam of inner truth about psychological conflicts to shine the way. While an artist consciously constructs a voice, she chooses its elements because they’re natural expressions of character. So above all, a voice has to sound like the person wielding it—the super-most interesting version of that person ever—and grow from her core self…. However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page.

A memoirist’s nature—the self who shapes memory’s filter—will prove the source of her talent. By talent, I mean not just surface literary gifts, though those are part of the package, but life experiences, personal values, approach, thought processes, perceptions, and innate character.
There's a good account of why Karr couldn’t write the story of her childhood in the form of a novel, and how and why The Liars' Club only came to life when she admitted that it had to be nonfiction (I heard Robert Polito tell this story, they were in the same writing group during those years, but it is nice to have a citable version from the author herself!). Maybe the most useful stretch for teaching would be Chapter 14: “Personal Run-Ins with Fake Voices.”

Karr writes extremely well about the psychological shift she experiences, with each book project, of finally finding the right voice: “The images in my head suddenly had words representing them on the page. And accompanying the words was a state of consciousness. It almost felt like I’d walked into some inner room where my lived experiences could pass through and come out as language.” Her sequel thought (and why she is a memoirist rather than a novelist, this wouldn't be true for many writers of fiction): “If the voice worked as a living contract with the reader, it also strangely bound me to candor. To make stuff up would somehow have broken the spell the voice cast over me.”

She is also particularly good on revision:
I always circle my own stories, avoiding the truth like a pooch staked to a clothesline pole, spiraling closer and closer with each revision till—with each book—my false self finally lines up eye to eye with the true one.

On the most basic level, bad sentences make bad books. Poet Robert Hass taught me you can rewrite a poem by making every single line better. I revise and revise and revise. Any editor of mine will tell you how crappy my early drafts are. Revisions are about clarifying and evoking feelings in the reader in the same way they were once evoked in me.

... other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision ....

... those early pages I threw away were somehow necessary, even if I wrote past them. They were way stations I needed to visit to eliminate them from the final itinerary.

For me, the last 20 percent of a book’s improvement takes 95 percent of the effort—all in the editing. I can honestly say not one page I’ve ever published appears anywhere close to how it came out in the first draft. A poem might take sixty versions. I am not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.

Monday, October 22, 2018

'old broken Gibbons piece reveals itself'

Nico did a diary piece for the LRB and a more production-oriented essay for the NYT. I share his fondness BTW for the three-flap French folders....

(I was hoping that I was going to be able to see MARNIE on the simulcast night - it is in local theaters in Paris on Nov. 10 - but I am currently about 98% sure that in the same time interval I am going to need to be present at a party for Institute fellows hosted by the Columbia founder - still slightly hoping that he might have us for early evening drink rather than full mid-evening hospitality and I can dash off thereafter - but no, I see the screening starts at 18:55, that won't work. That said, should be able to pay for access online thereafter, so it is not a total disaster, though I'd have liked to see it in a theater!)

Also - is it because of Orlando Gibbons that people want to say Gibbons instead of Gibbon for the historian, or does it just work better in English in the plural form?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Wormwood forest

Ah, I see that it is exactly a year since I last posted here - a link to Gene's obituary. He has been much on my mind this month, for obvious reasons.

Am deep in Gibbon book and its writing - just spent the afternoon reading a book that I first heard about more than ten years ago (in this TLS review, though I can't access the whole piece without requesting it through ILL - in all these years, the TLS still hasn't improved the usability of its archive!), Mary Mysio's Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl. It is a very good book without being a great one (the excellence of the topic exceeds the skill level of the writer, perhaps - the copy-editing isn't great and in the hands of a different publisher it might have developed into something more for the ages). Which is to say that it doesn't have the literary force (the unforgettable shock value) of Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl: An Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, with which it must be read in tandem (I'm thinking about a reread now). And yet it is an absolutely extraordinary story! Not least in the episode it recounts about the release into the wild of several small herds of Przewalski's horses, a longtime favorite of mine (I just saw some at the small zoo at the Jardin des Plantes the other week).

My reading was prompted by this passage in Gibbon, in which he discusses the repeated and ongoing invasions of the Illyrian provinces after the death of Valens:
Could it even be supposed, that a large tract of country had been left without cultivation, and without inhabitants, the consequences might not have been so fatal to the inferior productions of animated nature. The useful and feeble animals, which are nourished by the hand of man, might suffer and perish, if they were deprived of his protection: but the beasts of the forest, his enemies, or his victims, would multiply in the free and undisturbed possession of their solitary domain. The various tribes that people the air, or the waters, are still less connected with the fate of the human species; and it is highly probable, that the fish of the Danube would have felt more terror and distress, from the approach of a voracious pike, than from the hostile inroad of a Gothic army. (26, 1:1068-69)
The Gibbon book is going to be weaving together a lot of different stories, memoiristic as well as critical, but is really about the cast of thought that makes information become intellectually and analytically interesting....

Friday, October 20, 2017

A filbert for finial

Good sentence from Peter Dickinson's A Summer in the Twenties (he is one of the great underrated novelists of the twentieth century IMO): "The crinkled paper cake-cup held a little turret of amazingly yellow sponge, roofed with a baroque twirl of cream with a filbert for finial."

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Cheap effects

At the LRB, Adam Mars-Jones on Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel and literary career more generally:
Right up to the structurally equivalent point in The Stranger’s Child (2011) – that is, over the course of four substantial novels and a good chunk of the fifth – fragmentation played little part in Hollinghurst’s fictional world. Discontinuity was what his style existed to banish or perhaps redeem. His achievement was to find a way of writing that could accommodate promiscuous sex, the experience of watching Scarface and the use of Ecstasy on the same plane as evocations of Whistler’s brushwork, Henry James’s prose or Frank Lloyd Wright’s way with a building. This was a sensibility that seemed not to recognise a separation between high and low, past and present, glory and disgrace.
. Thursday is really my "weekend" - I need to make up ground and actually write my overdue essay on the footnote, but it is a very tempting idea just to spend the day reading Hollinghurst's latest and the new Philip Pullman installment....

Friday, July 28, 2017

Gibbonian meditations

On reading Gibbon in the time of Trump.

"Kept from myself"

Walter Benjamin to Gretel Adorno, April/May 1940, on the text that would later be published as "Theses on the Philosophy of History": "As for your question about my notes, which were probably made following the conversation under the horse-chestnut trees, I wrote these at a time when such things occupied me. The war and the constellation that brought it about led me to take down a few thoughts which I can say that I have kept with me, indeed kept from myself, for nigh on twenty years. This is also why I have barely afforded even you more than fleeting glances at them. The conversation under the horse-chestnut trees was a breach in those twenty years. Even today, I am handing them to you more as a bouquet of whispering grasses, gathered on reflective walks, than a collection of theses. The text you are to receive is, in more ways than one, a reduction."

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This situation

Walter Benjamin, from "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century": "Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it--as Hegel already noticed--by cunning. With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled."

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Ruthless storytelling

If you know me, you know that it is relatively rare for me to feel of a new work of criticism that I MUST READ IT RIGHT NOW - I am more likely to say that about the new Lee Child novel. But it does occasionally happen, and has happened happily just now in the form of voracious consumption of Joseph North's Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. I can't say that I share Joe's politics, but I love his account of criticism and its tug-of-war with scholarship over the twentieth century: this is a fascinating, highly readable and often very funny book, essential I think for anyone working in Anglophone literary studies. I'm definitely thinking of adding it at the end of my MA seminar syllabus, if I ever teach that course again, not least for the ruthlessness and delicacy with which he "close reads" the style of other critics. And look at this comment, in a close reading of some sentences by George Levine in which North detects "the more disturbing tones of the underlying sensibility . . . a sensibility to which equality itself has something of the taste of a necessary evil. It is this underlying sensibility that the rhetorics of critical thinking and diversity, properly executed, are usually able to manage and conceal. I note that critiques offered at the level of sensibility are sometimes read as ad hominem attacks, and I certainly do not offer mine in that sense" -- hahaha, must borrow a version of that gesture to use myself, as I am a strong believer in the value of sensibility as an indicator of motives and values, and have often been shot down in meetings on exactly the ad hominem charge!

Things I would ask Joe about if I were a respondent to the book on a panel (but am too lazy to write out properly): (a) What about Barthes? He supports the story, in some sense (think of his criticism veering much more strongly to Michelet and to photographs and drawings rather than to literary work more traditionally conceived), but it seems hard to explain how Sedgwick and Miller stand out so much without at least a nod to the joyful playful contributions of RB; (b) Principled neglect of institutional histories, expansion of higher education and the probable contraction of some of its more luxurious US franchises? (c) What about Maggie Nelson and The Argonauts? Surprising lack of mention of the extent to which arts must supplement both criticism and scholarship in the kind of political project he imagines (this may have something to do with the oddity of T. S. Eliot). Again, instititional contexts, job market, jobs moving to teaching writing and often creative writing - surely there is some hope in that realm along the lines he discerns here.

The artist moved to despair


Fuseli, "The artist moved to despair before the grandeur of ancient ruins" (1778-79) (via)

From Catherine Edwards, Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City: “The nature of the artist’s despair remains open. Is it provoked by the impossibility of emulating the greatness of the past, still overwhelming even in ruins? By the knowledge that even the greatest works of art will decay? Or is it rather caused by the unassuageable longing for a closer contact with the long vanished dead? These ruins, though of vast stature, are yet human in form; the artist stretches out his hand to touch flesh that turns out to be cold, unresponsive stone” (15).

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"The night is for the dead"

Hilary Mantel on why she became a historical novelist (this is A Place of Greater Safety, her novel of Robespierre, which I remember reading at the recommendation of my brilliant teacher Simon Schama circa 1993):
I wasn’t after quick results. I was prepared to look at all the material I could find, even though I knew it would take years, but what I wasn’t prepared for were the gaps, the erasures, the silences where there should have been evidence.

These erasures and silences made me into a novelist, but at first I found them simply disconcerting. I didn’t like making things up, which put me at a disadvantage. In the end I scrambled through to an interim position that satisfied me. I would make up a man’s inner torments, but not, for instance, the colour of his drawing room wallpaper.

Because his thoughts can only be conjectured. Even if he was a diarist or a confessional writer, he might be self-censoring. But the wallpaper – someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and colour, and if I kept on pursuing it I might find out. Then – when my character comes home weary from a 24-hour debate in the National Convention and hurls his dispatch case into a corner, I would be able to look around at the room, through his eyes. When my book eventually came out, after many years, one snide critic – who was putting me in my place, as a woman writing about men doing serious politics – complained there was a lot in it about wallpaper. Believe me, I thought, hand on heart, that there was not nearly enough.

Closing tabs

Just a few, in preparation for travel to Cayman and I HOPE some writing (it has not been a productive month for me, due mostly I think to factors beyond my control but also to the fact that it is very difficult to sustain full-on sabbaticalage over the entire 18 months that you get if you have a full school year and both summers). More realistic will be to make a detailed but modest list of ALL THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE BY THE END OF AUGUST (including updating fall semester syllabi and making the new syllabus for my spring-semester course in Paris so that we can get it cleared with the Committee on Instruction and have course book information in advance of the relevant dates) and then proceed to tick them off as I can. But I will be happier if I write some Gibbon pages as well....

Madame Bovary's wedding cake. (I am surprised by the negative orientation towards this sort of patisserie, I am a wholehearted fan!)

On a related note, I am still meaning to stop in and get a look at this. I think I have missed my chance to see the ballet....

Favorite items at the Houghton Library.

Subway maps compared to their actual geography

Watch the movements of every refugee on earth since the year 2000

J.G. Ballard, "The Index"!

Michel Houellebecq is not easy to interview

"Bond, Michael Bond"

Many good tributes to the creator of Paddington Bear, but this old one from Pico Eyer is a good one (the NYT obituary was nice too):
Bond’s greatest moment is in describing how the attempt to make a live-action film about Paddington began with “a midget dressed up in a bearskin” (though a midget a mite too large). Given that “the person inside the skin couldn’t hear what was being said to him, let alone where he was going”, and given that, according to Bond, “midgets also tend to be temperamental” (especially when stuck inside a papier-mache head), it makes for a scene worthy of its hero – even before the man “who had invented an automatic lawn mower” is brought in to give the bear emotions, producing an artificial head whose eyes blink at different moments, generating an effect both sinister and salacious.