Friday, March 31, 2006

At the Guardian Review

James Fenton on the new edition of Johnson's Lives of the Poets (edited by Roger Lonsdale, OUP; must see if I can get a copy of this); Simon Baron-Cohen on Michael Blastland's book about his son's autism; Lionel Shriver on Norah Vincent (oh, good, I see her new novel is coming out in May from Serpent's Tail; it's silly, what I really should do is go and read the Shriver backlist, but it will have to wait now till I'm back in New York because I am an idiot if I check any more books out of the library in the meantime, I will just have to return them without reading due to time constraints).

Oh no!

That coyote that I have been thinking about all week is dead! It is funny how attached you can grow to an animal you never met. Sad, sad, sad.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Christine Brooke-Rose

is someone I've always been interested in but have only read one or two books by, this essay by Frank Kermode at the London Review of Books reminds me she might be worth a good look sometime in the nearish future. I have been thinking a lot about style and fiction recently--I am too lazy to write anything serious about realism and experimental fiction, I feel that a lot of what you see people saying around the place is rather tedious and unimaginative--I am strongly drawn to certain kinds of experimental writing (I am in love with Perec) but I've got very mixed feelings about it as well. Because mostly (with a very few exceptions) what I really want are character- and voice-driven fictions and a lot of the more experimental stuff is full of lovely sentences but is not what I am actually going to sit down and read. The best thing is when you get a book (Peter Temple's are a good example of this) that is immensely and stringently stylish at the sentence level and yet wholly satisfactory in terms of character and story as well.

(And while I'm on the subject of experimental writing, I must confess that I just had a huge splurge this afternoon at the Harvard Bookstore, I found out slightly out of the blue that I must spend the rest of this year's research money in the next week or else lose it and I went and got a ton of work-related and also not-quite-so-work-related stuff including--oh, I am so excited, I really thought it was too expensive & I couldn't justify it, but I took the plunge because of this spend-now-or-lose circumstance--the Grove Centenary Edition of Samuel Beckett.)

The Montreal conference was great, I didn't get to see much of the city but what I did see was lovely (I hope I can go back sometime) and the quality of the Shakespeare/18th-century papers was extremely high; I think my favorites were the ones by Joe Roach (who is writing an amazing book called It that I want to read right now--his paper was "The It-Bard" and was one of the most interesting and exciting and moving things I have ever heard, this is going to be an exceptional book), Peter Holland and Margreta DeGrazia, but everything was really good. Now I must get properly back to work, but it was an enjoyable interlude with lots of intellectual stimulation.

Hal Jensen on John Fowles' 'last novel'

at the TLS (no subscription required):

John Fowles regarded his Journals, available now in two massive volumes, as his 'last novel'. This might seem a remarkably lazy piece of self-importance (in other words, an exemplary postmodern gesture) or perhaps a desperate act of reclamation by a man who has written himself out. The surprise, however, as one treks through half a million words of self-address, forty years spent staring into the blank-paged mirror, is that it is hard to disagree with the claim. At least, given the type of novel that Fowles kept attempting - a capacious literary-philosophical-autobiographical holdall - it would be fair to say that these Journals are the condition to which all Fowles's writing aspired.

Of course John Fowles would never have had a blog, but it's an interesting idea to contemplate.... or at least to wonder whether the still-unpublished material (the journals were far too vast to be published in full--two million words)could be disseminated in that kind of format.

Other good things: Richard Calvocoressi on Francis Bacon's studio; Alastair Macaulay on a new biography of Laurence Olivier.

Monday, March 27, 2006

You know, it's very funny,

I almost linked to this article yesterday because it had the most extraordinary headline, "Meat that's Good for the Heart May Be Possible With Cloning"--there was something about the word 'Meat' in that context that seemed delightfully and inappropriately grotesque. Now they have changed the word 'Meat' to 'Pork'--too bad....

Sunday, March 26, 2006

"A year in..."

Tralee Pearce has a funny article at about the ascendancy of the non-fiction book structured around the idea of 365 days in the life of its author and/or the book's subject. (Link courtesy of ArtsJournal Publishing.)

I am not planning on writing a "year of reading" type book, I would think it would be completely unreadable, and I don't do anything else in which "year of" could possibly be amusing. But I do have a new project that I am yearning to write. (It is going to have to enter what is already a long queue, though. Too many ideas!)

Of course it is fatal to describe as-yet-unwritten projects, they never get written that way, but I think I am going to say it anyway and not worry about it. (The inverse of this rule is that whenever I say I won't be blogging for a few days, I always end up writing two or three more posts in the few hours after I've given a notice of hiatus. Watch and see.)

Several people recently have asked if I've thought about publishing some collection of these blog entries as a book, and my answer is a firm no. Nor do I want to write a whole collection of essays about books, other kinds of writing seem more pressing to me (academic stuff, fiction) and whatever move I make into essay-writing will be occasional rather than book-driven.

But I do want to write a lovely and hilarious novel, a novel that is now looking particularly amusing and attractive because it only exists in my imagination, that will be read by hardly anybody and will have to be published by a nice small press for no money because nobody will want to buy it, called "99 Novels" (a bow to one of my favorite strange books, Anthony Burgess's 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939).

It would not be formatted in the same way Burgess does it (he has a one-page entry for each book, given in chronological order; mine would be more like the way this blog works, with longer posts on some books and entries that cover four or five different books and so forth). The constraint would be that it would mention EXACTLY ninety-nine novels, no cheating; and that they would all be made up (i.e. they do not exist in the world; though some of them, I think, would be by authors who do exist).

This has been at the back of my mind as I've been reading Perec; I am interested in the way that formal constraints lead to interesting and surprising kinds of writing, and I want to see what would happen if I tried to write a book like that myself. It would be a good project for a summer when you were for some reason otherwise incapacitated--like an old-fashioned convalescence, that kind of thing, or depression that made it impossible to get real work done--you could do it in small daily chunks that would not be very stressful. Hmmm.... I must not do anything that slows down my progress towards a mid-September completion date for my book about breeding, but it would be very tempting to see if I could get started on this as well over the summer months....

In the extremely unlikely event

that one or two of the people reading this are (a) living in Montreal or thereabouts and (b) free on Tuesday and Wednesday during the day and (c) interested in Shakespeare and/or the eighteenth century, do come and see my talk at this conference hosted by McGill University! Bewilderingly there seems to be absolutely no information online, not even a paltry announcement, but the location is Le Meridien Versailles and I've pasted in the program below. (This is the hotel where they're putting up the speakers and I must say I am going to think it is false advertising if someone doesn't give me a piece of very expensive chocolate while I'm there.) I'm on a flight tomorrow--that's Monday--morning, coming back Thursday, so no posts here until Thursday evening unless I finish working unexpectedly early this evening and am inspired to read a book and blog about it.



Chair: Philip Smallwood

9:00 Michael Bristol "A System of Oeconomicall Prudence: Shakespeare and the Practice of Moral Inquiry"

10:00 Frans De Bruyn "Edmund Burke as a Political Reader of Shakespeare"

11:00 Joseph Roach "The It-Bard"

12:00-2:00 Lunch

Chair: Peter Sabor

2:00 Margreta De Grazia "The Unconscious of Shakespeare's Characters in 1800"

3:00 Gefen Bar-On "Editorial Views of Shakespeare?s Language and the Newtonian Search for Knowledge, 1723-1765"

4:00 Jenny Davidson "Inheritance and the Science of Resemblance: David Garrick Rewrites The Winters Tale"


Chair: Geoffrey Sill

9:00 Marcus Walsh "George Steevens: A Hermeneutics and a Social Economy of Annotation"

10:00 Jean Marsden "Shakespeare and Sympathy"

11:00 Amanda Cockburn "Awful Pomp and Endless Diversity: The Sublime Sir John Falstaff"

12:00-2:00 Lunch

Chair: Linda Bree

2:00 Paul Yachnin "Sentimental History on Stage: Richard II in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century"

3:00 Marcie Frank "Romancing the Stage"

4:00 Peter Holland "Speaking Shakespeare or Hearing the Dead"

5:00 Respondent: Nick Hudson

I have never been to Montreal before, I am very much looking forward to it; and of course I get a gleam in the eye at the idea of being able to talk about eighteenth-century literature for several days with lots of people who love it as much as I do. I'm excited about all of the talks, but especially Margreta DeGrazia's; she is the author of a really wonderful essay about the idea of imprints and the wax/blank slate metaphor for the human brain that has had a very direct impact on the way I'm thinking about my current academic book project. It's slightly inaccessibly located (one of those bibliography mix-ups that makes books difficult to find in libraries sometimes, I was running around for ages before I got hold of it), but you can find the essay--really, it's fantastic, check it out--in Alternative Shakespeares, Volume 2 (NB not volume one), edited by Terence Hawkes.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

When I find myself disliking

a book that's receiving tons of positive attention and that sounds rather like what I should love to read (or, perhaps more to the point, what I might like to write), I always have to look inside myself and suffer an unpleasant thought about stomach-turning envy and how much it might be affecting my opinion of what I'm reading. It's an unanswerable question, really, and it is not to my credit, that pang (I always feel it in the stomach) when someone says casually of their sister-in-law, for instance, "Oh, did you hear about her million-dollar two-book deal?" or of their latest favorite novel that it's shot up the Amazon charts.

So all this is a roundabout way of saying that regular blog-reader and young-adult author Lee Lowe (who has a new story up at her blog) asked me a month or two ago in the comments here if I had read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and if so what I thought of it; I had not, so I requested it from the library and took a look and it just did not catch my interest. (I had the attractive Australian large-format paperback edition, it's very beautifully designed and striking-looking but the text on the back cover felt vaguely coy and fable-like and I put it down without reading any of it.)

Most notably, the Australian edition is not marked in any way as young-adult fiction, but I saw something last week--I can't remember where--of the "you've got to read this fabulous new book, you might be put off by its being marketed for young adults but it's really the best book of 2006" kind of thing and of course immediately thought, "Oh, how much more appealing than I had imagined," having taken it more for a Marquez-or-Kundera-in-the-family-tree kind of adult fable which is not at all what I like.

The book is narrated by Death, and I was thinking idly before I started of how I was sure to be disappointed because of this Death not SPEAKING IN CAPITAL LETTERS (Hogfather was the first Discworld novel I read, and still one of my very favorites, Pratchett at his best and funniest). But then as it turned out I did start reading and I really, really didn't like the voice of Death the narrator.

Let me stop for a minute and say that Markus Zusak is immensely talented, a really remarkable storyteller (the main character Liesel Meminger is very well drawn, and her relationships with the principal male characters extremely convincing and moving), and I have no doubt that this book will not only sell a gazillion copies but also, ah, touch the hearts of millions and cause them to weep. But this is the problem. I can sum it up in two words: whimsy; sentimentality.

I have no tolerance for whimsy. Death's voice is almost arch, for god's sake! This is a personal obsession of mine and I am willing to admit it's somewhat unreasonable. But the sentimental orientation is more generally unacceptable, on grounds that I would describe as ethical. I was almost weeping at the end of the novel, even as I felt rage at having my emotions manipulated in this way.

The young-adult reading thing also remains a question for me. I don't know, this field of Holocaust literature is really not my subject at all (there are certainly some wonderful books particularly written by survivors or their children or people otherwise personally affected that I would not particularly put in the hands of a teenager), but I feel that from both a historical and a literary standpoint there are books that more closely match my sense of the ethical imperatives in the case. I'm not making a simple argument about historical accuracy or responsibility or whatever, I don't want to go there, just a claim about sentimentality and narrative bad faith.

For younger readers, then, I would rather give them something like one of Eva Ibbotson's books, if I thought they still needed a happy ending of sorts. But for the grade 10-12 readers that the American edition is being pitched to, there start being a lot of other choices on the grounds of subject matter and (what I really care about) of literary style that seem to do more and better work: a personal favorite of mine is the amazing memoir called The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction by my friend and neighbor David Weiss Halivni, and there is Primo Levi's remarkable book--surely this is his best book by far, I am quite in love with it... we must read all his others as well, but the straight-up memoirs are so bleak as to be almost unbearable--The Periodic Table. Or for the more intellectual/precocious teenager (is this totally inappropriate? I think I was sixteen when I read it, and it blew me away; but of course it is a very different sort of book from these others I have been listing, and a very great novel) The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, which basically makes Zusak's novel look incredibly meretricious. Or even something like Schindler's List (the book is better than the movie), a novel with which this one has a great deal in common, I'd say, though it's years since I read it so my memory may have failed me.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Kazuo Ishiguro

in the Guardian Review, on writing what was pretty certainly my favorite novel of 2005 (oh, but there were so many others too, it is a great consolation, think of the bleakness of life without novels--I would fall back on music and film and television and theater and so forth and in time would grow accustomed to the lack, especially I would listen to a lot more music, but it would be very, very trying). That book of course is Never Let Me Go (now out in paperback, do get it and read it if you haven't already--I didn't write much about it when I read it, I was too--what's the word--bouleversee, but here are a few thoughts if you're interested). Here is Ishiguro, anyway, at the end of the piece:

Lastly, a word about clones. Paradoxically, I found that having clones as central characters made it very easy to allude to some of the oldest questions in literature; questions which in recent years have become a little awkward to raise in fiction. 'What does it mean to be human?' 'What is the soul?' 'What is the purpose for which we've been created, and should we try to fulfil it?' In books from past eras - in Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, say - characters would debate these issues for 20 pages at a time and no one would complain. But in our present era, novelists have struggled to find an appropriate vocabulary - an appropriate tone, perhaps - to discuss these questions without sounding pompous or archaic. The introduction of clones - or robots, or super-computers, I suppose - as main characters can reawaken these questions for modern readers in a natural and economic way. It's no surprise that several other recent books and films - including very ambitious ones from David Mitchell and Michel Houellebecq - have cast clones in major roles. It's a futuristic way of going ancient.

(And he could have said Richard Powers, too: in America that's probably the first person you'd think of.)

Other good Guardian stuff: John Banville reviews a collection of interviews with and about Beckett and James Shapiro writes on Shakespeare's practical genius.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Laurie Abraham on Caitlin Flanagan

at Elle. A pretty devastating piece, I'd say. (Thanks to A. for the link.)

The very strange thing

about this Guardian excerpt from Stella Duffy's contribution to a short-story anthology called Little Black Dress ("I have become the Baroness. I almost don't know how it happened, as if the time that passed did so on grandma's footsteps, creeping up to catch me out. One day I was Liesl, wet dress of palest pink clinging to my sixteen-going-on-twenty-one breasts, panting the possibilities of all things male beyond my ken (sure they were, Barbie) and the next, I am the Baroness") is that it seems to un-parody--some years after the fact--my friend Bruno Maddox's novel My Little Blue Dress. Which I thought had made it thereafter impossible to have artfully naive/nostalgic female narrators ever again meditate on the shapeliness of their comely breasts unless it was either (a) postmodern or (b) pornographic (or both). Possibly the Duffy falls into category (a), that's what the Barbie aside would seem to suggest (actually I quite like Duffy's novels, I shouldn't single her out like this), but it wasn't at all clear in context; I think there should be a literary moratorium on phrases such as "sixteen-going-on-twenty-one breasts."

This coyote thing

is a great story. I am finding myself starved of animal contact--I am going to have to restrain myself when I really get back to NY from suddenly accumulating a ton of animals--I have been thinking a lot about all different sorts. When I was little I wanted a monkey that I could bring around the place with me, but there is a reason that monkeys are called wild animals--this is why people have dogs....

I was just explaining earlier today

(at more length than anyone cared for, I expect, Derrida and Hegel being the main topics at hand) about Linnaean classification and sex and the marriages of the plants; if only I had known that the TLS was about to put up on the website--for free!--this excellent piece by Jim Endersby about Stephen Freer's new translation of Linnaeus's "Philosophia Botanica"....

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Erica Jong on sleeping with Martha Stewart's husband

in an excerpt from her new memoir (they're at the Frankfurt Book Fair...):

I remember him as big and blond and enthusiastic. I know he pulled the comforters to the floor and it was there that we tangled. Whatever people may say of the delights of adultery, there are always these extra people in the room observing. You are playing to them more than to your partner. And all the while your demon is mocking you.

'You couldn't be happy with me - you had to drag this big blond one to bed? You'll live to regret it. The wife's a problematic enemy - or soon will be. What a pathetically easy lay you are - a few handwritten notes and you fall into bed? Or onto the floor? What's the matter with you?'

'But isn't he cute?'

'Cute and a token will get you on the subway. Besides he's not cute enough for all the trouble this will cause! You and Jonathan may have an 'open marriage' - if such a thing exists - but the Stewarts are thoroughly bourgeois. He cheats and she pretends not to know. They live in Westport, after all. Wait and see! You just wanted to show her who's boss. But she'll get you.'

This demon sounds suspiciously like my father, but he is always, alas, right.

Right before I left for summer school in Florence, when I was nineteen, my father said, 'I have one piece of advice for you: Never drink grappa with an Italian man.'

Of course that was the very first thing I proceeded to do after Italian literature class at the Torre di Bellosguardo. In fact, I defiantly drank grappa with every Italian man I met. I drank grappa on trains, on motorcycles, in little bars along the Arno. Later on, when I was older, I drank grappa on vintage sailboats and in grand hotels. I am not sorry for my defiance - only grateful I survived it without catching any communicable diseases.

(Thanks to Alice for the link--and that's definitely a blog you should go and take a look at if you haven't already....)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

ABCs = Anomalous Big Cats

Merrily Harpur on British puma- and panther-spotting in the Guardian (the occasion is the first national British Big Cats Conference, which I would so go to if I was in Leicestershire).

Check out the list of sightings at the end of the piece:

Over four decades, the Surrey Puma of the 1960s has been joined by the Exmoor Beast, the Beast of Bodmin, the Fen Tiger, the Beast of Ongar, the Pedmore Panther, the Beast of Gloucester, the Thing from the Ling, the Beast of Borehamwood, the Wrangaton Lion, the Beast of Shap, the Beast of Brentwood, the Lindsey Leopard, the Lincolnshire Lynx, the Wildcat of the Wolds, the Beast of Roslin, the Kilmacolm Big Cat, the Beast of Burford, the Chilterns Lion, the Beast of Castor, the Beast of Sydenham, the Shooters Hill Cheetah, the Beast of Bucks, the Plumstead Panther, the Beast of Bexley, the Beast of Barnet, the Nottingham Lion, the Durham Puma, the Horndon Panther, the Beast of Cricklewood, the Beast of Bont, the Beast of Gobowen ... and many more.

Wayne Koestenbaum has a new book of poems

coming out in April and it has the amazing name Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, I can't wait to read it....

Monday, March 20, 2006

Joyce Carol Oates on Jay McInerney

in the New York Review of Books (no subscription required):

Though a glut of material has appeared on the subject of September 11, much of it the recorded testimony of survivors and eyewitnesses, very few writers of fiction have taken up the challenge and still fewer have dared to venture close to the actual event; September 11 has become a kind of Holocaust subject, hallowed ground to be approached with awe, trepidation, and utmost caution. The reader's natural instinct is to recoil from a purely fictitious treatment of so profound and communal a subject, for the task of fiction is to create a self-defined, self-absorbed, and highly charged text out of language, and the appropriation of a communal trauma for such purposes would seem to be exploitative. (The popular bias for memoir in our time, even fictionalized memoir, is this wish for 'authenticity' on the part of the author who has also been a participant in his story.)

More crucially, fiction must focus upon invented people whose personal lives take precedence over the collective, and readers might well resent the intrusion of invented people in a foreground that blocks our view of the far more significant background. The self-absorbed characters of The Good Life come to seem like antic figures on a movie screen that evaporate when exposed to daylight, all the more annoying in that their interwoven stories are so familiar.

I've got more to say about JCO, but am saving it for an upcoming review; meanwhile you can also read Stephen Greenblatt on two new books about Christopher Marlowe online at the NYRB. The print issue includes John Lanchester on Julian Barnes, Garry Wills on Taylor Branch's latest volume on MLK, Anita Desai on Vikram Seth and an exchange on Proust that features Andre Aciman and Lydia Davis among others; I must not let this one sit and accumulate dust unread....

An amazing Q&A

Amy Davidson talks to Jon Lee Anderson at the New Yorker website about his profile of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in this week's issue of the magazine. I have always had a sort of fascination with Liberia, partly because of the whole alternate-history thing: the circumstances of the country's founding must have preserved some aspects of antebellum American culture in ways that would illuminate own country's history as well (though I cannot imagine much of this has survived the turmoil and violence of the last twenty years).

Here the conversation takes a surprising turn:

Now, you have a history in Liberia, too. You lived there for a year when you were a boy. How did you end up there?

To make a long story short, I had been raised abroad, and my family had returned to the United States briefly for a year when I was twelve. I had not enjoyed it very much, and I dreamed about being an explorer and leading an adventurous life, and I kept running away. The solution was to send me for a year to live with my uncle Warren Coonrad, who lived in Liberia and was a geologist there, in 1970. So I went there and spent a year with him when I was thirteen, and I have to say I was very happy. For me, it was a wonderful country. I would go up into the bush with my uncle's cook, into his tribal village. I danced for the first time with the people of his tribe. I learned quite a bit of the dialect. They gave me a tribal name. For me, it was just a wonderful time. It was clearly a country with problems lurking under the surface which, as a boy, I wasn't that cognizant of. The thing about Liberia that has been lost to the outside world, which associates it with mass murder and tribal frenzy, is that Liberians, quite apart from anything else, are irrepressibly joyful people. They have a great sense of humor--even in their misery today. Sometimes, now, there's a slightly more cynical edge to the humor: I saw a little shop there with the name 'Neutral Ground' and a calling center named 'Who Knows Tomorrow?'

I remember, though, you didn't quite stay put in Liberia, either. You travelled a lot through Africa.

I did. Apart from going into the bush as often as I could, I crossed over into Sierra Leone and into Guinea, where I was actually arrested and accused of being a spy. I was thirteen. I was constantly getting into trouble, but nothing terrible happened to me. I also travelled to East Africa, where my father and my uncle knew people in the various capitals. The idea was that I was going to have an East African adventure, take a month off from school and do reports for my various teachers in order to justify this, and people would somehow look after me while I was in Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. What I actually did was check in with them and then take off on my own. I looked a bit older than my years, and so a lot of these people didn’t quite know what to do with me, and they let me go. Then, to the Africans, when I was travelling on my own, I would lie—I would tell them I was a twenty-eight-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, and I would find that most Africans couldn’t really tell my age. If they were incredulous, they didn’t say so. And so I was able to do a lot of things. I camped out alone in the Serengeti, and I travelled out to the Ogaden desert in Ethiopia. I went elephant hunting with a Canadian gospel minister in western Uganda the week after Idi Amin seized power. I had a ball and I didn’t want to come back. I ended up staying two months and getting in all sorts of trouble with my family because I basically didn’t write, didn’t call.

Does that sort of thing seem remotely possible for a young person today, do you think?

No! And I haven’t told my children how old I was when I did these things, and they don’t really know about it, because it sets up a bit of a challenge, and Africa has changed. Of course, it was changing while I was there, and I was only vaguely cognizant of it.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Somehow I never knew about these before

but I've just read two strange and very fine novellas by Georges Perec (the first of which made him celebrated in France when he published it in 1965), Things: A Story of the Sixties and A Man Asleep (the first is translated by David Bellos, the second by Andrew Leak).

They are both stories about desire and its disorders; the first (which is really pretty incredible) pulls off the amazing trick of being sociological fiction without any of the traits we associate with sociological fiction (it would make an interesting pair if you taught it with Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste but perhaps also with some other books about disordered desire, I am thinking for instance of Augusten Burroughs' Dry--which has the advertising connection as well).

What I liked most about Things: a dry and pointed style that often works by summary, critiquing the characters and their beliefs and yet also detached from them in a way that subdues the prose. I am interested in the way summary can work as critique in general, but here's a wonderful passage in which you can hardly tell (I wish I had the French-language original) how sharp the irony might or might not be, you are lulled by the words even as you feel yourself to be reading something rather like Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas.

Here's a taste, anyway (the two main characters are a couple in their mid-twenties defined by their taste, their lack of money, their muddled thinking about their way of living and a preference for itinerant work as market researchers in preference to the bourgeois lifestyle--aspects of which they nonetheless covet; the passage below highlights the banality and hypocrisy of their nostalgia for the past times of the Spanish Civil War or the Resistance given their hardly being affected by the Algerian war "being pursued before their eyes"):

In advertising circles--which were generally located by quasi-mythical tradition to the left of centre, but were rather better defined by technocracy, the cult of efficiency, modernity, complexity, by the taste for speculating on future trends and by the more demagogic strain in sociology, as well as by the still very widespread opinion that nine-tenths of the population were fools just able to sing the praises of anything or anybody in unison--in advertising circles, then, it was fashionable to despise all merely topical political issues and to grasp History in nothing smaller than centuries. It happened to be the case, furthermore, that Gaullism was an adequate response, an infinitely more dynamic response than people had at first declared far and wide that it would be, and that its danger lay always in some other place than the one where people thought they had found it.

And A Man Asleep is almost unbearable to read (I really could hardly stand to read it, and that is a compliment), it so acutely captures depression:

It is not that you hate men, why would you hate them? Why would you hate yourself? If only membership of the human race were not accompanied by this insufferable din, if only these few pathetic steps taken into the animal kingdom did not have to be bought at the cost of this perpetual, nauseous dyspepsia of words, projects, great departures! But it is too high a price to pay for opposable thumbs, an erect stature, the incomplete rotation of the head on the shoulders: this cauldron, this furnace, this grill which is life, these thousands of summonses, incitements, warnings, thrills, depressions, this enveloping atmosphere of obligations, this eternal machine for producing, crushing, swallowing up, overcoming obstacles, starting afresh and without respite, their insidious terror which seeks to control every day, every hour of your meagre existence!

Lear-like, no? I am not sure about that last exclamation point; but I am in love with the phrase "the incomplete rotation of the head on the shoulders," that is the most poignant phrase, it brings tears to my eyes...

There is also an amazing pair of paragraphs about reading the newspaper that I am too lazy to transcribe in their entirety but that perfectly capture a certain aspect of the state of being depressed; the sequence ends, at any rate, with these sentences:

...reading Le Monde is simply a way of wasting, or gaining, an hour or two, of measuring once again the extent of your indifference. All hierarchies and preferences must crumble and collapse. You are still capable of being amazed by the way in which the combination, according to a few ultimately very simple rules, of thirty or so typographic signs is able to generate, every day, these thousands of messages. But why should you eagerly devour them, why should you bother deciphering them? All that matters to you is that time should pass and that nothing should get thhrough to you: your eyes follow the lines, deliberately, one after the other.

An excellent piece on ghostwriting

Tim Adams in the Guardian:

'A new ghost writer has to learn a lot about style,' [Christy Walsh, prominent American ghostwriter] suggested. 'He usually makes the mistake of thinking that he ought to write the way his celebrity talks. That is an error. He ought to write the way the public thinks his celebrity talks.'

In the gap between those two voices lie all of the ghost's creative possibilities and all of his worst nightmares. Whenever my bank balance appears to tempt me toward ghosting, I'm haunted by the story of an indefatigable ghost who used every desperate resource to make it to the end of his contracted 70,000 words about a particularly prolix Yorkshire cricketer. No routine catch at midwicket or unsuccessful lbw appeal was left unexplored. There were paragraphs about the sound of birdsong at various county grounds, and about favourite groundsmen. When he delivered his manuscript and felt the burden of word-count despair briefly lift from his shoulders, he received a call from his publisher. 'This is terrific stuff. Do you think you can do another 30,000 words?'

Cricket's original hero, WG Grace, employed a writer called Arthur Porritt, who described exactly the 'Rooney dilemma', the one which states that great sportsmen do all of their talking on the field: 'Getting material from Grace was almost heartbreaking,' he recalled. 'All he would say in recording some dazzling batting feat of his was 'Then I went in and made 284'.

There's lots of other good stuff in here (it's funny, too, and slightly shaming, how many of the ghostwritten novels I have actually read--Naomi Campbell's, for instance, and also Ivana Trump's: "After paying her ghost Camille Marchetta $350,000 to write a novel about a Czech alter ego named Katrina, Ivana Trump . . . seemed to have convinced herself of her gift. 'To my surprise, I find I have a great imagination,' she told -Vanity Fair in her unwieldy English. 'I don't say I'm the Shakespeare, but it's not just about the beautiful people and the gorgeous yachts and the fabulous homes and lots of sex. I tried to put in more the feelings'").

Jennie Erdal is quoted, and then also Andrew Crofts, whose theory of ghostwriting seems to me most convincing (he puts his finger on why it's always seemed appealing to me):

'If I'm writing about someone who is morally dubious, I'll find myself fiercely defending them if someone criticises them. You have to see things entirely from their point of view. Being a ghost is a bit like being a therapist,' he says. 'But it is probably more like being a defence lawyer.'

I am hoping to have now staved off

for a while the light-reading addiction and returned to my normal self, I seriously (ridiculously) have just plowed through two more books by Kim Harrison (actually, they are even better than the first one, much more polished but still with the same appeal--but how do these typos slip through?!?), The Good, the Bad, and the Undead and Every Which Way But Dead. I am fond of books about vampires, and these ones are very good (funny and self-aware about the genre conventions, for instance, including the bizarre one that women in vampire novels all dress like prostitutes in bondage gear).

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Machine reading

Noam Cohen on text stats in the New York Times.

Oh dear, this is very funny....

Hillel Italie at Yahoo News, "Dan Brown Court Papers Fascinate" (a short piece with telling excerpts from the witness statement in the lawsuit):

Brown had been raised on the Great Books, from Faulkner to Dostoevsky, but it was literature of a very different kind that inspired him to try fiction himself. On a fateful 1993 vacation to Tahiti, Brown brought along a copy of Sidney Sheldon's 'The Doomsday Conspiracy.'

'It held my attention, kept me turning pages, and reminded me how much fun it could be to read,' Brown writes. 'The simplicity of the prose and the efficiency of the story line was less cumbersome than the dense novels of my schooldays, and I began to suspect that maybe I could write a `thriller' of this type one day.'

He debuted in 1998 with 'The Digital Fortress,' an intelligence thriller, and followed with 'Deception Point' (a novel he found boring to write) and 'Angels & Demons,' the latter featuring Harvard University symbolist Robert Langdon, the protagonist of 'Da Vinci Code' and, Brown hopes, many more novels.

'I intend to make Robert Langdon my primary character for years to come,' Brown writes. 'His expertise in symbology and iconography affords him the luxury of potentially limitless adventures in exotic locales.'

"The dense novels of my schooldays"! If Dan Brown did not exist, we would have to invent him. Digital Fortress is the only book of his I've read (they are not so much my kind of thing); I did not think it a good book, but on the other hand I very much admired its pacing & indeed took back to my own novel in progress the idea that the chapters should be much shorter. He's not good on character and voice, but there's some strong storytelling stuff going on (does that sound impossibly condescending? the man's a bestseller after all!) that we might all learn something from.

(Link via ArtsJournal Publishing.)

I am thrilled to see

that Emily Fox Gordon has published a new book, reviewed here by Elizabeth McCracken in the NYTBR. Fox Gordon is a truly exceptional writer; here's me a year or so ago in love with (scroll down to the bottom of the post if so inclined) The Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy, and here's the link for her new book, Are You Happy?: A Childhood Remembered. I must get this!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Tom Stoppard's qualms about the right to freedom of speech

in the Guardian Review:

'Is there ever a time and place for censorship?' On the one hand, we have Voltaire: 'I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' On the other hand, we have hate speech. I will add something personal. I was proud to be British before I was British. I arrived in 1946 when I was eight, and that was that. Czechoslovakia, which I couldn't remember; Singapore, which I could barely remember; and India, which I enjoyed, fell away like so many ladders. It was a love affair, and I was not very much older when I first articulated to myself what it was that was the foundation of my anglophilia. It was the Voltairean credo, enshrined in my adoptive country.

But note: the appeal of the Voltairean credo was precisely that it was voluntary, his choice. He was not conceding his antagonist's possession of an overriding right, he was choosing to accord that right. He was putting down a marker for the kind of society he favoured, for an ideal. The underlying question remains as before: does Voltaire's credo hold good at all times in all circumstances?

The light reading fit

came on me very strongly last night, so that I had to go to the bookstore and find some suitable mass-market paperbacks--fortunately I laid hands immediately on the perfect thing, common sense made me stop reading around 2am last night so that I could get some sleep but I've just finished Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison and it is really excellent, a bit rough around the edges in some respects but you are completely engaged with the story & Harrison is an extremely talented writer in all the ways that matter.

Honesty compels me to admit that some things could have been better; the editing part of my brain was itching to make a good book into a great one. (Sara Gran recently complained about the tendency of Amazon reviewers to suggest--ignorantly in many cases, I am sure--that various books "could have used an editor", and I definitely take her point about the general myth/misconception that "'editors no longer edit'" and the cheapness of it as a criticism; and yet....) There were far too many typos of the "peddled" for "pedaled" or "lessoned" for "lessened" variety. And many sentences that would have been a lot clearer with thorough copy-editing. And this book as many other private investigator-paranormal romance hybrids does not fulfill the basic standard of sensibleness as far as the investigative activities of the main character--she kept on doing things that were so patently absurd that I occasionally lost sympathy. Finally, it is just not psychologically plausible, even if you do want to keep the romance component going, to have the narrator commenting on the beauty of the male villain & lusting after his body when he has her trapped (in the form of a mink) in a cage in his office. Yet all of these things were only very minor irritations, as the important stuff concerning character and voice was so strong--I bought the next two in the series at the same time, and if I were a sensible person I would keep them to read on my trip to Montreal (Shakespeare in the eighteenth century!) the week after next, they are really close to the perfect light reading. But also because they are such good light reading, it seems extremely likely that I will not be able to hold out so long. There's a cliffhanger for you....

Meghan O'Rourke in Slate

on the "literary dark horse" that is the Virginia Quarterly Review.

On an only vaguely related note, I have been consumed recently with the feeling that my true calling in life is to write essays! (Since I have equally been procrastinating on writing the actual essay that's next in the work queue, I am not sure that this is sensible--more like what you get when you're suffering the pains of worrying about novel-publishing and academic-book-finishing [I've got one more chapter and the introduction to write, but of course it's less fun writing the last 40% than the first 60%--like filling in the last pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, satisfying but not so brain-stretching...].)

A phonetic roadtrip

Tim Sultan in the New York Times.

Karen Joy Fowler on Octavia Butler

at (you do have to click through the ad, but it's worth it in this case). It's a really good short piece about Butler, but it also ends with this modest but explosive observation:

Last week, Dave Itzkoff, the new science fiction reviewer for the New York Times, created a stir on s.f. chat lists and blogs when he posted the titles of his 10 favorite books of science fiction. Since this list was never represented as more than an idiosyncratic selection of personal favorites, it's probably unfair to object. People must be allowed to like the books they like (however clear it is that the books we like are superior books) and I think (at least I think I think) it's better, even for reviewers, to be honest instead of politic about what they like.

And yet, with Butler's death still quite recent, quite raw, readers couldn't help noticing that the list is, among other things equally shocking but less to the point here, exclusively white, straight and male -- as the field of science fiction is not. If the New York Times ever asked the women of science fiction for our idiosyncratic, personal favorites, our lists would look quite different from Itzkoff's. No doubt they would also look quite different from each other's. Still, I think there are few among us who would not have included Octavia Butler in our top 10.

(Thanks to Gwenda for the link.)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Good things at the LRB

(no subscription required): Jenny Diski (whose writing I love) has an extremely good essay called The Housekeeper of a World-Shattering Theory, reviewing a biography of Sigmund Freud's wife Martha (the essay is distinctive for the extraordinary controlled anger of its voice, the anger being directed at the fact of the exceptional women of that and other generations having had to find their metier, out of some combination of temperament and necessity, in the role of enabling wife--and by the way, this is off topic but just something Diski throws in as an aside, did Princess Margaret really call cocaine "naughty salt"?!?); and see also Bee Wilson's quite wonderful piece about Stephen Youngkin's new biography of Peter Lorre. This is Wilson's opening paragraph:

He thought they looked like two soft-boiled eggs, others preferred to call them poached. Either way, any attempt to describe the appearance of Peter Lorre must deal with those eyes. What teeth are to Julia Roberts and lips to Angelina Jolie, his bulging eyes were to Peter Lorre, his unavoidable calling card and a feature quite out of proportion with the norm. He featured in Looney Tunes more than once as a caricature – just two vast eyes and a menacing whine. Many adjectives have been applied to Lorre’s eyes, but none is adequate to convey their peculiar intensity, the way they veered between kindness and madness, and the manner in which he made them protrude even further when he wrinkled his forehead and wiggled his ears, which he often did. Lorre, who enjoyed disconcerting strangers by staring them down, boasted that it was impossible to look into both his eyes at once. ‘When I worked with actors I liked,’ he reminisced, Humphrey Bogart being the chief example, ‘I taught them how to act with me: “Just pick one eye and look at it. The camera will never know the difference.”’

A fun review

by Alexis Soloski at the Voice (it includes the word "de-nippling") of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I am still annoyed I'm not going to be able to see this play....

Early in the fall semester

I checked out a lot of books about reading from the library, I was getting something and there I was in the appealingly labeled Z section (trust librarians to keep a really cool Library of Congress call number for the books most intensely related to their expertise...) and I checked out a lot of other stuff too. I think I had some vague idea I might write an essay about reading.

What I really wanted this evening was some truly light reading, an amazing young-adult fantasy novel for instance, but I couldn't seem to lay hands on anything appropriate (I've been reading Derrida, it's fantastic and enjoyable too but a brain-strain, I needed a bit of down time) so I was picking up and putting down different things and just now I read one of these books about reading.

I wanted to love it, but I didn't. (Possibly what's dawning on me is that I'm not going to agree with any of these books on reading, it is something I have strong opinions about, and will have to give in and write my own at the earliest opportunity--not likely to be particularly soon. However I did really love Victor Nell, and I adore Francis Spufford's book on reading, and I like a lot of other people's stuff too, it's just these philosophical essay-puffed-up-into-a-book things that rub me the wrong way.)

It's called Better Than Life--good title for a book about reading, eh?--by the French novelist Daniel Pennac; interestingly it's been translated by David Homel in a more interventionist way (I assume without having seen the original) than is common, references are to English-language and variously North American things ("the Ivy League," for instance--the edition I have was published in Toronto, anyway) though it was originally written in French. The acknowledgements end with this sentence: "The translator and the publisher thank Daniel Pennac for his permission to adapt certain aspects of this book."

Why I thought I would like it, other than the title: the chapter headings based on "The Reader's Bill of Rights." These are Pennac's rights (ignore mildly annoying split infinitives):

The Right to Not Read
The Right to Skip Pages
The Right to Not Finish a Book
The Right to Re-read
The Right to Read Anything
The Right to Escapism
The Right to Read Anywhere
The Right to Browse
The Right to Read Out Loud
The Right to Not Defend Your Tastes

Only unfortunately instead of it being the lovely defense of light reading I thought it would be, it turned out to be a heavily didactic fable about why children lose their early pleasure in reading and how it must be restored to them by charismatic teachers who, say, read aloud to their disaffected teenage students in a way that reclaims them for passionate reading. Rule-making in the guise of rule-breaking: I suppose the form of his list should have tipped me off.

Pennac's got good judgment about some of this, I guess (his pick for reading aloud to disenchanted teenagers: Patrick Suskind's truly amazing novel Perfume). But he is on the one hand condescending and anti-intellectual and on the other hand deeply elitist and prescriptivist in his tastes. He seems sure that Harlequin novels should lead you to War and Peace--never to look back.

This gives his list of rights a whiff of hypocrisy. Escapist reading is good--so long as it's by Robert Louis Stevenson. Skipping is fine--as long as you're a thirteen-year-old reading War and Peace but read it again when you're a grownup. It's fine not to like Henry James--but when you read him again you will understand why you didn't like him before even as you see and adore his genius. Henry James is amazing, War and Peace is amazing, so is Stevenson: I'm not knocking this guy's tastes (though really I feel I must get the French edition and see what the cultural particulars are that I'm missing! some of them may be the same as here, Stevenson I wouldn't be completely surprised about, but others must have been different...), but I don't like how it always has to lead to something better. Reading can be end-less in the sense of not having a point. Maybe it's not good always to read like that, but sometimes it's just the right thing.

I also of course am particularly annoyed by what seems a reflexive ritual conflation of interpretive reading with dullness. Here is Pennac:

Those of us who read and say we want to spread the love of reading, much of the time we'd rather be commentators, interpreters, analysts, critics, biographers, exegetes of works silences by our pious respect for their greatness. Imprisoned in the fortress of our expertise, the language of books is replaced by our own language. Instead of letting the intelligence of stories speak through us, we turn to our own intelligence and talk for the stories. We have stopped being the messengers of literature, and turned into the fervent guardians of a temple whose miracles we praise with the very words that close its doors. You must read! You must read!

(Yep, he's an unreconstructed romantic. And proud of it. And he quotes Rousseau, and makes the statutory advice about Rousseau's good theory and bad practice of child-rearing.)

Thoughts on this passage, which strikes me as completely dire:

1. I hope nobody ever thinks that I think of myself as the fervent guardian of a temple! How awful....

2. Yet how awful, too, to be a "messenger of literature"! Like some grotesquely sentimental illustration of an angel... I am a messenger of nothing in particular. But I like to think, and I like to read, and I like what happens when I open it up in the company of other people (by writing or by speaking) so that it's not a completely solitary pursuit. I think it is condescending to academics to think there's no way to do this and be interesting at the same time and to students/young people to suggest that they are only brainless consumers and that sheer pleasure in story is the only lure in. (What about, for instance, the love of language, the sound of words and sentences and so on? This doesn't seem to be on Pennac's list of things to worry about.)

3. When I personally say "You must read..." the words always are the introduction to something like "... the most amazing book in the world, you will die of delight when you see how good it is and how perfectly it is what you will love!" (Or perhaps slightly more moderate, but that kind of thing.) I feel this way about lots of books, and the "You" is in each case the particular person I'm talking to, not a general collective you. This distinction seems important. Pennac's "you" is a blurry collective; even his teenagers are stereotyped rather than particular (the Anorexic, the Punks, the Preppy, etc.--perhaps the translator's substitutions again?).

4. And that, finally, is the thing I really didn't like. This writer seems to feel himself distinctly other from the people he teaches--he speaks of them (the little boy in the beginning who has forgotten how to love reading, the teenagers in the classroom later on) as almost a different species from himself. Thus he is constantly setting himself up as the superior stage of development to which they may later aspire. It's not attractive (of course, as I say this I realize I've just written a hugely long post with an awful lot of I's, but what can you do....).

It seems to me very important for teaching as I understand it that there be something more democratic in the relationship between the person at the front of the room and the students facing--if you're teaching, it is with any luck true that you know more about certain things and have more experience thinking about them, but in the literature classroom at least you as teacher sacrifice something if you are not thinking with rather than thinking at.

And I do not think that "thinking with" is possible with this voice and this set of assumptions--witness the fact that Pennac has written a short and on the whole accessible book about reading and a certain kind of reader (the lukewarm readers he wants to reclaim for reading) that is itself entirely inappropriate as reading material for those readers, because it is so condescending. It's the parent's view, the teacher's view, the older generation's view, never the thinking-in-the-place-of-the-other-person way.

If I were that converted lukewarm reader, I would read this and feel injured by Pennac's missionary ability to ignore the particularity and point of view of his conjectural students. (I am not sure if he has actually done the teaching described here or not.)

Amidst all this heroic-romantic rhetoric of freedom from the stultifying factory-like processes of education, in other words, lurks an old-fashioned demagogue. I prefer the idea that teachers should be allowed to do things their own way. A fabulously good teacher--a teacher that lights up things in the heads of a lot of students--is an amazing thing. There should always be more of them, they are great. But not everybody is that kind of teacher, and it doesn't mean they're no good, either. I had a lovely chemistry teacher in high school, for instance. I won't say his name but he was completely uncharismatic and his classes were indeed rather dull; in a very progressive school where classes were often really pretty exciting and at any rate relatively sensibly conducted, he had us sit in the same seat in class every day for the entire year and coded us by color (for the class) and number (for the seat) so that he could grade our coded million-times-mimeographed multiple choice exams with an old-fashioned plastic template thing without being biased. (I was Blue Two. And the next year I worked as his assistant, which was pretty funny: I graded the tests and tutored various people in chemistry. I liked chemistry.)

But he loved his subject, and the few students who really did want to learn from him (it really was a pretty unexciting class, I'm afraid to say) would get this amazing thing, of having to discover the interior excellence--he loved his subject, he loved transmitting knowledge and understanding to someone who cared, he just didn't have the gift of always being able to do it in a large group--of someone who then in a strange way did turn out to be a very good teacher after all.

Enough said--more on Derrida, though, sometime in the next few days. I love that guy's stuff, it really gets me thinking--in fact a lot of this rambling is obliquely in response to things I was thinking about at the excellent seminar I attended this afternoon.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

An extremely smart post

on the problems with Slate's choices vis-a-vis serializing Walter Kirn's novel online at Brokentype. (And I will have to say--admittedly I am not the ideal serial reader, I want to read novels ALL AT ONCE--that I clicked through through past this page and then gave up in disgust at the format.)

Link via if:book/MetaxuCafe.

Downright mawk

From the postscript to Georges Perec's A Void (Gilbert Adair's translation of Perec's 1969 novel La Disparition--Adair's only disqualification as translator is that his name has an 'e' in it), the lipogrammatic book which Perec famously constrained himself to write without using the letter 'e':

I was thus to grasp a significant fact: that, just as, say, Frank Lloyd Wright built his own working and living conditions, so was I fashioning, mutatis mutandis, a proptotypical product which--spurning that paradigm of articulation, organisation and imagination dominant in today's fiction, abandoning for good that rampant psychologisation which, along with a bias towards mawkish moralising (in fact, not so much mawkish as downright mawk), is still for most critics a mainspring of our national gift for (or myth of?) "clarity" and "proportion" and "polish"--sought inspiration in a linguistic avant-gardism virtually unknown in this country, and for which no critic has a good word in so far as it's known at all, but which allows of a possibility of imitating, simulating and honouring a tradition that has brought forth a Gargantua and a Tristram Shandy and a Mathias Sandorf and a Locus Solus and (why not?) a Bifur or a Fourbis, books for which I had sworn undying admiration, without daring to harbour any illusions that I might possibly attain in any of my own works such jubilation and such fanciful humour, by dint of irony and wit, paradox and prodigality, by dint, in short, of an imagination knowing just how far to go too far.

The diction isn't as strange as in Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, which in some ways makes its effects more unsettling (the novel it reminds me of most is Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight): it's something like what happens to language in the kind of aphasia associated with damage to Wernicke's area.

Wednesday noir

First of all, check out Charlie Williams interviewed by Ray Banks at Allan Guthrie's Noir Originals site (there's lots of other great stuff there too, including Dave White's interview with Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime fame).

Thanks to the kind offices of Ken Bruen, I have just had an excellent correspondence with Cathi Unsworth, whose The Not Knowing I read recently and loved. She sent me a copy of her fascinating essay on Patrick Hamilton and Derek Raymond; I have a serious obsession with Raymond, but have never read Hamilton, though I've meaning to for a while (ever since I learned of his amazingly titled novel Hangover Square).

Cathi's essay appeared in an interesting-looking magazine called Strange Attractor (here's the table of contents for the issue, though the essay in question is not available online). At one point she gives the most amazing description of drinking ("like the effect on the body of good news, without the good news"!) from Hamilton's novel The Siege of Pleasure, the middle volume of a trilogy titled Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (Amazon UK only, I think):

A permeating coma, a warm haze of noises and conversation, wrapped her comfortably around – together with something more. What that something more was she did not quite know. She sat there and let it flow through her. It was a glow, a kind of premonition. It was certainly a spiritual, but much more emphatically a physical, premonition of good about to befall. It was like the effect on the body of good news, without the good news – a delicious short cut to that inconstant elation which was so arduously won by virtue from the everyday world. It engendered the desire to celebrate nothing for no reason.

I see that Hamilton's papers are held by the Ransom Collection at UT Austin (their bio includes the attractive typo "extra-martial affair," that's a good one--surely someone needs to do an edition of the unpublished stuff, including the incomplete manuscript of "Memoirs of a Heavy-Drinking Man"?). And here's a nice piece about Hamilton by Dan Rhodes for the Guardian.

Harold Pinter

interviewed by Michael Billington in the Guardian still has "a faith, a shaky faith, in the act of theatre."

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

So I was looking for a reference

and started leafing through my particular favorite Chester Himes novel Cotton Comes to Harlem, soon enough I was completely immersed in it and reading it with love and devotion. Himes makes in these books a Harlem of the mind, it is the most extraordinary thing: the language (its savagery, its humor), the people, the places, the intellectual force and the political rage and the sex and the funniness ... indescribable, really. However I never found the reference in the end. Perhaps it is in one of Himes's other novels? If you think of it, let me know: what I want is the moment where the narration lingers on the sound of a rooster crowing amidst city tenements.

Every page of this novel is bursting with energy and remarkable moments and phrases, but I'll just give one here as a taster, it's both typical and distinctive. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones stop by "a joint on East 116th Street called Spotty's, run by a big black man with white skin spots and his albino wife":

After years of bemoaning the fact that he looked like an overgrown Dalmation, Spotty had made a peace with life and opened a restaurant specializing in ham hocks, red beans and rice. It sat between a store-front church and a box factory and had no side windows, and the front was so heavily curtained the light of day never entered. Spotty's prices were too moderate and his helpings too big to afford bright electric lights all day. Therefore it attracted customers such as people in hiding, finicky people who couldn't bear the sight of flies in their food, poor people who wanted as much as they could get for their money, weedheads avoiding bright lights, and blind people who didn't know the difference.

And the other thing I've just read back through, also slowing down and speeding up depending on what caught my eye (I have dipped into this book many times before, I have bought several copies but always give them away because I love it so much and am yet again reading one from the library): Georges Perec's Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (very ably edited and translated by John Sturrock). This book is quite simply indispensable. It's on my short list of--what? Short list of most indispensable books, short list of books I'd ask students to buy for a creative writing class, short list of books that every writer should read.

It includes several of my favorite sort-of-frivolities ("Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die," "Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four") and a lot of more obviously serious and sometimes really moving stuff (though it's also almost always playful), some of which I'm going to be mining for an essay and won't discuss here. So I have confined myself to two passages that for some reason particularly resonated with me tonight.

The first, the final two paragraphs of Perec's essay about his analysis, "The Scene of a Stratagem":

Of the actual movement that enabled me to emerge from these repetitive and exhausting gymnastics, and gave me access to my own story and my voice, I shall only say that it was infinitely slow: it was the movement of the analysis it[s]elf, but I only found that out later on. First, the carapace of writing behind which I had concealed my desire to write had to crumble, the great wall of ready-made memories to erode, the rationalizations I had taken refuge in to fall into dust. I had to retrace my steps, to remake the journey I had already made but all of whose threads I had broken.

Of this subterranean place I have nothing to say. I know that it happened and that, from that time on, its trace was inscribed in me and in the texts that I write. It lasted for the time it took for my story to come together. It was given to me one day, violently, to my surprise and amazement, like a memory restored to its space, like a gesture, like a warmth I had rediscovered. On that day, the analyst heard what I had to say to him, what for four years he had listened to without hearing, for the simple reason that I wasn't telling it to him, because I wasn't telling it to myself.

And then, from the (surely tongue-in-cheek) weightily titled "Reading: A Socio-Physiological Outline"--this one of course makes me laugh:

A good ten years ago, I was dining with some friends in a small restaurant (hors d'oeuvres, plat du jour, cheese or dessert). At another table there was dining a philosopher who was already justly renowned. He was eating alone, while reading a cyclostyled text that was most likely a thesis. He read between courses and often even between mouthfuls, and my companions and I wondered ourselves what the effects of this double activity might be, what the mixture was like, what the words tasted of and what meaning the cheese had: one mouthful, one concept, one mouthful, one concept. How do you masticate a concept, or ingurgitate it, or digest it? And how could you give an account of the effect of this double nourishment, how describe or measure it?

If anyone knows who that philosopher was (or what kind of cheese he was eating), do please leave details in the comments. Or where I can find the rooster crowing in Himes.

Monday, March 13, 2006

A sensible piece on the Holy Grail-Da Vinci Code thing

by Tim Wu (an acquaintance of mine, and now a Columbia colleague as well) at Slate. But the passage that really intrigued me was this one (reminding me of why I could never be a law professor--I would always be haring off after irrelevancies):

Take the classic 1983 case of Blackie the Talking Cat. Blackie was a cat alleged to speak English, and his owner ran a business reliant on that ability. Based on Blackie's speaking abilities, the owner argued that it would violate the First Amendment to force him to register his business. The courts hearing the case proceeded under the assumption, as claimed, that the cat could indeed speak. Why? Well, how exactly is a court supposed to prove that a cat cannot actually speak? He might just not be in the mood. In the end, a federal court threw out the case not because of the ridiculous claim that the cat had free speech rights, but for other reasons-among them, that Blackie the cat should have brought his own lawsuit if he could 'speak for himself.'

Why have I never heard of this case before?!?

Lionel Shriver has a very funny essay

in the Guardian, about why it's a bad thing to win a major literary award. It's excellent, the tone is just right (in contrast to that Proulx piece from the end of last week). Thanks to Sarah for the link.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Adam Phillips on inspiration

in the Observer. At the end of the piece, they've got an interesting little collection of musings on inspiration by an unexpectedly wide range of writers and artists (including Steve Reich, Beth Orton and Mary Midgley). These words are from Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons:

What inspires me? A room, the people and sounds that might be in it, spirits and patterns of light, the past and the future awakening in the present, nature, tides of water and the movement of air, animals and the ways that they move, seeking greater freedom. To me, the creative process is a refuge that one hopes will always be there when you need it. Sometimes the more obvious places are less inspiring than the cramped or inopportune ones.

I have experienced a few really great moments in the course of my life, and most of them have been connected to the creative process, either my own or someone else's. You get a feeling that all the stars are aligned and suddenly reality shifts and embraces something that feels eternal. You look out from a moment like that and everything is as it should be. Even in terrible times, we are still offered that gracious gift of creativity, that possibility to transform, to dream of radical new solutions.

Finite subjective reality

So I really liked Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon, which I am interested to see was published by Tor Books in paperback in 1996, the 1995 edition I have from the library is published by Harcourt Brace (and here's the link for the recent reprint edition).

I am moderately ignorant about publishing things but I guess this means that science-fiction Tor bought the paperback rights from respectable/prestigious literary publisher Harcourt (sorry, those adjectives are oversimplifying, but you get the point). The reason I find this interesting (and one reason I find Lethem so compelling) is that I am completely torn between the two kinds of thing in the same way; for my first novel, the excellent independent press Soft Skull ended up really perfectly suiting me, they're great, but I have been thinking a lot recently (no, I don’t have any news yet about the fate of my new novel, but we’re making definite progress and I’ve got the agent thing sorted out finally) about the appeal of great-quality mass-market fiction versus the more mandarin and yet also often more boundary-pushing appeal of the literary-end stuff. I don’t know, no definite opinions on this or what will best suit me in the end, but Lethem has done a very good job straddling those worlds.

This novel reminded me of a number of others I have liked, Diana Wynne Jones’s Hexwood and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and also the wonderful (highly recommended by me, there is good reason this guy has a cult following) Set This House In Order: A Romance of Souls by Matt Ruff, a road novel about bodies and identities that has a certain amount in common with this one.

But the main thing I was thinking is that I would never in a million years have guessed if I were reading this when it came out in the mid-nineties that its author would go on to produce Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. Quite amazing.

There are occasional sequences of sentences here in which you get a sudden flash of Lethem-to-come:

Eyes too close together, forehead too narrow, smile all gum. You would have to have reasons for being friends with a face like that; the face itself didn't supply any. Chaos suspected he'd had reasons sometime in the past. Seeing the face again was like finding the same odd-looking rock on a beach twice.

Or a character speaking about the aliens-in-form-of-hive-intelligence that may or may not have taken over this world and telling the protagonist to "Think of it as a cancer":

Tumors, earth-tumors growing inside the houses, breaking through the basement floors, teeming with this unnatural alien life that can get inside your head, brainwash you, make you care about keeping them comfortable. Like being the butler of a tumor.

That’s a great line, isn’t it? I like the use of italics: "Like being the butler of a tumor."

But while I like the general vibe, the language isn’t extraordinary as in those later ones: in particular, the here-and-there wordplay struck me as clever rather than really imaginative (this post-apocalyptic San Francisco's neighborhoods, for instance, include the Submission and Ate Hashberry--too cute...).

There’s no doubt in my mind now that Lethem’s a fox rather than a hedgehog. That’s what I thought originally, but it’s useful to see it borne out. Of course although I would be the first to admit that some of the very, very best (maybe a higher proportion of the really great) novelists are hedgehogs (Kazuo Ishiguro is a hedgehog, even though his artistic program only comes clear around the publication of The Unconsoled, I was just ranting about this the other day to a former student of mine), all of my temperamental affinities are with the foxes. (NB Anthony Burgess.)

Here’s the relevant quotation, if you don’t know it, from Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox (and here's an anthology of Berlin’s writings that includes the full essay, if you're interested, as well as much other stuff worth reading):

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel--a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance--and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.

Jonathan Lethem is a fox who (oh god, this is awfully whimsical, it's the late-night-blogging effect I'm afraid) who in his youth loved hedgehogdom of a particularly powerful and cerebral kind but came to realize that it wasn’t going to suit him. This I have gathered from his collection of essays The Disappointment Artist; here was my post on first reading it, but I will quote the relevant passage again here. In the essay titled "The Beards" Lethem describes himself asking works of art "to be both safer than life and fuller, a better family," then plumbing them so deep that "many perfectly sufficient works of art would become thin, anemic":

This was especially true of anything that assumed a posture of minimalism or perfectionism, or of chilly, intellectual grandeur. Hence my rage at Stanley Kubrick, Don DeLillo, Jean-Luc Godard, and Talking Heads. The artists who'd seemed to promise the most were the ones who'd created art that stirred me while seeming to absent themselves from emotional risk--so these were the ones capable of failing my needs most violently. When I discovered their imperfections, my own hope of absenting myself from emotional risk seemed imperiled. It was as though in their coolness these artists had sensed my oversized needs and turned away, flinched from what I'd asked them to feel on my behalf.

Bonus discovery: the Lethem-edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia looks like something I certainly must get and read.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The art of biography

I've just finished reading a really amazing biography, beautifully written and wonderfully interesting as well, Jacques Roger's Buffon: A Life in Natural History (translated by Sarah Lucille Bonnefoi). It combines the virtues of the best kind of intellectual biography with the life-story-telling that makes biography so compelling (its pleasures akin to the novel's).

The thing I was most impressed with is the way Roger handles Buffon's vast corpus of writing. It's hard to describe, but Roger serves as Buffon's sympathetic but cool-headed advocate: he quotes at length when he needs to, situates those quotations by means of almost chameleonic paraphrase and yet with a wry turn of phrase of his own can show where Buffon is not being his best self.

Here's a paragraph from the epilogue, in which Roger describes Buffon's death and funeral (bookending the short chapter) and reflects on his life and work in summary:

Of what was he thinking, this dying man who received the last sacraments of his Church? We will never know: the last moments of a human life concern God only. What had he believed during his lifetime? Was he a Christian, a Deist, an atheist? This has been much debated. There are a hundred ways to believe or not believe. Is it legitimate to define a religious thought or sensibility as if it were not primarily the expression of an intellectual temperament? In the same way, is it possible to study a "scholar" or a "writer" as if he were not the same man who thinks, who seeks, who writes? Such examinations are useful, and we have already made them. Here, it is the deep forces of a personality and a temperament that we would like to reach before taking leave of an extraordinary man. This is a riskier attempt, since it entails finding a unity that perhaps did not really exist.

Interesting, eh?

The book of Roger's that I fell in love with a couple years ago was The Life Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought, the word "magisterial" is embarrassing and probably overused but this book really is the dictionary definition of magisterial and so interesting, it was written almost fifty years ago (though only translated into English more recently) and yet it has that freshness and lucidity of thought and style that makes a book feel like it's brand new. It would be a good desert-island read, it would sustain you in conditions of limited stimulus.

Deborah Solomon

meets her match in Harvey C. Mansfield, whose book Manliness is one I think I must read although it will make my blood boil.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

This post comes with a disclaimer

which is that almost everything to do with my home life as a teenager is a complete blur; things to do with school and reading and writing and music and such are all fairly clear, but I seriously can hardly remember anything (anything publishable...) about family life c. 1984-88.

(Whereas I vividly remember a huge number of reading experiences--for instance, one particularly clear one is me aged thirteen sitting on the bleachers at the playing fields on a very sunny day mesmerized by Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers [which you can get for one cent at Amazon, by the way, go for it] and desperately hoping not to be taken off the bench and put in to play the fourth quarter of the wretched lacrosse game, I consider it very forgiving of the coaches in retrospect to let me sit there reading like that as opposed to doing something more team-supporting. Or the same year reading Elizabeth Bishop for the first time and having it be completely mind-blowing; or Pynchon a few years later; or even things like algebra and geometry and physics which I can't remember the content of now but can easily relive my then-excitement about.)

So I was idly reading the Talk of the Town section in this week's New Yorker and got almost to the end of the Calvin Tomkins piece about painter Barnaby Furnas before having a sort of flashback moment. Here were the paragraphs that cued the memory and made me retroactively recognize the name:

Furnas surveyed the canvas and tried to explain how blood had become his motif. "Basically, I wanted to do history paintings, and battle paintings," he said. "But I was having trouble painting figures. I was particularly frustrated with the faces and the hands, and as a way of getting around that I'd paint someone being shot, and then I didn't have to worry. Like, I'm having trouble with this hand--splat! And that was interesting. It's red paint, and it's also blood. And then I was off and running, because it became like a game to me. When I was a kid, growing up in a kind of ghetto commune in Philadelphia, I would do elaborate battle pictures. I'd lie on the floor with my little pencil and draw all these men and cannons. I could just set it all up and then actually shoot--fire the guns, play it. That's still the basic idea here. You pour red paint and have this incredible formalist experience, and you can also play the picture. You've got a foot in both worlds. It's really happening."

"And he was raised by a Quaker," Boesky observed. "Which adds to the naughtiness." Furnas's naughtiness has deep roots. As a teen-ager in Philadelphia, he was arrested so often for spray-painting graffiti in subway tunnels that he had to do a thousand hours of community service--most of which took the form of scrubbing off graffiti.

It was the words "a kind of ghetto commune in Philadelphia" that first caught my attention, and then "raised by a Quaker" clinched it. I was fortunately not raised in a ghetto commune, but I did grow up in Philadelphia, and was also raised by a Quaker: and Barnaby Furnas was in fact the guy who started the whole graffiti thing in the Davidson household (literally in the house, I mean; I do not imagine that he introduced the house's inhabitants to graffiti). In the end the walls of my brothers' rooms were really almost completely black with tags, at least in the places where you could reach to write. But it started when (with some vague parental consent--I believe our mother who was always a good sport and a supporter of the arts in whatever form they took may have actually paid for the spray-paint) Barnaby painted these huge sort of mural-y things in one (in both?) rooms, I expect the guys were all in seventh grade. Psychedelic toadstools and hookah-smoking things, artful puffs of smoke stenciled (if I am remembering correctly) with the ingenious assistance of a hubcap. And then somehow everybody started coming over to do graffiti all the time, or if you were just kind of lying around in there watching TV you would idly pick up a pen and start scrawling--I don't like the politics of the "broken windows" school of policing but there is no doubt that it's distinctly disinhibiting once there's one tiny little mark. The original mural got almost covered over with tags, and the rooms were painted (and re-tagged) several times over in my admittedly vague memory before they reached their present--more civilized--incarnation. I wonder if there is photographic documentation?

(Barnaby's father was a much harder-core Quaker than our mother was, so I am not surprised about this whole war thing, there is no doubt that war and violence and toy soldiers and that sort of thing was much more taboo than anything on the whole, you know, ah, "let's get multiple piercings, start shooting up and then clean up our act and become known as gay S/M performance artists" type thing, which in other circles would be more obviously transgressive but in these ones really quite respectable, especially if you were an activist.)