Thursday, August 31, 2006

Did everyone other than me

already know that Jeffrey Archer has a blog?!? I am not sure I've ever read one of his novels, but I've been interested in him ever since reading the pretty much work-of-genius-y profile of Archer in Iain Sinclair's altogether brilliant and demented Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London, a book I highly recommend if you like the stranger end of place-writing.

(Thanks to Frank for the tip.)

Great Jones!

Now up at the Voice (that fun title, by the way, was not mine but the brainchild of the literary genius behind the Dizzies): my review of Edward P. Jones's latest story collection. All Aunt Hagar's Children is a book I think everyone must read, at least if you are at all serious about literature or about life; this guy is one of the great geniuses of our time, I find reading his stuff a quite extraordinary experience. It's only a handful of writers who give me quite this feeling of the humanity and warmth of the characters (even though many of these stories are quite bleak); I really felt as I was reading this the same thing that draws me back again and again to my particular can't-live-without-them favorites (Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows, James Baldwin's Just Above My Head, Barbara Trapido's novels, David Copperfield).

FSG goes into the trailer business

Check it out. The book in question is Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest, translated by Lorin Stein. It sounds very good, I am curious (it also sounds vaguely reminiscent of Harry Mathews' My Life in CIA, which I read the first half of this summer & then had to return to the library--it wasn't that I didn't like it, I did, but something about its cool clinical masculinity struck me as ever-so-slightly offputting, and I have not quite bothered to request it again at the library). However I will not hold this against Bouillier. . . .

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

At the TLS

Siddhartha Deb on William Boyd's new novel Restless. I love Boyd's fiction, he is sometimes a bit Anthony Burgess-like i.e. writing novels of variable quality but at his best he's absolutely what I love: Armadillo is the perfect literary-light reading hybrid (and also one of English-language literature's great novels of insomnia); Brazzaville Beach is my favorite novel about chimpanzees and human society (it's really a great read, excellent female character too, reminds me of some of those Iain Banks books I like so much).

Also of note: Dinah Birch on Philip Waller's book about literary afterlives in late Victorian Britain; and Victor Brombert on Frederick Brown's Flaubert biography (I've got to get that one, it sounds great and I've got a thing for Flaubert in any case).

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

On Katrina

Poppy Z. Brite has an op-ed at the Boston Globe:

As a New Orleans native planning to spend the rest of my life in this half-drowned but still vibrant city, I'm scared to address you. A year after Hurricane Katrina, I'm scared that you've forgotten me or are sick of me or think I'm stupid to keep living in a place that almost killed me.

I'm a great admirer of Brite's fiction; her blog's also been my clearest and most persistent means of understanding Katrina and its aftermath.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Michiko Kakutani really, really doesn't like

Jonathan Franzen's memoir.

Back from the country

where I saw mummified cats and crocheted poodle-shaped vodka-bottle cozies in an interesting museum and also more generally hung out in nature and stuff, watched two lamb carcasses be dismembered and marinated in a bathtub and roasted in a pit, etc. etc.

Miscellaneous desirable books at the Guardian: William McIlvanney's new novel Weekend, reviewed by Irvine Welsh (my Scottish grandfather was a great detective-novel addict, his house was full of books in any case but the cupboards were bursting with old green Penguin crime novels in particular, and one of his very favorite writers--someone whose novels he pressed on me in the last couple years of his life--were McIlvanney's Laidlaw books); and Nigel Smith's new edition of Marvell for Longman, which Nicholas Lezard praises to the skies.

I've got a total thing for Marvell, I think I would have to say that Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop are my two favorite poets (I have very mainstream tastes in poetry, nothing surprising there--of course I love Swift's poetry and Byron & Keats & Shelley & such, whatever...), and this edition really sounds excellent.

My favorite Marvell poems include Upon Appleton House and The Mower Against Gardens (the latter makes a brief appearance in my breeding book, though in the midst of a long section on grafting that I am 99% sure I am going to have to cut almost in its entirety, ah well....); but I have a special passion for the less well-known poem called A Dialogue between the Soul and Body, which I am going to paste in here because it is so extraordinary:


O, WHO shall from this dungeon raise
A soul enslaved so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as 'twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortured, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart?


O, who shall me deliver whole,
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretched upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same),
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possessed.


What magic could me thus confine
Within another's grief to pine?
Where, whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain;
And all my care itself employs,
That to preserve which me destroys;
Constrained not only to endure
Diseases, but, what's worse, the cure;
And, ready oft the port to gain,
Am shipwrecked into health again.


But Physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach;
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear;
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred's hidden ulcer eat;
Joy's cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow's other madness vex;
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego;
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Emperor's Children

So I read Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children this week in hundred-page chunks, and it's a really excellent novel, wonderfully enjoyable and intelligent and interesting (and rather like the novel that On Beauty should have been but wasn't). In contrast to Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen, Messud has a really lovely empathy for her characters, so that the satirical impulse is softened or mitigated by this very intelligent understanding and refusal--temperamental disinclination might be a better way of putting it--to judge. I like that a lot.

Anyway, this book's being reviewed all over the place, I won't bother to link except to this very interesting interview with Michelle Huneven in LA Weekly. And here's a paragraph of prose that shows Messud at her very best (this character is the one we feel closest too, I think--but I must say that the character of Marina Thwaite is extraordinarily well-drawn, and the reactions of those around her to her combination of privilege and annoyingness amazingly true to things I have seen myself), thirty-year-old Danielle Minkoff is at home in her apartment just after her secret lover (her best friend Marina's father, eminent journalist Murray Thwaite) has gone:

When he had left, Danielle lay on her bed, which smelled of them and faintly, too, of the gin-and-tonic cologne, and she thought first of Marina, and of what would have to be kept from her now. Danielle had never before had a secret that she couldn't confide in anyone, but this, she knew, was such a secret. She couldn't tell Randy, even, who so wanted her daughter to find love. If that was what she had found. She held in her mind two disparate realities: one was the fierce tenderness she felt for this disintegrating giant, the joy at his small kindnesses and vulnerabilities, the sense--overwhelming and surely false, even she could see--that she could anticipate all of them, that, like a blind person, she had developed some extra sense, where he was concerned, and could practically finish his sentences. The other was a certainty of wrong, a moral repugnance. This she experienced abstractly, with her mind; it was, consequently, the weaker of the two realities. She was fascinated by the internal conflict, or by the notion of it, because in truth, she didn't really contemplate renouncing him. The disgust was an idea, something she knew she ought to conjure, the way an autistic child can learn to smile at his mother to show happiness. Her bones, her flesh, the tickle of her scalp and the pads of her fingertips all spoke without prompting a chorus of desire. Pressed to his chest she'd felt safe and exhilarated at once, as if swept by a great internal breeze; and there seemed little point telling herself that this was immoral. Marina--or even Annabel--didn't come into it. This in the space of a week or two. She'd become a person she would never have anticipated being.

Four slightly irrelevant observations/criticisms:

1. My friend M. aptly observed that it is a pity Messud's three college friends are said to have gone to Brown, since they are clearly Yale types! (The narcissism of small differences. But it creates a minor implausibility.)

2. The character of Bootie doesn't work for me. This type is a particular one that I feel I know fairly well, the clever and idealistic and unappealing and frankly rather frightening teenage male misfit, and I don't think he's nearly as plausibly characterized as the book's other major figures. This is the novel's only significant flaw.

3. The description of the death of the cat called the Pope is uncannily good, and was for me the one part of the book where I suddenly felt like I was in my world, I knew exactly this cat and he lived in a similarly spacious Morningside Heights apartment and his demise was late and awful. Oh, that poor Hobbes! He was an Abyssinian of very strong personality and small size, skin and bone (those vertebrae!) by the time I knew him, and Messud's description of the Pope brought him painfully strongly to mind. RIP Hobbes.

4. The strangest thing for me reading this book is that although on the face of it it's about a world awfully much like the one I live in, I find it absolutely alien and estranging. If I experienced life in the way these characters seem to I would be in absolute despair! It is utterly off-putting. I was reminded of why I do not feel like I'm really an Upper West Side-type person, really my spiritual home is somewhere within walking distance of the Houston Street 1 station, this novel's world is that Hannah and Her Sisters Woody Allenesque world of privilege and spacious Upper West Side apartments and it is really unsavory.

Strangely the book I've just read that felt much more exactly like the world I live in, and want to live in, was Edward P. Jones's All Aunt Hagar's Children. (I won't say more now, my review is coming out shortly & I'll link when it's up, but Jones is in my opinion one of the couple great fiction-writing geniuses of our time. So I'm not knocking Messud, just saying that her writing doesn't give me the sense of great spiritual and intellectual openness that I get from Jones.)

Stage fright

John Lahr has a great essay on stage fright in the New Yorker issue of 28 August 2006; it's not available online, unfortunately, but here's the link for some of his other articles. Did everyone other than me know that Carly Simon has such bad stage fright that "she has been known to take the stage in tight boots, to jab her hand with clutched safety pins, and even, just before going on, to ask band members to spank her"?

At a celebration for President Bill Clinton's fiftieth birthday, at Radio City Music Hall, in 1996, Simon, terrified of following Smokey Robinson, invited the entire horn section to let her have it. 'They all took turns spanking me,' she says. 'During the last spank the curtain went up. The audience saw the aftermath, the sting on my face. I bet Olivier didn't do that.'

I like the idea of the fact-checker contacting the members of the horn section and asking them about the time they spanked Carly Simon....

It seems to me that there's a very fine line between the adrenaline rush you need to produce a good performance and the incapacitating stage fright that keeps someone like Stephen Fry from doing theater work these days. You have to like working on sheer nerve in order to thrive as a performer, but obviously the terrifying part is that one day all the accommodations you've made and that have served you well over the years suddenly stop working. It's beyond any rationality, and it's clearly often almost impossible to get over that kind of a collapse.

I do want

to read Mark Haddon's new novel, it sounds rather delightful. I loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, parts of it were so funny that I was almost in tears.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Just a quick one

to say that I've had a most perfect two-for-two theater-and-dinner evening (I know it is frivolous to rank the dinner with the play, a really good play will certainly carry a bad dinner, and yet it is also true that a terrible play can be assuaged by an excellent dinner afterwards--I remember my friend A. in college, one of my many friends A., very seriously explaining why he thought the whole symposium idea distasteful, intellectual conversation should not be sullied by the materiality of food and drink, and while I quite see the point of his youthful belief I think that surely the two things--in this case art rather than philosophy, of course--are compatible). If you're in NY you must see this play while it's still on, the tickets are amazingly only $15: it's August Wilson's Seven Guitars at the Signature Theatre (and you know, I almost said I couldn't go because of work, it is a lesson in not turning down opportunities--fortunately I came to my senses in the nick of time after realizing I had never seen an August Wilson play & that this was ridiculous).

It's a magically good play, it's got that great noir thing going on so that you think a lot about character and free will and determinism (and the counterbalance between the character of Hedley with his fallen mythic legacy and Floyd with his desperately ambitious and continually thwarted upward mobility is totally amazing, that's what makes the whole thing work); and the production is amazing too, beautiful set and amazingly good acting. Lance Reddick is perfect as Floyd; but there is this moment when Roslyn Ruff as Vera, who we have only seen as a wary and almost sullen woman, finally relaxes enough to trust Floyd again and you suddenly see in her what these men who love her have seen and what they also have taken away from her so that the audience has hardly caught a glimpse of her charm as it has been beaten down into suspicion, it is an acting moment of great genius as well as an acutely-well-timed-in-the-arc-of-the-play moment.... Anyway, trust me, it's superb, see it if you can.

And then the also perfect dinner afterwards at Esca, I had an heirloom-tomato-and-arugula salad with some sort of cheese crumbled over and then a small but absolutely delicate sashimi-style mackerel crudo, everything just tastes exquisitely as it should & like what you most want to eat in the world.

(But August Wilson is better than dinner.)

Monday, August 21, 2006

The hysterical five-dollar bill

J. D. Daniels has an excellent essay about Philip K. Dick up at Kitchen Sink Magazine. Just go and read it, it's pretty indescribable, but I think this is my favorite bit: "What's the matter with garbage? I would rather re-read The Essential Captain America Vols. 1 & 2 than the collected works of haut-garbage comic-fanboys Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon, for the simple reason that I prefer to drink my toilet water straight from the toilet." I don't think I agree with the sentiment, in fact I definitely don't, but I like that last part of the sentence, it's unexpected and rather brilliant!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Swimming to Antarctica

I took half an hour off earlier this evening (I had an extremely productive day, though I fear I am about to go temporarily AWOL and read a novel) to read a slender and altogether attractive book, Lynne Cox's Grayson, which tells the story of Cox's encounter (when she was an already world-famous seventeen-year-old long-distance swimmer) with a baby gray whale who had temporarily lost his mother.

It's a modest story, told in unassuming language (occasionally the prose becomes flat or overly naive, and there are a few inspirational sentences here and there that I would have Xed out if I were in charge), but I cannot imagine who will not be struck and delighted by its absolutely lovely vision of things. (Well, perhaps that's part of it being a bit too idealistic--and you have to be a staggeringly good writer to get away with the lines about positive thinking, sending thoughts to the mother whale, etc. without making the reader's eyes roll a little, even the sympathetic reader.) And yet with all these caveats I still absolutely loved it; I think it's a little too slow-paced to work for actual reading aloud to a child, but it would make a great one to retell in nightly installments, and I also can imagine a gorgeous spinoff picture-book....

I read Cox's Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer a few years ago, and absolutely loved it, it really is genuinely inspiring and I think everyone should read it, particularly if you've taken on a big project (a dissertation!) that you're finding rather daunting. Here's a short excerpt from the New Yorker article that was also one of the book chapters; take a look and you'll see what I mean, she's got this very calm and joyful way of approaching near-impossible tasks that really makes me happy when I think about it.

There's some wonderfully good writing in Grayson about various sea creatures, but best of all are the descriptions of the baby whale's movement through the water (you can really hear Cox watching and thinking about her own swimming, it's very cool--I want her to write an essay that talks in more technical ways about the actual swimming stuff, I think she must be one of those writers who needs some steering in order for her prose to come to life, she's got so much to say that I hope she writes more books):

His head moved won into the water, the top of it tracing a U. His body followed his head until he reached the bottom of the U, then he slightly arched his back and did an enormous kick with his fluke. That kick thrust his body forward and he slid through the water cleanly with a circle of tiny waves surrounding his upper body. His dolphin kick was beautiful and efficient, and he was totally balanced in the water.

He swam the most beautiful butterfly I had ever seen, but instead of pulling his flippers up over his head, which he wasn't built to do, he kept his pectoral flippers by his sides, using them for steering and turning. He deepened the sideways U by diving deeper with the thrust of his fluke.

Oh, and on a related note, David Foster Wallace has an interesting essay about Roger Federer and the nature of athletic genius in this Sunday's NYT magazine. (Thanks to Ed for the recommendation, I had clicked on it earlier but almost on principle I do not like reading those multi-page Times stories unless the first installment is absolutely gripping; I was glad, though, when I went back and read through all the segments, there were some parts I'd hate to have missed.)

This is the kind of sports-writing I most admire: when I taught composition classes in grad school, I did a unit on cultural criticism that was actually almost entirely sports-related (and it was just as well, about 95% of the students in the particular class I'm thinking of were athletes, this was a good way of meeting on middle ground since I am sorry to say I know virtually nothing about any sport). Hazlitt's remarkable essay "The Indian Jugglers" is the classic exemplar, but there's a ton of other good stuff (I remember I had Bill Buford on football hooligans, Nick Hornby on the psychology of fandom, C. L. R. James on cricket and a very appealing essay by Malcolm Gladwell on physical genius).

On annotation

You may vaguely know about the circumstances in which Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein; they're chronicled in the rather bad Ken Russell movie called Gothic (1986), basically Mary and Percy Shelley and Byron and Dr. Polidori were all cooped up in a villa and told ghost stories to amuse themselves during what Mary Shelley described (writing in the introduction to the novel's 1831 edition) as "a wet, ungenial summer" in which "incessant rain often confined us to the house." But the editor of the authoritative scholarly edition of Frankenstein offers the most extraordinary footnote to this, I can't decide at all whether it's absolutely delightful or utterly pedantic; it cites two contemporary sources (one of which describes this period as "a week of rain," the other--Polidori's diary--suggesting the rain began on 8 June 1816), then says, "The wet summer was the result of climatic changes caused by the eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia." ?!? How great. I don't think I would recommend this as a model for annotation, and yet there is something wonderful about it. I am going to try and fit it into conversation at the next available opportunity: "Did you know that the rain that kept Mary Shelley indoors and telling ghost stories with Byron and Shelley and Polidori and ultimately writing Frankenstein was actually spurred by the eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia?"

I am irresistibly reminded of the "Did you know . . .?" format of the back-cover copy for the Let's Go travel guides as of the early nineties. I've got an allusion to this in my travel-guide novel, but there was no way (or no reason) to fit in there my particular memory of a conversation I had about those "Did you know . . .?"s the summer I worked as an assistant editor for one of the guides. I of course have a passion for the macabre, especially in its most medical incarnations; we all had to come up with some suggestions (frugal, appealing) for the back-cover copy, and my best suggestion concerned the excellent Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, where you can see the tumor removed from Grover Cleveland's jaw. I have no idea what the admission price was in those days, but you can imagine the sort of thing I had in mind: "Did you know that for $2.50 you can see the tumor . . .?"

This did not go over well, needless to say (it was actually one of those moments where you have a revelation about your utter lack of ability/interest in fitting in to a more or less corporate publishing world!); the idea was thoroughly condemned by my colleagues, especially as one of our office-mates--a guy called Ravi Desai, a very bright and well-liked Harvard undergraduate--had been diagnosed earlier in the summer with cancer and had to take significant time off from Let's Go for chemotherapy and other treatment. And yet that diagnosis was also attended with other peculiar details--I was not friends with the guy, and I was congenitally skeptical (this will make me sound awful, which I think I am not, but trust me that there was something over-the-top about it) about the particular ways in which he seemed to be manipulating the natural good wishes of others to accommodate him in his illness. I remember my friend L. mentioning to me a few years later that Ravi (who she'd been very close to) had, you know, bravely joked to her that the one good thing about chemotherapy was that though he was overwhelmed with nausea much of the time, the doctors had told him it was important to get enough calories and that he shouldn't worry if most of them came in the form of alcohol, i.e. if he could keep down a few gin and tonics it was better than nothing. I didn't say anything, but it struck me as quite implausible; and then the strangest story came out some years later, in which it emerged that Ravi had become a bizarre-slash-tragic-slash grifterish figure of some notoriety (here's another related story). It is a sad story, I cannot imagine what was going through his head; I heard last year that he died, and I have no wish to reflect on his memory other than to say that it seems likely that his tall tales arose more from good intentions and self-delusion than from any malice, despite their no doubt destructive consequences for others in his life. RIP.

But all this was also the long way round to me having a brief in-the-middle-of-it rave about the wonderfully good horse-racing anthology Bloodlines (edited by Jason Starr and Maggie Estep, and forthcoming from Vintage in September) I've been dipping into when I need a quick fiction fix but don't have time for a novel. The quality of the stories and articles (it's a mix of fiction and non-fiction, an unorthodox but on the whole interesting choice) is uniformly high, it opens with a highly Dick Franciscan tale from my favorite Lee Child for instance, but I fell absolutely in love with a story by Maggie Estep. I've been meaning to read her crime fiction for a while (I thought that hers and Ken Bruen's were by far the best two stories in the Brooklyn Noir collection). Now I need to make it a top priority, because guess what? Her story's about a professional thief who finds himself watching the race on TV one afternoon for an interesting reason:

He wouldn't even be watching the race if he didn't desperately need to clear his mind. Where some folks went in for massages, yoga, or Valium to steady themselves, Harry looked at racehorses. It rendered him capable of great things. And he needed to be capable just then. He'd been hired by a gentleman collector to steal President Grover Cleveland's jaw tumor from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Harry had never burglarized a museum, and while the Mutter, a museum of medical curiosities, didn't have a traditional museum's level of security, it was still a lot trickier than a common house. Harry had agreed to the job because the collector, who'd gotten Harry's number from Harry's lone friend, Nick, had offered twenty K. Harry planned to use the money to send Samantha to a posh rehab. He didn't want her drinking herself to death or getting stabbed in one of the barroom catfights she was fond of starting while under the influence.

Pretty great, eh? I strongly suggest that you get hold of this one if you like crime stories or have an interest in racing, it's a good one: other contributors include Bruen, Laura Lippman, Scott Phillips, Jonathan Ames, Charlie Stella and many other writers of note.

At the Storytellers Unplugged blog

Justine Musk offers notes on the hunt for an agent. (Via MetaxuCafe.)

Vollmann's meat locker

Matt Thorne interviews William T. Vollmann at the Independent Online. I must confess I have never read any Vollman, but Europe Central sounds very appealing. I like long books, especially when you need to take something on a trip but don't want to pack your bag full of volumes. I am still grateful to Cryptonomicon for lasting me pretty much both ways on an interminable but cheap weekend round-trip to New Orleans while I was promoting my first novel; I had been saving it for exactly this purpose, started it on Friday morning as I began my travels and finished it on Sunday evening just as the train from Newark airport pulled in to Penn Station. It was perfect.

More Messud

Gaby Wood talks to Claire Messud at the Guardian. Hmmm, I really want to read this novel; but first I must (re)read Frankenstein, Tristram Shandy and three novels by Jane Austen, plus skim about twelve miscellaneous books about the concept of species, Hippocratic medicine in the eighteenth century, evolutionary thinking, etc. etc., plus get a start on two books I'm reviewing at the beginning of September for the Voice. Also I am interested (impractically--I fear this is a damaging admission!) in reading some Sebald to see if it gives me any ideas technique-wise for improving--perfecting!--my insane chapter on the perfectibility problem. Rather uncharacteristically I'm going out of town--indeed, to the actual countryside--this coming weekend; perhaps I could justify bringing Messud with me for pleasure-reading....

Saturday, August 19, 2006

At the Observer Food Monthly

Alexander McCall Smith on the stodgy colonial food of his African childhood (tripe and onions, that sickly sweet pink-and-white coconut ice that I remember making and eating as a child...).

The NYTBR reviewer

thinks that Irvine Welsh's latest--'The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chef'--is "extraordinarily bad":

Although it fails at every imaginable level — metaphysical, ethical, technical, thematic — it is at the stylistic level, the level of the sentence, that Welsh’s novel is most wanting. The prose throughout is lazy, cliché-ridden and exhaustingly repetitive. In the novel’s first 80 pages, for instance, we are introduced to characters who have, variously, “sensitive, even womanly” eyes, “penetrating dark brown eyes,” “intense blue eyes,” “busy, big brown eyes,” “bloodshot eyes,” “hard, penetrating eyes,” “big, camel eyes,” “dead, sunken eyes” and “sharp, clear eyes.” By this point, the reader is rubbing his astonished, appalled eyes in disbelief, convinced that some meta-joke must be occurring — that this must surely be bad writing with a higher purpose.

It is not. Even when he is writing about physical sensation, one of his specialities, the clichés multiply and the repetitions repeat themselves. Humiliation “twisted like a knife” in the chest of a character named Kay; 50 pages later, a dagger “seemed to twist deep inside” an anxious Skinner. Early in the novel, Kibby feels a “bolt of fear.” Fifty pages later a realization strikes Kibby’s father like a “stark, bitter bolt.” Nine pages after that, panic strikes Skinner like — what else? — “a bolt of lightning.” Welsh also has an unfortunate fondness for adverbs, such that each verb is consummated by its cliché-making qualifier: a report is “meticulously prepared,” a lover “dozed blissfully,” a person “took his cue gratefully,” someone else “doggedly persevered.”

None of this, it should be made clear, is evidence of the free indirect style at work. Nor is this flattened and hopeless prose mimetic of the flattened and hopeless characters it is describing. Nor is this what George Orwell fondly called good bad writing. This is bad bad writing. There are tautologies (offices that are “unobtrusively tucked away”). There are mixed metaphors (the “bull of a man” whose frame was “going to seed”). There are mistakes — the use of the word “diligently” where “carefully” is meant. And there are unfortunate ambiguities, as when Welsh describes Kibby’s erection as “poking through the material of his trousers.” We must assume either that Welsh means “showing through,” or that Kibby has an unusually sharp phallus.

Now I really am curious, I must read this one! Can it really be that bad? (Perversely nice, at any rate, to see a really vituperative review like this, it cannot hurt Welsh's career and too often the Times errs on the side of blandness. The reviewer is Robert Macfarlane, a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge--hmmm, it is true it would have been surprising if this scathing treatment had come from the hands of an American....)

Friday, August 18, 2006

At the Guardian Review

Hilary Mantel persuades me of something I knew already, that I must get and read Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me as soon as possible; also, Jane Stevenson writes about her Margery Allingham obsession. I too have an Allingham obsession, there is something uncanny about those books and I have read them again and again in every stage of life. The best of them are absolutely unforgettable: I wish I had a complete set, I would reread them all (barring a few that I have already reread so many times that there is no need to revisit) and it would transport me to that foggy malevolent world (sometimes it's London, sometimes East Anglia or elsewhere; she does country and city both very well, as Stevenson observes here) with its strange combination of interests (pure evil and demented playfulness). Hmmm....

I like these stories

about people publishing their first novels later in life. I am so fond of novels that really I think anyone who has any urge whatsoever should have the experience of writing one! (Nonfiction is good too.)

It's like long-distance running, there is of course a great difference between the people who really do it very seriously and well and the people who run a marathon once or twice just so they can feel that they have done it and yet it still seems to me good that the latter exist and that it has become so democratic. I read two books recently about training to run a marathon and it was comical what different approaches they took (differences that informed everything right down to the physical artifact of the book, it was most interesting--this one's the hard-core guy and this one's the softie--not recommended, it is one of those non-books that I would never have bought in an actual bookstore, it's a bit of a lesson about ordering things online...).

My Cambridge friend A. excitingly persuaded me earlier in the summer that I should run the half-marathon with her in Miami at the end of January, and I am determined to do it. I'm taking a running class that I am hoping will magically transform me from, you know, the slowest runner in the world to something more like a very steady slow runner who has no problem running thirteen miles. I actually think this is totally feasible, I have been running 4-5 miles on the treadmill and feeling at the end like I could keep on doing it for quite a while longer. I had a mildly harrowing outdoor run yesterday in Riverside Park, the actual running part was good though rather hot but I ignored a confusing detour sign and found myself cowering in fear of death (I am only slightly exaggerating--there was no actual danger, but it was one of those reptile-brain-type situations where your ancestors on the savannah would have been dropping to their stomachs and crawling along the ground and praying) about 2 inches from the right-hand lane of the West Side Highway with only the tiniest of barriers between, and then on the way back I also sort of got confused about how to navigate the switch back up to my part of the park and it was not good! This guy has a wonderfully obsessive running site with maps and routes and distances, I am going to have to plan my trip better in advance next time. Expect occasional updates here in any case on the running thing, it gives me accountability now that I have told hundreds of people that I am going to do it.

Also at the FT: a tantalizing review of Claire Messud. If I can read the, you know, five other books I most particularly have to read by tomorrow evening, perhaps I will have late-night Messud reading as a reward....

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Lab report

Alexis Soloski reviews Marivaux's THE DISPUTE at the Voice; here were my thoughts last week. (Oh, and in other news, a heads-up on something I don't think I'm going to be able to see but that sounds great: a Fringe Festival show called A Small Hole that's a demented Sadean adaptation of Mansfield Park.)

Inspirational thoughts #2

In the spirit of a post I wrote about Plato in June, a few motivational words from Locke (who is surely the least inspirational philosopher imaginable, though when he's in physician mode he falls very comfortably into advice-giving of the "let your child run around with holes in his shoes in the winter so that he becomes inured to cold by way of a soaking in icy water, and do not by any measure let him eat summer fruit" type--he sounds pretty bossy here too, come to think of it, though of course I like it very much indeed):

How Men, whose plentiful Fortunes allow them leisure to improve their Understandings, can satisfy themselves with a lazy Ignorance, I cannot tell: But methinks they have a low Opinion of their Souls, who lay out all their Incomes in Provisions for the Body, and employ none of it to procure the Means and Helps of Knowledge; who take great care to appear always in a neat and splendid outside, and would think themselves miserable in coarse Cloaths, or a patched Coat, and yet contentedly suffer their Minds to appear abroad in a pie-bald Livery of coarse Patches, and borrowed Shreds, such as it has pleased Chance, or their Country-Tailor, (I mean the common Opinion of those they have conversed with,) to cloath them in.

All I can think, though, is that Swift so had been reading Locke. . . .

There is something so refreshing

about the way Locke thinks of things, both his thoughts and his language are like flinging a window wide open and blowing out the cobwebs from the corners of a stuffy room. I especially love the science-fiction-y aspect, he comes up with these thought-experiment-type observations that are really quite delightful:

. . . Mankind have fitted their Notions and Words to the use of common Life, and not to the truth and extent of Things. For 'tis certain, that in reality, the Relation is the same, betwixt the Begetter, and the Begotten, in the several Races of other Animals, as well as Men: But yet 'tis seldom said, This Bull is the Grandfather of such a Calf; or that two Pidgeons are Cousin-Germains. It is very convenient, that by distinct Names, these Relations should be observed, and marked out in Mankind, there being occasion, both in Laws, and other Communications one with another, to mention and take notice of Men, under these Relations . . . Whereas in Brutes, Men having very little or no cause to mind these Relations, they have not thought fit to give them distinct and epculiar Names. . . . And 'tis no wonder Men should have framed no Names for those Things, they found no occasion to discourse of. From whence it is easy to imagine, why, as in some Countries, they may not have so much as the Name for a Horse; and in others, where they are more careful of the Pedigrees of their Horses, than of their own, that there they may have not only Names for particular Horses, but also of their several Relations of Kindred one to another. (II.xxviii)

And you know, I don't often (ever?) write about matters political here, I am reasonably ill-informed and have no desire to hold forth opinionatedly about things that others have much more authority to speak of, but it's impossible not to remember while reading Locke that he's coming off the two decades in England that basically invented modern party politics in a form recognizably like what we've got today in the US. The terms "whig" and "tory" had just come into use, and the nastiness of partisan battling actually makes what we've got now look--well, not innocuous, for sure, but at any rate very familiar. So here's Locke (in the famous chapter on enthusiasm) on the psychology of what we would call evangelical or fundamentalist Protestantism:

Immediate Revelation being a much easier way for Men to establish their Opinions, and regulate their Conduct, than the tedious and not always successful Labour of strict reasoning, it is no wonder, that some have been very apt to pretend to Revelation, and to perswade themselves, that they are under the peculiar guidance of Heaven in their Actions and Opinions, especially in those of them, which they cannot account for by the ordinary Methods of Knowledge, and Principles of Reason. Hence we see, that in all Ages, Men, in whom Melancholy has mixed with Devotion, or whose conceit of themselves has raised them into an Opinion of a greater familiarity with GOD, and a nearer admittance to his Favour than is afforded to others, have often flatter'd themselves with a perswasion of an inmmediate intercourse with the Deity, and frequent communications from the divine Spirit. GOD I own cannot be denied to be able to enlighten the Understanding by a Ray darted into the Mind immediately from the Fountain of Light: This they understand he has promised to do, and who then has so good a title to expect it, as those who are his peculiar People, chosen by him and depending on him? . . . . And whatsoever odd Action they find in themselves a strong Inclination to do, that impulse is concluded to be a call or direction from Heaven, and must be obeyed; 'tis a Commission from above, and they cannot err in executing it.

In more frivolous reading news, I did read one novel a few days ago, I couldn't help myself (it was another one from last week's public library visit), Nora Roberts/J. D. Robb's Memory in Death. I find these futuristic Manhattan mysteries extremely enjoyable, the most undemanding kind of pleasure reading; it irritates me when the Otto Penzlers of the world make snarky remarks about them, they are not groundbreaking of course but the story-telling and character development are both excellent.

Oh, I am having mild novel-deprivation! I've got a moderately vast tract of reading (and writing and revising as well, but that's different) still to do in the next month or so and I think it will not be until October that I can indulge in the true novel-reading binge I'm already coveting: I am going to have a Saturday in the second half of October where I just read, like, five trashy novels in a row and totally bathe my brain in light reading....

Action at a distance

It's not available online, but Justin Davidson (no relation) has an extremely interesting essay on the modern art of conducting in this week's New Yorker. (My only disappointment with it was that he didn't mention the argument Alison Winter makes in Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain about the ways that orchestral conducting develops in parallel to other kinds of action-at-a-distance stuff, everything from mesmerism to hypnosis and anesthesia--think Trilby.)

Anyway, here's a sample of Davidson, who's writing here about the effects of things as various as the expansion of the musical canon, the rise of musicians' unions and the maestro-nomadicism enabled by the jet plane:

Precise gestures produce precise sound, and the blossoming of technique after the Second World War was accompanied by a musical fetish for clarity. Pierre Boulez developed a fearsome gestural repertoire for executing the hyper-complex rhythms of modern compositions, including the ability to mark a different beat pattern with each hand. Boulez's approach, which arose as a response to the specific demands of modern compositions, soon spread to music of all periods, because it matched the needs of the global music industry--the high-fidelity LP, for example, captured every flaw in an orchestral performance.

The musical consequences of this trend have not been entirely salutary. Furtwangler relied on degrees of vagueness, especially in Strauss, where he regularly allowed the edges of a chord to bleed, and let the waves of fast fiddle notes gurgle indistinctly. Nowadays a hazy softness is judiciously applied in performance--Rattle does so exquisitely in Debussy--but it has become a special effect. Rattle's performance of "Ein Heldenleben" with the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in January was full of precision-magnified detail. You could make out the highlights on all those crystalline tremolos and follow the curve of each dewdrop pizzicato. Modern conducting sometimes feels like a glass skyscraper: initially thrilling, but finally irritating, in its relentless sheen.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Rape, insanity, incest, murder

My dear friend Emily Wilson (writing at Slate) praises the new translations for the Loeb Classical Library, with one reservation:

Yet I admit a churlish part of me feels a tiny pang. I still wonder whether we really should be welcoming these splendid new translations with open arms. I, for one, would be extremely wary of recommending a Loeb in an undergraduate class in which the students were expected to read the original Latin or Greek. The temptation to rely too heavily on the translation would be all the greater now that the translations are so much better than they used to be. That's perhaps why I enjoyed the 500th volume of the series, a splendid edition by D.R. Shackleton Bailey of Quintilian's Lesser Declamations, as much as I did. It is a reminder that the old Loeb style is not entirely dead, after all. Shackleton Bailey is a senior and rightly respected Latinist whose English shows little danger of keeping up with the times.

Never before been translated into English, this latest addition to the collection gives us a vivid picture of the sensational topics that young Roman students, at the equivalent of college or law school, would be made to debate in the classroom, cases involving divorce, theft, property rights, rape, insanity, incest, murder, the glory due to war heroes, and adultery. Even those with no prior interest or knowledge of Roman law, education, rhetoric and social history may be surprised to find themselves gripped by Quintilian's school exercises.

But they may also be surprised by some rather fusty expressions, certainly for the 21st century. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random, which could have come from a Loeb at any moment in the past hundred years: "Surely she complains of Fortune in that she wasted her boon." ... "Perhaps he belittles me, but I shall venture." ... "Upon my word, if some munificent, or rather excellently deserving, citizen had been struck by lightning in the Forum, I should say all the same that some exceptions should be made." It will be a shame when this lovely old schoolboy stiffness is eliminated from the series altogether, as one day, it surely will be. For the time being, the Loeb series—despite all its revisions and makeovers—is still offering a version of Greek and Roman antiquity that harks back, however faintly, to a fantasy of Edwardian England. Perhaps some Loeb editions are still meant for the gentleman or lady amateur, just as they always were. Let's enjoy it while we can.

Now I so want to read Quintilian's Lesser Declamations! How excellent.... (Thanks to Bookslut for the link.)


Angela Leighton reviews the latest volumes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's surprisingly businesslike letters at the TLS. Here's an account of DGR's decision to exhume the poetry manuscript he buried along with his dead wife Lizzie Siddal:

The emotional cost of that event can be gleaned only from the odd word here and there. Certainly, between 1865 and 1870 Lizzie was not entirely undisturbed. As a friend put it, she was “constantly appearing (that is, rapping out things) at the séances at Cheyne Walk – !”. On this topic Rosetti’s letters are silent. Whatever news he sought from the other world is kept to himself. The episode of the chaffinch, which has been taken as the turning point in his decision to recover the poems, is reported indirectly by a friend. On picking up the bird, Rossetti apparently cried out: “It is my wife, the spirit of my wife, the soul of her has taken this shape”. Lizzie, who is rarely mentioned in these letters, is evidently a restless lodger in his imagination. The actual exhumation of the grave, in October 1869, only gave that restlessness a wider and more complicated circulation. Rossetti did not attend the event, but followed its progress closely. The recovery of his poems, poems which are “as I may say, dead stock”, set loose a mix of morbid fear and guilt which would run for years. A briefly mooted, then suppressed, suggestion that he might dedicate the volume to Janey Morris reinforces the undercurrent of plunder and betrayal. These grave-goods, Rossetti knew at some level, were a way of stealing from one woman to give to another.

Little of this inner turmoil, however, is verbally apparent. Even during the event, the letters appear all sense and practicalities. The “rough grey calf” cover of the manuscript – not, Rossetti explained, to be confused with the copy of the Bible also in the grave – had to be recovered, disinfected and then carefully transcribed, in spite of, as he puts it, “a great worm-hole right through every page” of “Jenny”. He sends a vivid drawing of that hole to William Michael, showing the precise proportions. “It has a dreadful smell”, he warns him of the whole. The few friends in the know were sworn to secrecy, although, Dante Gabriel guessed, in a word which touches a bit too closely on the physics of the event, “the truth must ooze out in time”. It is as if the self-protective cloak of his matter-of-fact style is punctured, here and there, by words which mean more than they should. One of these becomes prominent through sheer repetition. Four days after the exhumation, he writes, with relieved satisfaction: “It, and all with it, was found quite perfect”.

I did not know that DGR kept such a menagerie in his house on Cheyne Walk, but he does not seem to have taken care of the animals very well. In the letters, the menagerie

which included a zebu (a small domestic ox), a parrot, a peacock, a dormouse, a wombat, a fawn, a woodchuck and a laughing jackass, . . . remains largely invisible. The beloved, much-sketched wombat survived only two months, the dormouse was found caught in a trap, “almost dead . . . but still gnawing at the wires”, the fawn pulled out all the peacock’s tail-feathers, and the jackass “drowned himself in a tub of water”. “My poor beasts have been dying fast”, Rossetti writes in 1871, and hurries on to other matters.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I am just in love

with Locke, I have been ever since I first read him seriously in graduate school (in the context of a wonderful seminar on Milton, Marvell & Locke that put them all in the political context of Restoration England and that showed me--to speak more autobiographically--that what I really love to write about is something that this particular professor, with a nod to old-school intellectual history, called "the prose of thought), and now I'm rereading An Essay Concerning Human Understanding for the introduction to my breeding book and totally in love all over again.

Locke thinks and writes so clearly (and quite colloquially too) that it really feels as though he's just in the next room, I love that sensation. Here's a taste, in any case:

The memory in some Men, 'tis true, is very tenacious, even to a Miracle: But yet there seems to be a constant decay of all our Ideas, even of those which are struck deepest, and in Minds the most retentive; so that if they be not sometimes renewed by repeated Exercise of the Senses, or Reflection on those kind of Objects, which at first occasioned them, the Print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen. Thus the Ideas, as well as Children, of our Youth, often die before us: And our Minds represent to us those Tombs, to which we are approaching; where though the Brass and Marble remain, yet the Inscriptions are effaced by time, and the Imagery moulders away. The Pictures drawn in our Minds, are laid in fading Colours; and if not sometimes refreshed, vanish and disappear. How much the Constitution of our Bodies, and the make of our animal Spirits, are concerned in this; and whether the Temper of the Brain make this difference, that in some it retains the Characters drawn on it like Marble, in others like Free-stone, and in others little better than Sand, I shall not here enquire, though it may seem probable, that the Constitution of the Body does sometimes influence the Memory; since we oftentimes find a Disease quite strip the Mind of all its Ideas, and the flames of a Fever, in a few days, calcine all those Images to dust and confusion, which seem'd to be as lasting, as if graved in Marble. (II.x.5)

For me it's the verb "calcine" that's the clincher, isn't that amazing?

Monday, August 14, 2006

I've got nothing much to say

about the Booker Prize longlist:

Carey, Peter Theft: A Love Story

Desai, Kiran The Inheritance of Loss

Edric, Robert Gathering the Water

Gordimer, Nadine Get a Life

Grenville, Kate The Secret River

Hyland, M.J. Carry Me Down

Jacobson, Howard Kalooki Nights

Lasdun, James Seven Lies

Lawson, Mary The Other Side of the Bridge

McGregor, Jon So Many Ways to Begin

Matar, Hisham In the Country of Men

Messud, Claire The Emperor's Children

Mitchell, David Black Swan Green

Murr, Naeem The Perfect Man

O'Hagan, Andrew Be Near Me

Robertson, James The Testament of Gideon Mack

St Aubyn, Edward Mother's Milk

Unsworth, Barry The Ruby in her Navel

Waters, Sarah The Night Watch

In fact it seems to be full of books I haven't really heard of at all! But this is probably a good thing, it's boring when it's all people who are famous already.

I have only read two of the books on the list, Lasdun and Mitchell (out of those two it would be easy for me to pick Lasdun, I think he is a great genius and not as famous as he should be); I've read other novels by Peter Carey, Nadine Gordimer, Claire Messud, Andrew O'Hagan, Barry Unsworth and Sarah Waters, though not these ones, and can also say that I am eager to read Messud, O'Hagan and Waters but not so much the others (more because of the nature of my tastes, though, than because of any beliefs I might hold about their quality). Wouldn't mind reading Kiran Desai. Have been meaning to read St Aubyn but stalled on one of his previous books.

Last year I was having a fantasy about blogging the Booker longlist between its announcement and the actual award-giving, but given how incredibly busy I am right now with reading and writing-type stuff it's just as well I didn't set anything like that up. However, for next year it seems like it might be a good idea....

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Doling out small amounts of fiction to myself

to pace myself on the work stuff (I'm gearing up for one more minor/massive stint of work-related reading, but I think I must have one more novel this weekend too): after thinking about it the other day I'd worked myself into such a pitch of excitement that I had to read Kit Whitfield's Benighted (UK Bareback, I wish they'd kept that title for the US edition but that's pretty much my only complaint, this novel is excellent).

It's a novel with werewolves rather than a werewolf novel, if the distinction makes sense; and the thing that really makes it work is the amazingly satisfying first-person voice. The narrator is irritable, badly behaved, stubborn, rude, unethical and altogether rather irresistible, in a complete-downer kind of way; in fact, my suspicion is that the only thing that might stop this book reaching the huge readership it deserves is the darkness of the world Whitfield imagines. It's a thought-experiment kind of book, in a good way; I was most closely reminded of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, a book I loved (and strange to say this heroine is not just quite similar to that one but they even have almost the same name, Lila Mae Watson for Whitehead's book and Lola May Galley for Whitfield's), and also of Frances Fyfield's solicitor heroines/gritty urban crime mode, with a bit of the feel of Louise Welsh. Although a lot of what you read in the paranormal/urban fantasy vein is built on the bones of fantasy or romance genre fiction, this one (and despite the speculative alternate history thought-experiment-y feel--in this society, "normal" is werewolf and the non-lycanthrope minority are enlisted for poorly paid and extremely dangerous duty with the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activities to deal with lycanthropes who break the curfew on the night of the full moon) is definitely more noir: think Richard Paul Russo's dystopian near-future San Francisco, or even the Philip K. Dick/Blade Runner kind of vibe. A serious novel about discrimination and tolerance, beautifully well written and with some very good shape-changing descriptions too: this one's a great read, it's definitely making my year-end best-book list even though it lacks that comfort-reading aspect I always secretly hope for in a vampire/shapeshifter book (see Robin McKinley's Sunshine if you want an equally well-written but ultimately far sunnier book than this one--but really you should read both--oh, and this one doesn't have vampires, that was misleading wording on my part, but don't let it stop you...).

I have just read

the most delightful and perfect little book, Catherine Murdock's Dairy Queen--it was Colleen Mondor's recommendation after I rhapsodized over Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love, Murdock and Gilbert are sisters and all I can say is that they have both written quite excellent books.

This one's more formally perfect than the other, as befits its being a novel; it is an unjust world if this is really the first novel she's written as opposed to just published, everything about the voice and the pacing and the story is absolutely lovely. Mmmm.... I like it that now I'm sort of a young-adult writer myself I can indulge myself in this most excellent form of reading and feel like I'm obliquely at work.

Fearsome buckers

Breeding is everywhere.

The Sixth World Conference on Animal Breeding

David Bellamy on Gerald Durrell at the Times Online. I was completely in love with My Family and Other Animals when I was a child, Durrell and Jane Goodall were my heroes and this book in particular just reduced me to tears of laughter & wishful thinking about the animals I would like to have if I lived in a villa on Corfu. It is really an altogether delightful book (when I was a teenager I read a ton of Lawrence Durrell too, but I think his stuff has dated rather more drastically, and also I was horrified by various revelations about his family life in an issue of Granta that printed some letters written by his daughter Sappho, who committed suicide; and of course LD was completely scathing about GD's populism & humor, he was a modernist-leaning literary snob); I must get it and read it again....

"I have just met my first genius"

Harry Ritchie has a hilarious and on the whole fairly apt piece about Colin Wilson in the Guardian Review.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

At the LRB

Andrew O'Hagan has a great little essay on the trial that's riveted Scotland recently; also, August Kleinzahler on what's in the news and Steven Shapin on Bill Buford's culinary adventures. I should really get an actual subscription to the LRB, the stuff they put up for free on the website is consistently excellent (I think of Jenny Diski as the ultimate LRB contributor).

Strong words

John Sutherland calls the new British recommendations for school reading lists "a weak-kneed spasm of a curriculum". I haven't looked at the actual lists, but what he says seems very sensible if splenetic.

On fidelity

I saw an absolutely fabulous play last night, a real gem: The National Asian American Theatre Company's production of Marivaux's The Dispute (here's the clever blurb from the website: "Long before the Marquis de Sade and reality TV, an enlightened Prince runs an experiment into the nature of sex. Four foundlings are raised in isolated confinement in an artificial Eden. Now it's show time and they will be unleashed. Will the serpent appear in the garden? And if so, will the man, or the woman, be the first to fall?"). So it's sort of even related to my book, though I have to admit that the raised-in-isolation part is incidental to the are-men-or-women-more-unfaithful thing.

But the production's a real gem, just perfect in every particular: witty set, excellent translation (funny and smart but also unobtrusive, no jarring anachronisms and yet perfectly colloquial), and absolutely perfect acting. Jennifer Chang was particularly amazing, but really everyone was perfect: some very good physical comedy, too, I felt the level of attention to bodies as well as, you know, heads was much higher than in anything you usually see. Part of the reason the play works so well is that the raised-in-isolation thing just comically heightens something universal about the reality of being a teenager and having to learn how to deal with sex--I was totally reminded of the best teen TV series, My So-Called Life in particular.

In short, it was completely delightful. I must see more of this company's shows! But more to the point, if you are in New York and you ever do such a thing as go to see a play, please go and see this one, I promise you that you will not regret it--it's hilarious, but also quite adorable. (Also it's barely more than an hour long: I don't know why a short play should seem like better value than a long play, but it does. We've all been to plays, in any case, where you'd pay extra money to be allowed to leave during the intermission, depressing as that is for the actors....) It's only got a very limited run till the 26th of August; tickets are $19, but there seems to be a student discount.

I made a fatal little detour the other day into the public library; I had ten minutes to kill before meeting a student, and I haven't checked a book out of that branch for almost a year. The relevance of that fact is that it's a fairly pitiful little branch with a ludicrously small and off-putting new books section (I do not know how they ever think they are going to cultivate readers this way, if I ever get rich I am going to make a massive donation to the public library and also get more involved there in some sort of ambitious volunteer project, I feel that this is my secret mission in life); you really have to wait six months between serious visits or else it's all things you've either read already or don't want to read at all, and the meaning of the word "new" is certainly stretched to its very limits. However they seemed to have actually got a few things since I last looked in May, and the one I had to read at once was the latest installment in Charlaine Harris's vampire series, Definitely Dead.

Harris has that gift that so few authors have, of writing very widely accessible books that are also incredibly charming--the first-person voice she's got for these books is really incredibly attractive, and the characterization and settings and stuff make the books particularly enjoyable to read. I find it heartening to read a best-seller that really is so much exactly what a book like this should be--this is what you need if you accidentally read a Dan Brown novel on your summer vacation and need to take away the taste. (Even Dan Brown has his virtues, he's got really excellent pacing/storytelling skills, just a very wooden prose style that makes his books not what I would want to read.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

It is like magic....

David Bell (at the New Republic) answers exactly the question I asked the other day about electronic reading devices. I still want to know about that Sony Reader, though (I hadn't realized it was only being released this fall--hmmm....).

Top ten genre-defying novels

Kit Whitfield lists her top-ten genre-defying novels at the Guardian, and it's a most appealing assortment (she's got one of my particular favorite Margaret Atwood novels, and Gillian Bradshaw, and Ira Levin, and an Antonia White novel that I've always meant to read and will certainly now get hold of on the basis of its description here).

I find these lists-with-commentary very revealing, I often decide that I will or won't read someone's novel based on how congruent or not a list like this is with my own tastes. As it happens (thanks, A.!), I've already got an advance copy of Whitefield's novel Benighted on the to-be-read pile, perhaps it should go up to the top now.

(NB this is one of those books that seems to have different titles for US and UK release--I suppose prudery says you can't have Bareback as your US title. I am opposed to alternate titles, I have too often been heartbroken at the library after having requested and eagerly awaited an unread book by a favorite author to realize it's actually something I have already read under another name.)

Literary news

is always annoyingly slow in August, but here's a good one if you want to read something absolutely scathing: Powell's excellent Review-a-Day site reprints Cristina Nehring on Erica Jong's memoirs, "Zip It: Erica Jong's Stunning Self-absorption". It's partly an effective piece because Nehring allows as how Fear of Flying's an excellent novel--I agree, and so does Anthony Burgess, who made it one of his best 99 novels in English since 1939.

(I skimmed through most of the memoir one day in the Harvard Bookstore this spring, for old times' sake, and can't say I markedly disagree with Nehring, though I would not enjoy writing such a devastating pan--the passages about the affair with Martha Stewart's husband are quite gripping in a surely somewhat unintended way. Here was my blog entry in March about the excerpt available online.)

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A question

Any thoughts on this would be much appreciated. A resource I'm in love with is Thomson-Gale's Eighteenth-Century Collections Online--digitized images (made from a massive microfilm collection) of almost every book published in English in the eighteenth century. But I can't read multi-hundred-page theological treatises or whatever on screen, which has led to a lot of massive printing jobs that are not a sensible use of paper. What are the options for a hand-held reading device? Has anybody tried the Sony Reader, particularly for PDF files of the kind I'm talking about? Are there other options? I'm skeptical about electronic readers for light reading--it has to do with the cost of content, not the cost of the original device, I just can't imagine paying so much money for digital files of books I could, you know, get from the library or pick up used or whatever--but I would pay several hundred dollars for a really convenient way of dealing with this kind of electronic file so that I could read it comfortably.

Maniacal blog entry #2

I got a fantastic hoard of books yesterday from a friend who to my great good fortune works at a large publisher that does a lot of the things I like, I had a look through the catalogs and made a greedy wish-list and then had this sort of bonanza arrival that had my head spinning as I tried to figure out what to read (but I don’t have time to read anything that isn’t for work).

In any case I set aside a few immediately appealing ones for mealtime small-bite consumption, but for some reason the one I pounced upon and consumed at once was Roberto Calasso’s The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, translated from German by Michael Hofman (the translator for Calasso’s Italian commentary is Geoffrey Brock).

It’s a beautiful little book (or so I assume, I’ve only got the ARC but its proportions and type and so forth are all extremely pleasing), and includes some material from Calasso’s K. as additional commentary. I read it in a stolen moment last night but had to hold off blogging until I finished the latest spate of note-taking for my chapter: but now I’ve just had a very productive long stint of work, so that my late-night reward for sitting at the computer and typing up vast quantities of notes from books is--sitting at the computer and typing up more notes from books!

These aphorisms were written during the eight months Kafka (tubercular, invalid) spent at his sister’s house in the Bohemian countryside between September 1917 and April 1918. Identifying this manifestation of illness as having enabled “a provisional leave of absence from the torment of normal life,” Calasso also sees it as enabling “a kind of daring experiment made possible only under these conditions, the appearance of a new form: the aphorism.” This is Calasso writing:

New first of all in a physical, tactile sense: Kafka typically wrote, in pen or in pencil, in school notebooks, barely even marking divisions between one text and the next as he filled them; now, however, he puts together a sequence of 103 individual slips of onionskin paper, each measuring 14.5 centimeters by 11.5 centimeters, each containing, with rare exceptions, a single numbered fragment, generally aphoristic.

It would be pointless to seek, among twentieth-century collections of aphorisms, another as intense and enigmatic. If published one after the other, these fragments would occupy twenty or so pages and would be almost suffocating—because each fragment is an aphorism in the Kierkegaardian sense, an “isolated” entity, which must be surrounded by an empty space in order to breathe. This need explains the point of transcribing them one to a page. But even the definition of aphorism is misleading, if we understand that word as currently used to mean “maxim.” Some of these fragments are narrative (for example, 8/9, 10, 20, 107), others are single images (15, 16, 42, 87), and others are parables (32, 39, 88).

What strikes me about these aphorisms is their sheer alienness and also the way that they are so deeply un-novelistic. It seems to me very strange (but then Kafka is a very strange kind of novelist, if you can really call him a novelist at all) that they should be like this, especially as my very favorite aphorist (see maniacal post #1 below) is a philosopher rather than a novelist and yet writes the most deeply and wonderfully novelistic aphorisms. I suppose I prefer collections of aphorisms that are more like something out of a commonplace book, short bits and pieces of prose that don’t fit into a longer narrative or argument; I’ve thought a bit more about this in the other post.

My favorites here, in any case, the ones that set some train of associations going or seemed to speak to me:


Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incoporated into the ritual.


The animal twists the whip out of its master’s grip and whips itself to become its own master—not knowing that this is only a fantasy, produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.


The crows like to insist a single crow is enough to destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows.


Believing in progress doesn’t mean believing in progress that has already occurred. That would not require belief.


Sexual love deceives us as to heavenly love; were it alone, it would not be able to do so, but containing within itself, unknowingly, a germ of heavenly love, it can.


No psychology ever again!


It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.

And that’s a good note to end on here, what a delightful endorsement of my maniacal and reclusive summer (I really do feel, by the way, as if the eighteenth century has been writhing before me in ecstasy for the last few weeks, it is a remarkably enjoyable sensation--I think the chapter I have been writing is the work of a lunatic, and I am secretly glad!).

Maniacal blog entry #1

Aphorisms are not of course the same thing as notebook entries, and yet one of my favorite collections of aphorisms (and the aphorism's a form I love) is Wittgenstein's Culture and Value, edited by G. H. von Wright with Heikki Nyman and translated by Peter Winch.

One thing I don’t like about blogging is the way that if you want to say two things and the two things sort of depend on each other (Thing One and Thing Two, like in The Cat in the Hat) you still have to have them upside-down. In other words, this is Thing Two but I’ve posted it first so that it appears beneath the other one.

I fell in love with Culture and Value when I first read it, have read it through at least three or four times since and have had it nagging at the back of my brain all summer that it was time to have another pass through. I retrieved it from my office last night and have just skimmed back through in a blissed-out kind of way for my very favorites. (I feel sure I must have posted some of these before?)

When I say that there’s something deeply novelistic about Wittgenstein’s aphorisms, I’m thinking of their autobiographical aspect but also and particularly of something about the way he sees familiar things like an alien. (Kafka by contrast sees alien things like an alien.) I like this book for some of the same reasons I like Austen. My new novel has observations a bit like these ones (only more minor) studded here and there, because the main character is someone who thinks about things. I’ve never been able to get interested in novels whose characters don’t think about things (this is why not-top-rate crime fiction and speculative fiction seem to me infinitely superior to not-quite-top-rate chick lit, where the characters are significantly less likely to have philosophical as opposed to emotional insights, but that's a topic for another day), and it’s probably one of my reservations about short stories as well, that they are if anything even less likely to have characters who have intellectual thoughts as opposed to, you know, experiencing sensations that are often registered or transmitted to the reader by way of the narrator’s observations of the physical world.

I also love Culture and Value because I am frivolous: I was talking a little while ago about this with a friend, really reading certain kinds of book you’re just looking for the aphorism bits which you then take out and weave together into your own account of something. There is a lot of wasted effort involved in this process, to take the pragmatic view: think of all the work the author has to do weaving together his/her aphorisms into a whole essay (I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin here especially), when all we really want to do is take them right back out again. I defy anyone to have rational disagreement with my claim that Minima Moralia is Adorno’s most delightful book, and that it’s because he’s just giving us the good parts and not the in-between ones. This is the eternal appeal of reading great thinkers’ notebooks, not intended for publication, rather than their polished finished out-there-in-the-world works. (Oh, dear, and look, how awful/excellent, the editor has a reproach to exactly readers like me: “It is unavoidable that a book of this sort will reach the hands of readers to whom otherwise Wittgentstein’s philosophical work is, and will remain, unknown. This need not necessarily be harmful or useless.” [!!!])

Wittgenstein himself is very good here on this topic, he sees right to the bones of it:

If I am thinking about a topic just for myself and not with a view to writing a book, I jump about all round it; that is the only way of thinking that comes naturally to me. Forcing my thoughts into an ordered sequence is a torment for me. Is it even worth attempting now?
squander an unspeakable amount of effort making an arrangement of my thoughts which may have no value at all.

And again:

Raisins may be the best part of a cake; but a bag of raisins is not better than a cake; and someone who is in a position to give us a bag full of raisins still can’t bake a cake with them, let alone do something better. I am thinking of Kraus and his aphorisms, but of myself too and my philosophical remarks.
A cake—that isn’t[,] as it were: thinned-out raisins.

Anyway, here are some but not all of my favorites (you must go and get this and read it for yourself, it is really one of the most thought-provoking and memorable books that’s ever come my way):

Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e. the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.

To treat somebody well when he does not like you, you need to be not only very good natured, but very
tactful too.

The idea is worn out by now and no longer usable. (I once heard Labor make a similar remark about musical ideas.) Like silver paper, which can never quite be smoothed out again once it has been crumped. Nearly all my ideas are a bit crumpled.

In my artistic activities I really have nothing but
good manners.

A script you can read fluently works on you very differently from one that you can write, but not decipher
easily. You lock your thoughts up in this as though in a casket.

I just took some apples out of a paper bag where they had been lying for a long time. I had to cut half off many of them and throw it away. Afterwards when I was copying out a sentence I had written, the second half of which was bad, I at once saw it as a half-rotten apple. And that’s how it always is with me. Everything that comes my way becomes a picture for me of what I am thinking about at the time. (Is there something feminine about this way of thinking?)

Esperanto. The feeling of disgust we get if we utter an
invented word with invented derivative syllables. The word is cold, lacking in associations, and yet it plays at being ‘language’. A system of purely written signs would not disgust us so much.

Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it is read at the
right tempo. My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly.

During a dream and even
long after we have woken up, words occurring in the dream can strike us as having the greatest significance. Can’t we be subject to the same illusion when awake? I have the impression that I am sometimes liable to this nowadays. The insane often seem to be like this.

I really want my copious punctuation marks to slow down the speed of reading. Because I should like to be read slowly. (As I myself read.)

Two people are laughing together, say at a joke. One of them has used certain somewhat unusual words and now they both break out into a sort of bleating. That might appear very extraordinary to a visitor coming from quite a different environment. Whereas we find it completely
(I recently witnessed this scene on a bus and was able to think myself into the position of someone to whom this would be unfamiliar. From that point of view it struck me as qutie irrational, like the responses of an outlandish animal.)

It is
difficult to know something and to act as if you did not know it.

What is it like for people not to have the same sense of humour? They do not react properly to each other. It’s as though there were a custom amongst certain people for one person to throw another a ball which he is supposed to catch and throw back; but some people, instead of throwing it back, put it in their pocket.
Or what is it like for somebody to be unable to fathom someone else’s taste?

There is something about the cadence of the sentences that reminds me of Wayne Koestenbaum's writing (the precision of the word placement?); and also the use of italics makes me think of Toni Schlesinger.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

I can't wait

to read Claire Messud's new novel, which gets a great review from Sara Eckel at the Voice. I have only read The Last Life, not her other two, but I thought it was wonderfully good: there's something reminiscent of Alan Hollinghurst, he and Messud both look back style-wise to the European rather than simply Anglophone nineteenth-century novel but without even a hint of the nostalgic costume-drama-ishness that afflicts so many writers who borrow the techniques of realism for comparable ends.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Geoff Dyer at the Guardian on Rebecca West's magnum opus. I read this when I was a teenager, dipped into it again in the late 90s but must get hold of it again now and reread properly; it's being reissued by Canongate.

Words and dollars

Kevin Dettmar, one of the co-editors of the twentieth-century selections in the Longman Anthology of British Literature, has a fascinating piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education about writers whose permission fees are so high that the balance is tipped against their inclusion (I'm not sure you'll be able to read this without a subscription--if you've got a university account, though, you should be able to get the electronic edition through the library catalog--but I've pasted in quite a bit of the text below, and it would make an interesting handout to give to students using an anthology in a literature class who might be otherwise oblivious to these factors):

A portion of every dollar we spend on permissions to reprint is charged against the royalties of the textbook's editors, which means that we need to be prudent without being downright stingy. In effect, every dollar in permissions cost is split between the editors and the students who buy the book: We editors split permissions costs with the publisher, whose share is built into the price of the book, to the extent that the market will bear it. Because the publisher passes along its share to the book's purchasers — primarily students — the editors are in effect equal stakeholders with the students, equally interested in keeping permissions costs down. Permissions costs can mount up pretty quickly, contributing to students' complaints that their books are too expensive.

By my calculations, almost 70 percent of the permissions costs of the current edition of the Longman result from selections in the 20th-century volume. That should come as no surprise, since for most works published before 1923 the copyright has run out in this country. But the translations and scholarly editions chosen for earlier periods often are still covered by copyright protection, and payment must be made to the translators and scholars who have made older works accessible to modern readers. Those costs can be quite high: I was surprised to learn, for instance, that the volume on the Middle Ages is the next most expensive after that for the 20th century, accounting for nearly 15 percent of the permissions costs for the entire anthology. J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, is the second costliest item in the entire anthology (after Samuel Beckett's play Endgame). Is it worth it? Absolutely: Tolkien's is a vivid, accessible translation, and his dual credentials as a medieval scholar and fantasy author make him the perfect voice to render the tale. That said, we can still hope that the windfall of the Lord of the Rings movies will allow the Tolkien estate not to charge us as much the next time around.

... [Here he discusses the first category, of specific works that must be included--i.e. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land; Joyce; Woolf; etc.]

A second permissions category consists of authors who must be included, but whose work might be represented in different ways: The writer is canonical, but no one text is a sine qua non. Any anthology of British literature, for instance, must include a representative selection of the poems of W.H. Auden. Quarrels continue around the borders of the canon, but Wystan is in, end of story. He has also become fantastically expensive — at an average fee of $20 per line, the modest selections we've included come to more than $8,000. Those permissions costs are a bitter pill for an editor to swallow. While Auden is in no danger of disappearing from our anthologies, and consequently from our classrooms or our cultural consciousness — "September 1, 1939," for instance, was the most visible piece of literature in the days, weeks, and months following the September 11, 2001, attacks — one begins to think about how much one can afford, and what one can afford to do without. I resent being forced to make absurd calculations, such as five lines of Auden equals one page of Salman Rushdie. Although Auden is one of the 20th century's most gifted English-language poets, he is represented in the Longman by a mere handful of poems, most of which are somewhat familiar choices.

Other 20th-century poets have suffered that same diminution, as permissions fees in some cases have actually doubled in the short time between editions. We were forced to drop Dylan Thomas's poetic radio drama "Return Journey," for example, and Eavan Boland's poem "The Journey." Poets, because their work is available in smaller discrete units than that of playwrights and fiction writers, are especially susceptible to such cuts. It's hard to feel good about that state of affairs.

A third group comprises those authors and works that one tries to include not because one must have them, but because one wants them — an interesting writer who might otherwise be overlooked, but whose work deserves attention or has become newly interesting in light of recent scholarship; a text whose inclusion helps to enrich an otherwise two-dimensional rendering of an era, problem, or movement. For the second edition of the Longman, for instance, Jennifer Wicke, my editing partner for the 20th-century volume, had the brilliant idea of adding a handful of poems by the American poet Sylvia Plath, to accompany some poetry by her (in)famous British husband, Ted Hughes. Their difficult marriage is the stuff of literary legend and now big-screen fame (the 2003 film Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig). More to the point, in 1998 Hughes's poetic narrative of their partnership, Birthday Letters, was published posthumously, bringing the couple again to the forefront of literary and public consciousness.

Well, in the third edition Plath is gone again: Whether because of the recent resurgence of interest in her life (and perhaps poetry) among the American public, or some other cause, the fees demanded for reprinting just four poems suddenly rose to more than $3,500 for the U.S. and Canadian rights. Plath thereby crossed some kind of invisible line into the realm of extravagant indulgence. Assembling an anthology is a little bit like building a home: One goes into the project with big dreams, but after meeting with the architects and builders, certain features go by the boards; even more desires are sacrificed during construction, as costs overrun estimates. In our third edition, a smattering of poems by Sylvia Plath became those skylights in the kitchen that would have to wait for later.

Sometimes texts are omitted, or added, for the most idiosyncratic of reasons: This is my fourth category, probably best labeled "Misc." In thinking about contemporary responses to Eliot's The Waste Land, I very much wanted to include a poem by the contemporary Irish poet Thomas Kinsella (who also taught here in Carbondale for many years), the long poem "Nightwalker." But Kinsella himself refused permission. Why? His refusal had to do with the title of our anthology. Because we are convinced that the phrase "English literature" suggests an Anglophilic perspective that doesn't account for the vitality and diversity of British writing, which includes works by current and former members of the British Empire (is Rushdie an "English" writer?), ours is the Longman Anthology of British Literature. Mr. Kinsella objected that he is not a British writer, and of course he's right; "I am sorry to have to refuse, as I feel the adjective 'British' does not apply to my work," he wrote. On the other hand, we thought the Longman Anthology of English, Irish, Northern Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Indian, Pakistani, South African, and West Indian Literature was a bit unwieldy.

As our first edition was being prepared for press, back in 1998, we learned that permission to reprint Caryl Churchill's play Cloud 9 could not be granted. Ownership of rights to the play was then being decided in the British courts, and no one had legal standing to grant permission. The play was simply unavailable to us. Given that immovable object, Jennifer and I quickly turned to another script that we had hoped to include but hadn't found room for, Hanif Kureishi's screenplay for the wonderful film about the complexities of multicultural London, My Beautiful Laundrette. That text proved very popular with teachers and students, and by no means felt like a compromise or second choice. But when we sat down to plan the second edition, we learned that the legal status of Cloud 9 had been established and that the play would be available to us. Although it was a difficult decision, we decided to drop Kureishi to make room for Churchill — we couldn't pay, nor had we room, for both. Such is the horse trading that goes into assembling an anthology.

When we began planning the third edition, we decided to keep Cloud 9 — the play had been at least as popular with our readers as My Beautiful Laundrette, and we saw no reason to drop it. But when we applied for permission to reprint the play in the new edition, we learned that the play was now worth $10,000 up front, plus a percentage of the gross, which would have put the cost in excess of $13,000. After a good deal of soul-searching, I suggested that we contact Mr. Kureishi's people to see what it would cost to switch back to our first-edition favorite, My Beautiful Laundrette. The answer, to my delight, was $1,000.

And there was a bonus. Just as our volume was going to press, Mr. Kureishi published an essay in The Guardian, following the London subway bombings of last summer, about the costs and limitations of multicultural London. I thought the piece would make a wonderful companion to the screenplay, suggesting some of the ways that London has changed since 1985, when the script was written. Our deadline was so short — just one week — that our permissions staff told me there was no way we could clear permissions for the essay in time. I e-mailed Mr. Kureishi directly late on a Wednesday night and delivered my plea. I never heard back from him, but the following morning an e-mail message was waiting for me from the person who handles his permissions in the United States: "The author has granted his permission." Even better, he gave it to us for a song.