Sunday, February 25, 2007

A death in books

Here's the first installment of Marco Roth's serial memoir at Nextbook. The column will be centered on the reading Marco did both with and against his father in the years of his father's illness and death, and here's Marco's description of its goals:

It's going to be, or supposed to be, an investigation into the way novels and stories affect our sense of who we are and where we come from, about the ways fiction can influence and structure our relationships with the people we love. We read alone, but we're never entirely alone when we read. Ghosts haunt the margins: earlier readers, our friends, our parents. Sometimes we even haunt the pages ourselves, bringing our own dramas to the dramas we read about. For most of us, this spectral presence is a teacher, but the teacher is less quiet ghost than active spirit, looming over our shoulder, to be fought against, if possible, until he or she can be aggressively internalized or rejected. "Tradition" is the familiar name we use to make the crowded gallery where we read a less uncanny place. Literally something "handed down" or "passed on," a tradition usually includes laws for mediating and ordering the transfer of knowledge and shared experience among generations. The ghostly reading I'll be describing takes place within a recognizable tradition observed by secular, middle- and upper-class, intellectual Jews who attempted to transplant an old-world German and Austrian Enlightenment idea of culture to America. (For a while, this idea cohabited peacefully with American promises of self-betterment to lead towards an ideal of spiritual upward mobility, the fantasy of a liberal arts education.)

Yet the kind of encounters set down here will also go against the laws of culture and good breeding, against the serenity and reconciliation one might be expected to derive by submitting to such a tradition. The novels and stories I'll deal with in the coming months all belong, in one way or another, to this old European notion of Bildung—acculturation or development—even as they represent an already belated and self-critical stage of this ideal: The Red and The Black, Goncharov's Oblomov, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh, Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger, and Kafka's Metamorphosis comprise this selection from my father's library. These were all books he told me to read, or even read with me, when I was still young enough to submit to being read to and not yet old enough to understand. Some of these I read while he was alive, others waited. Taken as a whole, they add up to a disturbing chronicle of failed social integration, development perverted; of alienation, failed families, and failed hopes; of lives damaged or cut short by historical circumstances.

This promises to be an interesting one: I am especially intrigued by the idea of composing a memoir column by column, I like the Oulipo-style constraint (it would be even better if Marco didn't allow himself to use words with the letter P!) and the surprising things that happen in language and in ideas by virtue of one's way of defining the task of writing.

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