Thursday, December 31, 2015

Copious speaking

From Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts:
Sometimes, when I'm teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I'm not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures run deep.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Closing tabs

Traveling tomorrow (not super-early but early for me), just finishing up getting things ready to go. A few tabs to close:

A shortage of tutu-makers. (Via GeekPress.)

Caleb's 2015 in notes. (I was startled recently by the discovery of the word zarf as applied to the cardboard ring that fills a comparable function!)

Ellis Avery on life at waist level.

The FT's interview with Elena Ferrante (site registration required):
A page is well written when the labour and pleasure of truthful narration supplant any other concern, including a concern with formal elegance. I belong to the category of writers who throw out the final draft and keep the rough when this practice ensures a higher degree of authenticity.
I have designs on this lounge for tomorrow morning....


Have sacrificed my morning run in order to get a handle on the huge list of tasks that need to be done in advance of tomorrow's travels. First up: returning a long-overdue ILL book I procured at great trouble earlier this year.

Peter Riess's Footnotology: Towards a Theory of the Footnote (New York and Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Publishers, 1985): “The footnote is (or pretends to be) the carrier of academic information, but is not the object of academic study” (3).

A functional typology of footnotes (pp. 15-17): excursive, supplementary, cautionary, disassociative, disputatious, cartel, clique, camouflage. Footnote neurosis, footnote fetishism, footnoteophobia, footnote aversion.

I am laughing, I think I now have something like five prospective book projects that are equally important to me (reading Austen, reading Clarissa, Gibbon's Rome, triathlon memoir, etc. etc.), but the biggie longterm one right now (I've just sent out a proposal for a short-term research fellowship) is for the most ambitious academic book I have contemplated to date, a literary history of the footnote, 1680-1818. Here is some of what I wrote recently:
In an essay on the history of the transition from marginal annotation to footnotes, Evelyn B. Tribble has suggested that the shape of the page often becomes “more than usually visible” at periods when “paradigms for receiving the past are under stress”: “In the early modern period, as models of annotation move from marginal glosses to footnotes, the note becomes the battlefield upon which competing notions of the relationship of authority and tradition, past and present, are fought” (“‘Like a Looking-Glas in the Frame’: From the Marginal Note to the Footnote,” in The Margins of the Text, ed. D. C. Greetham [Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997], 229-244). In this context, the page itself rather than the book in all of its rich materiality becomes the focus of interest. This matters for a number of significant literary works of the period that are still widely read, and the monograph that I am looking towards writing will be structured around discussion of those more or less canonical texts: Swift’s Tale of a Tub, Pope’s Dunciad, Richardson’s Clarissa and its increasingly controlling use of footnotes to cross-reference and moralize in subsequent revisions, the self-annotation of mid-century poets such as Thomas Gray and James Grainger, the apotheosis of the footnote in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with a convenient end point provided by the multiple texts of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the notorious marginal glosses of the version published in 1817. But I want to offer very full contextualization concerning the more general literary and historical record; more than that, I suspect that there is a good deal of interpretive work to be done on books with footnotes in their own right, especially in the genre of history.

The practices of glossing and marginalia run much longer than the history of the printed book, but I am especially interested in the new structures of page-based meaning that are facilitated by the sudden predominance of notes at the foot of the page rather than as a long appendage at the end of the text as the annotating authors of printed books in the 1680s move relatively quickly from margins to the foot of the page (Marcus Walsh has identified the French historian Richard Simon as an important node of change here, and his books are one of my first targets, with another important early French exemplar being Brossette’s two-volume 1716 edition of Boileau, whose importance for Pope’s vision of what could be done in the Dunciad Variorum has been roundly demonstrated by James McLaverty). These footnotes are continuous with older forms but also strikingly innovative in various respects, not least because one promise of the print world is that an author can relatively easily sanction multiple editions of his or her own work with increasingly complex and multi-layered annotation. One of my interests here is authorial involvement in the production of multiple editions of a given work, not revision in the most general sense but the specific problem of revision as it comes up in the question of writers with a compulsion to annotate their own works. I will be especially keen to find multi-edition works whose critical apparatus increases with each iteration or indeed in some cases transforms the work at hand.

Some initial theoretical work on this concept was done in Gérard Genette’s Paratexts, and the monograph I will ultimately write will touch briefly on some important twentieth-century forms of authorial annotation (The Waste Land, Pale Fire, the novels and essays of David Foster Wallace). In the early modern period, much of the footwork on this topic has been done and has begun to be elaborated in sophisticated critical works: Evelyn Tribble, Anthony Grafton, William Slights in his work on marginalia. But though work has begun in this area in the long eighteenth century, I was taken aback to realize when I began delving into the critical literature that there was no existing literary history of the footnote in this period; I think there’s a need for it, and I think what I must do before anything else is read exhaustively across the 12 or so decades I am contemplating (but with an initial concentration in the first half of the period) just to track the use of the footnote across major genres in English and French. I am especially interested in history, poetry and the novel, but I will be keeping an eye out for other genres that may prove especially interesting (natural history, say, or theology and moral philosophy – I will initially cast a very wide net).

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"The telluric hum"

I really liked David Kurnick's Public Books essay on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. Worth reading in its entiretly, but here's what especially captured my attention (I've only read the first installment, will probably get to the others in coming weeks, but this resonates very strongly with my sense of what's most interesting in the series):
What gives unity to the rush of events is Lenù’s sense that Lila’s is the more genuine intellect, hers the more authentic relation to body, mind, action. Lenù’s most persistent fear is that her achievements are pallid reflections of the acumen that vibrates almost painfully from Lila. But this suspicion never settles for long into anything as predictable as competition or envy; Ferrante volatilizes every social and emotional situation. In a thrilling scene toward the end of The Story of a New Name, Lenù, just having published her first book, visits Lila on the floor of the sausage factory. She has convinced herself that she wants to thank Lila for her inspiration, to confess that what’s best in the novel derives from their friendship. Lenù comes, in other words, half in bad faith, and Lila senses it.

Reeking of offal and shrugging off the complaints of her supervisor, Lila launches into a relentless, apparently left-field account of the new world of computer programing in which she’s become immersed in the hours after work. Lenù is crestfallen—but rapt, too—to find her friend’s correspondence course–derived obsession with early digital technology more riveting, even to Lenù herself, than her own authorship. But Lila’s revenge is, as ever, also an invitation: “She was explaining to me that I had won nothing,” Lenù writes, “that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.” The Neapolitan novels offer the truest account I know of the telluric hum of being in the presence of a challenging mind, the shaming, tensed pleasure of trying to keep up.
I had to start the first installment a few times before I really got into it (insofar as one is now a Knausgaardian or a Ferrantista, I am the former!), but I gradually realized as I made myself read on that the novel actually has something that reminds me of one of my lifetime favorites, Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. That is probably the best book about sisters, love and rivalry that I know (I thought also a bit of Sybille Bedford's great novel A Compass Error).

Here are the passages of My Brilliant Friend that compelled me to flag them. First, the description of the shoes Lila designs (and yes, it's surely an echo of those shoes in Madame Bovary!):
Once she showed me the designs for shoes that she wanted to make with her brother, both men's and women's. They were beautiful designs, drawn on graph paper, rich in precisely colored details, as if she had had a chance to examine shoes like that close up in some world parallel to ours and then had fixed them on paper. In reality she had invented them in their entirety and in every part, as she had done in elementary school when she drew princesses, so that, although they were normal shoes, they didn't resemble any that were seen in the neighbhoood, or even those of the actresses in the photo novels.
The letter Lila writes to Lenu who is away in Ischia:
It was from Lila. I tore open the envelope. There were five closely written pages, and I devoured them, but I understood almost nothing of what I read. It may seem strange today, and yet it really was so: even before I was overwhelmed by the contents, what struck me was that the writing contained Lila's voice. Not only that. From the first lines I thought of The Blue Fairy, the only text of hers that I had read, apart from our elementary-school homework, and I understood what, at the time, I had liked so much. There was, in The Blue Fairy, the same quality that struck me now: Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Sarratore in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but--further--she left no trace of effort, you weren't aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her. The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face: it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral; it had the vivid orderliness that I imagined would belong to conversation if one were so fortunate as to be born from the head of Zeus and not from the Grecos, the Cerullos.
And the sequel rumination:
The next day I went unwillingly to take the exams. But something happened that made me feel better. Professor Gerace and Professor Galiani, who were part of the committee, praised my Italian paper to the skies. Gerace in particular said that my exposition was further improved. He wanted to read a pasasge to the rest of the committee. And only as I listened did I realize what I had tried to do in those months whenever I ahd to write: to free myself from my artificial tones, from sentences that were too rigid; to try for a fluid and engaging style like Lila's in the Ischia letter. When I heard my words in the teacher's voice, with Professor Faliani listening and silently nodding agreement, I realized that I had succeeded. Naturally it wasn't Lila's waay of writing, it was mine. And it seemed to my teachers something truly out of the ordinary.
Two other bits that stayed with me: Lila telling Lenu how to translate Latin sentences; reflections on the times characters move into dialect.

"I'm much closer to Kerouac than to Musil"

Christian Lorentzen spoke with Karl Ove Knausgaard (this tab's been awaiting blogging for too long, it's not a new piece). I was especially interested by the reflections on speed:
But speed isn’t something associated with Proust. It’s something we associate with Kerouac, a writer people read in their teens and then often discard. What about him?

I read Kerouac when I was 18, and I left him behind, too. But he and the others in his school turned out to be very important to me when I got around to writing. That kind of energy is completely lacking in modernist writers like Musil, and I’m much closer to Kerouac than to Musil. I discovered that I could come up with things when I wrote quickly that I would never have thought of otherwise, and that’s the way it still is.
I am hungry for those last couple volumes....

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Two Knausgaard bits

(I need to stop blogging and get off the computer, this is ridiculous! Going to leave Ferrante post for another day but wanted to close these two Knausgaard tabs.)

Ane Farsethås interviews KOK for the Paris Review. Here Knausgaard explains why Madame Bovary is the world's best novel:
I’ve read the novel many times, and its details are so vivid—the world is clear and crisp as a landscape after a heavy rainfall. And it has that incredible torrent of emotions and dreams and desires that gain even more force by being so fundamentally misplaced. I think it’s better than In Search of Lost Time. Proust doesn’t have that kind of concentration. Flaubert is interesting. I just read his letters, and they really go backstage. He writes about everything! The most obscene things, sex, prostitutes, what have you. They’re as chaotic as life itself. And then you see that perfectly constructed facade of the novel, which in a way contains it all, but indirectly—it’s highly controlled and composed. That made me realize the value of Bovary is much higher, a thousand times higher than the letters, even though the letters are livelier and closer to life. It’s about creating a universe that’s entirely self-contained and not just true, but actually valid. It’s that validity—which, in the best books, is endless—that is perhaps the true nature of literature.
And an interesting essay by Siri Hustvedt.


Garth Greenwell came to my attention because of his Atlantic essay about A Little Life, and his role as passionate advocate for a book I also loved made me curious to read his own forthcoming novel What Belongs to You.

I was able to get an electronic advance copy through Netgalley and read it last month in one or two compulsive sittings. Both the prose and the relationship between the protagonist and his lover are unforgettably good: the subject matter calls to mind Giovanni's Room inevitably, but the sentences have a wonderfully incongruous touch of Thomas Bernhard! It is the dark mirror of Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name, and the two would be interesting to teach in tandem.

Here is a passage I especially liked:
She had always been driven; as a child she worked harder than any of the rest of us in shcool, she excelled at sports, she was the president of her class, in everything she did she was exceptional. She questioned all of it now, she said, everything she had done, everything she had wanted, not just these public ambitions but also more private needs. We had never talked about sex before; she was so much younger and I had always shied away from it, though she knew something about my own history from the poems I had published, which she searched out and read with an attention they seldom, probably in no other case received. I just wanted to get it over with, she said about the first time she had sex, it was a relief, I didn't want it to be a big deal. She was fourteen when she started sneaking out at night, she told me, boys would wait for her, their cars running on the next street over; they were always older guys, she said, first seniors at her school and then college students she met at parties. I'd lie about my age, she said, I'd say I was sixteen or seventeen and they'd believe me, or maybe they just pretended to believe me. It's not like there were that many of them, she said, maybe seeing the dismay I felt, I didn't even have sex with all of them, I just liked being with them, I liked the attention. I don't know why I cringed at her stories, when I had done so much worse at her age, having sex in parks and bathrooms, dangerous and indiscriminate sex; but I was troubled that her history seemed to parallel my own, that we shared what I had thought of as my own gnawing affliction. And I knew she would outgrow the satisfactions she had found, that soon she would desire other and more intense experiences, drawn forward by those appetites we share, that humiliating need that has always, even in my moments of apparent pride, run alongside my life like a snapping dog. Even these desires, I thougth as I listened to my sister, seemed to descend from my father like an inherited disease.
It's getting good coverage: here's a nice PW bit. Highly recommended.

Closing tabs

Trying to tidy up my utterly chaotic apartment - but the counterpart bit of tidying involves closing a lot of tabs that have been open for too long....

Best sight over Thanksgiving - PEZ dispensers at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore!

Closing some tabs:

Photographs of Arctic foxes.

William McIlvanney has died - his Laidlaw books were a favorite with my Scottish grandfather.

Novel-reading has been fairly pitiful, though I need to write separate posts on books by Elana Ferrante and Garth Greenwell that are not pitiful.

Hahahahaha, have been contemplating this line as I thought longingly about blogging - am now on installments 13 to 15 of Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark-Hunter novels - they are very good storytelling in their way, albeit somewhat repetitive when binge-read; I would like them better if there were less sex, but this is like saying I would like chocolate chip cookies better if there were no chocolate chips in them! (Also true.) Resolved to read a higher proportion of nonfiction in 2016 as there is less brain rot that way!

Actually I have had quite a few good things now that I think about it - I am always in peaks and troughs of despair and elation, fortunately something good usually turns up to read just when I am utterly dry....

Appealing caper crime: Lou Berney's first two novels, which are not so much my cup of tea as his most recent one but which are still incredibly good - I think he's my new favorite relative-newcomer crime writer.

Another very good first crime novel (from a veteran writer, and it shows): Lisa Sandlin, The Do-Right. There is perhaps a tad too much historical detail, but the writing is excellent and the storytelling is very good too (not always the case): Attica Locke is the closest parallel. I highly recommend this one - I think it will appeal slightly less to the general reader than Berney's The Long and Faraway Gone, as the historical setting is a little too lovingly realized and the story is less plausible, but it is worth mentioning in the same breath, especially on the strength of the characters and the prose.

Denisa Mina's excellent new Alex Morrow novel, Blood, Salt, Water.

Kevin Wignall, A Death in Sweden - great stuff! Not perhaps quite up to Peter Temple in the writing, but very good indeed - that is a standard few can meet, and this is definitely first-rate. Wignall's first few books made a big (positive) impression on me, but he hasn't been on my radar in recent years, and I am hoping that may mean there's some backlist I can catch up on. I just like this guy's brain - you know when you read a novel and it is so intelligent and compact and contained that you feel like you could live with it in your house?

Comfort reread when I couldn't find anything else: Eva Ibbotson, A Song for Summer (I love her books so much and it makes me very sad that there will be no more of them).

Appealing SF: C. A. Higgins, Lightless (I loved this one, and was perplexed by the negative Amazon reviews - yes, this is a little more simplistic than the Expanse books, say, in the best tradition of YA SF of the 50s and 60s, but it is incredibly gripping and the characters are really nicely brought to life - I hugely enjoyed it).

Mira Grant's latest sapient tapeworm installment, Chimera (she is a genius of light reading, everything she writes is what I most enjoy reading). Good thing for me she is so prolific! (And by the way, when did it become acceptable to apply the adjective "prolific" to, say, serial killers? I see it often and it always strikes me as a solecism!)

On the topic of serial killers, a rather terrible book by Alan Jacobson ccalled The 7th Victim. It is capably written and presumably reasonably well-informed about profiling and FBI procedures, but the main character is so utterly preposterous in her motivations and actions that it ruined everything else good about the book for me. (It reminded me of this very good recent post by Charlie Stross - writers take note....)

Three enjoyable and very light books by Deborah Blake, who I will continue to read despite what I feel to be the basic silliness of this kind of paranormal romance because she is a good writer!

My Greenwell and Ferrante posts may have to wait for another day, that's enough blogging after a long dry spell!

Final thought. If I can do four things tomorrow, everything will be OK:

(1) Run
(2) Finalize my spring-semester syllabus, which will involve a bit of library time, and email it to seminar leaders for Thursday morning meeting
(3) Write the two most pressing letters of recommendation
(4) Get to 5pm makeup powerlifting session

A human ear

Svetlana Alexievich's Nobel lecture:
Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think – how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven't been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don't appreciate it, we aren't surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk ... I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.
A very compelling piece - worth a read. I've only read the Chernobyl book, but I've acquired a couple of the others and am hoping to read them in January.

The drift from fiction

Geoff Dyer and others on the blurriness of the line between fact and fiction.


At the New Yorker, Alex Abramovich on the culture clash between Warholites and VU:
“We spoke two completely different languages,” Mary Woronov, who’d been a dancer with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, said. “We were on amphetamine and they were on acid. They were so slow to speak with these wide-open eyes—‘Oh, wow!’—so into their ‘vibrations’; we spoke in rapid machine-gun fire about books and paintings and movies. They were into ‘free’ and the American Indian and ‘going back to the land’ and trying to be some kind of ‘true, authentic’ person; we could not have cared less about that. They were homophobic; we were homosexual. Their women, they were these big round-titted girls, you would say hello to them and they would just flop down on the bed and fuck you; we liked sexual tension, S & M, not fucking. They were barefoot; we had platform boots. They were eating bread they had baked themselves—and we never ate at all!”
Here's Douglas Wolk on the reissue of the Matrix tapes and Dean Wareham ditto - might have to acquire this set....

(One of my cats has been having dental woes - he had to go in Monday to have seven [!] teeth extracted - but when the vet was here last week to do the preliminary check-up, we had a funny conversation about Lou Reed. Dr. P. spotted the name on the spine of a book on my shelf, and told me the tale of how he bid through some kind of charity auction for the leather jacket Clinton gave to LR when he played at the inauguration - and then got it signed by Lou himself....)