An uncompromising apophatic criticism would look like the writing of Steve Mitchelmore. He does something like what Lerner does with poetry, but he does it with literature in general, and he doesn’t, well, compromise on the validity of his method.
I first came across Stephen Mitchelmore's blog This Space on one of those long, anxious evenings, when the only thing that was going to settle me was to read something new about one of my favourite writers. This was also around the time when I had become tired of being the only one I knew who liked the books that I liked. As soon as I tried to explain to my good friends that a particular book didn't interest me at all, no matter that it was 'profoundly moving' or 'fascinating', it would always seem, in contrast to what they had just said, that I was also admitting to my own pathetic diminution as a person, and I started to think that the little corner of my room where I stacked my favourite books (which were mostly written by dead people -- even I could see that) was a kind of morbid, crusted-over lair...
It's become clear to me that any very patient, generous and creatively intelligent attempt to write about any of this, in the way that Stephen Mitchelmore has done in his blog and now in his recently published book This Space of Writing, enlivens the world that we live in so much more brilliantly and immediately than many of these apparently 'moving' or 'hard-hitting' or 'fascinating' novels. But how can that be? Perhaps it's the work of the writing that does it: the very process and experience of writing that demands that we stay attentive -- not only to the words themselves (which are so often at the point of escaping us) but, as with so many inexplicable aspects of our existence (our dreams, impressions, fleeting thoughts), also to exactly how the writing has affected us.
Read more of this lovely review piece over at Jen Craig's beinginlieu blog.
One of the most interesting trends in recent philosophy is what is sometimes called Speculative Realism. The name comes from a conference in 2007 at the University of London that brought together four very different philosophers who nevertheless were united in their efforts to resurrect realist metaphysics: Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Each of them hold quite different metaphysical positions, but all four critique what they name "philosophies of correlation." As a theologian and not a philosopher, I can't help but make a connection to my field here. Just as the Radical Orthodox movement identifies a key moment in the history of philosophy (for RO, this is Duns Scotus' univocity) that leads to its destructive decline, the Speculative Realists point back to Kant's apparently disastrous argument that the thing-in-itself is unknowable. MORE...
I've just started this myself. Lots of Whitehead, and lots of good sense so far...
From World Literature Today, review of The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño and After:
This unique collection of essays by fifty scholars and writers on the work of sixty-nine contemporary novelists from Spanish America is a valuable resource for scholars and readers alike. The authors included for discussion were born between 1949 and the early 1970s and have published the bulk of their work since 1996. The essays on individual writers are organized in six chapters based on their point of origin from one of the following geographical and cultural regions: Mexico, Central America, the Spanish speaking Caribbean and Venezuela, the Greater Andean region, the Southern Cone, or the United States. Although much of US Latino literature is currently being written in English, the editors conclude that the influence of these writers and their works on Spanish American letters, both in English and in Spanish translation, merits their inclusion in this volume. For readers who do not read Spanish, information is provided on recent novels that have been translated into English, and, for film aficionados, cinematic adaptations of novels by the authors studied are also cited. MORE...
It is not too surprising that of all the singular voices in modern French literature Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003) is still relatively unknown to an English readership. Despite the indelible mark that he has left on the strand of 20th century French literary criticism and philosophy that continues to enjoy popularity in translation today—from Roland Barthes to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault—we have only recently begun to learn how to read Blanchot. This is at least in part because the reclusive author has remained enigmatic, even in France. Blanchot never held a University position, nor did he give lectures or frequent the many literary cafes and salons in Paris. Instead, he retreated from the spectacle of public life and made a living strictly off his vocation as a writer. More...
These guys popped up on Twitter the other day (@FitzcarraldoEds): "a London-based publisher, will be publishing long-form essays and novels." They start publishing "[i]n August, a novel: ZONE by Mathias Enard (originally published by @open_letter in the US and @ActesSud in France)... In September, an essay: MEMORY THEATRE by Simon Critchley, with images by Liam Gillick."
Great books to start with. (ZONE was reviewed by Steve at This Space here: "Everything is coursed into a recital, a unique poetic ritual of mourning to reach the destination that is itself. Zone is indeed soaked in trauma yet, in Mathias Énard's hands and Charlotte Mandell's fluid translation, it is exhilarating, and has to be read."
In No Medium, Craig Dworkin looks at works that are blank, erased, clear, or silent, writing critically and substantively about works for which there would seem to be not only nothing to see but nothing to say. Examined closely, these ostensibly contentless works of art, literature, and music point to a new understanding of media and the limits of the artistic object.
Its been noted elsewhere, I'm glad to say – a long review (which I need to read carefully) from Richard Marshall over on 3:AM and a nice mention over on THE magazine too ("What ... makes No Medium invaluable is that the author’s immersion in the field permits him to highlight the qualities distinguishing the works with a connoisseur’s appreciation."). And you can see Craig talking about, and reading from, his book in a lecture on vimeo...
I'll respond to the book – and to Marshall's review - anon (I hope!) In the meantime, take my word for it: it's a goody!
Let's be clear: My Struggle is not about the life of Karl Ove Knausgaard. The interminable specifics of the content are superficial necessities for an experiment in stretching the everyday to such a degree that it becomes translucent...
Paul Virilio says the title of his book The Administration of Fear "sprang to mind right away as a direct echo of the title of Graham Greene's well-known book, The Ministry of Fear... I use the expression "administration of fear" to refer to two things. First, that fear is now an environment, a surrounding, a world. It occupies and preoccupies us... [it] also means that States are tempted to create policies for the orchestration and management of fear... When I read Graham Greene's book, I found the expression "ministry of fear" to be particularly well chosen because it carries the administrative aspect of fear and describes it like a State."
Fear, then, is a product of the State, part of the modern mood; something the State contributes to, sustains and extends through its activities - and often especially through the activities it pursues to counter fear's epiphenomena. The administration of fear, then, is the administration of fear that the State causes and makes perpetual by its actions. The administration of fear pace Graham Greene is a Catch-22 situation.
Asked by his interlocutor Bertrand Richard "isn't it inappropriate to use the same expression for both the tragic historical events of the Second World War and what we Westerners are experiencing today," Virilio replies that he does not think so. A brief discussion of Hannah Arendt and an overview of his dromology, his politics of speed, is followed by a fascinating thought: when "Henri Bergson, the theorist of duration, and Albert Einstein, the inventor of relativity" met in Paris (in April 1922) they were not able to understand one another - a unique rendez vous, a moment of fate, happened but did not take place. Science became part of the "military industrial complex" and philosophy failed to think a political economy of speed.
Dissident Trotskyists once argued that the Second World War never really ended, just morphed; certainly, today, war is ubiquitous. The war on terror was a response to fear that has created an ever-present climate of anxiety, the administration of which only makes more plain to its makers the need for it - and clearer to the rest of us that the situation is both manufactured and all too real: this is hell, nor are we out of it.
Virilio takes a novel to furnish him with a metaphor with which he can think about the present. This is one of art's tasks. Perhaps another, however, is the administration of fear itself. Art doesn't just provide metaphors. As a matter of actuality, it works with words to administer, to oversee, to organise fear. Fidelity to our metaphor must make us ask, however, whether, as with the homologous activity of the State, the very fact of this administration doesn't itself add to and extend the reign of the regime of fear art portrays itself as the antidote to. What if The Ministry of Fear ministers to fear, furthers fears aims and objectives? What if The Ministry of Fear is not only the name of a novel but a name for what novels are?
A novel organises material to augment itself, prove the worth of its story, prove the fact of its own requirement, prove the worth of its own solution (a novel is the answer to its own question). Or it subverts itself, shows the worthlessness of its form and instantiates, in that move, the humanity of its humility (refuses to answer the question it has itself posed). A novel administers fear, pretends lack away, narrates with hubris, brings up the bodies and declares that all shall be well - narration as order, as good governance - or it dismantles itself, not allowing itself ever to be itself, allowing itself only to be the motor of its own disruption: not to be the sum of its parts, and to have parts that disrupt its sum.
Crudely stated, Virilio thinks that speed equals terror: "the question of global finitude... the enclosure of consciousness is happening in a world limited by the immediacy of nano-chronology - the acceleration of reality is a significant mutation of History." The novel has always concerned itself with time. Virilio believes only a meeting of new Bergsons and new Einsteins can save us. Perhaps...
American poet Ben Lerner's overpraised debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, has its hero, Adam Gordon, an American poet on a year out in Madrid, wonder whether, on seeing someone weeping in front of a painting, he has ever himself had "a ‘profound experience of art’". In such a mediated world is an authentic, immediate, profound experience even really possible? At the beginning of Leaving the Atocha Station the thrill for the reader is whether Lerner can sustain this investigation into the administration of, the separation from, authentic feeling that Gordon is trying to work through, in his poems and his life, in the novel. But it soon becomes clear that the investigation - which if it is authentically to be a process of thought about the way thought can preclude authentic feeling - has to fail to succeed. Sadly, it only succumbs to its own logic. After a promising start, Leaving the Atocha Station becomes a dull book about a rather precious young American poet abroad. The question, at whatever 'meta' level it is pitched, of whether it is possible to have a profound experience of art was rightly joined, in the novel, to the question of how to make the art of having a profound experience of one's own life without becoming an alienated spectator of it. The novel fails, however, not because it sets that existential question against the backdrop of the profound and real tragedy and crime of the bombing of the Atocha Station, but because it loses its nerve and becomes merely a bildungsroman.
The fear that Adam Gordon - has he ever had a ‘profound experience of art’? - and our own experience of the novel are weakened by the inability of Lerner to communicate the alienation his hero feels because the novel he writes is itself so very sure of itself. In a world where a bombing like the one that killed 191 people and wounded 1,800 at the Atocha Station can occur, we're served badly by a novel that doesn't recognise that the disaster is not something a novel reports on - however well, however badly, however obliquely - but something that structures and disrupts its very being. To have a profound experience of art is not possible inside the administrative space of the contemporary novel of fear - most especially because the contemporary novel is not nearly afraid enough of what it can do, of what it is.
The Ministry of Fear could very well be the title of Kafka's collected works. For Graham Greene it was the title of a novel of war and faith - great narratives both. For Lerner, ennui and irony - late capitalism - stop Adam Gordon from feeling. But perhaps ennui and irony are already profound experiences of their own. Only a novel could explore that, but only if it didn't administer the answer.
How does Freud define the unheimlich (in his famous essay here)? The question is important – and we should be clear we know what it is asking: the question is not, what is Freud's definition, but rather how does he go about defining the word? What is his method? What needs noting is that Freud's process of (arriving at a) definition, his attempts at clarity, problematises the very idea of a fixed and final definition. And this paradox can be used to gain some insight into how a novel opens itself up to the problem of its own subject matter, how the novel deals with the self-undermining fact of itself.
The unheimlich – crudely, the uncanny, or the opposite of what is familiar – itself points at something beyond definition and suggests language – and the particular kind of conversation that psychoanalysis is – is always in excess of itself. As Bifo Berardi argues this excess is what makes (poetic) language (potentially) revolutionary. And it is what makes fetishising the mot juste a reactionary step. Freud's etymology is scientific or pedantic, depending on your sensibility, but quaint, dogged and laughable regardless – and it echoes in this essay in miniature the insightful purblindedness of his whole weltanschauung. The unheimlich essay (available in volume 14 of the old Penguin Freud Library, Art and Literature but not the new replacement to that volume; I hear the editor Adam Phillips didn't want it included for some reason) begins with an extensive trawl through many complimentary and contradictory dictionary definitions. We see the word pulled and pushed and extended and bent to move between meaning unhomely or undomestic to ghostly, haunted and on to secret, concealed. Page after page of yet more exact definition and one finds only that exactness and definition have proved illusory. Uncannily, unheimlich is a word that contains secret worlds and will not settle down. Uncannily, unheimlich names something that can just about be named but barely owns its own definition. In a sense – and we read in the essay its multiple senses – it is the word for what poetry is always concerned with: nomenclature – naming with absolute precision what absolutely has no precise meaning, naming what always wriggles free of being named and held down, naming what is always beyond language in language, naming what is left behind, unsaid, unheimlich, after language has got close, moved nearby, danced around, scented, approached...
Once Freud has waded through a number of definitions of unheimlich, dissatisfied he walks us through several definitions of its antonym heimlich. He finds something deeply strange, something unheimlich, during this work: secretly, heimlich is not the antonym of unheimlich at all, but rather its sometime synonym; their secret sharing is that they secretly share the same meaning: "What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich... Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich." Heimlich shivers with an an unheimlich quality. Unheimlich finds in its opposite only itself. Specifity – a scientific trawl through the dictionaries – has led us back to an unheimlich place. Specifity has proved itself merely to be a mode of obscurity. The domestic is weird, very weird at root. Underneath the heimlich, the homely, the unheimlich is. It takes Freud a few pages of dictionary-sourced entries to prove this; it takes Karl Ove Knausgård a novel.
The finest novel of this year, A Death in the Family (the first volume of six, the series entitled My Struggle) is a novel of the unheimlich and an unheimlich novel. It was so far beyond anything else published this year because of its engagement with the fact that quotidian dreariness, everyday pain, and something numinous that lies just beyond sight, beneath grief, certainly lies always beyond language, is precisely what the novel at its best yearns to reach, knowing it will ever fail to reach there. This is not a typical bildungsroman – life's untaken paths are not the novel's concern. Cliche, commonplace and unremarkable constructions abound. Language's untrodden paths are not a concern either – the path language is always already taking, the path we're never not on, is suffused with the unheimlich: the yearned for mot juste doesn't get us any further than just our everyday yearning, The subject here is death – and whether writing/language has anything to say about this commonplace disaster that haunts and harries and shapes us everywhere we turn.
The novel begins, before it gets caught up in a sometimes pedestrian if always hypnotic retelling of a young man growing up, with the unheimlich. Knausgaard the author writes directly about death's ubiquity (the first line, in Don Bartlett's translation, is: "For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.") Knausgaard the boy is then described seeing, on the TV news, after a disaster, a face in the sea. Beneath the whole novel something is stirring, something unheimlich that can't be said. After Knausgaard's father dies, the key event in the novel, the huge, overwhelming presence he was in Karl Ove's life continues. As Knausgaard and his brother clean the filthy detritus his dead drunken father has left behind in a house become hovel, he realises that he has to write this, has to write of this, write out of this, write about the stink, the misery, the pain, the boredom, the embarrassment because the stink, the misery, the pain, the boredom, the embarrassment is never all there is – things are always in excess of themselves, and in this way things are like words, are like icebergs, and their excess isn't captured by words but mirrored by them.
If, uncannily, words, sometimes, mean the very opposite of themselves; if poetry, language at its most distilled, at its finest and most dense, is at the same time language freed from crude referentiality; if and when, as Freud shows us, unheimlich can mean heimlich – what can we make of words? And what, so labile, can words make? And why might this – call it porousness, call is slipperiness, call it irony – why might this unreliability of language be something either to celebrate or, more, even to find radical or potentially liberatory? Can we even agree with Bifo that it is? Doubtless, language, used instrumentally, used to pass along (messages about) value, used as info-exchange, is language as reaction, but is poetry really other to this? Millennia of poetry hasn't saved us – but perhaps millennia of poetry has prevented us finally from fully falling? Perhaps Knausgaard's struggle is our struggle – to see that the unheimlich is the heimlich, that the unfathomable death of a father might actually be, in reality, both the same as and at the same time the opposite of the clumsy symbol and actual tragedy it is in and out of a novel. And perhaps the separation of in and out of a novel finally fully collapses here – and collapses the only place where it can: in a novel.
Franco "Bifo" Berardi's The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (part of Semiotext(e)'s excellent Intervention Series) is a perplexing text – often perplexingly bad, it has to be said. But beneath the autonomist reworking of a post-Foucauldian politics, and amidst the ruinous post-poststructuralist neologisms, a truth is trying to fight its way out. Infuriatingly, in such an often wooden (and when not wooden, wooly) essay, that truth is about poetry – the poetry intrinsic to all language that isn't tied to instrumental use, the poetry we see when language unmoors itself from crude referentiality.
When language is reduced to information exchange it loses its ironic potential; when language tries to describe those things that lie beyond language – love, hope, another possible world – its failure to pin things down ambiguously reveals its human success:
Poetry is language's excess: poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and is not exchangeable, but gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning: the creation of a new world.
Poetry shows that language cannot be counted upon – not least that it can't be counted on simply to count. When it is showing, it is always telling: as language's excess, it can never quite account for itself. Language's imprecision, its limitless lability, is precisely what proves it is fit for purpose. Fit to indicate hope, fit to hint at what the dream meant or might mean. Language fails at simplicity, and by failing succeeds: a cast iron definition of love wouldn't help anyone make love or know they were in love. Poetry shows us language is defined by what it cannot quite name.
Somewhere in Bifo's book something like this is trying to be articulated. And for that reason alone (helped along by some nice riffs about capitalist time and precarity) I commend it to the House!
It’s often unclear whether Ulven’s voices are meant to be many, or one. They certainly speak and think of similar things. Like Beckett’s creations, all are crippled, decrepit, or otherwise waning. Decay, says one, is the “lowest multiple,” which may be why these characters seem to converge. In their infirmity, each shares something essentially human. As it’s put at one point, “people are only really revealed in decline.” Yet if decay and decline disclose the human condition, they also herald a kind of heroism. Early on, we meet an old man for whom “unbuttoning a shirt is a real task . . . a project in itself . . . a triumph every time.” Replacement is full of such everyday struggles. But because the book balances all events equally, compressing life’s major and minor moments, these delicate acts acquire a heartrending resonance...
David Winters reviews Tor Ulven’s Replacement on full-stop.net.
Easter Island is now little more than a tourist destination, its sacred sites reconstructed without any religious intent, making the island's given name ironic as Christianity supplants another religion based on the continuing life of the dead. Nicolas Cauwe’s narrative, originally published in French and, from a certain stiffness of expression, apparently self translated, has none of the lyric effusions of Pierre Loti’s account of 1872 or the indulgence of other personal narratives such as Katherine Routledge’s The Mystery of Easter Island (1919) and Heyerdahl’s Aku-Aku (1958), which is perhaps inevitable given the exhaustion of Easter Island's enchantment. The stunning colour plates at least offer a glimmer of an aura now faded; a glimmer, however, that still fascinates...Great revew over at This Space.
One never knows what to expect from the up-and-coming French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux. I certainly didn’t expect his second book-length work to be a “decipherment” of Stéphane Mallarmé’s enigmatic final poem, Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of Dice Will Never Abolish Chance). Still less did I expect it to be so absorbing and thrilling. The Number and the Siren is an erudite work of literary criticism, tackling one of the most difficult of modern poets...
Meillassoux’s study, breaking from the general studies and understandings of Mallarmé’s brilliant poem, posits that the poem itself can literally be deciphered, that meaning exists not exclusively in the blatant language or form of the poem itself, but rather that meaning is embedded, coded, within the work.
Also, an excellent take over on speculativeheresy:
First, though, I would like to reflect on the strangeness of the book. Adam and others have already remarked that the trajectory of Meillassoux’s work has been anything but predictable. Perhaps this should be less surprising than it is, since the thesis concerning absolute contingency put forward in After Finitude was taken very seriously by Meillassoux. There is no sufficient reason for anything and so why should we have expected his nihilism to play out as every other nihilism has? Indeed, this term, though seemingly embraced in The Number and the Siren, may not really be apt for a description of Meillassoux’s work. While there is a certain void lying at the center of his philosophy and while the privileging of primary qualities in After Finitude seemed to suggest a kind of scienticism, already we could see there a certain humanism at work. Limiting the law-like powers of Nature (with the capital-N intended) in order to make room for human salvation.
If Walser’s comic dialogue with the language and gestures of literary convention is at times gleefully impish, it would be a mistake to regard The Walk as anything so self-evident or easily categorized as satire. Its vision is too opaque, its meaning too enigmatically unfulfilled, its contours edged with darkness. Walser was one of Kafka’s favourite authors, and the oneiric seamlessness of Kafka’s more surreal narratives such as The Castle or Description of a Struggle is immediately recognizable. The narrator moves from one distorted interaction to another in a kind of lucid dream, a liminal state that seems to draw from both conscious and unconscious, blurring the straight lines of the former with the associative fluidity of the latter. The persona of the narrator evaporates within this mnemonic haze, the self who took the walk irreconcilable with the self who attempts to recreate it.
Excellent stuff: Danny Byrne reviews Robert Walser's The Walk over at 3:AM.
There is a dream he can realise however, and that is one he had while seriously ill, caused by years of alcohol abuse. He dreamed of Dublin, “a city he had never been to, but which in the dream he knew perfectly well, as if he'd lived there in another life”. That other life is, of course, reading. He has absorbed James Joyce’s Ulysses as a vampire absorbs another's lifeblood, just as Joyce absorbed Homer. As is only natural for someone who has a “remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text”, Riba decides to hold a funeral for the Gutenberg age of print in the very same chapel that in episode six of Ulysses saw the funeral of Paddy Dignam. If literature is dying, then a funeral must follow (more...)
Michael Faber recently rather dismissively reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Death in the Family. The novel has been widely praised elsewhere, and led another reviewer to write: "I started writing reviews in  and had not
read an author entirely new to me that I believed was
a masterpiece. As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle,
I thought that this is perhaps the closest I will ever get." There is a
big difference between Faber's the "bulk of the text, however, consists
of mundane family life described
in microscopic detail. All the dull stuff that most novelists would
omit, Knausgaard leaves in" and Mitchelmore's "something remarkable
emerge[s] from darkness and silence". What accounts for it?
To be fair, Faber's incomprehension ("half the book's bulk seems devoted to activities such as lighting cigarettes, drinking beer, going to the newsagents, making small talk") is not idiotic – it did, however, amuse me that Lee Rourke tweeted: "This review is beyond wrong-headed; utterly, utterly, utterly wrong"! You can see (a version of) Faber's case against the book as soon as you begin reading: it does seem to be no more then lots of cliches plus lots of banalities ("infelicities in the text... merciless specificity", Faber states). Detail piles upon seemingly inconsequential detail, not a lot goes on, but the clue to the fact that this is a misreading is spelt out within the text itself. Faber's cluelessness does, however, show very clearly what the critical priorities of most novelists and reviewers are: the tyranny of the well-turned phrase and bon mot; the realist's dream of the fully rounded character. They are all bastard children of Flaubert and Dickens who seem to think that literature can be equated with good manners. It is like a lover of classical music going to a punk concert and reporting back that it was a bit shouty. It is not an opinion one should take seriously.
Faber sees something praiseworthy in how the novel starts: it "begins with a grand meditation on post-mortem microbes worthy of Jim Crace's Being Dead." It begins, in short, with a clear attempt by the author to help the reader attune to what will follow. A Death in the Family does not begin startlingly well and then just descend into trivia. The odd, disconcerting, haunting opening, immediately foregrounding Knausgaard's focus on death and his relationship with his father, plays on through the rest of the quotidian exposition like a minor chord, a discordant humming, constantly in the background, beneath the banal. The detail, here, quivers with what Freud called the unheimlich. Inside and underneath "mundane family life described in microscopic detail" is the mundanity of death; a mundanity which, in its specificity, undoes us all, and which this shockingly good novel makes its theme whilst, simultaneously, holding the detail of life in rare and lucid focus.
I started writing reviews in the year Josipovici's review was published (1996) and had not read an author entirely new to me that I believed was a masterpiece. As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I thought that this is perhaps the closest I will ever get. Such is the reach of the word masterpiece beyond craft and industry considerations, my instinct was not to review at all but to thrust the book into the hands of friends for whom reading is absolutely central to their lives (not many).
But I must write something. Reading My Struggle was often like reliving fragments of my own life – an intensity resonating in a void – and a review would mean explicating this in formal terms, and that wouldn’t be right. Yet the terms available seemed too personal, something to be shared only by handing the book over in silence. How then to recommend?
But it is not all. We have the novel. In his diaries from his time in prison, published at the same time as The Unseen, Antonio Negri cites Kundera’s fear that ‘our prison records will be the only things left of us.’ They are not. What is hopeful is not the conclusion of Balestrini’s novel, but the existence of the novel itself. Its protagonists have not been reduced simply to their records, but come to us in a living and pungent voice. It is unstintingly real, and poses devastating questions, questions which are ever more important to answer today: how to survive in a way that’s worth surviving? (More...)
Near the start of The Flame Alphabet, we find the novel’s narrator fretting over the falseness of narrative. The protagonist, Sam, is part put-upon husband, part picaresque everyman. Most of all, though, he’s a storyteller; one of those “reliable narrators” of old-fashioned literary lore. Keen to set the scene, Sam’s on the lookout for novelistic “motifs,” and maybe even “a fine bit of foreshadowing.” But reality falls far short of such bookish ambitions. “What is it called when the landscape mirrors the condition of the poor fucks who live in it?” he wonders. “Whatever it is, it was not in effect.” This calls to mind Samuel Beckett’s aside, mid-description: ‘to hell with all this fucking scenery.’ What’s at stake in both cases is more than merely a rhetorical reflection on the rift between life and literature. With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits (more...)
Dukla is a small town close to the Carpathian Mountains. Dukla is a discontinuous set of descriptions of Dukla. Because the book bears the name of the place, the two seem to stand in some sort of relation. Perhaps the relation of Dukla to Dukla approaches the ‘pure’ form of what links a work to its object. But if so it’s a doubled relation, since reality is already relational. After all, Stasiuk’s subject is not so much Dukla as what Dukla reflects or refracts: what its reality relates to him. He doesn’t just look at a landscape; in so doing he looks through a lens at what makes a landscape possible (more...)
For almost one hundred years, all sociologists of religion have taken Max Weber’s great work on comparative religions as a primary point of departure. Whole libraries of scholarship have been produced to explicate Weber, expand on Weber, disagree with Weber, revise Weber. In the next hundred years, I think, the point of departure will be Robert Bellah rather than Weber. Bellah’s new masterpiece, Religion in Human Evolution is comparable in scope, breadth of scholarship, and depth of erudition to Weber’s study of world religions, but it is grounded in all of the advances of historical, linguistic, and archeological scholarship that have taken place since Weber, as well as theoretical advances in evolutionary biology and cognitive science. There is enough complexity in Bellah’s work to generate as many academic inspirations and controversies—and, inevitably, oversimplifications and misunderstandings—as have arisen from Weber’s, but Bellah’s will have more resonance with contemporary issues than Weber’s century-old scholarship. Even more fundamental, however, is that Bellah’s new book is in style and pathos more in tune with the spirit of the early twenty-first century than Weber. What are some of the key contrasts between Bellah and Weber? First of all, having deeply absorbed the perspectives of Durkheim, Bellah is focused much more on religious practice, especially ritual practice. This puts him in line with the dominant contemporary trends in the anthropology of religion, trends that see religions mainly as ways of life rather than systems of ideas. Weber doesn’t ignore religious practices, but puts much more emphasis on the ideas that animate the great world religions. Bellah by no means ignores religious ideas, but he emphasizes how thinking about religion grows out of doing religion...
Excellent review of Robert N. Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution by Richard Madsen, over at The Immanent Frame.
Useful chunky and descriptive review by Tony Mckenna of S.S. Prawer's Karl Marx and World Literature (long a favourite of mine, so great to see Verso bring this back into print recently) over on Marx & Philosophy Review of Books:
Prawer’s book, Karl Marx and World Literature – a reprint of the publication which first appeared in 1976 – represents a significant undertaking. This book endeavours to chart the vast array of literary works which most profoundly influenced Marx, and to show how these were channelled through the prism of his political philosophy as it developed over time.
The difficulty of such a project cannot be overstated. Marx was a polymath; a voracious reader who moved easily and swiftly between philosophy and economics, politics and natural science, while his tastes in fiction and poetry were no less diverse. To try to map such movements across the panorama of his life and to exhibit their necessary but often invisible interconnection makes for a daunting task. Nevertheless it is one Professor Prawer has approached with the tenacity of a bloodhound, aided by his own encyclopaedic knowledge of literature and an indigenous familiarity with the German literary milieu...
Prawer’s incisive descriptions and connections of Marx’s reading of Shakespeare stand out. It is not unknown that Marx had a fondness for Shakespeare; and yet part of the beauty of this book, written in the 1970s, shows in detail just how Marx registered in Shakespeare an intuitive, mystified understanding of the nature of the society which was coming into being at the time of his writing, and which Marx would later relate to the nineteenth century providing a more forensic diagnosis – Timon of Athens would describe gold as making ‘Wrong, right; base, noble; old young; coward, Valiant’ – and so Prawer draws attention to a similar passage in Marx only one which springs from his scientific methodology – ‘I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful woman … I am a wicked, dishonest, unscrupulous, dull-witted man, but money is honoured and so is its possesor’. (77) There is not a causal connection between the two, as Prawer is sometimes liable to suggest, but rather it is the culmination of classical German philosophy applied to British political economy by Marx, which allows him to perceive, and quite correctly so, those elements in literature which anticipate the true nature of a society underwritten by the commodity form...
The incommensurability of death then is the dominant theme and determines the style and content. Alice avails herself of the modern world, phoning for taxis, visiting cafés and state-of-the-art hospitals, yet these are the limits of reference. There is only one reference to literature, an unnamed SF novel being read by her husband. It is as if the loss of religious context has also emptied art and literature of consolation; the fate of art has followed the fate of theology. It has disappeared, more or less. However, while characters have bland, pan-European names and live in bland, pan-European cities, as if to emphasise the universality of the incommensurable, there’s only so much that can be drained from the particulars of place and time before it disappears into silence. As well as evoking obscure pathos, such motifs and metaphors inevitably invoke a tradition.
For example, in an otherwise insignificant moment, an unidentified, “multi-legged” insect drowns in Alice’s latte macchiato. The readerly impulse here is to recognise a possible allusion to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, and thereby to appreciate the implications of this absurd event. We may ask: is German literature drowning in consumer culture? Instead, or in addition, we ought to admit the tension this moment generates, when literature tries to exhaust literature by means of literature...
Steve Mitchelmore reviews Alice by Judith Hermann.
The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr asks a man on the street, 'What is a chav?'. He answers, “A chav is someone who wears a tracksuit, has an earring, and a haircut which is grade zero on the sides, grade three on the top.”
This contrasts with Owen Jones's argument in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Arguing that the chav figure is a caricature that encourages the ridicule and hatred of working-class people, Jones states, “The 1980s saw a dramatic assault on all aspects of working class life, on unions, and council houses, and communities, and with it working class pride. It's been replaced by middle class pride, and the working classes have come to be seen as something to escape from.” Calder discusses the media's role in caricaturing working-class people in this way Britain's TV:
To find what used to be termed “the respectable working class” you need to drive 10 miles from Brentwood, and travel back 30 years in time, to the other side of the county, and the other side of Thatcherism: to the Dagenham of Made in Dagenham... It's only here, in the past, that you'll find a world of proud and happy working class folk; people who are empowered by trade unions... who are diligent and law-abiding and happy to call themselves working class.
In 2011, Jones says, hardly anyone does. When I ask Tony Benn why that is he says: “It's because there's this idea that somehow you've failed if you're poor.” The idea of chavs as a semi-feral underclass has emerged, he suggests, because “the media are very hostile to these people. What they're doing is suggesting that if they're sacked it's in some way their fault. And if you blame unemployment on the victims, you are ignoring the logic of what has actually happened.”
From The Demonization of the Working Class over on the Verso blog.
Nice piece in the Guardian a month or so back with Stefan Collini reviewing The Good of the Novel (edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan):
This book contains some outstanding writing about fiction, about individual novels and also, along the way, about the power and reach of the novel as a form. In an age of drive-by reviewing, when every reader can tell the (electronic) world whether or not they "like" a particular book, these 13 essays together constitute something of a manifesto, speaking up for the continuing vitality of that traditional form, the critical essay, a discursive piece of writing which is longer than a journalistic review but more accessible than an academic article. Almost all of them strike those sparks of understanding whereby we recognise that we half knew what they tell us yet didn't, in any articulated way, know at all. This is true of Mary Hawthorne on Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac ("how to live in the world in the absence of having achieved one's heart's desire"), and Frances Wilson on Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy ("Breaking up is a form of editing, which is perhaps why writers do it so well")...
Wonderful quote, from Mary Hawthorne, about Anita Brookner, a writer whose work, in book after book, has been such a moving meditation on loneliness, and on how arid life can be when it is shorn of love.
Of the novels discussed here, JM Coetzee's Disgrace is the only one I have read more than once, so it might be expected that a critical essay on this book would have more of an uphill task than the others to engage me and make me feel I was learning very much. But Tessa Hadley manages this and more, and does so precisely by concentrating on questions of "technique". She returns to that old chestnut of novel-criticism, "point of view", though without the clanking of heavy machinery that often accompanies excursions into narratology. How far is Disgrace written from the point of view of its central character, David Lurie, and how far from that of an omniscient narrator? Taking an instructive detour through the narrative technique of Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee's ostensibly autobiographical accounts written in the third person, she alerts us to the way in which the novel shows us the world through Lurie's sensibility while also including that sensibility as, in some sense, part of its "subject-matter". As she acutely observes: "We aren't given any alternative secure perspective from which to 'know' Lurie, but we are able to scrutinise the edges of the knowledge his temperament makes available to him." This now seems to me dead right, but something it was very hard to get right. The brilliance with which Coetzee pulls off this delicate operation is enhanced rather than diminished by Hadley's analysis, even though, on a reductive view of the matter, she hasn't given me any information that I didn't already possess.
Aside from Collini's rather ill-informed jibes about online reviews which pepper and unbalance his piece, his review is an excellent little essay in defence of literary criticism: "What is going on, I'm tempted to say, is literary criticism, something more ambitious than much everyday reviewing. Such criticism, at its best, involves a sustained attentiveness to how a work of literature achieves its effects plus a focused analysis of what kind of achievement it represents and where that comes in the scale of things."
London-based readers may be interested to know that The Good of the Novel is being discussed at the London Review Bookshop on Monday 16 May at 7.00 p.m.
When What Ever Happened to Modernism? came out critics and writers pounced on Josipovici’s well-reasoned remarks about the deficiencies found in the works of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Philip Roth. The local tempest needn’t be recapitulated here, and indeed, Josipovici’s comments on his fellow writers occupy only a few pages of the book. More serious discussion occurred–though not a great deal of it–concerning Josipovici’s argument that Modernism had not found a lasting place in the homeland of Virginia Woolf and Wyndham Lewis, and the adopted home of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In Josipovici’s view, Modernism is not a style or period of 20th century literary history, but stretches back in time (taking in Cervantes and Wordsworth, for instance), and is closer to a philosophical position. As he says about Mallarmé, Hofmannstahl, Kafka and Beckett – words that may apply as well to Josipovici – they all feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world – imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have – and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves. Their works feel like an interference with the world... lacking proper authority they have strayed into a place where they should not be...
In the wake of the stir caused by What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a reader might pick up Only Joking expecting to find it the equivalent of eating something disagreeable yet good for you. This isn’t the case at all. Despite its title (for we’re aware of the irony of that expression, and how seldom it consoles when we’ve been made the butt of a remark), Only Joking is a witty, complex comedy of machinations, mirror figures, sex and love, art, and verbal dexterity. In 2009 Josipovici’s After & Making Mistakes was published: it consists of two novels collected under the same cover, with “Making Mistakes” based on Mozart’s comic opera Cosi fan tutte. For all I know, the same underpinning could be present here. However, there’s enough business with doors, telephones, disguises and cats to qualify Only Joking as a pastiche of British farce.
Jeff Bursey reviews Gabriel Josipovici's Only Joking in the Winnipeg Review.
Jay Parini new novel The Passages of Herman Melville is just beginning to get noticed (see e.g. the Independent's review).
Below, in an extract from the Telegraph, Parini sketches the relationship between Melville and his great peer Nathaniel Hawthorne:
Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the two great novelists of 19th-century America, were close friends at a major juncture in their writing lives, and it’s hard to imagine a more fruitful, poignant or complex relationship. For Hawthorne, it was a connection that stirred deep intellectual interest. For Melville, it was a matter of love.
After several years in Boston as an inspector at the Custom House, Hawthorne moved to Lenox, in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, in 1850. He lived in a small cottage with his beautiful wife, Sophie, and their two children, Una and Julian. The Berkshires were dominated by such imposing literary figures as Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Fanny Kemble and James Russell Lowell, but Hawthorne was a shy man who rarely ventured into literary society.
In early August, when Melville was staying with an aunt in Pittsfield (six miles from Lenox), a prominent local figure invited him to meet the great Hawthorne – who had just published The Scarlet Letter to wide acclaim – at the base of Monument Mountain, a popular spot for outings.
They hiked up a trail with half a dozen others. Apparently a storm blew up, and the group retreated to a cave to drink champagne from a silver mug and read poetry aloud. Melville grew buoyant, leaping into the rain to a rocky precipice, where he played sailor, pretending to haul up imaginary ropes for everyone’s amusement. Hawthorne, in particular, admired this brash young author, who at 31 was 15 years his junior.
Two days later Hawthorne wrote to a friend: “I met Melville the other day and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts.” (More...)
Charlotte Mandell (RSB interview; Charlotte's own site) is one of the very best translators around, with about 30 books under her belt, including works by Apollinaire, Blanchot and Michaux. Her most recent translation is of Zone, December's RSB Book of the Month.
Here she talks to Scott Esposito about the difficulties of translating a book that is written as a 500-odd page run-on sentence:
I think it’s a vividly appropriate conceit for a narrative that takes place entirely on a train, since it feels very rhythmic and also inexorable – the sentence keeps going on, just like the train, and it won’t stop until it reaches the terminus. I like the fact that the book has exactly 517 pages, which is the same number of kilometers from Milan to Rome. So the narrative is very closely linked to the train ride, especially with the chapters in the Table of Contents referring not to the actual chapter breaks but to the towns the train is traveling through at that point in the book. Time and space are very closely linked, both in the narrative and on the page. History in Zone is a very personal thing, and, as Stephen Mitchelmore points out in his review of the book, the narrator discovers that history is not temporal but spatial: it surrounds the narrator as he travels through Italy and crowds in on him like so many vengeful ghosts. (More...)
The Millions brings my attention to Dying by René Belletto, a writer described here as "on the experimental side: Beckett seems to be the governing shade... with a touch of Maurice Blanchot and a sprinkling of Mickey Spillane":
Mourir, first published in France in 2002 and now expertly translated by Alexander Hertich as Dying, has just appeared in a handsome paperback original published by the Dalkey Archive Press. It’s a work of unusual though never-confusing complexity, a novel of reflections and correspondences that contains all of the author’s strengths: Belletto, who has a brilliant grasp of pacing and possesses a connoisseur’s knowledge of film, is a natural storyteller with a strong, sure voice, and his books prove difficult to put down (more...)
Mr Mitchelmore has been reading Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves:
... a short, relaxing book about the author's library of 20,000 volumes. The phantoms of the title are not missing books but "sheets or cards inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf". So the book is about reading his books and the practical problems of owning so many - storages, organisation, protection - as well as the more abstract, biographical issues of ownership; why, for instance, this bibliomania? Bonnet's response is deflected by anecdotes and light-heartedness: even if a book on his shelves has not been read and, like the essay on Slovenian grammar he possesses, may not be quite essential, it still may come in useful one day (more...)
If ReadySteadyBook had not have been called ReadySteadyBook, then I might just as well have called it The Gabriel Josipovici Fan Club. I've been reading Josipovici since the early 90s, a time when my reading was mostly philosophical and political. When I launched ReadySteadyBook in 2003 -- a signal to myself that my reading was now primarily literary -- Josipovici attained key importance in my own personal pantheon, and ReadySteadyBook has regularly referred to (and been informed by) his work over the several intervening years. Aside from Stephen Mitchelmore's blog This Space, I don't think any other website has banged the drum for Josipovici as loudly. It is ironic, then, that over the summer, whilst ReadySteadyBook has been mostly off the air (due to it gettting a new 'engine' and my getting a time-consuming new job), Josipovici has attained a degree of notoriety for remarks made in his latest book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (and in a non-interview in the Guardian that came about because of it).
L'affaire Josipovici has crystallised a number of things in my mind about British literary culture, so this won't be the last time I refer to it as ReadySteadyBook comes alive again over the next weeks and months. Today, however, I just want to respond to Ian Jack's petty and undignified piece in the Guardian yesterday.
It's interesting that Josipovici's book which, in many ways, is both a call to read more carefully and an enquiry into why reading carefully is beyond so many cultural gatekeepers, has been read so sloppily by so many of its critics. Josipovici 's book is in no conceivable way an encomium for "experimentalism" as Ian Jack so astoundingly misreads it, nor is it an essay of high praise for High Modernism as others have assumed. Josipovici doesn't invoke marginal or avant-garde writers, nor praise typographical or narrative playfulness over stale traditionalism, but rather brings us back to canonical writers (a good part of his essay is taken up with Wordsworth) and allows us to see what was at stake for those artists in their work, and what is at stake for us as readers. The best reviews of the book (if I have the strength, I'll consider the worst reviews at another time), Sam Leith's grudging appreciation ("I enjoyed the sinuousness and vigour of Josipovici's arguments") or Tom McCarthy's measured and welcome warmth both make mistakes about this book even as they fail fully to come to terms with its arguments. Leith inexplicably reverses Josipovici's considered appraisal of Euripides; McCarthy (a friend, and a writer and critic of considerable skill) misattributes to Josipovici views he rightly criticises Adam Thirlwell and Julian Barnes for espousing; Ian Jack just writes a lot of nonsense about Gertrude Stein that suggests he hasn't read Josipovici properly (if at all) and that he most certainly wouldn't understand Stein if he got anywhere near her challenging work.
Josipovici's subtle, serious and very moving book is the only one I know that takes us beyond stale (and historicist) arguments about Form. It is the only book I know that gives us the tools to see how the experimentalism-lite of, say, Will Self, David Mitchell and Salman Rushdie is postmodernism's way of not responding to the perennial challenge of modernism (in the same way that much Victorian fiction didn't respond to Cervantes and Sterne; most Edwardian fiction didn't understand what Woolf was having to respond to in order to write as she did: let us not forget, most Edwardian readers were taking out, from the Woolworths lending libraries, the kind of books that Persephone Books now republish; or, on the continent, were reading Némirovsky!).
Two themes dominate Josipovici's book, as two themes have dominated most critics’ response to it. In a world that moved from being viewed by the vast majority through a sacramental lens, to one where earthly powers had ever more secular explanations, the problem of authority became a problem for art and artists. Why and in what way did the artist have authority to speak? And how could that question inform the art that the artist produced, so that their work did not exhibit the bad faith of pretending that question away. This leads to our second theme: the disenchantment of the world. Do artists seek to re-enchant the world (and who/what gives them authority to do so) or to respond to its disenchantment? Either way, it's a serious job, even when you're laughing as you do it, like Sterne or Spark. For readers who seek through their reading to reach into existenital questions of their own, it is a vital activity. The critics who responded to Josipovici seem disenchanted that he has reminded them how small their current giants are, annoyed that he has asked why so many of the books they have spent a lifetime praising are so thin and insubstantial, and they have responded spitefully to an authoritative critic that they don't have the nous to read carefully and even to begin to understand.
Along with Peter Jones, whose Learn Ancient Greek and Learn Latin courses (subsequently published in book form) enthralled many Daily & Sunday Telegraph readers some years back, and whose Ancient and Modern column continues to adorn The Spectator, Mark Walker should be declared a national treasure...
Now, Walker gives us Britannica Latina: 2000 Years of British Latin, proclaiming via the dust-jacket blurb "It is time for British Latinists who reclaim their heritage." It is, indeed, when we contemplate ignoramus philistines in departments and ministries of education who dismiss Latin and Greek as 'dead' and ancient history as 'elitist' and/or 'irrelevant'.
Barry Baldwin reviews Britannica Latina by Mark Walker here on ReadySteadyBook.
Ian McEwan's new novel Solar has been embarrassingly over-lauded in the Broadsheet reviews I've read. Thomas Jones, writing in the LRB, is a little more circumspect:
In a New Yorker profile of McEwan last year, Galen Strawson is quoted as saying that ‘Ian is essentially a short-story writer,’ that none of his longer books ‘has the unity of drive that the best novels have’. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The disappearance of the daughter in the supermarket at the beginning of The Child in Time (1987), the balloon accident in Enduring Love, the retreat to Dunkirk and the arrival of the wounded at a London hospital in Atonement (2001) are among the most compelling passages of English fiction of the last 25 years. The novels they’re in, however, are schematically structured, with occasionally lurching plot development, and the main themes are loudly hammered home. Solar is no exception (more...)
Jeff Bursey's review of Gabriel Josipovici’s two short novels, After & Making Mistakes, just went up on The Quarterly Conversation:
Like Beckett’s plays, Gabriel Josipovici’s works fend off resolution; also, his texts have more white space than is found in most novels (mainstream or not), and there’s a great use of dialogue. Great, as in its great compactness, naturalness, and poetry — but also as in a lot. There are few narrative passages in the recent novels Goldberg: Variations (2002) and Everything Passes (2006). The space around the words emphasizes that each line counts, and allows each line to breathe on its own. They have, so to say, sentience. The lulls and repetitions of Josipovici’s prose give readers the opportunity to see how his characters come across while they think, feel, talk, repress, obfuscate, and go about their business (more...)
I don't normally think of the London freesheet Metro as the place to go to read a decent book review, however I think Ben Felsenburg's dismissal of David Shields Reality Hunger is pretty spot-on here:
Whatever criticisms David Shields will attract for Reality Hunger – and he can expect plenty for a book as divisive as Marmite – no one’s going to accuse him of modesty.
This collection of 617 pensées is subtitled A Manifesto and sets out its stall in grandiose style: ‘Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.’
For some that line will be playfully provocative, for others ridiculous and infuriating; the same goes for all that follows.
Shields draws upon Ezra Pound, Eminem, Proust and Moulin Rouge as if they’re all knocking around one pick’n’mix bag. Wave after wave of quotes and Shields’s wearying pontification work that old saw about the way fiction and non-fiction are blurring into one.
Telly viewers know the concept – it’s called Big Brother. One surprise, though: Reality Hunger might be mistaken for the notebook of a naive undergraduate after a first encounter with Postmodernism 101. Shields is a middle-aged professor.
For any serious French writer who has come of age during the last 30 years, one question imposes itself above all others: what do you do after the nouveau roman? Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon et compagnie redrew the map of what fiction might offer and aspire to, what its ground rules should be – so much so that some have found their legacy stifling. Michel Houellebecq’s response has been one of adolescent rejection, or, to use the type of psychological language that the nouveaux romanciers so splendidly shun, denial: writing in Artforum in 2008, he claimed never to have finished a Robbe-Grillet novel, since they ‘reminded me of soil cutting’. Other legatees, such as Jean Echenoz, Christian Oster and Olivier Rolin, have come up with more considered answers, ones that, at the very least, acknowledge an indebtedness – enough for their collective corpus to be occasionally tagged with the label ‘nouveau nouveau roman’. Foremost among this group, and bearing that quintessentially French distinction of being Belgian, is Jean-Philippe Toussaint (more...)
More on this over at 3:AM too.
Ellis Sharp's blog The Sharp Side used to be one of the most acute and prickly blogs out there (out here!?) in the blogosphere, but either Ellis stopped blogging as much or I stopped paying as much attention as I should have been doing and he, and his blog, fell from the front of my mind. Regardless of that, it seems that Ellis has actually been rather busy...
Over at the New Statesmen Mark Fisher (author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (part of the excellent Zero Books series) -- which I'll review as soon as I see a copy -- and blogger at k-punk) reviews Ellis's new book of short stories, Dead Iraqis:
Sharp replaces the dominant pastoral image of the English countryside, not with a deflated quotidian realism, but with a different kind of lyricism, one coloured by revolt: fields and ditches become hiding places or battlegrounds; landscapes that on the surface seem tranquil still reverberate with the unavented spectral rage of murdered working class martyrs. It is not the sunlit English afternoon that is "timeless", but the ability of the agents of reaction to escape justice (more...)
Maurice Blanchot observed that there was a tripartite structure to literature: allegory, myth, symbol. A story is allegoric (always already a great big metaphor), mythic (specific; about what the story says it is about) and symbolic (or, think, subversive; about itself, about itself as a text, about itself as a written artefact; writing, on some level, is always writing about writing). A book like Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the 70s, world-conquering, self-help classic, foregrounds the allegorical aspect so much that it is clearly no longer really a novella about a big bird, but rather fully an attempt to say something (something rather cheesey, for sure) about life's big questions. Most novels emphasise their story and plot -- and, with (Establishment) Literary Fiction, especially the elegance and care with which that story is written. It will speed us to my substantive points if I am allowed to claim that Modernism, with its focus on form, was predominantly interested in the symbolic, the subversive. It is easy to see how criticism itself tends to hone in on one particular of these elements to foreground its own concerns (most book reviews of ELF titles are merely plot synopses with attitude). Where literature leads, criticism follows. This is why great, groundbreaking books teach you how to read and good books remind you how. The best book to teach you how to read Proust's ISOLT is Proust's ISOLT, and the best guide to Joyce's Ulysses is Joyce's Ulysses itself.
Summertime, J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, is a very good book. It is the third in a loose series of books of fictional autobiography following Boyhood and Youth. It is, ostensibly, so clever and playful -- and both these adjectives are particular weak in the face of Coetzee's work -- that whilst unveiling itself it seems it has already, simultaneously, done a very good job of reading itself too. The form of the novel need not detain us for too long. We are presented with a casebook of unfinished texts which themselves are presented as the working documents for a biography of John Coetzee, now deceased. A few fragments of John's notebooks occupy the first chapter, then we have transcripts of interviews between John's would-be biographer and four women and one man who have occupied important positions in John's life. Most of these interviews take the form of written Q and As, but one of the 'interviews' is presented to us, with the occassional interuption, in the form of an extended narrative -- the abstract artist reminding us of just how good at figurative drawing he still is, perhaps? The novel ends with several more fragments from John's notebooks.
Coetzee's metafiction (for want of a better term) has, it would seem, already thought about and answered all the questions most critics are likely to want to ask of it or draw out from it; especially if those critics labour under the misapprehension that this is, indeed, something called 'fictional autobiography'. Coetzee's book is, doubtless, a compelling work of auto-critique, but such critique is not hermetic; it always leaks. Freud's self-analyses tell us more about Freud than he ever knew -- as does his the whole body of his work. Any idea that auto-critique can be complete and whole unto itself falls under the anthropologist's fallacy of objectivity. The scientist always affects the results, simply by asking the questions in the first place. Coetzee, of course, knows this. So, are we really in such dangerous, vertiginous, Dante-esque territory? A lit theory hell where nominal crises arise and set in? Is this meta-auto-critical fake-real / real-fake (auto)(biography)? Well, it is both more simple and more complex than that. This is merely a novel and that is, already, already more than enough. Summertime is always tempting us to misread it as a biography of some kind (transcripts, interviewees, references to real events in J.M. Coetzee's real life, even a jacket cover photo that shows JMC at the age he was when the events we are reading about were taking place). We can enjoy it more, however, and get much more from it, if we remember that this is a novel; if we note that Summertime is very clear to remind us of this simple fact all the way down; and that it is about the very temptation it induces fully to misapprehend it.
Despite what some reviewers have suggested, then, this is not a fictionalised biography of John Coetzee because the texts we read are not yet worked up to the standard that biography (even fictionalised biography) demands. For example, when speaking to his interviewees, our would-be biographer says that he will change aspects of the interview if his interviewees are not happy with any part of what he has written; often, they are not happy, and call for changes to the text. These are, then, fictionalised transcripts presented as unfinished. This, then, isn't just J.M. Coetzee's fictionalised autobiography of his life during the 70s in South Africa when he was writing some of his most important work. It isn't just this because this is a novel and JMC knows, as a novelist, that some of all its levels of meaning, despite his care, will always evade him. Indeed, what makes Summertime such a very good book is that it is precisely that lesson that is emphasised in a careful reading of it. Despite how knowing a writer JMC is and despite how knowing he makes us feel and helps us be (and reminds us we should be in general as readers far more attentive than we habitually are) something remains outside of his grasp. Texts, like people, can never be wholly self-aware or self-available nor can they ever be fully appropriated. Therapists, recall, can be nutters too!
Indeed, the way to read Summertime I think is to see how it tempts (aware, of course, of the Freudian overtones of the word) a particular response (the response we've seen in many reviews, the response to it as fictional autobiography) which actually, over the piece, it fully counsels against. Summertime requires a creative, novelistic reading not a reductive, (pseudo-)biographical reading; indeed, is about such a reading. On a quick glance, it looks like this fragmentary 'thing' is something that the reader is being asked to bring together into a unitary whole (to finish the unfinished biographical fragments and turn the pieces into a whole biography). But that is the most dangerous misreading of them all. And that is the temptation that this particular novel (and, indeed, the Novel -- Literature as a whole, as a fragmentary history) warns us fully away from. This is what Summertime is about.
The last chapter of the book containing yet more of John's notebook entries evidences this most clearly. JMC gives us five short fragments of John's unfinished notebook materials that act as a coda to the novel we've just read. The temptation here -- and I think JMC is tempting us, and I'm not sure if this may actually be a weakening in his resolve, if he really does want to help orientate us with a Key to All Mythologies -- is to see each of these fragments as representing each of the major themes of the novel, perhaps even the themes of JMC's life itself. But life doesn't have 'themes' and only an overly simplistic reading of a novel thinks that listing a work's themes somehow 'gets it down'. We have, then, in the fragments, the father/son relationship, John's education, his relationship with women, with writing , with death (and this is the order in which they appear, tempting us to think about such themes hierarchically). But we do not, with this, capture all that the novel is about. The biggest temptation -- to return to Blanchot's formula -- is to read this novel as myth. To think that any novel can ever be read by reducing it to its themes; to think a novel is about just what it is ostensibly about, and not to see that as a possibly very conscious mis-steer, or a very easy way of reducing it to -- following Blanchot -- just one third of all it could be on a more sympathetic reading. It is not only that something always remains after we've reduced a novel to its themes -- which is a commonplace; Moby-Dick, we all know, is not just a novel about a monomaniac -- but to say that we've barely begun even to focus on what it is about even after iterating a whole list of themes, presenting a synopsis, deconstructing its ambiguities, etc.. JMC tempts us to do so, but the whole novel works to show that it would be foolish to succumb. Summertime is about the very misreadings which have subsequently happened to it. It is an ambiguous schooling in the ambiguous nature of writing (and reading) – an ambiguity that it sometimes looks as if JMC is seeking to control, but which the whole novel simultaneously shows is always one step ahead of both him and us, the readers.
To see Summertime as a failed or veiled (auto)biography, then, is precisely to fail to read it as a novel. JMC has foregrounded the Real -- it is about John Coetzee who has written novels called what JMC's novels are called and who shares many verifiable life events with JMC -- only to show the Real is never congruent with the Truth. It is not then of much interest to disentangle how much of JMC's actual biography inheres in his latest work. Rather, we should see that Summertime perpetually problematises a fixed point from which to orientate oneself about anything -- particulary about reading the Novel and particularly about reading this particularly fine example of the modern novel by one of its best practitioners.
In the latest review here on ReadySteadyBook, Robin Durie reviews Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson:
I was intrigued by Kim Stanley Robinson's attack on the conservatism of the Booker prize, its tendency to favour historical fiction whilst overlooking science fiction, and his claim that science fiction at its best explores the new, for a number of reasons. First, I think the general thrust of his critique is well justified. Second, over the last 12 months I have consciously begun reading a fair bit of science fiction (a genre I had more or less ignored since my teenage years). And, third, when I read the article, I was in the midst of reading Robinson’s new novel, Galileo's Dream.
Whilst Robinson was making specific claims about the UK SF scene, the timing of his intervention nevertheless prompted the question of how his own book measures up to the criteria of his critique. The book -- which, at nearly 600 large scale pages, shares a common predicament with the tendency of both historical fiction and SF to indulge in length, often, it seems, for its own sake -- has a structure which has felt forced and not entirely successful to most reviewers. In "parallel" stories (how and why they are not parallel will prove to be significant), Robinson depicts Galileo more or less biographically, as his astronomical observations and interpretations inexorably lead him into conflict with the Catholic church; whilst, at the same time, Galileo makes a series of journeys to the moons of Jupiter, at a time some 3000 years in the future, where the descendants of humanity are about to encounter their first alien species. The threat would have been that, by this plot device, Robinson might risk undermining the scientific achievements of Galileo. Whilst for much of the book, the "parallel" stories do sit uncomfortably alongside one another, by its conclusion, Robinson's gamble reaps a very rich reward (more...)
From Steven Fama's blog the glade of theoric ornithic hermetica (don't blame me for the daft name!):
... despite, or maybe because of it ambiguous character given its prose, and somewhat occult status, Cities – a most fantastic work by Robert Kelly – ought to be celebrated as poetry, and more widely read. And thus the mission here today, in the glade: to show and tell a bit about Cities and its prose poetry, and perhaps encourage some to go out a find it (more...)
Steven suggests that Robert's Cities is hard to find -- the limited edition is, but the piece was reprinted in A Transparent Tree which should be a little easier to get your hands on.
Dissatisfaction is a peculiarly middle-class indulgence. A life that from the outside appears perfect — moderate success, sufficient income, a loving family — can from feel from within claustrophobic and merely adequate, plagued by thoughts of the successes unachieved, the ones that got away, and a nagging lack of purpose.
Gabriel Josipovici’s two new novellas — each barely over 130 pages and issued together under one, elegant cover — both deal with this quiet despair of the bourgeoisie (more...)
My mini-review of Marina Hyde's Celebrity: How Entertainers Took Over the World and Why We Need an Exit Strategy over on The Book Depository:
It is hardly original suggesting that celebrity -- and our obsession with it -- is absurd, but Marina Hyde's excellent book also fully debunks the idea that it is harmless. Hanging our collective hopes on the do-gooding activities of entertainers is not only childish and ridiculous it is, Hyde argues, dangerous.
For sure, celebrity-worship has been around for a long time, but in our media-saturated age the easiest copy to write and publish normally involves Someone Famous doing Something (anything!). Look at any tabloid "news"paper -- news is now simply what A. N. Actor has recently got up to, however dull or tawdry. Tragically, what now passes for more substantive copy is when Someone Famous does Something for Charity. But obscenely overpaid mannequins lecturing us to cough-up our hard-earned on their personal hobby-horse is no way to solve the world's problems.
Is there anything more senseless then Sharon Stone attending the World Economic Forum or Jude Law lecturing us about the Taliban? Hyde doesn't think so. Ginger Spice may well be a goodwill ambassador, but all that shows is that even the UN has bought into our collective inanity and fawning in the face of fame.
So, what is the solution? Hyde doesn't really offer one, but the first step might be simply to laugh at the pomposity of the performing monkeys we've insanely begun to worship. Hyde's book is as good a place as any to start our much-needed celebrity detox!
I review William D. Cohan's House of Cards: How Wall Street's Gamblers Broke Capitalism over on The Book Depository:
In normal economic times the fall of Bear Stearns, founded as an equity trading house in 1923 and one of the largest global investment banks prior to its sudden collapse in March 2008, would be a major story. But, then, Lehman Brothers disintegrated, Merrill Lynch was sold for a pittance, and the world's banking system suddenly realised that virtual assets were worth virtually nothing and all but came to a standstill. After all that Bear Stearns's story didn't seem quite so exceptional or noteworthy. However, the story of this 85-year-old bank, securities trader and brokerage firm is worth hearing and is grippingly told by William D. Cohan who concentrates his attention on three wild and whacky bank bosses: Cy Lewis, Ace Greenberg and Jimmy Cayne. The latter, Cayne, is described as having "world-champion-level bridge skills". His machismo and his gambling are emblematic of a system that from the outside seems impenetrably complicated but is, in truth, run by men of limited intelligence and unlimited avarice.
Cohan's book is subtitled How Wall Street's Gamblers Broke Capitalism, but it is precisely that global, historically-situated, man-made, overturnable social system -- capitalism -- that he never defines or critiques. This is a thrilling narrative in parts but, like so many books about the credit crunch it is curiously incurious about the system that requires bankers to get up to their creative accounting in the first place. Certainly, the world financial meltdown came about because of perverse and ridiculous derivatives, collateralized debt, unrestrained mortgages and also because -- as Cohan shows clearly -- of the negligence, greed and criminality of individual bankers, but behind all of that is a social system that has always been blind to human need and based on the extraction and circulation of value. Wall Street's gamblers haven't broken that system, but they have broken the real economy where real people live and work. And when real people realise that Wall Street gamblers are merely an epiphenomenon of a system that is intrinsically inimical to their needs then it might be them and not a bunch of greedy, overpaid, blue-eyed white men who really break capitalism. For good.
François Monti discusses Mathias Énard's 517-page, one-sentence novel, Zone, in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
In 1897 Edward Carpenter, among others, had joined a small group outside the Spanish Embassy in London to protest against the treatment of the anarchists in Barcelona. Carpenter wrote the preface for a leaflet called ‘Revival of the Inquisition’, which argued, perhaps incorrectly, that the bomb they were accused of throwing was in fact thrown by an agent provocateur...
Carpenter was born in 1844 and attended Cambridge, where he took orders and had sexual dreams about his fellow students. Having left Cambridge, unhappy with its stuffiness, he began to give lectures to working men and women in the North of England. Eventually he moved to Sheffield where, having inherited capital on the death of his father, he built a house, Millthorpe Cottage, near the village of Holmesfield, where he lived for most of the rest of his life (more...)
I don’t think I have ever read a book quite like this one, and it is just possible that it may change my life. I rather hope it will, even if in the small way of opening my mind to the possibilities of silence. After reading this book, I shall no longer ever be afraid of silence, or confuse it with loneliness and abandonment. This book makes an amazing case for seeking it out, and drawing on its power, though I do not think I am strong enough to take it to the ultimate conclusion (more...)
Richard Lourie reviews The Journey by H.G. Adler (translated by Peter Filkins):
I’ve read a lot of books, but nothing quite like this one. An attempt to use the instruments of 20th-century literature to depict the dislocations of spirit and consciousness caused by the genocide against the Jews, its style could be called Holocaust modernism, an improbable formulation if ever there was one.
H.G. Adler’s fate was as unusual as his art. Born in Prague in 1910, he failed to flee before the Nazi takeover and ended up in Theresienstadt, where, as he later wrote in a monograph about the “showcase” camp, “illusion flourished wildly, and hope, only mildly dampened by anxiety, would eclipse everything that was hidden under an impenetrable haze.” Adler spent two and a half years there with his family. Later, in Auschwitz, his wife decided to accompany her mother to the gas chambers so she wouldn’t have to die alone. In all, Adler lost 18 members of his family, including his own mother and father (more...)
Many thanks to Sort Of Books for publishing yet another posthumous work by Stefan Zweig - even if as in the case of The Post Office Girl, Zweig's intentions for the book were somewhat unclear. In an Afterword, the translator, William Deresiewicz, points out that Zweig "nibbled away at The Post Office Girl for years... and given that he chose his own time of death (by suicide)... it seems clear that he never managed to hammer the novel into a shape that satisfied him. Despite its less than perfect state however, we can be grateful for substantial segments of "classic Zweig". In some ways, it could be seen as a short story (although nearly 250 pages long) and that would allow us to be tolerant of its less than satisfactory ending. We could then perhaps put its incompleteness down to modernism, or to an attempt by the author to create a deliberate literary enigma (more...)
At first sight, Paul Griffiths’s exceptional novel might be recognized as an attempt to draw the profile of the woman Shakespeare obscured, and that would not be wrong, but it is not why the book is exceptional. Ophelia has been reimagined before...yet never with such restraint, or, more precisely, constraint....[The] formal restriction still enables Ophelia to tell a story rich in detail and expression, taking us back to her happy childhood with a distant, speech-making father, to the birth of her beloved brother and to the glowing presence of a nameless maid who comes from over "the cold green mountain"; a radiance soon gone. The repetitions of words and familiar phrases powerfully evoke what remains uncertain in Ophelia’s life outside the play, what these words alone will never quite say....The effects of necessary variation and repetition kindle both the freedom of another life and the fire that burns it away.
(Stephen Mitchelmore, Times Literary Supplement, 19/26 December 2008)
Paul Griffiths's book is a more profound achievement [than Eunoia by Christian Bök]... Griffiths pulls off some fine tricks, and shows how much of [Ophelia’s] speech can be chopped up and made to sound like Beckett, or the Beatles (she quotes Love Me Do verbatim), or Oscar Wilde. There are the rhythms of recognisable nursery rhymes throughout....[T]his is a vital book, as much for musicians as for literary theorists. From Griffiths, who is perhaps best known as an invaluable guide to contemporary music, this is a composition in its own right, to listen to along with Berio’s Sinfonia with its spliced quotations from Mahler and Beckett, or John Cage’s Dadaist treatment of Finnegans Wake. For feminist critics, ironies abound: here is Ophelia’s story, at last, but with words that a man wrote for her being hacked about by another man. But then, somebody had to do it (the book does make you feel this way).
(Tom Payne, Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2008)
Excuse the ramble which follows, but it's fascinating to follow the cackhanded response to Zadie Smith's superb NYRB essay via ReadySteadyBook. Via Monk's House I note: "And maybe Smith in quarreling with Netherland is quarreling in part with James Wood, from whom she has famously diverged before, and who ecstatically reviewed O'Neill in the pages of The New Yorker."
I think this is the key -- not a side issue -- in understanding what Smith's on about: "Lyrical Realism" -- an odd term she must repeat so much only because of Wood's "hysterical realism" tag; the emphasis on Flaubert, the darling of How Fiction Works; the fact that Wood effectively made the reputation of Netherland; HFW vs DFW. The NYRB already reviewed Netherland, too, when Alan Hollinghurst wrote about it the other month: how often does that happen? I reckon it's a more calculated attack on Wood and How Fiction Works than people seem to have realised.
Did you catch this interview with Robert Silvers? "'[Zadie's article is] an ambitious essay, a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind,' Silvers said. In it, she dismantles the status quo in the form of a review of two new novels - Netherland and Remainder - that she holds up as representing where the novel's been and where it's going. 'Some people will be slightly shaken,' Silvers said, with delight." Among them James Wood? It's quite curious since John Banville's moderate piece on HFW immediately precedes Smith's essay. I suspect it has something to do with heralding Smith's arrival as a Wood-status critic pre-Fail Better.
The scope of Suite Française, had it been finished, would certainly have been remarkable, taking in the whole of the occupation, with dozens of characters, both French and German, and a storyline featuring violent murders, daring escapes, forbidden loves and more. It is not finished, however, and lasting art requires more than broad scope. Several French novels about the war have been celebrated by francophone readers but met with indifference in the English-speaking world, for example The Last of the Just by André Shwartz-Bart, a magisterial work of art and probably the best work of fiction ever written about the Shoah. Given the relative differences in popular response, we must wonder whether Suite Française would have been so favourably received in the UK had it not been for the incredible circumstances of the book’s composition, and the horrors that left it unfinished (more...)
Zadie Smith, writing a piece in the NYRB entitled Two Paths for the Novel about Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy, seems to be groping her way to an understanding of Establishment Literary Fiction. This is very interesting:
From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal — indeed one is the strong refusal of the other. The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.
These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done — in a sense that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait (more...)
"It seems perfectly done — in a sense that's the problem." Yes! Exactly.
Poet and translator Michael Hofmann has been cited before on this blog as a reliable source of reading - he wouldn’t waste his time, so I won’t be wasting mine - but I wondered if his judgement might be clouded when it comes to his father. Gert Hofmann has had his final three novels translated by his son: this, published in 1994 following Hofmann’s early death at the age of 62, was the last. Until now we’ve had to rely on an (admittedly handsome) US edition from New Directions. This month, the book is finally published in the UK by CB Editions.
Lots of new and interesting stuff up at Gently Read Literature, but I'm not sure the blog format really works that well with what they are doing. A good, old-fashioned website would be a better way to go, I think.
Talking about The JC.com, Nicholas Murray writes a brief demolition in its pages of James Hawes' recent study, Excavating Kafka. Hawes condemns Kakfa scholarship for creating and cultivating "the K. myth" of a saintly, tortured, unknown artist. He quite rightly calls this a nonsense and uses... Kafka scholarship to prove his point! So, Murray (author of a recent Kafka biography himself) nails the biggest absurdity of the book in his review: "it is Hawes's mission to remind us that he liked upmarket porn, consorted with prostitutes, and treated his women rather badly, none of which will be news to anyone who has any basic knowledge of Kafka derived from recent biography."
But Hawes' book isn't all bad. Most Kafka scholarship does have something of an awed tone towards its subject and Hawes is refreshingly cross about this. He seems to dislike Kafka the man as much as he values his work, and he wishes to get the man full square out of the way so that readers can concentrate on his writing free of biographical distractions. But Hawes has created new biographical distractions of his own (his reaction to Kafka's "porn stash" -- omigosh, heterosexual man likes pictures of noody ladies shock! -- is adolescent and priggish in the extreme) and he offers little in the way of new, critical comment on the work. For all that, I enjoyed Excavating Kafka. It is punchy and impassioned and written with some verve, but Kafka and his work remain just as enigmatic after reading Hawes' essay as they do before you begin. And that is only right.
An uncharitable interpretation would suggest that Roth is either unaware he's repeating himself or doesn't mind (or care). He has, after all, given his normally recursive tendencies an unfettered hand in his last few books: From the conclusion of the Zuckerman saga in Exit Ghost to the conclusion of the saga of the body in Everyman to the mining, once again, of his childhood in The Plot Against America, Roth has scarcely stepped away from himself. But perhaps the counterfactual structure of The Plot Against America suggests a more charitable reading of Indignation as something of an anti-history itself. The self-righteous, unyielding Marcus Messner can stand in for any number of earlier Roth heroes, and perhaps Indignation -- the song will have a chilling relevance for Marcus -- is meant to be read as a consideration of what might have happened had Portnoy or Zuckerman or Sabbath (or Roth) not had their hour upon the stage. This seems in keeping with Indignation's stated theme, adumbrated in The Plot Against America: namely the great reverberations of seemingly insignificant choices. Roth, it seems, has discovered chaos theory, but, having done so, delivers a disappointingly heavy-handed treatment of his material.
Ultimately, though, this is a disappointing and strangely unmoving read. The limits of the novel’s unusual structure are often painfully clear - there is a complete lack of narrative tension and regular, awkward passages that are clearly written for the reader’s benefit, rather than the intimate thoughts of separated loved ones.
In addition, A’ida’s letters, which are supposed to be profound musings on life, longing and resistance, often come across as embarrassingly pretentious waffle (more...)
My review of Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher (translated by Henry Howard) is up on the Independent's website today. The Indy sub's header ("a lost classic that is an uneven mix of Thomas Mann and Mills & Boon") is a more than fair summation of a book I really wanted to love, but thought was pretty dreadful:
In recent years, the work of Joseph Roth, Antal Szerb, Leonid Tsypkin and Stefan Zweig has been rediscovered, treating readers to some delightful "lost classics". Each of these minor Mitteleuropean writers has a unique voice to be treasured, despite the slightness of some of their work and the overindulgence of some critics. Max Blecher's Scarred Hearts comes to us packaged as just such a lost classic. It was his second and last novel (in 1937), and Paul Bailey's introduction tells us that Blecher's "elegant style" was compared to that of Kafka and Rilke. Bailey also calls the novel a "masterpiece"...
[Actually, the novel is] a weak pastiche of Mann's The Magic Mountain. Sadly, this is a lost classic that did not need to be found (more...)
Ultimately the most disconcerting thing about How Fiction Works, and about James Wood’s criticism in general, is that while Wood on the one hand expresses near-reverence for the virtues of fiction, the terms in which he judges the value of fiction as a literary form implicitly disparages it. He doesn’t want to let fiction be fiction. Instead, he asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services. He abjures them to avoid “aestheticism” (too much art) and to instead be respectful of “life.”
Mati Unt (1944-2005) was not only a well-known novelist in Estonia; he brought avant-garde theatre to the post-Soviet state. His progressive credentials are writ large in Diary of a Blood Donor, a curious and oblique retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Only in the latter stages of Unt's surreal book does it become clear that Stoker's myth is being reworked. All his characters are here (Mina is Minni, Lucy is Lussi, Jonathan is Joonatan), and Unt even uses something of the novel's form, a mixture of diaries, memoirs and letters. They are joined by Lydia Koidula (1843-86) the premier Estonian nationalist poet: Lydia of the Dawn, a real writer, haunts the novel, embodying the spirit of Unt's homeland (more...)
The latest book review, here on ReadySteadyBook, is Sophie's review of Madman Bovary by Christophe Claro (congratulations, too, to Ms Lewis, for the recent publication of her translation of Marcel Aymé's Beautiful Image, which we'll have more to say about soon):
In this literary hijack, Claro infiltrates a classic text and takes the controls. Or does the novel submit willingly?
Our narrator, unnamed until he adopts this twisted title, is reeling from his lover Estée’s departure. He retreats to bed, where for solace he reaches for the nearest novel: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. He will cure himself of his hopeless attachment by a non-stop re-reading, ‘like a derailed train’. A few pages into Madman Bovary’s journey, ‘derailed’ looks like a serious understatement (more...)
Robert Bernard Hass reviews Peter Stanlis's Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher (via Books, Inq.):
On Robert Frost’s 85th birthday, Henry Holt and Company, Frost’s lifelong publisher, threw a party in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria and invited the eminent critic Lionel Trilling to deliver the keynote address. Widely regarded at the time as the champion of high modernist culture, Trilling stunned Frost’s friends and supporters by confessing that he had long disregarded Frost as a purveyor of rural pieties and had only recently begun to admire him for the “Sophoclean” horror he saw in the poems. "I regard Robert Frost as a terrifying poet," he announced. "The universe he conceives of is a terrifying universe." In the wake of the controversy his address instigated, Trilling sent a letter to Frost apologizing for any discomfort his remarks had caused. "Not distressed at all," Frost wrote back. "You made my birthday party a surprise party." Frost then concluded his letter with a sentence that would prove prophetic: "No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down" (more...)
I should've mentioned last week (especially for those who read the site via RSS) that I recently posted Leora Skolkin-Smith's wonderful review of Passages by Ann Quin on the site:
As one reads Ann Quin's Passages a kind of language serum is injected into the system is a potent as any intoxicant. The end result is akin to an experience of literary drunkenness. I simply stopped caring that I didn't know who Quin meant when she wrote “I” ,“She” or “He”. And, although I was perpetually confused as to what the emotional storms her narrators were experiencing were all about, I was immersed and too “drunk” on her language to care. The concrete, literal reference points stopped having meaning. I was content to simply luxuriate in Quin's emotional pool of words and allusions, of poetry (more...)
The editors write, “there is much to be gained from working through and reassessing the differences that have kept these two thinkers’ works quarantined from each other for more than seven decades.” The book is, without a doubt, an important contribution to the field. However, the range of articles would have benefited from a more detailed introduction indicating the contents and interrelation of the various contributions (more...)
If the Reagan / Thatcher era of the 80s got us accustomed to one paramount concept, it was that of privatisation - outsourcing, selling on, hiving off - and very few things were exempt, from health-care to education, personnel to transport. We became used to the involvement of private companies in what was previously seen the business of the state, and Stephen Armstrong’s compelling book documents the logical extension of that ethos in to the privatisation of war and armed protection, enabled by the end of the Cold War and the resulting ‘peace dividend’ that made for much smaller national armed forces.
My friend Joe Bageant's book Deer Hunting With Jesus explains through personal stories his brutal assessment of just how strong the class system in the US really is, why the classes are and always have been at war, and why that plays perfectly into the hands of the right-wing political and economic interests there. These are stories about the people Joe grew up with and calls friends, and to write about their lives so bluntly and candidly is an act of incredible courage and honesty.
This is a society where poverty and illness are stigmatized as symptoms of laziness, ignorance and self-neglect, a society built on two-way class vs class fear of the unknown and misunderstood. The principal determinant of one's class in America, and the hermetic worldview that comes with it, is education.
More than anything, Deer Hunting With Jesus is a plea to those of progressive inclination to meet with their working-class peers, at a grass-roots level, to understand how they live, how they think, and why they think that way, and to find, as hard as it will be to do so, common cause with them against the corporatist exploiters and their right-wing political and religious handmaidens, and common cause for universal health care, quality education for all, a fair pension and a decent wage for a day's work -- the end of the "dead-end social construction that all but guarantees failure".
whoeverfightsmonsters brings my attention to the "final words from Sam Anderson’s online review of Human Smoke in the New York Magazine":
To dismiss Baker’s project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It’s an auto-didact’s record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes ('What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none'), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources. As in all of Baker’s work, the strength of Human Smoke comes from the defamiliarizing charge it brings to a familiar subject. Its unorthodox form allows it to capture, with brutal efficiency, the daily texture of the war—the suffering, the confusion on the ground, the strike among Viennese mail carriers from the stress of delivering too many death letters. Baker doesn’t hide his omissions or his anecdotes’ lack of context—in fact, each vignette is surrounded by generous white space, so the lacunae are a constant visible presence in the book. It’s the kind of project that encourages, rather than closes off, further reading. Its texture is deeply convincing, and a much stronger message of peace than mere argument could ever muster.
The latest book review, here on ReadySteadyBook, is Dai Vaughan's wonderful essay on Anna Kavan's Guilty:
Rhys Davies, one of Anna Kavan’s few close friends, wrote an introduction for Julia and the Bazooka (1970), a posthumous collection of her stories linked by their common allusion to her heroin habit. In it he describes a meal taken with her at the Café Royal during which she developed an inexplicable revulsion for one of the waiters, and his surprise when later he found this episode recounted in a story (The Summons in Asylum Piece ) in that manner full of foreboding which, for want of a better word, people are inclined to call Kafkaesque. Having myself already come across that story, I experienced the converse of Davies’s reaction: surprise that such a sinister incident could have been experienced, by someone else, as so everyday, so innocuous (more...)
The review begins:
Eva Figes wrote Journey to Nowhere as a grandmother. Her head was "full of stories about the past" that were forced to the surface by the impertinent questions of her grandchildren, whose function, she suggests, is to draw such forgotten, forbidden tales into the light.
So, here is a memoir of Edith, the orphan housemaid of Figes's childhood, coupled with a polemic against Israel.
Although herself a secular Jew, Figes shares the view held by some of the ultra-Orthodox that the Jewish state should never have been created: "I do not think there was ever a time when I did not think that the creation of Israel was a historic mistake."
All nation states have founding myths, stories about the past that need unearthing and investigating, but the idea that Palestine was "a land without people for a people without land" was particularly questionable (more...)
Tomorrow, I have two very small (160 word) "At a Glance" reviews in the Sunday Times. Sadly, I kinda hated both the books I was asked to comment on. David James Smith's One Morning In Sarajevo was scrappy and The Book of Dead Philosophers no more than a miscellany. I was hugely disappointed by the latter as I'm normally a pretty big fan of author Simon Critchley.
The Shock Doctrine is organized around a conceit: “shock” and its cousin “disaster” explain the political economy of the last several decades. One ur-figure is Dr. Ewen Cameron, a ghoulish psychiatrist who worked under contract with the CIA during the 1950s, devising methods to extract information and remake personalities through the use of drugs and torture. His information-extraction techniques became the templates for Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, and the personality renovation became the psycho-political template for the neoliberal restructuring of much of the globe. And the other ur-figure is Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist who wrote the playbook for the policy innovations themselves. The two came together in Chile, via Gen. Augusto Pinochet, when a whole society was remade, in no small part through literal torture techniques, in accordance with the Chicago School’s radical free-market dogma. Modern capitalism, says Klein, was born in the Southern Cone, and Pinochet was its midwife.
[...] Clearly, there’s some truth here, but the list of instances is so varied that they don’t always merit a single theory. Even if you limit the theory to the idea that there’s nothing “free” about the free market, it’s strange to see that notion presented as the revelation of a secret history. What is called the “free market” has always been inseparable from state coercion; there was never anything spontaneous about it at all. This has been true at least since the enclosure movement in England privatized previously common lands starting in the sixteenth century, give or take a century or two. In more modern times, the role of U.S. imperial power in promoting the so-called free market has long been a central theme of Noam Chomsky, a writer who doesn’t lack for readers.
My review begins:
"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs." So begins Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, set in 1953 at the height of McCarthyite anti-communism. This is also the year in which cracks begin to appear in the marriage at the centre of Andrew Sean Greer's accomplished and humane domestic drama. An old pal of Pearlie Cook's husband unexpectedly turns up, announcing: "'Hello, ma'am, I hope you can help me.' With those ordinary words, everything would change" (more).
A new review of an old classic: Thomas McGonigle takes a look at B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates ("the British author's experimental novel is made up of sections that can be changed at random so that no two readings are the same).
McGonigle's review begins:
The writer B.S. Johnson was one of a handful of modern authors -- among others, Alan Burns, Ann Quin, Zulfikar Ghose -- who extended the range of the English novel by moving beyond the innovations of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Johnson was trivialized by a ferociously traditional British literary establishment wedded to the conventional realistic novel. He committed suicide in 1973, but thanks to his very loyal readers, his novels continue to be reprinted because they are so deeply human, formally innovative and pay microscopic attention to detail.