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Blog entries on '18 September 2006'

Monday 18 September 2006

A note on Roth's Everyman

Looking back over a few weeks' blogging I sometimes note, not the books that I have mentioned, but the books that I've read that somehow haven't, in one way or another, made it into my entries here on RSB. The "absent" books may not have formed any part of the blog, but they have often been important as part of my thinking about literature and its attendant difficulties. (Or, rather, my ongoing difficulties with literature.) One such unmentioned book is Philip Roth's Everyman. I found the work hugely flawed. But, then, flaws are what make a work of art interesting, of course. There is no such thing as a perfect life and, so, a perfect novel is itself impossible to imagine. It would be like finding out that there really is an answer to the riddle that is life, the universe and everything; such an answer could only ever be a banality.

Everyman was received with mixed reviews (Tim Adams in the Guardian praised it highly; Michiko Kakutani called it, "a cobbled-together production of a writer coasting wearily along on automatic pilot") and my own feelings share the critics' general ambivalence. AS Byatt glossed the story thus: "The book opens with his funeral, and ends with the moment of his death on the operating table. In between, with a blunt and steady progress, the reader sees through his eyes the slow dissolution of his body." But it isn't the story that is interesting here (in truth, a good tale is the last thing I'm looking for when I read a novel): it is the form and the style of the work. Both whether the form and the style engage with the content, reflect it, bolster its truth and whether, in themselves, they question, in some way, the very certainty of the endeavour that is writing.

John Banville called Roth's style in Everyman "measured, understated, withholding - in a word, plain." Certainly, it is the plainness that is most affecting about the piece. Not, here, the macho, unadorned, "muscular" prose of any number of post-Hemingway writers (from the Beats to Fante and Bukowski), but something more artful, refined and reserved. Prosaic, here, because it is restrained, not because it is vapid. And artful because, starting as the story does with our Everyman's funeral, the narrative has nowhere to go, no real surprises to spring. And how apt that is! The inevitability of the narrative is admitted at the outset. The absurdity of the endeavour written into the writing of the piece: I can't go on writing, because my character is already dead, I'm already dead. I'll go on writing.

Only writing that knows the absurdity of writing in a world where death has undone so many should expect our time and effort. This is a slight work from Roth, uneven in its tone, unbelievable in some of its dialogue, seemingly rushed in some of its phrasing, confused in overall effect. But it is a compelling and troubling work even so. Its assurance is belied by the discomfiting truths that the very shape of the work embodies. And its inability to remain assured in the face of the truths it is awkwardly working out make the novel, I think, if not entirely satisfying, honest and praiseworthy.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Monday 18 September 2006

Ismo's here!

RSB contributor Ismo Santala is in London! As he said over at the Splinters blog:

Anyway, the point of this post is to get the word out: I arrived in London two days ago, and will be living (& studying) here until the end of January. Since the express purpose of my stay is to improve my spoken English, I'd like to meet with as many bloggers, writers and artists, etc. as possible.

You can find my email address by visiting my weblog (click on my name on the top of the sidebar). If nothing else, I'd appreciate some good links/resources re: literary London. Thanks.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Books of the Week

Edward Carpenter Edward Carpenter
Chushichi Tsuzuki
Cambridge University Press

This is the first full-scale biography of Edward Carpenter, an 'eminent Victorian' who played an intriguing role in the revival of Socialism in Britain in the late nineteenth century. 'A worthy heir of Carlyle and Ruskin', as Tolstoy called him, Carpenter tackled boldly the problems of alienation under the pressures of commercial civilisation, and developed a strongly personalised brand of Socialism which inspired both the Labour Party and its enemies, Syndicalism and Anarchism. A homosexual, he grappled with the problems of sexual alienation above all, and emerged as the foremost advocate of the homosexual cause at a time when it was a social 'taboo'. This study, based upon letters and many other personal documents, reveals much of Carpenter's personal life which has hitherto remained obscure, including his 'comradeship' with some of his working-men friends and his influence upon such notable literary figures as Siegfried Sassoon, E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence.

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Vigilant Memory Vigilant Memory
R. Clifton Spargo
Johns Hopkins University Press

Vigilant Memory: Emmanuel Levinas, the Holocaust, and the Unjust Death focuses on the particular role of Emmanuel Levinas's thought in reasserting the ethical parameters for poststructuralist criticism in the aftermath of the Holocaust. More than simply situating Levinas's ethics within the larger context of his philosophy, R. Clifton Spargo offers a new explanation of its significance in relation to history. In critical readings of the limits and also the heretofore untapped possibilities of Levinasian ethics, Spargo explores the impact of the Holocaust on Levinas's various figures of injustice while examining the place of mourning, the bad conscience, the victim, and the stranger/neighbor as they appear in Levinas's work. Ultimately, Spargo ranges beyond Levinas's explicit philosophical or implicit political positions to calculate the necessary function of the "memory of injustice" in our cultural and political discourses on the characteristics of a just society.

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Poem of the Week

Cousin Nancy

Miss Nancy Ellicott
Strode across the hills and broke them,
Rode across the hills and broke them --
The barren New England hills --
Riding to hounds
Over the cow-pasture.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.

Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law.

-- TS Eliot
Collected Poems 1909-62 (Faber and Faber)

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Word of the Day


Part of a book published in installments. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary was published in fascicles. more …

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October's Books of the Month

Everything Passes Everything Passes
Gabriel Josipovici
Auschwitz Report Auschwitz Report
Primo Levi

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