Sunday, December 31, 2006

Books Read - 2006

This is the final list of books I completed reading in 2006 (most of the links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts; others are to publisher or author pages):

1. Slow Man, J.M. Coetzee
2. Athena, John Banville
3. The Education of Arnold Hitler, Marc Estrin
4. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
5. The Human Country, Harry Mathews
6. The Questionnaire, Jirí Grusa
7. The Sea, John Banville
8. Odile, Raymond Queneau
9. Badenheim 1939, Aharon Appelfeld
10. Swann's Way, Marcel Proust
11. Little Casino, Gilbert Sorrentino
12. The Origin of the Brunists, Robert Coover
13. On Glory’s Course, James Purdy
14. Veronica, Mary Gaitskill
15. In a Shallow Grave, James Purdy
16. The Assistant, Bernard Malamud
17. Notes from the Underground, Dostoevski
18. Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left, Murray Bookchin
19. Despair, Nabokov (re-read)
20. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
21. The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster
22. Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds
23. Acid, Edward Falco
24. Garner, Kirstin Allio
25. In a Hotel Garden, Gabriel Josipovici
26. A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey
27. The Sleepwalkers, Hermann Broch
28. Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag
29. Shroud, John Banville
30. Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
31. Eustace Chisholm and the Works, James Purdy
32. The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, Carole Maso
33. A Bad Man, Stanley Elkin
34. 20 Lines a Day, Harry Mathews
35. Little, Big, John Crowley
36. Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
37. Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin
38. The Rotters' Club, Jonathan Coe
39. Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs
40. Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino
41. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
42. Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
43. The Origin of Capitalism: a longer view, Ellen Meiksins Wood
44. The Case Against Israel, Michael Neumann
45. Murphy, Samuel Beckett
46. Rituals, Cees Nooteboom
47. Across, Peter Handke
48. Things in the Night, Mati Unt
49. Phone Rings, Stephen Dixon
50. Phosphor in Dreamland, Rikki Ducornet
51. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
52. The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction, Michael Wood
53. The Woman Who Escaped from Shame, Toby Olson
54. Look at Me, Jennifer Egan
55. The Book of Proper Names, Amélie Nothomb
56. The Life of Hunger, Amélie Nothomb
57. Old Masters, Thomas Bernhard
58. Lost in the City, Edward P. Jones
59. Loving Sabotage, Amélie Nothomb
60. Remainder, Tom McCarthy
61. The Turn of the Screw & Daisy Miller, Henry James
62. The Insult, Rupert Thomson
63. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
64. Prisoner's Dilemma, Richard Powers (re-read)
65. Indiana, Indiana, Laird Hunt
66. The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
67. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
68. The Echo Maker, Richard Powers
69. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
70. Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link
71. Vertigo, W.G. Sebald
72. Waterland, Graham Swift
73. Everyman, Philip Roth
74. Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, Chris Knight
75. The Left-Handed Woman, Peter Handke
76. Foreign Parts, Janice Galloway
77. Doting, Henry Green

Some statistics
Number of books written by men: 58
Number of books written by women: 19 (!)
Number of books acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 9
Number of other Dalkey books: 2

Fiction:
Number of books of fiction: 61
Number of authors represented: 52
Number of books by female authors: 14
Number of female authors: 13
Number of books by American authors: 30
Number of American authors: 26
Number of books by African-American authors: 3 (!)
Number of African-American authors: 3
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 15
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 13
Number of books in translation: 16
Number of authors of books in translation: 13
Number of translated books by female authors: 2 (both by Nothomb)
Most represented foreign language: German (6 total, w/2 each by Handke and Sebald)
Number of books from before 1900: 4
Number of books from 1900 to 1949: 5 (including Despair, heavily revised in the 60s)
Number of books from 1950 to 1989: 19
Number of books from 1990 to 2004: 24
Number of books from 2005 or 2006: 9

Non-Fiction:
Number of non-fiction books: 16
Number of books by female authors: 5
Number of books in translation: 4
Number that are memoirs of sorts or letters: 5
Number that are books of criticism: 3
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 6
Number about pop music: 1
Number about science: 1

Comment & Observations:
Overall, this has been a good year of reading. When some other bloggers made reading 75 books a challenge, I thought it would be fun to see if I could reach it myself. Last year I'd read something like 55 books. I made my goal, though admittedly this was in part facilitated by my reading several short books. Not that their being short meant I could breeze through them. I was pleased to have read for the first time Proust and Beckett, both of whom I plan to spend a lot more time with in 2007 and years to come. (I sheepishly admit that part of the reason I did not continue with Proust is because I knew it would take me a lot of time.) I also read my first books by, among others, W.G. Sebald and Peter Handke, Gabriel Josipovici and Walter Benjamin. I continued to read great writers as diverse as Thomas Bernhard and Gilbert Sorrentino and James Purdy, as well as old favorites like Richard Powers, J.M. Coetzee, and John Banville. I made some conscious efforts to stem the steady flow of male authors, to little overall effect. In that vein, I'm all too aware that each of the writers I've just name-checked are men. I read more books in translation than in any previous year. I re-read just two novels in 2006; as I tell myself every year, I hope to do more re-reading in 2007. I finally read the Brontës, though they represented half of the pre-1900 books I read. A surprisingly large chunk of the fiction I read was published since 1990, though "only" nine in 2005 or 2006. Of these nine, my favorite was easily Tom McCarthy's Remainder.

As usual, I read fewer non-fiction books than fiction this year, by far. I expect the ratio to change somewhat in 2007. Not because I consider non-fiction more Important (I don't; fiction is what I enjoy reading most), but because I have some specific areas of interest I want to explore and have a lot of books on politics, history, and economics back-logged. Some of the non-fiction I read this year has been crucial: especially those books by David Harvey, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Michael Neumann, Chris Knight (I'd recommend them each of them, of course, though I think that Harvey's Brief History of Neoliberalism and Neumann's The Case Against Israel ought to be read by all). That's not even mentioning the criticism (some of which I read just pieces of, not necessarily reading whole books straight through; for example, I read half of both Italo Calvino's The Uses of Literature and William H. Gass' Fiction and the Figures of Life). Anyway, non-fiction tends to take me longer to read, especially when it's something huge and dense, such as Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I'm still 200 pages from finishing. I hope to read more philosophy (that is, any) and literary criticism in the coming year(s), both of which should pay dividends with fiction, but which will only slow me down further. This is ok. This is what I want. The point, after all, is not quantity. I will set no goal for number of books read in 2007. I will continue, however, to ostentatiously list on the sidebar those books I do finish, simply because I like lists and it's easy and I can.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Country of the Word

William H. Gass in his essay, "Imaginary Borges and His Books", in Fiction and the Figures of Life:
...in the country of the word, Borges is well traveled, and has some of the habits of a seasoned, if not jaded, journeyor. What? see Mont Saint Michel again? that tourist trap? far better to sip a local wine in a small café, watch a vineyard comb its hillside. There are a thousand overlooked delights in every language, similarities and parallels to be remarked, and even the mightiest monuments have their neglected beauties, their unexplored crannies; then, too, it has been frequently observed that our childhood haunts, though possibly less spectacular, less perfect, than other, better advertised, places, can be the source of a fuller pleasure for us because out familiarity with them is deep and early and complete, because the place is ours; while for other regions we simply have a strange affinity--they do not threaten, like Dante or the Alps, to overwhelm us--and we somehow find our interests, our designs, reflected in them. Or is it we who function as the silvered glass? Idea for a frightening story.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Favorite Music of 2006

Of the 40-plus new albums I heard this year, these are my 20 favorite:

1. Matmos - The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast
2. The Necks – Chemist
3. Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye
4. Sonic Youth – Rather Ripped
5. Ghostface Killah – Fishscale
6. Burial – Burial
7. Boris – Pink
8. The Mountain Goats – Get Lonely
9. Herbert – Scale
10. Om – Conference of the Birds
11. Love is All - Nine Times That Same Song
12. Mission of Burma – Obliterati
13. Califone - [Roots & Crowns]
14. Jesu – Silver
15. Brightback Morning Light – Brightback Morning Light
16. Joanna Newsom – Ys
17. Kode9 + the Spaceape - Memories of the Future
18. Cat Power- The Greatest
19. Scott Walker – The Drift
20. Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Artists whose new albums I did not hear, which may or may not explain why they didn't appear on the list (those I've previously heard and enjoyed marked with *): Johnny Cash*, The Clipse, The Knife (Pitchfork's #1), Arctic Monkeys, The Hold Steady*, TV on the Radio*, Booka Shade*, Mastodon*, Lily Allen, Hot Chip (?), Tim Hecker*, Justin Timberlake (other than the two big singles, which, admittedly, I do like), Grizzly Bear, Beirut, Sunset Rubdown (??), Scritti Politti, Pere Ubu*, The Roots*, Thom Yorke*, Final Fantasy, Neko Case, J Dilla, etc.

Albums I did hear, which are getting a lot of end-of-year love, but which aren't getting it from me, and why: Belle & Sebastian's The Life Pursuit (it's ok, about half really good, half drab funk-ish stuff); Bob Dylan's Modern Times (kind of blah, and nowhere near as interesting or as good as "Love & Theft"); Liars' Drum's Not Dead (I expected to love this, since it got such rave reviews and I was one of the few defenders of their much-maligned last album, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. But I have so far been unable to get anywhere with the new one); T.I.'s King (not bad, but this monochromatic coke-rap cd just bored the hell out of me).

Albums I liked a lot, which just missed the top twenty: The Coup's Pick a Bigger Weapon (danceable, left-wing agit-rap!); Destroyer's Destroyer's Rubies (ultra-literate singer-songwritery stuff; will require closer listening to absorb, even though I bought it very early in the year and listened to it several times); Espers II (folky-drone fun!); Excepter's "Alternation" (noise-house, but I wouldn't be able to recognize it as house if I hadn't been told); Jackie-O Motherfucker's America Mystica (much more drone-heavy than previous efforts; also requires more listens to absorb); Six Organs of Admittance's The Sun Awakens (virtuosic guitar + extended droney goodness); Three 6 Mafia's Most Known Unknown (like many rap cds, this album is way too long, but I've really enjoyed at least half it)... Also, Built to Spill, with You In Reverse, made a nice return to form, five years after the fairly weak Ancient Melodies of the Future. Even so, it amounts to a good album with only one great song ("Goin' Against Your Mind").

And that's about it. I may have additional comments about some of my top twenty, time permitting, in a future post or two.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

LRB on Hannah Arendt

Also in the London Review of Books (link also via Ellis Sharp), is this piece by Corey Robin about the continuing relevance of Hannah Arendt, in the context of recent reissues of books by and about Arendt. As it happens, I've been reading Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. About this book, Robin writes:
The lodestone of the Arendt industry is The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951 and reissued by Schocken in 2004 with an introduction by Samantha Power. Divided into three parts – ‘Anti-Semitism’, ‘Imperialism’ and ‘Totalitarianism’ – the book was composed at two different times and evinces two conflicting impulses. Arendt wrote the first two sections in the early to mid-1940s, when Fascism was her fear and a federated, social democratic Europe her hope. She considered calling the book ‘Imperialism’ and the title of her intended conclusion, on the Nazi genocide, ‘Race-Imperialism.’

By the late 1940s, however, Arendt’s hope for postwar Europe had waned – it was a victim, as she had predicted in 1945, of the anti-Communist drive for collective security, which she compared to Metternich’s Holy Alliance – and the Soviet Union was her preoccupation. She wrote the last third of the book in 1948 and 1949, in the early years of the Cold War. Racism merged with Marxism, Auschwitz with the Gulag, and Fascism morphed into Communism.

This last section is the least representative – and, as historians of Nazism and Stalinism have pointed out, least instructive – part of the book. But it has always attracted the most attention.
I did not know that the book was written in stages like this. It makes sense. I read the first section, "Anti-Semitism", early in the year, and I found it very interesting. It turned out I knew very little about this material: the history of the Jews in Europe, the financial connections, the political emancipation, the rise of the anti-Semitism as political ideology, etc. The book is long, so I took a break. I only returned to it earlier this month, and I read the second section, "Imperialism". This section, too, is fascinating. I'm midway through the final section, but I'm finding it rough slogging. Arendt makes a lot of murky generalizations about what "people" "thought" and "felt", without much specificity. It's a bit squishy. Robin puts it like this: "Arendt’s account dissolves conflicts of power, interest and ideas in a bath of psychological analysis, allowing her readers to evade difficult questions of politics and economics." Anyway, the first two sections of this book are well worth reading.

Robin brings the discussion around to Zionism:
Though Arendt had a long, often sympathetic involvement in Zionist politics, she was wary of the project almost from the start. ‘I find this territorial experiment increasingly problematic,’ she wrote in a 1940 letter [...]. In 1948, she confessed to her complete ‘opposition to present Zionist politics’. Her opposition was rooted in three concerns: the correspondence she saw between Zionism and Fascism, the Zionists’ dependence on imperialism, and her growing awareness of what she called ‘the Arab question’.

Of all the co-optations of Arendt for contemporary political purposes, none is more outrageous than the parallel, drawn by [Samantha] Power [it seems wholly appropriate that Power would be involved in such a co-optation -ed.] and others, between Palestinian militants and the Nazis. Arendt firmly rejected that analogy (in a 1948 letter to the Jewish Frontier), and few of the protagonists in the struggle over Palestine so reminded her of the Nazis as the Zionists themselves, particularly those of the Revisionist tendency, whose influence Arendt was among the first to notice.
Robin quotes from some depressingly prescient pieces by Arendt about Zionism and the Arabs, as well as the centrality of oil. He goes on to discuss Arendt's critique of careerism, from her Eichmann in Jerusalem (similar to much Gabriel Kolko's critique in Century of War), which is all too often ignored. The whole article is quite good (even if in passing Robin does link Marxism with "terrible ideas" that lead to "great crimes").

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Martin Amis

In the London Review of Books, Daniel Soar rips into Martin Amis' new novel, House of Meetings (link via Ellis Sharp). It's a convincing review. Asks Soar: "Why is Martin Amis so angry? And why is it all so personal? An unjust but tempting answer would be that he is – as a writer – jealous of the extremity and transgressiveness of his most vicious subjects: Islamism, the concentration camps. He is fascinated by their power, and needs something of it."

In recent years, Amis has turned into something of a tiresome boor, with his harangues about Islam (about which, see Lenin's Tomb) and religion, and his bizarre--and timely--focus on Stalinism and all its horrors. This is a shame, for Martin Amis used to be a literary hero of mine. Granted, it's been years since I've read any of his work, and I don't know how they'll hold up to re-reading. But Amis was the first living writer to excite me. I'd been reading in a scattershot fashion among dead writers, mostly of the 20th century, flitting from Camus to Nabokov to Steinbeck to Faulkner to Kafka and so on, trying to figure out what I liked, how I liked it (incidentally, three of these five still matter to me). Amis focused me on the contemporary scene. I read London Fields about ten years ago and loved it. I thought it was lively, smart, energetic, entertaining. In short order I read most of the rest of Amis' fiction (I never got around to Success), and while it was uneven and at times maddening, the best of it (Money, Time's Arrow, The Information) I felt was as good or nearly as good as London Fields.

So I was primed for new writing from Amis. Night Train was minor, but enjoyable. The Heavy Water story collection was hit and miss, mostly miss. Then came Experience. This is where he started to lose me. I don't generally go for memoirs or autobiographies, and what I wanted from Amis was a novel, one more substantive than Night Train. But this was what we had, so I read it. I was disappointed. There is some great stuff in it; the passages about his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, are often very good, especially in the later portion of the book. But huge parts of the rest of the book did not work. The repeated, defensive, passages about his expensive dental work were boring. The bit where he recounts a time when he hectored Salman Rushdie for liking Samuel Beckett seemed weird to me at the time (I hadn't yet read any Beckett) and in retrospect simply embarrassing. (Amis: "And I really do hate Beckett's prose: every sentence is an assault on my ear.") I grew extremely tired of reading about his relationship with Saul Bellow. (Few things in the literary world are more irritating to me than reading Martin Amis gush about Saul Bellow. Except perhaps when Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan do it. Just stop, please.) I gagged when I got to the end of his account of his affair with the girl who inspired the Rachel of his first novel, The Rachel Papers. It was during the Six Day War and she'd donated blood to the Israeli cause. He has "hopes for Israel": "So I will never be entirely reasonable about Israel. I will always think about her with the blood. Not my blood. The blood of my first love." Ick. But the worst aspects of the book, I'm afraid, are about the murder of his cousin, Lucy Partkinson, and what it meant to him. This is probably uncharitable of me, but I did not believe Amis at all here. Instead of seeming to really matter to Amis, these passages instead represented, for me, a straining for gravity and moral seriousness. Her death may have actually meant to him exactly what he claims, but I didn't believe the writing of it.

Next came Koba the Dread, his half memoir, half historical essay about Stalin, and I found that I simply did not have time for Amis anymore. For one thing, the urgency of this task for Amis bothered me. Reviewers were certainly confused about Amis' purpose (see The Complete Review's roundup here and some more links and review excerpts here). I was put off it after reading several of these reviews. Charles Taylor's (positive and problematic in its own right) review in Salon summed up Amis' stance thus:
Amis is asking how anyone in his or her right mind can still consider Marxism as a means to a more just world; how people (like his pal Hitchens) can joke about their communist past without invoking the horror that someone who joked about his fascist past would; how the apologists for Stalin, despite having plenty of evidence as to the truth of Soviet Russia before glasnost, can be thought of any differently from Holocaust deniers.
This irritates, not because I'm interested in defending Stalin (I'm not), or because I don't think his apologists were in error (I do), but because of two things. First is this facile equation of Marxism with communism with Stalinism with Nazism, which is just ahistorical and stupid. The second is the implicit Black Book of Communism (about which, see here and here) idea that lays this huge bodycount at the feet of Communism, by way of arguing that present-day communists should thereby be excluded from current political consideration. But no one ever calls out the apologists of American terror. Well, of course people do, but not so loudly, or in the mainstream. If, for example, George Bernard Shaw ought to have a red mark, so speak, against his name for once having been an apologist for the Soviet Union, then what about, say, John Updike's support for the Vietnam War? In his open letter to Hitchens included in Koba (see one of Hitchens' replies here), Amis writes (quoted in Taylor's review): "An admiration for Lenin and Trotsky is meaningless without an admiration for terror. They would not want your admiration if it failed to include an admiration for terror. Do you admire terror? I know you admire freedom." Is an admiration for America meaningless without an admiration for terror? Does the question sound impertinent re-framed like that? It shouldn't. (Steve Mitchelmore raised a similar point in the context of Amis' above-linked anti-Islam article.)

I was going to make a sarcastic remark about how we'd probably never see a "Black Book of Capitalism"--but it turns out one did appear in French a few years back. How many deaths can be attributed to Capitalism? I suspect that if we spent any serious time looking at it, 20th century Communism's crimes would pale in comparison. I'm talking about slavery, imperialism, the two World Wars, the Vietnam War and other American efforts at "containment", and the kinds of atrocities discussed by Mike Davis in Late Victorian Holocausts (about which, see George Monbiot, link also via Ellis Sharp). And that's just the obvious stuff. I could go on and on, but I don't have all night.

Anyway, I've gotten a little off track here. Back to Amis. He has returned to fiction in the last couple of years, but I have not returned to him. In part, it's true, my recent reading has taken me elsewhere, but if Soar's review and countless others are any indication, he's lost his way. Yellow Dog didn't interest me and disappeared fairly quickly. And I likely won't be reading House of Meetings either. In it, he appears, again, to be straining for significance, and the passages of his prose that I've sampled from both books do not inspire confidence.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Political Readings

Lenin on "decent internationalism":
Of course, one cares - passionately cares - about politics in other places. One is angrily supportive of "Iranian democrats" and "Venezuelan democrats" and "Palestinian secularists". One supports "Iraqi trade unionists" whenever they say the right things. One is animated to frenzied disgust by the depredations of "Islamofascists" and their "apologists". One is perhaps even uneasy about certain excesses of the nevertheless necessary 'war on terror'. One dislikes racism, misogyny and homophobia. The sum of this care is that one will fire off polemics all year round and even attend a rally to defend free speech from dem Muslims innit. That's how much one cares. One is of the left, but decent. One is avowedly not an apologist for bad things and bad people. One is an internationalist.
Gabriel Kolko on "Rumsfeld and the American Way of War":
Rumsfeld's farewell speech on December 15th is [...] remarkable because it attempts to revive older notions, long discredited and seriously at odds with facts that he himself accepted only weeks earlier. It represents a type of recidivism that is all-too-common when disaster approaches and it reveals the kind of intellectual schizophrenia that afflicts those who rise the top. It is a symptom of the complete failure of the crew that has led the U. S. for the past six years, and their total inability to confront reality.

[...]

His mélange includes a theory of credibility, a notion that got America into the Vietnam debacle. Credibility is certainly now a factor in the Iraq-Afghan wars, one shared by many administration leaders. Rumsfeld does not confront why persisting until utter defeat will make the U.S. look not credible but dangerously irrational. His speech is historically and factually wholly inaccurate. It ignores entirely that the existence of modern weapons in Saddam Hussein's hands was used as an excuse for the Iraq war but not found there. Many of the unstable dictators, rogue regimes, Islamic fundamentalists, and what have you were useful allies in the American confrontation with the USSR and Communism, and America gave them both weapons and training. This policy was bipartisan, pursued by Democrats as enthusiastically as by Republicans, and reflects the consensus which the Bush Administration shares with its predecessors, a fact that explains why the Democrats refuse to break with the President's wars.
Jonathan Cook on "The Recognition Trap":
My argument is that this need to maintain Israel's Jewish character at all costs is actually the engine of its conflict with the Palestinians. No solution is possible as long as Israel insists on privileging citizenship for Jews above other groups, and on distorting the region's territorial and demographic realities to ensure that the numbers continue to weigh in the Jews' favour.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A complete bastard

From Foreign Parts, by Janice Galloway:
A bunch of complaisant angels hanging out of the sky to stab a dragon and a baby dragon. Smug buggers. They only had the German version of the guidebook so I had to guess what things were about. I bought these postcards because they didn't allow you to take photos. I thought it was a great idea: not being able to distance through a lens, you'd really need to take the thing for what it was, its existence in the moment etc. And it was beautiful. I remember telling myself it was beautiful, awesome, strange. But all the time I knew it wouldn't be as beautiful as it would be when I was somewhere else, remembering. And that it was equally possible I wouldn't be able to remember a single stitch of the bloody thing unless I bought these. You don't remember just by telling yourself you should, by sheer act of will. You don't get to pick and choose. The same way you don't get to forget. Memory. A bastard really. A complete bastard. (151-2)

On Attacks on Chomsky

Ellis Sharp had an easy time of it yesterday rubbishing yet another clueless anti-Chomsky piece, this one by Roger Scruton in that bastion of editorial lunacy, The Wall Street Journal. Scruton offers the usual sorts of complaints: Chomsky has a pesky "habit of excusing or passing over the faults of America's enemies"; he has supported "regimes that no one could endorse in retrospect, like that of Pol Pot"; his "followers" are attracted to his "rage" and given to believe in "some kind of criminal conspiracy" at the root of American foreign policy. It's all very tiresome and comical.

On the first criticism, often repeated, here is Chomsky himself, from 1983:
The foreign policy of other states is also in general horrifying -- roughly speaking, states are violent to the extent that they have the power to act in the interests of those with domestic power -- but there is not very much that I can do about it. It is, for example, easy enough for an American intellectual to write critical analyses of the behavior of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe (or in supporting the Argentine generals), but such efforts have little if any effect in modifying or reversing the actions of the U.S.S.R. Rather, such efforts, which are naturally much welcomed by those who dominate the ideological institutions here, may serve to contribute to the violence of the American state, by reinforcing the images of Soviet brutality (often accurate) that are used to frighten Americans into conformity and obedience. I do not suggest that this is a reason to avoid critical analysis of the U.S.S.R.; in fact, I have often written on the foreign policy of the Soviet state. Nor would I criticize someone who devotes much, even all his work to this task. But we should understand that the moral value of this work is at best very slight, where the moral value of an action is judged in terms of its human consequences. In fact, rather delicate judgments sometimes arise, for people who are committed to decent moral values. Suppose, for example, that some German intellectual chose in 1943 to write articles on terrible things done by Britain, or the U.S., or the Jews. What he wrote might be correct, but we would not be very much impressed.
On the question of Chomsky's purported "support" of Pol Pot, Sharp points us in the direction of this article by Edward Herman, which is indeed quite good. Unfortunately, since Herman is closely associated with Chomsky, I fear that people might use that as a reason to dismiss his defense of Chomsky. (Chomsky & Herman co-wrote a handful of important books, including After the Cataclysm, the largely unread 1979 book in which they supposedly reveal their "support" of Pol Pot. Their Manufacturing Consent contains an entertaining application of their media model to this very "controversy".) So, while I do recommend Herman's piece as a decent place to start, I'd like to refer you to this excellent and comprehensive item over at Flagrency to Reason.

Attacks on Chomsky are depressingly common and similar. Some time ago, Brian Leiter wrote:
There's plenty to quarrel with Chomsky about (though at least he's worth quarreling with!). One could reasonably say, "I think Chomsky is wrong about X," or "The evidence really doesn't support Chomsky's claim about Y," and so on. But DeLong, and other Chomsky haters, aren't content with engaging Chomsky in argument: they have to establish that he is beyond the pale, that he is intellectually corrupt and dishonest, that it is no longer necessary to take him seriously.
I don't know that I see "plenty to quarrel with Chomsky about"--I suppose it depends on how you define the word "plenty"--but Leiter is quite right. This is because, I think, his work directly challenges these people--intellectuals and the media and Liberals--and they find themselves unable to address it substantively, so they tend to ignore it and/or smear him. That intellectuals by and large are in the service of the state is a basic truism for Chomsky, not terribly surprising. Liberals like to hold on to the idea that America is good and means well and that its power could be used benignly, calling for this or that "humanitarian intervention", choosing to ignore extensive American culpability in those very regions ripe for intervention. And much of Chomsky's work, especially his work with Herman, focuses specifically on how the media reports on American policy and the ideological framework in which the media operates. And they explicitly use their propaganda model in the course of these studies. This is clearly not a legitimate area of inquiry. "[I]t is simply assumed that discussing the press is nothing more than cynical cover for some ulterior motive", as Josh Buermann wrote in the above-linked Flagrancy to Reason piece. Exactly so.

For a general clearinghouse of all kinds of complaints about Chomsky and how and why they do not hold up to scrutiny, please see this other, also excellent Flagrancy to Reason piece.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Music of Prose

The Summer 2006 issue of Rain Taxi included a very positive review (not online) by Scott Esposito of William H. Gass' latest collection of essays, A Temple of Texts. After praising Gass' prose and infectious enthusiasm for great literature and for writing, Scott writes:
Each essay is packed with an astonishing array of ornately wrapped information, yet this dense prose means that Gass's essays commonly feel more like a series of switchbacks than a well-defined path. Gass's strength is for orchestrating sentences and paragraphs, not entire essays, and he sometimes gets so involved in minutia and arcane references that his essays grind to a halt. Take, for instance, when an insightful comparison of Gaddis's The Recognitions and JR is hijacked by an overly deep reading of a paragraph from the second page of The Recognitions:
I particularly like the double t's with which our pleasure begins, but perhaps you will prefer the ingenious use of the vowel i in the sentence with which it ends ("which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla's difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin"), or the play with d and c in the same section. But these are rich streets and should be dawdled down...
Such opaque readings do little to illuminate a work....
When I read this passage, a couple objections jumped immediately to mind. For one thing, this piece on The Recognitions is not an "essay" per se, but originally appeared as an introduction (my personal favorite introduction, in fact), as did many of the offerings in this new book. He is not making an argument about The Recognitions, as one might find in an essay (that is, he is not trying to "illuminate [the] work"), so much as, by way of introducing it, suggesting that the reader has various pleasures in store. In this case, the reader who attends to the language (who listens to the music, as Gass likes to put it), has much to look forward to in Gaddis. And, I thought that Gass, by bringing the reader's attention to not just specific sentences or words, but even letters, is doing what he usually does, which is concerning himself primarily with language, and that to complain about this in Gass is to largely have missed what Gass is about. Indeed, Scott immediately admits that
perhaps it is unfair to criticize Gass for being obsessed with details; as his essays make clear, when reading he prefers the rich side streets to the quick boulevards, so it makes perfect sense that his criticism would reflect this. From his first essay collection onward, Gass's attention has been most focused not on the structure of a novel but on the use of language: its creativity, its elegance, and above all its physical sound.
I draw attention to this, not to pick on Scott, but to talk a little about Gass and his particular criticism. More than most critics, it seems, Gass wants us to pay attention to the language. More than that, he wants us to think about how the language forms the rest of what we think we "see" or understand while reading fiction.

Lately I've been reading Gass' early collection, Fiction and the Figures of Life. At any given time he may be talking about character or the nature of fiction, but always Gass is focusing on the language. In "The Concept of Character in Fiction" he bemoans the fact that so often "characters are clearly conceived as living outside language". Then he proceeds to walk us through the ways in which character emerges through the specific word choices the writer makes. First, he plays with the common idea that we "visualize" while we read, before finding it wanting:
The proportion of words which we can visualize is small, but quite apart from that, another barrier to the belief that vivid imagining is the secret of a character's power is the fact that when we watch the picture which a writer's words have directed us to make, we miss their meaning, for their point is never the picture. It also takes concentration, visualization does--takes slowing down; and this alone is enough to rule it out of novels, which are never waiting, always flowing on.
Gass shows us how characters only consist of what the writer gives them. This seems like an utter banality, but it's not. We might be told that a character is tall or fat or bald or whatever, and we might automatically visualize to some extent what that means, we fill in the blanks. But our blank-filling, here, is wrong. Our visualization of the character ends up endowing the character with more than what the writer has given it. If I have an idea of what a stock fat guy looks like, and all I'm told by way of physical attributes is that Mr. X is fat, enter stock image. This only gets in the way. So, Gass would have us attend to the words, consider the choices, consider how they sound, and how their sound is why they were chosen just as much if not more than their supposed meaning. And how this sound, this music, helps create whatever meaning comes through.

Later in this essay, Gass quotes from Henry James' story "The Birthplace":
Their friend, Mr. Grant-Jackson, a highly preponderant pushy person, great in discussion and arrangement, abrupt in overture, unexpected if not perverse in attitude, and almost equally acclaimed and objected to in the wide midland region to which he had taught, as the phrase was, the size of his foot...
Says Gass: "Mr. Grant-Jackson is a preponderant pushy person because he's made by p's". This might seem at first blush to simply be Gass trying to be clever or showy, but it's not. He says this because it matters that James has used this alliteration. It matters that "preponderant", "pushy", and "person" all begin with the letter p. He finishes this sentence thus: "and the rhythm and phrasing of James's writing here perfectly presents him to us." Characters come to us through language--which is to say, they are made up of the specific word choices made by the writer and the specific sounds those words make. And of course the same is true of everything else in a work of fiction.

When Gass singles out particular repeated sounds in The Recognitions, he asks the reader to consider such detail while reading. This is one of the many reasons I appreciate his criticism (another is the sheer joy it is to read).

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"...legends attract the very best in our times, just as ideologies attract the average, and the whispered tales of gruesome secret powers behind the scenes attract the very worst." - Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 209

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Prelimary Post on The Sleepwalkers

Earlier this year I read Hermann Broch's massive novel of ideas, The Sleepwalkers. Unlike with Despair, I did mean to write a semi-cohesive review of it here, but it kind of got away from me, and now that it's been several months, I'm afraid I'm too far removed from the reading of it to do what I had intended. Instead, I'm going to post what I can about my reading of the book in irregular installments. For now, a very brief note about the translation.

The novel was translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (best known to me as translators of Kafka). Divided into three sections, in English the section titles are rendered as “The Romantic”, “The Anarchist”, and “The Realist”. As far as I can tell the Muirs' translation is well thought of. However, there are some questions. In their review of the novel, The Complete Review complains, rightly I think, about the translations for the three section titles. I don’t know German, so it’s not like I’m any kind of judge generally. Except that it’s clear that the name for the main character in each section is included as part of the original German title—for example, "Pasenow oder die Romantik", which becomes “The Romantic”, features the name "Pasenow". But, as they say, that one fares better than the other two. When I first picked up a copy of The Sleepwalkers my interpretation of the title of the second section was that the main character in it would be something like a political anarchist. Indeed, that was an element that piqued my curiosity, given my nascent interest in Anarchism. How, I wondered, would a major German novelist of the interwar period depict a political anarchist in fiction? Well, I needn’t have worried, because the main character, Esch, is nothing of the kind. According to The Complete Review, the German for this section title ("Esch oder die Anarchie") should translate as “Esch, or Anarchy”--which is quite a different thing, referring, it seems clear to me, not to political anarchism, but instead to the idea of anarchy as “chaos”. This kind of thing tends to make me wonder what other meanings I'm missing by reading in translation. Naturally, there's no way to avoid this completely. But the question remains.

That's about it. As I said, the translation is well regarded. It's certainly rendered into a good, solid, literary English, for the most part quite readable (ignoring for the moment the problem with valuing "readability" over all else in a translation). The only times I was made aware in the reading that it was in translation were multiple instances of English slang, like the word "what?" at the end of a sentence. (Unfortunately, I didn't make note of these instances, so I can't provide an example.)

I hope to get my more substantive posts on the novel (which may or may not be in three parts, one for each section of the novel) up before the end of the year.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Devastated Characters

From Ben Marcus' review of Thomas Bernhard's first novel, Frost (just now appearing in English for the first time), in the November issue of Harper's:
…his characters might be regarded as arguments, constructed to stifle any possibility of hope or joy, the opposite of what anyone-anyone, that is, with an interest in self-preservation-should want from a book. They petition, with a barrister’s authority, a bleak space, interrogating the purpose of life and regularly finding it hollow and terrible. "Who had the idea of letting people walk around on the planet," asks the narrator, “or something called a planet, only to put them in a grave, their grave, afterwards?"

Who indeed? Yet the technique precisely describes the kind of jeopardy in which Bernhard routinely places his characters, choosing to notice them just when their suffering is at its most intense. This procedure allows readers the unusual experience of witnessing people who operate under virtually no illusions, in the most extreme emotional circumstances, at war with fears that none of us can rightly deny.

[…]

Bernhard’s mortal impulses place him in the company of another contemporary German-language writer, W. G. Sebald. Both were perfect adherents to Kafka's credo to pursue the negative, because "the positive thing is given to us from the start." Each produced portraits of devastated characters, ruined by both circumstance and self-generated torment, but their techniques diverged in stark ways. Whereas Sebald built a tranquil moat around his characters’ pain, Bernhard wheeled out the catapult and flung his characters into the fire, paying close attention to the sounds of their screams. In Sebald the emotion is buried under the veneer of manner and etiquette, and its repression and concealment create an exquisite pressure. We tiptoe around his characters and their elaborate denial, which, by its very banality, suggests to us extraordinary levels of pain that cannot be etched in language. They are so obliterated as to be beyond direct communication. Instead, they can talk about the flora and fauna in wistful ways, they can reminisce dully, and we are left to infer the depth of their grief. Sebald promoted his credo of subtlety and indirection when he declared that atrocity could not be rendered directly in literature, a rule that would seem to stuff rags into the mouths of Bernhard's characters, who are so far from standing on ceremony that they may as well be crawling on their bellies through the dirt.

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