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

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

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.

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: 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.

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.

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").

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.

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.

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.

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).

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

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.

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.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Hauntology II

Since my post last month about hauntology, there's been a flurry of blog activity on the topic (Jahsonic provides a mini-roundup here). In my post, I knew that I was more or less talking out of my ass. For one thing, I neglected to mention that the term originates with Derrida (in part this is because I have yet to read any Derrida, let alone Spectres of Marx, from which it comes). The proprietor of the new blog ACADEMITASSE, Mike, posted at length on this last week. Derrida, he writes, was responding in part to the kinds of "end of history" theses being put forth by the likes of Francis Fukuyama in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. For Derrida,
all this talk of the end of history is really just an attempt to "exorcise the spirit of Marxism" from our collective memory. And then he went on to look at the some of the "spectral" metaphors in Marx, whose description of capitalism is full of vampires and ghosts and the living dead.

Along the way, Derrida coined the term "hauntology" as a pun on "ontology." Ontology is the study of being, of what exists. Derrida wants to say that our ideas of reality are "haunted" by the stuff we exclude—the things we don't want to remember or acknowledge. The Holocaust, for example, or the slave trade. Our sense of Western history as the progressive march of "freedom" and "civilization" is haunted by genocide and enslavement.
Though I came to hauntology by way of attempts to apply it to music--"sonic hauntology"--I'm interested in this idea of history "haunted by the stuff we exclude". Really, I always have been, even if I didn't articulate it as such. I was trying to touch on some of this when I wrote about the common thread I perceived running through old folk music and Blood Meridian and so forth. Then there is the question of who the "we" is that is doing the excluding. And who is or isn't served by certain historical myths.

After quoting part of the same k-punk passage that I did in my earlier post ("It's no accident that hauntology begins in the Black Atlantic, with dub and hip-hop. Time being out of joint is the defining feature of the black Atlantean experience"), Mike says: "This is what's at stake in the term "hauntology" losing its precision: the memory of specific historical experiences that called for specific aesthetic responses." He then proceeds with a short, interesting discussion of Rastafarianism and Dub, of which the following is only a small part:
Like Rastafarianism, Dub is a response to a specific historical situation. Artists like [Lee "Scratch"] Perry rose to that occasion. If Byrne and Eno [with their My Life in the Bush of Ghosts] were inspired by Perry's work and wanted to appropriate it for their own concerns, that's great. But when critics describe B&E as these "nerdy," "cerebral" musicians experimenting with electronic music, they start to construct just another history of the Western Avant-garde that ignores the intellectual contribution of Black artists. Perry was as much a theoretician as B&E.
Read the rest here.

I expect I'll return to these themes in the future. For now, the upshot, for me, is that Spectres of Marx is yet another book that I feel like I have to read and that, again, I need to get myself acquainted with Dub.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Elsewhere recently, related to Nabokov and Dostoevski

At The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney on Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. Along with a beautiful discussion of the novel, Matt says this, about people's general suspicions about imagination:
Inevitably, there were students who were convinced Nabokov was insane or a drug addict or both. This accusation comes up all the time when we read anyone who is not among the hardest of hardcore realists, because imagination is something that has come to be associated only with the stimulus of drugs or madness. That someone could think up a story like Invitation to a Beheading -- where a man is imprisoned for "gnostic turpitude" in a fortress of porous walls and fake windows and rules against improper dreams -- without being addicted to hallucinogens or lacking a couple of screws is at best inconceivable to many people, if not threatening. The people who issue these accusations would never think of such a story or such imagery themselves, and therefore they can't imagine how anyone else could, unless there was something wrong with their brains.
And Rodney Welch on giving Dostoevski another chance, finding something there, but still deciding that Dostoeksi just isn't his thing (link via The Reading Experience). He seems to notice that Dostoevski is capable of great artistic power:
A slight turn with Dostoevsky came some years after my initial attempt, and that's when I picked up Demons [aka The Possessed]. This story of Stavrogin and the band of bored nihilists of mid-century Russia was absolutely staggering, if only because it seemed to me so very, very prescient. It's a fantastic novel about how revolutions implode, and to reach that ending, where all the principals die, one dropping after the other very much like in the last scene of Hamlet, was staggering -- it was like reading this great, massive historical tragedy, written by someone with incredibly far-seeing vision, who somehow knew how the history of his country would play out. I thought maybe it was one of the greatest novels I'd ever read. And it was cinematic, too; there's a scene at the end where some character, I forget which, stumbles upon a dead body and holds a candle up to his dead face. It was a beautifully visual scene, and I didn't recall anything like it in anything else of Dostoevsky's.
But finally this "beautifully visual" stuff, along with suspense and mystery, "is not what really interests Dostoevsky. His interest, his focus, is a good deal more psychological". Rodney ultimately finds Dostoevski "weirdly interesting" but "painful" where "the attempt is more interesting than the execution." I tend to agree (though I cannot get behind his comparison to Ornette Coleman or Captain Beefheart, both of whom have made a lot of music that is simply wonderful).

Other notes on Despair

Here are a couple of other observations about Despair that I'd originally tacked onto the end of the previous post, but which are not much related to the balance of that post's content, and looked kind of random and lost there.

In his Lectures on Literature, these are Nabokov's opening and closing sentences in his (three-page) discussion of the portion of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park in which Fanny visits the Portsmouth relatives:
The novel, which shows signs of disintegrating, now lapses more and more into the easy epistolary form. This is a sure sign of a certain weariness on the part of the author when she takes recourse in such an easy form. [...] The Portsmouth interlude--three months in the life of Fanny--and the epistolary form of the novel is ended. We are back where we were, so to speak, but the Crawfords are now eliminated. Miss Austen would have had to write practically another volume of five hundred pages if she had wished to narrate those elopements in the same direct and detailed form as she had done in relating the games and flirtations at Mansfield Park before Fanny left for Portsmouth. The espistolary form has helped to prop up the structure of the novel at this point, but there is no doubt that too much has happened behind the scenes and that this letter-writing business is a shortcut of no very great artistic merit.
So it is amusing when, in chapter four, our narrator engages in a bit of literary criticism of the epistolary form:
There are in my possession two more letters written on similar paper, but all the answers have been destroyed. If I still had them [...] it would be possible now to adopt an epistolic form of narration. A time-honoured form with great achievements in the past. [...] The reader soon ceases to pay attention whatever to the dates; and indeed what does it matter to him whether a given letter was written on the ninth of September or on September the sixteenth? Dates are required, however, to keep up the illusion.

So it goes on and on, Ex writing to Why and Why to Ex, page after page. Sometimes an outsider, a Zed, intrudes and adds his own little contribution to the correspondence, but he does so with the sole aim of making clear to the reader (not looking at him the while except for the occasional squint) some event, which, for reasons of plausibility and the like, neither Ex nor Why could very well have explained.
A few pages later in the same chapter, there is what may or may not be an allusion to Proust:
But while I looked there started afresh that process of fusion, of building, that making up of a definite remembrance [...] I could not discover what the kernal was, around which all those things were formed, and where exactly the germ, the fount--suddenly I glanced at the decanter of dead water and it said "warm"--as in that game when you hide objects; and very possibly I should have finally found the trifle, which, unconsciously noticed by me, had at once set going the agent of memory...

Notes on re-reading Nabokov's Despair

Soon after starting this blog, I posted about revisiting Nabokov. I'd begun re-reading Despair, which had been one of the first few Nabokov books I'd ever read. Alas, I was in a total haze as I started reading it, so I put it aside for a bit. In the meantime, I mentioned having come across this interesting paper, in which the author, Alexander Dolinin, discusses parody in the book, as well as Nabokov's evolving critical attitude towards Dostoevski. So I decided to read some Dostoevski, something I hadn't done since I'd read The Brothers Karamazov some twelve years back (not long before I'd read Despair, as it happens), very early in my serious reading life. I read Notes from the Underground and then returned to Despair itself. I'd meant to post about that experience, but time got away from me. Time always seems to be getting away from me.

Around that time, I also started to dip into Michael Wood's The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. In the preface to his wonderful book, Wood writes about Nabokov's self-imposed loss of the Russian language for the purpose of his prose writing. He says that what was ultimately important about this loss (which Nabokov saw as necessary) was that it produced a
...fabulous, freaky, singing, acrobatic, unheard-of English which (probably) made even his most marvelous Russian seem poor, and therefore meant that the terrible decision of his early years in America had been right, that the second language could flower for him only at the cost of the first; had to become itself a new language, a language to write in.
Wood closes his preface by telling us that he is focusing on the novels written in English but that "the shadow of his Russian helps us with the shadow of his English. The absent language reminds us of the many absences in Nabokov's seemingly so complete and confident later prose." Unfortunately, this means that he does not discuss Despair, which was originally published in Russian in 1932 and first translated into English (by Nabokov) in 1937. For the American release of the novel in the mid-1960s, Nabokov returned to the book and extensively re-wrote it. This is Nabokov not only after having given up Russian, but also after the major successes of Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire. It seems to me that Despair would have been an interesting novel to look at in this context, how the novel relates to Nabokov's English-language work. No doubt there is plenty of work out there comparing it with Nabokov's other Russian novels.

Ok, moving on to the novel itself; I'm not intending a cohesive review of it here, but I was leafing through my notebook recently and thought I'd share some of my observations.

Anyway, the story. On a business trip to Prague, our narrator, Hermann, encounters a man who he takes to be his twin. From the beginning he expends a lot of energy telling us how obvious it is that the man looks like him, could easily be mistaken for him. Eventually, he devises a standard-issue murder-for-insurance-money plan that he thinks is not only brilliant but will be a great work of art. I hope it's not giving too much away to say that things don't quite go according to plan. In and of itself, the novel is an entertaining thriller of sorts. But this being Nabokov, there's a lot more to it than that. Hermann is not only an unreliable narrator, but he virtually shouts "unreliable narrator" throughout, he's almost too obvious about being unreliable, from his declarations at certain points that he is lying, to the manner in which he repeatedly records, to his evident surprise, that no one has noticed the resemblance between him and his double (how convenient for his scheme!).

After reading Notes from the Underground, immediately it seemed clear to me that, in part, Nabokov is parodying it in Despair. This is how I put it before: "superficial similarities are obvious, from the 'confession' addressed to some unnamed accuser ("gentlemen" in Notes, "reader" in Despair), to the narrator's exaggeratedly high opinion of himself and repeated backtrackings and claims that he is lying." It also occurred to me that this novel is in some sense a dry run for Lolita, not in the latter novel's lurid subject matter (that dubious honor goes to the inferior novella The Enchanter), but in the form, as well as the character of Hermann, who seems like a prototype for Humbert--again, the apparently hyperliterate confession, the unreliable narrator who is quite full of himself (bragging about odd things that come off sounding like bullshit, for example claiming to "have exactly twenty-five types of handwriting" before proceeding to describe several of them). Hermann fancies himself smarter than everyone around him, as a keen observer of people, when in reality he is unable to notice many obvious things right in front of him (for example, an affair between his wife and the artist Ardalion). I say "apparently hyperliterate" because, while Hermann makes a number of overt literary references and goes on and on about art versus life, his allusions are inept. Nabokov gives us something of a hint on this front in his introduction to this edition where he provides the full text of the Pushkin poem that Hermann quotes partially in chapter four. Dolinin writes that the portion of the poem omitted by Hermann shows that Hermann misunderstands Pushkin's point, and he points out a similarly inept reference to Gogol.

Returning here to the idea of parody, in his discussion of Lolita, Wood spends some time exploring the ways in which Quilty acts as Humbert's double. Quilty is Humbert's "sleazy alter ego, his monstrous dream-double" but not a figment of Humbert's imagination; he is "an aspect of Humbert's self-image that has got loose, seceded, and taken over a part of the plot. Or he is Nabokov's answer to Humbert, the case Humbert can't make against himself." When Humbert recognizes with pleasure the name of his secret tormenter, his pleasure is weird, but Wood relates it to Kafka and "the pure perfection of everything going entirely wrong"; Quilty is "objective proof (in the world of the novel) of the conspiracy we thought we had only dreamed." And here is where Wood addresses the parodic elements of that novel, and makes me wish again that he had included a chapter on Despair in his book:
I seem to have slithered over the element of literary parody in all this, but that is easier to see. Lolita is not only a book with a manically material double in it, it is a joke about books which allow such creatures any sort of run. Nabokov would expect us to remember Dostoevsky, who wrote a novel called The Double and whose reputation in the West, Nabokov thought, was hugely inflated. That inflation itself might have seemed enough to secure the allusion, even if we didn't know that Stavrogin's almost unnameable sin, in The Possessed, is the molestation of a little girl; and Humbert himself, in case we need a hint, says he feels a 'Dostoyevskian grin dawning . . . like a distant and terrible sun'. The clue to Conrad, another specialist in doubling, is stealthier. Humbert imagines Quilty as 'that secret agent, or secret lover, or prankster, or hallucination, or whatever he was'. 'Secret sharer' is the phrase Humbert has left out, but he wouldn't want us to prompt him. When Humbert speaks of Quilty as 'my brother', the fun piles up in several tiers.
Etc. Nabokov obviously has great fun in layering this stuff like this. Naturally, I haven't read either The Double or The Possessed; even so, Nabokov provides enough surface references to make you wonder what he's doing in Despair. There are constant overt references to Dostoevski and to a "Russian psychological novelist".

Given Dostoevski's reputation as a great writer of the "novel of ideas" and Nabokov's famous disdain of same, it seemed obvious to me that the latter is poking fun at the concept in Despair. Hermann expresses and explores a lot of ideas, many of which are just plain idiotic, or if they aren't idiotic, he doesn't have anything interesting to say about them. For example, in chapter two, he describes his wife, Lydia, and her hatred for the Bolsheviks. He then says:
When I used to say that Communism in the long run was a great and necessary thing; that young, new Russia was producing wonderful values, although unintelligible to Western minds and unacceptable to destitute and embittered exiles; that history had never yet known such enthusiasm, asceticism, and unselfishness, such faith in the impending sameness of us all--when I used to talk like this, my wife would answer serenely: "I think you are saying it to tease me, and I think it's not kind." But really I was quite serious for I have always believed that the mottled tangle of our elusive lives demands such essential change; that Communism shall indeed create a beautifully square world of identical brawny fellows, broad-shouldered and microcephalous; and that a hostile attitude toward it is both childish and preconceived...
That a supporter of Communism would say this strikes me as highly unlikely--it sounds like a parody of Bolshevik claims as expressed by one with contempt for their ideas and methods. At first I thought this was an example of Nabokov allowing his own opinions to color his writing, but he probably knew what he was doing. That the narrator is something of a pompous idiot tells me that Nabokov knew full well that no real advocate of the Bolsheviks would use these kinds of words in support of them (microcephalous?).

But I think it's a little too easy to think that Nabokov is simply having a go at Dostoevski. There are several superficial digs; for example:
Did it actually go on like this? Am I faithfully following the lead of my memory, or has perchance my pen mixed the steps and wantonly danced away? There is something a shade too literary about that talk of ours, smacking of thumb-screw conversations in those stage taverns where Dostoevski is at home; a little more of it and we should hear that sibilant whisper of false humility, that catch in the breath, those repetitions of incantatory adverbs--and then all the rest of it would come, the mystical trimming dear to that famous writer of Russian thrillers.
As I read this, it occurred to me that Nabokov himself would not have found the conversations in Dostoevski "literary", would have found them staged, contrived, "political", characters as mouthpieces for so-called ideas. Or would he? Dolinin compares the American version of Despair with its Russian predecessor and identifies some clear differences in the object of Nabokov's parody. In the US, Nabokov is famously dismissive of Dostoevski, but Dolinin shows that it wasn't always thus. Dolinin cites a paper Nabokov wrote in 1931, while living in Berlin as part of the Russian emigre literary community, in which he praised Dostoevski's ability for "keen sight". For Nabokov "keen sight" is where the art lies in literature, the well-observed detail, for example, whereas "insight", into human psychology, or via other great ideas, is the province of Dostoevski at his worst, what he would have called "Dostoevskian stuff". It would appear that Nabokov, in 1931 anyway, thought highly of Dostoevski's abilities, but felt that he too often chose to work elsewhere, to lard his fiction with all of this psychological business. Dolinin suggests that Nabokov's position in the US compelled him to switch the object of parody from "Dostoevskian stuff" to Dostoevski himself. He writes:
The reorientation of the English Despair toward Dostoevsky was undoubtedly prompted by the Western cultural context of the 1960's in which (and for which) Nabokov was rewriting his thirty-year-old novel. By this time Nabokov had severed his ties to contemporary Russian literature, whether written by émigrés or Soviet nationals.[...]In America Nabokov wanted to play the role of the last survivor and representative of the great Russian literary tradition, the ambassador plenipotentiary of the mutilated Russian culture and language, the sole peer and interlocutor of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov rather than Pasternak (as the author of Doctor Zhivago) or Solzhenitsyn. This is why he was so enraged when in the 1950's and 1960's the American intellectual elite, under the influence of French existentialists, began to venerate Dostoevsky, whom they proclaimed the father of existentialism and the only Russian writer of genius. The main aim of Nabokov's individual crusade against Dostoevsky was not so much to dethrone the mighty predecessor as to undermine his uncritical cult in America, which tended to reduce all Russian cultural heritage to the soul-searching of Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
I have not read a lot of the critical apparatus around either Dostoevski or Nabokov (pretty much just the ones I'm quoting here and stray other pieces), but the narrator of Despair, Hermann, is a doof, so perhaps by putting these comments in this idiot's mouth, he is sort of discrediting the ideas--maybe Nabokov was still not so down on Dostoevski as he claimed or he simply conceals the "good" he may have still found in Dostoevski. Or, he lampoons his own excessive dismissal of Dostoevski, while writing a novel that mimics the "Dostoevskian-stuff" he actually disliked in Dostoevski's writing--to the point of having Ardalion (an actual artist) criticize Hermann (who has artistic pretensions) for the Dostoevskian-stuff. Also, remember, Hermann thinks of his crime as a work of art, and accordingly he thinks that his "confession" is prime material for a great novel and claims to be unconcerned with whether he is credited or not. He writes about what a certain psychological novelist he has in mind might do with his book, referring variously to his "first reader" or "that Russian author to whom my manuscript will be forwarded when the time comes". Perhaps Nabokov here is having fun both with his character, who is not as smart as he thinks he is, while again skewering the idea that a crime can even be a work of art, as he does in Lolita (Humbert is monstrous, not an artist, no matter his refinements), and also nodding again in the direction of Dostoevski, positing one like him perhaps, who might try to make use of such material as this.

Also related to this question of Dostoevski and what might be the object of Nabokov's parody in Despair is some interesting stuff in Dolinin's paper about the differing literary camps in the aforementioned Russian emigre community in Berlin. He cites many examples of stories and novels that followed various trendy models, including those that were heavy on the "Dostoevskian stuff", the "inner 'irrepressible light' of Dostoevsky's insights", and he says that it is very likely that various aspects of Despair were specifically parodying some of these works. I often talk about my own anxieties about alluson, how I always worry that I'm going to miss something, and this would appear to be a case in point of a huge amount of allusion and intertextuality necessarily passing me by. But, of course, the American reader is highly unlikely to have any acquaintance with this stuff and Nabokov would have known it, and I suspect he modified his text accordingly to focus on Dostoevski, in the process bringing it more in line with his contemporaneous rhetorical stance. I think Nabokov is also having fun with those in America who venerate Dostoevski (and the existentialist or psychological treatment of art--he makes fun of Sartre in his introduction to Despair and is constanly railing against Freud)--either for doing so at all, or for missing what art there actually is in Dostoevski. He wants people to be able to notice the difference, but is happy to have a joke at their expense if they do not.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Joy in Repetition

Earlier this evening, I was looking through my cds, and I noticed a white, paper-bound set, just after the Alva.Noto/Ryuichi Sakamoto collaborations. I couldn't remember what it was, so I pulled it out. Ah yes. Mort aux Vaches. Two cds of electronic music from Alva.Noto, Signal, Komet, and Byetone.... It never was entirely clear to me what the story was with the different Mort aux Vaches releases. They appear to have been special limited edition showcases of artists from other labels, in this case raster-noton. Like a lot of the releases on the boutique electronic labels, the packaging on these was often very entertaining. The one I have is no different: it's two cds, inside heavy, folded white paper (the only color being black ink, indicating that mine was supposedly number 292 of the 1000 made), with raised lettering for liner notes. The cds are held in place with a metal fastener, poked through the folded paper, and through the holes in each cd, the metal bent back on the other side.

I was again delighted by the silly packaging, so I opened it, and was reminded of how precarious the placement of the cds is. The cds fell out into my hands, and I noticed right away that disc 2 had what appeared to be a pretty egregious scratch, straight from the inner circle to the edge of the disc. And now I was somewhat irritated. Granted, it had obviously been a few years since I'd even been aware of owning the set, but here I had a cd I'd no doubt spent far too much money on (limited edition import?) and had probably only listened to once, and now there was a good chance it might be unplayable. Expecting the worst, I placed it into the cd player and pressed play. It seemed ok to start with. And then I was drawn into the music. Clean, electronic tones. Blips and squirts, and sounds like drops of water, along with occasional swells and bass. Very minimal, but not just static. Painterly. Beautiful, really. I was happy I had this cd, and happier still that it seemed ok.

I had to do something upstairs for a while, but I left the cd playing, even though I couldn't hear it very well. After some time, we noticed that we could hear the same tone repeating over and over again, and for several minutes. I said, "You know, I have to admit that I can't say offhand if this cd is supposed to sound like this, or if it's finally started to skip..." I went downstairs and checked it. I yelled up, "You know what's awesome?" "Let me guess; it's not skipping," came the reply. "It's totally not skipping. That's cool," I said. "That's one word for it," she said.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Election 2006

I don't have much to say about the elections. I'm not optimistic that the Democrats will do much of anything now that they control Congress. But I do share a sense of relief that, at least, things will be a little harder for the Bush Administration. It seems clear that the war was the key element driving the anti-Republican backlash, which is great, though I doubt this will result in troop withdrawal. And I very strongly doubt we're going to see Impeachment proceedings. I'd love to be proven wrong on both counts. I'd love to see the DLC lose control over the Democratic Party. I'm not holding my breath on that one either.

I admit that prior to the election I grew increasingly irritated with the standard-issue Liberal exhortations that everyone vote. I disagree with those who say that "no matter what side you're on, so long as you vote, that's what's important". (If you're going to vote for a Bush-type, I'd much rather you stayed home, frankly.) This annoying, patriotic faith in "liberal democracy" in the face of all manner of evidence that not only is the system broken, but it's rotten to the core, is tiresome to me. Similarly, I disagree with the idea that, if you don't vote, you don't have the right to "complain" or that this renders any "remotely political" thing you have to say automatically irrelevant. There are numerous perfectly rational reasons why someone would choose not to vote, especially given the stolen presidential elections, and the Diebold business, and the lack of much real difference between the two major parties.

That said, I voted, and I still think that voting is worth doing and important, especially for local elections. And while it is true that the major parties share the same basic assumptions about business and American power, and it's also true that at no point have "the people" had much to do with what the ruling class likes to call "the national interest", nevertheless the Republicans are demonstrably worse, even if only slightly. So a vote against them is ok by me, until such time as we have something concrete to vote for. For that reason, Tuesday's results are at least an encouraging sign that Americans are not completely insane.

Elsewhere, check out post-mortems by Brian Leiter, Lenin, Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair, and the always inspiring Stan Goff.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Could Stalin have stopped laughing?

In CounterPunch, Michael Neumann (author of the excellent book, The Case Against Israel) on why the US should "cut & run" sooner rather than later in Iraq:
In Iraq, the US has been defeated militarily, because it has not attained the most basic objectives it could possibly be said to have had. These were not silly high-school-civics objectives having to do with 'democracy' or 'hearts and minds'- could Stalin have stopped laughing if someone had told him he hadn't won Eastern Europe's hearts and minds? No, to attain any sort of military objective the US had to control Iraq. That means, oh, for instance, controlling the capital city, the major roads, really it means imposing authority over the whole country, as the allies did in Germany and the US in Japan. The US has not established military control over Iraq's capital, much less the whole country. That was its objective. The goal was not to eliminate the Iraqi army, never considered a threat, but to get Iraq under control so that, according to the administration, it would not threaten the US in the future--or, according to me, so the US could show itself capable of getting some country, somewhere, under control. The US failed to attain its objective, and not because of sunspot activity or an asteroid colliding with earth. It failed to obtain its objectives because there were people with guns in their hands who prevented the US from obtaining them.. I don't know whether these people won, but it is quite clear that the US lost. It did not attain those objectives and it won't.

So the US can't conquer a country it has been at work crippling for years, a country just barely big enough and sophisticated enough to make a credible opponent when in good shape. Leaving now, that would indeed be a case of cut and run. It's more than a military defeat, more than a political disaster, it's a catastrophe of historic proportions. So it's not surprising that Bush and Poodle are sure they have to stay there.

If it's a catastrophe to cut and run, why should we (or 'we') cut and run? How can a good argument for 'staying the course' be not good enough? Because we're *not* going to stay the course. Because we *are* going to cut and run, and sooner is much better than later. Later only makes the defeat even bigger.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Sea, and 1000 Other Books

Ellis Sharp has gotten around to reading John Banville's Booker-winning novel, The Sea, and admits that he must agree with Tim Sterne that it "remains a listless, lifeless exercise in aesthetic pretension" and that "[t]hematically, the novel is tired and unoriginal". When Banville's novel won the Booker Prize, there was much ado in the British press about it about how it was a horribly snooty selection, proof that the Literary Establishment is out of touch with regular readers, or some such nonsense. But, comparing it to Ian McEwan's Saturday, Sharp observes that The Sea is basically plot-driven: "It lures the reader on to the end, to find out how everything resolved itself. And finally the pieces all click together, like a jigsaw. There is nothing, at the end, to furrow the reader’s brow. Both novels aspire to be serious literature but supply the sweet-tasting delights of a certain type of genre fiction."

I enjoy reading Banville's prose, and I enjoyed reading The Sea, at the surface level. However, it definitely felt slight in comparison to his other work, and the writing itself, unusually for him, I thought, was occasionally awkward. I've now read the six novels published immediately prior to The Sea, and I must conclude that it's by far the weakest of the bunch. I think Eclipse and the loose trilogy comprising The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena are all excellent novels (all "engaging the mind", too).

This is as good a reason as any to mention that ridiculous 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die business several others have noted. Both The Sea and Saturday are on it, which perhaps tells you all you need to know, but I'll bore you some more about it. Steve Mitchelmore expressed annoyance about the list because it resists "randomness; as if all one has to do is read the 1001 and you're done." He also noted its typical wrongheadness, where this book places over that one, etc, which is inevitable in any such large list. Of course, I agree with him about the random appeal of learning about books via blogs and the like, yet I like to look at lists; there's usually something interesting on them, something random, in its way, that I hadn't come across before. But this one is so huge it defies that kind of effect. And its particular wrongheadness is worth noting. It's almost as if the compilers couldn't be bothered to make decisions on what to include on their own list. Nearly half of it is taken up by books since 1960. It's actually kind of nice to see contemporary fiction get shown such regard, but this is pretty silly. And it's pretty heavily weighted towards British Commonwealth writers (generally Booker-eligible). I haven't read the vast majority of books on it, but I remain skeptical that many of them are truly "essential", that I simply MUST read them before I die. It's as if the compilers simply raked in a whole bunch of award-winning and/or generally well-reviewed novels and left it at that (and maybe they claim no different, and maybe the introduction to the book says just this). And yet they still managed to leave off Richard Powers and William H. Gass, just to name two very highly regarded writers. Meanwhile, there are ten (ten!) J.M. Coetzee books on the list, seven Philip Roth, eight Ian McEwan... Coetzee, Roth, and McEwan are all writers I have enjoyed, but their books that appear on the list are damn good indications that the criteria for what might constitute "essential" are rather lax, if not missing altogether. Once again: Roth has written some books I would call essential, but The Plot Against America and The Human Stain are not among them (Sabbath's Theater is). And Ian McEwan has written some very fine novels (I'm partial to Atonement, Enduring Love, and The Child In Time, though even among these three I don't know that all of them are quite essential), but Saturday and Amsterdam are bullshit. With Coetzee, it's like they couldn't decide at all, threw up their hands, and listed nearly his entire published works. Etc.

I find I've pretty run out of interest on this one. Glad I could share!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Music = fun or boring?

Earlier this week at his Status Ain't Hood blog, Tom Breihan wrote about his visit to the Music is a Better Noise exhibition at the PS 1 Art Center in Long Island. I have no quarrel with most of the content of the post (not least because I didn't see the exhibition), but he opens the post with this:
I'm generally pretty suspicious whenever any institution tries to make explicit connections between pop music and art, whatever that term means, mainly because musicians' dumbshit ideas about art have resulted in some of the most boring and joyless forms of music ever invented: abstract jazz, prog, glitch, all that shit. Once musicians starts taking themselves uber-seriously and looking for new, more direct forms of self-expression, they usually lose all connection with the idea that music should be fun to listen to, that you can find plenty of ways to play around with ideas and preconceptions without sacrificing any notion of rhythm or melody.
I think there's a whole lot of bullshit in these few sentences. First, let me say again that I am happy over the last couple of years to have allowed myself to be exposed to chart pop and its potential delights, rather than ignorantly dismissing it as by definition garbage. But one of the problems I've had with some of the pop-ist rhetoric I've read has been an excessive emphasis on "fun", as if "fun" is a useful term for judging all music, and if music is not "fun" then it must then be "boring". I strongly object to this. I enjoy Tom's writing, while often disagreeing with him on matters of taste (though I've also learned about a lot of music from him). But occasionally he rubs me the wrong way, and it usually has to do with his over-use of these very words and, frankly, his general critical stance. Music is not easily defined in just these limited terms. His contention that "music should be fun to listen to" is frankly incomprehensible to me. I enjoy a lot of music that I would have a hard time describing as "fun". Some music should be fun to listen to, sure. A lot of dance music, for example. But it's hardly fruitful to use the expectations we have for dance music or other immediate, hook-heavy pop music, for assessing the value of all other kinds of music, for even all other kinds of pop. I could get on his case and drag in classical and ask if he really believes that all music should be "fun to listen to", but he's probably only talking about pop, generally (and not just chart pop, specifically). But even here, I doubt he really believes it. To take just one example, he's noted several times that his favorite album from last year was the Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree. Is an autobiographical song-cycle about an abusive step-father all that "fun" to listen to? Is "fun" even relevant here? I submit that it is not. I submit that this means that even Tom likes plenty of music for reasons having nothing to do with "fun" and that, even for his purposes, the word isn't terribly helpful.

And then there's "boring", which seems to be flip-side of "fun". If it's not fun, then it's boring, right? While there is plenty of music that ultimately is little more than boring, there is a lot of other music that might seem "boring" on first listen, but which reveals a lot of pleasure over the course of subsequent listens. If music is difficult, or hard to get at first, I can imagine the listener would be bored by it. We're often bored by what we have a hard time appreciating. I think the problem here is impatience. Some of my favorite albums have required many listens before I even grew to like them, let alone consider them among my favorites. Sometimes pleasure requires work. And if that word bothers you, then substitute "effort". Sometimes you have to meet the music halfway, enjoy it on its own terms, whatever those may be.

He's not wrong that often musicians take themselves too seriously, and that the music suffers as a result, but this is a pretty sweeping statement: "musicians' dumbshit ideas about art have resulted in some of the most boring and joyless forms of music ever invented: abstract jazz, prog, glitch, all that shit". Dismissing such a wide variety of music as "all that shit" is strange and off-putting. What exactly do they have in common? Does Tom have a definition for what "abstract jazz" even is? I'm not sure I know what he means. Is it free jazz? There is without question a ton of highly indulgent, painful free jazz, but a ton of it is incredibly life-affirming. I'm thinking William Parker or David S. Ware or Cecil Taylor: "joyless" or "boring" are the last words I would use to describe this music. Prog? Is there a lot of painful prog? Oh god yes. Did Emerson, Lake, & Palmer suck? Yes, and they were boring, too, and pretentious in the worst ways. But they weren't boring by definition, and they are hardly all that prog is. (I suppose I could provide lists of examples and counter-examples, but I just don't have that kind of time. Maybe for a later post.)

In part this fun/boring approach rankles because it does little more than reinforce our short attention-span, media-dominated, consumerist muddle we find ourselves in. We flit from item to item, in search of cheap calories, of fun, bored out of our minds by anything requiring effort. I'd like things to be just a little slower, a little more contemplative, even in pop music.