Friday, October 23, 2009

Fundamental Willingness to Share

After reading but one chapter in William Flesch's book on the evolution of cooperation, Comeuppance, Nigel Beale has already encountered a problem. He quotes Flesch thus:
narratives tend to contain or at least to suggest the possibility of three basic figures (though there may be more or fewer than three characters who ‘instantiate’ them): an innocent, someone who exploits that innocent, and someone else who seeks to punish the exploiter…The biological origin of this propensity is part of what has come to be called the "evolution of cooperation." which provides the insights that are central to this book.
In characteristic fashion, it doesn't take Nigel long to get to Hitler, but not before a bizarre reference to Shakespeare:
Shakespeare had as hearty a grip on human nature, I’d say, as any narrative writer in history. Plenty of innocents get expoited in his greatest plays, plenty seek to punish the exploiters…more often than not plenty of all three end up dead in pools of blood, prostrate on the stage boards. How is this co-operation?

Flip over to ‘real’ life: Hitler exploited the Jews. Used them as scapegoats, blaming them for hardships faced by the ‘German’ population. Then he exterminated millions of them. The Allies, despite knowing at least some of what was going on, were uniformly reluctant to provide safe haven for the innocent, let alone ‘punish the exploiter.’ They acted against the exploiter only when their own safety was in jeopardy.

This is not co-operation. It’s self preservation. Let us not forget, typically there is carnage before there is co-operation.
Well, this is pretty silly. I haven't read Flesch's book, but this sort of non-argument drives me crazy. I commented, asking, "Has it occurred to you that Flesch explains what he means, since he says that’s what his book is about? Do you think people who talk about the evolution of cooperation are completely unfamiliar with the history of war? Or that they haven’t heard of Hitler?" Godwin's law aside, my point is that you cannot cite events from human history (after we became culturally human) as evidence to refute an evolutionary theory. Of course, I am persuaded that evolutionary science suggests that that in order to become culturally human (that is, in that moment when language emerges, thus changing everything) we would necessarily had to have cooperated.

As a necessary corrective to the kinds of assumptions built into Nigel's post (and, to be sure, shared by many), take a look at the new issue of Radical Anthropology (thanks to Stuart for the link). The opening editorial suggests that, if the new issue "has a unifying theme then it probably is how fundamental willingness to share--food, stories, lipstick, medicine, beads, dances, childcare--is to humanity". This sharing needs to be explained "as strategic behaviour that survived the test of natural and sexual selection: that is, benefited our 'selfish genes'."

(Update: by the above, I should clarify that I mean you cannot simply point to events in human history as obvious self-evident proof against a given theory; that is, for example, simply pointing to the persistence of war as proof of the innate aggressiveness of human beings, and leaving it at that, will not do.

Also, having now had a chance to read through a fair portion of the Radical Anthropology, allow me to in particular recommend Camilla Power's interview with Darwinian feminist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy [whose latest book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, sounds fascinating], Moran Finnegan's imagining of an "egalitarian body" via her investigation of female body rituals among the Mbendjele Yaka hunter-gatherers in Central Africa, and the interview with Simone Pika on what the non-vocal gestures of chimps and ravens might be able to tell us about human language.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reading blogs in the middle of the workday

Responding to a typically incoherent Thomas Friedman column, IOZ says the following:
Tellingly, no one seems much interested in the fact that an industrial economy is by necessity pyramidal, that not everyone can be a[n] inventor (or innovator, as goes the preferred neologism) or CEO. You know, even in the Imaginarium of Doctress Rand, it is taken as given that the Atlases of the world must at some point employ and direct the debased lumpenproletariat; there are no illusions that every man is a genius. Indeed, the economy whose passing Friedman perhaps mourns too soon, for from my seat it appears to be sputtering along as before, only at a more modest clip, was not simply a Housing Bubble economy or a Financial Speculation Economy; it was a middle management economy, in which productive labor, accomplished elsewhere and more cheaply, was replaced in the employment world by the bullshit white-collar pseudojobs with which so many of you, reading blogs in the middle of the workday, are surely familiar. Such people were never actually doing much, regardless of their level of educational achievement, and because their jobs were, are, and will forever be extraneous, they are easily cut without the need ever to be replaced.
Reading blogs in the middle of the workday! Who would do such a thing? Next he'll be telling us that people shop from work! (What would happen to the economy if we couldn't shop online from work?) But seriously, I've been fond of saying for a while now that one of our dirty economic secrets is how little actual work is done by the fairly well-paid, so-called white collar worker, myself included. IOZ talks about middle management, that layer of general ineptitude and uselessness one encounters virtually everywhere. But in my experience, large swaths of office workers have relatively little to do (whereas others, I am well aware, work very long hours indeed). Of course, this is because there is relatively little that really needs to be done. The jobs that most of us have are utterly unnecessary. But we have to be kept working, or at work, don't we? Heaven forbid we have time to ourselves, without need to worry that someone is looking, and without need to worry that we'll starve. Meanwhile, that work that is necessary (which is generally not found in an office) could easily be spread around, so that no one would be over-worked or under-compensated. Such an arrangement should be within our abilities, and is, except that a certain ownership class, we'll call it capital for the sake of convenience, can't and won't have that. How would they maintain their rate of profit and accumulation? How would they maintain power? Have I mentioned lately that the Luddites were right?

At the end of his post, IOZ says (italics in the final sentence are mine):
Entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity are lovely words, but they cannot be taught, less yet can they be taught to students who cannot read, write, or add. Nor, in any event, does it make much sense to realign our national program of attempted-indoctrinated self-esteem and civic ignorance, i.e. public education, with the impossible conviction that every single American should own his own business, which uniquely produces the sole example of its own productorservice. In the world. Forever. Because of The Children. You cannot run a society of three hundred million people by requiring that each either invent the iPod or remain broke forever. Which rather brings up a tangential but dearly held point for the whole gang here at Who Is IOZ? Namely:

You cannot run a society of three hundred million people.
(Among other things, this point reminds me of a meeting I once attended--the topic was anarchism--in which one young fellow suggested that everyone should have iPods for free, as if in any plausible anarchist future it would be likely that society would be constructed in such a way that iPods would be mass-produced.)

This then acts as a placeholder for future posts about modernity and re-localization and Dunbar's number. Till then.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Noted: Willa Cather

From Death Comes for the Archbishop:
After he had laid aside his vestments, Father Latour went over the church with Jacinto. As he examined it his wonder grew. What need had there ever been for this great church at Ácoma? It was built early in sixteen hundred, by Fray Juan Ramirez, a great missionary, who laboured on the Rock of Ácoma for twenty years or more. It was Father Ramirez, too, who made the mule trail down the other side,--the only path by which a burro can ascend the mesa, and which is still called "El Camino del Padre."

The more Father Latour examined this church, the more he was inclined to think that Fray Ramirez, or some Spanish priest who followed him, was not altogether innocent of worldly ambition, and that they built for their own satisfaction, perhaps, rather than according to the needs of the Indians. The magnificant site, the natural grandeur of this stronghold, might well have turned their heads a little. Powerful men they must have been, those Spanish Fathers, to draft Indian labour for this great work without military support. Every stone in that structure, every handful of earth in those many thousand pounds of adobe, was carried up the trail on the backs of men and boys and women. And the great carved beams of the roof--Father Latour looked at them with amazement. In all the plain through which he had come he had seen no trees but a few stunted piñons. He asked Jacinto where these huge timbers could have been found.

"San Mateo mountain, I guess."

"But the San Mateo mountains must be forty or fifty miles away. How could they bring such timbers?"

Jacinto shrugged. "Ácomas carry." Certainly there was no other explanation.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"People know each other there"

I was struck by the final few paragraphs of this review by Roger Ebert of We Live In Public, a documentary about (previously unheard of by me) internet pioneer and visionary Josh Harris. Harris ("a myopic visionary, a man who saw the future more vividly than his own life") cashed in for $80 million in the 1990s for his, which apparently anticipated the world of YouTube and other streaming content, and then he crashed and burned, with a massive project in which he paid people to live their lives under constant surveillance. The review ends like this:
By then, Harris had spent most of his $80 million and become disillusioned with living in public. He bought an upstate New York apple farm, and Timoner followed him there to find him having returned to the earth. His friends lost touch. He became forgotten as quickly as he became famous. I wonder, and the film doesn't tell us, what he thinks of YouTube. At the end of the film, he's living in Africa.

He did, however, fly to Sundance 2009, where "We Live in Public" won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary. Sundance has become a place where the visitors can barely tear their eyes from texting, surfing, e-mailing or tweeting to actually watch at a movie. What did he make of this? Harris saw it coming in the days when a Tandy 100 transmitted text much more slowly than I could read.

This is a remarkable film about a strange and prophetic man. What does it tell us? Did living a virtual life destroy him? When Harris had a nervous breakdown after the "We Live in Public" Web experiment collapsed, was the experiment responsible?

Remember Jenny Ringley? She was the pioneer of Webcams. From April 1996 until 2003, she lived her life online, getting, it was said, tens of millions of hits a week. She never discussed why she shut down Jennycam. Today, she says she doesn't even have a MySpace page. And Josh Harris says Sidamo, Ethiopia, is the best place on Earth to live: "People know each other here."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Amnesia-inducing process

At Dusted Magazine, Kevan Harris reviews a book called Freedom Rhythm and Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965-83, published by Soul Jazz Records. In doing so, he describes an approach to the history of jazz that runs counter to the tradition that sees jazz as "America's classical music" and, in George Lewis' words, as "dominated by autobiography" and thus sidestepping (obliterating) "issues of intellectual development, social context, racial conditions or the subjects’ view of culture, history, and philosophy". Revolutionary jazz especially was a collective enterprise, not dominated by the ego of the soloist. Harris' review is an invigorating and fascinating reminder of the kinds of music "self-appointed keepers of 'official' jazz history worked hard to efface any trace of" and ends with this:
Writing this piece from the periphery of the United States’ world reach [from Iran], I cannot help but read this collection as a book that is anti-Obama, though this is assuredly not the editors’ intention. After all, given what has occurred in the U.S. between January and now, it seems we are experiencing the fastest unraveling of a liberal consensus since the Weimar Republic. In 2008, the Obama campaign was astonishingly able to get 18-24 year olds from around the country to knock on doors in poor neighborhoods, engage strangers in debate, go sleepless nights occupied with political action that many had told them was futile and impossibly naïve (I know, because they constantly were skipping my classes to go to places like Iowa and South Carolina). These individuals have the rare experience of being involved in a social movement that actually wins what it sets out to accomplish.

Did it, though? It was recently reported that Obama’s staff had to get the President “fired up” to take on his critics before his recent address to Congress on health care. The passage from New York Review of Books is telling: “Obama, whose high self-esteem is well known among close observers, had previously assumed that a ‘following,’ a ‘movement,’ would be there without his having to do much to stimulate it.” Frankly, the movement is already gone, so someone should let him down easy. But it was Obama and his technocratic centrism that demobilized it, and the guy’s just too damn charismatic for anyone to admit it.

What if we lived in a world where all that youth energy, filled with utopian visions, knowing that history was on our side, foregoing the established routes of behavior, was directed into something other than the amnesia-inducing process known as an American presidential election? Something more locally and globally minded than simply a re-branded nationalism? Maybe, it would have produced something comparable to the arts, movements and lasting social resonance that underlie this book.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On Marx and foundering reading projects

Or, hey, how's that plan for reading Capital coming along?

Not so well. I read Harvey's The Limits to Capital earlier this year and had high hopes for moving on to Marx's great work. Attention spans and sleep patterns being what they are, these hopes have come so far to nothing. But I do take the book down at intervals, thinking maybe today? maybe tomorrow? No, I want to have my energies.

This post has been prompted by my reading of this entertaining post at Rough Theory, about Marx's dismissive handling of Malthus in chapter 25 of Capital (link via BLCKDGRD). A sample:

Marx goes on to “remark… in passing” that Eden “was the only disciple of Adam Smith to have achieved anything of importance during the eighteenth century” (766). The comment appears casual, trivial, and beside the point – a curiosity we could surely skip lightly past on the way to the substantive material in the next paragraph. Except that a massive multi-page footnote blocks our way and, when we decide that a footnote of such prodigious length might be important, finally locate the footnote marker at the end of the “passing remark” above, and cast our eyes down into the marginalia, we discover that special circle of textual hell into which Marx has decided he will deposit Malthus...

Malthus is therefore introduced into this chapter with an insult: Eden is the only disciple of Smith to amount to anything – making Malthus a disciple of Smith who... didn’t...

Heh: "special circle of textual hell". Note to self, when finally reading Capital, along with listening along to David Harvey's lectures, remember to go back through the archives at Rough Theory.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Noted: Thomas Bernhard

This is "Impossible", one of the 104 one-page-or-less stories in Bernhard's The Voice Imitator, translation by Kenneth J. Northcott:
A playwright whose plays have been performed in all the major theaters made it a matter of principle not to go to any of these productions, and for years, enjoying greater and greater success, he was able to hold fast to this principle. He had resolutely rejected all invitations from theater managements to see their productions, leaving most of their requests unanswered. Besides, there was nothing he hated mroe than theater managers. One day he broke with his principle and went to the Düsseldorf theater--considered at the time one of the best houses, which, in the nature of things, means that the Düsseldorf theater was in fact one of the best theaters in Germany--and saw his latest play being performed there, not, in the nature of things, on the opening night but at the third or fourth performance. After he had seen what the Dusseldorf players had made of his play, he filed a complaint in the Düsseldorf court that had jurisdiction over such matters, and this was enough to have him committed, before the trial took place, to the famouse Bethel lunatic asylum in nearby Bielsfeld. He sued the manager of the Düsseldorf theater for the return of his play, which meant nothing short of demanding that everyone involved in his play in any manner whatsoever produce and return anything that had the least connection with his play. Of course he also demanded that the people in the audiences, nearly five thousand of them, who had already seen his play return to him what they had seen.

Monday, October 05, 2009

On the nature of "Strong Opinions": Diary of a Bad Year

J.M. Coetzee's new book, the quasi-autobiographical novel Summertime, a follow-up of sorts to his earlier semi-memoirs, Boyhood and Youth, has been receiving near-unanimous praise in the UK, including being shortlisted for what would be Coetzee's third Booker prize. Adding to this chorus in recent weeks have been three excellent bloggers, John Self, Mark Thwaite, and Stephen Mitchelmore. Since I have not yet read the book--it isn't published in the United States until after Christmas--I want to take the opportunity to finally deliver my long-gestating inquiry into certain aspects of Coetzee's last book, Diary of a Bad Year.

I note that in his review of Summertime, Stephen observes of its widespread adulation, that "The consensus is a conspicuous reversal" of the general critical response to Diary of a Bad Year. In this novel, an elderly author, "JC", writes a series of short essays for inclusion in a volume to be called "Strong Opinions". JC encounters a woman, Anya, who he hires to type the essays. The book is structured such that the top of the page features the text of the various mini-essays, the bottom JC's account of his encounters with Anya. After some time, the page splits further, with Anya's thoughts intruding on the page, including her relations with her husband, Alan. Midway through the book, the top of the page shifts to more personal essays, under the heading "Second Diary".

These "Strong Opinions" made many readers unhappy, not just professional reviewers. It seems to me that many readers have become impatient with Coetzee; for example, in the comments to John Self's review, readers are evidently on balance happier with the Coetzee of Disgrace and earlier, one commenter calling his intervening books--including Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, along with Diary of a Bad Year--evidence of a writer "bored with fiction". Such readers have seemed to look on Summertime with considerable relief. The formal restlessness of these three books has, perhaps, ironically pushed readers to focus on the arguments generated by the characters in them. As with the whole of Elizabeth Costello, many readers of Diary of a Bad Year have insisted on reading the pieces appearing in the "Strong Opinions" portion of the book at face value, as essays with which we are supposed to agree or disagree on their merits. It is often further assumed that the quality of the novel depends in some way on the effectiveness of these pieces, as essays. To do this is to, again, assume that the "Strong Opinions" reflect the thinking of J.M. Coetzee himself. In fairness, Coetzee playfully encourages some of this. Asked to contribute an essay or a talk on a certain topic, he has, for example, instead presented fictions featuring Elizabeth Costello and her arguments, which may or may not resemble Coetzee's own. He publishes excerpts of his work in the The New York Review of Books, a venue known for focusing on ideas in fiction.

But Coetzee gives us a variety of signals that this is not the way to read these books, signals that help point the way toward what the books are doing, why they are written the way they are. One of these signals is the quality of many of the opinions themselves. That is, much of what JC writes in his "Strong Opinions" is nonsense. Mr. Waggish has made this point more consistently than anyone else:
[A]ny comparison of the "Strong Opinions" to his real opinions in his thoughtful, careful essays makes the difference blindingly apparent. (It does take something approaching guts for a Nobel Laureate to write something so profoundly trite and irritating and attribute it to his own ostensible fictional proxy.) As with many literary intellectuals, J.C.'s excursions into math and science are particularly stupid. By the time J.C. writes, "I continue to find evolution by random mutation and natural selection not just unconvincing but preposterous as an account of how complex organisms come into being" and invokes Heisenberg without knowing what uncertainty even is, it's obvious that Coetzee has no wish even to defend these opinions; he is making them transparently foolish so that readers examine the rhetoric rather than the opinions. Underneath the sanctimonious white male liberal pablum, including defenses of pornography, Adorno-esque cultural snobbery in indictments of rock music, latent sexism (captured especially well, complete with tired attack on Catherine MacKinnon), and sympathy with enemies of whom he knows nothing, there bleeds the personality that is revealed in J.C.'s internal voice lower on the page. With most would-be political commentators in the literati, it is not quite so obvious, but in J.C., Coetzee gives us tools for easily making the connection.
Again, Coetzee plays with these readers: the author of the "Strong Opinions" is called only "JC" and bears certain obvious resemblances to Coetzee. Excerpts, again, were printed in The New York Review of Books--for example, the piece dealing with the film The Seven Samurai, which is a fairly silly piece taken on its own, but which is leant gravity by appearing in the NYRB, appears to be serious (and, in fact, was taken seriously by the excellent and usually perceptive Helen DeWitt, who knows quite a bit about that particular film, here). Whether readers assume these essays contain the considered positions of J.M. Coetzee is secondary to the fact that they consider them worthy of consideration on their own, independent of the form in which they appear.

Another signal is the tone of the essays. Where Elizabeth Costello was an often obnoxious presence on the page, in both Elizabeth Costello and, especially, Slow Man, JC more closely resembles Coetzee ("except dumber", per Waggish), yet his tone in his essays is just as offputting. This point is made fairly blatantly in the novel itself, by Anya when she says:
OK. This may sound brutal, but it isn't meant that way. There is a tone--I don't know the best word to describe it--a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone. Everything is cut and dried: I am the one with all the answers, here is how it is, don't argue, it won't get you anywhere. I know that isn't how you are in real life, but that is how you come across, and it is not what you want. I wish you would cut it out. If you positively have to write about the world and how you see it, I wish you could find a better way.
As Stephen Mitchelmore has observed (scroll to the comments), these essays thus call into question the "commanding spirit of the writer - his mastery over the world in the form of a book".

I believe this tone is intimately tied in with what I see as the third signal on how to read these essays: the very words "Strong Opinions". Most readers will probably know that Strong Opinions is the title of a collection of Vladimir Nabokov's non-fiction ephemera: reviews, interviews, articles, letters, and so on. When Diary of a Bad Year was still forthcoming, there was some blog-talk about the Nabokov connection, but I don't recall seeing any reviews that mentioned it.

Why does Coetzee call these items "Strong Opinions"? Is it just a throwaway title, a convenient name? Coetzee is too meticulous a writer for that. I believe that Coetzee intentionally names these essays "Strong Opinions" to draw attention to them, with Nabokov being a kind of target. Not Nabokov the writer, but Nabokov the literary persona, or the kind of authority so often invested in such an out-sized persona--that is, the authority we too often invest in it, whether or not it is claimed by the writer in question. This is, I think, reinforced by the end of Diary of a Bad Year, with JC's short tributes to Tolstoy and, most pertinent for my argument, Dostoevsky. Of Dostoevsky, he writes, in part:
Far more powerful than the substance of his argument, which is not strong, are the accents of anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world. It is the voice of Ivan, as realized by Dostoevsky, not his reasoning, that sweeps me along.
To again quote Waggish on this section, this
is one of the most straightforward passages in any of Coetzee's books, so heartfelt and elegant that it shames the "Strong Opinions" even further. Having achieved some rapprochement with Anya, J.C. stands in relation to Dostoevsky and his books and not to the world, leaving those connections to those more qualified to make them.
In addition, these words, which are analogous to the argument that holds that the old great philosophers, though perhaps "proven wrong" in some particulars, nevertheless remain worth reading for the flow of their argument and the rhetorical power of their writing, also serve as a gentle rebuke to Nabokov, with his famous animus towards the fiction of Dostoevksy, an animus, I have argued elsewhere, the repetitiveness and virulence of which had more to do with maintaining his literary persona upon arrival in the United States, than with the actual target itself.

Nabokov was one of the great writers of fiction, but his book called Strong Opinions, though not without its charm or entertainment value, is not itself a valuable book. Is it not one of Nabokov's worst books? Though we can profitably read his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov was not much of a critic, in that he didn't really write criticism. Critical remarks, however, are everywhere. And the opinions in Strong Opinions are tonally more akin to his many jabs in his prefaces and introductions to his own novels, where he frequently takes the time to attack Freud or Sartre or whomever. I'm not going to quote from the book Strong Opinions; I own most of Nabokov's books, but I don't own that, and I read it years ago. But read the introductory remarks to just about any one of his novels and you will find something like what I'm talking about. (The ones that were written originally in Russian, such as Despair or Invitation to a Beheading, are perhaps the best places to look, since he is self-consciously "introducing" them or framing them for an American audience previously unfamiliar with them.) (But I should give at least a little flavor, shouldn't I? I can't remember whether the text of the interview Rake linked to here--which seems to no longer be available--is reproduced in Strong Opinions, but the remarks found there are typical of what I'm talking about, where he dismisses both Freud--"I think he's medieval, and I don't want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me"--and Faulkner--a writer of "corncob chronicles".) Whether his targets deserve scorn is irrelevant; it's the nature of the attack that counts here. While it's true that writers, in their offhand way in diaries and journals, are often more interesting critics than the critics themselves (witness Kafka on Dickens, for but one example that Gabriel Josipovici is fond of pointing out), with Nabokov this is rarely the case. He was such a guarded figure that his offhand remarks were never really offhand, the dismissive tone calculated for effect, their authority resting entirely on his own fame, the only reason he's being asked in the first place. Nabokov was such an out-sized figure, a dominant literary master with a personal history that intersected tragically with History itself, that one is seduced by him, one wants to give him credit. I know when I was knee-deep in my early Nabokov fixation, I took him seriously on virtually everything, even when I already knew enough to disagree, as I did on political matters and, say, Faulkner. You want to measure up to his greatness, even defer to it. It took me a long time to realize how unsatisfactory I found his rigid approach to translation, though I still take his side in his battle with the generally pompous Edmund Wilson over Eugene Onegin.

Nabokov's stature and his history likely inclined people, journalists in particular, to want to ask him all kinds of questions, literary or otherwise, even though there should be no particular reason why Vladimir Nabokov's opinions on Vietnam, or communism, carry any special weight, except that he's Vladimir Nabokov. If his opinions on such matters evinced carefully thought out positions and actually added anything, that would be different. Similarly, there is no reason why anyone should care what Diary of a Bad Year's JC has to say about evolution, or about mathematics, or feminism, or any number of other topics. He might have something valuable to say about them, but such essays would need to be approached more in the spirit of his "Second Diary" entries, pieces which show evidence of meaning more to their author than did the perfunctory, obnoxious "Strong Opinions" themselves. The latter exist because he is asked to write them, solely based on his position as Famous Author. Their authority relies on this and this alone, and they are written as if he believed that authority to be thus earned. It is not.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Thoughts on Effi Briest

We've had Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest (translated into English by Douglas Parmée) for a while (Aimée brought it into the marriage), but I admit that it was the vague notion I had acquired that it was one of Beckett's favorite novels that moved it onto my ever-shifting pile of maybe-imminent reads. With such knowledge, however sketchy, you feel, ah, yes, now that's an unbeatable stamp of approval, eh? Quality, excellence, seems guaranteed. But of course it doesn't tell you much. Nor did I really expect it to. Does Beckett's own writing tell you anything about what Effi Briest might be like? It seems unlikely, doesn't it? Anyway, in the event, it does not. I read the novel last week, and Effi Briest is a fairly straightforward, enjoyable, 19th century novel, which also functions as a lightly ironic condemnation of certain 19th century German mores. (It's called the most famous German novel of the 19th century, and I realize that it's the only one I can name.)

In my cursory search on the book, I've noticed that Madame Bovary often gets mentioned as a point of comparison, in part so that the differences can be touched on. One is this: Fontane is nothing like as pleased with himself as Flaubert is in his attack on bourgeois values. Another is that Effi is not the figure of fun for Fontane that Emma is for Flaubert. Emma has gotten her head filled with all sorts of silly notions from the silly books she reads, and she suffers. Effi suffers too, and she is not without responsibility, but ultimately she is simply too young and innocent to be thrown into the adult world the way she is. Fontane's narration seems to hold conservative society, and its emphasis on honor and propriety, more responsible for her fate.

I mentioned above that the book is "lightly ironic". It was this lightness that carried the book for me. I admit that, the Beckett imprimatur notwithstanding, I approached the novel with some hesitation. As I began reading the book, I resisted the beginning of the narrative, the recounting of details, the introduction of characters. But I was gradually won over by this lightness and by the narrator's voice, which is by turns reticent and amused. This reticence is most evident in the plot, in which major events--including the very affair that is Effi's undoing--are barely recounted, if at all, and can only really be inferred via later references. At times this reticence led to some confusion, as I found myself wondering what had happened, and wondering why all the fuss over virtually nothing. (The latter sometimes happens when we read books depicting a society very different from our own, doesn't it?--we have a hard time understanding what all the characters are on about, why it matters so much, whatever it might be. An example: the play in Mansfield Park; I know I had a hard time understanding what could be so immoral about that; I simply had to accept it as such for the sake of the book.) The point is I spent some time deciding whether my confusion about the affair in question stemmed from a question of different values or from authorial reticence (itself perhaps a function of the former? a question I'd be better able to answer if I knew the first thing about 19th century German literature). I resolved the question in favor of reticence, a reticence that I think helps elevate the book above its apparently melodramatic material.

Speaking of melodrama, the day I finished reading the novel, I discovered that Fassbinder had directed a movie version of Effi Briest. I knew that Fassbinder played a bit with melodrama, so I thought his movie would be fun. Well, we rented it last Friday and fun is not the first word I would use to describe the film. The film was slower moving, and a bit more heavy-handed in its critique of society, and yet this very heavy-handedness seemed to work well in the translation to film. The film is like a series of awkward-seeming, and beautifully composed (in black-and-white), tableaux--characters often seem to be literally waiting for cues before they begin a scene. The characters seemed more stiff to me than they did in the book, but then I have little doubt that Fassbinder, being German, would have had a better handle on the German society being depicted than I would.