Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Books Read - 2013

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2013, in chronological order of completion. As usual, links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts—though this year there were very few of either. The whole year featured just 25 posts overall prior to this one, and fully 16 of those are excerpts only, including the last 7 in a row, dating back to May; another two posts briefly comment on some current event, but mainly as an excuse to post excerpts from something else; and then one last post was an ancient one excavated from the draft folder—so it's been an exceedingly slow year blogging-wise (two posts - one, two - touch on one reason why).

Following the list are comments and observations, including remarks on my favorite books of the year, plus the always all-important statistical breakdown.

1. The Roving Shadows, Pascal Quignard (Chris Turner, trans.)
2. And Chaos Died, Joanna Russ
3. Berg, Ann Quin
4. Heart's Wings, Gabriel Josipovici
5. Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf
6. Heroines, Kate Zambreno
7. Mathilda, Mary Shelley
8. The Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ
9. Exodus, Lars Iyer
10. Endgame, Samuel Beckett
11. All That Fall, Samuel Beckett
12. Pointed Roofs, Pilgrimage vol. 1, Dorothy Miller Richardson
13. On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald (Anthea Bell, trans.)
14. A Time for Everything, Karl Ove Knausgaard (James Anderson, trans.) (also)
15. The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois
16. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
17. No Longer At Ease, Chinua Achebe
18. Eeeee Eee Eeee, Tao Lin
19. Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks
20. Divorcer, Gary Lutz
21. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde
22. Backwater, Pilgrimage vol. 2, Dorothy Miller Richardson
23. A Choice of Gods, Clifford D. Simak
24. Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
25. Assata: An Autobiography, Assata Shakur
26. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
27. A Paradigm of Earth, Candas Jane Dorsey
28. Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams
29. Mystery Train, Greil Marcus
30. My Struggle, Book Two, Karl Ove Knausgaard (Don Bartlett, trans.)
31. Anti-Systemic Movements, Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins, and Immanuel Wallerstein
32. Women, Race & Class, Angela Y. Davis
33. Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany
34. The Middle Mind, Curtis White
35. What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism, Joanna Russ
36. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
37. The Science Delusion, Curtis White
38. Killing Rage: Ending Racism, bell hooks
39. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought, Elizabeth V. Spelman
40. for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange
41. When Rain Clouds Gather, Bessie Head
42. Maru, Bessie Head
43. Quicksand, Nella Larsen
44. Betsey Brown, Ntozake Shange
45. Mathematics: (a novel), Jacques Roubaud (Ian Monk, trans.)
46. Feminism Is For Everybody, bell hooks
47. The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Amos Tutuola
48. On Lynching, Ida B. Wells-Barnett
49. Dylan's Visions of Sin, Christopher Ricks
50. Peru, Gordon Lish
51. White Rat, Gayl Jones
52. Celestial Seraglio, Olive Moore
53. Fugue, Olive Moore
54. ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound
55. Malina, Ingeborg Bachmann (Philip Boehm, trans.)
56. The Dead of the House, Hannah Green
57. Our Beautiful Heroine, Jacques Roubaud (David Kornacker, trans.)
58. We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
59. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empires, Prison, and Torture, Angela Y. Davis
60. Our Sister Killjoy, Ama Ata Aidoo
61. A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid
62. The Store of a Million Items, Michelle Cliff

Some statistics
Number that are re-reads: 0
Number of books that were borrowed from the library: 30
Number of books that were borrowed from a friend: 3
Number of books read on the Kindle: 1 (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)
Number of books written by men: 28
Number of different men represented: 25 (actually: 22 distinct men wrote 27 books, and one other book was co-authored by three men)
Number of books written by women: 34
Number of different women represented: 26
Number of books by American authors:
Number of American authors:
Number of books by African-American authors: 16
Number of African-American authors: 13
Number of African-American women: 10 (13 books)
Number of African-American men: 3
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 22
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 17
Number of non-American, English-language authors of color:  7 (9 books)
Number of books in translation: 7
Number of authors of books in translation: 5
Number of translated books by woman authors: 1 (Bachmann)
Number of foreign languages represented in translation: 3 (German, French, Norwegian)
Most represented foreign language: French (3: 2 Roubaud, 1 Quignard)
Number of Nobel Prize-winners:1 (Beckett)
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 0
Number of other Dalkey books: 2 (both Olive Moore novels read in Dalkey's Collected Writings)

Number of novels: 32
Number of collections of short stories: 5 (Josipovici, Lutz, Jones, Cliff, Russ' The Zanzibar Cat)
Number of books of poetry: 0
Number that are plays or written for stage: 3 (both Becketts, Shange's for colored girls)
Number that could be categorized as science fiction:7
Number of science fiction books written by women: 3

Number that are biographies or letters or memoirs: 5 (Du Bois, Lorde, Shakur, Douglass, also counting Knausgaard's My Struggle here, and as a novel)
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 3
Number that are books of criticism or essays: 6
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 11
Number about pop music: 2
Number about science: 2
Number explicitly feminist or about feminism: 8
Number about parenting or education: 0
Number that are anthropology: 0

Number of books from before 1800: 0
Number of books from 1800 to 1899: 3 (Shelley, Douglass, Wells-Barnett)
Number of books from 1900 to 1914: 0
Number of books from 1915 to 1940: 7 (both Richardsons, both Moores, Larsen, Pound, Woolf)
Number of books from 1941 to 1950: 0
Number of books from 1951 to 1960: 7 (Tutuola, Brooks, Bester, both Beckett, both Achebe)
Number of books from 1961 to 1970: 5 (Quin, Delany, Du Bois, one Bessie Head, one Russ)
Number of books from 1971 to 1980: 9 (Head, Bachmann, Simak, Clarke, Green, Marcus, one Shange, Jones, Aidoo)
Number of books from 1981 to 1990: 11 (Lorde, 1 Russ, 1 Davis, 1 Shange, Williams, Lish, Shakur, Spelman, Kincaid, 1 Roubaud)
Number of books from 1991 to 1999: 4 (1 hooks, 1 Russ, Cliff, Sebald)
Number of books from 2000 to 2010: 8
Number of books from 2011 to 2013: 7

Comments & Observations:
Reading was often difficult for me this year, but I nonetheless did read some excellent books.

I started the year, in sadness, reading Pascal Quignard's uncategorizable (and indeed, not reflected anywhere in the above statistical breakdown, aside from books in translation and books written by men) and apropos book, The Roving Shadows. I finally read Ann Quin's Berg, which I'd had for a few years, and rather liked it (I'd many years ago read and loved her novel Three). Heart's Wings is an excellent introduction to old favorite Gabriel Josipovici's short fiction. I was excited to read Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas essays, given its advance billing as anti-war and feminist, but I have to admit being some let down in the event. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed Kate Zambreno's also more or less uncategorizable, and much discussed, book Heroines. I'd hoped to have something of interest to say about it, but was not able to come up with anything. I dipped back nearly 200 years for Mary Shelley's curious novella, Mathilda. A trip to Philadelphia to see an excellent production of Beckett's Endgame, resulted in a reading of that play, as well as All That Falls, the play that immediately follows it in the "Dramatic Works" volume of my fancy Grove Centenary edition of Beckett's works (this reading was also somewhat inspired by a re-read of portions of Hugh Kenner's very helpful A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett). I began the project of reading Dorothy Miller Richardson's generally forgotten Pilgrimage series of novels. And I read two excellent contemporary European novels: Exodus, the final book - presumably - in Lars Iyers' brilliant and funny Spurious trilogy, and Karl Ove Knausgaard's simply astonishing A Time for Everything.

At this point, my reading year had been exclusively white. I don't remember if I was annoyed by this, or if I was having a hard time following the Knausgaard book with anything worthwhile, but I then ended up reading W.E.B. Du Bois' posthumously published Autobiography, an often fascinating book he'd written in his 90s and which I'd first learned of via Aaron Bady's old blog some years back. Around this time the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe died, and I soon found and read cheap paperbacks of his famous Things Fall Apart, and its related follow-up, No Longer At Ease. I thought the former more or less deserved its reputation; the latter seemed less good.

From here I roamed here and there, following a few personal trends, ebbs and flows in my interest and focus, etc. One major focus, again, was specifically to read books written by women, and in fact, for the second year in the last three, I read more books written by women than I did books written by men. I also tried to focus more on African American women writers, in a variety of modes, as well as other writers of color from around the world. This was well worth the effort, as I read a number of writers I'd never previously heard of, as well as plenty I'd been meaning to read. I'd especially single out the poet Geraldine Brooks' lone novel, Maud Martha; Shirley Anne Williams' novel about the aftermath of a slave revolt, Dessa Rose; Audre Lorde's memoir, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name; and Assata Shakur's Assata: An Autobiography. Ntozake Shange was a completely new name to me this year, which given how important she seems to be to a lot of people, is more than a little embarrassing. Her famous for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf didn't really grab me as a reading experience, despite many striking lines; I expect I'd have appreciated the stage production better. I had better luck with her later novel Betsey Brown, which I gather is at least somewhat autobiographical, following as it does the coming-of-age of the title character in the late 1950s St. Louis, as schools were being integrated there for the first time. The novels Maud Martha and Dessa Rose, I'd like to emphasize, are both formally interesting and unconventional, Dessa Rose in particular, which its shifting points of view and timeline.

I'd read (and blogged about!) two Joanna Russ novels early on; later, I continued the science fiction thread, by mixing in some novels cherry-picked from this list of Ethan's top ten SF books (at least his top ten on that moment in time). I had good luck with all of these, but I especially enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (despite some rather glaring and utterly gratuitous sexism) and Clifford D. Simak's Choice of Gods. I bought a copy of Samuel R. Delany's Trouble on Triton (also on Ethan's list) and began reading it, but quickly realized I wasn't in the place for it; I did, however, manage to read Delany's earlier novel, Babel-17, and I liked it quite a bit.

I completed no poetry collection this year, though I did read some Czesław Miłosz poems (thanks BDR!), some Wallace Stevens, again tried some Geoffrey Hill. . . and then of course, there was quite a number of poems included and discussed (well, he sort of discusses them) in Pound's ABC of Reading. Pound, almost despite his best efforts, actually helped.

Brief interlude to include a list of books I read substantial portions of - or at least began in earnest - without yet completing by the year's end:

Prison Nation, Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, editors
The Meaning of Freedom, Angela Y. Davis
Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, Gore, Theoharis, & Woodard, editors
Decolonizing Anarchism, Maia Ramnath
In Letters of Blood and Fire, George Caffentzis
Feminisms, Warhol and Price Herndl, editors
Direct Action: An Ethnography, David Graeber

Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais (J.M. Cohen translation; have read first 3 of 5 books)
Blue Pastoral, Gilbert Sorrentino (enjoyed what I read, but will likely be re-starting this one)
Escapes, Joy Williams (read about half of this decidedly meh collection of stories before giving up)
The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956
The Silent Crossing, Pascal Quignard
Praeterita, John Ruskin
Selected Prose, 1909-1965, Ezra Pound

Also in the mix in the middle of the year were explicitly feminist books. More to the point, I became more aware of intersectionality as a concept - one that seemed intuitively accurate to me once it had come to my attention - and so began seeking out texts that seemed to embody that idea (though I've only more recently become fully aware of, for example, the Kimberlé Crenshaw essay called "Mapping the Margins", which introduced the term. CORRECTION: Crenshaw actually introduced the term in her 1989 essay, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics". The other essay is from 1993; it's not clear why I thought it had introduced the term). Angela Davis' classic Women, Race, & Class, first published in 1981, has it right there in the title, in the intersections of gender, race, and class as modes and systems of oppression. Davis' book is fantastic. The only part that gave me pause was her short critique of the Wages for Housework movement. Davis makes some interesting points, but which felt a little dismissive. As far as I can tell, Davis has not returned to this topic, which is too bad; I'd love to know what she'd think of Silvia Federici's more recent modifications of the ideas, as well as her deeper analyses of the politics of care. In this context, I also read Joanna Russ' What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism and Elizabeth V. Spelman's Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Looking back, I find it a bit unfortunate that I read these two, albeit excellent, books by white feminists before certain options by black women, though somewhat mitigated by the fact of reading the Davis first, as well as several bell hooks volumes. In the event, both books are brilliant, though not without some flaws. Russ, for her part, limited herself to texts available at the time she began the book in the early 1980s, though her declining health meant she didn't finally publish it until 1998. Given that, it remains puzzling that she didn't mention Davis' book at all, which is especially unfortunate since Russ' stuff on Wages for Housework is excellent, and seems to me to implicitly address Davis' concerns. It would have been nice to see her tackle Davis' critique, and it seems strange that she did not.  In addition, she does not herself write about the racism of some of the white feminists of the 1970s and earlier, but rather quotes extensively from black woman writers exposing and critiquing that racism. This may have been a tactical move - letting black women speak for themselves, as it were - but it seems to me that some explicit lines from Russ herself would have been prudent. Her book also includes a couple of unfortunate-at-best passages reflecting her earlier transphobia (which she apparently recognized as wrong in the years before her too early death). Spelman's book - which is much more philosophical in both focus and pitch - was published in 1988, and while it doesn't have anything rivaling Russ' transphobic remarks, neither does she really address the question of transgender or trans women head on; instead, in a couple of places, she uses a particular trans woman's memoir as useful for illustrating other points. But interestingly, her book makes many arguments which strongly imply a trans-inclusive analysis, were she only able to see it (actually, the same is true to a large extent of Russ' book). Speaking of bell hooks, I also read two more of hers, Killing Rage and Feminism is for Everybody, which both extend the sort of arguments she makes elsewhere, though each has some new things to offer making them worth reading.

Women, Race, & Class and What Are We Fighting For? are both also bibliographical goldmines, which is always very exciting. Davis' book in particular has already led me to finally read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave - not that I didn't know about that classic book, but Davis made it abundantly clear that I needed to read it. But along with memoirs and autobiographies by black women and men, as crucial as those are, I realized I should seek out more essays and histories and critical works by black women and men. I've already read a few of W.E.B. Du Bois' books, and now am firmly committed to reading his enormous study, Black Reconstruction (meanwhile, I've had Eric Foner's book Reconstruction, unread, since college; I hope to read that soon-ish too - but after the Du Bois). Anyway, in this vein, I read - cited by Davis - Ida B. Wells-Barnett's writing on lynching, collected by Patricia Hill Collins as, simply, On Lynching. Following on from this, I've become increasingly interested in prison abolitionism, and have been reading Davis' work on the topic, including the short book of interviews with Eduardo Mendieta called Abolition Democracy - the title a concept borrowed from Du Bois. Of course, her own autobiography, which I read last year, as well as Assata Shakur's structurally similar autobiography, have also helped shape my thinking on this topic.

The last couple of months of the year saw a detour back into some European writers, then a spate of African and Caribbean writers. Olive Moore's Celestial Seraglio and, especially, Fugue, are excellent novels. Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina is indescribable, really. I was by turns entranced, baffled, astonished, distracted . . . then put off when midway through I glanced too long at the afterword, which made me fear I hadn't understood a thing to that point. I read two Jacques Roubaud novels this year: Mathematics:, the third volume in his Great Fire of London sequence (I've only otherwise read the marvelous first volume), which I found fascinating, brilliant, and, hah, at times rather boring - yet I was somehow interested in my boredom, or, rather, I felt compelled to soldier on through it, to experience it, and then it finally lifted before the amazing, and political, final section about the nuclear testing. The other Roubaud was Our Beautiful Heroine, the first of his "Hortense" novels, which I'd been both curious about and wary of, but which in the event I found simply delightful. Of the African and Caribbean writers, I'd especially like to mention as outstanding Our Sister Killjoy, a novel by Ama Ata Aidoo, from Ghana.

Ok, time to bring things to a wrap here. I've not said anything about the two Curtis White books, Middle Mind and the newer The Science Delusion. Both are worth a look, though the latter is the far superior book. I'd like to say more about them, but time is short. Perhaps actual blog posts are in order! Who knows? I'd also like to make a quick mention of Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin. I love Bob Dylan's music, and I loved Christopher Ricks' book about Samuel Beckett, Beckett's Dying Words, yet I'd long resisted this particular book. But this year, since about July, my love of and interest in Dylan has broadened and deepened to the point of obsession, and I came across the book at a used shop while I was standing around listening on headphones to a used copy of Esther Phillips' excellent LP Black-Eyed Blues, leafed through it and was hooked. And I can only say, if you like Bob Dylan's music, you're probably going to want to read the book, but especially if you already like Christopher Ricks as a literary critic. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

And with that, I'll close here. Thanks for sticking with me, and thanks for reading. See you next year.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Noted: Ingeborg Bachmann

Also from Bachmann's novel, Malina (1971; translated from the German by Philip Boehm)
Of course men have always interested me, but that's precisely why they don't have to be liked, in fact I didn't like most of them, they always only fascinated me, just because of the thought: what's he going to do once he's finished biting my shoulder, what does he expect will happen next? Or else someone exposes his back on which, long before you, some woman once took her fingernails, her five claws, and left five stripes, forever visible, so you get completely upset or at least self-conscious, what are you supposed to do with this back, which constantly reminds you of some ecstatic moment or attack of pain, then what pain are you supposed to feel, what ecstasy? For the longest time I had no feelings at all, since during those years I was working on learning to reason. Nonetheless, like all other women I naturally always had men on my mind, for reasons mentioned earlier, and I'm sure that in turn the men gave very little thought to me, only after finishing work, or maybe on a day off.

Malina: No exception?
Me:      There was just one.
Malina: How was there just one exception?

That's simple. You only have to make someone unhappy enough, just by chance, for example, by not helping someone make up for some stupidity. Once you've really made someone miserable then he is bound to be thinking about you. However, most men usually make women unhappy, and there's no reciprocity, as our misfortune is natural, inevitable, stemming as it does from the disease of men, for whose sake women have to bear so much in mind, continually modifying what they have just learned—for, as a rule, if you have to constantly brood about somebody, and create feelings for him, then you will be unhappy. What's more, your misfortune will grow with time, it will double, triple, increase a hundredfold. But unhappiness can be avoided by finishing things every time after a few days. It's impossible to be unhappy, to cry over somebody unless he's already made you thoroughly unhappy. No one ever cries over a man after just a few hours, no matter how young or handsome, intelligent or kind. But half a year spent with a confirmed bigmouth, a notorious idiot, a repulsive weakling given to the stranger habits, that has broken even strong and rational women, driven them to suicide, just think if you will of Erna Zanetti, who on account of this lecturer in theater science—can you imagine, on account of a theatrical scientist!—is said to have swallowed forty sleeping pills, and I'm sure she's not the only one, he also got her to stop smoking, because he couldn't stand the smoke. I don't know whether she had to become a vegetarian or not, but I'm sure some other horrible things happened as well. Now instead of being glad that this idiot left her, instead of going out the next day and enjoying twenty cigarettes or eating whatever she wanted, like an idiot she tries to kill herself, she can't think of anything better since she's been thinking about him incessantly and suffering because of him for months, naturally also because of nicotine denial and all those lettuce and carrots. . . (pp. 179-181)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Noted: Ingeborg Bachmann

From her novel Malina (1971; translated from the German by Philip Boehm):
That one might feel called to become a mailman, that delivering mail is not an occupation haphazardly chosen, that it is a mistake to even consider it one, was proven by the famous mailman Kranewitzer of Klagenfurt, who in the end was brought to trial and sentenced to several years' imprisonment for malfeasance and misappropriation of funds, a completely misunderstood man, mistreated by the press as well as the court. I have read the reports of Kranewitzer's trial more carefully than those of the most shocking murder trials of all these past years, and the man himself, who then merely amazed me, now has my deepest sympathy. From a certain day on, without being able to explain why, Otto Kranewitzer ceased distributing the mail and for weeks and months he accumulated it in the old three-room apartment where he lived alone, piling it up to the ceiling, he sold most of his furniture to make space for the growing postal mountain. He did not open letters or packages, he did not forge checks or bonds, nor did he filch any bills sent from mothers to their sons, nothing of the sort could be proven against him. He simply, suddenly could no longer deliver the mail, a sensitive, tender, great man who realized the full significance of his work, and precisely because of that the low official Kranewitzer was discharged from the Austrian Postal Service in disgrace and dishonor, as it takes pride in employing only reliable, energetic mailmen of stamina. But in every profession there must be at least one man who lives in deep doubt and comes into a conflict. Mail delivery in particular would seem to require a latent angst, a seismographic recording of emotional tremors which is otherwise accepted only in the higher and highest professions, as if the mail couldn't have its own crisis, no Thinking—Wanting—Being for it, no scrupulous and noble renunciation otherwise granted all sorts of people, better paid, occupying academic chairs, people who are permitted to ponder the proofs of divine existence, to reflect on the Ontos On, the Aletheia or as far as I'm concerned the origins of the Earth or of the Universe! But the unknown and poorly paid Otto Kranewitzer was only accused of base behavior and the dereliction of duty. No one realized that he had begun to ponder, that he had been gripped by the amazement which is, of course, at the root of all philosophical inquiry and anthropogenesis, and in light of the things which caused him to lose his composure he could in no way be pronounced incompetent, for no one could have been more capable than he, who had spent thirty years delivering letters to Klagenfurt, in recognizing the problem of mail, its problematic nature.

He was fully familiar with our streets, it was clear to him which letters, which packets, which printed matters were postmarked correctly. In addition, more and most subtle differences in the writing of addresses, a "R. Hon. Sir," or a name unaccompanied by "Herr" or "Frau," a "Prof. Dr. Dr." told him more about attitudes, generational conflict, signals of social alarm than our sociologists and psychiatrists will ever discover. By false or insufficient return address he realized everything immediately, naturally he could distinguish a family letter from a business letter without a moment's hesitation, somewhat friendly letters from those wholly intimate, and this significant mailman, who took whatever risks his profession required as a cross to bear for all others, must have been seized by horror, faced with the postal mountain growing in his apartment, he must have suffered indescribable pangs of conscience, inconceivable to others, to whom a letter is just a letter and printed matter merely printed matter. On the other hand, whoever even only attempts, as I am doing, to assemble and confront his own mail from several years (and even such a person would not be unbiased, faced with his mail alone, and thus incapable of seeing the larger connections) would probably understand that a postal crisis, even if it only did occur in a small town and only for a few weeks, is morally superior to the accepted onset of one of the public worldwide crises so often thoughtlessly conjured up, and that thinking, which is becoming rarer and rarer, is not solely the property of a privileged class and its dubious representative, the authorized thinkers, but also belongs to an Otto Kranewitzer. (pp. 158-160)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Noted: Olive Moore

From Olive Moore's novel, Fugue (1932):
And he would take Selina in his arms, which was like embracing grass, was like a field of buttercups, was newly turned earth. Her young flesh had the sweet clean smell of freshly cut grass.

Through her that April morning lived again. Those sharp eager facets of his soul which time had ground down and experience dulled, shone from her with the poignant gleam of innocence. The best in him, it seemed, though dead was not to die. Nor must it die in her. Let Frances expend her dusting brush and shining taps and inlaid Sheraton heart on her son. His dreams were strange dreams; his schemes had an odd and bitter flavour. For instance, courage. Of all things in life for her, he asked courage. He wanted her courageous; he wanted her brave, even foolhardy. He wanted her generous. He wanted her to give whole-heartedly of herself, her thoughts, her days. He wanted her to love; to love completely and irrationally. And give herself; when the urge came to her she must give herself, without thought, without regret. And be betrayed. And return to him (for to whom else should she turn?) bearing within her the burden of her love: wiser now and hurt, but with no regrets. And he would take her away, away from the outraged Queen Anne (three parts) and the flowery Sheraton bedrooms and the latest carpet-sweeper. South to lazy days under endless sun and watch the child bud and ripen and the life return to her face. For she must be brave and the life within her must not die but glow the more proudly.

It had never seemed quite real to him that when the end came he was not with her. But the telephone bell does not indicate by an altered ring whether its news be good or ill. Nor can one wing with one's desires, nor can one's body precede the lightning of one's thought. Only Frances doing her best to be brave: we must be glad, dear, there was no pain. The end was immediate. As, earlier, the driver of the lorry had stood stammering: It all comes so sudden-like.

He was left alone with her, with nothing but his thoughts of how impotent a thing this love that cannot bridge the bondage of distance, however short. How defenceless love, how inadequate, that not the width of the world can separate more surely than a street, a wall, another room. How powerless love that unless before one's eyes the beloved object does not exist; may call and one does not hear; dies, and a mile away one will be laughing.

How frail this thing on which his life had hung! His Dormouse dead. Gone the threat of putting her in the tea-pot! And to-morrow being Sunday they were to have gone to the Zoo together to see the hippopotamus, her "sweet solid beast" which she preferred to them all; for she no longer searched as on the first day he had taken her, and back again, back again through every house, past each enclosure, until at last despairing, she had had to whisper: Father, no unicorn?

One is, it seems, but the impression one conveys. Nothing more. Only the impression one gives or receives. All that she was was her impress; and that impress of her all that now remained. A solemn listening face, a field of buttercups, a sudden cry, a ringing of bells. All things that fade, are not renewed; grow dim, are not replaced; and life once good to live has lost its savour.

And then by accident he learned that on a last sudden sign of life she had opened her eyes and called to him. One of those things one is the better, perhaps, for not knowing. But it was not for that that Frances had kept it from him; and knowing this, she was never again quite real to him. So cold and secret his anger that she never guessed. Sensed a difference but never knew; never knew that in the hour of her treachery she, too, had died; but so completely as to leave no memory.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"...purporting to be accessible, it is in fact haughty and condescending"

Here is another excerpt from an interview with poet Geoffrey Hill at The Paris Review:


I’ll go further and say that I think men and women who write poetry or write music or paint are finally responsible for what they do. They are entitled to praise for any success they achieve and they should not complain of just criticism. I do stress that, just criticism. I do not think that poems and paintings and string quartets are created by currents of history. At the same time I think these individual men and women who are ultimately solely responsible for what they write and what they do as artists are very powerfully affected by contingent circumstance.

Could you also call it autobiography in the end?

Not necessarily, no, because autobiography is always apologetic—apologetic from apologia. I mean that we are affected every moment of our lives by pressures for which a not wholly satisfactory analogy is the pressure of the air around us. I can’t conceive of the discovery and development of a personal voice that is totally or even largely unaware that its existence is threatened the whole time by those things in discourse or communication that are alien to its own being. One shapes the personal voice in some way. One either does or one doesn’t. And I would distinguish the first-rate artist from the others by precisely this ability. He or she is first-rate to the extent of having realized, often with very great difficulty, the personal note amid the acoustical din that surrounds us all. And the lesser artist is so because he is less able to hear and to elicit the voice of the authentic self from the many voices of the not-self and, indeed, from the many voices of our time, which are themselves drastically inauthentic.

Obviously in having this sense of things I show myself to be not entirely in sympathy with the thought of John Locke, where (in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding) you do get a sense that the function of language is to be an unembarrassing ancillary a, to the concept and b, to the conduct of business. The tamer and more restrained language is, the better it is for the purpose and function of civil society. I think that the field of modern communications would like to think that it is neo-Lockean, but in fact, at its worst it has none of the limited but definite virtues that Locke had. It is reductive, and yet chaotic. Or, let us say, reductive, oversimplified, and yet violently confrontational. Such simplification of language—what one might call a kind of mass-demotic—is gripped by its own oxymoron; purporting to be accessible, it is in fact haughty and condescending, because it will not respect the intelligence of those from whom it demands a response.

I suppose you could say that that, then, is one of the problems of those critics who have a problem with what they call the difficulty of your work: they’re assuming a readership that is having the same difficulty that they themselves are having.

The first obligation for any real critic is to be self-critical rather than self-satisfied. But reviewers will say things that are equivalent to either “this man is completely out of touch with his time,” or “we have grown cloth ears,” which seems to be a question of real significance; but having made the point, only one side of the issue is taken up, which is that the poet clearly has lost touch with his time. And the promise held out for further investigation of the alternative—“or we have grown cloth ears”—is not taken up at all. That seems to me to indicate a considerable degree of self-satisfaction and humorlessness.

Resisting tyrannical simplification

The following comes from an excellent interview with the poet Geoffrey Hill at The Paris Review (the interview is from 2000; I recently came across the link via the apparently dormant Poetix):
What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.

Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Noted: two passages

From the title story in Gary Lutz's Divorcer (2011) collection:
She is still the same person, no doubt, only with a different person. That baleful preposition with: I keep tripping over it on my way to larger thoughts. I've tried writing to her--letters and e-mails, greeting cards, note cards and postcards, all covered with the same trudge of words; but then I remember she is with somebody, somebody uneerily right there beside her, although in the wan case of her and me, she had always been just merely near--in the next room, the spare room, say, talking down-voicedly on the phone to a person maybe in her family or once close to the family and now known only to her, or maybe to the person she now was with, forming a fate for herself, replotting her past, finding ways to untighten me from the stories she would ever tell of her unrosy and hairsplitting thirties.

So am I saying only that my life no longer featured even me?
From Candas Jane Dorsey's novel, A Paradigm of Earth (2001):
By being that elder sister and not loving him as she could have, she had withheld something vital, some heart of love without which he grew into less than he could have. For a moment she saw how it could have been, her arm around the small body instead of holding him apart: the gifts she could have given him of protection, of song, of support, of acceptance: instead he had been blinded, blanded by his unimportance, had sought out insignificance and tried to live inside the lines. Perhaps even if she had tried he would have slipped away into mediocrity—but she didn't try.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Alternative modernities or countermodernities

This passage comes from Maia Ramnath's Decolonizing Anarchism:
It bears mentioning that the words progressive and reactionary—in their most literal sense—entail relative direction, not necessarily political content or ideological value. One means to go forward into the direction of change, and the other means to generate friction, stoppage, or reversal. But what is the particular change we're talking about, and what was the status quo? It seems more pertinent to ask what a specific vision of utopia looks like— what its content is—than which direction we need to move in to reach it from where we are now—whether we envision it as having existed in a prelapsarian past or as the destination of future redemption. The legacy of utopian thought contains both kinds of narrative.

Neither an across-the-board improvement nor unmitigated ruin, modernization was rather a radically destabilizing rearrangement in the status quo, which benefited some and harmed others. A critique of modernism (or colonialism) or any of the phenomena of modernity (or coloniality) is not necessarily a bid to "go back" but instead an attempt to seek a different way forward that doesn't destroy beneficial aspects of an existing fabric, while improving on those aspects that were detrimental to the expansion of freedom and equality. Far from being reactionary, as an orthodox Marxist teleology would deem it, anticolonial critique of modernity was not necessarily an attempt to halt progress—as if the only options were to go forward or backward along a narrow track—but rather to choose a different direction—oblique, perpendicular, or spreading in a skewed delta of potential alternatives. In other universes, with other histories, maybe they are what modernity looks like. Resistance thus contains a range of adaptive, subversive, redirection, or dialectically synthetic responses not just to halt or reverse modernity but also to generate alternative modernities or countermodernities. (pp. 33-34)

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Apologists of a larger insanity": Notes on Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant

Last year, I read Edmond Caldwell's novel Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant. In fact, I read it twice. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and though I've already said so in a previous blog post, I've been wanting to write something about it that will convey to you some idea of how good it is, or how it goes about being what it is, but all my attempts so far have quickly descended into meta-commentary and cutesy comments paired with long blockquotes.

It's tempting, isn't it?, to make overly extravagant claims about books you like and want to recommend, and heaven forbid one would give into such temptations. Out of curiosity, I looked the novel up on Amazon. There was one 5-star review, which begins "Through this book, Mr. Caldwell has created a new type of fiction" and only gets more hyperbolic from there. The review elicited a gratuitous, smug "oh really?" sort of comment from another Amazon reviewer. Make a strong claim and inevitably someone will sarcastically shoot it down. But has Edmond Caldwell created a new type of fiction? What could such a claim mean? Beats me. But let me tell you: this is an excellent novel. It's often brilliant, frequently very funny, allusive (Dante, Kafka, Beckett, Proust all come into play, among others), but not densely or ostentatiously so, and perhaps most impressively, it is politically astute.

But those are all superlatives that could be quoted to do heavy lifting in a blurb (echoing the novel's back-cover copy, 'if that guy at The Existence Machine thought Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant was fucking brilliant, maybe you will too!'). Characteristically, a number of meta-remarks come to mind about this book and its existence as a work published on a tiny poetry press that no one's heard of. But I'm wary of getting into that too much, and I already did some of it in that earlier post. Sometimes when I do the meta-stuff, it's because I feel the need to intervene in an ongoing conversation about some book or topic or other. In this case, there is no ongoing conversation. There should be one! What I want is for you to buy this book and to read it!

Still, as I mentioned in that post, I've recently noticed readers in my blogging/tweeting cohort have been reading Gerald Murnane and László Krasznahorkai and Clarice Lispector, Helen DeWitt and Lars Iyer, not too long ago I noticed an online reading group devoted to William Gaddis (there often seems to be a reading group devoted to William Gaddis), and as usual there has been no shortage of people invoking this blog's old standbys, Thomas Bernhard and Samuel Beckett, among others. I'm not intending any direct comparison between those writers' works and Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant; I would only suggest that Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant deserves to be read by the same set of readers, at least. It also deserves real reviews and genuine criticism. Reviews were never going to appear at certain mainstream organs, no matter who published it - The New Yorker is unlikely to review a book by a writer who'd written a blog called Contra James Wood; other similar outlets are just as unlikely to review it, no doubt for the same reason. But what about Bookforum? Or online outlets such as The Millions? The Quarterly Conversation? Such a book should be reviewed there. Were it in fact published by New Directions or Dalkey Archive or Melville House—and there's no qualitative reason why it couldn't have beenperhaps things would be different. Review copies would have been made more widely available. But it's not, and they haven't been; so here we are.

But enough of that. What is the novel? It is many things. It is an exploration of in between non-spaces and lost places, such as baggage claim areas, highway rest areas, shopping malls, destroyed towns. It is an anti-literary literary novel, if that isn’t too meangingless a turn of phrase. It is at times reminiscent of Bernhard, but not too much, or Beckett, ditto. It might remind you of some of the American post-modernists, but only superficially. It is, somewhat as one often finds with John Barth, further evidence that stories seem to accrue almost despite themselves and despite a narrator’s specifically stated attempts to sabotage them and avoid telling them. Little micro-stories abound and then are self-consciously abandoned amid patches of self-aware literary criticism. It is, as already suggested, effective political fiction—fascinating well-integrated stuff on class and race and gender and capitalism and Taylorism, and an astonishing account of possibly the main character’s mother in Palestine around the time of the Nakba and after.

What I'd like to do here, then, is offer some brief excerpts and some general remarks. The epigraph comes from "Orders from the general command to the Israeli Defense Forces regarding the townspeople of Lydda, Palestine. July, 12, 1948.": "All are free to leave, apart from those who will be detained". And then these are the opening few sentences of the book: 
They had just returned to the United States. He thought that the immigration official at the border-control booth had looked at him skeptically when running his passport, even though he was a citizen. Maybe he looked like a terrorist. Fortunately the line had been long and he was passed through with his wife. It helped that she looked more securely like an American, he thought. She had blond hair and an open face. Everything seemed to go easier when she was at his side. They went down the escalator to the baggage claim area. They had their item each of carry-on luggage but had checked their larger bags. Once in the baggage claim area, his wife said that she was tired and went to take a seat on a row of chairs against the nearest wall of the cast room. He hadn't slept well on this trip and should have been more tired than his wife, but he was filled with elation at the thought of being home, where he knew he would be able to sleep again and his bowels would return to normal. But at the far end of the baggage claim area he saw the customs gates and realized that home was still on the other side. They remained in one of those in-between places that existed only in airports, he thought.
And here we have introduced for us several recurring ideas. Attention to mundane details, the protagonist's anxiety about his appearance, including being mistaken for a terrorist, and the in-between place, or no place, of the baggage claim area. Settings in subsequent chapters include a hotel complex that exists to handle overbooked airline passengers, a highway rest stop, a shopping mall that had been converted from an old armaments factory, war zones, concentration camps, and interrogation rooms. In those opening sentences we have what this reader will always read as a slight nod to Bernhard, in those instances of "he thought", though perhaps I over-read that kind of thing, and it's not like the book itself, big blocks of text notwithstanding, is otherwise anything like a Bernhard novel, after all, so why bring it up? Only because. Later chapters remind me at times, lightly, of Beckett, but only lightly, the Beckett of Watt, not so much Beckett's larger project, but rather in the detailed attention to possible angles on a situation, but then Beckett is also more of an explicit reference, not least because one of the chapters (chapter 7: "Human Wishes") pretends to be a lost Beckett play about Samuel Johnson and his cat. And not only that.

Another excerpt, from chapter two, "Return to the Chateau", in which our hero ponders the airline overbooking and the hotels that exist to handle it; were it not for overbooking,
Nobody, nobody would come to these hotels otherwise. Except for a stray motorist perhaps or someone on a layover nobody in their right minds would ever allow themselves to be brought to this island, save those who were bumped. It was cheaper to give everybody a hotel room and meal vouchers and transportation on the shuttles than to stop overbooking the flights, clearly. Or perhaps the overbooking and bumping was going on solely to service these hotels, to keep them fed with warm irate bodies, even though Air France had to pay for everything the airline existed solely now and at a massive financial loss to keep this mechanism on the hill functioning. Nobody ever said such things had to be rational, he reasoned. Or rather, lots of people said they had to be rational, and even demonstrated in the newspapers and magazines and on news shows that they were indeed rational, but these were the apologists of a larger insanity.
So far so good.

Friends, readers, I cannot continue with this review, not in any proper sense. I'd been working on it on and off for weeks, re-read the book, put the review aside, talked about the book with friends - productive conversations! - was contemplating returning to the review, perhaps removing all block quotes, because none of them seem representative, or no, I worried that they would read as intended to be representative, which is somewhat different, so that having a few stand in seemingly gives the wrong idea of the book's tone and energy. And then life intervened; I forgot all about the book and this review. As I've come back to things, noticed all the posts I have sitting unfinished awaiting my attention, gathering moss in draft status, this one has continued to get buried - in part, I knew on some level that it was nowhere near being publishable; and so it would remain, getting no closer. Then I recently thought about it again, with some exasperation. I feel a responsibility to this book. I do! It is so good and yet so unknown. So I'm going to do what I can with what I've already written, leaving the block quotes in, representativeness and coherency bedamned, and add a few closing paragraphs.

I say above, after all of the other blurbable superlatives, that the book is perhaps most impressively politically astute. Why do I say this? I say this because being politically astute is all too rare for a work of fiction. I almost wrote that it does this by not being didactic, yet that's not quite right. It is didactic! We are so afraid of didacticism! I maintain that this fear is irrational - yet I understand it to some extent, and even share it. I further maintain that Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant is didactic in a good way. Consider this passage, from chapter six ("Time and Motion"), which finds our protagonist in a shopping mall converted from an old armaments factory:
And maybe it's just because of the mild buzz from the soda on his otherwise empty stomach that our hero in the food court of the Watertown Arsenal Mall now feels that there might be hope after all, the modern world has to be more than just a Taylorized conveyor-belt stuffing mass-produced trash into the open maws of mindless thumbless mall-zombies because he possesses this example from his own life this living example of a text conveyed to him by way of his Taylorized education [referring here to Animal Farm - RC] which he'd digested in his own way, turned to his own account, whose prescribed and orthodox meanings he had subverted and continues to subvert, maybe such opportunities for subversive appropriation are available to us everywhere, cracks in the armor of the big machine, fissures, gaps, opportunities to be seized, maybe every text of pessimism and despair can yield up subtexts of wild subversion, each type its antitype, shreds of heretical apocrypha, perhaps even here, yea here, in this food court in the Watertown Arsenal Mall where a hundred years ago the molders and machinists rose up against the Taylor method but because they had only been defending their AFL craft-privileges and their white dick privileges they had failed, maybe their grandchildren their great-great grandchildren would get it right one day because there's always this heretical subtext and antitype lurking somewhere, for every 1911 Watertown Arsenal strike there's a 1912 Lawrence Bread and Roses strike, the textile mills of Lawrence Massachusetts a few miles to the north of Watertown where the immigrant women workers were savagely exploited became the scene of the great Bread and Roses strike, organizes with the help of the IWW who didn't discriminate against race or sex but tried to bring all workers into One Big Union, Bread and Roses the road not taken, always a road not taken, always another branch in the river of time, never know when these proles and black proles and brown proles stuffing Cinnabons into their mouths out of cardboard containers and licking their fingers might rise up in a body and sugar-rush next door into the Foot Lock and Lady Foot Locker to grab the heaviest boots off the racks shouting Kick the Bosses in the Ass, Power to the Working Class!
This chapter includes huge amounts of stuff - information! facts! theory! - about Taylorism, not to mention a fanciful alternative biography of Taylor himself and his being in the world as a misunderstood artist. It's true that I am sympathetic to the political point-of-view that our narrator is putting across here and elsewhere, but the idea that I should have to bracket my own politics, my own understanding of the world, in order to adequately evaluate or respond to a work of fiction, or any work of art, that I should or could somehow approach it from some bullshit Kantian disinterested standpoint: this idea is deeply offensive to me. So I won't do it. How would a reactionary read these sections? Can't say I care. An objection might be raised that, if the 'didactic' material only has 'value' to a reader sharing its apparent point-of-view, then why bother? To which I can only add that this is a non-issue. If I can read, and get 'value' out of, novels entirely at odds with my political worldview, I don't see why other readers can't do the same here.

OK, it's time to wrap things up. I haven't said anything about how the chapters link together, or the stuff about Joseph Cornell, or even the mode of narration, among much else. Readers familiar with Contra James Wood may have heard that the novel includes similar material as that well-known blog; this is true. In fact, the blog grew out of the writing of the novel. Not to worry, there is plenty of James Wood here, and it is very smart and very funny. At times I wondered whether he'd pull it off, but he does. I did note above that one chapter includes a narrative possibly about the main character's mother. Where I've suggested that stories abound despite the narrator's misgivings, here the account of this Palestinian girl and woman lodged in my memory after one reading as a breed of gritty realism. And yet re-reading, I was reminded that the apparently realistic account is undercut at nearly every turn, the narrator consistently refusing to allow us to settle into simply accepting the narrative as realistic. In a sense, this very problematizing of the realism serves to enhance the realistic effect of the story being told. All of these different threads and others are brought together in the breathtaking final chapter, which to my mind is a brilliant demonstration of why literature, and literary criticism, matters, and is ultimately always political even when it pretends not to be. Which in itself is a good way to sum up the entire novel. Read it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"We'd now be living in a different world"

Early in Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Time for Everything (my post about the book is here), but after we've learned of Antinous Bellori's encounter with the angels and briefly of his own investigations, is this tantalizing passage:
And what was the legend of Faust warning against, if not the activities of Copernicus, Bruno, Descartes, Galileo, Leibniz, and Newton? We don't normally see it this way because of the impressively effective operation that was mounted during the Enlightenment, when demonic was the label attached to the obscure and the vague, the speculative and the occult, and truthful to the precise and rational, obvious and provable, with all the fateful consequences that would entail.

Because darkness isn't the danger, light is. That is where all the pitfalls are to be found.

Antinous Bellori's name is on the whole remarkable for its absence in such contexts, something that at first glance isn't in the least bit strange, considering the subjects that preoccupied him. It seems a long way from Newton's books on optics and gravity to Bellori's work on angels. But if we put what they wrote about to one side, and concentrate instead on the underlying mentality and philosophy, we will discover that the similarities outnumber the differences. Bellori employed the same methods as the others, he'd read the same literature and possessed the same knowledge. The only thing that distinguished him from them was that he looked in a different direction. That the secret into which he'd thereby gained insight would never be recognized was something of which he was ignorant, just as  the other movers of the age hadn't the slightest inkling of the consequences of their own discoveries. They lived in a period suspended between two contrasting views of the world and, like hermit crabs changing shells, were quite naked and vulnerable, always alert, always on the brink of scampering back to the old shell, until they'd crossed the invisible line and the new shell lay closer, after which they simply had to keep pushing on. The openness, fluidity, and uncertainty of the moment is there in Baroque art alongside a fascination with infinity and fixation on death. But the choice was made, the world's new boundaries were laid, and everything that was outside them sank slowly into oblivion. And rightly so, we might cry today, for Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were right! After all, the ideas of Paracelsus, Landmark, and Bellori are monstrous, unscientific, superstitious. But if we remember that these writings date from the very start of the Enlightenment, before the new world philosophy was determined, it may be easier to see that such channels of thought represented an alternative to the road that was chosen, the one that has brought us to where we are today, and that it's precisely this choice that makes the ideas in, for example, On the Nature of Angels seem so outlandish and unfashionable. They weren't then. And therein lies the enticing point: what if Bellori's ideas had won through, and Newton's had sunk into oblivion?

We'd now be living in a different world.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Notes on A Time for Everything

Though I loved the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's novel/memoir My Struggle, I wasn't sure if I was going to read his novel, A Time for Everything (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson). After all, it's about angels, isn't it? And isn't it a bit of a historical novel? Yes, yes, both of these things are true. And yet, A Time for Everything turns out to be an astonishingly good novel.

On the very first page we read that "our world is only one of many possible worlds". The second page plunges us into an account of 11 year-old Antinous Bellori's 1554 encounter with two angels after a day of fishing. Bellori's day is recounted in what feels like moment-by-moment naturalistic loving detail, reading in parts almost like Thoreau. Angels become an obsession for him, and he ultimately writes his study, On the Nature of Angels. Our narrator tracks Bellori's studies, his questions as to the nature of the divine, his similarity to figures such as Newton, essays interesting and relevant questions about the nature of science - paths not taken and other possible worlds loom large here  - and anxieties about the value of the written word. All of this is endlessly fascinating, and it is not at all surprising that I would be interested in it, given the various threads I have pursued on this blog.

However, the bulk of the novel is devoted to psychologically detailed stories concerning Biblical figures, almost back stories, if you will, for such central stories as those of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, the prophecies of Ezekial, Lot and the destruction of Sodom, the death of Christ. The nature of the angels, and by extension the divine, is further explored through their presence and role in each of these stories. And these narratives could almost be described as one would describe a fat historical novel about real historical people. I would not have expected to want to read such a thing. Put like that it frankly sounds somewhat dreary. Occasionally, too, Knausgaard's prose goes slack (as indeed it does at times in My Struggle). And yet I found these stories just as endlessly fascinating as the narrator's essays, if not more so. How is this?

This passage from Stephen Mitchelmore's review (which you should read) about this, including the prose (which he allowed was "vulnerable to criticism for stamping out generic passages from a stencil") suggests a possible reason:
Yet such prose in the context of biblical stories has the odd effect of naturalising events we would otherwise place at a distance. When Abel announces an expedition to the Garden of Eden, it is as supernatural as the North Pole. And when he is attacked by angels resisting his approach, they may as well be polar bears. Reading the novel late into the night I wondered if this is what genre fans enjoy in large volumes of speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy: imaginary worlds presented in unadorned prose to evoke – albeit temporarily – an enchantment of the current, prosaic one. But the worlds and ideas they generate are weightless in comparison to this: our culture is founded on Bible stories. Every event becomes vitally real to us as they were for generations of Jews and Christians.
The speculation about science fiction is worth considering, but I love the point that the apparently flat "readable" prose "naturalizes" these stories for us. In any event, I was riveted throughout. The story of the Flood, for one, is terrifying and devastating. I also enjoyed how Knausgaard, or his narrator, seems gleefully unconcerned with anachronism in these Biblical stories, with respect to geography (e.g., fjords) and technology (guns); the scientific wave of the hand in which these are casually explained away is brilliant.

The story of Bellori's solitary life and his investigations is so convincing that it did not occur to me till rather late in the novel to doubt that he actually existed (he did not). The short coda turns to the narrator, and his father, and is somewhat puzzling as to its relationship to the novel, yet it appears to point us toward the writing of My Struggle. In my remarks and comments elsewhere about this book, I keep reaching for superlatives such as astonishing, remarkable, and so on, but it really was like no other book I've ever read.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Noted: Karl Ove Knausgaard

This passage comes from volume one of Karl Ove Knausgaard's novel/memoir, My Struggle (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett):
Looking back on this, it is striking how she, scarcely two years old, could have such an effect on our lives. Because she did, for a while that was all that mattered. Of course, that says nothing about her, but everything about us. Both Linda and I live on the brink of chaos, or with the feeling of chaos, everything can fall apart at any moment and we have to force ourselves to come to terms with the demands of a life with small children. We do not plan. Having to shop for dinner comes as a surprise every day. Likewise, having to pay bills at the end of every month. […] However, this constant improvisation increases the significance of the moment, which of course then becomes extremely eventful since nothing about it is automatic and, if our lives feel good, which naturally they do at times, there is a great sense of togetherness and a correspondingly intense happiness. Oh, how we beam. All the children are full of life and are instinctively drawn to happiness, so that gives you extra energy and you are nice to them and they forget their defiance or anger in seconds. The corrosive part of course is the awareness that being nice to them is not of the slightest help when I am in the thick of it, dragged down into a quagmire of tears and frustration. And once in the quagmire each further action only serves to plunge me deeper. And at least as corrosive is the awareness that I am dealing with children. That it is children who are dragging me down. There is something deeply shameful about this. In such situations I am probably as far from the person I aspire to be as possible. I didn't have the faintest notion about any of this before I had children. I thought that everything would be fine so long as I was kind to them. And that is actually more or less how it is, but nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. The immense intimacy you have with them, the way in which your own temperament and mood are, so to speak, woven into theirs, such that your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself, hidden, but seem to take shape outside you and are then hurled back. The same of course applies to your best sides. . . (pp. 36-37)

Monday, April 08, 2013

Noted: Karl Ove Knausgaard

In Karl Ove Knausgaard's remarkable novel, A Time For Everything (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson), this passage comes from the novella-length section about Noah and the flood:
Milka had borne him. She'd known him since before he'd been born, his movements, the small habits that had formed while he lay floating within her, she had looked forward to his coming, and when he had come, he'd been just as she'd expected. Not in appearance, but in the atmosphere he brought with him. Perhaps it had something to with the way he'd looked at her the first time? Perhaps it was something about the way he'd crawled, still bloody and slimy, toward her breast? For months after the birth he'd been part of her, it had just been the two of them, nothing else existed, and even after that first time was over, and he slipped into the rhythm and life of the family, he was part of her. She knew his body as well as she knew her own. She washed him every day, she held him close every day, there wasn't an inch of his body her hands hadn't touched. When he raised his head for the first time, she'd been there, when he crawled for the first time, she'd been there, when he said his first word, she'd been there. All this had been stored within her. That was where he was. The smell of him, the taste of him, the feel of his skin against hers. Barak was a part of her, and when he died, a part of her died. Not in a figurative sense. Her body asked for Barak, it asked for Barak all the time, but it no longer got any answer.

For her it was no good throwing away everything to do with Barak, as his father had begun to do. For some reason this knowledge made her sorrow easier. There was comfort in knowing that, that the sorrow would never leave her. That it would always be with her.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On grief and Led Zeppelin

In January, I alluded to the fact that we were in the middle of a period of grief. The fact is, in late December, our unborn baby, due this Spring, died. Forgive me for the bluntness of this statement. Some of you know this already, most of you do not. I'd not wanted to write about it here, primarily because anything I could write felt inadequate, inappropriate. And though this blog has not shied away from personal matters, it just seemed too much. I'm not going to write about it here, either, beyond what I've just said. But I felt I needed to say it in order to make this post make any sense.

At any rate, in the aftermath, I found, amid the resumption of everyday life, the day-to-day practical stuff, including getting things take care of related to our loss, that when I was by myself, I wanted to listen to music. It was music that helped me deal with the down time. Not unusual - I often want to listen to music, and people often turn to music for comfort and consolation. Sometimes it was too much and I'd be stopped short by a song coming on randomly (this happened with Sinead O'Connor's unbelievable "Three Babies", which I don't think I can listen to again without crying), but even these have helped. I mostly wanted to hear familiar voices.

First it was Fleetwood Mac - an old favorite from childhood - but instead of reaching for the records I knew very well (the obvious ones, Fleetwood Mac and Rumours), I instead reached for Tusk, which I'd never given a proper listen. Though really it was primarily "Sara" and "Storms" I wanted to hear: sad songs, but not too on the nose. I'd always loved "Storms" ("And I did not deal with you I know. . .": this line gets me every time), but "Sara" had always been just a pleasant song I knew only hazily. But I now found I wanted to hear "Sara" constantly; I played it over and over again. Then I started listening to the album in full, reading more about Tusk, realized/remembered that since I only had it on the original cd pressing, that I had the "edit" version of "Sara", which is roughly two minutes shorter than the original (i.e., an abomination, I later understood). . . that I'd never sought to remedy this situation suggests my overall lack of engagement with the album and even the song, though I'd always "liked" it. But in my newfound obsession with the song, I needed the full version, so I downloaded it, inserted it back into its rightful place, obsessed over it further. . .

Enter Marcello Carlin and his blog, Then Play Long. Recall that at TPL, Carlin has been, over the last five years, writing about each album to reach #1 on the UK charts since the beginning, in 1956, "so that you might want to hear it". I'd been reading the blog regularly, and he's not only made me want to hear records I never gave a second (or first) thought to, but also managed to somehow say something new and interesting about records that have been written about to death, many of which I'd have told you I knew about as well as it was possible to know a record. I wrote about some of these previously (here and here). But my own life got complicated and busy, his publishing slowed down (in part due to health issues, as I understand it), so I'd gotten out of the habit of reading; then it was recently brought to my attention that he was contemplating pulling the plug on the project (happily, he has since reconsidered). . . I clicked over to find out what was up, realized I'd missed roughly five years worth of number one albums, blog posts going back a couple of years. I happened to notice his entry on Tusk. I was floored, reminded: this is great music writing! I went back and re-read the great piece on Rumours.

But I was thinking - Tusk - 1979 - hm - 'hey, Led Zeppelin's last album, In Through the Out Door came out in 1979, I wonder what he'd had to say about that'. I'd recalled that he'd been, compared to his writeups of the first five Zep albums, relatively lukewarm on Physical Graffiti. . . so I looked up In Through the Out Door, noticed his entry on Presence, and even the soundtrack to the concert film, The Song Remains the Same . . . and reading these entries, I quickly realized that there were things I'd once known about Led Zeppelin that I'd long since forgotten, and several things that I'd never properly processed about the band in my youthful enthusiasm. And I realized that, though they had been my favorite band, and I'd never stopped loving them, never stopped repping for them, or defending them where necessary, I'd also long since accepted certain aspects of the case against them. Not wanting to spend much time rehearsing those charges here (but: sexism, plagiarism, the idea "that they represented some kind of unwelcome decadence and opulence in rock, getting further and further away from the things which originally powered them", among others), I'll simply mention the idea that they were a band that had little to say, which I expanded, it seems, to not noticing any evidence of lived pain or anguish in the music, in Robert Plant's vocals in particular. And in part this is because of the things I'd forgotten, or not really processed, or been able to process in my youth. 

I'd forgotten that Plant and his family had been in a horrible car accident and that this resulted in the cancellation of a Zeppelin tour and led to the band recording a new album instead, which ended up being Presence. I'd forgotten that the recording of this album was beset by all kinds of problems. I'd forgotten worse things than that. I'd never really processed that these things might have had some effect on how Presence sounds - which to my often distracted ears was always dense, monochromatic, impenetrable, even if I officially "liked" it. Given all that was going on, Carlin describes the record as "a reaction against everything surrounding them", as "a case of Zeppelin versus the world", reminds us that it "baffled and annoyed reviewers", doubts that it's "ever been completely understood". All this is fine, but it's when he gets to the actual music that Carlin really surprises me, right from the beginning when he says, "It’s very rare that I come across a number one album that was made because it absolutely needed to be made, but Presence is one of those..." I don't think it ever would have occurred to me to describe Presence as an album that needed to be made.

Already this post is getting longer than I wanted it to be, because it wasn't supposed to be about Presence (though I've been listening to the album a lot lately, and am especially grateful to Carlin for bringing my attention to the great "Tea for One", and I feel I'm finally able to appreciate "Achilles Last Stand") nor is it supposed to be about stuff about Led Zeppelin I'd forgotten. Except for one thing: I'd forgotten that Plant's five year-old son had died in 1977 from a mysterious stomach ailment while Plant himself was out on tour. In all the years I've listened to Led Zeppelin, it never once occurred to me to think of how this might have affected the music. But right there, at the end of In Through the Out Door, are two songs I'd not much cared about:
Before pondering on whether the group are attempting to give birth to Asia or Bon Jovi, the album suddenly takes a sideways, then downward, step into two rather astonishing closing songs. “All My Love” begins exactly like Abba – one can easily imagine Agnetha singing the song (plus it is in the opposing key to “The Name Of The Game”; A minor to Abba’s A major) – and Plant’s voice lends the song and lyric an emotional candour which evidently counts for rather more than a girl who just done walked out on him; he puts an unusual emphasis on the line “He is a feather in the wind.” Meanwhile, Page in his solo is still channelling Hank Marvin, and as the song slowly disappears Plant’s hurt is superseded by a slowly coruscating grief; in its fading moments he appears to cry, again and again, “Stop dying!” (to which Bonham immediately responds with a cocked head tom-tom breakout). His parting call is a searing, extended “to YOU” – there is no doubt whom he is really singing about.

And, finally, there is “I’m Gonna Crawl,” the last word from Zeppelin – not that in 1979 anyone knew that; Page was already planning to follow it up with a return to The Rock Formula – and one of the greatest things they ever did.
Hm. . . Presence is an album that had to be made, and "I'm Gonna Crawl" - a song, Carlin says, is "so peaceful, so disturbing in its deceiving amble" and he surprisingly compares to Tricky - is one of the greatest things Led Zeppelin ever did? Where have I been?

I'd read Hammer of the Gods twice ages ago, consumed all I could about Led Zeppelin as a teenager and young adult, yet I'd never processed that "All My Love" is 'about' his late son. But I was young and stupid and life had yet to  happen to me. Now, years later, being reminded of his tragedy, and reading Marcello Carlin's post on the song, in the wake of our own grief, was a disquieting experience. I got home that day, re-added "All My Love" to my iPod, and when not attending to the various errands and other practical matters I took care of that weekend, all I wanted to do was listen to this song; I communed with it, and with its follow-up, quietly devastated. Where Carlin reports that Plant appears to cry "Stop dying!", I'd formerly always heard "Sometimes, sometimes!" At first I still heard it; internet searches had "sometimes" too. I tried like hell to hear "Stop dying!", eventually sometimes it seemed to be there, blurred in with "sometimes!" I couldn't decide which made more sense, which was better (worse) . . . then one day I was listening to a Zeppelin playlist while washing the dishes, and "All My Love" came on - I wasn't paying close attention - and "Stop dying!" came through as clear as could be, as though of course that's what he was singing. And a singer I'd always loved, in a band I'd always loved, I now felt somehow more love and respect for, and felt now in some way protective of.

In winding up his remarks on In Through the Out Door, in particular on "I'm Gonna Crawl" - another song full of anguish and pain, which I listened to over and over again, paired with "All My Love" - Carlin writes these words, which I will end with:
All hope appears to have been eviscerated; Plant’s voice is as despairing and despondent as I have ever heard him, passing by ominous lyrical signposts – [...] – but the pain is too much, and the whole thing culminates in some terrifying primal screams that outdo even the Lennon of “Mother.” At last, when attending to and singing about things and people he really cares about, Plant reveals himself; the song, like its predecessor, is really about his departed son. The closing moments sound like a dozen years of hurt compacted into one apotheosis, or nadir, of betrayed emotion.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"One must shout, murmur, exult, madly, until one can find the no doubt calm language of the no..."

This is the end of a letter Samuel Beckett wrote to Georges Duthuit on August 2, 1948, collected in The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956 (translated from the French by George Craig):
The mistake, the weakness at any rate, is perhaps to want to know what one is talking about. In defining literature, to one's satisfaction, even brief, where is the gain, even brief? Armour, all that stuff, for a loathsome combat. I think I know what you are going through, forced back into judgements, even if merely suggested, every month, at any rate regularly, pulled out with greater and greater difficulty according to hateful criteria. It is impossible. One must shout, murmur, exult, madly, until one can find the no doubt calm language of the no, unqualified, or as little qualified as possible. One must, no that is all there is, apparently, for some of us, this mad little tally-ho sound, and then perhaps the shedding of at least a good part of what we thought we had that was best, or most real, at the cost of what efforts. And perhaps the immense simplicity of part at least of the little feared that we are and have. But I'm starting to write. It has just struck midnight. Until tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Notes on two Joanna Russ books

I recently finished reading The Zanzibar Cat, a collection of Joanna Russ short stories dating from 1962 to 1979. The stories cover a wide range of so-called genres, some of which I thought were excellent, others more of a chore. . . she certainly demonstrated here that she could do just about anything. There were a few clear science fiction stories (one with some connection to her novel The Female Man), a few "fantasy", at least one ghost story, at least one vampire story, one that might be a little of both. . . Then there was one that didn't seem like any of those at all, about a character named "Joanna Russ" living in New York ("The Precious Object"). Very experimental in form, hard to get a handle on any kind of coherent "ongoingness" (to borrow a word from Gary Lutz, though Russ' sentences are in and of themselves not odd like Lutz's can be - though she wasn't afraid to be ugly), even as individual sentences were not in themselves difficult. Then there was the title story, a kind of fable, in which questions of, problems of, authority are introduced in entertaining fashion, with one of the characters, the Miller's Daughter, revealing herself as being "the author". I wondered, as I often do, what Gabriel Josipovici would make of that one.

Meanwhile, a few weeks back I'd read her early novel, And Chaos Died. Surely one of the very few science fiction novels dedicated to Vladimir Nabokov (she was a student of his), I have to admit I spent a large portion of this novel actively disliking it. It is at times a very difficult read (yet, again, individual sentences are frequently beautiful). Again, for me, there is the problem of ongoingness - in the sense of trying to piece together what the point might be of all the phenomena or sensations being described. Among the overheated blurbs ("A stunning achievement!" - Fritz Leiber) is this paragraph from Samuel R. Delany:
Many novels have dealt speculatively with psi-phenomena, describing the effects on people and society. Ms. Russ has taken it on herself to put the reader through the experience. She is wholly successful. And Chaos Died is a spectacular experience to undergo.
Well, ok. The book begins with a mission to a planet apparently colonized at one point by humans, now populated by descendants, who have developed certain abilities. The landscape appears to shift randomly - it is unclear whether this shifting is a function of these abilities - nothing is as it seems, little is grounded in any discernible reality. The main character, Jai Vindh, is at some point endowed with these abilities. The action - or, setting, at any rate - returns to earth. Here, when at one point his consciousness seems to meld with that of a lizard's in the desert, and even the rocks, here is where I finally, roughly two-thirds into the book, felt I had a handle on things, that I could piece sentences together to make them meaningful to me, that the phenomena being described felt worth describing. Perhaps this is just because of the grounding of being back on earth? amid recognizable surroundings, even if fictional, and in a science fiction book from more than 40 years ago? Regardless, from here, for the next few dozen pages, I was genuinely enjoying the book, before it went off the rails and I again had little idea what she was on about.

Before I read the novel, I'd been warned that it was "bad" on homosexuality - that in this regard it was disappointing, in particular given Russ' other work on gender and sexuality and the ways in which she has explored these issues in her other fiction. So I read the book, in part, on the look out for this badness. I was thus mildly bewildered when it sort of didn't come. The Jai Vindh character is gay from the start, and there are conflicts with the Captain of his mission, who seems wary of him, and afraid he's going to be attacked sexually by Vindh. Vindh, for his part, openly mocks the Captain's homophobia. Then he ends up having sex with one of the women on the planet, and it is after this that he begins to experience the "psi phenomena" for himself. I did wonder whether this - that this openly gay character repeatedly has sex with a woman - might be the problem, but the idea struck me as dubious. But I was very conscious of my not being gay while thinking this, and also of the book being more than 40 years old. Much has changed. Even so, I was a little confused. Then I came across this 2011 review at Tor.com of And Chaos Died, by Brit Mandelo, and along with points about the book's "psychic phenomena, mind-bending imagery, nearly impenetrable—but beautiful—prose and an experimental sensibility", there is this extended passage:
Jai Vedh, the only male protagonist in Russ’s entire oeuvre, is introduced as a “homosexual.” At first, it seems that Russ is going to explore homophobia and prejudice against male queerness—the military officer who Jai crash-lands with is a big-macho masculine guy, who’s constantly responding badly and violently to Jai. There’s a lot of tension; Jai derisively tells him at one point, “I won’t touch you. Not even in your sleep. Calm down…” The captain’s response is to get even antsier and eventually try to physically throw him out of the small escape-pod spacecraft. So far, so good, I suppose; the explorations of masculinity and homophobia are interesting.

It starts to get bad when the psychic society comes in, because Jai ends up getting together with a woman who uses her powers to “cure” him of his sexuality, which is framed as a dysfunction. They become lovers, and he’s all fixed from being gay, because when his mind begins to expand and he develops abilities like hers, he becomes heterosexual. It turns out, being gay was just a problem caused by his society, and when he’s mentally healed he’s straight. In this construction, straight equals healthy, straight equals better, straight equals right. It’s exactly the party line of the psychiatric associations of the 60s and 70s: gay is sick, straight is healthy.

I had a fairly visceral “you have got to be fucking kidding me” reaction to that scene. I nearly threw the book. It’s hard to believe that Russ, about to publically become an advocate for queer women’s sexuality in her next novel, could make such a nasty implication—that all a gay man needs is a good woman to make him straight. How many times do lesbians have to listen to the reverse, that a good man is all they need to give up other women? Hell, deconstructing that myth is part of the point of The Female Man.

Is it because Jai is male? Does his gender really make such a categorical difference in the validity of his identity and sexuality? There are threads of this tendency in second-wave feminism, so it’s not like it’s new; I likely shouldn’t be surprised, but I was. It felt like a betrayal.

That’s in addition to the fact that nearly every sex scene or sexual scene has elements of non-consent, on the parts of both men and women; Jai isn’t really willing to have sex with the woman the first time, but she makes it happen. Perhaps this is supposed to feed into the point that Jai’s society is so absolutely wrecked, socially, that aggression and violence are the only possibilities for interpersonal relation. If it is, it only succeeded in making me extremely uncomfortable and a bit disgusted—the sex scenes don’t seem to be written to be icky on purpose, and there aren’t many hints in the text that there’s anything wrong with the dubious consent. It’s just—there. It’s how sex is in And Chaos Died.
At first I wondered, again, if it's just me being the straight white guy in the room: I just don't see it. Still, my sense was that this was an over-reading of the material, and a reductive one at that. If nothing else, it had seemed to me that Jai is unwillingly drawn into both the sex and the telepathy (as, indeed, Mandelo's review suggests - in fact, re-reading her review, it strikes me that she was in part answering her own concerns). But given the fact that I'd been a bit at sea for much of the book and was not really much enjoying the experience till rather late in it, I wasn't inclined to argue the point. Then I read the comments to her review, and was very interested in this one, from more than a year after the review appeared, in which a DavidGolding says he'd "just read the second chapter of Rhonda Gilliam's master's thesis from 1988, which argues that the telepathic society should not be read as utopian [this, by the way, tracks with my reading of the society - RC], and that the 'cure' is intended by the author to be considerd [sic] an act of violence against Jai's personhood." Again, this latter idea isn't too far off from what I was thinking about Jai being an unwilling participant, nor does it diverge from Brit Mandelo's (accurate) characterization of the sex in the novel as such. Mandelo, for her part, replied that she herself now disagrees with what she'd written, in part because of letters from Russ, and also an essay by Delany about the book that appears in his Starboard Wine collection, and that she has revisited these questions in her recent essay, "We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling", which along with the Delany, I'm curious about reading (though neither, admittedly, are high on my list of reading priorities).

I don't really have a point here, except to let you in on some of this discussion, should you be interested. It seems to me that And Chaos Died calls out for a re-read in order to be appreciated properly, yet I strongly doubt I have a re-read of the book in me (I'm much more likely to re-read the stories in The Zanzibar Cat, or the later novels, The Female Man and We Who Are About To. . . ). Brit Mandelo's review, incidentally, is part of a series of "Reading Joanna Russ" articles at Tor.com. In fact, I just noticed an essay on The Zanzibar Cat. . .

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Talking about the possibility of there being characters"

Here is Gary Lutz, from an entertaining interview conducted by David Winters, published in 2011 at 3:AM Magazine:
Talking about the possibility of there being characters in my fiction puts me a little ill at ease, because I almost never seem to think in those terms. But, having been invited to consider the matter, I can see that in the things I write, something or other achieves, for a short spell, a vocal state, a vocal condition, though the words soon enough drain out completely. I guess that if there are characters at all, they are bodies of language, and their limbs and lineaments are typographical. These verbal presences, call them what we must, have a hard time going into detail about themselves; things tend to come out in summary form, as if everything has already been concluded and can be recounted but not changed. I do not draw or crib from outer life, but sometimes I get the feeling I might be trespassing on some inner one of my own. I’ve never really thought about introducing a wider assortment of human doings into my writing; I wouldn’t want to have to invent or observe. I would rather not describe what’s out there. People, I imagine, can already see it for themselves.