December 27, 2012
The Los Angeles Review of Books has an essay on fat bodies in literature, or the lack of them. The question might be reworded from "Where are all the fat characters in literature?" to "Where are all the fat characters in literature whose fatness is not the central issue of the novel?" I'm kind of blanking on that one.
It's like abortion in literature. Where are the abortions in literature that are not the central problem of the book? Can a character just have an abortion and not have it be like the worst thing that has ever happened? Blanking on this one, too.
December 26, 2012
In general, the techniques of Japanese censorship were much more mechanical, and less psychological, than those of Communist censorship, but the fundamental dilemmas for writers were similar: Do I collaborate? How much? Criticize? How? What are the risks and rewards of my several options?
There is a fascinating discussion going on about the survival of writers under censorship, the controversy over Mo Yan's Nobel, and the difference between using lingo for satire and internalizing it.
Pictures of Mr. Grass grew, shrank and swiveled beneath Mr. Thomsa’s fingers as he searched for the Smurfs, the cartoon characters. The little blue fellows, he explained, were there because they represented the Polish labor movement Solidarity in Mr. Grass’s novel “The Rat.” Also, children like them.
Slightly bizarre article about Thomas Mann and Gunter Grass, and the museums devoted to keeping people interested in them. Because, as we all know, people have no attention spans anymore, and if it's not on an iPad, it might as well not exist.
Can I admit I was wrong about James Meek's The Heart Broke In? I was wrong. I was very wary of it, convinced it would be a smug-atheist book. Or it would devolve into one of those awful "There is no God"/"Yes there is" debates. But fuck, it's quite good.
Over at Kirkus, I talk to Meek about morality, tabloid culture, god and no god, and all sorts of things.
While I lack religious belief in the commonly accepted understanding of the phrase, I don’t lack religious awareness. I don’t lack the religious instincts, and I live in a state of alternate wonder and dread before the mysteries of the unknowable, beyond birth and death, and the beauty, joy, sadness and horror of the world I live in. I do believe that man created God, rather than the other way round, but I also believe it was an extraordinary act of creation, that it was done for good reasons. God is an imaginary character, but an imaginary character or characters whom billions of people believe to be real, and that matters.
I’m not one of those smug atheists, like Harry in my book, who finds comfort and validation in being “right” compared to believers who are “wrong.” I can’t share the believers’ belief, but I don’t resent it, and it doesn’t help me answer the believers’ critique of atheism, which I think can often be valid. There are religious instincts, needs, that non-believers such as myself find hard to satisfy without God: a need for confession, atonement, absolution; an instinct to pray; a need to express an existential gratitude; a need for answers to “why” questions. Even though I don’t believe there are answers there’s nothing I can do to stop myself being tormented by the questions.
December 20, 2012
And finally, from "Darkness and Light" by Kathleen Jamie, collected in Findings:
I like the precise gestures of the sun, at this time of year. When it eventually rises above the hill it shines directly into our small kitchen window. A beam crosses the table and illuminates the hall beyond. In barely an hour, though, the sun sinks again below the hill, south-southeast, leaving a couple of hours of dwindling half-light. Everything we imagine doing, this time of year, we imagine doing in the dark.
I imagined traveling into the dark. Northward -- so it got darker as I went. I'd a notion to sail by night, to enter into the dark for the love of its textures and wild intimacy. I had been asking around among literary people, readers of books, for instances of dark as a natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that's wicked, but could find few. It seems to me that our cherished metaphor for darkness is wearing out. The darkness through which might shine the Beacon of Hope. Isaiah's dark: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined."
Pity the dark: we're so concerned to overcome and banish it, it's crammed full of all that's devilish, like some grim cupboard under the stair. But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in the darkness, are we not?
From "The Pomegranate" by Eavan Boland:
The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed.
And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
From Robert Graves's The White Goddess, or, how I hope none of you are celebrating the Solstice this year.
But what of the extra day? It falls outside the thirteenth-month year and is therefore not ruled by any of the Trees. I am assuming that its natural place is between the letter-months of R and B, in the day after the winter solstice when the hours of daylight begin to lengthen again; in fact, about Christmas Eve, the birthday of the Divine Child. The R.B. radicals recall robur, the Latin for "oak" and "strength," and also the Celtic word "robin." For at this point in the year, in British folklore, the Robin Red Breast as the Spirit of the New Year sets out with a birch-rod to kill his predecessor the Gold Crest Wren, the Spirit of the Old Year, whom he finds hiding in an ivy bush. Sir James Frazer has shown in his Golden Bough that the Christmas Eve folk-custom of hunting the wren with birch rods, which still survives in Ireland and the Isle of Man, was at one time also practised in Rome and ancient Greece, where the Gold Crest was known as "the little king." That the Gold Crest does frequent ivy bushes at Christmas time is ornithological fact. The robin is said to "murder its father," which accounts for its red breast. There is a clear reference to the story in Gwion's Angar Cyvyndawd: "Concealed in the ivy bush, I have been carried about." The wren-boys of Ireland sometimes use a holly-bush instead of an ivy-bush; the holly being the tree of the tanist, who killed the oak-king in midsummer. The wren is protected from inquiry at all other seasons of the year and it is very unlucky to take its eggs. One of the Devonshire names for the wren is "the cuddy vran" -- "Bran's sparrow" - and in Ireland it was linked with Bran's crow, or raven, as a prophetic bird. R.I. Best has edited a collection of wren and raven omens in Erin VIII (1916). Bran, it has been shown, was Saturn.
how could I love again, ever?
repetition, repetition, Achilles, Paris, Menelaus?
but you are right, you are right,
there is something left over,
the first unsatisfied desire -
the first time, that first kiss,
the rough stones of a wall,
the fragrance of honey-flowers, the bees,
and how I would have fallen but for a voice,
calling through the brambles...
From "Winter Love" by H.D.
And Poetry Magazine has a selection of other deep winter poems, appropriate for the day.
A brief excerpt from John Donne's Sermons on the Psalms and the Gospels, from Sermon No. 8:
The sun is not weary with sixe thousand years shining; God cannot be weary of doing good; And therefore never say, God hath given me these and these temporall things, and I have scattered them wastfully, surely he will give me no more; These and these spirituall graces, and I have neglected them, abused them, surely he will give me no more; For, for things created, we have instruments to measure them; we know the compasse of a Meridian, and the depth of a Diameter of the Earth, and we know this, even of the uppermost spheare in the heavens: But when we come to the Throne of God himselfe, the Orbe of the Saints, and Angels that see his face, and the vertues, and powers that flow from thence, we have no balance to weight them.
A lot of the readings I've done about the solstice are religious in nature. The area of faith in deprivation, in believing at the darkest times in a renewal, is not one spoken off a great deal in the secular realm. So feel free to disregard God from any of the more religious texts, particularly if you have a hard time having faith in benevolence and omnipotence in such a strange time. It's not the faith in a religious order that matters when it comes to the solstice, or dark times of a less seasonal kind. It's being able to hold the space for belief in change, slow and creeping as it may be.
It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void. Not the Jews of the captivity, but those of the days of Solomon's glory are those from whom the pessimistic utterances in our Bible come. Germany, when she lay trampled beneath the hoofs of Bonaparte's troopers, produced perhaps the most optimistic and idealistic literature that the world has seen; and not till the French 'milliards' were distributed after 1871 did pessimism overrun the country in the shape in which we see it there to-day. The history of our own race is one long commentary on the cheerfulness that comes with fighting ills. Or take the Waldenses, of whom I lately have been reading, as examples of what strong men will endure. In 1483 a papal bull of Innocent VIII. enjoined their extermination. It absolved those who should take up the crusade against them from all ecclesiastical pains and penalties, released them from any oath, legitimized their title to all property which they might have illegally acquired, and promised remission of sins to all who should kill the heretics.
"There is no town in Piedmont," says a Vaudois writer, "where some of our brethren have not been put to death. Jordan Terbano was burnt alive at Susa; Hippolite Rossiero at Turin, Michael Goneto, an octogenarian, at Sarcena; Vilermin Ambrosio hanged on the Col di Meano; Hugo Chiambs, of Fenestrelle, had his entrails torn from his living body at Turin; Peter Geymarali of Bobbio in like manner had his entrails taken out in Lucerna, and a fierce cat thrust in their place to torture him further; Maria Romano was buried alive at Rocca Patia; Magdalena Fauno underwent the same fate at San Giovanni; Susanna Michelini was bound hand and foot, and left to perish of cold and hunger on the snow at Sarcena; Bartolomeo Fache, gashed with sabres, had the wounds filled up with quicklime, and perished thus in agony at Penile; Daniel Michelini had his tongue torn out at Bobbo for having praised God; James Baridari perished covered with sulphurous matches which had been forced into his flesh under the nails, between the fingers, in the nostrils, in the lips, and all over the body, and then lighted; Daniel Rovelli had his mouth filled with gunpowder, which, being lighted, blew his head to pieces;... Sara Rostignol was slit open from the legs to the bosom, and left so to perish on the road between Eyral and Lucerna; Anna Charbonnier was impaled, and carried thus on a pike from San Giovanni to La Torre."
_Und dergleicken mehr_! In 1630 the plague swept away one-half of the Vaudois population, including fifteen of their seventeen pastors. The places of these were supplied from Geneva and Dauphiny, and the whole Vaudois people learned French in order to follow their services. More than once their number fell, by unremitting persecution, from the normal standard of twenty-five thousand to about four thousand. In 1686 the Duke of Savoy ordered the three thousand that remained to give up their faith or leave the country. Refusing, they fought the French and Piedmontese armies till only eighty of their fighting men remained alive or uncaptured, when they gave up, and were sent in a body to Switzerland. But in 1689, encouraged by William of Orange and led by one of their pastor-captains, between eight hundred and nine hundred of them returned to conquer their old homes again. They fought their way to Bobi, reduced to four hundred men in the first half year, and met every force sent against them, until at last the Duke of Savoy, giving up his alliance with that abomination of desolation, Louis XIV., restored them to comparative freedom,--since which time they have increased and multiplied in their barren Alpine valleys to this day.
What are our woes and sufferance compared with these? Does not the recital of such a fight so obstinately waged against such odds fill us with resolution against our petty powers of darkness,--machine politicians, spoilsmen, and the rest? Life is worth living, no matter what it bring, if only such combats may be carried to successful terminations and one's heel set on the tyrant's throat. To the suicide, then, in his supposed world of multifarious and immoral nature, you can appeal--and appeal in the name of the very evils that make his heart sick there--to wait and see his part of the battle out. And the consent to live on, which you ask of him under these circumstances, is not the sophistical 'resignation' which devotees of cowering religions preach: it is not resignation in the sense of licking a despotic Deity's hand. It is, on the contrary, a resignation based on manliness and pride. So long as your would-be suicide leaves an evil of his own unremedied, so long he has strictly no concern with evil in the abstract and at large. The submission which you demand of yourself to the general fact of evil in the world, your apparent acquiescence in it, is here nothing but the conviction that evil at large is _none of your business_ until your business with your private particular evils is liquidated and settled up. A challenge of this sort, with proper designation of detail, is one that need only be made to be accepted by men whose normal instincts are not decayed; and your reflective would-be suicide may easily be moved by it to face life with a certain interest again. The sentiment of honor is a very penetrating thing. When you and I, for instance, realize how many innocent beasts have had to suffer in cattle-cars and slaughter-pens and lay down their lives that we might grow up, all fattened and clad, to sit together here in comfort and carry on this discourse, it does, indeed, put our relation to the universe in a more solemn light. "Does not," as a young Amherst philosopher (Xenos Clark, now dead) once wrote, "the acceptance of a happy life upon such terms involve a point of honor?" Are we not bound to take some suffering upon ourselves, to do some self-denying service with our lives, in return for all those lives upon which ours are built? To hear this question is to answer it in but one possible way, if one have a normally constituted heart.
It turns out that I have done a lot of writing about the solstice myself. Here are a few columns from the Smart Set on the subject:
Does it matter that the Virgin birth was a mistranslation? That Jesus was definitely not a Capricorn? That Christmas is just Saturnalia with a few other pagan rites mixed in? Does it matter that that monstrance with St. John the Baptist's blood is probably actually filled with strawberry jam? No.
On the solstice, the comfort of magic and the less reassuring realities of science.
Maybe that is why I am reading the alchemists, who had a lot of lead and wanted gold. They didn’t abandon the lead. They worked with it. They valued it for what it might lead to. If all they had was gold, maybe they’d be wondering how to turn it into lead, which does have some practical applications. The 16th-century alchemist Michael Maier wrote, “What is the meaning of the Sun without Shadow? The same as a clapper without a bell... the Sun is the tongue, the Shadow is the language.” Eventually scientists caught on to the fact that lead never turned into gold, and they turned alchemy into chemistry. And with that they created medicine and purified water supplies. And someone else used it to weaponize toxins and create food-like substances that fill our supermarkets and never expire but kill us very, very slowly.
Tomorrow is the solstice, an almost tangible thing here in Berlin. I have constructed an altar. I am ready to sacrifice a she-goat or whatever the fuck is necessary to bring the sun back. It brings out the pagan in you, this ridiculous, weighty darkness.
So today I thought I would do something of a solstice reader. First up, from Thomas Merton's Seasons of Celebration.
The terrible human aspiration that reaches out over the abyss is calmed. The terror of God is so far beyond all conceivable terror that it ceases to terrify and then suddenly becomes friendly. Then, at last, begins the utterly unbelievable consolation, the consolation into which we enter through the door of an apparent despair: the deep conviction, as impossible to explain as it is to resist, that in the depths of our uselessness and futility we are one with God. "He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit." We have found Him in the abyss of our own poverty -- not in a horrible night, not in a tragic immolation, but simply in the ordinary uninteresting actuality of our own everyday life.
Then, in the deep silence, wisdom begins to sing her unending, sunlit, inexpressible song: the private song she sings to the solitary soul. It is his own song and hers -- the unique, irreplaceable song that each soul sings for himself with the unknown Spirit, as he sits on the doorstep of his own being, the place where his existence opens out into the abyss of God's nameless, limitless freedom. It is the song that each one of us must sing, the song of grace that God has composed Himself, that He may sing it within us. It is the song of His mercy for us, which, if we do not listen to it, will never be sung. And if we do not join with God in singing this song, we will never be fully real: for it is the song of our own life welling up like a stream out of the very heart of God's creative and redemptive love.
December 18, 2012
William Gass is interviewed at Tin House. Now would be a good time to check to see if you have On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry and Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation on your shelves, and if not, now would be a good time to remedy that shit.
I really wanted to like Christine Schutt's Prosperous Friends. Let's just say I admired it. It was beautifully cut, but ultimately cold. (And I have now officially reached my limit of novels about MFA students and graduates. I am never reading another one, for as long as I live.) I review the novel and speak with Schutt over at Kirkus.
Everyone wants to have pride in his homeland. But what is there to be proud of in Russia? The fact that Russia has emerged from the middle ages into the 21st century?
Marriage keeps slipping down the statistical slope. Without the societal assumption that everything leads to marriage, there is a paradoxical pas de deux: each person acts as though commitment is not part of the opening negotiation, the man because he does not wish it and the woman because she does. The calculation of how to pressure, when to pressure, to coax, to cajole, or to strategically retreat can lead romance columnists to sound a little like von Clausewitz. And that those same writers view the whole enterprise, with men skittish and evasive, and women strategic, has led to a flourishing of aquatic imagery, with reeling, hooking, baiting and (at times) gutting — clear signals that all is not well in the land where there are “always more fish in the sea.” Dating seems less The Little Mermaid than Jaws.
David Wolpe reviews Eva Illouz's Why Love Hurts, and he does a hell of a job. As you might remember, I was obsessed with this book, and it's wonderful to see such a thoughtful and smart take on Illouz's theory that the romantic pain most of the Western world seems to be struggling with has less to do with our wounded psyches and daddy issues and more to do with our sociological set up.
It is also grand to see Wolpe respond to Illouz's slant towards women readers, and her theory that women are perhaps suffering more than men are in the romantic economy. (Although when I interviewed her and asked her about this, she pointed out that she in no way thinks men are having a totally great time either.)
December 17, 2012
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road author Willie Nelson tells us we should all calm down about the end of the world stuff, and there has never been a single instance in all of recorded history where we could not have all benefited from listening more to Willie Nelson. It is a fact.
“Think for a moment about what it would be like to inhabit a world that is operatic,” they write. “A world in which everyday life takes place and ordinary time passes, but in which everything—every action, every thought, every utterance—is geared to never-ending music… Think of the metaphysical questions that this state-of-opera would raise. First, and most important: who is making the music?”
Opera is bonkers, and yet we still love it. Or I do. Saw my first La Boheme this weekend with a friend, and was somehow simultaneously thinking "This chick is taking an awfully long time to die" while also crying. It's an absurd art form, and Wendy Lesser reviews the new History of Opera.
Technology has killed off the exaggerating travel writer, says Ian Frazier.
But truth is always better than error, I suppose. Consider the recent case of the giant wild hog Hogzilla. A Georgia man said he had shot it while it was running around someplace in the woods, and he posted pictures of it online. This eight-foot-long, 800-pound animal was as monstrous a creature as the Georgia swamps had ever seen. The man added that he had buried the hog in a grave marked with a cross (though feral, it had been a Christian hog, apparently), and because of the excitement stirred up on the Internet the man eventually had to submit the corpse for examination. Through DNA testing, experts determined that it was a mix of wild hog and domestic pig. Its size suggested it had eaten a lot of hog feed. Such a disappointment—Hogzilla, a pen-raised fake. How much more stimulating to believe that there are 800-pound wild hogs infesting the swamps of Georgia.
But this has been disappointing since fact checkers got ahold of Pliny the Elder, suddenly all skeptical, like maybe India isn't full of headless men with their faces peering out from the center of their chests after all. (In case you were wondering what that might look like.) Or the men of Ethiopia with one massive foot, which they would use for shade by rolling onto their backs in the heat. Where is the fun in learning the truth?
Zambreno masculinizes Gertrude Stein — “I mean, Gertrude Stein was basically a patriarch, right?” — and, to a lesser extent, Anaïs Nin, presumably because they managed to produce more work than her beloved mad wives. Or perhaps, because of what we would today identify as their queerness, their femininity appears less reducible; they are not games Zambreno can play in the context of her own, straight marriage.
Stein becomes a patriarch -- a man, essentially -- because Zambreno can't fit her in to her own definition of female. (She does this to Virginia Woolf, too, although less baldly.) For Zambreno female appears to mean messy, mad, and glamorous. Frances Farmer with (fictional) lobotomy bruising, with a full red lip. Anything that doesn't fit that description gets shoved into the "masculine" category.
More interesting, though, is the vicious comment at the bottom, accusing Keeler of criticizing Zambreno the person rather than Heroines as a text. It's a complaint that got thrown around (a couple of times at me) at reviews of Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?. Accusations of conflating the author with the character. But when you use "I," when you name your fictional narrator Sheila Heti, when you are using your own self as the filter through which you look at the world, rather than through a theory or a history or an identity of some other kind, aren't you conflating author and narrator? On purpose? I'm not criticizing it as a technique, sometimes I like it quite a lot. And not that there is no such thing as gossipy, bitchy, personal attacks on books. But if you use You as a construct in your book, you can't then accuse everyone who criticizes You of confusing author/character.
December 14, 2012
His infant self appeared (unflatteringly) in a Stevie Smith poem. He palled about with Lord Lucan as a boy (Miller seems to have been the naughty one) and Oliver Sacks as a teenager. As an apprentice book designer he contributed the cover to Cape’s first edition of Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (and almost got sued by Bridget Riley in the process). And — which quite boggled my mind — while at Cambridge he appeared in a production of Bartholomew Fair alongside Sylvia Plath and A.S. Byatt, who at that point (can this be right?) went by the name of ‘Toni Drabble’. The two-paragraph roll-call of his neighbours in Gloucester Crescent is an omnium gatherum of well-to-do late-20th-century lefty North London bohemia.
December 13, 2012
The Germans are "the most narcissistic nation on the planet," he writes. "They're a racist, supremacist, anti-Semitic society," as well as being "the most self-deluded and self-righteous people in the world."
A man who thinks Germans are all monsters and secretly still Nazis travels through Germany and discovers that Germans are all monsters and secretly still Nazis. Then he writes and self-publishes a book about it. (There is a funny exchange where he tries to get the book published in Germany, but the German publisher doesn't think the book is very good. It's "like a young girl's diary, containing nothing but a series of impressions." The author of course then calls him a Nazi.)
Well, I think there’s something to that idea of taking someone out of the usual street-vernacular, putting them in a totally different environment that shakes them up. And I think that’s an essential element in learning to write. You need to be shaken up. And if you look at all the great literary critics, they all talk about it in one way or another. Proust says something about to be a writer you have to become a foreigner to yourself. [Russian critic Viktor] Shklovsky talks about defamiliarization. I think in a way traveling is like taking acid, because you get on a plane and land somewhere, and the world looks like the world that you recognize and know, but there are little things that are off, that make it hyper-real and hyper-strange. For me, it was really important to tune into that strangeness. And I think that’s a process of disquieting oneself, non-pharmacologically.
I'm skeptical as to whether the best process for disquieting yourself is to go hang out with a bunch of other American writers in a foreign country, though. Or any group of any kind of writers anywhere. That is maybe just me. But as Claudio Magris wrote, "All endogamies are suffocating; colleges too, and university campuses, exclusive clubs, master classes, political meetings, and cultural symposia, they are all a negation of life, which is a sea port."
If you are at all concerned about the future of books, probably reading this interview with Liz Mohn is not going to soothe your fears at all. Mohn runs Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, which just merged with Penguin. "Books do mean a lot to me," she assures the interviewer, but no one who has had to insist on that point ever makes really great decisions about the future of books.
"Bertelsmann grew big on books, and I myself grew up with them,” Mohn told me. “We will continue to publish books for a mass public as well as works for smaller readerships. The planned combination will give authors from all genres even more publishing options for the success of their books.”
If you listen carefully, you notice she didn't actually say anything in this paragraph.
Maybe better to read Josh Cook's interview with poet Andrei Codrescu, who thinks he knows the way the business of books is going.
Because Mr. Ford ate the last working horse, thus making room for the racing horse. Technologically, the horse is a skeuomorph, but symbolically its power is increased tenfold by its selectively bred descendent. What we call "book" now will also likely be a magical thing that was once common. They symbolic book of the future will be a deluxe object related only slightly to its current Random House ancestor. Current print technology is dying as a mass-tool and will be reborn as art. Art is the last stage of capitalism.
The Tallow Candle was discovered by local historian Esben Brage in the dense private archives of the Plum family, revealed Danish paper Politiken, which printed the story in its entirety today. Brage was in the reading room at the National Archive for Funen in Odense when he stumbled across a small, yellowing piece of paper at the bottom of a box and realised it might be important. Two months later, experts have now confirmed that the story was written by Andersen.
The literary world is awash with top ten lists and nothing but top ten lists. (Well, I guess there is this whole ridiculous thing going on.)It is disappointing that two of my favorite novels are not showing up on many of the lists: Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy and Laurent Binet's HHhH.
(Fuck -- both are from major publishers, and both are novels dealing with World War II in one way or another, what is wrong with me this year?)
(Also, why are so many of my favorite books this year written by men? Having something of an identity crisis over here.)
At least Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is something we can all agree on.
December 12, 2012
Although it is a great error to confuse a writer's work with his life, it is hard not to feel perplexed by Charles Dickens. There is Dickens the writer, who made hypocrisy and cruelty his targets and kindness his rule; and there is Dickens the man: prolific in public and private charity but one who made a public show of casting off his wife, the mother of his ten children, and openly deprecating those children for their lack of energy, purpose, and perspicacity.
It's a common problem with writers. But Katherine A. Powers reviews Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens and delves into Dickens's dirty laundry for us.
I have been a little obsessed with the Joyce Hatto story ever since it broke. If you remember, she was a classical pianist who made recordings but never performed in public. And after her death, it was discovered that those recordings were doctored by her husband. Snippets of other people's playing were stitched in, sometimes entire orchestras worth of music was replaced to improve the recordings. Her husband swears Joyce knew nothing about this, and we'll never know. (There was a great New Yorker profile of the husband.)
So of course when I heard there was a novel inspired by the Hatto story, I had to get a copy. Over at Kirkus, I talk to Lynne Sharon Schwartz about her novel Two-Part Inventions, the fascinating Hatto tale, and how ambition poisons art. (You can read Patrick Nathan's review of Two-Part in our new issue.)
I liked the ambiguity, and wanted to preserve that in my novel. I also wanted to explore artistic ambition and where it could lead. Looking at the story from the point of view of a writer, I wondered how I, for instance, could possibly feel any sense of fulfillment or gratification if I knew my reputation was based on false premises.
December 11, 2012
Because there does seem to be something about Berlin that calls out to the exhausted, the broke, the uninsurable with pre-existing mental health disorders, the artistically spent, those trapped in the waning of careers, of inspiration, of family relations and of ambition. To all those whose anxiety dreams play out as trying to steer a careening car while trapped in the back seat, come to us. We have a cafe culture and surprisingly affordable rents. Come to us, and you can finish out your collapse among people who understand.
Let's say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking that they've chosen this city, they'll never know that the city chose them. Let's say, for a moment, that the literal situation of a city can leak out into the metaphorical realm. That the city is the vessel and we are all merely beings of differing viscosity, slowly taking on the shape of that into which we are poured.
If that were the case, what to make of the fact that Berlin is built on sand? Situated on a plain with no natural defences, no major river, no wealth of any particular resource, it's a city that should not exist. It can't be any wonder that Berlin has, for hundreds of years, no, longer than that, past Napoleon, past the medieval days when suspected witches were lined up at the city gates and molten metal was poured between their clenched teeth, past the whispers of the Romans that whoever inhabited these lands were not quite human, back to the days when the people resided here are now only known to us by some pottery shards and bronze tools, always been a little unstable. It would explain the city's endless need to collapse and rebuild, even as the nation that engulfs it marches on confidently, linearly.
Failure, then, failure! so the world stamps us at every turn. We strew it with our blunders, our misdeeds, our lost opportunities, with all the memorials of our inadequacy to our vocation. And with what a damning emphasis does it then blot us out! No easy fine, no mere apology or formal expiation, will satisfy the world's demands, but every pound of flesh exacted is soaked with all its blood. The subtlest forms of suffering known to man are connected with the poisonous humiliations incidental to these results.
And they are pivotal human experiences. A process so ubiquitous and everlasting is evidently an integral part of life. "There is indeed one element in human destiny," Robert Louis Stevenson writes, "that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted." And our nature being thus rooted in failure, is it any wonder that theologians should have held it to be essential, and thought that only through the personal experience of humiliation which it engenders the deeper sense of life's significance is reached?
But this is only the first stage of the world-sickness. Make the human being's sensitiveness a little greater, carry him a little farther over the misery-threshold, and the good quality of the successful moments themselves when they occur is spoiled and vitiated. All natural goods perish. Riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish. Can things whose end is always dust and disappointment be the real goods which our souls require? Back of everything is the great spectre of universal death, the all-encompassing blackness...
I can't believe I am only now getting around to linking to Emma Garman's history of the royal sex scandal, where it's not the fucking that's the sin, it's not keeping it a secret.
Our Nobel Prize winner for literature came out as pro-censorship. So there's that.
In addressing the sensitive issue of censorship in China, Mo likened it to the thorough security procedures he was subjected to as he travelled to Stockholm.
"When I was taking my flight, going through the customs ... they also wanted to check me - even taking off my belt and shoes," he said. "But I think these checks are necessary."
But of course much in everyday American life sounds bizarre to Russians, as Mr. Zlobin documents meticulously in his 400-page book, “America — What a Life!” ...
With the neutrality of a field anthropologist dispatched to suburbia, Mr. Zlobin scrutinizes the American practice of interrogating complete strangers about the details of their pregnancies; their weird habit of leaving their curtains open at night, when a Russian would immediately seal himself off from the prying eyes of his neighbors. Why Americans do not lie, for the most part. Why they cannot drink hard liquor. Why they love laws but disdain their leaders.
December 10, 2012
A ton of coincidences yesterday and today, and they all kept bringing up Robert Graves's The White Goddess. When I read it for the first time, my hair stood on end for three weeks straight. It is probably time for a rereading.
This is probably the most concise description of the book one could write:
The White Goddess is a very odd, deeply polemical book. It announces itself as a universal theory of poetic language before plunging into a bizarre, 150-page long cryptological analysis of two early medieval Welsh poems; it digresses to decipher a tree alphabet and to answer a series of mythical puzzles such as ‘What song the Sirens sang’; it concludes as a savage attack on Christianity, science and commerce in which Graves makes it plain that he regards the development of Western civilization during the past two-and-a-half millennia as an enormous, ghastly mistake.
It's nearing the solstice, and it's getting dark here in Berlin at 3:30 in the afternoon, so of course everything is leading back to Graves and Merton. The poets of silence. This piece (PDF link) is a good briefing on the history of Graves's masterwork, and also the way everyone responded to it when it was first released. (Some embarrassed silence, some slow backing away.)
I started reading Thomas Merton's Asian Journal without paying any real attention to the back description or the introduction. I just dove in. It's mostly in fragments, little anecdotes or images or excerpts from his readings. And then Merton dies! Right after writing a diary entry! I was shocked, and then I read the back description where it says, right there, that this was his last diary because he died while on this trip. Anyway, it's a beautiful book. And it turns out that it was on this day that Merton died.
On this day in 1941 twenty-six-year-old Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist Order near Bardstown, Kentucky; and on this day in 1968 the fifty-three-year-old Merton died in Bangkok, a victim of accidental electrocution - a poorly-wired bedside fan, touched while Merton was still wet from the shower.
We were very recently given two examples of what happens to writers who approach material with a fixed idea and refuse to alter that idea based on things like evidence or experience.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, we have an essay on Dave Eggers and Zeitoun. It's been in the news a lot, so you're probably familiar with the story. Dave Eggers creates a Zeitoun character who is a hero and a saint, while in real life he is abusing his wife and, after the book came out, imprisoned for attacking her with a tire iron. Previous reports say that he was changed after the book's release, but the LARB reports the abuse had been ongoing, continuing while Eggers was researching the family.
So there's that.
Also we have a pretty remarkable takedown of Errol Morris's A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. Gene Weingarten goes into detail all the ways Morris manipulated the evidence in his book, in support of MacDonald's innocence. And he also has interesting things to say about the positive reviews Morris's book received, by unquestioning (and naive on the subject matter) critics. (Also recently a problem with award committees giving awards to the factually inaccurate The Swerve.)
Both are very good pieces of writing, and serve as a needed corrective.
You may remember the groundbreaking copyright memo the Republican Study Committee (RSC) released last month. The one full of realistic and well-thought suggestions for reforming the United States’ woefully inadequate copyright system.
That paper was written by a young Republican Study Committee staffer, Derek Khanna. Now, according to Timothy B. Lee on ArsTechnica, Khanna has been fired from the RSC.
December 7, 2012
A letter written by Franz Kafka "in which the sick writer describes his 'naked fear' of mice invading his bedroom and complains about his cat soiling his slippers" is being sold at auction and people are freaking out about it.
Daily, our sense of time slowed, days expanded like a wing. The days were long in the best, high-summer sense; at night we put up storm shutters on the bothy window to make it dark enough to sleep. Time was clouds passing, a sudden squall, a shift in the wind. Often we wondered what it would do to your mind if you were born here and lived your whole life within this small compass. To be named for the sky or the rainbow and live in constant sight and sound of the sea. After a mere fortnight I felt lighter inside, as though my bones were turning to flutes.
Kathleen Jamie, one of my favorite essayists, ponders what happened to the inhabitants of Rona.
For reasons unknown to me, whenever I see the name "Edmund White" I read it as "Edmund Wilson" and then there is some confusion that follows. Confusion, and disappointment, particularly in the case of a link I followed that promised me an article called "Sex tips for writers" by who I thought was Edmund Wilson. The author of To the Finland Station, an intellectual history of socialism, was going to illuminate his audience on the "cock and balls problem."
I am almost bereft with disappointment.
Britain’s oldest literary prize has spent the last few months deciding which of its previous winners deserved to be crowned as the best, as part of the celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of English literature studies at Edinburgh University.
December 6, 2012
A friend and I were discussing Henry Miller at the bar. I was lending her Big Sur, which I read just the other month, and it was the first Henry Miller I had read. She had read him devotedly as a teenager but not again for years, and was surprised I had made it through my teen years without a Miller phase. I was into Kathy Acker back then, I explained. I was an ardent feminist and not really into guys telling me he was going to fuck me until I stayed fucked (yawn). Plus, I got all of that sociopathic but oh-so earnest male behavior into my bloodstream through music. Specifically, the Afghan Whigs.
But Miller remains one of those writers that it's hard to get at artistically. What is the value? Is it the swagger? The pose? Is there real beauty in the writing? I liked Big Sur, but it faded in and out. He created moments of real beauty and then pissed all over them in a narcissistic interlude.
Katy Masuga has written two books about Henry Miller, The Secret Violence of Henry Miller and Henry Miller and How He Got That Way. (They sound worth it just for those titles alone.) The books are reviewed at Rain Taxi.
The deep secret is that boys are human.
Carol Gilligan is part of the Five Books series at the Browser, recommending books on the topic of "Gender and Human Nature." (Have I expressed how much I love this series? Have I also mentioned how incredibly bad this series is for my To Be Read pile and bank account?)
I have been reading Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree. I expected to like it a great deal, as I thought The Noonday Demon was a very interesting work, if too rahrah about psychopharmaceuticals and biased in other strange ways. But the work as a whole eclipsed that. But I found myself pretty weirded out by Far from the Tree almost immediately, and that feeling grew as I continued.
It's the mothers. The premise of the book is how families cope with having a child who, because of their autism or Downs syndrome or dwarfism or criminal behavior, deviates from the family's norm. The book opens with Solomon confessing his own deviations from his parents' heterosexuality, and says that his mother did not respond well when he was growing up and starting to exhibit a different kind of masculinity. But while to Solomon himself her rejection must have felt massive -- as it does, when you're the child needing unconditional acceptance -- to the outside reader, it's troubling that Solomon puts so much emphasis on small incidents. Like when she did not want him to choose a pink balloon and insisted he have a blue balloon. That this scene is portrayed as a tragedy seemed really strange to me. And it sets a tone for the book, that Solomon is seeking unconditional love and acceptance from these families in difficult situations, and nothing else will do.
Because when he talks to the mothers, the mothers he praises have torn up their entire lives for the sake of their children. Women who quit their jobs, who became advocates, who spent 15 hours a day working with their children on rehabilitation, who talk of their children as nothing but gifts and joys. They are allowed to talk about the burden of caretaking, but only in the language of how the experience as a whole expanded their lives and transformed them into better human beings. As I kept reading and reading (it is a super long book), looking for some sort of nuance, I kept being frustrated.
Because the women who do not choose this life are not given a voice. Women who chose to abort pregnancies are talked about as hearsay, and they are pretty roundly demonized. When a mother with a dwarfish daughter talked to a couple pregnant with a dwarf, who eventually decided to terminate their pregnancy, the woman who had the child says that their reason was that they are both beautiful, and they can't have an ugly child. This does not ring true one bit. Not that there aren't horrible people in the world, but that sounds like someone who has created an identity around their disabled child would say about someone who rejected that life. It's like how pro-lifers talk about women who have had abortions: they wanted to fit into a bikini, they didn't want to cancel a vacation, they were being selfish.
Talk to the woman who had an abortion! Talk to your mother! Get their stories for the love of god. Talk to someone with failings and disappointments. Talk to someone with a little ambivalence. Because this super shiny front is not the whole story, and it's worrisome that so much is left out of this book, even at its current 962 page state.
There are very good things about this book. But I kept getting stuck on the mother issue.
December 5, 2012
Bookslut contributor Elvis Bego has a wonderful essay at the Threepenny Review about names. About the strange tie of his own strikingly familiar name, and the person he would rather share that tie with: Lord Byron.
She’s the kind of genius that very few people will ever recognize because you have to have genius yourself to recognize it,” said Truman Capote of Vreeland. “Otherwise you just think she’s a rather foolish woman.”
Everyone should go see The Eye Has to Travel, the documentary about Diana Vreeland. She's having a moment, and that's good, but it makes you ache to see how beautiful those old Harpers and Vogues were when she was editing them, and what trash they are now. So she's got a documentary and also now a biography, and also a coffee table book. And also her memoir, full of the boldest of lies and fiction, was reissued not too long ago. And yet it still doesn't feel like enough. The New Republic reviews the Vreeland bio alongside that Grace Coddington memoir, and a side-by-side comparison makes you realize why today's Vogue is so shallow. Even their "iconoclast" can't stop name dropping for five seconds to say anything interesting. Whereas with Vreeland, absolutely everything out of her mouth was fascinating. She would have died instantly had she been boring for a second.
A QUIET REVOLUTION may have taken place over the last three decades in our understanding of the history of Western philosophy. So quiet, in fact, that few have noticed it. Three recent books give us a sense of the significance and extent of this paradigm shift: Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell; and The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes. What has this revolution brought forth? The realization that some of the most influential Western philosophers (primarily the ancient philosophers, but also Montaigne, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) intended their philosophy to be not just a body of doctrines, of pure intellectual content, but to be above all an “art of living.”
This essay is very good, and you should read it. I was going to write something pithy here about turning philosophy into self-help, but then I shamefully remembered how quickly I requested a copy of a book called You Must Change Your Life. (I KNOW, I said to the book when it came today.) So I am not the least hypocritical source to talk about that sort of thing.
I used to date this guy who would call me up late at night and do Leonard Cohen impressions. It was the Leonard Cohen lounge act, Leonard Cohen singing Alanis Morissette songs, Courtney Love songs. It was pretty brilliant. He rather unabashedly worshiped Leonard Cohen, and while I have since learned not to date men who worship Leonard Cohen, he got me a little hooked, too.
Carl Wilson reviews the new Leonard Cohen biography and admits to being envious of Cohen, what with all the chicks and the coolness, without any assets like physical attractiveness or singing ability. And he somehow tricked us into buying those albums with the awful backing vocals, that's enviable, too. (I am right now on Spotify, listening to little children singing the backing vocals on his song and why the fuck do I think this is good?)
If you’ve ever been afflicted by poetry, romance, acerbic humour or self-pity, you probably have a story about how you discovered Leonard Cohen.
He speaks the truth.
December 4, 2012
Did I mention we managed to put up our December issue of Bookslut.com? Because we did.
It opens with an essay about Ursula K Le Guin by Julie Phillips. You might remember her from that fantastic biography she wrote of James Tiptree/Alice B. Sheldon a few years back. From there, we catch up with Elizabeth Bachner in Kathmandu, as she alternates between esoteric texts explain the universe and memoirs of white women in Kathmandu and assorted other Spiritual Tourism spots. Greer Mansfield pays tribute to Octavio Paz, in that unique way that he does, and then Josh Cook discusses the future of the book with Andrei Codrescu. Don't worry -- there is one. I mean, not a recognizable one, but you'll have a chip put in your head by then to ease the emotional transitions.
The tireless Terry Hong catches up with Kaya Press, on the occasion of their move to Los Angeles, and the occasion of their continuing to publish really vital, experimental, beautiful books. Christina Gombar talks to Seamus Scanlon about his gritty short stories, and our equally tireless Colleen Mondor helps pick out some great gift books for your teenagers.
In reviews, we have books by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Viktor Shklovsky, Kevin Guilfoile, and Ellen Forney. Among others. And in our columns, Leah Triplett confronts the masculine ideal of what Modernism was, and reintroduces us to a forgotten painter. Jenny McPhee is also doing the hard work of reclamation, and she profiles the woman who created the definitive translation of Newton and collaborated with Voltaire. Lightsey Darst considers ghost stories, and Christopher Merkel also finds himself taken with Annemarie Schwarzenbach.
As this is possibly the end of the world, I would get in on that Annemarie Schwarzenbach everyone at Bookslut Headquarters loves so much. They might not have books in the next realm.
Fiction constantly deals with personal and individual loss, but very often it stops there. It doesn’t look at the massive, often more-abstract-seeming loss we’re facing during the world’s sixth mass extinction crisis. Which is not merely a biological loss but also a crisis of culture. Cultures and languages are going extinct right along with animals and plants, in a parallel process driven by the same forces. It’s dangerous terrain for literary writers because you want to avoid the kind of polemic it’s easy to fall into about these matters. I tried to take on the terrible weight of extinction in a less than evasive, more than allusive way, and in a way that was personal as well as social and political.
This week's Kirkus conversation is with Elizabeth Hand, the author of the new short story collection Errantry. In the weeks before I started reading her stories, I had been reading that awful paranormal book that freaked me out. (I was going to lend it to a friend, but I had to leave it in a hotel room when I checked out. I couldn't carry it with me. I get a little hysterical about certain things. When I broke the news to her, my friend replied: "I hope it's not sitting on your bed when you get home." I checked on, in, and under my bed in fear, but phew, the book is not itself paranormal.) But! It was so fresh in my mind that I became convinced that Hand's story about Cornwall was secretly about the Owlman legend. I tried to insist this to Hand, but she claims never to have heard it. Last I heard from her, she was going to go check out some videos on the legend on YouTube...
Hand and I talk about thin places, why readers hate ambiguity, and absolutely nothing about the Owlman.
I’ve always been sensitive to place, and certain places draw me more than others -- high moorlands, remote islands, woodlands, bleak or ruined cities; lakes more than the ocean, maybe because so much of the coast is now developed. Paul Bowles said that he possessed "an unreasoned conviction that certain areas of the earth’s surface contained more magic than others.” I feel that way as well.
December 3, 2012
They visited Ukraine together, aiming to co-write Pastior's autobiography. But when he died of a heart attack in 2006, the novel, which she rewrote from scratch, became her heartfelt memorial to the poet. When it was published in Germany in 2009, one critic objected that only those with direct experience should write about the camps. "Anything in literature, including memory, is second-hand," Müller counters, and "the second generation will be involved through the damage done to their parents." As for those who say that gulag literature should not be so beautiful: "If we deny deported people their individuality, we put ourselves in the same position as the camps." Müller says her mother, now in Berlin aged 87, read the book, and told her: "That's how it was."
This January, a copyright law allowing authors to break their publishing contracts after 35 years will take effect.
Called “termination rights,” the law reverts rights back to the author, meaning that works published in 1978 could soon leave their publishers, or new contracts forced to be negotiated.
Kind of more interested in how this will affect the comic book industry than the literary publishing industry, or if "work for hire" is just entirely not included. Will report back if I find anything.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. It is also wildly factually inaccurate. I've seen a couple reviews in the past year get at its problems, but the Los Angeles Review of Books really digs into the way Greenblatt manipulated the historical time period he's writing about to fit his thesis.
It turns out (I did not read the book after reading a couple reviews calling it a mess) that it's a bit of atheist revisionist history. Or maybe "secular," I am not sure if Greenblatt is specifically atheist or not. But you've seen this in writers like Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens in their books about atheism, a total disregard for anything good that religion may have brought forth.
In Greenblatt's case, the Los Angeles Review of Books claims he misrepresents the medieval era, calling it a time of widespread ignorance and illiteracy. And there was a time people believed that. But that was when we still referred to the era as the Dark Ages, and there's a reason we stopped using that term. Jim Hinch explains.
(He also argues that it's very worrying that no one at the NBA or the Pulitzer Prize seemed to notice that scholars had been claiming the book was wrong long before their deliberations. And it is, incredibly worrying. Hinch writes in his review that "Medieval readers and writers were apt to believe anything they read in an old book just because it was old and from a book." Apparently that is the overriding philosophy of the prize committees as well.)
Really, at this point, I can't help myself. If a book comes out about a member of the James family, I have to read it. It's a sick compulsion. How many theories can I read about what Henry James's mysterious injury was? How many times can I read the details of Alice James's fit when her brother William got married? Apparently hundreds.
For the Los Angeles Review of Books, I review a book that tries to take a new approach to one of the Jameses, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. And despite being well written and occasionally very insightful (particularly when doing side by side comparisons to the original text and the revisions James made years after its original publication), Gorra ends up retreading a lot of well worn ground, and giving rather tired explanations for what makes Portrait of a Lady so timeless and great.
The problem with writing about Henry James is that everything has already been written. That is one reason more people are writing about Henry James the person these days — Henry James the homosexual, Henry James the virgin, Henry James the pederast, Henry James the impotent — than Henry James the writer. What could possibly be left to say about Henry James the writer? It has all been laid out, his novels, his theatre work, his stories, his essays have all been picked apart. He is The Master. He possessed genius unparalleled in his time. The end.
December 1, 2012
The history of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books is a mixture of top-notch informative writing and the occasional gift book dressed up as popular science*. This year's winner, James Gleick's The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, looks like an example of the former.
*This authorative statement from someone who was kicked out of physics and biology classes at fifteen and has never darkened another lab since.
Literary Saloon fills us in on José Manuel Caballero Bonald, the winner of the 2012 Premio Cervantes. Fingers crossed for some translated works in the future for us hopelessly monolingual types.
"A yellow bird/With a yellow bill/Was perched upon/ my windowsill./I lured him in/With a piece of bread/And then I smashed/His fucking head."