January 27, 2015
I've been waiting almost two months to be timely in my whole-hearted recommendation of Yasmina Reza's new novel from Other Press, Happy Are the Happy. It's SO GOOD—like French Lorrie Moore: replace simmering angst and resentment in current romantic situation with affairs. Plus, it's short! Easy opportunity to finish a whole book for once in your life!
January 26, 2015
Matt Hartman writes for the January issue of Bookslut:
With the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests, and now the protests surrounding the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the idea (and the censure of the idea) of resisting structural inequality, oppression, and the abuse of political power is central to popular political discourse. It's in this light that John Merriman's recent book, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, begs to be read.
And now, merely two weeks after, how can one not read this book in the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo? Understanding the French context has become necessary and urgent. And if you think you’ve read enough “Je suis Charlie” / “Je ne suis pas Charlie” opinion pieces, maybe this is a good time to dive into history in order to better understand those very French traditions embodied by the principle of laïcité. The following is an eclectic set of links—it reflects my general confusion about both yesterday’s France and today’s France (in spite of years of following the French media).
For more on The Paris Commune, watch this Yale lecture, and listen to this BBC program about the feminist anarchist Louise Michel and her role in the Commune. (Carolyn J. Eichner is the author of Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune, but for a faster read, I recommend her essay: "'Vive la Commune!' Feminism, Socialism, and Revolutionary Revival in the Aftermath of the 1871 Paris Commune".
(It’s also important to note that by separating the Church from the nation, the short-lived Paris Commune was a sure sign that a secular state was a possibility—and in 1905 it was finally a reality.)
Voltaire’s name has been invoked over and over again in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and his Treatise on Tolerance seems relevant here.
When trying to find that one essential book on laïcité and issues like immigration and Islam, the main issue is that today’s French public discourse is mostly dominated by pseudo-intellectuals. So, are we supposed to flagellate ourselves (to borrow a word from Pascal Bruckner, who likes to talk of “l’auto-flagellation des Européens,” as in: “Stop reminding us of our colonial past! Collective amnesia FTW!”) and read something like Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide Français? Perhaps. For a genuine understanding, perhaps we do need to go through books written by men whose public personae could only elicit contempt. I particularly like this confrontation (no subtitles, unfortunately) between Zemmour and another writer described as controversial by the French media, Tariq Ramadan (his book on the Arab Spring, Islam and the Arab Awakening, is worth checking out).
The question that remains is: at what point does the principle of laïcité become an ideological weapon used against already marginalized citizens, citizens it’s supposed to serve equally? More specifically: does a too rigid laïcité contribute to an even greater marginalization of French Muslims? Because if today’s France is all about submission, and not negotiation, as Zemmour says, what hope is there for a progressive France that remains faithful to its foundation: liberté, égalité, fraternité?
January 23, 2015
Weekend Recommended Reading
-This week in Smart Peter: he introduced me to Agnès Varda. Here's a Believer interview with (essentially) her from 2009:
Six journalists sit around, drinking tea and coffee, all poised to interview her at once. She asks a newspaperman, “Did you get the press kit? It is full of information. You could even invent that you met me. Say, ‘We were in a little room. She had the light behind her because her eyes fear the light. And we had tea and coffee.’”
This interview is invented; many of the questions are made up. Of the questions that are asked here, I did not ask them all, but the answers are always Varda’s own. She was not interested in speaking to each reporter individually, and since her latest films, in particular, are more interested in the feeling of truth than the truth, there is no reason for me to argue with her method. I hope this interview conveys at least the feeling of the truth of speaking with Agnès Varda, if not the literal truth of the situation.
The feeling of truth is better than the truth! This is what Ben Lerner keeps saying, by which I mean: don't forget how much I love Ben Lerner.
-Also in untimely interviews I happened to read this week: Kathy Acker in BOMB: you MUST:
20. How often do you bathe? (circle one) Daily 5 4 3 2 1 times per week.
No one’s allowed in my house.
21. Do you brush your teeth after every meal?
-Here's a brief philosophical survey of lying. It includes the matter-of-factly passive-aggressive sentence, "One failing of much of the current work is that it is largely uninformed by the 2,000-plus years of writing on deception that has already been done by many of our greatest thinkers," which thankfully doesn't refer to the subject in question and thus is delightfully applicable to all current work.
-"A Modern History of Thirst"—the Awl, months ago—is also good.
-Oh, God! I almost forgot to link the Pitchfork interview with lovelorn Björk. READ IT!!!!!!!!!!
B: When I say that, it might come across that I’m incredibly wise. But it’s the other way around. I’m fucked and I’m trying to talk myself into it, like, "Go, girl! You can do it!" It’s me advising myself. It’s not me knowing it all—not at all. It’s just a certain route you just have to go; I went through it.
It’s really hard for me to talk about it. It really is in the lyrics. I’ve never really done lyrics like this, because they’re so teenage, so simple. I wrote them really quickly. But I also spent a long time on them to get them just right. It’s so hard to talk about the subject matter; it’s impossible—I’m sorry. [tears up] There’s so many songs about [heartbreak] that exist this in the world, because music is somehow the perfect medium to express something like this. When I did the interviews about Biophilia, I could talk for four hours about tech and education and science and instruments and pendulums—all the things we did. This one, I couldn’t put any of that stuff on top of it, because it has to be what it is. And I can’t talk about it. It’s not that I don’t want to, I’m not trying to be difficult. It really is all in there.
January 22, 2015
January 20, 2015
Very excited for several things forthcoming from New Directions, including early short stories from Rachel Kushner and Adventures in Immediate Irreality, which the White Review excerpted in its translation issue!:
I can picture myself as a small child wearing a nightshirt that comes down to my heels. I am weeping desperately, sitting on a doorstep that leads into a sun-drenched courtyard with an open gate and an empty square beyond, a hot, sad, noonday square with dogs sleeping on their stomachs and men stretched out in the shade of their vegetable stalls. The air is rife with the stench of rotten produce, and large purple flies are buzzing loudly in my vicinity, lighting on my hands to sip the tears that have fallen there, then circling frenetically in the dense, scorching light of the courtyard. I stand and urinate in the dust. I watch the earth avidly drink up the liquid. It leaves a dark spot, like the shadow of a non-existent object. I wipe my face with the nightshirt and lick the tears from the corner of my lips, savouring their salty flavour. I resume my seat on the threshold, feeling very unhappy: I have been spanked.
Psychosexual childhood memories are very trendy right now! Thanks Knausgaard.
January 19, 2015
Reading Outline by Rachel Cusk is like talking to your wise but ANNOYING friend who often does that thing: hinting very pointedly at deep, dark secrets and then refusing to tell you what they are or changing the subject to something possibly interesting but still not what you want to be talking about. It is simultaneously very boring and compelling, formally, especially, and not my favorite. There are great passages, though:
My argument with Angeliki [who's written a novel about a painter], he says, concerns her substitution of painting for writing, as if the two were interchangeable. The book is obviously about herself, he says, and yet she knows nothing at all about painting. In my experience painters are far less conventional than writers. Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in an animal's fur: the deeper they're buried the better. I don't believe in her painter, he says, making the children's packed lunches in her state-of-the-art German kitchen while fantasising about sex with a young muscled androgyne in a leather jacket.
January 16, 2015
Weekend Recommended Reading
-The next installment in NY Mag's series of horrifying interviews from which you can't look away: you've seen it, you've felt deeply unsettled by it, you've proclaimed its deeply unsettling nature to all of the people you gchat: "What It's Like to Date Your Dad"
-More in particular, vaguely scientific human situations: "Meet the man who spent 12 years trapped inside his body watching 'Barney' reruns"
-An interview with "the artist and astrologer who we will [t]here know as The Jeane Dixon Effect" at the New Inquiry, focusing on LOVE, the best of all topics, as well as about how traditional astrology is gender-normative:
Astrology is not trying to trap you. It’s really more about holes, and all your ways out.
-Interview with Mark Danielewski at Bomb; haven't read it, don't know if it's good
-Interview with the Catalan writer Jaume Cabré at Guernica, about LANGUAGE; also haven't read it, also don't know if it's good!
January 14, 2015
In the January issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst writes about reading difficult works by women. Among them: Clarice Lispector with The Passion According to G. H., her book for those “whose souls are already formed.”
(Clarice Lispector was translated for the very first time into my native language (Romanian) recently—last year. I keep my fingers crossed and hope this translation of Near To the Wild Heart will be the beginning of a cult—especially since she's promoted as "the great witch of Brazilian literature.")
Lispector's work is no longer a secret discovered by a few in the know, but it has yet to reach the mainstream recognition of the writers she's often compared to (Kafka, Virginia Woolf).
Critics have found Lispector difficult to pin down. “Unclassifiable”, says Edmund White. “As though no one had ever written before”, says Colm Tóibín. Comparisons are invoked with Proust, Kafka, Joyce and, for the introspection, with Virginia Woolf. For Hélène Cixous, she is the very epitome of “écriture féminine” with her assault on binary logic and patriarchal logocentrism. Other parallels may be drawn with Emil Cioran, Amelia Rosselli, or possibly Paul Celan—each of them writers damaged by the tragedies of the 1930s and 40s. All were noted for the unremitting bleakness of their vision, the embrace of ignorance, the questioning of language, the feeling (to quote Peter Hainsworth, reviewing Rosselli’s Locomotrix in the TLS of June 29), “that sense is hovering at the edge of what can seem to make no sense at all”. But in Lispector’s case, each of these four books [Near to the Wild Heart, The Passion According to G.H., Agua Viva, A Breath of Life] ends by embracing a mysticism, part Catholic, part Jewish, that is also obscurely but rapturously cabalistic.
-Landeg White, “Unclassifiable Clarice Lispector” | Times Literary Supplement
In their praise of Clarice Lispector, most people have the rather off-putting tendency of leading with an emphasis on her looks. So does Benjamin Moser, the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. Even the covers for the new translations published by New Directions and edited by Moser are designed so that together they form her face. In a way, this is more than just the average sexist obsession with the looks of female writers. Clarice Lispector's face is indeed entrancing. It's one of those faces that can inspire essays like Barthes's "The Face of Garbo" from his Mythologies.
“Her eyes,” a friend of Clarice Lispector’s wrote, “had the dull dazzle of the mystic.” “I am a mystic,” she told an interviewer. “I have no religion, because I don’t like liturgy, ritual. A critic for Le Monde, in Paris, once said that I recalled Saint Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross – authors, incidentally, I never read. Alceu Amoroso Lima… I once called, asking to see him. He said: I know, you want to talk about God.”
Such was the fascination of Clarice Lispector’s mysterious figure, and so little known about her origins, that in her lifetime a whole body of legend sprang up around her. In this she resembled the Jewish saints of her homeland, the Hasidic zaddikim, “bearers of that irrational something,” mythic figures in their own day, about whom an “overwhelming wealth of tales” indissolubly mix “triviality and profundity, traditional or borrowed ideas and true originality.”
-Benjamin Moser, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
For Bookslut, Jenny McPhee wrote that Moser’s biography “struggles, and wonderfully fails, to bring us closer to the writer he describes as, ‘weird, mysterious, and difficult, an unknowable mystical genius far above, and outside, the common run of humanity.’” She further discusses the writing of Lispector in the framework of “écriture feminine.”
Rachel Kushner delved into the work of Lispector in her essay for Bookforum and tried to explain the myth surrounding the Brazilian writer.
I suspect the reason Lispector’s philosophical fiction has inspired such dramatic devotion is that people feel she is talking to them, about the most basic but complex human experience: consciousness, the alienating strangeness of what it is to be alive. She attempts to capture what it is to think our existence as we are in it—in the “marvelous scandal,” as Lispector puts it, of life. We are not a plain is, but an awareness of this is, which is to say totally cut off from the world by the human capacity to conceive our part in it.
Like Lacan, I blame language for this problem. Probably Lispector would too. But both of them, Lispector and Lacan, would agree it’s our only recourse, and both called upon the capacities of language to an extreme degree, one building a set of psychoanalytic theories based on language, the other flexing language and punctuation in the interest of ephemeral and barely graspable truths, not because she was part of any experimental movement, but out of something more like solitary and desperate need. “This is not a message of ideas that I am transmitting to you,” she declares in Água Viva, “but an instinctive ecstasy of whatever is hidden in nature and that I foretell.” And elsewhere, “The next instant, do I make it? or does it make itself?”
-Rachel Kushner, “Lipstick Traces” | Bookforum
In her only TV interview, Lispector appears elusive as ever, giving answers that would be frustrating to any interviewer (“I don’t remember.”; “Sorry, I’m not going to answer.”) (via the Paris Review):
January 13, 2015
LOOK WHAT I GOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
OMG how is this not at the top of every “Most Anticipated for 2015” list?
There is, tangentially, however, a "10 Must-Read Academic Books for 2015" list at Flavorwire, by which I think they mean "10 Must-Read Books Published by University Presses for 2015," which is exciting, although they missed Jessa's.
January 12, 2015
Today's American Reader Day in Lettres entry is a good one, and that is not always true of American Reader Day in Lettres entries, so I'm flagging it for you. You might have missed how perfectly Henry Miller describes leaving the reality of somewhere you've traveled/particularly Greece, unless you're like every other pseudo-intellectual swooner and have the book of letters (he's sending this to Anaïs Nin, obviously):
Two weeks at sea, and it seems as though a curtain had fallen over the recent past. Greece has fallen back into the well of experience. Something happened to me there, but what it was I can’t formulate now. I am not on the high seas—I am in America already. America began at Piraeus, the moment I set foot on the boat. Greece is fading out rapidly, dying right before my eyes.
January 9, 2015
Weekend Recommended Reading
-No snark, I am sad. I have not read anything good about Charlie Hebdo, except possibly this sidestepping Freddie deBoer post, about sidestepping. Everyone is pre-emptive to the point of parody, or not particularly artfully avoiding live moral questions, "the ones that might lead us to a different place than the celebration of our own liberal righteousness." Max Read's explainer is informational, if not as historical as a Charlie Hebdo explainer should be. Here's an abrupt tonal shift.
-Marion Cotillard is astounding as a beautiful lower middle class French depressive with her lower middle class bra straps showing in Two Days, One Night; at one point she does not fall or wilt but spontaneously collapses to the floor, and you must watch her do it.
-I'm reading Zeno's Conscience/Confessions of Zeno, and it is great.
-Danielle Sherrod's interview with Galia Ackerman, the journalist who worked with FEMEN to write the book FEMEN, in the new issue of Bookslut is a frank and almost disturbingly unbiased-seeming conversation about the effects of the media on the group's activities:
The media everywhere look always for something new. So the girls were in a way obliged to go always further, to be more and more spectacular in order to continue to be newsmakers. A part of their radicalism can be explained this way. But they do not try to make themselves sexy. When a half-naked woman is entirely covered with graffiti, is there really a sex appeal?
-Cool-named Naomi Skwarna has an essay on Lorrie Moore as a literary mother figure in Hazlitt, and it's pretty fucking on point at times:
More than any other writer, Lorrie Moore conjures the maternal to me. Earth Mother, Joni Mitchell-loving, dancing-on-the-beach-at-sunset-with-hair-in-your-eyes, half-price-Luna-Bar-don’t-mind-if-I-do mother. A mother only becomes a mother when she has you—and in some ways, to read Lorrie Moore is to be reborn, if only as a person who has now read a Lorrie Moore story. They are stories that inform observations, joke algorithms, and personal syntax as much as any parent can.
January 8, 2015
And was this, we say, later, when it's over, really us? But it's impossible! How could that fool, that impossible actor, ever have been us? How could we have been that posturing clown? Who put that false laughter into our mouths? Who drew those insincere tears from our eyes? Who taught us all that artifice of suffering? We have been hiding all the time; the events, that once were so real, happened to other people, who resemble us, imitators using our name, registering in hotels we stayed at, declaiming verses we kept in private scrapbooks; but not us, surely not us, we wince thinking that it could ever have possibly been us.
And I suppose that she, too, in some obscure and difficult way, experienced, in spite of everything, the feeling over her own unreality. She, too, knew the words that came easily or fumblingly were never the true words; everything may have been for her, too, somehow suspect. And yet, by all the orthodoxy of kisses and desire, we were apparently in love; by all the signs, the jealousy, the possessiveness, the quick flush of passion, the need for each other, we were apparently in love. We looked as much like lovers as lovers can look; and if I insist now that somehow, somewhere, a lie of a kind existed, a pretense of a kind, that somewhere within us our most violent protestations echoed a bit ironically, and that, full fathoms five, another motive lay for all we did and all we said, it may be only that like a woman after child birth we can never restore for ourselves the reality of pain, it is impossible to believe that it was we who screamed so in the ward or clawed so at the bedsheets or such sweats were ever on our foreheads, and that too much feeling, finally, makes us experience a sensation of unreality as acute as never having felt at all.
--Alfred Hayes, In Love; ditch your failing relationship and spend date night reading this little masterpiece
January 7, 2015
There's a cool event tonight at McNally Jackson for those of you who have fallen to the tyranny of New York: Laura Kipnis talking to Adelle Waldman about men. I would go—know thy enemy, amirite?—but I have plans to gallivant elsewhere.
I read Men (Kipnis's newest essay collection, organized loosely by type) fairly recently and Nathaniel P. last spring, and while I find everyone who classified the latter as "too real" because "it really spoke to their experience" insufferably boring, I acknowledge that's part of the point, that it's a book about how insufferable the people who would like it are. They're going to make a great pairing, and probably some jokes.
January 6, 2015
This month's New Yorker fiction podcast is not grindingly nasal or strangely breathy but rather pleasantly British. Good job not being annoying, Joseph O'Neill! Double good job on picking a Muriel Spark story, because not only is she great in being deeply unsettling in her subtle evocations of resentment, bitterness, and other types of negativity, but she is also in the January issue of Bookslut! Though I'm a little confused about JP Poole's review of Spark's essay collection on the Brontës there, because Poole seems to take some kind of issue with Muriel Spark's best negative qualities. Surely nonfiction is where we get to evoke negativity less subtly?
[Spark] is not interested in perpetuating the mythology or romance of the Brontës, her goal is to capture the core of their characters, warts and all. Unfortunately, her tactics don't make for a pleasurable reading experience. She plays the role of detective more so than critic, and, based on her essays, seems remarkably assured that her conclusions regarding the Brontës solve the case. Charlotte is overly dramatic and a "bitter" complainer. Anne is kind but talentless and "morosely religious." And Emily is a sort of sexless celibate, "chilled with melancholy." As Boyd Tonkin writes in his introduction, "Spark may love the Brontës and their work, but that does not mean she likes them very much."
Sounds like a very pleasurable reading experience to me. For more on Spark and her "extensive shit list," read this LRB review of another one of her essay collections, The Golden Fleece.
January 5, 2015
Image: Aoife Duffin in Annie Ryan's adaptation of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing for the 2014 Dublin Theatre Festival.
It's a book included on a lot of Best Of 2014 lists (those that do not include it are obviously irrelevant): A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. Charlotte Freeman reviews Girl for Bookslut: "an odd and dark book, a headlong rush through a painful and damp and unredeemed short life, a life narrated with such energy and fervor that the very structure of the sentence, of grammar and paragraph must be shoved out of the way in order for this voice to emerge."
I'll make use of the "not a native speaker" defense for the rather embarrassing, puzzling readerly state I found myself in when the first lines of Girl raised the question: how am I supposed to read this? And suddenly it was clear: the answer was in Billie Whitelaw's interpretation of Beckett's Not I. Or a more straightforward answer: just listen to McBride herself reading from Girl.
Whenever I come across a book like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing—a rare thing indeed—my first concern is that no publisher is going to touch it. Or worse: that the smart translators will stay away from it while the one brave enough to tackle such a difficult translation will butcher the entire book. It's no wonder reviewers and interviewers have fixated so much on the story of getting Girl published. It's one those great books that veered too close to remaining in a drawer while others that should have stayed there got published all too easily. The White Review interview focuses on the novel's incubation. On form:
THE WHITE REVIEW Your spare, highly focused approach puts me in mind of Robert Bresson in particular, an austere Catholic filmmaker.
I wouldn't say I particularly align myself with Bresson's aesthetic and I don't think it could be argued that my work is comparably austere, but the underlying aim of stripping away layers of artifice is one I identify with, not accepting the accepted impurities of form. That may be about the unshieldable nature of the Catholic conscience but I doubt it. Irish Catholicism is all about accepting impurities of form.
THE WHITE REVIEW
Impurities of form? Is purity always something to aim for? And to what extent does purity mean 'less' rather than 'more'?
I suppose the impurity in this instance refers to traditionally accepted drawbacks in any given form. For Bresson, one of those was the theatrical style of acting expected in films at the time. He dealt with it by stripping the actor out, almost completely, and the effect is powerful. So, yes, I do think purity is something to aim for and I can't think of an instance when it means more rather than less.
-Eimear McBride interviewed by David Collard, Interview with Eimear McBride | the White Review
This conversation at the 2014 Sydney Writers' Festival covers pretty much the same ground as the White Review interview, but it's worth listening just for the book excerpts that McBride reads.
Speaking of paying tribute, a reminder that McBride has contributed to Spolia's Henry James tribute:
First you are, she thinks. First. And then. Maybe fall down through. Dress slide mirror lens until sweet-mouthed go out into the world. Sweet and offer foam.
Nature pin shifts rain through the air. Lead street of lead city, she makes in there-rapped down hair mapping worlds on her skin. Coffee? Please. Milk? Please again. Quick working versions of her lateness for him. Thanks and. Hot! Hand hot ascend.
Hot in his hand so. Hello. Nice to meet have a seat. Am I late? Not, no. Plump in his proffered -sinus chubby with cigs- low flat seat ahead.
Do you mind if I? No, not a bit. Click and turn. Dictaphone. Can I say at the outset that I think what you've done is not like anything else. Thanks. But grilled flesh, she thinks she can smell it and it soon might be her own.
-Eimear McBride, "After 'The Private Life'" | Spolia
[Ed. note: I also loved it.]
January 2, 2015
Weekend Recommended Reading
I am hungover, so really the only thing I can think to tell you to read ("read," she says) is this old Tumblr, which I discovered because a stroke of pure genius spurred me to Google "writers and cats photos." I don't really like cats, by which I mean: they're OK, sometimes indeed delightful, but still just fucking cats, and you shouldn't let taking countless pictures of them distract you from ACTUAL INTELLECTUAL AND/OR POLITICAL CONCERNS. Nevertheless, there is pleasure in seeing ACTUAL INTELLECTUALS with their feline friends, probably because of the earned contrast. And the captions, especially the earlier ones, are the line-straddling kind of bizarre that makes you wonder whether they are genius or stupid. Repetition of "kitty" very funny.