Recommended Reading: Svetlana Alexievich, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Curzio Malaparte, Enrique Vila-Matas

hitchcock

Recommended Reading is a collection of some books I’ve read recently that I’m recommending to you. It’s just stuff I’ve liked, nothing to do with release dates, theme, etc, etc, just great books. Read more here.

second-hand

Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (tr Bela Shayevich)

This book is one of the most humanizing, acute things I’ve ever read about the Soviets and what Russia has become in the post-USSR era, but more than that it is first and foremost awe-inspiring literature. As I said in my review:

What is most important about Alexievich is that even though she treads deeply into the Russian psyche, her books have immense humanistic power. Like her other books, “Secondhand Time” is told through oral monologues, and its stories transcend national boundaries: the mother remembering the teenage son who committed suicide, the woman who leaves her husband for a murderer serving a life sentence in a remote prison, the delicate son with the macho father who forces him through a hellish military enlistment, the immigrant who has fled civil war only to find a life of depredation and degradation.

Alexievich grapples with some of the biggest questions in life, politics, and nation (she foregrounds the work with some questions from Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor), and her book is remarkably touching and full of wisdom-lines from people who have lived through the very most life can throw at a person. An incredible read.

hitchcock

Hitchcock/Truffaut

There is basically one book on film that there’s 100% approval of, and this is that book. It is a week-long series of interview that Francois Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock, covering his entire career output. Hilarious, creep, incisive, eye-opening, absurd, frightening . . . it is all of these things, an homage to the art of film by two of its greatest practitioners.

the-skin

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte (tr David Moore)

Curzio Malaparte was a fascist in support of Mussolini, the only Italian journalist to report for the Eastern Front in the Ukraine (and who did so with such honesty that he got himself in trouble), a communist after the war, and a man with a beautiful house on Capri that he designed himself and that Goddard used in his film of Moravia’s Contempt. He also named himself “Malaparte” in opposition to Napoleon’s “Bonaparte.”

An eccentric gentleman, you might say, and The Skin is a book about Naples during the war that is every bit as repulsive, honest, visceral, cynical, hopeful and original as you might expect from such a man. As I remarked previously, I can’t say I “liked” The Skin, but it was a remarkable and necessary reading experience.

never-asked

Because She Never Asked by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Valerie Miles)

When I interviewed Valerie Miles about this novella, she told me that it was Vila-Matas’s favorite piece of his own writing because it contained elements of his entire career, crunched and refracted in on themselves. It was also a thing Vila-Matas wrote about a near-death illness, so it came out of very intense circumstances that provoked deep reflection.

I can see all of these elements in this book, which is a “collaboration” of sorts with the Sophie Calle, who also “collaborated” in a similar way with Paul Auster. It’s Vila-Matas at his most coy, his most seductive and feinting and impenetrable.

Pillars #7: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson

david-markson

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

One measure of a book’s influence—perhaps the best measure—is the degree to which that book determines the shape of your thoughts and your sentences. And by this measure, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is undoubtedly a huge personal influence. When I fist read it in 2005, its form was unlike the form of any book I had ever previously read. Though perhaps now there are other books I’ve read that somewhat resemble it, Wittgenstein’s Mistress still stands out to me as an original.

So what exactly is Wittgenstein’s Mistress? It mostly consists of single-sentence paragraphs of just a dozen or two dozen words. (It kind of looks like a big old archive of text messages.) As we read the book, it becomes clear these sentences are being typed down by a person who believes herself to be the last human being alive on Earth. Basically, this book just follows the flow of her thoughts as she recounts what she does as the last person on Earth, as well as any number of random musings she see fit to delve through. I picture the narrator of this book, whoever she is, as striking down a few thoughts on a typewriter, going about her day, striking a few more, falling asleep and waking and striking down a few more, just collecting lines after lines. This is just what this book is.

And the thing about this book, what began to occur to me as I read it, was that, yes, indeed, this is how people think. It captures the feeling of thought very, very well (at least our thoughts that come to us in the form of language). The particular length of each thought, the way that they form little clusters as several thoughts cumulate upon one another, and the way that they digress and wander, eventually interrupted by the eruption of a sudden memory or idea.

So here’s something I’ve wrestles with in the aftermath of reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a kind of chicken and the egg” question: perhaps Markson got the drift and punch of thought just right, so that I often think in the manner in which this book thinks because this is just how we think. Or, perhaps I think in the manner in which this book thinks because Markson played some major role in teaching me how to think. I’m not quite sure. Regardless, to this day, a decade after I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I will find an apposite sentence forming in my head, and I will know, this is a Markson sentence. Or, even more often, I will compose a tweet on Twitter, or send off a triad of text messages, or leave a Facebook comment, and I will know, these were written in the mold of Markson.

This is already a huge influence.

The other thing that stayed with me from this book is how, regardless of what exactly the “plot” of this book is, or who it’s narrated by and what her life circumstances are, this book’s true subject is the human mind—that is, consciousness, experience, structural linguistics. At that point in my writing life I couldn’t put it to you the way I’m putting it now. I didn’t know there were authors who focused on things like experience and consciousness, who wanted to understand how language contained our possibilities as sentient beings, and I certainly didn’t understand the philosophical and historical antecedents to these authors. (Nor am I sure I do now, although my grasp of such things is certain much firmer these days.) I had so many authors to discover in this school of writing. Back then, I only knew the sorts of books that would absorb my attention and fire up certain parts of my readerly brain. And this was one of them!

Now, with the benefits of hindsight, I can see how many books I’ve adored in the past decade take as their primary concern human experience, which is to say the workings of the human mind. I can see that this is indeed the central element in my life as a reader and a writer. In other words, to put a slightly fine point on it, phenomenology. I can also see how, over that same span, I’ve more and more come over to the belief that the world as our mind understands it is bounded by language. That is, structural linguistics.

And I would say these two things—phenomenology and structural linguistics—are pretty much what Wittgenstein’s Mistress is about. You’ve got the pure experience of a human mind—processed into these little orations the narrator types into her typewriter—and you’ve got this subtext where Markson is doing everything he can to get you to look at the way this book is mediated by language (more on that in a moment). Essentially, it was as though someone had written an experimental novel that was exactly designed to push all the buttons I was developing as a reader.

As to the linguistics: Markson gets half of his title from the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which is a huge tip-off that this is going to be a book about language. When I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I knew a little bit about Wittgenstein. I understood that he had proposed a new approach to philosophy that many would say was one of the first genuinely new things in the two millennia following Plato’s writings based on Socrates’ dialogues. I understood that this approach was based on the idea that philosophical problems were basically problems of language, and his early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, somehow fixed that. And I knew that he had famously begun the work in which he explains this thesis with the declaration “the world is everything that is the case,” and that it is composed of many, many such short, enigmatic declarations.

So I could see that Markson’s book was obviously patterned on Wittgnstein’s form and ideas to a degree. What must have appealed to me so much about this was the way in which Markson continually reminds a reader of the fraught relationship between the words on his page and whatever objective reality is supposed to exist in conjunction with those words. (To that one might also add the fraught relationships between the words in one’s head to the objective world beyond the skull.) He’ll do this by troubling over things like the spelling of “Cassandra” (or is it “Kassandra”?), or asking if Anna Karenina would still be called Anna Karenina if no more copies of it existed. Or, in one of my favorite examples, by having the narrator state that one of her favorite ways of ignoring the rain is by walking through it. By continually posing questions like this, he keeps putting a reader in mind of the many ways that language constantly fails us when we try to put certain ideas into words. (Another nice thing about Markson is the pithy tone he gives his narrator when she keeps making all of these asides; Wittgenstein’s Mistress would be a very different book if she didn’t have such a succinct, compelling way of putting things.) I knew that these sorts of linguistic games were playing at things that went very deep into the conundrum of what goes on between the mind, the page, and the world, the way the all keep pushing one another along to create the possibilities that we experience as conscious life. I knew that this was striking upon something very exciting to me.

markson-rejections

There is one more strange way that this book has always stuck in my mind. At the time I read it, I was just beginning to make my way as a writer, and I was finding that being an infant writer was a very demoralizing thing. At some point in my reading of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I came upon the now very familiar story about how Markson was forced to submit this title to something like 80 publishers before at last he found one to take it on—and, then, that publisher was the Dalkey Archive Press, which at the time had only been around for four and was obscure, tiny, and fond of books that would quickly be dismissed elsewhere as not being fit for the market because they were too “cerebral.” So in others words, at once a press that was probably Markson’s ideal publisher, and also a press that was barely one step up from self-publication. And, indeed, this book might have languished and have been completely forgotten had not David Foster Wallace championed in the heady days after Infinite Jest, when he himself had become a sensation.

The truths that hid behind the conception of this book and its existence as a material object were lessons that any writer must absorb—hopefully early on—and finding out about them at this point in my life as a serious writer was a thing of priceless value.

Something Like the Argentine Stoner

Zama_1024x1024

Antonio di Benedetto’s first novel, Zama, first came to my attention in 2009, when I asked Sergio Chejfec to recommend a title for Translate This Book! Chejfec’s recommendation ended with these unequivocal words:

I think that Zama should be translated into English simply because so many English-speaking readers and authors haven’t read one of the best novels of the 20th century. Good books are unique and need no justification.

For years, it seemed, Esther Allen was working on the English-language translation of Zama. It will at last be released next month.

Ever since I first heard of this book in 2009, it has been in the back of my mind as an important thing to read. I received an advance copy from the publisher last week. I do my best to retain my fidelity and monogamy as a reader, so when I got my copy of Zama, my first instinct was to do what I would do with any promising title: put it in the proper stack and make it wait its turn. But then I tweeted a photo of the book.

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 2.30.10 PM

And before I knew it I was besieged with enthusiastic responses by some of the best Latin American writers:

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 2.31.46 PM

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 2.32.10 PM

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 2.33.05 PM

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 2.32.38 PM

So, I couldn’t help myself. Fidelity be damned. I just went ahead and read it.

At some point near the end, it seemed to me that Zama might be described as something like an Argentine Stoner. I know, comparisons like this are tough, but stay with me. The book was written in the 1950s by di Benedetto, and it looks back to the late 18th century, when Buenos Aires was a colonial seat of power, and the land that would become Paraguay was a distant province. Zama is a bureaucrat there, always hoping that he will soon be promoted, be given his back pay (he is kept penurious by the distant king that only deigns to pay his bureaucrats infrequently), and be allowed to move back into proximity of his beloved wife and mother. With some comedy and much tragedy, di Benedetto shows how all of Zama’s hopes come to naught. His life is very much like that of a fish that he describes on the book’s second page:

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 2.38.36 PM

Along the way, Zama has strange encounters with the powers that be and the women of the colonies. Everything occurs through a screen of 18th-century manners and propriety. At length, he meets his end as tragically and ineffectually as he has lived his wife.

I think the elements, from the tragic life of a bureaucrat hoping to survive to the historical era and the feel of the book, makes Stoner at least a decent point of reference. Of course, this book was written by an Argentine, not an American, and it takes place in colonial Paraguay, not the Midwest, so there are some considerable differences.

And of course, there is the fact that Zama is a powerful novel. It stands entirely on its own. As Chejfec says, it is unique. It doesn’t need to be compared to anything.

Beyond that, what I might also tell you is that the book is quite strange and elusive. It is a “realist” novel that mostly concerns itself with the day-to-day life of its protagonist, but di Benedetto hides profound existential concerns in the texture of his prose, and at times it swings into very bizarre territory. The writing here is amazingly well controlled and measured; so much can turn on a phrase or a sentence of this book. This is writing that is 100% muscle, or, at least, 0% fat, 100% economy and purpose. Much praise is due to Esther Allen for making this book feel so sharp and elusive, for giving di Benedetto’s sentences such a penetrating power, and also for implementing archaic words and terms of the era with consummate skill—it is a translation that feels new and old all at once, and in the appropriate ways. She even manages to make an important pun toward the end accessible to a reader with no Spanish-language knowledge without belaboring the matter.

This is a book that I could see myself reading many times, and always profiting from, seeing it each time as if was reading a whole other book. If my words don’t sway you, look at all the words above of the authors who swayed me. Read it. Zama has been worth waiting 7 years for.

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

the-skin

As a friend of mine put it recently, I can’t exactly say I “enjoyed” The Skin by Curzio Malaparte, even though I recognize the genius. Although I would say the following words in conjunction with it: disturbed, fascinated, moved, revolted, admired. I laughed at times. It was never dull.

I hope to write a little more about this strange book and strange author in this space. For the moment, I would say that this is an interesting view of Naples to read in conjunction with Ferrante (and I believe both authors observe, across a gap of 60 years, that Naples is the future of Europe). And just a plain interesting view of Naples, Italy, the Second World War, and America.

The Surrender at Full-Stop

surrender-back

A very, very on-point review of The Surrender at Full-Stop by John Trefry. So much has Trefry said about this book that accords with my own ideas about it, and that also enlarges upon them in ways that feel new to me, that I don’t quite know how to summarize my response, other than to just encourage you to read it.

In particular, I think the readings via Alta Ifland’s poetry and Marcel Bénabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books are inspired, and I would say that this very well accords with what I have tried to do in the book.

The matter of The Surrender is necessarily biographical, but even inasmuch as this is narrative-based, Esposito does not quite submit to that as a form. The text exists far more in the digressive temporality of Tristram Shandy or Austerlitz than a mainstream biographical memoir. Every book functions as the distillate of nonverbal cognitive fields into text. But the productivity of some books is predicated on that function. A book like The Surrender that is so much about the proper fit of a word scrim over an entire life of cognitive fields cannot avoid being an unrecognizable oversimplification when measured against the digressive and ephemeral intrusion of fleeting thoughts and stimuli that every instant consider who you are, what articulates your identity, what precipitates the thought itself. While such thoughts accrete, they form the identity, and are so voluminous, so recursive, and of such a fine grain as to be undetectable, but always accreting. All the same, if the only possible manifestation is something more like the twilit scrawl of an absent skater on a frozen pond, The Surrender is very effective.

You can get The Surrender from me at this link, or from Small Press Distribution right here.

The Doctrine of Deteriorating Translations

An interesting discovery (among many) in Derrida’s Breakfast by David Brooks.

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 6.38.36 PM

Experience, Creativity, and Craft: Some Thoughts on Mark McGurl’s Program Era

wpmac

I’ve recently finished Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, which I’m sure some of you will recall as having made a splash a few years ago. The book has such a commonsensical (bordering on obvious) thesis that it’s one of those things you’re amazed no one has ever tried to write before: quite simply, McGurl tries to figure out the impact writing programs have had on postwar American literature, taking it as the single most important influence on writing in that time.

The book starts out with a 70-page introduction which, if you don’t have the stomach for all 400 pages, you should take a couple of hours to read. It lays out McGurl’s main idea of the MFA influence, which is that writing programs key contribution has been an interrelated triad of values: experience (write what you know), creativity (find your voice), and craft (show, don’t tell). In these McGurl finds the larger values of higher education since the reforms of the Progressive Era: individualism, pluralism, creativity, and discipline. In detailing how these values are indicative of the larger university setting McGurl provides a fairly good sketch of the major trends in the development of the American university in the 20th century, which makes for interesting reading in and of itself. Ad his schematic of the larger trends in creative writing over the past 70 years or so is very strong. It’s a great overview that puts many things into perspective.

It’s a rather compelling thesis and I have a hard time disagreeing. What is more debatable is McGurl’s rather bold declaration that creative writing programs have produced “as rich and multifaceted a body of literary writing as has ever been.” Certainly something in me is pleased to see someone so resolutely stand up for creative writing programs, but this is also a claim that McGurl doesn’t do much to flesh out beyond this statement (perhaps a second study is forthcoming). Yes, there are readings of many of the standout authors of the MFA system, but there’s no so much of a defense of the tons and tons of less recognized authors that have also come from that system. It is here that McGurl would have to be persuasive if he would really want to defend that argument.

Instead, what McGurl proceeds to do is to flesh out the experience/creativity/craft triad over the course of the next 330 pages. There is a lot here that is genuinely interesting, and this is a book that found me making lots of marginal notes and underlines, as well as one that had me noting down books that I’d like to look up in the future. McGurl has some rather strong takes on some mainstays of American lit: Thomas Wolfe (whom he twice says is today best known for being mistaken for Tom Wolfe (McGurl does like to repeat himself in this book)) is a complete nothing and has entirely faded from view; Hemingway is probably the strongest influence on American literature today; Faulkner should be the equal of Hemingway in terms of influence but is too syntactically taxing. I found McGurl’s opposition of Raymond Carver to Joyce Carol Oates inspired, as well of the dichotomy of pride/shame in program writing that he reads through their work. (As an aside, when was the last time you heard a critic compellingly discuss “shame” in any deep way, much less as a determinant of literary construction?)

While there is much that is quite interesting about this book, one of my problems with it is that we have to sit though readings of a number of writers who are largely unknown, and whom McGurl makes sound uninteresting. For instance, how many now regard Margaret Walker’s slave novel Jubilee as worthy of attention, or know of Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand? I’m persuaded that the latter may be a discovery (Larsen has attracted quite a lot of attention from gender and ethnic studies academics), but outside of the academy (and probably even inside of it) these names certainly require an introduction of sorts, which McGurl never provides. He never even makes the case why Wofle is worthy of such a thorough reading and bracing take-down (Frederic Jameson, in his review of The Program Era, helpfully reminds us that Faulkner regarded Wofle as his key influence; McGurl might have told us that). So one is often left feeling contextless in the pages of this book, wanting to know why an author is important enough to garner such attention, and precisely how that author fits into the larger schematic.

Another issue I had with The Program Era is the quality of its prose. I can appreciate that a book written largely by and for academics is going to have some clunkers, but surely there is no excuse for “rhetorical rape of the slave by the master,” “triumphantly phallic singularity,” or comparing Nat Turner’s position as a privileged slave to the lot of “a writer-in-residence.” Aside from borderline offensive usages like those, there’ just a lot of severely academic language that comes off as very imprecise—I’m still not really sure what “autobardolatry” means or why McGurl needs to use it (a quick Google search seems to indicate that he’s the only one), much less the many other auto- terms that proliferate in these pages.

But to return to the good, the book does have quite interesting (and original to my ears) readings of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Donald Barthelme, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Vladimir Nabokov, and Flannery O’Connor. (It would seem, at least in my reading, that McGurl is strongest on what he terms the “technomodernists” and does not to so well on the writers he groups under ethnic pluralism.) The book is also a rather strong thesis of how literary influence has functioned in the postwar era, who have been the key writers and institutions and what has been their unique contribution to shaping the landscape. I learned a great deal about the literary history of my own country by reading this book. All this has undoubtedly required a great amount of thought and research, and for it McGurl is to be commended.

I would just conclude by saying that one thing I wish McGurl had done better was to say what was genuinely new or contemporary about his overarching triad, experience (write what you know), creativity (find your voice), and craft (show, don’t tell). I do agree that these are probably the core values of literary writing in the program era, and McGurl does do some deep exploration of how they manifest in this era, but he doesn’t say what makes them distinct from the literary values of prior eras. Certainly all three must have been present to some extent throughout the history of writing in the modern era, so one wants to know why and how other eras or geographic locations might have treated them differently (or championed other values). I realize that a full exploration of this would be beyond the possibilities of this book, but without even giving a little response to these questions McGurl leaves a reader saying, for instance “but hasn’t craft always been a part of good writing? Could there be an example of great writing that did not involve, say, great craft, or personal experience?” Without an adequate response, this book feel less a book about “program” writing than simply writing.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 44

Features


The Struggle Against Language

The Struggle Against Language

I was tiring of My Struggle. I was not sure if I would even read Book 5, and it did not help matters any that in my interview with Knausgaard he had told me that he wrote Book 5 in a matter of weeks and could not stand to read it any longer. Was it possible that it was even worse than Book 4? Such was my mood that by the time a galley of Book 5 appeared on my front porch early in 2016, I dutifully tweeted a photo, more out of a sense of nostalgia than from anticipation. I let the book sit for a month, and it might have sat much longer were it not for the intervention of a good friend. Regardless, pick it up I did, and as I began to read it something was happening.


Uncaging the Panther: On Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks

Uncaging the Panther: On Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks

Not Kleist but Rilke. Not Cortázar’s proud tiger roaming the country estate where ennui, apathy, and terror reign in equal measure, but Rilke’s caged and beleaguered panther. Different guides, different totems, yet in Napoleon’s Roads, his fourth and latest story collection, David Brooks continuously mediates between these two extremes to tell stories that are always on the point of dissolving in their own generative streams, leaving behind merely what Brooks calls “a force-field amongst their elements.” What else, after all, can language aspire to?


The Comedy of Mishap and Misfortune: Bruce Jay Friedman

The Comedy of Mishap and Misfortune: Bruce Jay Friedman

Friedman’s work is most often considered as a contribution to the emergence of “black humor” in American fiction, but his first novel, Stern (1962), could at the time have easily enough been regarded as absurdist, an existential comedy about the angst of Jewish assimilation. The novel’s title character finds himself in alien territory—the American suburbs—confused and beset by a series of humiliations he struggles to understand. The story of his misadventures is funny, but in the way the plays of Beckett and Ionesco are funny, in a detached and deadpan manner that can also be disconcerting.



Film

Hard to Be a God Roundtable

Hard to Be a God Roundtable


Part of what is so interesting about this film in terms of all that is happening is how we might also distinguish between narrative and narrativization; there isn’t the same sense of closure while providing a particular presentation of reality here. There are gaps in understanding, and then there are gaps that are filled so utterly it’s hard to navigate out of the mud. I thought of Tarkovsky, yes, there is very much a poetry to the camerawork and the gaze, but also Herzog, the almost slapstick interactions between characters that often don’t have real impact on the “story,” yet the film here is about the piling on of these aggressions, gestures, failures, footsteps, coughs, rain, etc.



Reviews

Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai

Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai


Though László Krasznahorkai’s early fictions were set in his native Hungary, over the past two decades he has turned to settings that cover the globe across much of historical time. He is suited to this wide range by his erudition, by the air of conviction in his long, oscillating sentences; above all because he is a writer temperamentally nowhere at home. His protagonists are wanderers, sometimes easily distinguished from their author, sometimes less so. Whether in Renaissance Florence, Muromachi Japan, New York or Berlin, they meet their surroundings with the foreigner’s mixture of curiosity and fear, and can count no homeland but the symbolic one of art. Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens is the most recent Krasznahorkai volume to appear in English; though it carries the subtitle “Reportage,” it differs from the fiction only in that its confusion and longing are not joined to outright peril.


Sophia by Michael Bible

Sophia by Michael Bible


If the spectrum of contemporary American literature spans from swampy historical fiction, where the atrocities of the first half of the 20th century are yet again exploited for dramatic benefit, to the hyper-educated faux-memoir of urban professionals, where anxiety is the primary antagonist, Bible’s book is something else entirely. It’s a mixture of Raising Arizona, Waiting for Godot, and bong doxology. In other words: a whole bunch of fun.


The Child Poet by Homero Aridjis

The Child Poet by Homero Aridjis


Because our lives move in straight lines but our perceptions do not, we are forever trying to squeeze the latter’s unruliness into the former’s rigor. This, perhaps, explains why memoirs so often have the clean story arcs, senses of closure, and thematic consistencies that our lives never, ever have. Memoirs are lies; autobiographies are lies with footnotes. Somewhere in those footnotes, though, in those interstices clarifying and digressing from the main tales, lies glimmer of the real. In The Child Poet, Homero Aridjis gives us such gleaming footnotes and green shoots of offhand mystery that we’re reminded that it’s not necessarily bad to be told lies, so long as the teller realizes that he is indeed lying.


The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin

The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin


There are habits of the mind that are nurtured by Walter Benjamin’s collection of notes, dreams, short stories, characters, and diary entries in The Storyteller. Like the art of medicine, storytelling is a practice that is both technical in terms of skill and relational in its potential to reach people across any distance; Benjamin even used surgery as a metaphor to distinguish between these two aspects of art in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” suggesting that the healing touch hidden within a surgeon’s attempt to detach from his patient could be left uncommunicated and lost like the mass proliferation of human images due to industrial advancement. Without collapsing the comparisons of medicine and writing, the larger theme at work in his prose is that the healing power of art is derived from rituals rather than material reality alone.


Zero K by Don DeLillo

Zero K by Don DeLillo


A blue mannequin staring you full in the face from out behind the title and author printed in the same cyan font. Don DeLillo. Zero K. This image itself seems to say that Don DeLillo’s new novel, his sixteenth, will most likely be his last. It will deal with isolation, with absolutes and nullities, and with what Catholics would call “Last Things”: heaven, hell, death, judgment. Also known as Absolute Zero, Zero K or 0° Kelvin (-273.15 °C) represents the asymptotic point where atoms reach perfect stasis. Where nothing moves. Where time stops.


The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt

The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt


The son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants, Roberto Arlt grew up in an impoverished barrio of Buenos Aires, living in close quarters with the kinds of sketchy characters that would later appear in his novels. His formal education ended when we was only eight years old, at which point he quit school and began working a series of odd jobs around the city. He was a true autodidact, reading voraciously throughout his youth, and he eventually found his own language for tackling profound themes—a crude and colloquial language peppered with inconsistencies and spelling mistakes. Compared to the polished prose of Borges, Arlt’s writing comes off as the work of an incessant inventor, a welder and dock worker from a rough neighborhood who assembled his vocabulary from novels, manuals on engineering, and street slang. Naturally, this made him an easy target for critics who dismissed him as a bad writer.


Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert

Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert


Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert arrived to minor acclaim four years before the publication of Debord’s treatise. Clébert’s vivid, incantatory descriptions of Paris’s streets and back alleys, its abandoned attics and houses of ill-repute, its losers, liars, poor, criminals, and outcasts, caught the attention of the budding Letterists, who incorporated the author’s aleatory aesthetic into their project. As Luc Sante reports in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, whole passages from Debord’s theory “[sound] like nothing so much as descriptions of Clébert’s book.” And while Debord and the writings of the Letterists and, later, Situationists have found a long life in the world of critical theory, English-language readers have had to wait until now to read Clébert’s magnificent ode to the underbelly of Paris, rendered beautifully from the French by translator Donald Nicholson-Smith.


Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure by Hideo Furukawa

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure by Hideo Furukawa


Horses places Western readers in a familiar literary landscape. It is the territory of W.G. Sebald, Ben Lerner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, where the overlap between fiction and memoir is increasingly unclear and perhaps even irrelevant. The narrator of Horses is, of course, Hideo Furukawa, doing much of what the novelist Hideo Furukawa did following 3.11. Unlike say, Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Furukawa spares us the extensive quotidian cataloging (Horses is a slim book), and he also works in a few meta-fictional tactics. If anything, Horses has a vague kinship with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in its blending of memoir and literary criticism, though Nelson’s book remains more unconventional in its narrative form while Horses has to retain a veneer of journalistic investigation because of the 3.11 tragedy.


The Lights of Pointe-Noire by Alain Mabanckou

The Lights of Pointe-Noire by Alain Mabanckou


The Lights of Pointe-Noire, the new memoir by the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, is bleak, muted, and sometimes evasive. Suffused with guilt and regret, it is an exceptionally sensitive and well-written account of an exile’s return to his homeland. Read it, by all means, but not when you need a pick-me-up. Mabanckou, born in the Republic of Congo in 1966, is the author of short, darkly comic novels that include Blue-White-Red, African Psycho, Broken Glass, and Memoirs of a Porcupine. Like many of Africa’s major contemporary writers, he has lived and worked elsewhere. The Lights of Pointe-Noire, describes his return to the city of his childhood after an absence of 23 years.


Newcomers by Lojze Kovačič

Newcomers by Lojze Kovačič


Childhood is idealized as a state of innocence that is sheltered from the sobering truths of experience. Moments of unhappiness exist in this refuge, but they are simple, passing concerns. We know that the reality is different: calamities of the adult world often disrupt the sanguine lives of children. In the first volume of Lojze Kovačič’s autobiographical trilogy Newcomers—translated by Michael Biggins—such threats emerge as a tribalist Europe consumed by hatred and fear. They break the spell of normalcy that had deceived its young narrator, and they expel him into an uncertain future.


Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag


For a book whose title means gibberish, or nonsense, Ghachar Ghochar packs a lot of substance. Delving deeply into the ambitions and emotions of the Indian middle-class, it joins a crowded field of books dealing with the harsh realities this demographic has to face each and every day, especially in India’s neon-inflicted mall culture and corporate-business-parks-brandishing metropolises. What makes this novel stand out is how it poses itself as a “novel of the family,” with the twist that it relates what happens after the family has attained the limits (and sometimes beyond) of its early ambitions.


The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond by Sándor Jászberenyi

The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond by Sándor Jászberenyi


The Devil Is a Black Dog is a relentlessly masculine book: a white, straight, Western, male book by a photojournalist whose name, when Googled, returns a photo of the author brandishing a semi-automatic weapon. Tobacco, alcohol, violence, and Sudanese prostitutes are recurring presences in this collection of close to twenty short stories unfurling from North Africa to the Middle East to Eastern Europe. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the bulk of the laudatory reviews that this book has garnered have been authored by white, presumably straight, Western males. All of which will, understandably, turn people away from the book and this review. Understandable, perhaps, but also a shame.


Improving on Shakespeare

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 8.57.22 PM

I’ll soon be headed to Ashland, OR, to see performances of Shakespeare, as I’ve been doing every spring for a number of years now. Ashland hosts one of the best Shakespeare Festivals in the country, and the performances there are always extremely well-acted and well produced. It’s become an annual pilgrimage, and with good reason: performances of Shakespeare and other playwrights that I’ve seen in Ashland rank among the most memorable theater I’ve ever experienced, and this from a person who tends to see a lot of theater every year. So I’m very sorry to see that the people at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have decided to “translate” Shakespeare into modern English.

Let me take a step back. This week I’ve pulled down my Norton Shakespeare and have been reading “The Winter’s Tale” in order to prepare for the performance of it. This is something I do every year so that I can enjoy the play more fully. It only requires minimal “effort” on my part—most of Shakespeare’s plays can be read in a few hours, at most—and it’s a very good investment of my time. Even a little acquaintance with the plotlines, major characters, and memorable moments/lines tends to make a performance of Shakespeare immensely more rewarding and enjoyable.

Moreover, I’m happy to have the excuse to pull down my Shakespeare: after all, how many of us will just read a play of Shakespeare’s for no particular reason? I’m sorry I don’t read my Shakespeare more often, because of course once I do start reading, I always wish I had done so long before. These plays are wonderful, and it’s always a pleasure to have a good reason to take some time and get back into them.

Because of all of this, I was very disappointed when I learned that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was planning to give Shakespeare a “facelift,” in the lovely phrasing of John McWhorter. As he puts it, the OSF’s plan is to prepare:

translations of all 39 of the Bard’s plays into modern English, with the idea of having them ready to perform in three years. Yes, translations—because Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of 2015 that it often interferes with our own comprehension.

This is undoubtedly true—as I’ve just got finished saying, I read through Shakespeare as a means of preparation for a performance. And I’m always glad to do it, as reacquainting myself with Shakespeare’s language is a wonderful experience, and it’s even better to see people act out those words on stage after I’ve read them and thought over how they might be performed.

But I think McWhorter’s—and the OSF’s—protestation’s of Shakespeare’s “difficulty” are vastly overstated. As you’ve probably guessed, I have many doubts about OSF’s idea to “modernize” Shakespeare. McWhorter’s case for altering Shakespeare is fairly simplistic: it comes down to “Shakespeare is hard, so we should make him easier for theatergoers.”

Regarding Shakespeare’s frequently archaic language, where words have changed meaning in modern usage (or have just been eliminated altogether) McWhorter writes,

We can piece these meanings together, of course, by reading the play and consulting stacks of footnotes. But Shakespeare didn’t intend for us to do that. He wrote plays for performance. We’re supposed to be able to hear and understand what’s spoken on the stage, in real time.

Well first off, I doubt even in Shakespeare’s era theater-goers picked up on every last nuance. This is some of the most intricate, poetic language ever written in the English language. Good luck picking up all of that during a performance! And of course the point of seeing Shakespeare isn’t to “get everything.” It’s to see an enjoyable night of theater, which I’ve never had a problem doing at OSF because the acting and staging is so good that even when I get lost in a torrent of dialogue I still have an accurate sense of what is happening on stage. There are many ways to get across meaning—intonation, gestures, facial expressions, body language, movement, lighting, sound, props, set design. Shakespeare’s words are just one, and if we at times lose our connection to them, we can still get the play.

After spending a lot of time making hay over all the words of Shakespeare’s that we’ve lost the meaning of, McWhorter moves on to phase two of his argument:

It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

No, of course we are not satisfied with a Shakespeare that is strictly for the elite; although, let’s be honest: the cheapest available seats at the OSF go for about $60. These plays are an elite experience. If this was really about making Shakespeare available to those who are not a part of the elite there would be a way to get people into the theater who didn’t have an upper-middle-class income.

But forget that. As I’ve just got through explaining, Shakespeare’s language is not for the “elite.” I first read Shakespeare in 9th grade, when I was 14. Surely an adult can handle this language.

Furthermore, you can get a grasp of everything you need beforehand by just taking a couple hours of your time and reading the text. It’s not hard—it’s actually a very fun, rewarding experience—and it seems like a reasonable investment to ask for people who really want to have a cultural experience and aren’t just going so that they can get dressed up in their fancy clothes and put on airs. After all, do we retouch the paintings in the Louvre so that they’re most palatable to our tastes? Do we reconstruct the Acropolis so that it conforms to our standards of architecture? Of course not, so why would be deprive Shakespeare of his strangeness and his archaism? Why should we not spend a little time connecting with Shakespeare and attempting to understand him, instead of having someone else decide what we could not understand about him and how it should sound for our ears?

Longtime readers of this blog will not be surprised to see that I’m rarely swayed by arguments for simplifying culture for reasons of convenience and accessibility. Most often, valuable culture is supposed to make you think, or to take you outside your own frame of reference. These are things that take time and some effort; were they easy, we would not need the likes of Shakespeare to make them happen to us. I’m not compelled by arguments like McWhorter’s because they seem part of the simplifying, speedifying zeitgeist of our times. In many walks of life it’s fine to make things as seamless and convenient as possible, but I would like to preserve some aspects of our lives untouched by those currents. If you do not protect Shakespeare from the lust for ease-of-use, what do you protect?

Aside about the debate over convenience and accessibility, there’s a deeper point here, about how we treat the foundational documents of our culture. Look, for instance, at the Constitution of the United States, which has been edited only two dozen or so times in 250 years. Every word in that document is held as sacred, as it should be, even if we do not agree with every word in it. It is only edited after lengthy thought and laborious procedures. This is how it should be: it is the foundation of our history and of us, and it is no small thing to alter it.

Many have made similar arguments for Shakespeare, which is often seen as the origin of the modern conscious, particularly the Anglo-American variant. I don’t want to get into the debate over the extent to which the Bard made us, but the fact is that these plays are held as central origins of our culture. These are things one should not change lightly, and arguments like McWhorter’s seem like the worst reasons imaginable for doing so.

I’m happy to see Shakespeare this year in Oregon, and I will continue to go, as the OSF has assured me they will continue to perform unadulterated Shakespeare, even as they move forward with presenting their translations. But it will feel different once they begin presenting these plays. Something sacred will have been tampered with, some genie will have been let loose. I hope they eventually decide to reverse their decision.

Book Notes for The Surrender

This is for that cross-section of my audience that is equally into hip hop and gender theory. I wrote a contribution to Largehearted Boy’s Book Notes series for my recent book The Surrender.

Basically this is music that has inspired me as a writer, and as a person who has broken down boundaries in my life. The list is here.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2016. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.