Yearly Archives: 2012

The Letters of Joseph Roth

Boston Review:

The Zweig-Roth correspondence dominates Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters. Zweig was one of the most famous men of letters of his era, a fine memoirist and essayist but overall a less-than-great writer. There was too much mush in his romances—Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Royal Game, Marie Antoinette—for that. Roth was never as rich or as famous, but his fiction, especially The Radetzky March, was better.

Zweig knew this, and there’s a hint of deference in his letters to Roth, whereas the latter’s missives to the man he usually addresses as “Dear esteemed Stefan Zweig,” although respectful of his friend’s standing, contain less deference than irritation and despair: “Don’t make me itemize the sorrows that are besetting me”; “Any friendship with me is ruinous. I myself am a wailing wall, if not a heap of rubble”; “Physically I’m fucked. I’ve got no money. I owe enormous amounts”; and so on. But occasionally Roth speaks to even-tempered, civilized Zweig in the voice of an Old Testament prophet, especially after Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933, which precipitated Roth’s departure from Germany for good:

It will have become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe. Quite apart from our personal situations—our literary and material existence has been wrecked—we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a heller [penny] for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.

Such prescience, when so many chose to turn a blind eye, came easily to Roth, who had nothing to lose by facing the facts, being pessimistic by nature and rootless by choice: “I am never at home,” he wrote, “just wander around aimlessly, I can’t stand to be in a room.”

Getting People Onto Literature

My issue with stuff like this is that, to a large extent, in order to actually understand/buy into this explanation for the value of literature, you have to have already drank some of the Kool Aid. Sure, if you already love poetry, and you and your friends will totally get why negative capability is wonderful and go bliss out to some Sylvia Plath, but if you’re someone who thinks that sort of stuff is a waste of time, explanations that rely on poetic metaphors will have about as much authority as a mathematical proof would to someone who’s never cracked a math textbook. People have to already have some willingness to want to believe, or else these explanations are just going to sound like more pointy-headed versification. The hard part is getting people to willingly jump in. It’s hard because, for the most part, you have to let people come to it on their own.

I no longer show up at recruiting fairs—a perk of tenure—and so have fewer opportunities to spout haze-induced aphorisms on the use of the English major. But I do teach Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth and Dickinson, and work hard to initiate my students into these poets’ transformative strangeness. I fail more than I succeed, even on days when my brain is as brisk as a new recruit’s.

Looking Toward 2013

I’ve got iteration 0.0001 of my “Books to Watch for in 2013” page up online. (And yes, lots of Dalkey titles, as usual).

Look for this page to expand rather quickly as I find things and place them. So, in other words, come back often.

Just in Time

I think Dalkey Archive Press inspiring an instant Internet meme by posting a job ad has to be my favorite publishing moment of 2012.

We went from this.

To this and this.

To this.

Rather quickly.

. . . adding, John O’Brien gets in a pretty good response: “I certainly have been called an ‘asshole’ before, but not as many times within a 24-hour period.”

Though, not buying the whole YOU DIDN’T GET MY SATIRE!!! attempt to explain this.

“I was absolutely not a normal child”

Cynthia Haven at Book Haven, on Colm Toibin interviewing Laszlo Krasznahorkai in London:

Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, close to the Romanian border. Tóibín quoted Auden saying that a writer’s childhood should have as much neurosis as a child can take. “I was absolutely not a normal child,” replied the Hungarian writer.

“I chose that.”

For awhile, he lived in a village in the countryside “very far from Budapest, very far from the next village,” a place that was filled with “houses with peasants and tiers,” he said, switching briefly to German to refer to the cows and livestock that cohabit the spaces. “Rain and an absolutely hopeless sky. … no heaven, no questions about heaven. Only how can I drink the next pálinka? What can we eat?”

“I had the feeling that this kind of people only lived down below. They were not 30 or 60 years old, but 6,000 years old, without names. Everyone was the same, every fate was the same – like rain. A drop came down, and then another.”

“I chose that. I was 19 years old.” He compensated by reading Dostoevsky, Dante, and ancient Greek literature.

Before 1989, he said, “Hungary was an absolutely unreal, crazy country. Abnormal and unbearable. After 1989, it became normal and unbearable.” In what he called “Old Hungary,” there was “very big misery – the mood was unbelievably sad and hopeless.”

Charles Rosen

The pianist and critic Charles Rosen has passed away. The New York Times has a good obituary.

As a renowned writer and lecturer on music who was also a concert pianist of no small reputation, Mr. Rosen was among the last exemplars of a figure more typically associated with the 19th century: the international scholar-musician. If as a writer he was known for aqueous lucidity and the vast, ecumenical sweep of his inquiry, then as a pianist he tended to rate a similar description.

“The granddaddy of all these writer-musicians is the American pianist and scholar Charles Rosen,” The Guardian wrote in 2010, going on to describe him as “a performer of the utmost distinction whose writing exactly mirrors his playing: subtle, precise, penetrating and, though by no means lacking in fun, intended to challenge.”

Mr. Rosen the pianist was known in particular as an interpreter of Beethoven, but also of Bach, Chopin and the 20th-century composers Arnold Schoenberg and Elliott Carter. He appeared often in recital (in the 1950s and ’60s he was heard regularly at Town Hall in New York) and with some of the world’s leading orchestras.

The Classical Style is his best-known book.

The New York Review has a nice review of his most recent, Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, as does Taylor Davis-Van Atta in The Quarterly Conversation.

Year in Reading

My “year in reading” post at The Millions. It’s an all-Oulipo deal because, well, this year I co-authored a book about the Oulipo. Thank you to the other person who “liked” my book at Amazon. You all should.

The White and the Blue

Two books to recommend your way for this weekend. The first is Bluets by Maggie Nelson.

Thomas Larson at TriQuarterly:

The author Maggie Nelson, born in 1973, has authored half a dozen books, among them poetry collections, memoirs, and nonfiction. Bluets may be her finest work. It is a set of 240 loosely linked fragments. Each numbered fragment is either a sentence or a short paragraph, none longer than two hundred words. The book totals some nineteen thousand words. The work hybridizes several prose styles and verges on the lyric essay. The themes of lost love and existential aloneness come to dominate, bathed in a kind of blued longing.

Nelson utilizes memoir, philosophy, quotation, analysis, scientific exposition and query, meditation, and more, each in stylistic miniature. Subjects include an ex-lover and a friend who’s been paralyzed, but the majority of the text features her analyzing her reading, often deferring to others’ comments (including Leonard Cohen, Joseph Cornell, and Joan Mitchell) on blue. She’s not the only artist so smitten by a color. Nelson combines spiritual inquiry with erotic obsession, searches for beauty, and gets hung up on memories. As she crisscrosses sorrow and wonder, doubt and desire, her tone darkens.

The second is alphabet by Inger Christensen, which, for some reason, whenever I read I envision as white as Bluets is blue.

Susanna Nied on translating it.

Right away I started translating. I didn’t tell Inger I was doing it. For the time being, I didn’t want anyone else’s input, not even hers. I had a very strong sense of what the poems could become in English. I kept shaping and reworking. Interlinked spirals. Double helix. Beauty and destruction. I was possessed. I would stop in the middle of conversations or tasks at my job, at home, wherever, and scribble notes on scraps of paper. I would pull over while driving and jot down more effective wording or change a line break. I let everything else slide. I think my husband began to consider leaving me. I finished the preliminary draft the day before flying to Copenhagen.

I did eventually show that preliminary alphabet translation to Inger, who pronounced it flot (high praise) and went over it with me, asking excellent questions, musing and reminiscing about how she had written the poems. We had a long tussle over whether the key verb should be “exist/exists” or “is there/are there.” Inger ultimately won, thank goodness, though it took me several months to capitulate. As we worked together during the six weeks I spent in Copenhagen, I recognized the content of alphabet in Inger’s daily life and in her memories. I recognized its cadences and phrases in her speech. Again, invaluable.

Problems with Poetry

Matthew Zapruder, one of 18 poets at the Boston Review outlining problematic binaries in contemporary poetry:

It seems absurd to me to contend that lyrics inherently have less literary merit than poetry, or are easier to create, or are less valuable in a cultural or human sense, and therefore somehow do not deserve the rarified title of “poetry.” But I also think the desire to consider lyrics as literature reflects some unfortunate and persistent biases that are detrimental to both poetry and song. This desire presumes that poems, because they are “”literature,”” must be serious, that is, written in forms that reflect obvious mastery of literary mannerisms (whether formal, like rhyme or metrical language, or something more elusive like elaborate fanciness of some kind). And it presumes that what is valuable about lyrics is how they reflect those literary values and skills.

These might not seem like big issues to a lot of poets and poetry specialists, who are familiar with poetry that has qualities of song lyrics, and vice versa. But people who are not as familiar with contemporary poetry do understandably make a distinction that on the one hand poems are “”literary”” and on the other songs are “”popular,”” i.e. written in a language regular people can understand.

The biases inherent in such a widespread distinction do a disservice to both poetry and song. By holding poetry to a literary standard, and either granting or denying that standard to song lyrics, we locate the worth of an artistic endeavor in the most superficial qualities of language, ones that are actually peripheral to what makes a poem worthwhile.

Proust at 100

Didn’t realize 2013 was the year.

“I do think that there has been a resurgence of interest in Proust recently,” says K. Thomas Kahn, humble host of the “2013: The Year of Reading Proust” group over at GoodReads, who also tweets under the alias Proustitute. “First, 2013 will be the centenary of the French publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. And in those hundred years, [it] has been hailed as one of the finest novels ever written by readers, critics, [and] authors, so I think this anniversary is partially why Proust is becoming more popular — or, if not more popular, at least gaining more media attention.”


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


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 . . .


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.

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