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The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

Arnold Schoenberg: Far Crazier Than I Expected

I’ve read some damning stuff about Thomas Mann (particularly this LRB piece by Colm Tóibín), so it was with interest that I picked up his letters this weekend. Granted, they’re selected, and, granted, Thomas Mann had a vested interest in crafting his public image, but they really show a very good side of him. He comes across as extremely modest for a man of his accomplishments (there’s the one where he goes on at length in an effort to dispel rumors of his encyclopedic knowledge engendered by his, well, encyclopedic novels), and he sounds very reasonable and even-tempered throughout.

Perhaps nowhere is he more even-tempered than with Arnold Schoenberg, who, it seems, was convinced that Mann was out to steal credit for inventing the twelve-tone system. In letter after letter Mann assures Schoenberg that he has nothing to fear from him, and he repeatedly tells Schoenberg that he’ll have no success goading Mann into attacking him. (For another subjective take that puts Mann into a good light in this encounter, see this essay by Michael Wood.)

I know that Schoenberg was legendarily paranoid, but the following missive in this ongoing battle over twelve-tone supremacy was striking for the amount of lunacy it implies. On February 17, 1948, Mann opened a letter to Schoenberg with this line: “That certainly is a curious document.” One already senses the understated but utterly palpable condescension employed when talking to a stray animal, a young child, or Arnold Schoenberg. And here’s the proof of it: a footnote appended to the end of the sentence informs us that:

A “Hugo Triebsamen” had purportedly sent Schoenberg an extract from an imaginary Encyclopedia Americana of 1988, and Schoenberg forwarded it to Mann with a bitter comment. The extract stated that Thomas Mann, originally a musician, was the real inventor of the twelve-tone system, but that after he became a writer he silently tolerated its appropriation by a thievish composer named Schoenberg. With the publication of Doctor Faustus, Mann had claimed the musical system as his own intellectual property.

I know what you’re thinking: “Sure, it’s a little excessive to send Thomas Mann an extract from a fake encyclopedia written by some madman as objective historical proof that Mann really did steal Schoenberg’s system, when Mann had already stated otherwise on numerous occasions, but it’s not that bad.” True, true, until you read the next sentence in the footnote: “In a cordial letter of reconciliation dated November 25, 1948, Schoenberg admitted that he had invented Triebsamen and his letter.”

Didn’t Schoenberg have enough to occupy his time with?

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Uchida on Schoenberg ...
  2. This Month, We’ll Be Reading Buddenbrooks Last spring I was completely blown away by Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus. On the spot I vowed to read more Mann, and then didn't...
  3. Reading Resolutions 2009: Sacha Arnold (Sacha Arnold is a senior editor of The Quarterly Conversation. His most recent piece was on the novelist Carter Scholz.) See all of TQC’s Reading...
  4. Buddenbrooks: My Final Thoughts Just to get a little closure on this huge book, I wanted to take a minute and talk about how the whole thing struck me....
  5. Sooner Than I Expected Somehow I'd assumed The Original of Laura wasn't getting published for some time. But there it is, up on Amazon, with a November pub date....

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3 comments to Arnold Schoenberg: Far Crazier Than I Expected

  • Eric Lundgren

    Mann seems to have been a decent and generous human being, but I’ve always wondered why he doesn’t acknowledge Adorno’s huge intellectual contribution to Doctor Faustus (at least there is no acknowledgement of him in my Vintage edition).

  • Eric Lundgren

    Correction:

    “I discovered in myself, or, rather, rediscovered as a long familiar element in myself, a mental alacrity for appropriating what I felt to be my own, what belonged to me, that is to say, to the ‘subject.’ The analysis of the row system and the criticism of it that is translated into dialogue in Chapter XXII of Faustus is entirely based upon Adorno’s essay. So are certain remarks of the tonal language of the later Beethoven …

    “An idea as such will never possess much personal and proprietary value in the eyes of an artist. The thing that matters is the way it functions within the framework of his creation.”

    – Mann, The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus, Knopf, 1961

  • In addition, Mann made another tribute to Adorno in the description of Beethoven’s Opus 111:
    “Mann playfully pays his debt to Adorno by working Adorno’s patronymic, Wiesengrund (meadowland), into Kretschmar’s explication…”
    –Gunilla Bergsten, in her Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus

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