Category Archives: Friday Column

Friday Column: A Critical Experience

Over at Critical Mass, Molly McQuade has a nice idea. After a particularly tumultuous year for book reviewing, why not look back and see what we can say about the state of the art? Choosing Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero as her test case (because it’s a book that forced critics to react differently than usual), McQuade writes 4,000 words in a three-part essay (1, 2, 3) on what she sees.

It’s not good. McQuade almost immediately finds most critics too "incurious" to approach Divisidero correctly; that is, their preconceptions of what a novel is and should be short-circuited their potential appreciation of what Ondaatje’s might have been.

McQuade then links this lack of curiosity to another problem with newspaper reviews.

[Ondaatje’s] writing seems less likely to explain anything—including itself—than many another writer’s prose. The lack of explanation might tempt curiosity, invite curiosity, or beckon to the curious to “explain” it. In any case, opportunity lurks. And yet, most critics of his most recent book appear to stop short, limiting themselves by their own choice; namely, they either commit rapture or rebuke in their reviews. Although either rebuke or rapture can give me something interesting to read, by itself neither will lead me far enough. The reason is simple: either reaction excludes at least as much as it includes.

Though this point has been made before, it’s no slight to McQuade for making it again since it’s such a good one. (As a sidenote, it seems appropriate that our era’s best example of the hack reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, seems to be a favorite target for those critical of the "thumbs up/thumbs down" approach to book reviewing.). Further, McQuade is right to bring this up in her essay since a book like Divisadero is a good one to expose the fallacy of a review that solely seeks to say "good" or "bad." Divisadero, like all challenging works of fiction, can’t be reduced to one or the other; as McQuade finds, those who try to do so end up either in cliché or foolishness.

But if I find McQuade correct in her criticism of Divisadero’s critics, I can’t entirely agree with her prescription for them. Part of good criticism, McQuade says, is to become something akin to "a leading character in the very book [under review]," someone who can "tell the story of living in [a book] to somebody who hasn’t yet gone there to live."

Although I think a good critic does convey something of her experience of the book in a review, I think this is always secondary to explaining why a given piece either works or doesn’t. I’ll grant that telling the story of a book has some value, but aspiring to that feels to me too much like aspiring to write good catalog copy. I think reviewers should do more.

Book reviews are, of course, only the first line of critical response to a work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good criticism. In my own reviews I always make it a point to dig down beneath the surface of my reaction to a piece of prose of any length (sentence, paragraph, book, etc) and make clear what I reacted to it as I did. I don’t think it’s idealistic to believe that this can be done in a newspaper review, and I believe that the more critics engage fiction on these terms, the better will their readers be able to think about and read the books under review. Further, if this kind of criticism is done well the experience of a book often comes included in the analysis. (One of James Wood’s strengths is just this; in much of his output Wood conveys the experience of a work while, in the very same words, he explains its rhetoric. In his best reviews, the two are inextricably bound up in each other, to remove one necessarily destroying the other.)

In actually getting below the surface of a novel is where a lot of critics fail. (At one point in her essay, McQuade rightly rails against the overuse of meaningless words like "breathtaking.") In fact, with regard to Divisidero, this is where even McQuade finds herself failing. Earlier in her essay, she writes:

Michael Ondaatje is a writer whose books I would much rather read than review. . . . In fact, I have never reviewed him, though I have often taught his work to undergraduates and graduate students, most recently this autumn. While I always savor the moment of entranced bemusement overtaking a typical new reader of his words, to explain the words themselves (or the bemusement) might seem peculiarly at odds with the consciously elusive sensibility of his writing. Better to write in his footsteps, perhaps, than to summarize, adjudicate, or analyze?

Based on this, I don’t think McQuade should be reviewing Michael Ondaatje’s works, and I give her credit for knowing this about herself and abstaining from critiquing his books via print.

However, I find very strange her idea that a novel can’t survive a critic’s attempts to analyze it. As if a work of art were so fragile a thing. A good reading of a work (be it negative or positive) has always enhanced my own thoughts on it, opening up new avenues of contemplation and encouraging me to return back to it. (Sometimes, it has even opened my eyes to works I haven’t read or unfairly dismissed.) I don’t believe that "to explain the words themselves (or the bemusement) might seem peculiarly at odds with the consciously elusive sensibility of [Ondaatje’s] writing" any more than I believe that to explain David Letterman’s relationship with irony makes his monologue less entertaining.

Oddly enough McQuade seems to end up finding her ideal critical reaction to Divisadero in the universal whipping boy otherwise known as Amazon reviews. (This may be the first ever instance of someone ostensibly from the establishment actually praising these things.) But the qualities McQuade highlights in Amazon reviews are hardly those I would want in a review:

The reviews of Divisadero—together with the ratings of those very reviews by Amazon readers—offer a curiously complete and unguarded range of opinion. Does something in Ondaatje’s writing lead silent solo readers to log on, and open their mouths? What is that certain something in his writing?

My guess is, the structurally maverick and unexpectedly poetic qualities of his prose tend to inspire conflicting opinions that feel no obligation to resolve themselves. The debate may continue, and continue. To me, this seems a rare pleasure. . . .

Another pleasure of Amazon book reviews is, they save you time. You can read the review headlines, skipping the reviews themselves. The lords and masters of Amazonia seem to anticipate and enable this move. For, unlike newspaper headlines, which can sometimes stray wide of making any point, Amazon scribes and their editors are straightforward: the review headline gives you an opinion more or less identical to that of the review itself.

I don’t think of book reviewing as an aggregation, and I certainly don’t imagine it as skipping from headline to headline. (If anything, the latter would represent a nadir that we may be heading toward.) In other words, I don’t think book reviewing is work by committee; I don’t, Rotten Tomatoes-style, tally up the positives and the negatives and establish a consensus that tells me what’s worth reading.

If anything, I look for that one review that gets so deep into my head that after I read it I’m not willing to listen to anything else until I’ve read the book under review. The reviews that don’t do this for me tend to wash right off.

And for me, what best gets my attention is when I see that a book is working in new and interesting ways. The most effusive praise in the world scarcely makes a pinprick impact on me. (The only exception to this would be the effusive praise of a reader who I know and trust to be someone whose recommendations I can have confidence in.) I want to see the book working, and if that excites my curiosity then chances are I’ll hunt down a copy of that book at some point. If not, then a review might as well have been a negative one.

Friday Column: On Translations or the Pursuit of the Domino Effect

(Today we have a guest Friday Column by author Neus Arqués. Neus lives and writes in Barcelona and holds an MA in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University
and a BA in Translation. She has authored the Catalan version of
A Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fritzgerald (Barcelona: Edhasa, 1987) and writes fiction and non-fiction. Un hombre de Pago (Urano, 2006, is her first novel. Contact Neus at
or on Skype at Manfatta.)

According to the Center for Book Culture, in the period between 2000 and 2006 a total of 12 fiction titles published in Spanish in Spain were translated into English. *

A mere two titles per year. This is a narrow eye of the needle for Spanish authors and their agents to pass through. It is probably why many Spanish authors try to have their work translated into other languages, hoping for a domino effect that will lead to publication in English. For what it is worth, this is my experience.

The Winding Road

In 2006 I published my first novel, Un hombre de Pago (A Man for Hire). My agent’s strategy was to immediately move it in the European market. First, she approached publishers in smaller markets, such as Greece or Portugal. This would be the first tier.

If you succeed in overcoming hurdle one—and my novel has been fortunate enough to do so, with rights sold to Portuguese—then the agent targets more competitive markets, such as the Italian or German publishing industry. In the words of an Argentinean publisher: "Spanish is a marginal language as far as translation goes. It takes years to persuade an Italian or a French publisher that we have quality books to offer."

A Man for Hire has been sold in Russia. That is two languages, and two different tiers, but still not enough. My novel must attract the interest of other publishers in other markets to build more momentum toward eventual translation into a major European language, or even English.

In a recent interview, the über-agent Andrew Wylie showed that he is also a proponent of this multi-country approach: "I would say that having access to international markets makes it easier to realize the right value, market by market. So if you’re selling in the United States in a vacuum, your ability to move things is limited."

The roads to translation are winding indeed. My fellow writer Jordi Nadal‘s book was curiously enough published first in Portugal and then in Spain. A sort of reverse domino effect: get published in translation to get into one’s home market. Translation rights to his book have subsequently been sold to Greek and French publishers.

A Learning Experience

Having my novel translated into Portuguese and Russian gives me, among writer friends, "successful status": most of my fellow writers in Barcelona have yet to sign a foreign rights agreement. It must be noted that they are full-time writers and some of them do very well in terms of sales in Spain. When we meet and talk, with that mix of naïveté and competitiveness that seems to linger on each and every one of our conversations, translations become the unfulfilled promise, the second life that we all want for our novels, as a way to reach new readers.

I am a writer and a translator by training. Most of all, though, I am a reader. And here I confess to reading mostly in English, partly as a result of my education, partly because my mother-in-law, Barbara, is a bookstore owner near Seattle who feeds me a selection of the best and brightest. Funnily enough, a year or two after I read a U.S. novel, the book may well be displayed in my local bookstore in Barcelona (often with the same cover). In Spanish. The road for translations coming our way does not seem to be so winding. I am glad to see books I have enjoyed brought to the attention of Spanish readers. I would like mine to stand a similar chance.

Ideas, Anyone?

As a writer and a reader, I will do what I can to be translated into as many languages as possible, to reach as large as possible a readership. Here are my five ideas:

1. A Man for Hire’s audiovisual rights are currently being negotiated. If my novel is made into a movie, I hope chances for international visibility will increase.

2. I have personally translated a sample chapter of the novel to make it easier for interested parties to judge its merits (if you are curious, I will gladly send a copy along).

3. I am considering translating the entire novel, which would diminish the expenses to be incurred by the interested publisher and would give me greater say over the translated work in the languages I read in.

4. I would be happy to attend any meetings or contact any professionals willing to give my book a chance.

5. I welcome and am thankful for your ideas and suggestions, should you care to share them with me.

I see this process as a learning experience. I feel that merit plays a part. So does fate. Just like in dominos.

* See, as quoted in the International Pen Report on Translation and Globalization

can be a great resource for those of you who are looking for a college education but you just don’t have the time.  If money is an issue education grants are alwys attainable.

Friday Column: Reading Resolutions 2008

A good reader, I think, is one who is always pushing herself forward; or, rather, is a reader who is being pulled forward by some force that is not completely discernable–a reader who never feels satisfied with that patch (or swath) of literary terra firma that has already been mapped out.

I believe this, unsurprisingly, because this is how I read, though I’ve not so much embraced this philosophy as been locked in a grip by it. Whenever I think back on my reading the past couple years, it feels like one big, long retreat from the center. That’s center as defined by me because, undoubtedly, a lot of what I classify as toward my fringe would not be toward yours.

Two years ago, in 2006, you might say I had established my center: contemporary American writers and their direct antecedents. I began to move from this center spatially–I read a lot more translations and English-language novels from countries other than the United States, and so I began to seriously acquaint myself with the major authors that other countries had to offer.

I also moved from my center along a different axis: when I wasn’t reading foreign books  (which, by my count, accounted for about 1/3 of what I read in 2006) I spent a lot of time trying to read American writers who weren’t so well known in general and definitely not well known to me.

By 2007 the fringe of 2006 had come to feel like part of my center; and so I picked a few nations whose literature directly appealed to me and began to read the authors who were a tier or two below the big names.

I also discovered new axes along which I could retreat from my center; namely, I began to reach back temporally, beginning to read more extensively from time periods other than the 20th century. Also, I began to get into reading serious works of literary criticism.

So this is where I find myself as I now take it upon myself to jot down the names of a few books I’d like to resolve to read in 2008.

The first part of this is easy–I can simply name some of the holdovers from 2007 that I didn’t have time for but that I’d like to make a priority in 2008. These would include:

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Concepts of Criticism by Rene Wellek
A Rhetoric of Irony by Wayne Booth
In the Wake by Per Petterson

In addition to these, I’ll also finish Tom Jones and Within a Budding Grove, both of which I am in the midst of.

Now for the more difficult part: predicting what books I will want to search out once I’ve done with the holdovers. Here’s what I’ve got:

Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
Erasure or The Water Cure by Percival Everett
Nine by Andrzej Stasink
Ninety-two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane

I also think I will find reason to get more deeply into the work of Julio Cortazar and Raymond Queneau, as well as to begin to read my first book from the following authors: Tomas Eloy Martinez, Roberto Arlt, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Claude Mauriac.

Last of all, I should say that I’m eager to see what surprises 2008 presents me with; 2006 and 2007 being full of some very important lures that drew my readerly attention in new directions, it is my hope that 2008 will do the same.

Friday Column: Classical Music in Literature

Classical music, I have been told, is near death. Similarly, I’ve read in many places (probably written by the same people) of the novel’s imminent demise. Strange then how some of the freshest work I’ve read recently has resulted from the union of these two dying art forms.

coverProving that classical music can be as profound and bizarre as anything a novelist can toss into the mix, author Marc Estrin puts the fictitious Insect Sonata by noted maverick composer Charles Ives in his novel Insect Dreams. Here’s part of its performance on April 1, 1931:

Without a word of introduction, [the pianist] walked upstage of the Steinway Concert Grand and returned with a large brick and two pieces of two-by-four, one 47 3/4 inches, the other 45 1/2 inches, the longer pained in white, the shorter in black enamel. He put the wood on the piano bench and carefully leaned the cement block on the sustaining pedal. Climbing out from under the keyboard, he retrieved the wood and placed the longer piece, narrow edge down, along the white keys, and the shorter one, wider side down, along the black. He was ready to begin the first movement: "Creation."

Standing over the keyboard, the piano bench behind him, he took a huge breath and crashed his whole body weight, elbows first, down onto the wood. Some in the audience gasped, most jumped. The piano let out a sound such as had never been heard in any concert hall. At no time, ever, had all eighty-eight notes of a Steinway Concert Grand been simultaneously sounded and sustained publicly.

Quadruple fortissimo to start, the opening ultra-chord took a full two and a half minutes to decay into nothingness.

Estrin goes on to gloss this singular opening: it’s a musical homage to the (then) recently theorized Big Bang. In addition to being good reading, this performance neatly captures the spirit of the times–the public and artistic infatuation with science, particularly theoretical physics, which was then revealing previously unthinkable realms and inspiring novelists and film directors to unleash visions of ludicrous inventions, like time machines, atomic energy plants, and atomic bombs.

coverAt the other end of the 20th century, in The Gold Bug Variations novelist Richard Powers finds Bach’s Goldberg Variations a potent metaphor for our age’s version of theoretical physics: genetic biology. The Goldberg Variations (also a piece for piano) are a series of beautifully transformations, each completely distinct, yet all generated from the same simple four-note base. Powers uses it as a metaphor for DNA, which has produced startling diversity out of a modest four-part base.

As usual with Powers, this metaphor has another level to it–the novel’s main character, a genetic biologist named Ressler, falls hopelessly in love with the Goldberg Variations. For decades he listens to them again and again, trying to break their code and intuit their meaning. Just as classical music and DNA dovetail in Powers’s metaphor, so do art and science. Ressler’s fascination with Bach mirrors his fascination with DNA. They both tap into that part of him that loves riddles and decryption, that part of his brain that can’t leave a mystery alone once it’s been exposed to it. As much as anything, Powers’s book is about embodying art’s and science’s capacity to instill wonder–and both’s ability to mirror religion’s power of revelation–and in Bach’s Goldberg Variations he’s found the perfect vehicle:

Ultimately, the Goldbergs are about the paradox of variation, preserved divergence, the transition effect inherent in terraced unfolding, the change in nature attendant upon a change in degree. How necessity might arise out of chance. How difference might arise out of more of the same. By the time the delinquent parent aria returns to close out the set, the music is about how variation might ultimately free itself from the instruction that underwrites it, sets it i motion, but nowhere anticipates what might come from experience’s trial run. . . .

The Goldbergs were his closest metaphor to the coding problem he gave his life to studying. Exactly similar, with one exception. Back liked to inscribe his compositions with the triplet SDG, Soli Dei Gloria. To God alone the glory. Even this secularly commissioned soporific possesses the religious wonder at being joyously articulate, alive to extend the pattern.

Although classical music and science do seem to have great synergy, I’ve also found classical music teaming up in other great ways in novels. Example #1 in this is William T. Vollmann’s National Book Award–winning novel Europe Central, in which the music of Dmitri Shostakovich becomes a metaphor for struggle against Soviet oppression, love, and the Iron Curtain that swept in to finish off so many Central European countries after Hitler’s war destroyed them.

coverLet it be said that novels can be a great place to find out about new music. Before Europe Central I had, of course, heard of Shostakovich’s great Seventh Symphony, but that was about it. Vollmann’s book encouraged me to find out about many of Shostakovich’s other works–there is his Eighth Symphony (in my opinion, one of the 20th-century’s greatest), which Vollmann reads as a tribute to war-ravaged Leningrad; Opus 40, a sonata for piano and cello, certainly the most romantic thing Shostakovich ever wrote and one of my favorite pieces of music; the Eighth String Quartet, which in my opinion stands far above Shostakovich’s 14 others, and which Vollmann uses as a metaphor not only for the ravages of totalitarianism (as Shostakovich intended), but as a dark, dark eulogy for Central Europe.

Throughout Europe Central Vollmann does two things with these pieces: 1) he gives very interesting readings of all them, and 2) he uses them as motifs. Much like motifs in classical music, which are returned to again and again (usually transformed in interesting ways) throughout a piece, throughout Europe Central Vollmann invokes these pieces of music, and each time he does so, we look at them slightly differently. In this way, not only does Vollmann’s novel include classical music, but it also (partly) is shaped by it. (And it should be noted here that Powers’s Gold Bug Variations, consisting of 32 chapters of 3 parts each, does the same thing.)

coverIn a similar way, Julio Cortazar gives us a clue to his intentions by invoking the music of Alban Berg. One of Hopscotch’s "expendable" chapters is an "anonymous" commentary on the works of Berg:

Another significant analogy with the Violin Concerto consists in the strict symmetry of the whole. In the Violin Concerto the key number is two: two separate movements, each divided into two parts, as well as the violin-orchestra division in the instrumental grouping. In the Kammerkonzert, on the other hand, the number three stands out: the dedication represents the Maestro and his two disciples; the instruments are grouped in three categories: piano, violin, and a combination of wind instruments; its architecture is the building up on three linked movements, each of which reveals to a greater or lesser degree tripartite composition.

What a great clue, for a close look at Hopscotch also reveals a tripartite construction. There are the three sections: "From the Other Side," "From this Side," and "Expendable Chapters." Each section has a principal character–La Maga, Horacio, and (perhaps the maestro) Morelli.

Or we could take the Violin Concert as our key and do it by twos: the nonexpendable chapters versus the expendable ones (each divided into two sections, the former between The Other Side and This Side, the latter between those labeled Morelliana and those not), the books dualities (male-reader versus female-reader, Horacio’s two key relationships with women, France versus Argentina).

And on yet another level Cortazar’s book parallels the music of Berg. Although he worked within the formalistic confines of the 12-tone scale, Berg nevertheless made very evocative, sensuous music (of which the Violin Concert is a great example). Similarly, Cortazar used formulistic devices–for instance giving us instructions of in what order to read the chapters, and making over one-third of the book expendable (these are only the two most blatant examples, as there are many more within the text itself)–as a means of demonstrating very difficult-to-grasp thoughts about humanity: the search for transcendence, the way our paths through this world develop.

There seems to be something about classical music and novels that works well together. Perhaps it is that the best examples of both are built on very complex, painstakingly created structures that nonetheless are all but invisible to someone in the midst of enjoying either. Or, perhaps related, it is that both have the capacity to evoke very human emotions while at the same time exploring realms like history, science, and mathematics. Whatever it is, I don’t think it is a coincidence that some of my favorite novels from my past year of reading have drawn heavily on the world of classical music. Perhaps this is just something peculiar to myself. Perhaps, but I doubt it. I think there is something substantial here, and I encourage anyone reading this to try out some of the above-mentioned works, or any other novels that deal in some fundamental way with classical music.

Because I have found that my readings of the works mentioned in this column were enhanced by actually listening to the music, here are some recommendations of recordings of the works discussed here.

Unfortunately, there is no Insect Sonata (How I wish there was, as Estrin’s description temps me!), but Insect Dreams does mention Ives’s Fourth Symphony, so I will recommend this recording of it (which also contains Ives’s first three symphonies and his great work Three Places in New England). A word of warning–you might want to see if you can borrow some Ives from your local library before you purchase. I like his music, but he is unarguably an acquired taste, so it’s probably best to know what you are getting into before you plunk down some cash.

For Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the obvious recordings are those made by Glenn Gould. (I’ll leave it to you to choose between his more hopeful, youthful recording, or the one he made on the eve of his death, after drugs and life had ravaged him. There’s also both.) There’s a ton more recordings, if you’re adverturesome.

These days, Shostakovich has no shortage of interpreters. The range of recordings available is truly dazzling. For the Eighth Symphony, I recommend Haitink’s version (and if you are interested in more of Shostakovich’s symphonies, then by all means check out more of Haitink’s interpretations–he did the whole symphonic cycle, and they’re great). For the Eighth String Quartet, Borodin’s recording is the one to go with, by a mile. For Opus 40, I recommend Han-Na Chang’s sensual cello.

For Berg, there aren’t too many choices. Isaac Pearlman did a nice recording of the Violin Concerto, but I have read (but not heard) that there are other, better ones available. best of luck finding them.


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Quiz Answers

Answers to last Friday’s quiz are in the extened text.

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Friday Column: Transformation

Reading Jeffrey Toobin’s article on Google Books in The New Yorker, I was reminded of Jonathan Lethem’s recent Harper’s essay on copyright. Google is currently in court because publishers believe that scanning and placing books on the web is not a "transformation." Making a parody of a novel, for instance, would constitute a transformation, but publishers are arguing that turning a book into a web-searchable piece of text isn’t enough.

The interesting thing is that Google agrees that the books are protected by copyright. Their argument is that scanning a book and making it web-searchable is akin to transforming it into something entirely new–or at least new enough that Google should derive the monetary benefit from people who will use Google Books. Google is happy to not sell any books via Google Books (or even take a cut out of sales down the line), but it thinks that any money made off of web-searchable texts it its alone. From Toobin’s article:

Google asserts that its use of the copyrighted books is “transformative,” that its database turns a book into essentially a new product. “A key part of the line between what’s fair use and what’s not is transformation,” Drummond said. “Yes, we’re making a copy when we digitize. But surely the ability to find something because a term appears in a book is not the same thing as reading the book. That’s why Google Books is a different product from the book itself.” In other words, Google says that being able to search books on its site—which it describes as the equivalent of a giant library card catalogue—is not the same as making the books themselves available.

Consider what Jonathan Lethem writes in Harper’s, where he asserts that the cultural heritage of art is a vast commons:

Another way of understanding the presence of gift economies—which dwell like ghosts in the commercial machine—is in the sense of a public commons. A commons, of course, is anything like the streets over which we drive, the skies through which we pilot airplanes, or the public parks or beaches on which we dally. A commons belongs to everyone and no one, and its use is controlled only by common consent. A commons describes resources like the body of ancient music drawn on by composers and folk musicians alike, rather than the commodities, like “Happy Birthday to You,” for which ASCAP, 114 years after it was written, continues to collect a fee. Einstein’s theory of relativity is a commons. Writings in the public domain are a commons. Gossip about celebrities is a commons. The silence in a movie theater is a transitory commons, impossibly fragile, treasured by those who crave it, and constructed as a mutual gift by those who compose it.

The world of art and culture is a vast commons, one that is salted through with zones of utter commerce yet remains gloriously immune to any overall commodification. The closest resemblance is to the commons of a language: altered by every contributor, expanded by even the most passive user. That a language is a commons doesn’t mean that the community owns it; rather it belongs between people, possessed by no one, not even by society as a whole.

I have no trouble agreeing with Lethem that when an artist borrows–within reason–from another piece of art in order to make something new and valuable she is simply using the commons as it is meant to be used. But I’m not so sure that Google Books is a legitimate use of the commons.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Google Books has made any book past or present searchable by anyone. This would be an immense public good. Any artist looking to find material to borrow or embellish would have a quick, easy method to find books that she should read up on. Furthermore, the potential to use this for what is called "undiscovered public knowledge" would be enormous. Lethem writes that library scientist Don Swanson

showed that standing problems in medical research may be significantly addressed, perhaps even solved, simply by systematically surveying the scientific literature. Left to its own devices, research tends to become more specialized and abstracted from the real-world problems that motivated it and to which it remains relevant. This suggests that such a problem may be tackled effectively not by commissioning more research but by assuming that most or all of the solution can already be found in various scientific journals, waiting to be assembled by someone willing to read across specialties. Swanson himself did this in the case of Raynaud’s syndrome, a disease that causes the fingers of young women to become numb.

This all would argue in favor of Google Books being admissible because it would greatly help those who would use the commons for legitimate purposes–artistic, scientific, or whatever else. In effect, an idealized Google Books would bring the commons into reach of anyone with an Internet connection and the wherewithal to purchase the books it uncovers. And I wouldn’t hesitate to speculate that such a commons would give rise to new artforms and new methods of creating art heretofore unknown.

What I see as the problem, however, is that this is a money-making venture for Google. Although Google Books would be a potent intellectual commons, it would be one owned by a corporation. It would be as if a beautiful lake that everyone could enjoy by boating or swimming or fishing or just laying out on the shores was surrounded by billboards and advertisements constantly reminding you that your enjoyment of the lake is enabled by Google.

I’m not necessarily concerned that Google would start charging entry to its commons, or even that it would distastefully pollute it with advertisements, but just that people would begin to develop the idea that our cultural heritage had become commoditized, turned into something that makes money for Google. As Lethem writes,

The way we treat a thing can change its nature, though. Religions often prohibit the sale of sacred objects, the implication being that their sanctity is lost if they are bought and sold. We consider it unacceptable to sell sex, babies, body organs, legal rights, and votes. The idea that something should never be commodified is generally known as inalienability or unalienability—a concept most famously expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the phrase “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .” A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising. This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e., it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.

I don’t believe Google’s argument that scanning books and making them web-searchable constitutes a "transformation" because it’s not a "gift," which Lethem persuasively argues is an essential criteria of all art. Where is the gift in making books web-searchable? There is none. It’s a business venture, and a rather good one at that, but it is clearly not art. Google has employed a number of interesting arguments in favor of the idea that Google Books would constitute a transformation–everything from the complex algorithms necessary to render usable results to the technology for scanning books on a completely unprecedented scale to the simple cost of the operation–but I think all of these arguments butt up against Lethem’s requirement that art include a gift. The web is rife with businesses that work on the model of giving away some kind of service in hopes that they will make money through later purchases or advertising–heck, even network television and radio work on that model–and Google Books is no different. By arguing that their scanning and loading of books constitutes a transformation, Google is going too far. If their argument stands, then it will taint the idea of what is permissible as art. (And this wouldn’t be the first time a court case altered our definition of "art.") Lethem is right that art can stand a certain amount of commerce, but I think the amount that Google Books would inject into it is too much.

That’s not to say that Google should not continue with its Google Books project. To the contrary, I think a fully operational Google Books would liberate the artistic potentials of artists in new and exciting ways. But it should acknowledge that Google Books is business, not art. It should just pay a fair rate for the copyrighted texts it is using. Publishers have already indicated a willingness to let Google Books go forward, so long as Google pays them, and I have faith that all parties would be able to work it out. It’s in all their interests to get this show on the road. Ours too.

Friday Column: The Literary Pop Quiz

Answers next Friday, or maybe in the comments.

I. Famous First Lines

State what book starts with each of the following lines.

1. "The clock struck thirteen."

2. "Would I find La Maga?"

3. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (A trick; not what you think.)

4. "Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at the critical moment it presumes itself as reality."

5. "A screaming comes across the sky."

6. "Stately plump Buck Mulligan."

7. "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

8. "All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana–that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him."

9. "I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man. An unattractive man, I think my liver hurts."

10. "Somebody must have made a false accusation against Joseph K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong."

11. "The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?"

12. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

II. Current Events

Select the best response from the list of choices below each question.

1. Which of the following was not penned by either George Lakoff or Steven Pinker in their pissy but erudite debate in the pages of The New Republic following the publication of Lakoff’s Whose Freedom?

a. "Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics."

b. "If you are a reader who wants to know what I have really said and what the overall evidence is, I direct you to the following books and to the long lists of references given there. I’m sorry the list is so long, but a lot of researchers have been working out the new view. Getting informed is well worth the trouble."

c. "Unfortunately, what passes for a review of my book, Whose Freedom?, is actually a vituperative and underhanded attack."

d. "Lakoff becomes blinded by his own cognitive frames, finding it irresistible to posit conservatives as boogeymen time and time again."

e. "In defending his voters-are-idiots theory, Lakoff has written that people do not realize that they are really better off with higher taxes, because any savings from a federal tax cut would be offset by increases in local taxes and private services."

2. In his recent paean to the far right novel, Michel Crichton did which of the following potentially libelous things.

a. Referred to President Bush as "hot pants."

b. Included as a character a book reviewer who was famous, female, and Asian, and later had a group of rabid eco-terrorists tie her to the front of an SUV and force her to read Silent Spring over and over.

c. Identified by name a prominent heterosexual left-leaning Washington, D.C., journalist, wrote him in as a character, and had the character commit explicit homosexual acts.

d. In a special author afterword, quoted purported death threats from prominent liberal bloggers which were later discovered to be fake (the death threats, not the bloggers).

e. Included a scene where a character named Cichel Mrichton tells a character named Kaul Prugman to "shove his columns up his ass."

3. In his very negative review of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel Against the Day, critic Tom LeClair made all of the following statements except:

a. "Even after this book, Pynchon remains the greatest American author of the last 50 years."

b. "Gravity’s Rainbow is the most important novel I’ve ever read."

c. ‘The only readers (besides responsible reviewers) I can imagine finishing Against the Day are the Pynchonists, the fetishizing collectors of P-trivia."

d. "Of these four dimensions, the science is occasionally fascinating, the political plotting painfully coincidental, the sex generally gratuitous, and the spiritual possibly profound."

e. "That is to say, I’m not James Wood, waiting to gouge anything by Pynchon (or DeLillo or just about any postmodern writer)."

4. In an essay in The New Yorker, which of the following things was not said about Thomas Bernhard?

a. Bernhard’s will, "released shortly after he died, forbade the publication, the production, or even the recitation in Austria of his works, ‘including letters and scraps of paper,’ for the next seventy years, the duration of their copyright."

b. As a child, Bernhard was deeply scarred by the "humiliation of having to undergo a blood test as a child to establish paternity."

c. During an interview with Gore Vidal, "Bernhard grew so incensed that the translator had to physically restrain him."

d. "Bernhard, a chronic bed-wetter, was humiliated when his mother hung out his stained sheets for the neighbors to see."

e. While a teen working in a grocery store, Bernhard became "inspired by his employer, a music lover, and began taking singing lessons with an opera singer; he was apparently very talented."

5. In a recent essay for The New York Times Book Review, in which he discussed his method of composing his novels by dictation, Richard Powers referenced all of the following famous voice-writers, except:

a. William T. Vollmann, who after suffering a stroke used voice dictation to help him write, and who, when voice-composing a letter to his parents, had the computer hear  "Dear Mom and Dad" as "The man is dead."


b. Marcel Proust, who in "the final hours of his life re-dictated the death of Bergotte, supposedly claiming that he now knew what he was talking about."

c. Thomas Aquinas, whom witnesses claim could dictate on four different topics to four different secretaries at once, and who could even dictate in his sleep.

d. James Joyce, who whole dictating Finnegans Wake to Beckett supposedly answered the door with a cry of "Come in," duly noted by Beckett, and later enthusiastically kept by a delighted Joyce.

e. Vladimir Nabokov, who, after moving permanently to the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland following the runaway success of Lolita, could not find a secretary he deemed competent to take dictation in English and returned back to composing in Russian.

III. Strange Things Authors Do

Match the author with the strange exploit.

a. Killed himself after sending his final novel to his publisher.
b. Started writing after a voice called to him at a baseball game.
c. Took a job at CNet, where he researched and wrote his novel on the clock.
d. Turned to his trademark "collage style" of composing books and stories because family life ate up too much of his free time.
e. Began writing after a New York resident called him on the phone and requested that he procure him a high-powered rifle so he could use it to shoot black people.
f. Wrote his first novel because he was haunted by the image of three peasant farmers.
g. Began his career writing mystery novels, but later turned to the much more distinctive style for which he is now known.

i. Marc Estrin
ii. Michael Martone
iii. Richard Powers
iv. Colson Whitehead
v. Yukio Mishima
vi. David Markson
vii. Haruki Murakami

IV. Author Quotes

Match the author with the quote.

a. "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."
b. “It’s not that we’re against the Occupation. We’ll need that for a while. But that man is destroying more for us than Hitler can rebuild!”
c. "This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste."
d. "Today’s Baudelaires are hip-hop artists."
e. "Have I said I enjoy writing? Some high moment and I probably did, but it’s nearer what Pascal, was it he? as I have it at second hand, said about no man differing more from another than he does from himself at another time. That incidentally may better explain a phenomenon like The Brothers Karamazov. It certainly helps to explain my distaste for interviews, though this one may serve to set the record straight on a few points."
f. "High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of."
g. "If I’m not at my desk by 4 am, I feel like I’m missing my most productive hours. In addition to starting early, I keep an antique hour glass on my desk and every hour break briefly to do pushups, sit-ups, and some quick stretches. I find this helps keep the blood (and ideas) flowing."
h. "The liberal elite hasn’t got a clue."
i. "Tough guys don’t dance. You had better believe it."

i. Knut Hamsun
ii. David Foster Wallace
iii. Dan Brown
iv. Kurt Vonnegut
v. Norman Mailer
vi. Jonathan Franzen
vii. William Gaddis
viii. Tom Wolfe
ix. Ernest Hemingway

Friday Column: Discursive Polymaths

With the passing of Ryszard Kapuscinski, I thought is a good time to look at writers who have pushed the boundaries of literary nonfiction. Whereas most of Kapuscinski’s work dealt with journalistic matters, the work of these three polymaths is difficult to categorize because with each new book they seem to take on entirely new territories.

coverThe first one is Lawrence Weschler, whose most recent book, Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. This book is a fine example of how Weschler stamps out new territories for himself–in it, he takes unlikely things, like photos of Slobodan Milosevic and Newt Gingrich, or the color patters at Ground Zero in New York and those on the American flag, or one of the first photos taken on the moon and Abstract Impressionist art, and shows how they’re connected. If that’s all he did, this would just be a clever parlor trick, but then accompanying each convergence is a short essay thinking about what this can tell us about art, life, politics, whatever. The whole idea undergirding this book is that culture is a system that’s continually talking to itself, and that these convergences are not just funny coincidences, but evidence of the existence of this closed system.

Weschler seems to have an uncanny ability to make connections, so it’s no surprise that he would write a book like this. (See, for instance, this essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review.) I once heard him talk, and he discussed his method–he takes several notebooks’ worth of notes, then sits down and retypes it all, categorizing and associating along the way. Only when this long, painful process is finished does he feel prepared to begin writing.

But I can’t argue with the results. Before Everything that Rises was Vermeer in Bosnia, the collection of essays that introduced me to this writer. In the title essay, Weschler makes another one of his convergences (this time Vermeer to the Bosnian war). He also does an excellent 100-page bio of Roman Polanski, a feature on Art Spigelman (written as Maus was becoming hot), a brilliant look at the Polaroid photo-mosaics of David Hockney, and a profile of a man slowly looking his body to Parkinson’s disease who uses his affliction to make furniture/sculptures tuned to within a thousandth of an inch. All this and we’ve still half the book left.

Of course, there’s more. There’s his book on the Museum of Jurrasic Technology, a little hole in the wall in Los Angeles that turn into a museum with Borgesian exhibits where you can’t tell what’s true and what’s fake. From the review in The New York Times:

As Mr. Weschler’s narrative progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that, as an artifact, "Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder" resembles the museum it chronicles. About halfway through, we begin to get asterisked endnotes, which then become more and more elaborate, as if the profusion of interesting factual and mythical detail can’t be made to fit within the linear constraints of a straightforward essay. The book is like one of those false-bottomed conjurer’s boxes, for instead of one ending it has four: the last words of Mr. Weschler’s own narrative, followed by 35 pages of notes, succeeded by an epigraph from Italo Calvino and a lengthy acknowledgments-and-sources section, which, given the source-seeking tenor of the whole endeavor, is almost as important as the essay itself. And though the narrative concludes by sending us out into the world ("So, go figure" are its final words), the last words we get from Mr. Weschler tend the other way. "I resolved not to delve any further into the stuff about urine and grandmothers."

Then there’s his book on James Stephen George Boggs, a man who is not a con artist, but a just plain artist who reproduces money by hand, and then "spends" it by bartering with storekeepers to see what they will give him for it. The implications astound, and so does Weschler, who still has more books in his backlist. If you’re interested in this fine writer, here’s a couple of interviews to see what he’s like.

coverUsually thought of as a travel writer, Jonathan Raban doesn’t range quite as far as Weschler does, but he does manage to pack a lot in to that travel moniker. Like Weschler, Raban is good with connections, and in Passage to Juneau, his account of sailing–alone–from Seattle to Juneau he makes some good ones. Here’s one Michael Gorra pointed out in a review that’s well worth reading:

Raban’s comparison between the Indians’ conception of the ocean as a ”place,” a ”mobile surface full of portents, clues and meanings,” and the white sailors’ sense of it as mere ”empty space” deserves to become standard.

I agree that Raban brings in a lot of interesting material and makes good connections, but I also like this book because while Raban is discussing matters of the sublime and Pacific Northwest Indians’ ideas of nature he also gets across the idea of what it feels like to be a traveler in a foreign land. Although Raban must be a pretty good seaman, he’s not a great one by far, and I felt his tension at being faced with the wild. Moreover, I felt his displacement while sailing through Canadian waters or trying to fit in at a sailors’ hangout on some Godforsaken stretch of coast. I read a large part of this book while traveling through Spain, and Raban’s sensations as a traveler helped me define mine, his words both a comfort and a completion.

This wide-ranging polymath seems an ideal person to take advantage of travel writing’s baggy nature. As Raban himself wrote about the genre, travel writing is ”a notoriously raffish open house where very different genres are likely to end up in the same bed. It accommodates the private diary, the essay, the short story, the prose poem, the rough note and polished table talk with indiscriminate hospitality. It freely mixes narrative and discursive writing.” Among the books Raban has packed these and more into are Old Glory, his account (then as a Brit) of sailing down the Mississippi and Hunting Mister Heartbreak where he sailed from Britain to Key West on a trans-Atlantic freighter.

And then there’s Bad Land, probably his least travel-like book and possibly his most original.. In it he ranges over the land where a number of vanished farm communities once existed in Montana. Throughout, Raban thinks about the meanings of settling the West. It’s a book that in some ways brings to mind Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams, where she ranges over the American West, linking the sublime terror of atomic testing in the Nevada desert with the sublime beauty of Yosemite. You can find out more about Raban at this Powell’s interview.

coverThe last author I’d like to talk about here is Geoff Dyer. If Weschler is the journalist of the list and Raban is the traveler, then Dyer is our scholar-philosopher. Dyer’s most recent book, The Ongoing Moment, might one day be held alongside Susan Sontag’s On Photography as a classic of ph otography criticism. Like Weschler’s and Raban’s works, it is a book very concerned with connections–Dyer posits 20th-century photography as one big discussion, where the photos of Lewis Hind are then responded to by those of Alfred Steiglitz who then is quoted by Paul Strand whose work is then in conversation with that of Garry Winogrand and so on. The idea that knowingly or not, photographers are constantly referencing one another forms the backbone of this book as Dyer gives excellent readings of the work of 15 photographers or so.

Dyer also seems obsessed with following his own self-made categories throughout the 20th century. As Sean O’Hagan writes in The Observer,

Rather than weigh up the work of selected photographers from the last century as an academic might do, Dyer has opted, instead, to look at certain subjects common to all the photographers he admires: benches, roads, doors, blind people, hats, fences, streets. His task is to try to define the differing styles and sensibilities that make those subjects appear both definably similar and infinitely different.

The result is a quirky, personal book about photography that is nonetheless terribly erudite and continually fascinating.

Dyer has a number of other tricks up his sleeve. His Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence is known as the best book about not writing a book ever written. Dyer can’t write his book, so instead he starts traveling the world to favorite Lawrence haunts (brilliantly managing to get his publisher to pay for it all). The result has gained status as akin to Julian Barnes’s excellent Flaubert’s Parrot, or, if you like, a deeper, smarter How Proust Can Change Your Life.

Another book of Dyer’s which finds him writing essays about places he visits is Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. As the Complete Review summarizes,

Yoga is a book about being there — anywhere — and yet the different locales fade almost to insignificance, left finally only as a blurry (if occasionally vivid) sort of background. Dyer understands as much, trying to explain in a brief introduction what the book is:

It’s about places where things happened or didn’t happen (…..) In a way they’re all the same place — the same landscape — because the person these things happened to was the same person who in turn is the sum of all the things that happened or didn’t happen in these and other places.

Many authors place themselves as much in the fore of their accounts as Dyer does, but Dyer’s self imposes itself differently on his narratives. It’s an odd skin he’s stuck in, and he can never quite get out of it. He knows as much, and he accepts it; one might even say, were it not so inapposite, that he revels in it.

What does this book have to do with yoga? As with Dyer, it’s always hard to say for sure, but I think it has to do with the idea that the more he travels the more he stays in the same place, because with each place he visits he’s not finding a new place, but more of himself. It’s as though his travels are his form of yoga. So, as usual, no matter what the place or topic, we find Dyer taking center-stage, but it’s okay because he’s usually so interesting to watch.

Although Weschler and Raban aren’t so obviously in the center of their own works as Dyer is, I think that their books are also very dependent on their presence. What these three authors (four if you count Solnit, who’s also well worth reading) have in common is that they bring together large and disparate bodies of information through their lives or their travels or their subjects. I think this is why the work of these three authors appeals to me so–their books are focused on a certain topic, giving them narrative heft and intimacy, and yet they’re so discursive that I can sit back and revel in all the brilliant connections these authors make, incidentally, picking up a strange array of interesting facts along the way (something I always enjoy). There’s something about me that just loves to watch an author make an extended series of connections–sort of like a jazz musician pounding out a series of riffs–it’s as much of an aesthetic pleasure as an intellectual one.

Which brings me back to the book we started with–Weschler’s book on connections, Everything that Rises. In it he tries to codify his obsession with connections, to not only pursue them throughout history and culture but to untangle why he finds them to be such a rich source of ideas and prose. Perhaps Wescheler’s book, then, is a good emblem for the mode of writing epitomized by these authors that dive into the maelstrom of information and, almost impossibly, pull out rich threads of meaning. Although I don’t think their brand of writing is new, I do think that as information multiplies ever faster their brand of writing has grown more valuable, and possibly more rare.

Friday Column: Reading in a Foreign Language

I recently finished the first book I have ever read entirely in a language other than English. It was Las batallas en el desierto by Jose Emilio Pacheco. It’s a classic of Mexican literature, originally published in Spanish 1981 and translated into English as Battles in the Desert and Other Stories by New Directions in 1987.

As you might imagine for someone reading outside of his native language for the first time, this is a slight work: 68 pages total, and the chapters average from five to six pages each. It took me a while to get through it. I read it on and off over the course of a month with a Spanish-to-English dictionary in hand, proceeding at a rate of perhaps 3 pages per hour. I’m happy to report that my Spanish improved while I read Las batallas, and I was inspired to start in on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, a book that is a little more challenging than Las batallas.

I could tell my Spanish was better because the grammar became more intuitive and I could define more and more words from context (looking things up in the dictionary is a real speed-killer). This all made me wonder about how often I define words from context when I’m reading in English, and I think the answer is "surprisingly often." Picking one page at random from Life: A User’s Manual (the book I’m currently reading in English), I find the following unknown words:

carotid artery; macintosh; a fortiori; rolling stock inspector

I didn’t need to look up any of these, though, because I was able to reason that I didn’t need a precise definition of any of them in order to understand what was going on. For instance, I don’t know exactly what the carotid artery is, but I know enough to know that if an assassin’s bullet hits it, that’s bad. Likewise, I don’t know what a rolling stock inspector is (maybe someone who checks the condition of livestock being delivered between destinations?), but I could tell that it wasn’t really important information, so I didn’t look it up.

It’s different in Spanish because I have a much worse sense of knowing which unknown words I need to look up and which ones I don’t. Many times while reading Las batallas I’d have a general sense of what was going on, but there would be a lot of details I was uncertain of. Which of these were crucial for my understanding of the book, and which of them were not? I couldn’t tell, so I just looked up everything.

Other times, I would know all the words, but meaning would still elude me. What would be perfect grammar to a native Spanish speaker was to me a sort of koan; I had to sit there and puzzle over it until the translation into English suddenly struck me. For instance:

Estamos por salir. — Literally: We are for to leave.

Something like this doesn’t seem quite right, but, after sitting there squinting at it, it eventually it occurs to me that it really is "We are ready to leave." There are lots of instances like this, and unless my dictionary lists this particular expression or something similar, then I just have to go on context and wait until the meaning strikes me. It’s strange when these things would strike me. Oftentimes I’d be unable to translate something like this and just settle for a more-or-less correct understanding, and then, maybe a day later when I was in the shower, the expression would suddenly pop in my head with the attendant translation. It was as though my brain had been kicking it around the entire time, which may not be that far from reality. They say that as you learn a new language your brain literally rewires itself, and I could feel it happening; grammatical structures that seemed completely alien the first time through eventually because so familiar that I found myself almost using them in English.

Of course, there’s also lots of idiomatic language that seems stranger still, like "Te da el avión," — "He’s giving you the airplane," which makes no sense at all unless I’m a pilot. It actually turns out that this is a figure of speech somewhat akin to "He’s pulling your leg." Once you know it, you can kind of see it (but why a plane? Why not a ship, or a roomful of gold?), but good luck figuring that out on your own.

I was helped in all this by the very large number of cognates that English shares with Spanish. There’s actually quite a lot, and it was fun trying to guess if the word went from English to Spanish or vice versa. It’s not too hard to see that postgraduado started out in English, but I wonder if finalmente was in English first or Spanish. I had to watch out for false friends, however, of which embarazada is probably the best known. If I told any Spanish speakers that I was embarazada, they’d wonder how such a state was physically possible for a man.

Related were words that could be cognates with just a bit of imagination. Timbre in English is a kind of sound, but in Spanish you ring the timbre at someone’s front door. These were kind of fun, because in unlocking the meaning I just to cross a slight synaptic (or is it syntactic?) gap, kind of like when you solve a riddle.

The act of reading itself felt contaminated by a number of different sensations that I don’t usually encounter while immersed in a book. Most common was that little snap of pleasure you get when the solution to a riddle suddenly pops into your head. I suppose that if I had to compare it to reading in English, I’d say that it is somewhat analogous to the feeling you get when you spot an emerging theme in a novel, or suddenly concoct a theory as to how what you’re reading in chapter 9 connects to what happened in chapter 2. There was also the constant weighing of speed versus accuracy. Do I read for the precise meaning sentence-by-sentence, or do I read an entire paragraph for the general idea, and then go back for specifics? Or do I just get the gist of this page and move on? Reading the book felt like a balancing act between just getting through it and reading deeply for things like voice, aesthetics, key phrases, subtext. Strangely, although I’ll read pretty slow at times in English to enjoy the language or ponder what’s going on, speed is never really a consideration.

Then there was the fatigue. In English I can basically read indefinitely; I don’t stop because I get tired, but because there’s other parts of life that need my attention. In Spanish, though, after about an hour or so my brain felt like it could use a break. It felt like a much more active kind of reading, which isn’t to say that my brain is passive when reading in English, but just that whatever action takes place no longer feels like work. Whenever I finished a chapter of Las batallas, I felt a kind of satisfaction that I used to feel back when I regarded reading literature as work.

Reading in Spanish, I got a much better appreciation of what it is people do when they translate books into English. My brain seemed most comfortable turning the Spanish into English (as opposed to just directly linking up the Spanish word with the signs in my head), so I was effectively translating the book as I read it. (With Pedro Páramo I’m trying to avoid this, partly to encourage my development as a Spanish reader, and partly so I can get a better sense of the rhythm and cadence of Rulfo’s prose, which, since Spanish is a romance language and English is not, should be considerably different than what I’ve experienced.) I began to see how much ambiguity is bound up in any translation. Of course this isn’t necessarily news to anyone, the old debate about staying true to the literal meaning of the words versus trying to capture the feel of the language with a more imaginative translation, but actually experiencing it was different. Because of the differences in grammar, even a very "literal" translation required considerable leaps on my part, and, given my lack of fluency in Spanish, much of the time I was really just guessing that this was how a Spanish speaker would hear the words.

Overall, reading this translation gave me an inkling of the variety of aesthetic experiences that are out there in other languages. Up to this point, it’s either been sheer faith or the assurances of author/linguists that have convinced me that more languages is better. I’ve taken it as axiomatic, as akin to the life and death of species. But now that I’ve actually seen literature in another language face to face, I feel like I’ve actually experienced some of evidence why it is better to have literature in more languages. This truly was different than reading in English, and perhaps as my Spanish improves I’ll be able to see more and more of that.

Friday Column: The End of the World

Earlier this week I commented on how much I enjoyed Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital. Reading that book, a realist telling of the end of the world via a neo-biblical flood, got me thinking about other recent, notable novels that have dealt with the end of the world.

coverThe first one to cross my mind was Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road. Critics have had mixed reactions to many of McCarthy’s previous novels, but there seems to be an overwhelmingly positive response to this one. This gushing first sentence from The Guardian’s review is typical: "Cormac McCarthy’s other nine novels could be cast as rungs, with The Road as a pinnacle."

Critics were also unified in naming this perhaps the most violent novel from an author who’s not exactly known for writing about pretty white bunny rabbits. The end of the world is just the beginning. After the apocalypse, a man and his son wander a world of earthquakes, firestorms, and malicious, senseless violence. So horrible is this world that the father–sick and coughing up blood–plans to shoot his son if it so much as appears that they’re going to be caught by any of the marauding gangs.

So why would anyone go on in this hell? The father tells the son "My job is to take care of you. I was appointed by God to do that." That’s a reason. There’s also intimations that the son is a Jesus-like prophet. Perhaps when they get where they’re going it will turn out the world has a chance. Or, given McCarthy’s reputation, maybe not.

I find premises like this hopelessly intriguing, but I usually stop myself before I start reading because–let’s face it–books like this tend to stink. However, I think I’m going to read this one. I’m partly convinced to read The Road because of the almost-universal positive reaction, but more because of what the critics have had to say about the prose. It’s been described as nothing short of divine.

But what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy’s late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description. As has been said before, McCarthy is worthy of his biblical themes, and with some deeply nuanced paragraphs retriggering verbs and nouns that are surprising and delightful to the ear, Shakespeare is evoked. The way McCarthy sails close to the prose of late Beckett is also remarkable; the novel proceeds in Beckett-like, varied paragraphs.

coverPerhaps the only thing that David Markson’s masterful Wittgenstein’s Mistress has in common with The Road is its austerity of language. The book is composed almost entirely of short declarative sentences separated into individual paragraphs. (There are a few instances of two sentences in a row). Sometimes these sentences read like koans, and sometimes they’re just the prosaic detritus of someone’s mind. All of them have been typed out by a woman who presumes herself to be the last person on earth.

Unlike McCarthy, Markson doesn’t waste even a moment on how or why the world ends. This book is entirely about the unnamed, titular woman typing out these sentences. On one level it’s a brilliant evocation of her isolation; brilliant because it’s next to impossible to express deep feeling in the narrative situation that Markson has set up–you try creating pathos with sentences like "I found a book about Beethoven." Michael Silverblatt, in conversation with David Foster Wallace summed it up:

What we like about it is its mixture of extraordinary intelligence and, at the same time, sadness. And the intelligence in it is really swallowed by a narrative situation that wants to compress it and make it nearly impossible to express. So that the book alternates between weeping, really, and extraordinary observation.

And later, DFW adds:

You’re talking about an effaced narrator where it’s not a literary choice, but it’s in fact a truth. And, except for very rare, transcendent pieces of fiction, I haven’t seen that done anywhere except spiritual and religious literature. Or, you know, at the end of Wittgenstein’s "Tractatus." I mean, you’re talking about the sort of thing that an absolute genius — I mean, a Mozart of living — comes up with after decades of effort.

I think Wallace is right to bring up the Tractatus, because in this book is pursuing a very Wittgensteinian subtext. Markson’s book captures the feel for how memory works (reading the sentences feels like someone running through her thoughts), and is also embodies the idea that language is all we have–the entire world of Wittgenstein’s Mistress consists of the sentences that run through the narrator’s mind. In one sense, these sentences are entirely real–someone is thinking them, after all–but in another sense, they’re very unbelievable: is the narrator really the only person left on earth? Doubtful. In pondering the truth of these sentences as thoughts versus the truth of them as descriptions of the world, Markson has written a book whose title, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, is very appropriate.

One of the things I like best about this book is how understated it is. Markson builds great depth without ever really pointing anything out. As I wrote previously in this blog

it would be difficult to read Markson’s sentences (especially the careful juxtapositions he has worked in) and not come away with a sense of the language games he is playing.

In a certain way, I think Wittgenstein’s Mistress is kind of a complimentary volume to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Like Markson’s book, the Tractatus is a philosophical book about language that consists of a number of sentence-long paragraphs (Wittgenstein even numbers them for us). Also like Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a lot of the philosophy in the Tractatus is unsaid. This is because Wittgenstein was well aware of the limits of language–some concepts can’t be expounded upon, but only implied–and he wrote his book in that spirit.

coverAnother end of the world book that is very highly interpretable is Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. This book stands out as being one of the strangest novels from a writer who tends to be known for writing strange novels.

The book has intertwined narratives that are told in alternating chapters. The first one concerns a 35-year-old Japanese man who is a sort of freelance mathematician. He underwent an operation that changed the composition of his brain so that he could put himself into a trance-like state where performs complex calculations incredibly rapidly (presumably, these are of the type that a computer couldn’t handle). One day he’s called to an office. After a minutes-long elevator ride he is placed into a dark closet that opens onto a ladder. He climbs several stories down into a subterranean cave where he finds a kooky old professor working on a project called "The End of the World." He gives the mathematician a unicorn’s skull and an assignment, telling him that if he doesn’t receive the results by Monday the world will end. The world doesn’t end, but eventually it turns out that the mathematician’s consciousness is also at risk–if he doesn’t get help from the old professor, he’ll forever be trapped within a sub-community that’s formed within his own mind.

That sounds like enough on its own, but we’re not even in the second narrative yet. This narrative takes place in a sort of medieval gated town called The End of the World. A man has just been let into the town, which is more like a grand prison controlled by The Gatekeeper than an actual city. The newest prisoner learns that residents of this town have had their memories stolen, and that soon his will be taken too if he doesn’t find some way to escape.

There are several links between these narratives–both protagonists are in danger of having their consciousness stolen, the unicorn’s skulls figure prominently into both narratives, and, of course, there’s that pregnant phrase "the end of the world" which we find at the heart of both narratives. The typical interpretation of this book is that the community called The End of the World is inside the narrator’s head, and that it explains what happens to him after he loses his consciousness. But, this is only the most basic interpretation–there are many other, much more nuanced ones. Murakami excels in creating fantastic stories that support an unusually large number of interpretations, and this novel is no slouch in that respect.

Another end of the world novel that I’ve enjoyed is Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things. It strikes me a very similar to McCarthy’s book, as it’s a sort of open-ended quest novel where humankind is plundering through the remaining products of capitalism (hence the "last things" in the title). Even though it’s a very dystopian novel about a world where death comes swiftly and mercilessly, I’d still say Auster’s world is far more merciful than McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic horror.

There are other books that have mined the end of the world: There’s Kate Atkinson’s collection of short stories, Not the End of the World, where people ignore things like biblical floods, catastrophic explosions, etc. There’s also Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island the story of humans in a sort of post-sex post-apocalyptic dystopian.

I think that Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Hard-Boiled Wonderland, The Children’s Hospital, and In the Country of Last Things (the ones I’ve read) can all be considered successful examples of the "end of the world" genre because, paradoxically, they’re not overly concerned with the end of the world. The typical stuff of novels–plot and characters–take center stage here. The apocalypse is treated as nothing more than background.

By contrast, I think Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, about a group of Australians who are the only ones to survive a nuclear holocaust, doesn’t work as literature because it’s overly concerned with demonstrating the horrors of nuclear war. It’s a good read, but Shute is too concerned with wringing melodrama from his characters to show the world that it really shouldn’t push the button. It gives in to the temptation that I think ruins a lot of authors that try to write about the apocalypse: the temptation to tell us what the end of the world–such a weighty subject–means. Novels tend to be at their worst when they’re telling us what something means, and Shute’s attempt to pass along a moral ruins his story.

Authors of apocalypse novels succeed when they use the end of the world as a singular concept that they can build interesting plots and characters around. In doing this, I think these books are doing exactly what any good book does. The books I like best are not the ones that have the most sensational story, but the ones that manipulate their premise in the most interesting ways. The authors of my favorite books think about how their premises let them build unique characters and structures; they find the most creative ways to get the most out of whatever premise they choose. So even though the apocalypse in literature is a very tired concept by now, I think these books prove that what’s important isn’t how original the premise is, but rather what’s done with it.

As I was reflecting on The Children’s Hospital, where a children’s hospital is the only thing that survives the flood, I asked myself, Why a children’s hospital? In trying to answer that question, I thought about how the novel would have been different if other things were spared. What if, instead, Adrian spared Congress, with all 535 representatives? What if he spared a law school? A baseball stadium in the midst of a game? If Adrian has chosen anything besides a children’s hospital, his book would have been drastically different. With that much diversity available within a relatively constrained plot, I’m convinced that the whole of the apocalypse has many, many more novels left in it, not in the least since people are always finding new and better ways to destroy this world that we live in.


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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