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The Coming Lispector Tidal Wave

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I have the feeling that years of hard work and dedication are about to pay off in a very, very big way, as we approach the publication of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories. See the front page review in The New York Times (the first time a Brazilian’s been so honored, so I’m told) and gushing praise in The New Republic. And that’s just the start.

(As an incidental note, I’m hoping to add my voice to the mix in September, if my priorities will allow it.)

This is really the story of many people working selflessly for a common goal, along them some remarkable translators, a legendary publisher and her staff, and, most of all, the impassioned Benjamin Moser, who got the resurgence of Lispector off the ground with his biography, Why This World, and kept things going with a re-translation of what many consider her masterpiece, and then spearheaded re-translations of four more essential Lispectors. And now this, the years-long work of translator Katrina Dodson (with Moser again providing must help and guidance).

And the wonderful thing is that few authors would be so worthy of this treatment. Lispector is genuinely original, and her work is so genuinely weird and against-the-grain that she would need champions to get her right in translation and make people pay attention.

For your reading pleasure, we have three pieces on Lispector at The Quarterly Conversation: The Lispector Roundtable (featuring Barbara Epler and Benjamin Moser, among others); an essay on The Hour of the Star, and Colm Tóibín’s introduction to said book.

Here’s a little piece of Clarice’s infinity.

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Do Your Own Thing

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There is an interview here with Jon Baskin, who is one of the is co-founders and editors of The Point magazine. You should definitely check it out, as The Point has impressed me as one of the most interesting and worthwhile of the literary magazines to begin in the Internet era, and Jon et al. have impressed me more personally as editors.

One thing I wanted to highlight from this interview is one of the pull quotes, which reads:

We were in this program The Committee on Social Thought, kind of like a ‘Great Books’ Ph.D. program, where you sit and discuss the relevance of Plato and Hegel and Hannah Arendt for contemporary life. That sort of ethos was so attractive to us, but we found that when we went to write about these topics, we were forced or encouraged to do so in a way that was academic, that didn’t speak for the relevance they actually had for us. That was the impetus behind deciding ‘Maybe we should start a magazine where we can do the kind of writing that we want to do.’

It seems like right now we are in a golden era of social media-enabled identity politics, where you can very quickly and easily register your support for a certain brand of ideological argument with a simple, painless “Like,” “Retweet,” or “Favorite” (sorry Google Plus, you don’t count). That’s all fine, and I’m not arguing that people should stop doing that (I do it too), but I do think there’s a problem where people think that doing these things, and/or applying greatly over-simplified cut-and-paste rebuttals to extraordinarily complex questions, suffices for engagement.

I guess that on the whole I’d rather that people did this than nothing whatsoever, but nobody should think that this suffices. It’s just not that easy, and I’ve come to recommend to people who really want to help their cause do what Jon has advocated in this quote: start your own thing. Badgering people who don’t agree with you and may well never get it is fine and probably does some good, but an even better thing to do is to start your own publication/website/award/campaign/etc/etc in support of your own cause. And I do think what’s happened with The Point is a good case in (err) point. To wit:

The first issue of The Point we sold out the initial print run and that was great. In terms of the lows, there was a time around issue 6 or 7 when we all thought ‘Is this worth it?’ That was when we decided to do a Kickstarter campaign which ended up bringing in over $100,000. It’s been exciting trying to see how far we can take this and to what extent we can grow.

If what you’re doing resonates, and if you do it well and stick with it, you can achieve great things, like finding enough support to raise $100,000 and getting the sort of relevance and influence that comes with that level of support.

On an unrelated, and more personal, note, I had to smile when I read this pull quote from the interview:

So much a part of the early magazine that I loved was that we [Baskin and the two other founding editors, Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick] would meet on the weekends and literally go through every article, almost sentence by sentence, arguing, bringing up objections, fighting (especially if it was one of us who had written the article). It turns out the three of you don’t have the same image of what the magazine is going to be.

Anyone who has been edited by The Point knows that it’s some of the most rigorous editing you can get. At times it really does feel like they’ve discussed every single sentence in your piece (and these tend to be essays ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 words and more). It’s impressive, and extraordinarily dedicated, and my writing has gotten better because of it.

Adorno’s Essay on “Free Time”

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One of my favorite essays of Adorno’s—and one of his most accessible—is his essay on “free time.” It’s short—just 11 pages in my copy of The Culture Industry—and I think it’s one of his more readable pieces. It’s also a very prescient piece, an essay that has grown more and more relevant as our relationship to free time has grown increasingly fraught.

Adorno begins by noting that the phrase “free time” is a recent coinage, as its precursor “leisure” denoted a completely different way of life that was (and is) well out of reach of nearly everybody who has some measure of “free time.” (For context, I believe this essay was written in 1969.) Almost immediately after that, he declares that “free time is shackled to its opposite.”

This is the main theme of the essay: the extent to which the hours what we consider to be ours are not really ours, and the ways that the culture industry attempts to colonize that time that us members of the middle class believe to be our free time. He puts it plainly when he says “unfreedom is gradually annexing ‘free time,’ and the majority of unfree people are as unaware of this process as they are of the unfreedom itself.”

Of course, in a culture where people regularly work 60- to 80-hour workweeks, and where we are all chained to the office by the Internet and mobile devices, these sentiments seem rather obvious. Adorno’s ideas go far deeper than this. At root, he sees our leisure activities as mere appendages of our work lives: “in accordance with the predominant work ethic, time free of work should be utilized for the recreation of expended labor power, then work-less time, precisely because it is a mere appendage of work, is severed from the latter with puritanical zeal.” Adorno goes on to argue that the real point of free time is to offer us rest and recuperation so that we may be prepared to do more work.

Adorno also presents the rather dark idea that our free time has merely become another thing for capitalism to monopolize. He mentions how travel has become a profitable industry, and he also invokes the idea of a “leisure industry” dedicated to finding ways of monetizing every last moment we spend outside of the office. Then he goes on to remark on our inability to opt out of such a state of affairs: “woe betide you if you have no hobby, no pastime, then you are a swot or an old-timer, an eccentric, and you will fall prey to ridicule in a society which foists upon you what your free time should be.” And, of course, it is not enough that we exploit our free time in approved manners—we must also demonstrate in culturally approved ways that we have used this time well: “if employees return from their holidays without having acquired the mandatory skin tone [i.e., a sun tan], they can be quite sure their colleagues will ask them the pointed question, ‘Haven’t you been on holiday, then?'”

Having laid out all of this, Adorno gets to the root of the matter: our concept of boredom, which he sees as purely an emanation of the prevailing capitalist order. “Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labor. . . . If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored.”

Boredom is closely related to imagination, which Adorno sees as being stamped out as we grow into maturity:

Those who want to adapt must learn increasingly to curb their imagination. For the most part the very development of the imagination is crippled by the experience of early childhood. The lack of imagination which is cultivated and inculcated by society renders people helpless in their free time. The impertinent question of what people should do with the vast amount of free time now at their disposal—as if it was a question of alms and not human rights—is based upon this very unimaginativeness.

As he closes the essay, Adorno notes a slight reason for optimism: “what the culture industry presents people with in their free time . . . is indeed consumed and accepted, but with a kind of reservation.” In other words, people have some idea of how their free time is monetized, how their “desires” are not really theirs but rather wants and needs created by advertising and propaganda.

I think it’s rather uncontroversial to say that this awareness has only grown in the decades that followed Adorno’s writing of this essay. Many subsequent individuals have discussed precisely how aware we are of this now—for instance, David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” where he breaks down how we are taught that we become individuals by consuming mass-commoditized products. Or we might think of Richard Linklater’s unexpected hit Slacker (1991), which celebrated people who had opted out of using their lives and free time in socially approved manners.

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Undoubtedly, there’s a rather loud and pervasive critique that has come out of the sort of ideas Adorno lodged in his essay on free time. People these days are very savvy about the ways profit-seeking industries try to impose themselves on their lives, and there’s a very serious discussion of how to separate one’s free time from one’s productive life. There’s even been a backlash against the ideas of conformity and utility that have monopolized our education system.

I do think, though, there’s quite a way to go. The ideas that Adorno critiques are still the prevailing ideology that we are all inculcated in as a part of childhood and adolescence (to see how deep they reach, just try watching Slacker without feeling that its characters are losers or oddballs). There’s still plenty of guilt over “wasting” one’s time (just see how many people write posts on Facebook about how they wish they weren’t so addicted to Facebook). And, of course, the economic productivity of the American workforce continues to rise to unprecedented levels (while compensation remains stagnant, or decreases). The counter-strains presented by people like Wallace and Linklater are still a part of the counter-culture, not the culture at large. Which is to say, Adorno’s essay “Free Time” is still extremely relevant, and very much worth reading.

Happy 4th

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In traditional American fashion, I’m celebrating the 4th by reading the concluding volume in the lifelong saga of an Italian woman who becomes a writer.

What are you reading this weekend?

Cess by Gordon Lish

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Gordon Lish’s latest book is basically a very long list, composed of words that are generally obscure and not-known-offhand.

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Ballsy move. Props to OR Books for publishing it.

Buy Some Damn Books

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If you work in publishing, or you review books, design books, etc, and you don’t buy books on a regular basis, you’re not supporting your industry.

I get it, I get it. We all like free books. I have tons of free books just sitting around. People come to my home and burst out into laughter at how many books I have. Fact is, publishing can be a pretty lonely, poorly paid place to make your living, and free books are a nice perk of the industry. No one’s saying that you have to individually purchase every single book you plan to own (although pretty much everyone who doesn’t work in publishing does just. that). All I’m saying is, if your first thought after “I want to read that!” is “who can I ask for a free copy?,” something’s wrong. Don’t go browse a book in your local indie and then make a mental note to track down the publicist later on.

It’s true, free books aren’t the worst expense a publisher will incur. It’s probably somewhere around $3 to print each copy, plus about $3 or so to mail it to you. (We’ll leave our costs of editing, acquisitions, etc.) But you still are taking those $6 out of their pocket, plus denying them whatever a bookstore would have paid them for it, plus the fact that the bookstore will restock a book if their initial order sells out (and will return it if it doesn’t sell).

One time I was in a bookstore with a fellow publishing professional. A ready super great person, someone I consider a lion of the industry who has done a ton of good things for books. We came upon such-and-such book, and I was all like, “This book is awesome. You have to read this!” He duly picked it up and made his way to the cash register. On the way he stopped, turned to me, and said, “You know I can get any book I want for free, right?” He kinda weighed the option for a moment. And then he bought it.

I get it. It’s a pride thing. We all want to feel like we can use our pull to get some favors every now and then. And also: publishing isn’t exactly the industry that is going to leave you with the highest disposable income for something like a new $25.00 hardcover that you’ll read in an afternoon. OK, I understand. I’m not saying you can’t score a free book every now and then. But you should really support your industry, particularly the small publishers who are doing tiny print runs and scraping by. Be a good citizen of the literary community. Spread good karma.

Disclaimers apply: if you’re planning on reviewing the book or otherwise doing some reasonably serious publicity for it, you’re entitled to a free copy. If for some reason you need to read the book before publication, same thing. If publicists just send you things for no clear reason, no need to send them back if you can’t use them. Etc, etc. And sure, get a few favors every now and then. That’s fine. But support your own damn industry.

And if you do get a free copy of something and you happen to like it, make a point of sharing that information. Post something to Facebook, send out a tweet. It will take you under a minute and you’ll have made at least 3 people’s days (author, publicist, editor). Or you could even tell someone about the book over dinner or blog about it. Be a good member of your literary community. Don’t be that guy free riding on everyone else’s enthusiasm and hard work.

The Cover of My Struggle 5

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This would appear to be it. A bit intense. Not sure what it is. (Anyone know? Speculations?)

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Some people have identified it as Spiral Jetty. Which makes me wonder, why would Spiral Jetty be on the cover of Book 5?

Found here.

Book 4

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So it begins. Good so far.

The Strange Beauty of Book 4

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Elaine Blair has a worthwhile essay on My Struggle in the current NYRB. The essay covers some topics that I haven’t really seen a ton of attention given to so far in the writing about My Struggle, mostly to do with the way the books process time and Knausgaard’s love of portraying minutia in them.

Much as there is to praise about Blair’s essay, one thing that I do find a little unsettling here (and Blair is definitely not alone in this) is how she willfully transforms Knausgaard’s weaknesses into strengths:

And then there is the beauty of Book Three itself. In the earlier volumes, Knausgaard’s insistence that we witness all the steps the narrator takes to cook his dinner, from turning on the oven to forking the finished product onto his plate, sometimes seemed an irritating exercise in literary estrangement. But the young Karl Ove’s attention to his dinner is in perfect keeping with the child’s perspective, in which details of such daily events are a real source of interest and the focus of attention. It’s as though we were finally let in on the secret referent of Knausgaard’s style.

Book Four is another long plunge into the past, this time into adolescence. It is distinctly unbeautiful, the most sloppily joined and repetitive of the volumes so far, but its repetitions have a darkly comic energy that is unique to Book Four.

I suppose that for Book Three there is something to this argument, but as to Book Four, Knausgaard has been pretty forthcoming in saying that it’s beneath his talents (and many critics have agreed). You don’t have to look hard to find interviews where he has said that it was essentially hackwork that he can’t bear to read any longer. Of course, we can take these comments with a grain of salt (Knausgaard is media-savvy, and we should always be wary of letting the author comment on his/her own work), but Blair very willfully turns even these remarks to his benefit:

This is one of few intrusions that the forty-year-old Karl Ove makes in Book Four. As is often the case in My Struggle, Karl Ove’s reflection seems inadequate or even contradictory to what we’ve just experienced with him. The narrator’s companionable intelligence is one of the great pleasures of My Struggle. Yet almost none of that intelligence is gathered into concentrated thought. Knausgaard has described the style of the narration as “infantile,” “idiotic,” and “not to my standard”—meaning that a lot of the writing is underworked, and that the narrator engages only in as much intellection as he really would have in the moment. Knausgaard has said that he could only let himself go and capture the feeling of the flow of his life if he did not closely edit and revise the manuscript. The result is a book that doesn’t think in the way that we expect novels to, which can be hard to get used to. You wait for some sort of deeper consideration of what’s happening, and it may come but more likely it will not—the book, like the life, keeps moving.

I suppose this is plausible. I’m open-minded to this sort of thinking. But I would say that it’s at least as equally plausible that Book Four just isn’t very good, that is was hastily written, not well-edited, and let go as it was to satisfy a ridiculous publishing schedule Knausgaard had put him self upon during a time of enormous stress and pressure.

In all honesty, I enjoyed reading Book Four, but I thought Books One and Two were vastly superior as works of literature. I took Four for what it was: the middle portion of an immense novel. Which is to say, considering it in context I think you can make an argument for it, and you can be more forgiving with its weaknesses that you would if you were reading it on its own. But you still have to be honest that its shortcomings are, well, shortcomings.

I’m fascinated by critics like Blair who will create rationales to explain how these shortcomings are actually strengths (and in other interviews Knausgaard has been a willing participant in this, just as much as he has willingly antagonized Book Four). But, it’s my opinion that, ultimately, these critics are fooling themselves and have gotten a little too caught up in this phenomenon that has taken our little literary world by storm. I could well be wrong about that (time will tell), but I think critics would be better off if they showed a little more skepticism about My Struggle. Yes, it is a major literary work with much interest to it and many strengths. But there is no need for all of the six books that compose this work to be equally good, and we can admit it as a worthy, interesting work of literature while still acknowledging some serious flaws.

Krasznahorkai and Dostoevsky

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Many years ago I read a lot of Dostoevsky—the books I chose to read were what you would call his “greatest hits,” i.e., Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov. I read these books so long ago that now it’s almost as if I didn’t read them at all. I’m such a completely different reader and thinker that I feel like I’d need to experience them again to really claim that they are part of the reading I do these days.

But anyway, the point is that my experience with Dostoevsky is ancient, and for a long time I held off reading any more of him (perhaps unduly influenced by Nabokov’s heavy scorn). So I think it’s noteworthy that I recently came back to him. I was curious to see what sorts of impressions he would make on me now, and I was also interested to read something completely different from what I had been reading. (I think a massive 19th-century Russian novel is going to be pretty different from whatever you happen to be reading at the moment.)

The book of Dostoevsky’s I chose was Demons. I wanted something sizable that would live with me for a while, and I didn’t want to re-read something of his I’d already read. So my choices were pretty much either that or The Idiot.

I chose Demons because it seemed to better suit my mood at the time, and also because a couple of years ago I had seen Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy, which is very much like Demons in some significant ways. The Coast of Utopia may be the very best work Stoppard has ever done. It’s all about the Russian revolutionary class in the mid-19th century—that is, about their rampant Francophilism, the many competing political doctrines that no one can really settle on (not least of which because no one really knows what they mean in practice), the Tsarist repression, etc, etc. It’s kind of Stoppard’s master statement on idealism in politics and the human quest for a more perfect society. It’s an extraordinarily compelling work, that rare piece of literature that seems to have equal amounts of insight into the personal and the historical (and their intersections). (And the main character of the first play in the trilogy is a literary critic. So how could I not be taken?)

Demons covers similar territory—that is, revolutionary politics, idealism, human attempts to build a better social order, etc—and I was interested to see how Dostoevsky’s depiction of the revolutionary political class in Russia at the time compared with Stoppard’s. Obviously, there are some big differences here: Dostoevsky was writing contemporaneously with these developments, whereas with Stoppard it was all well over a century in the past. Dostoevsky was a Russian, whereas Stoppard is an Englishman of East European extraction. And Dostoevsky wrote novels, whereas Stoppard is a playwright.

Demons did prove to be an interesting counterpoint to The Coast of Utopia, but that’s ot what I would like to talk about here. For what I did not anticipate with Demons was how much it would reference another beloved contemporary author: Laszlo Krasznahorkai. With hindsight, this realization is not much of a surprise: Dostoevsky is always interested by the ways in which (and reasons why) the baser instincts of humans are allowed to be released into action, and he also is interested in the social systems of control that attempt to keep those base instincts in check. This is, of course, precisely what we find in books like Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War & War, which give us exacting accounts of how human order gives way to chaos and disaster. And, unsurprisingly, if you look at interviews with Krasznahorkai, you will find him listing Dostoevsky as an influence. Jonathon Sturgeon also perceptively referenced Demons in his review of Seiobo There Below.

In many ways, Demons feels very much like a book Krasznahorkai might have written. It is all about an incident in a provincial town in Russia, where the prevailing order gives way to social chaos, which then enables arson and murder. At first, the sizable book (nearly 700 pages in my edition) seems to be a shaggy tale, darting about here and there for no clear reason. It’s only after a couple hundred pages that you begin to see that Dostoevsky is carefully introducing us to several of the key nodes crucial to maintaining order in the fabric of society in the town. He is also introducing us to the individuals who will eventually become responsible for tearing down that order. Dostoevsky is sensitive to what motivates everyone to act as they do, what are their prevailing interests, what codes they live by, what ideas influence them, what people they are susceptible to. All of this is in service to showing exactly how order is maintained, and then showing how it can be made fragile and eventually fall apart. The action of the book climaxes about 500 pages in, where the provincial power brokers are subjected to unimaginable indignities by the townspeople, which then opens the door for escalation, which eventually leads to chaos and destruction.

I don’t want to muck through the parallels here with Krasznahorkai in painful detail, but I think it’s safe to say that if you are familiar with his work, you should be able to note some of these parallels based on the short description I’ve provided. I find Demons a fascinating counterpoint because of course so much is different: Krasznahorkai is working in a communist (or even post-communist) environment, whereas Dostoevsky is pre; the two writers have very different approaches as regards characterization, structuring, the level of allegory they will tolerate, their stances on the role played by spirituality, and of course their ultimate interpretations of what this all means and how it is possible. And then, not least of all is the very different approach of each writer to the sentence and the paragraph.

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