The End of Oulipo?

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

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

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

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


Translate This Book!

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

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit LasVegas.ShowTickets.com

You Say

  • Graatch: Where are Bae Suah's translated novels available?
  • Yuki: Silly review. His ghostly dialogue has been part of the desi
  • WD Clarke: I just stumbled upon this 5 years late, but I appreciate the
  • Lance Edmonds: I agree with the above comment. I've regulated him to litera
  • Andrija F.: The novel's so bland it doesn't and can't provoke deep insig
  • Will: I saw that and just made the face you make when someone says
  • Johnb440: Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment it was extr

Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

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

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

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

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

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

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

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

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

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

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

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

Shop though these links = Support this site


Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

The Tunnel Big Read: Historical Philosophy and Broken Windows

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 4, covering pages 379 through 522. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.


We are in Week 4 of the Tunnel Big Read, but I’m going to begin this week with some thoughts on Week 3′s reading, since I did not have a chance to get to them last week. Week 3′s reading starts off with our longest, most concrete look at Magus Tabor, Kohler’s mentor and philosophical touchstone. The reading for Week 3 in fact gives us 35 consecutive pages of Mad Meg, including the scene of his death, one of the most touching and well-written sections of The Tunnel that I have encountered so far.

I think these sections also give us the long-awaited meat of The Tunnel’s philosophy of reality vis a vis historical fact and language. Here, Kohler introduces Tabor’s idea that “anything of which you could form a passionate conception automatically was,” [248] which gives us a very particular idea of what reality consists of. You can contrast this to the ideas of historical fact articulated by Planmantee and Herschel in the opening 40 pages of this week’s reading. These matters all, obviously, have a very clear application to Kohler’s own reality, concerned as it is with reconstructing and evaluating his life. Following Tabor, we would have to say that Kohler’s opinions on, for instance, his wife, exist in some meaningful sense outside of himself, even though they are quite obviously biased and the product of much anger. Do we buy that as readers? Would we take this philosophy into our own lives?

We reach something along the lines of the zero point of this philosophizing when Tabor declares that “Aristotle invents—okay, he finds—creates—the logic of the syllogism . . . and my good friend, the European mind is now in being! Well, the discovery of logic is nothing compared to the discovery of rhetoric . . . still . . . neither, you know, is an event in the same sense as a battle is, or an election, or the reign of a pope is it?” [254] So here we have Tabor making the very form of thought that undergirds all of Western history just one way of seeing the world among others. What does this do to any kind of reality that The Tunnel could be said to articulate? Referencing the great art of the Renaissance, Tabor later declares, “we can paint lies so allegorically belief will run to catch up, and create a culture out of sheer kookiness the eyes of others will envy, emulate, admire, adopt.” [258] Is historical and artistic fact simply sustained on belief? And if so, then what does that mean for Kohler’s philosophy of radical pessimism?

Interestingly, Kohler himself undermines any truths that we might take from Tabor, declaring, Tabor that “you could be certain of nothing with Tabor, for he was an absolute actor, and perfectly capable of raising and sustaining a purely rhetorical erection”? [250] But if this is the case, and if the world is nothing but words, as Tabor declares furiously, [268-72] then what does he become when, on his deathbed, “he had lost every medium for the spirit’s expression—all but his wary, unwavering eyes”? [273]

Another big theme in these opening pages is mortality: as Tabor recognizes that his death is approaching he begins to confront the fact of his own irrelevance, seemingly inevitable with mortality: “Not to be here, not to see tomorrow—which, when I see it I shall find as stupid and empty as I found today—is appalling, Kohler, appalling . . . to slip into the insignificance of history like a thought held in a dream . . . ” [250]

After this we get three curious sections: “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” [282-310] “Blackboard,” [310-7] and “Kristallnacht” [317-334]. These highly impressionistic accounts of moments from Kohler’s life are followed by his rather tragic account of “The First Winter of My Married Life,” [334-355] where he gives some hints as to the dissolution of his marriage. This week’s reading concludes with the interesting section “Family Album,” [355-375] where Kohler gives a photo-by-photo account of himself, and the rather harrowing “Child Abuse,” [375-9] where Kohler’s impatience with the cries of his infant son give some of the best testimony yet for his being a monster.

I’m curious to hear people’s impressions of “Windows,” “Blackboard,” and “Kristallnacht,” particularly the last. In there Kohler seems to be conflating actual things that happened to him (a homosexual encounter?) with historical episodes in the history of the Third Reich. Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” also seems to be linked in some way to “Windows,” where it appears Kohler attempted to participate in some kind of anarchist group by throwing a brick through a window (but failed, throwing his brick through a window that was open). Did Kohler participate in fascist activities in some meaningful sense? What exactly was his interest in Herschel Grynszpan, whose murder of a German was the pretext for Kristallnacht?

And lastly, to transition to a different subject, what did you make of Kohler’s youthful essay on reading [302], which begins “A book . . . is like a deck of windows: each page perceives a world and tells a fortune . . .”?

You Might Also Like:

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. The Tunnel Big Read: Week 3 Welcome to Week 3 of our group read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel. The read lasts from September 30 through November 3. We...
  2. The Tunnel Big Read: The Make or Break Week? We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 3, covering...
  3. The Tunnel Big Read: Slow Reading We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 3, covering...
  4. The Tunnel Big Read: Questions for Week 2′s Reading We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 2, covering...
  5. The Tunnel Big Read: Some Questions for Week 1 We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 1, covering...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

2 comments to The Tunnel Big Read: Historical Philosophy and Broken Windows

  • Hilary

    My response to all this is going to be a bit uncooked, but… I’ve been thinking about the questions with which you end this post: how the metaphor of the window develops throughout these passages (Why Windows Are Important to Me; Kristallnacht; and The First Winter of My Married Life).

    That passage you quote seems key: “A book, I wrote, is like a deck of windows: each page perceives a world and tells a fortune; each page at least faintly reflects the face of its reader, and hands down a judgment; each page is made of mind, and it is that same mind that perceives the world outside, and it is that same mind that reflects a world within, and it is that same mind that stands translucently between perception and reflection, uniting and dividing, double dealing” (302). In the window one sees one’s own reflection superimposed over the view of the world; one cannot see out without seeing the (reflection of) the self, and that reflection too is subject to judgment. How does this relate to the historical philosophy you mention above–that the rhetoric of a thing is as real as the thing, each philosophy just a way of seeing among all the others, each fact a matter of what one chooses to believe? (If this is a good summary on my part. And I can’t answer this question, only pose it.) By this metaphor: Kohler is documenting the ghost of the self he sees when he looks on the world, which he sees projected upon the world–is this the relation between diary and history? That one can’t look out upon the world without seeing one’s interior reflected?

    Windows—in the Kristallnacht section, he watches the neighbor with whom he’s obsessed (“the Turk” or “Greenspan” as he comes to name him, as a double for Grynszpan, about whom he reads) out his window, seeing into the other man’s window, and constructs the other’s imagined life through limits of that (doubly restricted) view. (In that one passage he can’t figure out where the light switch is, and surmises somewhat ludicrously there must be not merely two people in the room making love, but a third, who switches the light on and off.) His own existence seems less real to him than this imagined, glimpsed other’s (a foreigner, like him, or “a Jew,” he suggests). When (as you say & as I seem to remember he repeatedly reminds us, although I can find none of the passages at the moment…) he throws his brick through the window of a shop on Kristallnacht, he says he himself doesn’t break a window, his brick sails through a window already broken.

    The metaphor above returns here as well: watching through a window is a metaphor for reading. 321: “When I dug into the data about Grynszpan… wasn’t I peering into his privacy too, unbeknownst to him or his shade?” And watching through windows leads to a kind of complicity, he tells us on (322); but he ends up being very dodgy about what that complicity is: “there’s been one bit of history-making to which I have—in a most minor and irrelevant way, of course—lent a hand” (322), but he won’t say right away what it is, except that it is “if you like, spiritual,” and he goes out of his way to diminish its importance.

    Similarly, while he has earlier said he didn’t break a window on Kristallnacht, when he actually tells the story, he does indeed break windows. (Unless I’m misreading this? Pages 331 to 333?). He says he & his chums only “mimicked the manner of the mob” but of course by joining in they were the mob. (As an aside, I don’t think this is an anarchist group—it’s just he and his friends participating in the mass violence of Kristallnacht.)

    The question of personal (the quarrel) vs. historical (the war) comes in here too: Kohler wonders: did Grynszpan act out of the political motives usually ascribed to him, or out of the revenge of a jilted lover? (In which case he was a tool for the Nazis—the quarrel becomes a means toward war—the personal becomes the historical—)

    And then Kohler ends the whole passage on a personal note, with the radical pessimism (as you nicely put it) we’re coming to know as his: “I watched, read. I waited for a reassuring sight: of a life lonelier than my own, more sordid, tasteless, tepid, thin. … You see, I said to my cold soul. For my part, it wasn’t just Jews.”

    And I think we’re within the same metaphor—windows; reflection; judgment—in the passage on his marriage. It’s reflection that destroys his marriage: the other couple who lives in the other half of their home. Kohler and his wife are terrified at the thought that this other couple can hear them and judge their lives as K and Martha hear and judge in turn; they’re terrified that their own lives might be as knowable and sordid as the lives of this other couple. The power lies with the one looking through the window, not the one who is seen. But if the window also reflects, then one is always stuck seeing the smallness of one’s own life, the ghost of one’s self and its failings everywhere, the window or the page “hands down a judgment”… So that what destroys Kohler and Martha is merely seeing (or hearing, in this case) their reflections: having to witness themselves by witnessing the others through the wall.

    I know I haven’t tied all this together—just that it seems the idea of windows are the key… And there is something here about the fear of seeing the true self in its pettiness. What the Nazis were able to achieve, according to Kohler, is that “they rose as gods from the graves of their middle-class lives” (309). This is what he cannot achieve & what it seems he (monstrously) aspires to; maybe this is where his complicity lies.

  • Gs

    I’m starting to think Kohler is not a character but rather a concept. He’s not a William, he’s a Misery; A sometimes sympathetic, sometimes pathetic misery.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>