Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Harry Mathews (fewer numbers this time, I promise)

I’m not the only one with Harry Mathews on the brain lately: Chris Kieran of Dreamers Rise put up a post over the weekend about his years of reading Mathews—and he pointed out a great line from the cover copy for an old omnibus paperback of The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, Tlooth, and The Conversions:
For several years Harry Mathews has enjoyed a growing following among college students, artists, other poets and writers, and fans of the obscure who have never been able to buy his books.
As Chris points out, that is a pretty good description of Mathews’s small but devoted fanbase.

In addition, Chris pointed to an interview with Mathews that Susannah Hunnewell (a Mathewsian name if I’ve ever read one) conducted for the Paris Review in 2007. The interview is so full of interesting material that I could quote from it on this blog for weeks. Instead, I’ll share some pieces and urge you to go read it in full. As I mentioned last week, the one time I met him, Mathews was a remarkably good performer, charismatic and natural-seeming even as he told what were surely polished anecdotes; the interview has the same feel, of a few hours spent with a great conversationalist.

Here’s Mathews’s response to the question of whether he has an audience in mind when he’s writing:
I’ve always said that my ideal reader would be someone who after finishing one of my novels would throw it out the window, presumably from an upper floor of an apartment building in New York, and by the time it had landed would be taking the elevator down to retrieve it.
Which is fun, and, in its way, not wholly unserious—but Mathews follows it up with a more direct answer:
I suppose I must have had dreams of greater recognition, but I’ve always had the audience I wanted, and that was the audience that reads poetry. What I want is enthusiasm among friends and their friends, people who I know are serious readers.
Much of the early part of the interview deals with Mathews’s relationship to his parents, and how that played into the way he took his first steps as a writer. His parents, as parents will do, had wanted him to establish himself in an ordinary, stable career and an ordinary, stable (if upper-class) social life, but Mathews had other plans:
Then I got a depressing letter from my father. I had written him at great length explaining why I’d switched from music to writing, and his response was, You’ve gone from bad to worse. When I think of him reading my first novel, The Conversions . . . . Fortunately there were some reviews—in America, two that I saw. One was in Time magazine, if you can imagine such a thing, and the other was an exuberant article by Terry Southern in The Nation. But the English edition was reviewed glowingly in almost every major paper. And because my father was a snobbish Anglophile, he said, If the English like it, it must be good. At that point, he relaxed. I hadn’t totally screwed up my life.
I tell myself again and again that the book reviewing world was different back then . . . but Harry Mathews got reviewed in Time!

His father wasn’t the only person who found The Conversions perplexing:
Kenneth Koch had put the manuscript in Jason Epstein’s hands at Random House, and his reaction was, Well, I can’t not publish it. But when it came out, except for a handful of readers, nobody could see what was there. They kept trying to read through the text rather than just reading it. When Dwight Macdonald saw me, he said, I didn’t imagine you looked like that. I think he was expecting a gnome. I had a surprising encounter with Bennett Cerf, who was head of Random House at the time. This was the man who published Ulysses. One day I was called in to his office. He said, Mr. Mathews, I don’t know what the hell you’re up to and I think you owe it to Random House readers to explain!
That story is even better if you’re familiar with Cerf’s cultured New York accent and slight air of fuddlement from in his many appearances on What’s My Line?

From there, the interview gets into some really interesting questions about the Oulipo, restrictive or programmatic writing, and favorite writers—with Mathews revealing himself to be an unexpected fan of a book I particularly like, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. It’s all well worth your time—and, might I suggest, a place in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume V?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Surprises, pleasant

One of the books I've enjoyed most this year* is Jamie Iredell's The Book of Freaks. I knew of Iredell from his first book, Prose. Poems. A Novel, which Andrew Wessels, in the review he wrote for me for the Quarterly Conversation, praised as "A singular, American story. A singular, American poem." The title alone--bet-hedging as all get-out--would seem to make that book worth opening, but ultimately I didn't think Prose. Poems. A Novel. was for me, for reasons Andrew noted:
Friends, alcohol, and locations are all described and interacted with but fade in and out without leaving a mark on the narrator. He is not upset that the Summit Saloon closes. That’s just the way it is. He is not upset that he has only felt a part of something a few times in his life. That’s just the way it is. The poems are not an attempt to create meaning, which would just be a lie. They are recognitions of the reality of the narrator’s life and situation. And the reality of being American is movement and change.
It would actually be hard to more perfectly describe the opposite of my experience: I've lived in the same house for more than a decade, with my wife, while working for the same employer the whole time. Change and drama (to say nothing of drugs) are not for me.

Andrew's appreciation of that book, however, was enough to make me open The Book of Freaks, and I'm so glad I did. I've drawn on the book over in my Tumblr annex in recent days, and as I've done so, I've found that the hard part isn't finding bits to quote-it's keeping myself from quoting the whole book. Arranged alphabetically, like a dictionary or handbook, The Book of Freaks reminds me of nothing so much as a cracked, contemporary Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon--only, one written by a Sei Shonagon who, rather than being a bit petty and superficial (yet brilliant) is instead cranky, crazy, and ironic, and who almost certainly counts himself as one of the freaks of his title.

His entry for "Hangnail, A" is a good example of his wandering, goofily associative technique:
When you find this loose piece of skin on your fingertips, rip it back, the skin trickle rippling the forearm. A blood globe reflects irises, blue, and with the surrounding eye whites, think of July 4th: the fog-dappled Marina beach sand that wound its way up the shorts and ground the thigh skin to tenderized red. That fucking surfer asshole with teeth for a head said, "You walk like you've got a stick up your ass." Knives slipped into pants and stones hefted at Ford pickups zipping past the walked route homeward from the school bus stop. That sleeveless jean jacket cocksucker's hair dripping mullet grease popped a zit when the blade flicked his wrist and the slice welled red. The stickiness congealing like a hangnail. the wife says, lotion-up, Vaseline that shit. Think of Steinbeck's Lenny, Lenny breaking Curly's hand in his own crumpling fist. Lenny was a big ill-witted boy who liked to pet soft things and usually killed them. That's what kind of retard to be. That's a retard.
He started at "hangnail"!

That's the pleasure of this book: following Iredell's skewed leaps of logic and attention, dancing along his unexpected connections, each leading sort of inexorably to the next, but at the same time taking such an odd angle that the point of origin is instantly lost, like Hansel in a bird-filled forest. The connections don't always work--an inherent risk when an author gives his childlike, semi-conscious imagination its head--but they do often enough to give the book a sense of abundance, of joy amid confusion, that's unlike anything else I've read recently. Read this entry on San Francisco, for example, and try not to enjoy the way it plays with cliches and outside impressions:
San Franciscans are most noted for their dreadlocks. In fact, when seen by astronauts hovering in the glow of the thermosphere, San Francisco proves to be one enormous dreadlock. All of Earth's patchouli--a substance cultivated primarily in regions known for their human rights violations--is exported to San Francicso. Thus, the air surrounding San Francisco, extending into the stratosphere, has had its trace elements replaced by patchouli and molecules of Dungeness crab. San Franciscans are fond of tacos and flat landscapes. Summers, one finds San Franciscans huddled around the hulking burning body of a wooden man, a wooden man in the shape of an inverse taco, placed in a distant desert, a desert flatter--even--than San Francisco.
It makes me wish he'd come up with an entry for Chicago.

I don't recommend that you live by the precepts of The Book of Freaks--unless you're the man with a shoe for a head found in its pages--but you could do far worse than tucking it in a pocket as a distraction for the year's sure-to-come moments of unalphabetized uncertainty.

Friday, March 25, 2011

An Oulipo question

Since this has inadvertently become “Ask the Readers Questions Week,” I’ve got one more to wrap up with—but it’s on a completely different topic.

Back when I was a bookseller, my store held an event to celebrate the release of The Oulipo Compendium, a compilation of and reference work to the members of the Oulipo and their many creations. The volume’s editor, Harry Mathews, came to the store and gave a talk about the book and the Oulipo in general, and he was wonderful—funny, polished, abstracted, an intellectual showman (and good company at dinner, to boot). It was by far the best bookstore event I’ve ever been involved in: we had great attendance and even sold a lot of books.

I’ve had the Oulipo on my mind lately, because Scott Esposito is leading a group read of Georges Perec’s Life A Users Manual (which you’re welcome to join). If you’re a fan of the Oulipo, the Compendium is indispensable, chock full of sublime and ridiculous ideas for new ways to approach literary creation. And it’s one of those ideas that leads to my question for you today: the N+7 constraint.

N+7 is simple. You replace every non-proper noun in a piece of text with the noun found seven nouns after it in the dictionary. So the first line of Mathews’s pleasantly odd book My Life in CIA,
That she was the natural child of an Orsini could not be proved or disproved; but those dark flashing eyes, that dusky complexion betrayed the Italian blood in her veins.
--when run through Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1977), becomes:
That shearwater was the natural childishness of an Orsini could not be proved or disproved; but those dark flashing eye-catchers, that dusky complicacy betrayed the Italian bloodfin in her veldt.
As the Compendium points out, this exercise is more entertaining the weaker the dictionary you use: smaller dictionaries allow you to travel much farther from your root word—no “eyes” to “eye-catchers” if you deploy a pocket phrasebook—but you get the idea. (And of course, there are those people who don’t think this sounds like fun at all. I disagree, but I understand. Those people should probably stop reading now; we’ll return to normal business on Monday.)

Anyway, way back when the Compendium was published, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about N+7, and then one day it occurred to me that it had another, unremarked quality that seems perfectly designed to appeal to Oulipians: It's an Ouroboros! If you perform this operation enough times on the same sentence with the same dictionary—each time moving seven nouns down from the most recent result—you’ll eventually get back to your starting point!

Think about it: if your dictionary has a number of nouns that’s evenly divisible by seven, you’ll get back to your starting points after one trip through. If it’s not divisible by seven, when you get to the end of the dictionary you just carry over your remainder: the dictionary ends four nouns short of the seven you need, so you start your new trip through on the third noun. If my math is correct, you get back home, no matter the dictionary . . . on your seventh time through.

But when I mentioned that to Harry Mathews all those years ago, he replied that he thought I was wrong. So I turn to you, readers: who’s right, me or Mathews?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My newly assembled sci-fi reading list!

On Monday, I asked readers for recommendations of science fiction writers I should try, and wow, have you folks come through! If this is a topic that interests you, I recommend you go read the comments to the post, because many people were kind enough to offer a bit of detail along with their recommendations, but I figure it's worth my posting a tally or summary of sorts here.

Here are the names offered up thus far, with vote totals in parenthesis and a bit of commentary here and there as seems warranted.
  • Gregory Benford
  • Alfred Bester (3): Clearly I'm going to have to try Bester. (Side note: longtime Chicagoans will remember when there was a sci-fi bookstore on Belmont named after his best-known novel, The Stars Our Destination.)
  • James Blish: Atticus warns me to stay away from Blish's Star Trek books, not realizing that the one area of sci-fi in which I've read deeply (aside from Asimov) . . . is Star Trek novels. I read probably seventy-five of them in middle school and high school. Such is youth?
  • Octavia Butler: I've actually read one Butler, Fledgling (2005). Though it suffered a bit from being the first of a planned series, which Butler's accidental death prevented from continuing, it was definitely interesting enough to make me want to read more.
  • John Crowley: Oh, have I read Crowley. But I've not read Engine Summer, the closest thing to straight sci-fi he's written.
  • Thomas Disch (4): Disch was the winner in this unscientific poll. I've not read him at all, though David Auerbach's essay on his work at the Millions last year nearly convinced me. Should I start with On Wings of Song, as marco suggests?
  • R. A. Lafferty (3): Anonymous wrote that Lafferty "is not afraid of extravagant language." "Be ye not afraid of extravagant language" would make a nice motto; I think I'll be checking Lafferty out.
  • China Mieville: I tried The City and the City, and while the concept was fascinating, I felt like the characters weren't very substantial, and I couldn't keep going.
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Ian McDonald: This suggestion, from Thomas, a bookseller friend from 57th Street Books, is the only one I've already acted on. I'm about 40% of the way through McDonald's Brasyl and am really impressed so far. (And this can serve as a reminder: if you don't have a local bookstore that you haunt often enough that the booksellers hand you things they think you'll like, you're really missing out on one of life's great pleasures.)
  • Dan Simmons
  • John Sladek (2): Atticus describes him as "very funny," which is always a plus in my book.
  • The Strugatsky Brothers
  • Michael Swanwick
  • James Tiptree, Jr.: Ed Park seconded this one via e-mail.
  • Jack Vance
I'll definitely be giving a lot of these authors a try; thanks to everyone who took the time to make suggestions. In gratitude, I'll pass on one of my own, courtesy of Ed Park: back in February he used his Astral Weeks column in the Los Angeles Times to recommend a one-a-week, year-long sci-fi diet consisting of the fifty-two stories in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed wrote,
his big book is both a thrilling entertainment and a convincing argument for the way SF can refresh the mind, play boldly with form and reflect its era creatively — in other words, what all good literature should do.
Now that I've got sci-fi on the brain, I think I'll start on the Wesleyan diet this weekend.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ballard, Wolfe, and a Sci-Fi question

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Finding my thoughts a bit scattered today, I turn to numbers in hopes of giving them a pretense of order. But since I'm writing about science fiction, let's make it a countdown!

3 For the past year and a half, I've been ever-so-slowly making my way through the 1,200 or so pages of J. G. Ballard's Complete Stories. I'm only about 350 pages in--up to 1962--and the thought that keeps returning to my mind (and that I can't be the first to dsicover) is that Ballard is clearly writing in the tradition of Joseph Conrad: Ballard's scientists, marooned on far-flung outposts throughout the galaxy, are merely Conrad's company agents and traders thrown into the future.

Like Conrad's characters, Ballard's have been nominally put in charge of places that are only barely understood back home--and whose history, culture, traditions, and dangers are almost entirely a secret. Their knowledge is limited where it isn't totally useless; their true dominion extends no farther than the walls of their base camp; and the culture they represent is utterly unwanted, even insignificant when set against against the inescapable age of the universe around them.

Look at the opening of "The Waiting Grounds," for example:
Whether Henry Tallis, my predecessor at Murak Radio Observatory, knew about the Waiting Grounds I can't say. On the whole it seems obvious he must have done, and that the three weeks he spent handing the station over to me--a job which could easily have been done in three days--were merely to give him sufficient time to decide whether or not to tell me about them. Certainly he never did, and the implied judgment against me is one I haven't yet faced up to.
Sounds self-consciously Conradian, no? That passage also signals the other key similarity between the writers: their characters, symbols of power without its substance, ultimately have only their honor to fall back on, and even, eventually, to hold them together.

If you're a Conrad fan who hasn't tried Ballard, you've got a treat in store (and vice-versa).

2 I've also been reading The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Short Fiction, which offers different charms. If Ballard's stories are of a space colonialism, about Western civilization's endless attempts to extend its domain into areas where it's not necessarily wanted or needed, Wolfe's are often about our attempts to exert that sort of control over our own selves and beings here at home. His stories are full of mad doctors operating on humans, psychological experiments that kill, houses of human horrors. Wolfe's world is one of knowledge perverted: it's not surprising that he has a story called "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories." (Though it is surprising that he also has stories called "The Doctor of Death Island" and "Death of the Island Doctor"--both written to answer a dare from Isaac Asimov.)

They make a good pair for reading in alternation, Ballard and Wolfe, the antiseptic, plainspoken loneliness of space set against the gothic nightmares we can produce here at home.

1 Which leads me to a question for you all: what good sci-fi writers am I missing? Ballard and Wolfe I enjoy, Bradbury--for all his occasional sentimentalism--is a long-standing favorite, Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem are as well. I tried Iain M. Banks last year, and he decidedly was not for me; I felt the same about Samuel R. Delaney's Nova, though in his case I'm not sure that I ought to give up on his whole ouevre.

Any suggestions?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Arthur Koestler's Dialogue with Death

Usually when I recommend that my employer, the University of Chicago Press, take a look at an out-of-print book for possible reprinting, it’s a book I’ve already fallen for; that was the case with Richard Stark’s Parker novels, Anthony Powell’s The Fisher King, and Francois Sagan’s A Certain Smile (coming this fall!).

But this spring Chicago published a book at my suggestion that I hadn’t even read: Arthur Koestler’s Dialogue with Death: The Journal of a Prisoner of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1946). All I knew about it when I recommended it was what Louis Menand had written in a New Yorker article on Koestler:
One of Koestler’s finest books, for example, is the account of his Spanish imprisonment, Dialogue with Death published in England in 1942. The book is not really about politics. Koestler despised the Fascists, but he saw little to respect in the Republicans, either. The book is about what it is like to face one’s imminent execution—it was admired by Sartre, among others, as a lucid statement of the existentialist situation—and, in this respect, it is a stranger and stronger book than Darkness at Noon.

Koestler’s Spanish experiences obviously informed Darkness at Noon, but the novel has more to do with the fatal self-deceptions of Communist dialectics than it does with the sheer apprehension of death. And Darkness at Noon is a roman a these, in which every character is a type—the disillusioned old revolutionary, the soulless apparatchik, the doomed idealist. Dialogue with Death is just a report on a series of mostly horrible events, and the author is under no obligation to organize them, or even to make sense of them.
Now that the book has arrived (with a new introduction by Menand), I’m pleased to see that it’s every bit as good as he said. I started it last night and read until late, unable to convince myself to put the book down.

Koestler’s writing is direct and clear, reminiscent at times of Orwell’s famous writing on the same war; yet at the same time, because this is a book about one man’s experience more than it’s a book about the war, it’s shot through with self-reflection and attention to the internal processes triggered by danger and imprisonment. Here, for example, is Koestler’s account of the day that followed the decision to kill himself that evening with a shard of glass he’d discovered in his cell:
The fact that I had made a decision which I regarded as final filled me with utter contentment. I became really cheerful, and the barometer rose at an astonishing rate. I called to memory, just by way of a test, the scene when the bear [a fellow prisoner] was led away, and the scenes in the police station. They now left me completely cold. I thought of friends and relatives, and found that I was not in the least bit moved. I was very proud of this Olympian frame of mind, and, true to the penny novelette, thought: nothing has power to move him who has done with life.

It was not until much later, in Seville, when I and a fellow prisoner, also condemned to death, were discussing the various forms of fear, that I understood the secret of this magic metamorphosis: namely, that by coming to a sham decision to take my life I had simply snatched for myself twelve untroubled hours. My state of Olympian calm was not, as I thought, the result of the decision itself, but of my having set a time limit of twelve hours. Up till now I had counted hourly on hearing the oily voice [of the executioner] calling out my name; now, by a wishful inference, I took it for granted that the twelve hours’ respite which I had given myself would be respected by the outside world. This was why I was so cheerful.
The penny novelettes make an appearance elsewhere as well:
I had a feeling that my knees were nothing but flabby jelly. “The condemned man walked with an uncertain gait.” All condemned men walk with an uncertain gait. Damn those penny novelettes.
Yet another time when Koestler thinks death is imminent, his fears are allayed by the fact that the guards handcuff him—handcuffs being in such short supply, and so difficult to remove from the dead, that only string is used to bind the condemned. These are the small lessons taught by prison life, and Koestler conveys them, one painful one after another.

His account of the days before his capture, when he waiting in Malaga for the Nationalist troops to take the city, is just as striking as the prison journal. Here he writes of the entry of conquering troops into the surrendered city:
As they pass by the house they salute us, and the household staff, who only yesterday assiduously raised their clenched fists, now with equal Spanish effusiveness, raise their arms in the Fascist salute. They seem perfectly at ease, but since they look upon us foreigners as half imbecile, the gardener advises Sir Peter and me to change our demeanour, too, “because we have a new Government now.”
Then there’s this, from the pitiful pretense of defense mounted by the city, a scene whose telling calls to mind the resignation found in Kafka:
There, up above on the Devil’s Rock, squats Captain Pizarro, gazing down at the road below to see if the rebels are coming. Beside him are a telephone and a steel wire. When the rebels come Pizarro is to telephone down to the post below. But as he is convinced that the telephone will fail to function at the critical moment, he has provided himself with the wire, which runs eight hundred yards to headquarters below; when he gives it a tug, a bell rings. Sometimes a bird comes and pecks at the wire, and then the alarm is sounded below.
Dialogue with Death makes a perfect companion to Homage to Catalonia: whereas the overriding impression given by Orwell’s book is one of futility—part of it brought on by the ridiculous infighting of the Spanish Left, part by the cruel absurdity of war itself—Koestler’s book captures, without varnishing the story, some of the drama and intensity of the war, and even of very basic personal peril, so that we can begin to understand just what it was that drew so many idealistic young people to want to go to Spain to fight and die. The books work well together because we shouldn't be seduced by such visions, but we should never forget that people throughout history have been, and probably will continue to be.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On the pleasures of Dungeons and Dragons, a game I've never played

{Photos by rocketlass.}

When rocketlass and I were in New York last fall, Ed Park was kind enough to invite us over. We'd only been there a few minutes when I looked up from a conversation with Ed's elder son and saw Ed and rocketlass at the bookshelf, engrossed in Ed's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide. When I walked over, they were looking at--I'm not making this up--a table showing the amount of damage a character would take in a battle with tentacled creatures . . . and how that damage would increase with each additional tentacle. The mind boggled, pleasantly.

I would gladly have played D&D as a kid, but I wasn't living in that sort of town. Rocketlass still plays occasionally--I think she's a chaotic half-shark-alligator half-gully dwarf or something--and I knew that Ed had been fascinated by D&D and roleplaying games since childhood (as evidenced by this wonderful story for the Significant Objects series on a little-known game called The Mountains of Moralia.)

But even that knowledge didn't prepare me for the pleasure offered by Ed's piece about the Dungeon Master's Guide in the recent anthology Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Books. It's funny, loving, and self-questioning--all the things that a non-sappy essay on one's most cherished book should be--and on top of that, it's formally inventive. I'll share a few highlights, which, stripped from context, will seem a bit more fragmentary than they really are.

Here's one that gets at the charm of the obsessive specificity of the game's rulebook:
35. "Some of the words I've never encountered since. Psionics, which was this trippy other level of playing in which a character had all sorts of powerful mental abilities. It was distinct from magic--any character could choose to be a magic-user, but psionics was something you either had or didn't, and it was very unlikely you had it. I think there was a 1 in 100 chance you had psionic capability."

36. "I liked how so much space was devoted to a trait that so few characters would have. To a situation that might never come up. Just in case. Worlds within worlds."
And this:
42. "The Colors of Gemstones. Chances of Knowing the Answer to a Question."

43. "Intoxication Recovery Table."

44. "Cubic Volume of Rock Per 8 Hours Labor Per Miner."
That list represents the very organized quality that would have appealed to me as a pre-teen boy--the sense it gives that the world really is explicable if you are willing to apply yourself and, more important, be systematic. Lacking potential D&D partners, I met that need with Bill James's baseball writing, a gateway drug to nerddom of a different sort.

Then there's this, familiar from hours spent gawping in Waldenbooks:
70. "Look at this cover! It's totally insane. I'm amazed my parents allowed me to read this stuff at all. That they bought me this! Check it out. You've got this near-nude fire giant or demon or chaotic evil demigod, muscles bulging, looking rigid as a statue, with weird yellow flames dancing around his body and two horrible-looking horns coming out his forehead and a set of fangs and a nose like a fleur-de-lis and little inexpressive sunbursts where his eyes should be."
Which leads, inevitably, as it did in life, to this:
71. "Mom, it's not Satanic!"
If these excerpts have whetted your appetite, you should read the whole essay; on its own, it's worth the cost of the book, and that's before you get to Ray Bradbury's touching introduction about his Halloween-loving aunt and Edgar Allan Poe, or Karen Joy Fowler's piece on her youthful defense of The Once and Future King, one of my own favorites.

And if after reading Ed on the Dungeon Master's Guide, you find your taste for D&D isn't sated, I'd recommend Paul LaFarge's amazing 2006 interview with D&D inventor Gary Gygax for the Believer and this Grognardia post, to which D&D fans have appended their favorite examples of Gygaxian prose. Trust me: once you get sucked into that labyrinth, you'll wish you'd memorized the chart about the tentacles.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Woolf the critic

I’ve embarked on a slow read through Virginia Woolf’s essays, a task that I expect will take a long, pleasant time. The essays consist mostly of book reviews, primarily written for the Times Literary Supplement, but Woolf was not one to confine herself to writing in a straightforward fashion about the book at hand: rather, the best of her reviews are miniature studies or appreciations of the writer at hand, drawing on (and expecting at least passing familiarity with) the broader intellectual, cultural, and literary context in which the writer worked. Lest that make them seem rarified, I pass on, in agreement, this assessment from Andrew McNeillie’s introduction to the first volume:
[S]he made of the personal essay, the review, the biographical study, the commemorative article, an art of her own. That art is characteristically brilliant and robust. . . . If it is also an art tending to presuppose an acquaintance with literature that the majority could not begin to have had time to acquire, it is none the less democratic in spirit: uncanonical, inquisitive, open, and unacademic. . . . What is more, it is an art expressed in a fluent, witty and unwaveringly demotic prose.
Woolf the critic is so generous, close-grained, and attentive to even the smallest successes or achievements that it’s hard for me to see how any serious writer on literature could fail to take her as a model; if we all wrote with even half of Woolf’s sympathetic attention, the world of books would be a better place.

Beginning critics can take from Woolf not just an approach, but also heart: her first published piece, written for the Guardian, a clerical paper, shows none of her individuality and soon-to-be-characteristic broad perceptiveness. A review of William Dean Howells’s The Son of Royal Langbrith, published in 1904 when Woolf was but twenty-three, it consists almost entirely of a run-through of the novel’s plot, like this:
But the son has contrived to make a hero of the father, and a church and a village library are proofs of the munificence of the dead man. We are soon let into the secret, however, which is the property of the widow, one Dr Anther, and two others—that the public-spirited Royal Langbrith is a grotesque myth; he was in reality a scoundrel who got his wealth by appropriating the inventions of another.
And so forth. It’s all clearly and concisely laid out—which any reviewer who’s tried to explain a plot knows is not an easy task—but like nearly all plot summaries it’s essentially inert, revealing enough information to ruin the drama of the book without conveying any of that drama to the reader.

And yet, within a few years, Woolf would routinely be offering readers such incidental gems at this consideration of the value of literary biography, from a review of a life of Laurence Sterne:
It is the custom to draw a distinction between a man and his works and to add that, although the world has a claim to read every line of his writing, it must not ask questions about the author. The distinction has arisen, we may believe, because the art of biography has fallen very low, and people of good taste infer that a "life" will merely gratify a base curiosity, or will set up a respectable figure of sawdust. It is therefor a wise precaution to limit one's study of a writer to the study of his works; but, like other precautions, it implies some loss. We sacrifice an aesthetic pleasure, possibly of first-rate value—a life of Johnson, for example—and we raise boundaries where there should be none. A writer is a writer from his cradle; in his dealings with the world,in his affections, in his attitude to the thousand small things that happen between dawn and sunset, he shows the same point of view as that which he elaborates afterwards with a pen in his hand. It is more fragmentary and incoherent, but it is also more intense. To this, which one may call the aesthetic interest of his character, there are added the various interests of circumstance—here and how he was born and bred and educated—which all men share, but which are of greater interset as they affect a more original talent.
The voice has emerged, confident and memorable, and Woolf would keep writing in that style for the rest of her life, even as her fiction became more impressionistic and inward-looking. It makes six volumes of essays seem not a challenge, but a gift.

Friday, March 11, 2011

"I seem to have known and loved them somewhere before," or, On Japan

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The quake and tsunami had me thinking inescapably about Japan today. Our friends in the Tokyo suburbs are safe, as are acquaintances we made in the course of our visit there two years ago, but that doesn't significantly lessen the impact of the images of devastation.

Midafternoon, I turned to Lafcadio Hearn, to see if I could get from him some account that would convey how special, and fascinating, yet comfortable Japan felt from the minute we arrived. This, from his Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1905) isn't perfect, but it's close:
The majority of the first impressions of Japan recorded by travellers are pleasurable impressions. Indeed, there must be something lacking, or something very harsh, in the nature to which Japan can make no emotional appeal. . . . My own first impressions of Japan,--Japan as seen in the white sunshine of a perfect spring day,--had doubtless much in common with the average of such experiences. I remember especially the wonder and delight of the vision. The wonder and delight have never passed away: they are often revived for me even now, by some chance happening, after fourteen years of sojourn.
Then there's this, from Jonathan Cott's Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn (1990):
"Here I am in the land of dreams," Lafcadio wrote to Henry Watkin,"--surrounded by strange Gods. I seem to have known and loved them before somewhere." To Elizabeth Bisland he wrote: "I feel indescribably toward Japan. Of course Nature here is not the Nature of the tropics,which is so splendid and savage and omnipotently beautiful that I feel at this very moment of writing the same pain in my heart I felt when leaving Martinique. This is a domesticated nature, which loves man, and makes itself beautiful for him in a quiet grey-and-blue way like the Japanese women, and the trees seem to know what people say about them--seem to have little human souls. What I love in Japan is the Japanese--the poor simple humanity of the country. It is divine."
After he'd lived there a while, he would write in Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation about how different the Japanese are from Westerners, a position that's less troubling coming from Hearn, who loved Japan so much he made it his adopted home, than it would be from many another mouth. But it nonetheless feels wrong, a century on: when we visited, the wonder and the delight and beauty he describes were there, unquestionably, and, as with any nation you look at closely, we got the sense that Japanese culture could repay almost infinite attention and study--but the overall feeling was one of welcome. I've never in all my travels been treated as kindly, been shown such courtesy, or given such (often elaborate) assistance as we were as strangers in Tokyo. Kindness and courtesy are to some extent cultural, but that doesn't mean their existence shouldn't be celebrated.

Our thoughts are there.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Murakami and Millhauser

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Anticipation of the upcoming English translation of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (and the building consensus that it's his masterpiece) sent me back to my shelves this week to read some of the unread Murakami that has been patiently waiting there. I ended up choosing After Dark (2004, English translation by Jay Rubin, 2007), a slim novel that takes place over the course of the wee hours of one night in Tokyo.

After Dark is a slight novel, and it's far from Murakami's best. Only a few of its characters really come to life, and the elliptical connections between them seem less the product of the Dickensian fecundity of urban crowding than of the banal natural intersections of life in a contemporary capitalist economy. And yet . . . there's still something to the book that makes it valuable. It's a mood, really, a sustained hush that does seem to embody the feeling of the quiet little hours of the dead of night, as if things done in the dark will never be shewn forth in the light--not because they are evil, or even inherently secret, but because the world of sleepers that surrounds them makes everything seem, and maybe actually be, fundamentally less real.

As I finished the book, emerging into the day and the L train as if I, too, were rising up from sleep, I realized with a start what After Dark is. It's a companion, a rewriting, an opposite-side-of-the-world take on Steven Millhauser's Enchanted Night (1999). I happened recently to casually link Millhauser and Murakami, in my post on my preference for not interpreting Kafka, but I'd never thought of them in such close conjunction as this before. Millhauser, for all the pleasures his books afford, has always seemed too artful--even, at times, arch--to truly be a companion to Murakami's more organically strange imagination.

Yet when he's at his best, Millhauser offers many of the same pleasures, seen through a distinctly American frame. He transposes Murakami's tales of urban ennui and solitude to midcentury America, with its booming suburbs and their tenuous, newly constructed social bonds; its small towns seeing the first downhill steps of their decline; the awkwardly pubescent dreams of its baby boom children; the solitude (and dreaming) created by its push for conformity; the secrets, the secrets, the secrets. Some of this is territory mapped out by Ray Bradbury--hell, some of it is territory mapped out by Sherwood Anderson--but Millhauser buries some rue at the heart of Bradbury's nostalgia, swaps out the fear and menace of the dark in favor of the fears generated by desire, and polishes his language to a richly elegant sheen.

On to Enchanted Night. It's short, only 109 pages, and, like After Dark, it's easily dismissed as a minor work. It follows the events of one hot summer night in a town in southern Connecticut--which, mostly, means following the restless sleep and secret perambulations of a number of characters. There are magical surprises; there is desire, requited and unrequited; there is the reminder, inescapably woven throughout, that before air conditioning the world, windows open, sheets wet, was a different place. What there is not, really, is an attempt to claim anything larger for the story, to draw it together or build with it--Millhauser, it seems, is content to let us be innocent peeping Toms here, watching omnisciently what we usually miss out on while under the spell of the oneiri.

But, perhaps because Millhauser had the sense to keep the book brief, it works. It's a volume I go back to regularly, always on summer nights, when--any teens who happen to be reading are advised to turn away now--the weather makes it seem like life ought to offer more possibilities than it does (however acceptably bounteous those possibilities are when exposed to daylight), like Good God!, we ought to be out in this doing things, rather than sitting at home, reading and watching baseball. Here--think of summer, and try it:
In the warm night air, under the dark blue sky, Laura feels soothed: she can breathe now, out in the open,as if the suburban night under the wide sky is a western prairie. She thinks of cowboys in old movies, saddlebags, snorting horses, blankets under the stars. Yep. Ah, reckon. No sidewalks here--she walks along the edge of the road, under streetlights arching out from telephone poles. In the tangerine-colored light she watches her shadow stretching out longer and longer, a taffy girl, a telescope girl. Where to go?
Or this:
The moon, climbing so slowly that no one notices, shines down on Main Street. It casts a deep shadow on one side of the street and an eerie brightness on the other, where the sidewalk is bone-white and the little glass windows of the parking meters glisten as if they are wet.
And now let's bring Murakami back into the mix. Here's his opening:
Eyes mark the shape of the city.

Through the eyes of a high-flying bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature--or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms. . . . Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city's moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.
Or this:
The room is dark, but our eyes gradually adjust to the darkness. A woman lies in bed, asleep. A young, beautiful woman: Mari's sister, Eri. Eri Asai. We know this without having been told so by anyone. Her black hair cascades across the pillow like a flood of dark water.

We allow ourselves to become a single point of view, and we observe her for a time. Perhaps it should be said that we are peeping in on her.
The hiddenlife of nighttime, for both authors, generates a second, secret level of voyeurism, of godlike viewing of people who, shielded by the darkness, think of their actions as fundamentally private, unknowable. The effect is to make us feel as if we're being let in on a secret, even if that secret, analyzed in the day, is as simple as the realization that everyone has secrets.

Murakami's night is crowded, neon-lit, yet atomized; Millhauser's is near-silent, dewed, and oddly hopeful. I love, love, love, love, love the idea that they are twinned, that After Dark is Murakami's answer to Enchanted Night-- and let's not forget that Murakami deals in doubles and doppelgangers and dualities--that After Dark's night, young and urban, follows the sweatier summer wanderings of Enchanted Night like night follows day--like these two spots on opposite sides of the globe take turns with the sun.

Read them together, then go for a late-night walk. 'Tis good medicine they'll bring ye.

Monday, March 07, 2011

New issue of the Quarterly Conversation!

What would a blogger who's about to be late for his piano lesson do if he didn't have a new issue of the Quarterly Conversation to plug?

Fortunately, there is one, and it's full of good stuff. Like Patrick Kurp, always worth your time, distilling a lifetime of wrestling with Louis Zukofsky into a review of A. Or Ellen Welcker reviewing The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. Or an absolutely fascinating roundtable on a writer I'll admit to having never heard of, Margarita Karapanou, a discussion that makes me want to seek out her books. Or an excerpt from a forthcoming translation of a novel by Alfredo Iriarte that looks really promising.

And there's plenty more where that came from! Schedule yourself for spurious meetings at the office this week, folks, because you've got a lot of reading ahead of you.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Kafka remains the rage, or, Siding with Spurious

{Photo by rocketlass.}

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my love of Kafka, and of my preference for reading his works as essentially self-contained little worlds, strange and ultimately uninterpretable. To attempt to extract meaning from his fragmentary parables and inwardly spiraling novels, I argued, was in some sense to fail them utterly: they are to be taken whole, swallowed like a pill that, once inside you, spreads out to do its magic in ways you can't quite understand, let alone articulate. To extract their meaning is to extract their life; the carcass that remains is of no interest, and their essential organs can't be transplanted into any other context

Had I been thinking, I would have enlisted Spurious to my cause. I've praised Spurious in these pages before: the crabbed discussions on the exact nature and ramifications of failure, loss of ambition, lassitude, and general impotence in which he's engaged for the past several years with his interlocutor, W., on his blog are one of the true idiosyncratic pleasures of the Internet.

And now they're a book! A novel, perhaps?--it gets filed under fiction if only because no bookstore has a section devoted to Meditations or Grumbles. (Every bookstore should have a section for Rants, however, though Spurious wouldn't really belong there, either: a rant requires energy and the confidence of your convictions, neither of which Spurious would claim.)

Anyway, Spurious is sound, very sound, on Kafka. "Kafka was always our model, we agree. How is it possible that a human being could write like that?" he writes. W. takes it even farther:
For a long time, W. thought he might become Kafka. He was all W. read. Constantly, again and again, everything by him and everything about him, and he speaks lovingly of discovering the brightly coloured Schocken editions of Kafka.
But literary obsession is, like all obsessive loves, ultimately unhealthy:
At the same time, we have Kafka to blame for everything. Our lives each took a wrong turn when we opened The Castle. It was quite fatal: there was literature itself! We were finished. What could we do, simple apes, but exhaust ourselves in imitation? We had been struck by something we could not understand. It was above us, beyond us, and we were not of its order.

Literature softened our brains, says W. --"We should have been doing maths. If we knew maths, we might amount to something. As it is, we'll amount to nothing."
As for the question of interpretation, well, we'll let Spurious and W. opine on Max Brod, blessed (for all his failings) be his name:
Max Brod, so unselfish in his promotion of Kafka, yet so given to a vague and general pathos--to amorphous stirrings wholly alien to the precision of the writing of his friend--has always served as both our warning and our example.

What could he understand of Kafka? Weren't his interpretive books--which did so much to popularise the work of his friend--at every turn, a betrayal of Kafka?
So instead we imbibe, and we try not to overdo it, and to never lose sight of (or be inordinately borne down by) the fact that, as Spurious writes,
We know what genius is, says W. aphoristically, but we know we're not geniuses. It's a gift, he says, but it's also a curse. We can recognise genius in others, but we don't have it ourselves.
Which, obliquely, brings to mind a passage from one of Kafka's letters, sent to Minze Eisner in late 1921:
Are you a little more cheerful than the last time you wrote me and I was truly at a loss how to answer? I often am apt to beat my forehead against such a barrier.
And thus back to Spurious (and Spurious):
The last days! What are we going to do?--"We'll be the first to go under," says W., "we're weak. Gin?" Yes to gin, no to the apocalypse. What time is it? Already late, though you can never be sure in the shuttered living room.
Yes to gin. Open the shutters; enjoy your weekend.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The gang's all here, or, Donald Westlake's Drowned Hopes

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The best of the Donald Westlake books I read last week was easily Drowned Hopes (1990), the seventh Dortmunder novel. When I was halfway through it, I called it the Butcher's Moon of the Dortmunder novels in my Twitter feed, and the last half of the book did nothing to dissuade me from that opinion: like Butcher's Moon, it's longer and more complicated than the other books in the series, it brings together almost all the recurring characters--and shows them at their best--and it offers echoes and reminders of the earlier books. Every one of Westlake's tricks works in this book: the plotting is wildly inventive--the book spills over with plots and side-plots and incidents, getting crazier and crazier each time--and the comedy is wonderfully handled.

The plot is best left mostly to be discovered as you read: suffice it to say that it finds Dortmunder having to come up with some completely insane heists as a result of a sort of ethical blackmail--the entire book is in some ways a reminder that, at least when it comes to Dortmunder and his gang, there is honor among thieves. Oh, and there's a scuba-diving car, a crazy coot on a fifty-year mission of revenge, a confused repo man, a snooping librarian, and a mean hangover that Dortmunder somehow manages to acquire while being held prisoner.

The comed is the usual Westlake mix of careful observation of general human oddity and the judicious use of his recurring characters and their familiar peculiarities. This scene, a wedding in a sleepy upstate New York town that, for complicated and ridiculous reasons, Dortmunder and the crew have to crash, is a nice example of the former:
Relatives of the bride continued to predominate for the first ten minutes or so; giggling awkward large-jointed people wearing their "best" clothes, saved for weddings, funerals, Easter, and appearances in court. Soon this group began to be supplemented by members of the groom's family: skinnier, shorter, snake-hipped people with can-opener noses and no asses, dressed in Naugahyde jackets and polyester shirts and vinyl trousers and plastic shoes, as though they weren't human beings at all but were actually a chain dental service's waiting room.
The guests are seated, and the minister ascends the pulpit:
His voice went on, for some extended time, but the words did not enter one brain in that church. A great glazed comatosity o'ercame the congregation, a state of slow enchantment like that in the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Like the residents of Brigadoon, the people in the church drifted in a long and dreamless sleep, freed of struggle and expectation.
Westlake is thought of as a master of near-madcap comedy, but the comic touch in that scene is gentle, even subtle. The passage also reminds us of Westlake's debt to Wodehouse, the way he will occasionally pull back from the onrush of the plot and simply savor a scene, letting his language have its head (and thus its fun) a bit.

And then there's the gang. The following scene, which finds them scrambling to come up with a new plan for the heist after Dortmunder refuses to continue, made me laugh out loud. As they fight through Midtown in Murch's Mom's cab, Dortmunder's lady friend, May, asks if anyone has ideas:
There was an uncomfortable silence in the cab, punctuated by Mom's maledictions against the world of drivers and pedestrians and New York City traffic conditions generally. At last Tiny spread his catcher's-mitt hands and said, "May, that ain't my field. I pick up heavy things, I move them, I put them down, that's what I do. Sometimes I persuade people to change their minds about certain things. I'm a specialist, May, and that's my specialty."

Stan said, "I'm a driver. I'm the best in the business--"

"He is," his Mom said, as she swerved around a wallowing stretch limo driven by a Middle Eastern refugee who'd cleared Customs & Immigration earlier that morning. "I'm his mother, but I've got to admit it, my boy Stan is a good driver."

"The best," Stan corrected. "But, May, I don't do plans. Getaways I can do. Vehicles I can drive; there isn't a thing in the world with wheels and a motor I can't drive. I could give Tom Jimson very professional advice on how he'll never get away from that county if he blows the dam, but that's about it from me."

May said, "Andy? What about you? You have millions of ideas."

"I sure do," Andy agreed. "But one at a time. And not connected with each other. A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I'm sorry, I've never been good at that."

"God damn the State of New York!" Mom cried, sideslipping past a pipe-smoking psychiatrist in a Mercury Macabre. "They give anybody a license to drive a car!"
Drowned Hopes is a joy, start to finish, the perfect read to get you through the final weeks of this long, long winter.