Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, September 26, 2016

Miriam Toews, _All My Puny Sorrows_

THIS IS TOEWS'S sixth novel, but I had not even heard of her before I read Curtis Sittenfield's review of this one...perhaps because it's hard for Canadian novelists to get on the radar in the U.S. But if the others are even almost as good as this one, they must be excellent.

Our narrator, Yolanda (Yoli) Van Riesen, has arrived in mid-middle-age with a couple of kids, a couple of divorces, a sputtering career as a writer of children's fiction, an offer to produce an adult fiction manuscript that she is struggling to take advantage of, and a tendency to drink a little more than she should. Her life is teetering on the brink of chaos most of the time.

Her sister, and the primary object of her attention for most of the novel, is her sister Elfriede (Elf), an internationally renowned and beloved concert pianist whose high-achieving husband is utterly devoted to her.

So--which sister is suicidally depressed?


Can Yoli pull Elf out of it? Should she pull Elf out of it? Should she, as Elf so keenly desires, take Elf to Switzerland, where suicide is legal?

Yoli has an enormous deficit in managerial skills, but Toews is beyond deft is narratively toggling between Yoli's memories of growing up (in a small Mennonite-dominated town) with the prodigally gifted but always tortured Elf and Yoli's exhausting efforts in the novel's present to get Elf to see the Bright Side and Get On With Her Life.

Toews likewise excels in portraiture, particularly with Yoli's and Elf's parents and Elf's husband. It is Elf who is most profoundly unforgettable, for the reach of her mind, the energy of her artistic gift, and the depth of her suffering.

This may seem like backhanded praise, but this is a sort of young adult novel for adults. It has the tenderness and emotional wallop of a really good young adult novel, but the narrative depth of Alice Munro. It could take the books clubs of America by storm if word gets out.  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ben Lerner, _The Hatred of Poetry_

A CURSORY SURVEY of online commentray suggests that quite a few people have one complaint or another about this book, but I thought it was very good--lucid, sensible, helpful.

Taking off, as anyone might expect, from Marianne Moore's most famous line, Lerner considers poetry's situation as one of those arts that, on the one hand, enjoys some prestige--prizes, professorships, hushed reverence within a few straitly-bound precincts--yet, on the other, gets routinely ignored even by people who pride themselves as keeping current with, say, film or fiction or  ambitious varieties of popular music. Like opera, ballet, and chamber music, poetry is sometimes dismissed as too abstruse, or antique, or solipsistic, or elitist...for some reason, no one loses much cred for saying they dislike poetry.

Lerner usefully points out that even poets themselves, like Moore, in a way dislike it, or are frustrated  with its or their own limitations. The poets we must honor today (Lerner mentions Dickinson and Whitman) were those who did their utmost to get beyond whatever the prevailing notion of poetry was in their own time. Poetry is language that tries to transcend the possibilities of language, as Lerner argues, and failure and disappointment await in nearly every attempt.

So the prestige, he says, in effect attaches to Poetry, the dislike (disdain, ridicule) to poems and, erm, poets: "Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too" (76). Given the frequency with which someone or other routinely gets a few thousand words in Harpers or The Atlantic or The [late] New Republic to lament that American poetry is moribund (even when, as Lerner points out, the someone or other betrays a near-perfect ignorance of contemporary poetry), I am glad to have Lerner's essay. The dislike--okay, the hatred--of poetry is, he shows us, the cradle of poetry, a kind of enabling circumstance, that helps bring forth the kind of work that at least some of us prize, even find indispensable.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Rick Perlstein, _Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America_

THE SECOND VOLUME in Perlstein's superb trilogy on the electoral success of the mainstream right in the second half of the 20th century. The first volume, mainly on Goldwater, is excellent, the third, mainly on Reagan, I have not yet read, but this one, mainly on Nixon, is the key one for the summer of 2016, when Trump seems to be borrowing handfuls of pages from Nixon's playbook: fear of the other, jacked-up pride in an imaginary national past, anxiety about losing status, anger at disregard for traditional values, and big cracking barrels of white ressentiment.

Nixon parlayed this hand into one narrow and one overwhelming presidential election victory--tsk, if he had only been confident enough to know he could beat McGovern without resorting to cheating and breaking the law, he might have served out all of that second term.

That lack of confidence--that feeling that the cool kids are going deny him his due, that people have it in for him, that he will only prevail if he uses every trick in the book and invents a few more--is Perlstein's leading theme in analyzing Nixon. His shorthand for it is based on the names of two clubs from Nixon's alma mater, Whittier College: the Franklins, the classic student leader types, relatively well-born and beloved of faculty and administration, and the we-try-harder Orthogonians, the beta males.  Guess which one Nixon was in.  Right. But with him on their team, the Orthogonians took over most of student government by his senior year.

This is why Nixon played the ressentiment tactic so well.  He got it. He knew it.  He felt it. It was in his bones.

Trump, however, is obviously faking it. He knows it's powerful, he know the words and a bit of the tune, he knows how to perform it, but he doesn't feel it. The man radiates entitlement. He exudes privilege. You, sir, are no Orthogonian. You have to be Nixon to make Nixon work.  Or Ted Cruz. Cruz has got the Nixon thing, in spades.

For my money, the great Nixon book will always be Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes, a blend of on-the-spot and in-the-moment reporting, research, historical and philosophical acumen, psychological insight, and brilliant style--and throw in the drama of the Wills's own evolution, in the mid-1960s, from National Review wunderkind to liberal stalwart. But Perlstein has the advantage of knowing how the story turned out, so you should read them both, and there's room for at least three great books on Nixon, so let's throw in as well Robert Coover's The Public Burning.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Friedrich Schlegel, _Lucinde_, trans. Peter Firchow

I MAY BE among the every first to read this mainly in order to be up to speed for reading John Beer's new book.

I came to it out of obscure duty, then, but what a delight it turned out to be. Brief--only about ninety pages in this edition--but a wild ride. Published in 1799, Lucinde is "about" Julian and his…wife? lover?…Lucinde, and ignores all good principles of sound novelistic construction, past, present, and yet to come, with a thoroughness that is so complete as to be gleeful.

Like a good many of the novels that might broadly be called the progeny of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther--Constant's Adolphe, Senancour's Obermann, Balzac's Louis Lambert, on up to Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Teju Cole's Open City--Lucinde is less about narrative, plot, character, or setting than it is about the contours of a particular sensibility as it matures.

A case can be made for its structural coherence, I suppose, and translator Firchow, who wrote the introduction for this \volume, tries his best to make it, but the great delight of the book for me lay in its willingness to veer anywhere it wanted whenever it wanted, to take up lines of thought and abruptly drop them, to mix genres, to explain nothing save what it spontaneously felt like explaining.

Someone really ought to get the English translation of this back into print.  Used copies are going for forty and fifty dollars a shot, I noticed.

I think it was Morse Peckham who argued that Enlightenment thinkers were persuaded that human beings were best understood by analyzing them in some neutral, ordinary condition, but that Romantic thinkers were convinced that extremity--madness, criminality--or some other kind of marginalization from the normal--childhood, exile, poverty--revealed more authentically what the human was. Julian is a man in love, and the novel is largely about that peculiar exaltation, a deeply unusual state that may reveal more about us than our usual, customary condition does.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Lucy Ives, _The Worldkillers_

ELUSIVE, INTRIGUING, IVESIAN. Do the three texts of The Worldkillers constitute a triptych? Or are they best approached independently? The energy circulating in the book is not going to lay all its cards on the table, so you will have to make your bet and take your chances.

"My Thousand Novel" is a series of poems that feels like a sequence--they did appear as a chapbook (Cosa Nostra Editions), they do all center on a distinctively configured first person speaker, and there is a gathering intensity that flickers through jokiness, anger, and exhaustion until in the final poem ("To Find the Particular Place Then to Hold onto It") it gets to some new and terribly clear space:

Have you ever thought it is strange how you have to talk to so many people each day who don't need           your existence
Who don't need your weird existence, like
I don't need yours, reader
O push the clouds away, O push away the thick silk mat of me coming towards you
Push now the barrier in your mouth
A whole hill of tissue a whole room
We either say no words or weep into

Still...there is an aleatory quality, or an anarchic streak, or perhaps even some Rousselian composition strategy ticking away here, well muffled, that makes one wonder whether just how sequential the sequence is. What is going on?

"The Worldkillers," middle panel in our triptych, is a novel--a short one (fifty-some pages) whose chapters sometimes seem like prose poems, but a novel, perhaps a Balzacian one with its interest in furniture, perhaps a David Mitchell one with its hints of an elaborate mathematical puzzle, perhaps a Victorian thriller with its demanding, imperious ghost, perhaps a country-house-weekend murder mystery with its spectrum of eccentric guests. Or..is it not so much a novel as a quick, weird tour of the novelistic?

Last section--"On Description," subtitled "An Essay," but here too some sections could readily be taken for prose poems ("The eye remains fixed within the face and yet certain entities entice it, the anticipation of skin, something sinks in cloudy liquid"). The essay is on literary description, exactly as advertised...yet in a book that elsewhere seems to have only an attenuated, fifth-cousin relationship to mimesis, representation, and vraisemblance, why are we getting such careful, searching, earnest statements about description? Why, after the poems flowering out of their own verbal chain reactions, after the surreal tale of the archetypal mad scientist's dim assistant, do we have this essay's precisions about the mimetic, standing perfectly perpendicular to everything else in the book?

Obviously, I was left with questions. Which, truth to tell, is how I most like to be left.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Nikos Kazantzakis, _The Last Temptation of Christ_, trans. P. A. Bien

HAD TO READ this for reasons it would take too long to explain. I won't say I disliked it, but I will say I was happy to finish.

As you may recall from the controversy that greeted Scorsese's film adaptation, Kazantzakis does not give us the Christ of Christianity; that divine scapegoat, he thinks, is mainly the work of Paul. Kazantzakis's Jesus is a visionary and mystic, animated by a vision of universal love, who is goaded into a confrontation with Jewish and Roman authorities by supposed allies (principally Judas), with famously terrible consequences. His mother keeps wishing he would settle down and giver her some grandchildren.

The title refers to what became the most notorious segment of the film: the Adversary gives Jesus, dying on the cross, the opportunity to just disappear into a normal life as carpenter, husband (to both Mary and Martha), and father. Jesus feels the pull of domesticity but nonetheless elects to die on the cross, and, thanks to Paul, becomes the Christ of Christianity.

This is interesting...the novel just seems long (487 pages in my paperback edition), too many descriptions of the village streets, too many lengthy arguments with Judas. Say what you like about the gospels, they are at least lean.

I wonder what Scorsese saw in this. The film comes from a stretch when he was taking a lot of swings at pitches outside his wheelhouse (Edith Wharton, Kundun), and his film of this novel seems to me another such. At least he cast Harvey Keitel as Judas...now, if only he had cast DeNiro as Jesus and Joe Pesci as Pilate, we might have had something.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Noelle Kocot, _Soul in Space_

ANOTHER GOOD ONE from Kocot. Four sections. The first has a lot of short poems with short lines, often with phrases rather than complete sentences, clipped, not giving a whole lot away but even so with stray lines of direct address: "That's all I got," "My mind is not right" (or is that just citing Lowell?), "It will all be okay, I promise."

Part two: a nine-page poem, most of it statements about "it," but the pronoun has no antecedent until the second page: "I will be mad. / / I will be mad because it is my mother."  So, in some ways, a familiar kind of poem about an aging parent ("It liked looking at pictures of cats / On the computer"), but the simple alienation-effect of the pronoun brings out a very particular aspect of this experience (I can attest), one's intimate involvement in a difficult process that one can do little to alleviate, that one can sometimes only watch.

That's the thing with Kocot (for me). She creates a charged intersection of the confessional and the surreal. I wish we could revive that grand old term "expressionist," but we're probably too far down the road for that.

Part three: perhaps my favorite, actually, all sonnets (nineteen), exuberant in their verbal invention yet also strictly containbed by the form--another good example of two divergent things happening at once, pulling aginst each other, yet also strengthening each other.

The wolf howled at the flock, linguistics
Didn't matter. I spout tubes today from
My head, the trees, leaves, all over the place.
Another blue valley in a starboard eye-socket,

A paper touch of something else.

The language is in flower, but the kenosis is ongoing: "I am not finished emptying myself, even though / I thought I was." Nonetheless (unlike James Wright?), "I have not wasted my life."

Part four: harder to characterize. Seems connected to part one, but more expansive, perhaps more ambitious, still streaked with pain, but with a weary sort of spirituality;

          Is this a 
message? A message to whom? Is it
To you, who polishes me like a pearl?

The acknowledgements page indicates that the book's title is the translation of a Jarrell poem, "Seele in Raum," which has a couple of lines that might account for this book's hybrid of mystery and candor:

            This is senseless?
Shall I make sense or shall I tell the truth?
Choose either--I cannot do both.