Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Álvaro Enrigue, _Sudden Death_, trans. Natasha Wimmer

WOW. THIS IS good. Are there more translations in the pipeline? This is only his second book in English, so far as I can tell from Amazon, but I hope more are coming.

An historical novel in which the main episode--the narration of which is interspersed over the whole length of the book--is a tennis match that probably did not happen (but could have happened) between the poet Quevedo and the painter Caravaggio in Rome in 1599. The progress of the match is described game by game; between these accounts, we get documents bearing on the history of tennis, stories from the last days of Anne Boleyn, a quick look at the court of François Ier, portraits of some key figures of the Counter-reformation, highlights of Cortes's invasion of Mexico, and quite a bit more besides.

Many years ago I read Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes, an immense mega-novel set in the same era and with the same interest in what the arrival of Europeans in the western hemisphere meant. Enrigue's novel gave me almost the same sense of immersion in the mental world and atmosphere of an historical turning point, but by flashes and glimpses offered between a description of a tennis match--and in about 500 fewer pages than Fuentes used.

It's a startling departure from the ordinary, clay-footed tread of the historical novel. I had wondered whether a new day for the historical novel was dawning with Bruce Olds's Raising Holy Hell (1995), and Enrigue raises my hopes in the same way.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Emma Donoghue, _The Wonder_

I DID NOT read Room, but I read a chapter from this in Granta and thought, well, worth a spin.

It's a historical novel, set in post-Famine 19th century Ireland. Anna O'Donnell, an 11-year-old Irish Catholic girl in the countryside, has been living without food for weeks, an accomplishment some of her neighbors are willing to take as a miracle and a sign of sanctity. Having a saint, after all, would be a nice thing for the town--pilgrims and such.

Our point-of-view character is an English nurse, trained by Florence Nightingale herself, who has been called in to make sure the girl stays healthy and, additionally, to make sure she is not sneaking food.

Lib Wright, the nurse, arrives keen to expose what she takes to be hidebound superstition, but a kind of Stockholm syndrome in reverse takes place, and she begins to sympathize with and care for Anna. As Lib learns more of what is going on with Anna, the desire to expose her turns into a desire to rescue her. (Deliverance of the innocent from oppression in confined quarters may be a motif for Donoghue, from what I know of Room.) And, as we gradually learn more of what Lib's past life was like, we see she needs to be rescued herself, or at least find her way to a fresh start.

Donoghue does a nice job of presenting the evolution of Lib's feelings, especially the growth of the bond with Anna, and. the happy ending is cheering if not 100% plausible. Well, you can't have everything.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Nathan Hill, _The Nix_

I WAS SLOW to pick this one up, because novels that get the kind of build-up this one did last year are often disappointing, but I took a chance, and whaddaya know, it's excellent. I will definitely get Hill's next.

We start with a quick chapter in which a woman in her early sixties, fed up with the mendacity and bad faith of a (Trump-ish) presidential aspirant in her vicinity, heaves a rock at him. She instantly becomes an object of national fascination and (among the Trump-figure's followers) odium.

Here we meet Samuel Andresen-Anderson, early 30s, blocked writer, failing academic, thwarted lover, online RPG addict...Sam is a mess, we have to say, and moreover something of a cliché. The not-so-young-anymore male writer who has come a cropper is a familiar figure. Chip Lambert in The Corrections, "Dave Wallace" in The Pale King, "Joshua Cohen" in The Book of Numbers, to say nothing of the older versions in Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, Richard Russo's Straight Man, Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members.... It all goes back to Stephen at the beginning of Ulysses, I suppose, unless it goes back to Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions.

Sam is the son of the rock-heaver, it turns out, who abandoned the family when Sam was quite young, much to his anguish. Sam's publisher, who is about to drop him (and require him to pay back his long-gone advance), offers him a chance to get back in the game by writing a savage tell-all memoir about his radical harpy of a mother. Sam decides to go along with it.

This project, much to the novel's benefit, gets us out of sad-male-writer world. Pursuant to the tell-all memoir, Sam recalls his childhood, richly and memorably evoked by Hill, and then digs into some research work about his mother--at which point the novel really opens out as Hill reconstructs the life of the mother, Faye. Faye was a small-town Iowa girl who as a freshman at Chicago Circle wound up at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, a historical vortex Hill does a nice job of recreating.

Hill has a Dickensian deftness in caricatural minor characters--Sam's publisher, Guy Periwinkle, for instance, or Sam's full-blown-nightmare of an entitled/aggrieved undergraduate, Laura ("I pay your salary and you can't treat me like this!"). He even brushes genius in creating some of the not-so-minor characters--Sam's RPG buddy Pwnage, for instance (Hill's narration of addiction to online gaming rivals comparable passages in Infinite Jest), Faye's college friend Alice, and especially Sam's boyhood companion Bishop Fall, unique and unforgettable.

One thinks of Dickens in again when a series of not very likely coincidences resolve the plot in the closing pages, but by that point I was ready to forgive a great deal.

A "nix," by the way, is a kind of bad sprite or curse hanging around in the wake of a past mistake or dropped responsibility, and atonement for such lapses eventually surfaces as a theme--very convincingly, I think.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Postscript on Jamison, _Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire_

JAMISON QUOTES FROM several of Lowell's 1977 obituaries: "fairly generally considered the most distinguished American poet, and indeed the most distinguished poet writing in English, of his generation" (the Times of London); "the most considerable poet since T. S.Eliot" (1974 Pulitzer Prize citation); "he dominated American poetry of the last 30 years" (Boston Globe); "the foremost American poet of his time" (Washington Post).

This got me wondering. Would any poet alive today be called the foremost poet of his or her time? Ashbery, perhaps? He's in the Library of America. But on the other hand, I know plenty of people who are poets that don't read Ashbery. Merwin is in the Library of America, too, and I think he is read even by quite a few people not professionally engaged with poetry, but he doesn't seem to loom over the landscape. Billy Collins and Mary Oliver have large readerships, but would you say of either, as the New York Times said of Lowell, that in their "poems we were obliged to relive so much of the history and so many of the terrible emotions of our time"? I don't know. Alice Notley? Ron Silliman?

But...maybe it's less that we lack a #1 Poet than that the role simply evaporated after Lowell. Strong American poets, pace Harold Bloom, no longer seem commensurate with each other, somehow. We stopped thinking about who was the best poet in the room because they were all in different rooms.

Or is it that poetry has somehow slipped beneath virtually everyone's radar? I was in grad school when Lowell died, and everyone in the English Department, and a good many people in other departments, knew who Robert Lowell was. But there are any number of poets with long-developed careers writing today whose work I (for one) find as rewarding to read as that of Lowell--Cole Swenson, Jorie Graham, Lucie Brock-Broido, Jennifer Moxley--but whose names probably half of my departmental colleagues (or about half of any English Department, for that matter) would not even recognize.

The longer I ramble on with this, the more I think it's just as well, maybe better, that we do not have a #1 Poet. But even so I wonder why we don't.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Kay Redfield Jamison, _Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire: A Study in Genius, Mania, and Character_

NOT A BIOGRAPHY, Jamison specifies, but a study of how Lowell's manic-depressive illness (Jamison seems to prefer this term to "bi-polar disorder") and his attempts to manage it shaped his life and work. Lowell's illness was so near the center of his life and work, though, that the book feels like a biography without quite being one.

It also feels like a biography insofar as it is an answer (as Jamison herself points out) to a biography, i.e., Ian Hamilton's. Hamilton unsparingly spelled out the awful things Lowell said and did when manic, to the point that the reader just wanted to get away from Lowell, however impressive a poet he may have been. Jamison suspects Hamilton's biography contributed to the erosion ofLowell's reputation in recent decades, and she is right, I think.

To redress the balance, Jamison frankly acknowledges that Lowell said and did awful things, but does not describe them except in general terms, focusing instead on Lowell's struggle to keep working, to practice his art, in the face of a ferocious antagonist that lived in his own body.

Hard to think of anyone better qualified than Jamison to tackle the question of how Lowell's gift was entangled with his illness, or, more generally, how creativity is entangled with madness. Part V, "Illness and Art," ought to be read by anyone interested in the relationship of those two phenomena, however interested he or she may be in Lowell. Is there a relationship? Jamison's sober assessment is that yes, there probably is, although we are far from really understanding it, and Lowell's life and achievement deserve honor due to the brave and honest way he sought to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of his condition.

Will this book really restore Lowell's standing to what it was in his lifetime, though? I'm skeptical. I'm trying to think of poets under forty I've met who really admired  Lowell, and I can't think of even one. Maybe Adam Kirsch (whom I haven't met), but otherwise...he's just too clotted and veiny, or too messianic, or too much in the shadow of Yeats and Eliot, or too something. He doesn't seem to be a poet contemporary poets think they can learn anything from.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Robin Coste Lewis, _The Voyage of the Sable Venus and other poems_

HAVE WE HIT some kind of golden age for African-American writing? Citizen, Between the World and Me, The Underground Railroad, The Sellout, and this one...and those are just the ones that won big prizes. We could also note John Keene's Counternarratives, Darryl Pinckney's Black Deutschland, Gary Younge's Another Day in the Death of America (unless he counts as British), Dawn Lundy Martin...and I think I'm forgetting a few.

Why so many masterpieces in so short a span of time? I might not have noticed were it not for the prizes, but even so.

The tour de force in Lewis's book is the long poem in its middle section, composed entirely from the titles and catalog descriptions that western museums gave to works of art that represented women of African descent. If Citizen gained its power by describing circumstances that could inspire outrage in the coolest of tones, "Voyage of the Sable Venus" takes the tactic even further by restricting itself to nothing but the chilled-to-frostiness, aspiring-to-objectivity language of art history yet achieving soul-wrenching effects.

The poems in the book's first and third are remarkable too, highly finished, formally sophisticated, clearly not the work of a beginner, even though this is Lewis's first book. They too can get the needle all the way to the bone: "The Wilde Woman of Aiken," for instance, "or "Lure," or "Félicité."

Bad days for the republic, but a good time to be a reader, I guess, as in the 1850s, when The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Leaves of Grass showed up in the bookstores while the nation shuddered into dissolution.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Quentin Anderson, _The Imperial Self_; Peter Nadas, _Book of Memories_, part two

THE REFERENCE TO Quentin Anderson's 1971 book in Jonathan Sturgeon's article on Franzen et al. inspired me to find it, and it was worth the trouble. Focusing on Emerson, Whitman, and Henry James, Anderson finds in the American literary canon a lack of interest in or attention to what he variously calls association, community, relationship. In analyzing this tendency, he mentions individualism (citing Tocqueville several times) and narcissism (citing Freud numerous times), but his analysis is not theory-driven or programmatic so much as it is based on close reading and (occasionally) biographical particulars.

Anderson respects all three writers and obviously spent a lot of time on them, but he sees their fascination with a kind of self-sufficiency, or willed apartness from others, or refusal to acknowledge even any deep need of others as a limitation and a problem.

Part of his thesis is that this strand in the cable of the canon regrettably disables some of its political potential. This point could get a lot of traction these days, I think, but there may be a hurdle to its wider circulation in the way Anderson frames it. See if you can spot the problem:

These three [Emerson, Whitman, James] have a profound extrasocial commitment: their imaginative work ignores, elides, or transforms history, politics, heterosexuality, the hope for purposive change. (viii)

One does not see "heterosexuality" on the same side of the ledger as "hope for purposive change" these days, but heterosexuality is one of Anderson's images of the genuine engagement with the other that progressive politics require.

That blind spot could put a hitch in the stride of the Anderson revival, but I think he has a point in arguing that classic American tends to sideline the power of community.

The most memorable for me of the many memorable scsnes in Nadas's The Book of Memories takes place in the central square of Budapest at the time of the 1956 uprising. The narrator is caught up in the crowd, in the crowd's growing awareness of its own potential--which had a tragic outcome, in this instance, but was nonetheless real:

In those early evening hours the crowd had not yet swallowed me up, made me disappear within it, trampled me underfoot, or taken away my personality as it did so often afterward, but generously allowed me to experience--in the most elementary condition of my body's life, in the act of movement--my kinship with others, what is common to us all, let me feel that we were part of one another and that, all things considered, everyone is identical with everyone else, and rather than all this making the crowd faceless, as crowds are usually described, I received my own face from the crowd just as I gave it one myself. (487)

Classic American lit, for all our celebration of democracy, has few such moments. Ishmael squeezing spermaceti, maybe?