Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Ji Xianlin, _The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution_, trans. Chenxin Jiang

THIS WAS ACTUALLY published in China, which amazed me. It came out in 1998, "a politically relaxed moment," according to the introduction (by Zha Jianying). The Cultural Revolution was such a god-awful moment--like Tiananmen Square or the famine of the late 1950s or what is happening right now with the Uighurs--that the Chinese authorities prefer to limit discussion, and a lot of the available writing about those events was published only outside China's borders. This is an exception, and it's surprisingly powerful. Slender, plain-spoken, undramatic, but powerful.

Ji Xianlin was an eminent Sanskrit and Pali scholar who taught at Peking University. He came from a peasant  family and was an early supporter of the Communist revolution, so one would think he would be immune from the kind of accusations the Red Guards trafficked in...but no. Turns out he was on the wrong side of a divide in departmental politics and made an enemy of a colleague he calls "the Dowager Empress." And that was enough.

So Ji too is hauled before a "struggle session," in which the accused stand in humiliating, awkward poses while being insulted and hit with plastic-coated chains, and he too winds up in a "cowshed," a kind of work barracks where supposed capitalist-roaders learn their lessons through starvation diets, manual labor, more insults, and more beatings with plastic-coated chains.

Zha's introduction mentions that Chinese people writing or talking about "seething anger" or "unbearable pain" will often resort to "black humor or sarcastic hyperbole." Ji certainly does, providing some of the text's more remarkable moments, as when he notes what quick studies the Red Guard students were as torturers:
In fact, my students improvised ingeniously on what they had gleaned from their studies [of Buddhist hells]. Without having to build mountains of knives or fill vats with boiling oil, without any demonic aid, the Red Guard created an atmosphere of terror that far outstripped that of Buddhist creations.
A+, Red Guards!

The book's most moving moment, though, comes when Ji, dreading the summons he feels is imminent, gathers enough pills to die by suicide. He is minutes from doing so when he is arrested and hauled before his first struggle session. And...he survives it.
I realized that being stubborn towards wicked people has its advantages; after all, I am only alive now because I was too stubborn before. It turned out that I could endure greater pain than I had realized.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Bennett Sims, _A Questionable Shape_

BENNETT SIMS HAS published a couple of short things in Conjunctions that I enjoyed so much that I decided to see whether he has a book out. He does--this one--and it is excellent.

I saw a couple of disgruntled online reviews complaining that A Questionable Shape is a failure as a zombie novel. Well, maybe. I have no idea what the genre expectations for zombie novels are, though I can easily imagine how this one might disappoint. The zombies are not much of a threat by the time the action opens, for instance. The authorities have the zombies largely under control, and only have to decide what to do with them. Not much impending-apocalypse mood in the novel, no looming threat to civilization--a lack which might disappoint.

But A Questionable Shape might be better described as literary fiction that draws on genre tropes. For instance, Paul Auster's City of Glass is literary fiction  that draws on noir tropes. I can imagine a hard-core noir fan throwing City of Glass across the room, feeling  thwarted and cheated, particularly by its ending.

Sims's title alone hints that the novel is not an ordinary zomb-ocalypse. When Hamlet first sees his father's ghost, he addresses it thus:

Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com'st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.

Hamlet wants nothing more in this life than to see and speak with his father again--an impossible desire, since his father is dead. But his father, he sees at this moment, is not utterly dead. He is a ghost. He is not exactly alive, either--but he can be seen, in a way, and heard, And, it will turn out, he has desires, things he wants. At this point, though, Hamlet cannot be entirely confident that the father has the son's best interests at heart: its intents might be wicked or charitable. But he has to interact with it, come what may--the  ghost is a shape that has to be questioned.

So with Matt Mazoch. His father is dead, but a zombie--that is, not utterly dead, but not exactly alive. Matt, like Hamlet, wants to see, possibly hear from his father one more time, even though the father might not have the son's best interests in mind, even though his father can only moan and stumble around. So, like Hamlet, he puts his life on hold to try and figure out where he can find his not-exactly-dead father.

Fortunately, Matt has an articulate Horatio, Mike Vermaelen (sometimes "Versmallen" for some reason). Mike narrates. Horatio-like, Mike is a bit in awe of Matt, has committed to helping him, and has apparently taken on the responsibility of in this harsh world drawing his breath in pain to tell Matt's story, not that Matt has asked him to. Fortunately for Mike, Matt has not only a brilliant but obsessive friend but also a smart, loyal, and wise girlfriend, Rachel, who can ask some hard questions, set some boundaries, and help him save Matt...or so it looks to me. (Is this why Horatio couldn't save Hamlet?)

There is more than enough suspense for an ordinary novel here. Will Matt find his father? Will  his father be capable of recognizing him, or will he just want to eat him? Or does Matt just want to destroy his father before the authorities do?

Sims has any number of great narrative ploys going, but I will mention only one: constant footnotes. We could read this as a David Foster Wallace homage (speaking of the illustrious dead), but it's more than that. A footnote both is and is not part of the text--a neat analogue for zombies or for ghosts, who are not exactly part of the living just as the footnote is not exactly part of the text. Yet both are present, perhaps important, impossible to ignore. (Cf. Derrida on the supplement.)

Or we might think of Agamben and Homo Sacer, a connection Sims explicitly makes for us. Both Matt and Mike are readers.

One more thing: Mike's discussion of one's relationship to one's reading (pp. 147-59) is the most spot-on treatment of that subject I have ever come across.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Stephen Klaidman, _Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T. S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis_

SYDNEY AND VIOLET are the Schiffs, prominent patrons of the arts, especially the literary ones, in England during the High Modernist days after World War I. Sydney was also a translator, finishing the final volume of the English translation of Á la recherche de temps perdus when C. K. Scott Moncrieff died. He also, as "Stephen Hudson," wrote several autobiographical novels. As a couple, they served as model for Lionel and Isabel Kein, characters in a prominent episode of Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God.

I picked this up mainly out of interest in that excruciatingly irascible figure. Not much in the way of tidbits for me, though, and Klaidman's attitude towards Lewis is irritating.

Of The Apes of God, Klaidman writes:

It was published in 1930 and was almost immediately forgotten because most if it is hopelessly obscure unless you are intimately familiar with the lives of the real people who were its hapless targets. It was also forgotten because it is pretentious in its display of frequently irrelevant erudition that would distract from the narrative if there were one.

But then on the following page, he writes:

    The Apes of God is the most notorious--or for the Lewis scholars, the most glorious--work in the tradition of modernist satire.

Now I ask you--can a book be both "forgotten" and "notorious"? (Let's forget about "glorious" for the time being.) Klaidman first says the book disappeared from memory from the moment dropped from the presses, then says it has a very marked reputation in the present. That's just a contradiction.

If Klaidman wanted to cut the book down to size a bit, he could have said it is never sold well (quite true) and is currently out of print (also true, although used copies can fetch a lot of money). But people who know much of anything about interwar Anglophone fiction know about The Apes of God. It isn't forgotten. It wasn't forgotten at the time, either. People were pissed off about it for years.

Then, a couple of pages further on, Klaidman refers to the novels of Ada Leverson (friend of Oscar Wilde and Violet Schiff's older sister) as "a series of six lighthearted and mildly satirical novels that are no better remembered than Stephen Hudson's or Wyndham Lewis's." Well. It's certainly true that her novels are not better remembered than Lewis's. But that phrase seems to throw them, and Schiff/Hudson, into the same box of "obscure British novelists," when in fact Lewis is a great deal better remembered than either. Any good research library has a couple of shelves of secondary studies on Lewis's fiction. Is that true of Leverson's novels, or Schiff/Hudson's? In a word: no.

(By the way, I am not going to disparage Schiff/Hudson's fiction, which I find not great, but certainly readable. But it has never had much of a critical reputation.)

Let's see. Suppose I were to say, "Jack Rothrock is no better remembered than Pepper Martin or Rogers Hornsby." Makes sense if none of the three are familiar to you. But a baseball historian would know not only that all three played major league baseball in the 1920s, but also that Rothrock was a journeyman, Martin a player with a few moments of glory, and Hornsby a Hall of Famer. They are equally obscure to people who care nothing for baseball in the 1920s, but represent very different levels of accomplishment.

I can understand why Klaidman would be annoyed by the way the Schiffs are portrayed in The Apes of God. It isn't fair. But is fiction supposed to be fair? Was Joyce fair to Oliver St. John Gogarty? No. Does that matter?

Then we have the circumstance that Klaidman is willing to talk about Lewis's book being forgotten and then pops Lewis's name into his subtitle. Come on, man. Give the man his due.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Robert Glück, _Margery Kempe_

THE WEIRD TRAIL of circumstance, installment #716. I read a great interview with Glück in Believer magazine about six or seven years ago (conducted by Miranda Mellis, whose The Spokes I admire very much), and I immediately went online looking for copies of his books, purchasing three: Jack the Modernist, Elements of a Coffee Service, and this one, which I picked up for just a dollar.

Life being what it is, I did not read even one of them.

Then, last month, I saw an ad for what I took to be the NYRB Classic edition of The Book of Margery Kempe, but which on closer examination turned out to be their new edition of Glück's novel. I thought...don't I own that? After a short search, I found it. Now is the time to read it, the cosmos seemed  to be telling me.

Having once upon a time read The Book of Margery Kempe--perhaps the first autobiography in English, the story of a woman who gave up a thriving business and her marriage to follow what seemed to her a vocation of sainthood--I felt more or less prepared.

Still, the book was quite a curveball. Glück goes over the same ground as Kempe's own autobiography--her trying to explain to her husband what is going on, the difficult meetings with church authorities, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the many people who think she is insane--but he gives her relationship to Jesus a startling twist, making it graphically erotic: "Jesus the athlete moved with her easily. Her aroused her with his long burrowing tongue. He pulled hair aside and drew her clit into his mouth." That sort of thing.

But who said mystical experience is necessarily decorous and well-behaved? Might it not just as likely be shocking, disturbing, transgressive, even a little gross? As Teresa of Avila said in The Interior Castle, there will be things going on between you and Jesus that only you and Jesus know about.

Also unexpected, audacious, and ultimately richly rewarding is Glück's decision to braid Margery's story with a recounting of one of his own affairs, with a man here called L. Glück gets methodologically explicit about midpoint in the book: "This novel records my breakdown; conventional narrative is preserved but the interest lies elsewhere. Like L., Jesus must be real but must also represent a crisis" (p. 78 in my edition, from High Risk Books).

Makes sense, no? The beloved is like a god; any contact with him is fulfilling as nothing else is. When he smiles, the universe is redeemed. But his attention is divided, somehow. He sometimes abruptly withdraws. He gets to set all the terms. He has fabulous outfits. We like to think God is not as flakey and unpredictable as a human beloved, but honestly, how many has he left in the lurch?

Fascinating as all that is, what really kept me going was the sheer pleasure of Glück's sentences.

   Arundel invited Margery to sit in his garden. He had chalky skin and a red nose, the patrician bearing and tight gray ringlets of a schoolmarm.
   A bee backed out of a lily trumpet. A turtle walked resolutely across the path, shifting attitudes of attention. Margery started small. She asked Arundel for permission to receive communion every Sunday--unusual at that time but not exceptional. He consented with a nod. His gray eyes drifted, diluted in thick lenses. Thus established, Margery asked him for authority to wear white clothes--to confirm her affair with Jesus. Her voice was a clear bell that broke at the highs with a scratch of emphasis. He approved.

My favorite touch: the turtle.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

_The Childermass_: Lewis's best?

LAST MONTH I was re-reading Wyndham Lewis's The Childermass for I think the fourth time, inspiring a series of thoughts that I will record here because...well, because what else is this blog for?

(1) This being the fourth time through, my copy--a paperback from the 1960s--is coming apart. Why, of why, I implore deaf heaven, did the Black Sparrow reprint series run out of gas before they got to The Childermass? They must have been planning one; someone must have been working on it. Will it ever see the light of day? What a thing it would be to have, say, a nice hefty Black Sparrow, edited by Peter Caracciolo, of The Childermass...of all the ones they did not get to, it's the missed opportunity I regret most keenly. (Number two on that list: Blasting and Bombardiering.)

(2) Is this the best book by Wyndham Lewis? I'm leaning that way. The Revenge for Love and Self-Condemned  would get more votes, I imagine, as they deliver more recognizably narrative goods than The Childermass does; Tarr and Snooty Baronet  would probably get more votes, too. But we know Lewis himself held The Childermass in particularly high regard ("my principal work in fiction I suppose," he told one correspondent).

I also recall my late friend Dennis McGucken, who died quite a few years ago. Our first conversation occurred at a party at his apartment in the late 1980s, when we both slogging in the post-doc/ABD/non-tenure track trenches, and I saw he had a shelf of Lewis novels. Do you like Lewis? I asked. He did, and we were off to the races, the first of many conversations about a wide number of things. Dennis was probably the mlost brilliant person I ever regularly talked to. And his favorite Lewis novel was The Childermass.

For him, and for me, it was the continuous high energy of the prose. In some respects little happens in the novel; Pulley and Satters wander around in a landscape where none of the rules of physics or stable personal identity apply, and then we settle into a debate over relatively obscure matters. But in the sentences, there is always something happening. The prose positively crackles.

And the Bailiff! He's the bad guy...but he is so entertaining, so unpredictable, so wily, that even when the book veers into polemics it never loses steam, never stops being supremely comic.

(3) And at the same time--here is the irony--I would never assign it. It's out of print, for one thing. I only teach undergraduates, for another--the sheer amount of background information one would have to go into...whew. How explain Bergson, or why Lewis had such a beef with him? Then there are the frequent passages that smack of racism, or anti-semitism, or homophobia. Then there is the fact that there are no female characters at all, that Lewis's afterlife is all-male for reasons that are never specified. Finally, while with Ulysses or The Waves or The Sound and the Fury one has a fighting chance of finding a theme or event or character or situation that might distantly resonate with a 21st century undergraduate, is there one in a hundred, one in a thousand undergraduates who would get a kick out of Hyperides dressing down the Bailiff about the Child-cult, or the Time-cult, or any of Lewis's bêtes noires?

(4) I'm not sure I would even recommend it to anyone who has not already read a few other Lewis books. I've been asked (maybe ten times, if I happen to get into a conversation about why I am so interested in this writer), "So, what would you say I should read by him?" I usually say Tarr  or The Revenge for Love. Can't go wrong there. The Wild Body  would be a good one too. But you have to be a Lewis obsessive to get anything out of The Childermass...

...but if you in fact are a Lewis obsessive, it's the mother lode.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Hilary Mantel, _The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories_

I STARTED THIS one while waiting for the new Thomas Cromwell installment to hit the shelves...and now we have it! This was a nice way to fill the interim, in any case.

All of the stories except the last (the title story, as it happens) were published before the book came out, mainly in the Guardian or in the London Review of Books.

It seems to me that English/British short story writing does not have a biggest dog in the yard like the New Yorker, a publication whose prestige and ability to pay are such that it actually functions as part of the gravitational field for short story writers, pulling the form in a certain direction.  On the other hand, I'm having a hard time thinking of contemporary English/British fiction writers who are famous mainly for their short stories. I know Julian Barnes has published a couple of collections...but is there a Lydia Davis/Diane Williams/Deborah Eisenberg/Raymond Carver/Gary Lutz writer, someone whose short fictions are their best known?

Maybe they need a New Yorker. Not that the New Yorker is going to publish Diane Williams or Gary Lutz, probably. Well, who knows.

Mantel's stories have a few old-school moves, like the cold-water-in-the-face shock ending ("Winter Break," "How Shall I Know You," "The Heart Fails Without Warning"). Here is the U.S.A., we go more for the enigmatic-trailing-off ending that does not seem like an ending at all. I found these crack-of-thunder endings refreshing and enjoyable.

The stories are relatively recent (a 2004 story is the earliest), but they hark back in some ways to Mantel's earlier novels. "Sorry to Disturb" has the same setting, in effect, as Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, and the narrator of "Comma" sounds a lot like the narrator of An Experiment in Love. "Terminus" is a ghost story, in the neighborhood of Beyond Black.

The main event, though, is the final and title story, in which a woman whose house (semi-detached?) overlooks the hospital from which Margaret Thatcher is leaving after an eye surgery lets in a repairman who turns out to be an IRA sharpshooter, intent on killing Thatcher. The surprise is that the woman turns out to be not unsympoathetic to the undertaking, even willing to get a little complicit. This must have touched off controversy of the sort Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint inspired, but her reputation is probably secure nonetheless.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Hisham Matar, _A Month in Siena_

A FRIEND RECOMMENDED this recently. Since I had never read anything by Matar,  and knew little about him other than that he is a well-regarded writer, I had not much beyond the recommendation to go on. Usually, that's not quite enough, given the sheer number of recommendations I get. But it was a short book, I had some time, so why not?

The title gives you the basic premise. Matar had long admired Sienese painting and wanted to see it first hand, so he set aside the time, made the arrangements, got to Siena, started looking at paintings. The early chapters take a decidedly art-historical turn, but lightly carried.

By the  middle of the book, Matar spends less time on the paintings, more on what he sees around the town, the people he meets. He makes some friends, and the unfolding of those friendships becomes an interesting story in itself.

By the end, we realize there has been an invisible elephant in the room the whole time. Matar went to Siena, it turns out, right after he completed writing his previous book, The Return, also non-fiction, about returning to Libya and looking for traces of what happened to his father. I have not read The Return, and Matar does not say much about here (understandably, since he had written a whole book about it already), but that experience slowly begins to loom as an important element of what he is seeing and doing in Siena, in ways that I sensed more than actually grasped.

It's as though the book begins in sunlight, happy and excited at the prospect of Matar's checking a big one off his bucket list, but shadows lengthen, the air gets cooler, and  melancholy starts whispering around the edges of the narrative. It's a subtle, arresting book.