Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Jonathan Littell, _Les Bienveillantes_, interim notes iii

STILL WISHING I had heeded Daniel Mendelson's suggestion to go with the English translation--what was I thinking? I feel no obligation too read Beckett in French. But having come this far....

How far, you ask? Seven years in, I am on p. 842, with 500-something pages to go. With a major push I may complete the book in a decade.

But is it worth it? Still feels like yes.

The Orestes parallel has escalated. Maximilien Aue spends a restless, feverish night in the house of his mother and her new husband, and when he wakes up, they have both been murdered. Hmm. Did our boy do something  rash? His sister is showing no interest at all, though, in resuming their adolescent explorations.

Brilliant passages on Aue's visit to Paris. Before the war, Aue became acquainted with the key fascist-leaning French writers, so we get glimpses of Maurras, Brasillach, CĂ©line, and a long conversation with Lucien Rebatet. Littell's depiction of the atmosphere of this milieu is persuasive.

Littell also arranges things so that Aue has an interview with Himmler, who, homophobe that he was,  wants to know why Maximilien is not yet married. Max, single-mindedly gay save where his sister is concerned, says he is married to the Third Reich for the duration of the present crisis. Good answer!

Max's interview with Eichmann is even better. Littell has injected some hybridized essence of Curzio Malaparte and Hannah Arendt into these scenes--an afternoon and evening with Lucifer's office manager, complete with a couple of Brahms quartets. Eichmann finds Bach a little too chilly.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Cathleen Schine, _They May Not Mean To, But They Do_

THIS IS THE first of Schine's novels I've read, which is to say I have not read the one modeled on Sense and Sensibility, but I can tell from this one that Schine would be the right person to attempt such a thing.

Her characters, like Austen's, have been well brought up and tend to have good intentions, but have their blind spots, their flashes of selfishness, their capacities for fooling themselves. And, like Austen's, they have the capability, sometimes, to see through themselves and make a necessary course correction. (Is this the main difference, it occurs to me, between Austen and another great English writer of satirical fiction, Wyndham Lewis?)

They May Not Mean To, But They Do takes its title from the line that follows the unforgettable first line of Philip Larkin's poem "This Be the Verse." At the center of the novel is the topic of aging parents. The minds and bodies of Joy and Aaron Bergman of New York City have begun to slip, and their offspring Daniel (also of New York City, eco activist, married, two daughters) and Molly (now of California, divorced, one son, re-married to a same-sex partner) have to figure some things out. Unhappily, their parents' circumstances are changing so alarmingly that things have to be figured out anew every few months, or weeks, or days.

The brilliant thing about the book, though, is not just its portrait of how Molly and Daniel respond to this familiar problem--which, I can attest, having recently dealt with a lot of what they deal with, is a lifelike portrait indeed--but the choreography with which the novel's narration dances from one character's point of view to another's. We get the points of view of Molly and Daniel, of course, but also those of the parents, and those of the grandchildren, and those of the daughters-in-law. It's not a long book--a bit under 300 pages--but it affords a panorama, and Schine is as persuasive rendering the sensibility of a girl preparing for her bat mitzvah as she is that of a woman who can't remember what she came to the kitchen for.

A lot of the book is sad, and I mean sad, heart-breaking sad, as things fall apart. As you might guess, some of the characters die. But somehow Schine conjured up an utterly credible relatively-upbeat ending. Quite the magician.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Ocean Vuong, _Night Sky with Exit Wounds_

MY LATEST POETRY Week is over, but I still have a stack of poetry collections about the height of a four-year-old child, so I should read at least a few more of them, don't you think?

This one received some acclaim on its appearance in 2016--less attention than Vuong's new autofiction/memoir (which shares a title with one of the poems herein), but the comparison is perhaps invidious.

It's a dazzling collection, and a little disturbing, too, as the erotic and the violent are often adjacent. The Vietnam War and its effects on Vuong's parents and grandparents loom in the background; his father in particular seems traumatized and frequently absent, an experience refracted through a pattern of Odyssey allusions.

The poems do not yield meaning readily, though. "Eurydyce" begins:

It's more like the sound
     a doe makes
when the arrowhead
     replaces the day
with an answer
     to the rib's hollowed

I'm not sure I know what sound a doe makes in those circumstances, but I worry about that arrowhead. We meet the doe again in "The Smallest Measure," when a boy on his first hunting trip ("the Winchester rattles / in a boy's early hands") spots her and is told by the "copper beard" at his ear, "Go ahead, the voice thicker / now, drive her / home."

Is our Orpheus capable of violence? Is that why "Queen Under the Hill" (Venus, wasn't it?), a poem that alludes to Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," turns into a nightmare in which a piano morphs into a dead horse? Did some kind of violence, perhaps wholly imaginary, prompt the confessions in "Anaphora as Coping Mechanism" or "Prayer for the Newly Damned"? If the suggestion of Rilke's archaic torso of Apollo is taken up--"Suppose you do change your life," proposes "Torso of Air"--will the peace promised in "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong" come to pass?

I have more questions than answers.  Good book, though.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Ted Chiang, _Exhalation_

MY READING HISTORY with science fiction: vexed. As a person with an interest in literature generally, I felt under a kind of obligation to sample the masters and read at least one book apiece by Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, Samuel Delany, and William Gibson. Nothing ever really clicked, though. I read some more books by Delany, but not his fiction, and I never connected strongly enough with any of the others to be much tempted to pick up a second book. As for Frank Herbert and Neal Stephenson, I was not able to finish even one.

This book was getting such good reviews, though, that I thought, okay, got to at least give him a fair trial (this being volume # 6 of the "read more short story collections" program here at Loads of Learned Lumber).

And it is great. 

I have already bought and am looking forward to reading Chiang's first collection of stories (Exhalation is the second).

What is different about Chiang? As in a lot--most, I guess--science fiction, he assumes some kind of now-remote possibility has become possible, and uses the resources of invented characters and settings to play out the conflicts and developments that might follow from that actualization. The possibilities employed here are not particularly novel ones, I suspect, within the sci-fi domain: artificial intelligence, the trans-human, multiple universes, speculations about free will and time travel. Chiang seems so wise, though, so humane, so interested in the minds and feelings of his characters (Sci-fi often stumbles at this, I feel), that his fiction delivers the satisfactions and insights of literary fiction while starting from different premises. Delany was good at this, too, and Delany writes extremely well, but Chiang seems to me head, shoulders, and upper torso above all the other sci-fi writers I have read, Delany aside.

Chiang also seems alert to the way institutions and culture would shape the kinds of possibilities he imagines. LeGuin had the anthropology covered, but Chiang seems additionally skillful in imagining how (for example) market forces and family dynamics would be a part of the possible futures that technological change might unlock.

I wonder if he is working on a novel.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Tyrus Miller, ed., _The Cambridge Companion to Wyndham Lewis_

FIRST OF ALL, hats off to Tyrus Miller or whoever it was that talked Cambridge into doing this. The "Cambridge Companions to Literature" series volumes, to quote from the press's website, "are lively, accessible introductions to major writers, artists, philosophers, topics and periods. All are collections of specially commissioned essays, shaped and introduced to appeal to student readers." They tend to be about canonical figures (Milton, Dante, both Eliots) or texts (Canterbury Tales) or topics that would show up on a great many syllabuses (Beats, Queer Theory, American Gothic Fiction). Lewis perhaps shows up on a good number of UK syllabuses, but I don't believe he is on many here in the USA, so I imagine Miller or someone really had to come up with a great pitch to make this happen. Well done, whoever you are. 

Getting Lewis onto more syllabuses in the USA will be hard to accomplish, though, given his reputation for unsavory political and social stances. For example, Lewis wrote the first book in English on Hitler (a couple of years before Hitler came to power) and was for some years under the impression that Hitler, problematic though he was, was the right leader for Germany. There there are his (as they might seem to some) misogyny, homophobia, racism, anti-semitism, and general disdain for democracy. People teaching literature in the United States by and large gravitate to writers of more progressive, emancipatory tendencies.

I wonder if that is why three of the book's twelve chapters--"Lewis and Fascism," "Race and Antisemitism in Lewis," and "Women, Masculinity, and Homosexuality in Lewis"--seem aimed precisely at those aspects of Lewis's careers that would lift the most eyebrows. These chapters--and some of the others, in passing--sometimes drift into apology and defense. Which I understand--but the wiser course is that of Lara Trubowitz, who is ready to roll up her sleeves, plunge into the mucky Lewisian sub-basement, and have a real look. "In this essay, I suggest that, antisemite and racist though he may be (and he is both), Lewis is also a compelling theorist of antisemitism and racism and ought to be read as such." 

Erin Carlston makes a similar canny move in looking at the actual contours of Lewis's ideas about women and gay men: "Lewis's critique of masculinity lays bare the workings of masculinist power, denaturalizes male privileged and represents manliness as an anxious, generally unsuccessful performance with ludicrous--and potentially lethal--consequences."

Trubowitz and Carlston are spot-on right. Here's hoping their perspectives prove influential.

This is a strong collection of articles/chapters, illuminating even if one is already familiar with Lewis. A lot of the heavyweights are here--Paul Edwards, Andrzej Gasiorek, Nathan Waddell, Alan Munton, David Ayers. Edwards's contribution even exceeds the brief of "appeal[ing] to student readers," I would say, and breaks some new ground in Lewis studies. A couple of chapters feel a little wobbly, in that they may have needed to be longer and in a volume written more for specialists; the arguments of Melania Terrazas (on Lewis and the traditions of satire) and Erik Bachman (on Lewis's responses to the thinking of Bergson and Whitehead) perhaps require more space than they had at their disposal here. 

Dandy book. Thank you, Tyrus Miller, and thank you, Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Robin DiAngelo, _White Fragilty: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about. Racism_

ROBIN DIANGELO IS a diversity educator and trainer, and much of her book concerns how resistant her audiences are to what she has to say. I have to admit, I understand that resistance. Like a colonoscopy or a root canal, a diversity workshop may be exactly what one needs, but even so one does not look forward to it.  It will do you good, but you are not going to enjoy it much, and at the diversity workshop they are not even going to provide you any drugs.

As a diversity trainer, part of DiAngelo's job is to explain that racism is baked into our society, to the universal advantage of white people and the universal disadvantage of everyone else. That is, it is not simply a matter of individual choices or intentions; it is much older, more pervasive, and more insidious than that. To be a white person, whatever one's choices or intentions, is to be consciously or unconsciously complicit in it, full stop.

White people often respond to this explanation by becoming upset or indignant or even angry--and that is white fragility. White fragility too often means the explanation of racism has to stop in its tracks, not to proceed until the upset or indignant white persons get the apology or absolution or attention they feel entitled to. That often means it does not proceed at all. That colonoscopy never happens, and the bad thing inside just keeps growing.

White fragility is a real problem, in other words, and DiAngelo, drawing on a large fund of experience, explains it well.

If you have been to a few diversity workshops, or have read (for instance) The Fire Next Time, Playing in the Dark, The New Jim Crow, Citizen, or Between the World and Me, you will probably already be familiar with the key points of the analysis of racism in chapters 1-6. To tell the truth, I almost threw in the towel at that point--but I'm glad I stuck with the book, because chapters 7-12, where DiAngelo particularly brings to bear what she learned in the trenches, are searchingly illuminating. I even recognized myself on p. 135: "Intellectualizing and distancing." Yep...that's me. Books make a difference, I do believe, but even those who read the right books still have work to do, and will for as long as we live.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Morgan Parker, _Magical Negro_ (poetry week # 7)

WRAPPING UP POETRY week, we have Morgan Parker's most recent collection. Her third, but the first I've read.

If we follow the old Isaiah Berlin (via Tolstoy) adage and divide writers into hedgehogs and foxes, Parker is a fox. She is various, quick, willing to risk self-contradiction, contemporary. She is always a little farther ahead of you than you think.

I particularly enjoyed "The History of Black People" in five sonnets, "Ode to Fried Chicken's Guest appearance on Scandal," "Matt," and "Magical Negro #80: Brooklyn." Everything in here worked, though. Parker is particularly deft at closure (see above, "a little farther ahead of you than you think").

Three references to the gap in Angela Davis's teeth (pp. 78, 88, 90). I had never noticed this gap...and I have met Angela Davis. A Google search confirms, yes, she has a gap between the top incisors. As it happens, so do I. Is this important? Is it a Wyf of Bath thing? Why am I only now finding out?