Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Evelio Rosero, _The Armies_

ON THE NOVEL'S first page, a retired teacher gathering fruit from the trees in his back yard takes advantage of the occasion to peek over the wall at the woman who lives next door, who is sunbathing nude in her garden. The serpent will always find its way into Eden, we may conclude, and just so do narco-guerrillas, the paramilitaries trying to destroy the narco-guerrillas, and the national army find their way to the teacher's Macondo-like town, storming, raping, killing, kidnapping, to the point where there is no saying which army constitutes the greatest danger, the worst plague.

It cannot be easy for Colombian novelists to escape the shade cast by the rainforest canopy that is GGM; Rosero deals with it by conjuring up an utterly Marquez-ian village and its villagers and then letting in the most demonic elements of contemporary Colombia to visit unshirted, unredeemable hell upon them.  Not that Garcia Marquez concealed or shied away from cruelty or violence or suffering--but in Rosero, the cruelty and violence and suffering fill the sky, inescapable.

Who will protect these people from the people that are supposedly protecting them? No one, so far as we can see.  I hope things in Colombia are not actually this bad, but they may well be even worse.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Claire Tomalin, _Jane Austen: A LIfe_

I HAD ATTEMPTED an Austen biography or two before this, but had found myself bogged down in chronicles of the cousinage or minute accounts of life in Hampshire circa 1780.  Doesn't Austen, of all people, deserve an intelligent, shapely biography capable of nuanced distinction between what we care about and what we do not?  Turns out there is one--Tomalin's.  Tomalin knows everything a biographer needs to know about the cousins and about Hampshire, but knows how to get through it swiftly, amusingly, and illuminatingly. She has a novelist's instinct for character. She is conscientious about signaling what we can know and what we can only guess.  Above all, she gives Austen's intelligence and achievement their full due.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Per Petterson, _I Curse the River of Time_

 THERE IS NO sad like the Scandinavian sad. Soren Kierkegaard, Ibsen and Strindberg, Knut Hamsun, Ingmar Bergman...all that hard, clear light that illuminates every detail yet brings so little warmth. Yes, Henning Mankell and the dragon tattoo guy have detected capacities for ultraviolence and hate crime under the stoic endurance, the low expectations, the habit of disappointment, but even so....  How much of our Midwestern taciturnity, our evasion of confrontation, our willingness to put up with being overlooked, our repeated failure to rise to the emotional occasion comes down to our own iteration of the Scandinavian Sad, established as our regional ground tone by the immigrations of the last half of the 19th century?

Per Petterson does sad here not quite as memorably as he did in Out Stealing Horses, but still convincingly.  It is 1989.  In the 1970s, Arvid, our narrator, threw over his university scholarship and its ticket into the professional class to get a factory job and become a Communist Party organizer. But now the Berlin Wall has just come down, so that choice is looking like a dead end.  His wife, several years younger, who as a teenager found his Maoist politics exciting, is preparing to divorce him.  Their two daughters love singing Beatles songs in the car with him, but their days of doing that are numbered. His mother is dying.

Most of the novel is about Arvid's trying to reach some kind of understanding or closure with his mother, but he has no knack at all for bringing this about. As we learn from a variety of flashbacks, he is a person who never quite hits the right note in any human interaction.  He means well, he has deep and true feelings, he loves his mother and his family and his party, but he seems wholly without the necessary instincts. He recalls showing up at his mother's birthday party, prepared to make an eloquent speech in tribute to her, but instead getting drunk, finding he had left the notes for his speech somewhere else, nonetheless clinking his glass for attention and rising to deliver what turned out to be a woefully inadequate speech. He sat down, apologizing to someone he had taken to be his uncle--

    "Sorry," I whispered, "I don't think that went very well."
    "No, it didn't," he said.  "But next time I'm sure it will be better."
    I turned to look at him.  Suddenly I couldn't recall the last time I saw him, or if I ever had seen him.
    "You're my uncle, aren't you?" I said.
    "No," he said, "but that's all right."

Arvid would make a kind of poignant comic relief in most novels, or in a play by Chekhov. Here, he's the center of things, and his inability to express what he feels seems like a tragedy.  In the novel's final paragraph, he tells us, "I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it."  He fills his mouth with pieces of straw and chews them ("they were hard and sharp and cut my tongue") and sits, "waiting for my mother to stand up and come to me."

There is no sad like Scandinavian sad.

Friday, August 10, 2012

William Deresiewicz, _A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter_

WHEN I ENCOUNTER the name of WIlliam Deresiewicz at the top of a book review, I perk up and expect something lively, incisive, and perspicacious. I don't always agree with his conclusions, but I know he will get to them in a way that will both delight and instruct.

Deresiewicz does not mince words. This is from a review of several recent books on higher education:

You’d think departments would respond to the Somme-like conditions they’re sending out their newly minted PhDs to face by cutting down the size of their graduate programs. If demand drops, supply should drop to meet it. In fact, many departments are doing the opposite, the job market be damned. More important is maintaining the flow of labor to their domestic sweatshops, the pipeline of graduate students who staff discussion sections and teach introductory and service courses like freshman composition and first-year calculus. 

When he feels he needs to, he'll get out the saber. After a well-developed and a well-informed discussion of the most recent novel by of Javier Marias, he lets go with this:

There is one problem, however, and like the novel itself, it is not a small one. For all its intellect and erudition, and despite its occasional flashes of feeling, Your Face Tomorrow is an incredibly boring book. A crushingly, demoralizingly boring book. My overwhelming emotion, as I read it, was one of an immense, hopeless, enraged sadness, at what the author was putting me through. The first two volumes were largely a heavy slog from one oasis of incident or interest to the next, through deserts of Deza's interminable reflection. The final one was a death march to the finish.

So, when I saw this in the book store last year, I thought--Deresiewicz and Austen, can't miss, love 'em both. But...

...as the subtitle suggests, the book is a kind of memoir-through-Austen, covering Deresiewicz's grad school years up to the time he meets the woman he will marry, making the case that studying Austen's novels during those years made him a better person: less selfish, more attentive, more generous in spirit, grounded in better values, more prepared to love and be loved. 

In making this case, he of course has to mind his ethos, and sound like the reasonable, considerate, willing-to-be-amiable person Austen has led him to become. There's the rub. Reasonable, considerate, and willing-to-be-amiable is not exactly Deresiewicz's wheelhouse. For all I know, in "real true life," as my daughters used to say, William Deresiewicz is a sweetheart, a perfect host, a walking ray of sunshine--but in his reviews, he's not. As I read this often wonderful, charming, and insightful book, I kept thinking, "Who are you, and what have you done with William Deresiewicz?"

After all, Austen was far from gentle herself. As a diagnostician of shallowness, hypocrisy, vanity, selfishness, oafishness, you name it, she can hardly be surpassed. But it's as if Deresiewicz decided he had to be on his best behavior throughout, except when talking about what a jerk he was in his pre-Austen days. Then he's like a born-again going on and on about how depraved he was before he found the Lord. You don't quite buy it.

Mildly disappointing, then, I guess. Worthwhile, though. And likably old-fashioned. Deresiewicz isn't much interested in unmasking ideologies, or pointing out slavery in the background of Mansfield Park, or paralleling Marianne Dashwood and masturbating girls, or anything remotely academically fashionable. The book's premise is that Austen is smarter than we are, and we can learn a lot from her. He's putting the Author back on the pedestal authors were tumbled from at the dawn of theory. I don't expect many academic critics will be following his example, but for what it's worth, I too think that Austen is smarter than we are, and that we can learn a lot from her.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tony Tost, _Complex Sleep_

I PICKED THIS up after enjoying Invisible Bride, but it has taken me a while to get to it (it was published all the way back in 2007)--and who would have guessed that it would seem perfectly congruent with Jacques Rancière, who I was reading at the same time. Mute Speech, as I was laboring to explain yesterday, is partly about the struggle to figure out what the "literary" is after the eclipse of belles lettres (genre, decorum, rhetoric) in the early 19th century, a local instance of the struggle being the figuring out of what "poetry" was after the eclipse of traditional versification. One answer, Rancière writes, was Artaud's, who in correspondence with NRF editor Jacques Rivière (who had turned down Artaud's poems) argued that the poetry of Artaud's poetry was not in the poems, exactly, but in the peculiarly constituted sensibility that created them. Artaud's poems were poetry because Artaud had written them...in a way.

In the longest poem in the volume Complex Sleep, titled "Complex Sleep", Tost writes (sorry about bollixing his spacing, can't be helped):

I am ideological necessity : according to such and such a set of
the poem can no longer justify its existence  ergo it should have
                                 ergo it is dead
                        ergo it is death
                                 ergo it is me.  I am an obituary :
      a site where dying is reported and performed.  I am entirely
by this art walk. I am going to be the best part of this feeling
                       that we're not trying to manage the afterlife
but letting it happen all by itself. I am produced.  I am too old for
             I an attack on art have become art myself :
                      flop.         flop.         flop.

"I an attack on art have become art myself" -- could Antonin himself have said it better? A perfect take on one of the more striking points in Mute Speech...

...made all the sweeter by knowing that  "Complex Sleep" is the product of a procedure by which Tost collaborates with the aleatory. He began with a variety of sentences from a variety of sources (e.g., the Beatles, Guided by Voices, Ronald Johnson, himself), then subtly or radically transmuted each sentence, then (!) sorted the sentences by alphabetical order, then added line breaks and spacing.

So the many brilliant passages (like, I submit, the one quoted) of "Complex Sleep" have everything to do with Tost's sensibility, but none of them could have been wholly foreseen in the process of composition. In the passage quoted, we are in the "I" section, which by virtue of alphabetical order becomes an artist's confession; we will later hit a "She" section, where we seem to be getting an extraordinarily nuanced psychological portrait of a complex woman, having already hit "A" and "An"
sections that recalled Whitmanian catalogues, and "As" and "For" sections that seemed to draw almost liturgically on the figure of the anaphora.

"Complex Sleep" the poem occupies about a third of Complex Sleep the volume and is the strongest thing in it, but the other seven poems offer their own pleasures. As the title poem benefits from the examples of Stein (in its transmutation of sentences) and of Cage and Ashbery (in its embrace of the aleatory), "Imaginary Synonyms" and "Timeless" deploy a move I associate with Jorie Graham and Ron Silliman (say, Demo to Ink) in which individual lines sometimes seem enjambed, forming part of a continuously unfolding thought, while at the same time, in a wave-or-particle? way, to be autonomous, free-standing, at most politely acknowledging their adjacent neighboring lines.

Stein, Cage, Ashbery, Silliman, Graham...derivative, do you say?  No.  I say, the good guys are winning. Tost never really sounds like anyone else, although he sometimes uses recognizable procedures. The procedures are as buried in the poems as Euclid is in Wyndham Lewis's portraits.  "Can we hear / the chance operations // equations summoning / precision." We do hear them, faintly, throughout Complex Sleep, but the main impression is of the uncanny riches of the precision thus produced.

"Squint" even suggests that Tost would have made a skillful metrist, back in the belle-lettristic day; each of its lines arranges four highly scannable phrases, creating the old English iambic music but in a 21st century way.

And then there is "An Emperor's Nostalgia," a suite of love poems that is just plain hauntingly lovely:

holy work of
our hereabouts

our harmony is
the pines

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Rancière, _Mute Speech_, part two

ONE MORE COMPLAINT about this Columbia University Press edition: no index?  What's with that?  No bibliography, either.

OK, let's see whether I can do this argument any kind of justice. First, Rancière sees a shift, as the eighteenth century moves into the nineteenth, from the literary being representational and mimetic to being expressive; the work does not reflect its subject so much as it embodies, incarnates it.  Subject, in early modernity, dictated literary genre; each genre had its own decorum; the great object of literature was to say true things well. With the shift, the idea that the topic dictates following certain conventions, that some topics are worthy and some not, evaporates. The work does not re-present a phenomenon so much as it becomes a presentation itself, mysteriously faithful to the quiddity of the phenomenon.

Out of this, the idea that literature is "mute speech": losing its old affinity with rhetoric and oratory, it says what it has to say in ways other than saying it. Rather than plainly speaking its meaning, it makes that meaning manifest. Furthermore, phenomena themselves have "mute speech"; the landscape speaks, folk culture speaks, the cultivated field speaks, the urban street speaks, but not in audible conventional language. The literary text re-creates the non-linguistic utterance of the phenomenon in its own particular carefully crafted language (even though, ironically, this special language is at bottom the same language that we use for conversation and commerce--it has to be wrought upon in some way).

One consequence: all subjects are now OK. Another: the novel, the genre that is not one (the one whose conventions and traditions are vaguest, most malleable), becomes the indispensable genre. A third: kinds of writing we think of as inflexibly opposed, the autotelic and inward (the evanescent, self-absorbed symbolist poem) and the utterly externalized novel-as-document (brutal, burly naturalism) share a root-system.  Both go back to the jettisoning of genre, both attempt to re-create rather than simply mirror. The projects of Mallarmé and Zola have more in common with each other, shall we say, than either's has with those of Corneille or Voltaire.

A fourth: as poetry was the art that other arts took as exemplary in the 17th and 18th century, music (or ballet) is the exemplary art of the 19th.  Music is "mute speech"--expressive, but not by means of explicit referentiality. Meaningful, but unparaphraseable. It utters, but does not speak.

(It seemed to me odd that Rancière fails to quote Pater's "School of Giorgione" on this point--"All art constantly aspires to the condition of music." For that matter, he also neglects to note that the Rivière-Artaud correspondence, to which he devotes a few pages, was brilliantly discussed in an essay by Samuel Delany, in ways quite congruent to R.'s argument. Sometimes it seems, does it not, that the French basically ignore us?)

With the vanishing of genre, decorum, and all the rhetorical baggage of belles lettres at the dawn of romanticism, the question becomes: if we have concluded that literariness does not reside in genre, decorum, etc., in what does it reside? Hegel, as Rancière sees it, decided that literature was basically over and done with, but the bulk of Rancière's book is about how a succession of great writers from Balzac to Proust framed and responded to this question. The question was never settled once and for all, but the attempts generated some of the pinnacles of world literature. I found this approach to literary history novel, persuasive, and exciting.

It would be tricky to show how this same process worked it way out in Anglo-Hiberno-American lit, whose history is bushier, crankier, more loaded with dead ends and excrescences, but I could see someone smarter and less lazy than I doing it. Rancière's argument applies uncannily well to Yeats, for instance, who both militantly insisted on the autonomy of the poetic imagination yet also wished to articulate the spirit of the Irish nationalist struggle; for R., this seemingly self-contradictory dual aspiration was bound to appear once literature sought to become "mute speech."

The argument also could help make sense of 20th century American poetry. Once Pound, Eliot, Whitman, H.D. (okay, and Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and many other less dazzling lights) gave iambic pentameter the heave-ho in the early years of the century--once versification, that is, was no longer what made poetry poetry--they thereby opened the enormous question of what does make poetry poetry. In the enormous spectrum of answers to that question, we have the enormous spectrum of 20th century American poetry, from Creeley and Oppen and Silliman and O'Hara and Moxley to Lowell and Bishop and Merrill and Graham and, God bless her, Gjertrud Schnackenberg--an extraordinary plenitude. Once poetry is no longer a courtier, depending on mastery of certain presentation skills and sharing an understanding of what the king will be willing to listen to, what is it? Weakened in many ways, but stronger in some ways as well.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Jacques Rancière, _Mute Speech: literature, critical theory, politics_

MY THIRD GO of the summer at getting a bit more current in critical theory, and the best yet.  This is an absolutely stunning, staggering book, the smartest book I've read on literature in...I don't know, a long time.  It examines the break between (neo-)classical literature and romanticism (a parting of the ways that has already gotten some definitive treatments; old schooler that I am, I'm fond of Octavio Paz's Children of the Mire, Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity,  and M. H. Abrams's The Mirror and the Lamp), then analyzes how romanticism's aspirations played out dialectically in 19th century French literature.

I suspect that one reason I began reading less critical theory is that such a great deal of it comes from philosophy, or the social sciences, or some marshy terrain in between, like psychoanalysis, and I never feel like I'm playing on my home field, so to speak. The crit-theo folks that meant the most to me--Benjamin, Barthes, Sedgwick, Jameson--started from literature, so I tuned in on their wavelength much more delightedly. Foucault, Adorno, Irigaray...bit more effortful, for me, though certainly worthwhile.

(Speaking of Jameson, what Rancière does here with Le Curé de Village is the most stimulating reading of a fair-to-middling work by Balzac since Jameson had at La Vieille Fille in The Political Unconscious.)

Rancière's primary academic field is philosophy, apparently, but the book proceeds from the German Romantics to Balzac, Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Proust, with brief discussion of Hugo, Artaud, Valéry... after Zizek and Agamben, this was like coming home.

Which makes me wonder what kind of audience there is for this book among American crit-theory types. In my experience, they tend to get most excited about gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity--anything but literature, almost--and would prefer reading an analysis of women's gymnastics, or Iranian cinema, or Victorian legislation against prostitution, or Oprah's final season, or just about anything to reading one of Á la recherche de temps perdus.

So, looking at our cover from Columbia University Press: a young woman's face dominates, cropped right at the philtrum, so what draws the eye is her wide, plump, lusciously-lipsticked lips. Placed as a bar across those lips is the book's subtitle: "Literature, Critical Theory, Politics." Turns out, though, that the book's subtitle in French (it was published in 1998) was "An Essay on the Contradictions of Literature."  Not too sexy, huh? Not as sexy as "literature, critical theory, and politics," to be sure, to say nothing of a pair of yummy lips.

The introduction, by Gabriel Rockhill, begins by describing the big cannonball splash made by Foucault's Les mot et les choses in 1966, and goes on to say La parole muette probably ought to have made such a splash, even though it did not, since it "offers one of the most acute critical reworkings of Foucault's historiographical methodology[...]." Sigh. I guess that's how you sell a brilliant reimagining of western literary history in the USA nowadays (the English translation was published last year): politics, lips, and Foucault.

This has gone on rather too long already. I'll have to get to the book's argument next time.

Friday, August 3, 2012

David Foster Wallace, _The Pale King_

STRUCK BY THIS is in the "Notes and Asides" section Michael Pietsch appended to the text:

Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss--a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious--lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredome. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you've never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it's like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.

Shane Drinion is the Asperger's-ish character who listens so intently to the story of how Meredith Rand met her husband, becomes so rapt in it, that he levitates an inch or two. His intuitions about other people's behavior and communication are so faint and unhelpful, his interpretations of what people say to him so starkly literal, that he has to pay rigorous attention to every nuance of even an idle conversation in a bar if he is to hold up his end. All of Meredith's other co-workers, we are told, have learned to avoid her, as once she gets on the topic of herself and her circumstances, she is monomaniacally boring. But Drinion--paradoxically enabled by his disability--breaks through to bliss.

Is Drinion Wallace's Prince Myshkin?  Hold it, Mario Incandenza is already Wallace's Myshkin.

The Pale King, as was already the case for some of the stories in Oblivion, asks that you the reader become a Myshkin--to so fully enter into the meandering, repetitive, endlessly-self-interrupting monologue of "Irrelevant" Chris Fogle (chapter 22) that you step into its color. "David Wallace" the character gripes about Chris Fogle's inability to self-edit, but then launches into his own even more meandering, repetitive, microscopically detailed account of the entrances, exits, and grindingly slow right-of-way delays involved in getting from Self-Storage Parkway to the Peoria REC parking lot. There is no way to make this interesting--unless you break it down atom by atom, micro-second by sweaty, sun-in-the-eyes micro-second as Wallace (the author) does--then it deliquesces into a kind of nirvana.  As for the ennui-inducing Ms. Rand and her involuted tale of the tragedy of prettiness, Wallace had me levitating right along with Drinion.

What a loss.  But I am grateful, grateful, grateful to have this much of what he left unfinished.