Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, May 31, 2013

Jacques Rancière, _Le partage du sensible: esthétique et politique_

HAVING READ THREE of Rancière's books, I thought it was time I tried reading him in his original language. This book seemed like the right opportunity that attempt--brief, for one thing (74 pages, and 6" x 4" pages at that), and for another it is primarily about Rancière's theory, with relatively few specific illustration.

In fact, it might have been best for me to have started with this one, rather than having to piece together the theory from his discussions of particular texts/works/objects. But it was his insights into particular texts, etc., that truly hooked me, so it's probably just as well I began as I did.

The book is arranged around five questions, formulated by Muriel Combes and Bernard Aspe, concerning (1) the "partage du sensible," (2) Rancière's theory about "régimes of art," (3) the "arts mécaniques," e.g., photography and film, (4) the relation of fiction to history, and (5) how the category "art" fits (or doesn't) into the broader category "work."

Rancière, unsurprisingly, says some really smart things in response to last three questions (I wish, however, he had brought in Hayden White while answering #4 as he does Walter Benjamin while answering #3), but it's the first two that go most directly to his own work and accordingly get the most space (35 of 73 pages).

"Partage du sensible" is tricky to translate, which I imagine is why the English translation flips the title and subtitle to give us The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. (As a bookstore browser, I would not pause long at a volume called Distribution of the Sensible, so I'd say the translation's publisher made a good call.)  The idea is not that tricky, however, if you just keep in mind that we can refer to all that we perceive with our senses as constituting "the sensible," and that we have an undefined number of categories for sorting and interpreting--or "dividing up," we might say-- what we perceive with our senses.

These categories change over time, and these changes have a lot to do with how political and cultural power make themselves felt in different historical periods. Rancière is especially interested in the category "art" and the ways it has been redefined; political and cultural power have had a lot to do with defining the category of "art," or "good art," or "important art," of course, as any number of Marxists and other historically/sociologically-minded critics have pointed out.

These analyses ordinarily find that art reflects/reproduces the assumptions of the prevailing hegemonic power, but Rancière argues that art can also anticipate, in a John the Baptist precursor-like way, shifts in political and cultural power that may be in the offing. What's great about this (to my mind) is that art is not just a superstructural element dictated by the nature of the base, no longer the tag-along little brother trying to catch up with the prevailing mode of production, but is actually in the driver's seat occasionally. (How's that for an ungainly set of mixed metaphors?)

Art, according to Rancière, has had three great historical dispensations in the west: the "régime éthique," roughly the ancient and medieval eras, the "régime représentatif," roughly the early modern period, and the "régime esthéthique," roughly the period of the French Revolution to the present.

Rancière does not have a lot that's interesting to say about the first two--the "regime of the ethical" (if I may so translate) amounts to a few maxims from Aristotle and Plato, the "regime of representation" is not much more than essence of Boileau. You won't get much help from Rancière if you are trying to understand the continuing power of Dante, Milton, Racine, or Swift. But when it comes to the 19th, the 20th, and the present centuries the explanatory power of his theory is overwhelming. Why do attempts to draw a line between the modern and the post-modern always end in a jumble of squiggles? Pick up on some Rancière, and you'll know.

As to how my experiment worked out--Rancière is clearer in French, but takes me much longer to read, so I expect to go back to the translation for the one that just appeared in English.  Which looks great, by the way.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

D. T. Max, _Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace_

THIS IS A fine, serviceable biography. Max seems to have done a thorough job of the interviewing and the legwork the project required; he conveys an idea of the importance of Wallace's work without going overboard in summarizing or describing the work; he is candid about Wallace's shortcomings without sensationalizing them or doing a hatchet job on the dead man's reputation.  He writes clearly and gracefully.  My recurring thought was, "wow, this is good, this will certainly do until the definitive life comes along."

But then I thought--will a definitive life, in fact, be coming along? Do American academics still go in for that sort of thing? Way back in the 1960s and 1970s, writing the definitive life of a canonical writer was one way to get to the top of the profession--Richard Ellmann, Walter Jackson Bate, Leon Edel, R. W. B. Lewis, and so on.  But High Theory came along, and pfft, the road to prizes and named professorships lay elsewhere. Paul De Man, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler...no one like that was going to put ten years into writing the definitive life of anybody.

Things were different in Britain--lots of outstanding biographers of writers: Hilary Spurling, Michael Holroyd, Richard Holmes, Jenny Uglow, Claire Tomalin--but I don't think any of them were primarily academics. The only great writer's biography of recent vintage by an honest-to-god academic that I can think of off the top of my head is Brian Boyd's life of Nabokov...and he's Australian, I believe.

All due applause to Lisa Jarnot (Robert Duncan) and Mark Scroggins (Louis Zukofsky), but since they are poets, I don't think of them as full-fledged academics, exactly, though I certainly appreciate their excellent biographical work.

In short--unless the wind changes (and Lisa Cohen's staggeringly great All We Know may be the creaking of the weathervane), the old doorstop academic definitive life of a writer may be as gone as the passenger pigeon. There may never be one about Wallace--to say nothing of Gaddis, Pynchon, et al.

Well, we do have the Max, so it's a very, very good thing that it is as good as it is. Rather more interesting (more new info, perhaps) on the pre-Jest years than the post-, but if you, like me, are someone who cares about Wallace, Max's book is well worth your money and  your time.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lisa Cohen, _All We Know: Three Lives_

A NOTABLE BOOK of 2012, according to the New York Times, but that is putting it mildly--All We Know is destined to be a classic.

How do I know this? well, here's one indicator. Cohen mentions that Esther Murphy, the first of her three subjects, was the model for a character in Sybille Bedford's first novel, A Visit to Don Otavio, which was based on a trip the two took to Mexico during the time they were lovers. Having fallen a little in love with Esther Murphy, thanks to Cohen (much as Lytton Strachey had gotten me to fall a little in love with Queen Victoria), I repaired to Amazon.com, only to find that used paperbacks of Visit to Don Otavio were fetching sixty dollars apiece. Since used copies of Bedford's other books were going in the 5-10 dollar range, I concluded that (a) quite a few people are reading Cohen's book and (b) all of them decide they must must must get a hold of a copy of Don Otavio. (My tip: try abebooks.com; I found a very reasonably priced one there).

All We Know, as its Steinian subtitle suggests, contains three linked biographies, but the linkage is hard to categorize. The book is not exactly a group biography, like Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men or Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, for although its subjects all knew each other, they were not a collective in any way. As in Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, the relationships of the subjects are in the foreground, but Cohen's book is not built around a thesis, as Rose's is, and is attentive to other aspects of its subjects' lives. Like Strachey's Eminent Victorians, it uses biographies to draw the portrait of an age--but Cohen comes not to knock the busts off their pedestals, but to make us see a world long occluded: the interwar transatlantic lesbian milieu. And does she ever--not by dusting off the brighter stars, like Stein, or Barney, or Barnes, or Hall, but by bringing to life three women who might but for her efforts have easily been forgotten.

The simplest way to describe Esther Murphy is that she was the sister of Gerald Murphy, the model for Fitzgerald's Dick Diver--a slender claim to posterity's attention, but thanks to Cohen we now also know that she was erudite enough to match Edmund Wilson conversationally, could keep listeners enthralled with a party piece on the Hanseatic League, and appears in a novel that is quite a bit more fun than Tender Is the Night.

Mercedes de Acosta was, briefly, a groupie, specializing in Hollywood icons--Garbo, Dietrich--but before you draw any ungenerous conclusions, let's note that there is a special class of groupies--e.g., Anita Pallenberg, Miss Christine, Bebe Buell--whose attentions are crucial to certifying that one is an icon in the first place. If you don't think being maîtresse en titre demands an extraordinary skill-set, you need to think harder about life at courts.

Madge Garland is the one of three who was relatively famous--longtime editor of the British Vogue, the first Professor of Fashion at the Royal College of Art.  Garland is the subject who makes most visible what may be the closest thing to an explicit thesis that the book has: that modernism was not just the works that wound up in museums and on syllabi, but a temperament that altered perceptions in clothes, in politics, in personal relationships as well as in painting, music, and literature. There are Picasso, Woolf, Stravinsky, et alia, but they also serve who keep the parties lively.

Everything reminds me of Ranciére these days, but he certainly seems germane here, as his conception of the "aesthetic régime" has to do with artists insisting on claiming for art various objects, processes, and subject matter that had previously been, for art, beyond the pale. From our vantage point, it's easier to see that Esther Murphy, who never got any of her projected books written, was creating performance art; that Mercedes de Acosta's archives, including "a blank card that Greta Garbo sent her with flowers," would now seem entirely appropriate in an MFA exhibition; that clothes are art.

Cohen re-establishes the truth, somewhat kicked-about and covered over lately, that biography is an art.  She writes like a goddess. Here's how one of the chapters on Garland opens:

Look at her again: It is London in the early 1950s. She is teetering down the street on enormously high Ferragamo shoes ("as soft an easy to wear as a pair of gloves," she said), draped in a broad-shouldered coat of skunk pelts, drenched in Worth's Je Reviens.

The abrupt imperative opening, the flash of rhyme in "teetering" and "street," the brand names, the perfectly-dropped-in dollop of Garland's own voice with its own little rhyme, the specificity of the brand names, the alliteration of "draped" and "drenched"...all this and "skunk pelts" too.  There is a treat like this on virtually every page. Sometimes several.

This is a book that could re-set the course, like Queen Victoria or Quest for Corvo.  Or so one can hope.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Elizabeth Taylor, _Angel_

THERE IS A LENGTHY list of great mid-century British women novelists whose books tend to go in and out of print in the United States, sometimes available, lots of times not, as I have noticed with chagrin twice yearly when I order books for courses. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sybille Bedford, Olivia Manning, and Molly Keane come to mind, for instance. Thanks to NYRB Classics, we are currently in a window of time when you can actually buy new copies of the books of several of the novelists on that list, as well as a couple by Elizabeth Taylor, a name previously unknown to me. Since to be published by NYRB classics is recommendation enough for me (and since the infallible Hilary Mantel wrote an introduction), I anted up.

Angel is the story of a truly awful child who in due course becomes a truly awful young woman and then a truly awful adult, but one who from childhood has the knack of spinning wish-fulfillment fantasies that resonate with a broad range of listeners/readers. Her education is spotty, her background humble (her mom keeps a small village shop), her default mode cluelessness (since Oxford University Press publishes the Brontës and Thomas Hardy, she sends them her first novel, The Lady Irania), but her novels have the secret ingredient that separates Gone with the Wind or The Fountainhead from the great horde of near-misses. A publisher detects the magical scent, and puts out The Lady Irania; the critics sneer, but the public devours, and Angel is suddenly famous and wealthy.

Famous and wealthy, but also narcissistic, ungrateful, and ever and always clueless. She marries a handsome failed painter and sets up for him a studio in which he never paints, acquires and takes shameless advantage of a loyal and selfless factotum who sincerely believes Angel is a genius, purchases the house she longed for when she was a girl, but never, ever gets a clue.  She has no more idea than anyone else why her novels hit that sweet spot. Time goes by, and gradually they no longer do--she becomes a novelist one's mother reads, then a novelist one's grandmother used to read. After her husband dies, she accidentally comes across evidence that he was seeing someone else; the factotum dies; the dream house succumbs to entropy; utterly alone, the public having moved on long ago, she finally dies as well.

How in the world does Taylor keep us interested in such a character? Deft management of point of view, brisk pacing, lucid prose, an abundance of penetrating details--the whole panoply of the inheritance from Austen, we might say.  That, and keeping it frosty. A comparable American novelist--Anne Tyler, say--would have warmed up even to Angel eventually, given her a break, would have suggested that she had seen the light, etc. But as my spouse, who works with the elderly, says, "People don't become wise and serene just because they're older.  If you were an asshole all your life, odds are you'll still be an asshole when you're elderly." The novelists across the pond tend to do more justice to such bare, uncomfortable truths.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Helen DeWitt, _Lightning Rods_

THE PREMISE OF this novel, on first blush, seems that of an airport newsstand farce, destined to become a direct-to-video movie: an enterprising young man decides the solution to sexual harassment in the workplace is, in a word, prostitution: having specially hired female personnel who receive double pay and who in addition to their ordinary duties are available for anonymous sexual intercourse at set times during the day.

Initial prospects are discouraging, but the entrepreneurial spirit prevails; he finds women willing to work on this basis, a company willing to try "Lightning Rods" (safely discharging potentially dangerous sexual energy, you see), and after a few struggles and unanticipated problems, the business  is sailing into profitability.

Knowing only that much, you would expect a lot of bawdy humor in the first half, then a second half where the entrepreneur falls in love with one of the "lightning rods," sees the error of his ways, settles into monogamy, and so on.

But this is Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai and one of the nation's most fiercely intelligent fiction writers, so nothing of the sort happens. Most of the novel is written from the perspective of Joe, the entrepreneur, in a scarily accurate reproduction of motivational-speaker-ish business talk (e.g., the title of first section, "Failure Is Always the Best Way to Learn")--so relentlessly upbeat and so intent on solving problems, meeting challenges, overcoming barriers and the like that all the moral and ethical questions of the business are kept well out of sight. You would have to go back to Swift's "Modest Proposal," I think, to find another speaker so wholly attuned to some aspects of his subject and so utterly blind to certain others.

DeWitt shows a perfect ear for the classic rhetorical moves of the business profile--the ominous-minor-chord chapter ending, for instance, setting the stage for the next challenge to be met ("In fact, his problems were just beginning").  She is a past master at the Jaw-Dropping Prolepsis:

What he didn't realize was that all that time he spent twiddling and worrying about the roll-down blind would one day lead directly to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.

Years later, when Renée was making constitutional history as a Supreme Court Justice, she was sometimes asked to identify the thing that had made the single biggest contribution to her career.

Since the novel is satirical, we ought not to expect DeWitt to come up with "characters we care about," to adopt a phrase from my students, but DeWitt nonetheless conjures up some compelling singularities here: Roy, the M&M-peanut-popping human resources officer who accidentally discovers what his superiors have put into place at the office and doesn't know whether he can trust his eyes; perfectionist Renée, unflappable Lucille; even Joe becomes individualized for us when he makes it his mission to develop the adjustable-height office toilet.

I found myself laughing often, but as with "A Modest Proposal," you feel like you're laughing all the way up to the edge of an abyss. For most of the novel, you are (as it were) seeing the world through the eyes of capital, and it's outlandish until you realize how much of our world this perspective explains.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

H. P. Lovecraft, _At the Mountains of Madness_

I USUALLY AVOID genre fiction, but I have heard/read about Lovecraft so often that I decided I should read one. He's even in the Library of America now, and if he can keep company with Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and Raymond Chandler, he's worth a try, right?

So I tried him on a recent flight--this novel comes in at just about 100 pages, so it seemed a good bet.

Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid.

The setting is an antarctic expedition. A scouting group transmits reports of an astonishing discovery--the remains of a wholly unknown species--then falls silent. A second group sets out and finds the camp of the scouting group, who have almost all been horribly killed. Looking for the single possible survivor, they come across the ruins of an abandoned city, built long ago by an ancient non-human race, presumably extinct, but no (spoiler alert!)... some have survived (!), and it was these survivors who, once thawed, killed the scouting party (!!) unless they were killed by the even worse slave-race this non-human society created to do their dirty work, the Shuggoth (!!!).

According to my edition's introduction, by China Miéville--incidentally, much more interesting than the novella itself--Lovecraft is more famous for his mood and atmosphere than for his plots. The plot of At the Mountains of Madness, to my mind, is not that interesting, and the mood and atmosphere I found positively irritating, due to what I think of as Adjective Over-reach.

My composition students often fall into Adjective Over-reach. For instance, they assume that if they write, "It was an amazing trip," the reader will be duly amazed. The poor lonely adjective "amazing" is expected to all by itself, without further detail,  affect the reader as overpoweringly as the writer him- or herself was affected by the trip. But, when you come down to it, "amazing" amazes no one. You have to give the reader more than that if you hope to amaze, or even convey that you were yourself amazed.

Lovecraft too seems to expect adjectives to get the whole job done.  For instance: "The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque extremes of sinister bizarrerie." H. P. is not giving us readers a lot to work with here; the buildings are big, dark, made of masonry, and they don't look like anything we have ever seen. He's hoping to give us a chill by throwing in "grotesque," "monstrous," and "sinister," but, like "amazing," such words only name an effect they had on an observer without giving us a clue as to why he was so affected. Even the key nouns here--"aggregations," "perversions," "extremes," "bizarrerie"--give us nothing sensory at all, nothing to see, hear, touch. If I were Lovecraft's editor, I would have told him to take it down to "masonry" and start again from there.

This is exactly why I can't read Mark Danielewski, by the way. He is the contemporary Adjective-Overreacher par excellence.

I did get a chuckle, though, when a few pages later Lovecraft mentioned "geometrical forms for which an Euclid could scarcely find a name," among them "shafts with odd bulbous enlargements." A shaft with an...odd bulbous enlargement? Hmm, I bet Euclid, or anybody, could find a name for that one.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sam Lipsyte, _The Fun Parts_

OUR CUP RUNNETH over--new story collections by George Saunders and by Sam Lipsyte, separated by mere weeks.

Saunders, as noted in LLL a little while back, seems somewhat mellowed to me, but Lipsyte's characters remain the underachieving, unassimilable, unprepossessing, still-sort-of-young-but-old-enough-to-know-better men that populate HomeLand and The Ask. They are also still hilarious, still compellingly articulate, still occasionally capable of candid self-assessement between bouts of delusion. Four of these stories--the New Yorker ones--I had read before, but they were all just as good, maybe better, the second time around.

Lipsyte's collection of not-quite-together males who are nonetheless capable of fascinating us with their rhetorical performance set me to wondering where they would fall on the Roiphe Index.

At least some of you, I imagine, recall Katie Roiphe's NYTBR essay of I think four years ago, praising the oft-condemned male characters of Roth, Updike, Bellow, and Mailer for their no-apologies sexual swagger:

There is in these scenes rage, revenge and some garden-variety sexism, but they are — in their force, in their gale winds, in their intelligence — charismatic, a celebration of the virility of their bookish, yet oddly irresistible, protagonists. As the best scenes spool forward, they are maddening, beautiful, eloquent and repugnant all at once.

By contrast, in Roiphe's eyes, the male characters of the current hegemonic American male novelists--Eggers, Franzen, Wallace, Chabon--seemed a bit over-polite, unassertive...wimpy, in effect.

So, what of Lipsyte's characters, brazen in their Guyishness? Would Lipsyte's male characters, in their sneaking off to get stoned, their addiction to games, their bluffing, their readiness to lie and their reliance on bullshit when trouble looms, count as "maddening, beautiful, eloquent, and repugnant all at once"? 

I'm guessing Roiphe's answer would be "no." Or even "NO!"  But why not? I, for one, would much rather hang out with one of Lipsyte's narrators than with, say, Rabbit Angstrom. They seem a lot more fun, and they are undeniably more verbally ingenious.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Re-reading _The Apes of God_

THE APES OF GOD was the second or third Lewis novel I read; I know I read Tarr first, but I no longer recall whether I read The Revenge for Love or Apes second. This was a good long while ago, I should mention, back when I was in graduate school. I'd rather not say exactly how many years--let's just say it was during the Reagan administration, and the Black Sparrow edition by Paul Edwards had just appeared. I remember, too, that I was curious about it partly because it had been cited in Fran Leibowitz's essay "Notes on 'Trick'."  That's how long ago it was.

I would say that out of every, say, thirty people to whom I mention that I'm deeply interested in Lewis, perhaps one asks for a book recommendation. I usually say Tarr, or The Revenge for Love, or Self-Condemned; at least a few times, I've suggested Snooty Baronet. To one particular, very unusual young man, I recommended The Childermass. I would never, ever recommend The Apes of God--too long, too strange, too plotless, too devoid of the usual kind of pleasures novels provide. Nonetheless, The Apes of God is what hooked me. After reading it, I had to find more Lewis, and figure out what was going on.

I've meant to reread it for years--well, now's the time. At the moment, I'm about 300 pages in.

The premise on which the satire rests in The Apes of God--that the wealthy and powerful have forsaken the role of being the patrons of art for the more stimulating and glorious role of being artists themselves--can be partly elucidated by Jacques Rancière's conception of the "aesthetic" regime in the history of art, which emerges about the era of the French Revolution and English Romanticism.  In Rancière's aesthetic regime, artists break with what had been prevailing notions of what art ought to represent (and what it ought never to represent)  and how it ought to represent it, even break with the prevailing notions of what counted as art, what registered as art, what could even be seen as art. Fragments, ruins, the drawings of children or the insane, folk ballads--efforts that might have registered earlier as incomplete, primitive, unfinished, defaced--began to seem to have an authenticity and immediacy that made them more completely "art" than conventional art could be.

If important art was that which departed from what art had long been supposed to be, the artist was almost necessarily in opposition--to society, to patrons, to his or her audience. So the 19th century becomes the century of the artist whose biography is a record of struggles against incomprehension and rigid expectations: Beethoven, Wagner, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Manet, Cezanne, Dickinson, Whitman. 

Under earlier "regimes" (early modernity, basically--say, 16th to 18th centuries) an individual (or institution) made visible his or her (its) power, wealth, influence, intelligence, and taste by commissioning the most skilled available craftsman to paint, carve, design, or compose something that could body forth his/her/its vision of what mattered. In the 19th century, though, the power, influence, intelligence, and vision being made visible were increasingly those of the no-longer-so-humble craftsman--that is, the artist. The patron was, almost be definition, someone who did not get it.  In these circumstances, why settle for being the patron?  Why not be the artist? Why not use one's wealth, if one had it, to support one's own art?

Lewis had so firm an idea of the seriousness and importance of art and so strong a conviction that only a few individuals in any generation were truly artists that the proliferation of wealthy amateur artists in 1920s London struck him not as merely ridiculous, but as an outrage. Since to be an artist was to create, a divine prerogative, those who were only pretending to be artists were aping God.

All right.  But can this idea support a novel that runs 650 pages? An essay, certainly--the Lewisian "encyclical" that in the novel is given by Horace Zagreus to Dan Boleyn. A novella, certainly.  But is it too much a phenomenon of London High Bohemia, circa 1925, to sustain so long a fiction?

The answer seems, obviously, "yes," so I was amazed to come across this passage in the last n + 1, in an essay (another one) on the dismal prospects these days for artists and intellectuals:

One possibility, and the worst, would be to see the next decades exacerbate the class character of culture.  In this scenario, since very few people not already wealthy would risk careers as writers or artists, certain vital strains of culture would become, more exclusively than today, the expression of an upper-class stratum. A basic relegation of literature, art, and philosophy to pastimes of the idly rich (as, say in prerevolutionary France) doesn't seem impossible. (page 14)

Prerevolutionary France and 1920s London, my young friend, although I don't suppose the lit classes at your university included The Apes of God.

Lewis! Thou shouldst be living at this hour!  Your audience has at last arrived.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Carmelo Cunchillos Jaime, ed., _Wyndham Lewis the Radical: Essays on Literature and Modernity_

ANOTHER COLLECTION OF essays on Lewis, this one from six years ago. The editor and five of the contributors are (or were) associated with the University of La Riocha in Spain, which must be the nerve center of Lewis scholarship in Spain--although, to be honest, some of these contributors seem to be using the occasion of writing on Lewis to write about something they apparently care about rather more: aesthetics of short fiction, Evelyn Waugh, Jeanette Winterson.

The Winterson piece addresses the question of why Winterson often mentions canonical modernists Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf, but never Lewis.  You were wondering about this yourself, no?  Don't deny it. I expect the author's answer to this question will prove definitive.

Prof. Cunchillos has lined up not only a good number of his colleagues, however, but also some of the heavy hitters of Lewis scholarship--Edwards, Munton, Caracciola--who, once again, deliver the goods. To cavil, I was hoping that Edwards's chapter on Lewis and Augustan satire would note the irony that two of Alexander Pope's greatest advocates in the 1920s, Edith Sitwell and Lytton Strachey, happened to be Lewis's particular bêtes noires, and also hoping that Munton would not feel the need to take a few more swipes at Fredric Jameson's book...but nonetheless, as usual, you can't get through a page of their contributions without learning something new about Lewis.

Were a prize for the volume mine to give, though, I would probably give it to Stan Smith--not a frequent caller in Lewis precincts, but his chapter on Lewis, Auden, and the Auden group shows extraordinary command of the relevant Lewis material as well as the superbly nuanced understanding of the period context one would expect from this particular scholar.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King_

I WAS AMONG the multitude who fell like a brick for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  Here was a young writer who had read David Foster Wallace and gotten it. Eggers was no mere imitator--sweeter, more carbonated--but like Wallace was willing to go to gloriously baroque excess with the American vernacular and was brave enough to declare, like the usher at the end of Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," that what one does matters.

The next book, a novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, featured two young men trying to give away a windfall of money to which they did not feel morally entitled.  Oof. I finished it, but just barely. Perhaps Eggers felt guilty, I surmised, about becoming famous and prosperous with a book about his family's pain, and this book purged that guilt...all might yet be well.

But the next one--What Is the What--I couldn't finish. Undaunted, or not yet sufficiently daunted, I picked up the non-fiction Zeitoun when it came out, hit this on p. 61--"Kathy shuddered at the thought"--and stopped. Shuddered at the thought? The subject matter of Zeitoun seemed worthy and earnest, but life is too short to read books in which people shudder at thoughts.

I was about to write off Eggers.  Then, from a few yards away, I saw a book in my local Barnes & Noble that appeared to be bound in tree bark.  What the hell is that? Well, it was A Hologram for the King, of course.  Say what you will, the guy knows how to pick a cover. Twenty-five dollars later, I was about to give Eggers another chance.

And you know what?  It's good. Good enough to take a chance on the next one, at least. The language seems awake again: "The glass container that held them all fell down through the atrium to the lobby, silent as snow, and the doors opened to a wall of fake rock.  The smell of chlorine." The main character, Alan Clay, is in an interesting pickle: a former executive whose company ran aground, now a "consultant" with a diminishing list of clients, at fifty-four too old a dog to learn many new tricks, facing a pile of debts and his likely inability to pay for his daughter's next semester at a prestigious college, he has a chance to solve all his problems if he can just make one big sale to a Saudi monarch.

A Hologram for the King has lots of great nubbly historically- and culturally-specific detail (the creation of King Abdullah Economic City, the decline and fall of the Schwinn bicycle company), but at bottom we have (I am not the first to notice) a reworking of Kafka's The Castle.

Like the land-surveyor K., Alan is summoned to undertake a mission in an unfamiliar place, yet when he arrives, no one seems ready for him, he can't get the information he needs to complete his mission, and the people he most needs to talk to are invariably unavailable--except when, by the wildest chance, he bumps into them, but these lucky encounters somehow fail to result in progress.  He meets people, befriends some, some merely attach themselves to him, and he is gradually enmeshed in the life of the place without being truly a part of it.

At the end, we don't really know whether Alan has gotten somewhere or not, but the ending feels oddly, eccentrically upbeat. I can't for the life of me say why--nothing seems to be going Alan's way, really. He is still in a terrible spot. But he has met a wonderful woman (and had an episode of impotence--but surely one can get Viagra in Saudi Arabia) and seems to think he may still be able to make things work out.

One can't really be Kafkaesque (a word I should have known I would be unable to avoid, despite my best intentions) and vaguely upbeat, I suppose, but somehow the ending seems well-judged. A Hologram for the King does not dislodge Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled from the top of my Contemporary Kafkaesque list, but it's a secure # 2.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Wyndham Lewis, _The Demon of Progress in the Arts_

LEWIS'S FIRST NON-FICTION book, The Caliph's Design (1919) was about art, as was this, his last (1955), but none of the many in-between--he did, however, write a good many essays about art in general and painting in particular from the 1920s through the late 1940s, and served a distinguished stint as art reviewer for the Listener until blindness forced him to resign.

Lewis always writes about painting as a practicing painter himself (here, as a formerly practicing painter), as an insider--important to remember, since he often sounds cantankerous about innovation and experiment in the arts, as this book's title suggests. But Lewis himself was a powerful innovator as a painter in the earlier part of his career, and he saw what made Picasso the greatest painter of his generation; it's not as though he was clamoring for the return of Constable and Gainsborough. He could, though, be as curmudgeonly as any New Criterion-type, or as Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, when he thought lofty talk of innovation and experiment was serving as a smokescreen for charlatanry or thinness of talent.

Had he lived another ten years, what would he have made of Warhol? Or, much later, Damien Hirst? Hard to guess--all we know is that his take would have been dauntingly original, whatever it was.

Herein lies the Lewis Conundrum, also exemplified by his long essay "The Diabolical Principle," his no-holds-barred assault on various self-appointed avant-gardistes of the late 1920s. He sounds like a conservative when he's attacking artistic innovation and experiment--but he was as open-minded as anyone about genuine innovation and experiment, right up to the end (he admired Francis Bacon, for instance).  When he thought the innovators were merely posing, though, or finding a way to disguise the weakness of their technique, or essentially marketing themselves...then his wrath knew no bounds.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Chris Cleave, _Little Bee_

OUR BOOK CLUB selection for April. I don't know whether book clubs are as popular in Britain as they are here, but this novel could almost have been designed as a book club selection: narrated in two quite distinct women's voices, with a significant and painful politico-moral issue as its background, quite a bit of humor but also one scene of horrifying action, a redemption-through-self-sacrifice theme in its conclusion.  An enjoyable read and discuss-able, a book that book-club members would be highly likely to recommend to friends in other book clubs who are looking for suggestions.

Did I myself enjoy the book? Sometimes.

Every other chapter in the novel is narrated by Little Bee, a teenaged Nigerian refugee who makes her way to England to elude some oil company thugs who have massacred her village and want to leave no witnesses. Why England?  Because of a horrible encounter on a beach involving herself, her sister, the thugs, and a vacationing English couple--the details of which Cleave withholds for about half the novel--she has the phone number of the husband in the couple. After two or three years in a detention center, she finds a way to get out and calls the man, announcing her imminent arrival on his doorstep. On getting this news, he hangs himself.

The alternating chapters are narrated by Sarah O'Rourke, lifestyle magazine editor, mother of a pre-schooler boy who is always in a Batman costume, and widow of the man who hung himself. Sarah was on the beach as well at the time of the horrifying encounter, and was not at all expecting to see Little Bee again. What to do with her?

Cleave shows ambition in choosing to write his novel in the voices of two women, and two such different women at that, one of whom with a cultural experience remote from his own. I thought he did well with this, though. Both Little Bee and Sarah are intelligent, observant, and aware, and Cleave's handling of their struggle to fashion a relationship out of the trauma of their first meeting is affecting.  This was the strength of the novel, I thought.

Less convincing are Cleave's contrivances to get Little Bee back to Nigeria (Sarah comes along, with her son) for yet another encounter with the same oil company thugs on, wouldn't you know it, the very same beach, with, yes indeed, another suddenly opened opportunity to sacrifice oneself for another, only this time....

In these last fifty pages, I wondered whether Cleave was thinking less of book clubs than of Hollywood. After working hard to keep things plausible--e.g., research into English detention centers for refugees, into Nigerian idioms--he makes a beeline for the heart of melodrama. Disappointing.  Well, we all have to make a living.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wyndham Lewis, _The Writer and the Absolute_

CONTINUING MY TRAWL (after The Red Priest) of the Lewis books from the 1950s I had not previously gotten around to, I picked up this.

1914-30 seems to be the period of choice for people who decide to investigate Lewis, and for good enough reasons, but his books from the fifties deserve to be better known. Self-Condemned ought to make any list of the five best British novels of the 1950s, I think; Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta are at least as compelling as the comparable theologically-inflected fantasy novels of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis; Rotting Hill is a convincing portrait of post-war austerity England. So, what about the critical prose of his last decade?

The Writer and the Absolute (1952) carries on the critique of his literary contemporaries Lewis had begun in the 1920s and 1930s with Time and Western Man, Paleface, and Men Without Art. The prose and the analysis are less energetic here than in those books, but by the same token less vituperative, and on the whole just as worthwhile; Lewis shows the same acuity in picking his subjects (targets?) for the period 1946-50 (Camus, Sartre, Orwell) that he did for the period 1925-30 (Joyce, Pound, Woolf, Eliot, Hemingway, Lawrence).

The Writer and the Absolute is ostensibly a defense of the principle that writers should free themselves from the demands of party or ideology. The arguments are much along the lines of those in Julien Benda's Belphégor and La Trahison des Clercs, books that strongly impressed Lewis (and Eliot, among others) in the 1920s.

The reader soon gathers that, for Lewis, the party writers need most urgently to distance themselves from is the Communist one, and that the complementary ideology-to-avoid is Marxism. Well, no surprise. Lewis had found himself marginalized on several fronts thanks to the fashionable leftism of the 1930s, and at several spots alludes to his having been frozen out (almost literally--he moved to Canada) from the London literary scene during the Auden-worshipping/Spanish Civil War/Popular Front era.

Accordingly, what interests him the most about Sartre is his vexed relationship to the Communist Party, and what interests him the most about Orwell is Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984. By the standards of 1952, though, Lewis treats writers who made left-wing commitments in the 1930s with moderation--his American publisher at the time was Regnery, whose list also included William F. Buckley, Brent Bozell, Whittaker Chambers, James J. Kilpatrick, Albert Nock... compared to the foamings of that crew, Lewis's recognition that Sartre and Malraux are important and valuable writers seems extraordinarily fair-minded.

Lewis always gravitated towards intelligence--ungenerous, unfair, even vicious he could certainly be towards the works of his most gifted contemporaries, but he he always had an infallible nose for which books were the real thing.