Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Try_

FROM 1999. ONE intriguing thing about Try is that all the poems are in the ekphrastic tradition and yet the main overall impression (for me) had to do with sound, a sensory possibility that paintings and sculptures do not possess. They can be seen, of course, and touched if the guard is not looking ("I touched the surface of the canvas," p. 14--one poem, however, is called "Noli Me Tangere"), even smelled or tasted, but not heard. But Try is often about structures made with sound.

For one thing, the sections of the book have titles that contain a variant of the volume title's monosyllable: e.g., "Trilogy," "Triad," Triage," and so on. The titles create both a phonetic and semantic connection with three-ness, which has a structural equivalent in the titled sections having three poems apiece, not to mention the resonances set echoing with section titles like "Triptych" and "Trinity" which involve not only three-ness but the Christian-themed art that most of the poems are facing.

Then there are all the local effects of sound, of which I hope one example will do for the many that could be cited: "and I saw someone leave and I saw the world that thrives on light clench and cleave."

Poetry preoccupied with sound is a familiar phenomenon, I know, but in this context, in poems taking on resolutely silent paintings and sculptures...it was if the poems were calmly telling you, "in order to give you any useful idea of this painting, I will have to very much be a poem."

As occurred to me with Mary Hickman's Rayfish, ekphrastic poetry seems ideal for the internet era, as a reader can now read the poem, find images of the painting or sculpture, and re-read the poem...this paid off handsomely with Swensen's poems on Rodin's "Christ and the Magdalene."

The internet could not tell me, however, whether the final clause of "Here," on p. 28--"the tip of a foot that won't sink back into the painting"--was an allusion to Balzac's Le Chef-d'oeuvre Inconnu, but I suspect it is.

By the way, I am annoyed that "Swensen" auto-corrects  to "Swenson." That "rayfish" auto-corrects to "raffish" has a certain charm but is still a pain.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Ours_

THE FRENCH FOR "ours" is "le nôtre," which happens also to be the name of the great master of the French formal garden, André le Nôtre, designer of the garden at Versailles and a few other spectacular examples.

Le Nôtre figures in a costume drama of 2014, A Little Chaos, and also in this volume from 2008. So he's doing pretty well, I'd say. Does Frederick Law Olmstead have a book of poetry and a film? Not that I know of.

Ours is, I would say, a little harder to get into than the other Swensen volumes I've been reading. Partly because the font is tiny. But even if one is a fan of le grand siècle, as I am, the backstory of its gardens is, I suspect, one of the last of the tastes one acquires.

Nonetheless, some interesting ideas circulate. From where, given its scale, does one view such a garden? "The initial impression must be from a height; but only half / that which is gained from the opposite extremity, looking back." Given its size and its symmetries, could the French formal garden only truly be admired after the invention of the hot air balloon? Then there is the question of who one has to be to view the garden, for it was clearly all about Louis XIV. You or I can see Versailles now, but at the time it was built, it was built for particular eyes.

As always, Swensen finds the right sound for the book, a little formal (le grand siècle loved rhyme) but still with its slippages, vanishings, and strangenesses:

It was Henri III

Who shocked in a mirror

Ran into a man 
on the end of a knife, and it was here that the Comte de Sancerre
Began his long travels backward
                                                      Because a saint somewhere
Left a rollerskate on the stairs


Devoney Looser, _The Making of Jane Austen_

A PROMISING PREMISE--Looser is looking at the reputation of Jane Austen over the last two hundred years as reflected in phenomena beyond the critical or academic tradition: book illustrations, travel guides to Austen country, theatrical adaptations both amateur and professional, the 1940 film with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. The Idea of Jane as bricolage, with thousands of contributors.

She turns up some interesting finds. The 1935 stage version (not Colin Firth) probably inaugurates the tradition of a sexy Darcy; both suffragists and anti-suffragists claimed Austen as ally. William Henry George Pellew wrote the first dissertation on Austen in 1883 and sent a copy to Henry James.

The book never gets airborne, though, somehow, It puts one in mind of the Old Historicism, the pre-Greenblatt kind. An extraordinary amount of time in the archives has been logged, but nothing very audacious is asserted, and the picture of how Jane Austen became Jane Austen is left little more illuminated than it was.

What is clear from Looser's account is that devotion to Jane has been around for quite a while. The process began fairly early--1870, the date of Austen-Leigh's memoir, is sometimes cited as Year One of the Austen renaissance, but Looser demonstrates it was well established by then--and people were surprised by its extent and robustness from as early as the 1890s. This generation's boom of film and television adaptations was preceded by an earlier generation's boom of stage adaptations.

But why Austen rather than, I don't know, Frances Burney? Maria Edgeworth? Or even George Sand? What would Charlotte Brontë think if she knew that Austen was much more widely read, even in France, than George Sand? (On the French Amazon, Orgueil et prejugés has 376 reviews, La mare au diable 47.)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Gravesend_

WE COULD DO a lot worse than Cole Swensen as Greatest Living American Poet, actually. Just read this from 2012 as part of a general march backward from On Walking On, and it's another good one.

This one too has a conceptual center, reads as a project. It's organized around three questions:

1) Have you ever seen a ghost?
2) How did Gravesend get its name?
3) What do you think a ghost is?

As with Gave and On Walking On, I liked the way Swensen folded history and tradition in with what comes across as direct observation/reportage. The form is sometimes reminiscent of D. A. Powell, I'd say, but the fissures into which the syntax sometimes disappears, the way the resultant gaps structure the discourse, seem more Swensenian than anything else.

She's not really a very excerpt-able poet, but the final section has a lot of poems I think would work well on their own: "Cicatrice," "Traveling Ghost," "And Are Ghosts," "Haint Blue," and this one, just called "Ghosts":

are houses.      (The places we exceed ourselves can live.)     And every house
is a guest.     I live in an old one.      I watch it move.        "I am moved," I say
at inappropriate times. And then must say "I'm sorry"      though not to whom

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Elizabeth Strout, _My Name Is Lucy Barton_

THE BOOK CLUB selection for October...I'm not sure why we never read Olive Kittredge, seeing as it is exactly the sort of thing we typically read, but somehow we did not, so this is my first Strout.

Lucy Barton, the narrator, is a writer recalling a lengthy hospitalization in the early 1980s, when she was living in New York City, married with two elementary school age daughters, and not yet established as a writer. Her mother comes out from the small Illinois town where Lucy grew up to keep her company in the hospital.

The mother's visit is the core of the book. One reads expecting some big reveal or outpouring to occur in the conversations between mother and daughter, but nothing quite so dramatic happens. The mother has some inhibition about saying "I love you," and the daughter is not much more forthcoming, so the anticipated opening up or revelation never occurs.

We do find out that  Lucy's childhood was grim, marked by the humiliations of poverty and the deeply disturbing behavior of her father, a traumatized WW II veteran. Her present is somewhat under a shadow, too, as we find out her marriage ends in about ten years time and there are strains in her relationships with her daughters. Her reasons for devoting a book to her mother's extended visit never become explicit, though.

Our (that is, the book club's) best guess arises from a weird little metafictional wormhole. Lucy accidentally meets, then attends a panel featuring, and finally participates in a workshop led by Sarah Payne, a writer Lucy admires but whom "New York just doesn't like." The encounters with Sarah Payne get Lucy writing seriously; the manuscript she brings to the workshop, and about which Payne offers crucial advice, is an early version of My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Something about the conjunction of the mother's visit with the encounters with the female artistic mentor turns Lucy from aspiring writer into writer.

The nature of that something is elusive...to tell the truth, I did not much enjoy My Name Is Lucy Barton. But most of the club did.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

"Greatest Living American Poet"

FUNNY THING. Here I have been thinking that Ashbery's career marked a kind of terminus to the idea of "greatest living American poet," seeing as how (1) he did nothing to embrace the role and (2) a great many people even within the restricted number of people who have an investment in poetry seem never to have thought about him (e.g., Garrison Keillor) and (3) he doesn't have a "Road Not Taken" or even a "Skunk Hour" that might nail down a spot in curriculum.

I have also been thinking that, all in all, saying goodbye to the idea of "greatest living American poet" was a good thing, given that thinking one is king of the cats probably does one's work no good at all, ordinarily (see Lowell or Ted Hughes).

Then, in Luc Sante's memorial piece on Ashbery in NYRB (Oct. 12, 2017), what does he do but declare that Ashbery "was considered, by general acclaim, the greatest living American poet."

Well. I mean, I suppose he was, if we need to designate someone. But part of the example and legacy of Ashbery is that poetry is too unmappable a territory to have a single greatest living practitioner. It bothers me that Sante hung the tag on him.

Does this mean we are going to have a new greatest living American poet? But consider the field. Let's consider Jorie Graham, Mary Oliver, and Alice Notley...see what I mean? Can one even make any comparison? Isn't Graham, Oliver, and Notley apples, oranges, and lemons? If you throw in Merwin, Silliman, and Billy Collins, we have whole new dimensions of incommensurability.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Cole Swensen, _On Walking On_

HER SECOND BOOK of 2017, after Gave. I've written about this one already in a more respectable precinct of the web and am likely to repeat myself...oh well, what the heck. If you can imagine a fairly lengthy essay on writers who have written about walking, from Chaucer to Lisa Robertson (intermediate stops including Rousseau, both Wordsworths, Thoreau, Sand, Woolf, Walser, Sebald, and several others), except that the essay is a poem, interspersed with prose poems about a few of the poet's own walks...it's like that.

The problem is, my description of it does not make it sound very interesting, but it is.

Not only that--I keep thinking that Landscape on a Train, Gave, and this one constitute a kind of project about motion in landscape. This may partly be from my having read them one right after the other, but the thought keep teasing me nonetheless. Still, they certainly don't sound the same--the music (if I may call it that) is different from book to book, the rhythm is different, the palette (if I may call it that) is different, even the voice is different.

Feels odd to go from reading a whole lot o' Lowell this summer to this immersion in Swenson, who does not have a lot in common with him. Feels good, though.

John Ashbery, _Commotion of the Birds_

COINCIDENTALLY, I WAS about halfway through this when I heard Ashbery had died.

It has the characteristic virtues of 21st century Ashbery, which, rather like 21st century Dylan, may not dazzle as some of the earlier work did but remains worthwhile, adding meaningfully to the corpus.

Thinking back to what I said of Robert Lowell and Laynie Browne a few posts back, it seems to me now that Ashbery is one reason, maybe even the main reason, why we are less likely to think in terms of "America's greatest poet" these days. He seems to have renounced any interest in such a designation as long ago as The Tennis Court Oath, and even when he had as good a reason as anyone to claim the title, back in the days of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and anointing by Harold Bloom, he always seemed indifferent to the whole business. If not downright allergic to it.

A healthy thing, really. One of the great many reasons to be grateful for him.

Laline Paull, _The Bees_

THE AUGUST SELECTION of our book club. I was not expecting to enjoy it much, but it turned out to be likable enough. It put me in mind of the praise Samuel Johnson bestowed on Pope's Rape of the Lock, that "new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new."

The main story of The Bees is the familiar archetype of the coming of age and mature accomplishments of a society's hero/savior: obscure birth, precocious achievement, early mentors, struggles for recognition, contending with envious rivals, journey or exile, dangerous encounters, temptations, eventual return and triumph, death. Very Hero with a Thousand Faces, we might say.

This storyline is made new in part by making the hero female, but the major twist is that the protagonist is a bee.

Flora 707 is hatched a lowly janitorial bee, but soon shows an astonishing range of talents, eventually mastering nearly every task in the hive and successfully navigating its ruthless class hierarchy. She may carry an interloping genetic strain--there are glancing references to bees from more southerly climes--but more importantly she is a Lean In kind of bee, ready to take on invading wasps, unfamiliar foraging territory, and even such absolutely prohibited acts as laying eggs (only the queen may lay eggs).

By the end of the novel, the aging queen is near death, the hive crumbling...who will take the swarm into the challenges of the future?

Not Flora 707, actually, as things turns out, though she plays a crucial pivotal role.

I have no idea how closely based any of the novel is on the actual lives of bees. But the newness of the setting made the familiar coming-of-the-savior story a lot more engaging than it might have been. The Bees would make a dandy graphic novel, I think.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Gave_

NOT THE PAST tense of "give," in this case, but a river in southwest France, the Gave de Pau. Like Landscapes on a Train, worth reading in one go if you can manage it, and like that volume too in its pondering of what it means to move and what it means to stand still.

You walk alongside the river. No; you walk always with. Not down, or along, or beside. And you can't help but measure--is it moving faster? And does that mean each molecule of wtaer? Or does a body of water form internal bodies, pockets that move in counterpoint, in back-beat, in eddies? And does the surface ever move? Or is it something underneath that does?

The river is moving constantly, yet also in another way exactly where it has been for centuries. After all, it has a history traceable in the histories of the towns on its banks, which also come in for some attention in the poem. They too are basically where they have long been--but are they the same cities they were? They have moved along in time as the river's water has moved along in its current, the town arriving in its Now as the river arrives at the ocean...except "the river doesn't end / in the sea."

What? But then you think, she's right. It does not end in the sea because in some respects it is still right there beside the town: "rivers so / often seem to run, but / there's a part of them / that never moves again / in their stones."

The phrase "philosophical poem" suggests heavy lifting, effort and aridity, wrestling in a sand dune. Somehow, Swensen a provides a phenomenological meditation that is never anything but swift and nimble-footed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Landscapes on a Train_

I WOULD RECOMMEND that you read this in a single sitting if you can. I did--found it hard not to, actually--and it does have that train-ride effect of a phenomenon that separates itself from all else for however long it lasts, a kind of capsule in time.

A lot of the effect is due to images that recur in never-quite-the-same sequences, as in Lisa Robertson's The Weather or Stein, often in the same staccato cadences as Stein but different somehow... a bit more lyrical lift, a brisker music? I don't know.

I wonder whether the poem involves a dialogue (so to speak) between the static and the moving. While on a train, one feels as though one is standing still, while actually hurtling forward at however many miles an hour; the landscape zipping by in the windows like a continuous filmstrip, its elements repeating with infinite variations and differences, is actually stationary. (Except that it is on a spinning ball in space...)

Maybe it's a cinematic quality--that feeling one has watching a movie, even a perfectly ordinary one, that you are in a self-contained experience suspending time, putting the rest of life on hold, and you are simply going to watch that movie until it's over. Landscapes on a Train is like that. Very unusual for a poem. How did she do it?



Saturday, September 2, 2017

Elizabeth Hardwick, _Sleepless Nights_

THIS IS TURNING into the Summer of Lowell for me. I read this--not exactly a memoir and not exactly a novel, musical rather than chronological in structure, elliptical and impressionistic--because I wondered what kind of glimpses it would afford of Lowell (Hardwick's husband for about twenty frequently stressful years). Not many, it turns out, and the relatively few times we glimpse what I assume is Lowell (proper names are scarce in Sleepless Nights), he seems unpleasant and a little difficult, but not dramatically so. Given the ammunition Hardwick had available (vide Hamilton, Mariani, Jamison, et al.), her tone is remarkably mild.

The most memorable passage, for me, was about Billie Holiday--an unusual portrait in that it avoided the mythologizing that other portaits of Lady Day are prone to indulge in.

What I was most struck by, though, is the prose, which had what I may as well call a pre-Didion elegance, a willingness to luxuriate in unusual adjectives and slightly récherché similes, a bit like James Agee, say. Sometimes this had a doilies-on-the-armrests effect--now that one is used to Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Roxane Gay--but it can be appealing too.

For example: "The tall trees, altered by the snow and ice, loomed up in the arctic landsacpe like ancient cataclysmic formations of malicious splendor."

Not sure how helpful this is--do any of us really know what an ancient cataclysmic formation of malicious splendor looks like, and if we do not, how are we going to know what the trees looked like? But it does roll musically in the mind.

Hard also to think of a contemporary writer who would risk a Latinate inversion like "To him was given heart disease and to her, cancer." The KJV cadence does lend a certain something, though--it's what James Baldwin has that Ta-Nehisi Coates does not.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Robert Lowell, _Notebook 1967-1968_; Laynie Browne, _Daily Sonnets_

READING JAMISON'S BOOK made me want to re-read some Lowell, and I went with this, the original publication of the sonnets later refashioned as Notebook (without the dates) and then as History and For Lizzie and Harriet. I had not much liked it when I first read it, which must have been in graduate school or shortly thereafter, but I wondered what I would make of it now, with a better understanding, thanks to Jamison, of the titanic struggles Lowell underwent to write anything at all.

Well, I liked a lot of it. There are any number of great lines, and some great poems. What I found myself most thinking of, though, was Laynie Browne's Daily Sonnets, from 2007. I don't think I thought of Lowell at all when reading Daily Sonnets back in 2008 or 2009 (and Browne does not ever allude to Lowell, so far as I can tell), but now all sorts of parallels occurred to me.

They both involve the poet establishing the discipline of writing every day or almost every day, for one thing, and then the discipline of the sonnet itself, which both poets are only loosely tethered to, but which both of them honor in their own ways.

Lowell writes often about his spouse and his child; Browne writes often, though a little less directly, of her spouse and children.

They both include a few translations.

They both includes tributes to fellow writers (Lowell's a bit more tart).

They both address contemporary events in the world.

For all the parallels, though, they seem utterly different. A lot of this (I think) is down to Lowell's ambition. He sees "the poems in this book as one poem," he writes in an afterword, almost as if the book were an epic, or the kind of epic Wordsworth's Prelude was, in which he views his subjective experience through the lens of history and history through the lens of his subjective experience. Given ambition of this scale, it's hardly surprising that the book is an arduous read. That it is readable at all is evidence of Lowell's strength as a poet.

Browne's book is not easy to read--its WTF score is probably as high as that of Notebook ("cutaneous young swan / Prolong an omen or prone quotidian")--but there's more air, more light...maybe it's more of a success. It feels less effortful, in a way that illustrates a significant shift in American poetry over the last fifty years, I think.

Browne is willing to try homophonic translation, for instance, or "dictionary poems," in which all the words of the poem come from the entries on a particular page of a dictionary, and other kinds of invention strategies that involve trust in the aleatory. There's a Taoist relinquishing of desire for control. Browne notes in an afterword, "I have drawn from devotional practices the sense of the poem as an offering--it is beyond ownership--what may be given now."

Lowell's book feels like heroic struggle, as in our received idea of Jackson Pollock, say, locked in existential struggle with his canvas...a great thing about Jamison's book is that we realize there is nothing at all ironic in the phrase "heroic struggle" applied to Lowell, given what he had to stare down in order to write anything at all.

But Browne's book gets airborne more often, I think...maybe just because she's willing to trust the air currents, and Lowell is always flapping his arms.

It's not so much that Browne's book is unambitious as that it has renounced a certain kind of ambition. And that's one difference between poetry in 1967 and poetry in 2007.

I sometimes fe



Saturday, August 19, 2017

Álvaro Enrigue, _Sudden Death_, trans. Natasha Wimmer

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

Emma Donoghue, _The Wonder_

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Nathan Hill, _The Nix_

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Monday, August 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Michel Houellebecq, _Soumission_

HOUELLEBECQ PUTS ME in mind of my man Wyndham Lewis--brilliant and distinctive stylist, original mind, and classified as a conservative mainly by virtue of our creaky, over-determined left-right political binary. Lewis was not so much a true conservative as he was an unusually skillful satirist of complacent leftist pieties, and Houellebecq too seems keener to puncture the balloons of the enlightened than he is to defend the west, virtue, faith, etc.

Soumission (English title Submission, which is also what "Islam" translates as) imagines that, thanks to a particularly tricky (though not very likely) French electoral logjam, an Islamic party becomes part of a ruling coalition in France. Muslim mores (about polygamy, education, female dress, etc.) are adopted into law.

Sounds dystopian, right? In fact, sounds a lot like Jean Raspail's Le Camp des Saints, which caused a ruckus back when I was in graduate school with its immigration-as-zombie-movie plot line.  Houellebecq's novel, though, seems almost to suggest that the Islamization of the West might be, from a conservative standpoint, just what we need.

The narrator is a mediocre university lecturer, a Huysmans scholar who has an affair with a different student every year. He makes a reasonably good exemplar of the complete moral and spiritual vacuity of the western intelligentsia. He is initially shocked and horrified by the Muslim takeover. He even goes on a retreat at the same monastery where Huysmans became an oblate after his famous conversion to Catholicism, as though in some effort to reclaim core western values.

Thing is--he's just not that into it. His main emotion at that monastery is frustration at there being a smoke detector in his room, preventing his having a cigarette when he wants one.

Then it turns out there may be certain advantages to, so to speak, going with the flow. If he converts, he can reclaim his old position at the university, on improved terms, since the new administration understands the public relations value of having members of the old faculty embrace the new order. And besides, as the new director points out, wouldn't one say that Christianity is a bit... depleted? Out of fuel? Pithless? If conservatives want the social stability of firm morality, no-nonsense patriarchy, clear-cut values, might it not be better to look to a younger, more vigorous faith tradition, without all that weird trinitarian mumbo-jumbo?

So, our man converts. And immediately starts wondering who the university will provide for his wives... matchmaking being part of the new faculty contract. His former female colleagues, presumably, will not be getting such offers.

First, the novel flicks boogers at the left by insisting that Muslims in Europe really do want to impose sharia law and the rest of it on the whole world. Then it flicks boogers at the right by insisting that sharia law and the rest of it are exactly equivalent to what you wish to impose on society. Lewis would be tickled.

The novel is too French to get much of an audience here, I suspect, but I thought it was a brilliant performance.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Eleanor Catton, _The Luminaries_

A LARGE, OVERSTUFFED Victorian sofa of a whodunit thriller, set in the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s, in a decidedly Wilkie Collins vein.

With a post-modernist, twist, however. Cotton has imposed a constraint on her narration in that each character is assigned to a planet or a constellation, and she uses the actual astrological charts of particular days her narration covers to determine which characters will be encountering which other characters. So it's more like Wilkie Collins joins OuLiPo.

The prose of Cotton's update of Collins has the same leisurely, show-and-tell, tending-to-overexplanation paddedness of Collins's own:

Gascoigne did not reply, but narrowed his eyes very slightly, and pressed his lips together, to signify there was a question in his mind he could not ask with decency. Anna sighed. She decided that she would not express her gratitude in the conventional way; she would repay the sum of her bail in coin, and in the morning.

Cotton's plotting is not so well-engineered as Collins's at his best, though. As the book opens, we have a man dead in mysterious circumstances. Even more mysteriously, the Young Male Lead and the Young Female Lead seem to live each other's experiences; when the Young Female Lead smokes opium, the Young Male Lead becomes intoxicated, and when the Young Male Lead is unable to eat, the Young Female Lead loses weight.

Hundreds of pages later, however, the murderer turns out to be the character whose scoundrelly behavior has made him a suspect since his first appearance, and the couple, it turns out, are joined as one because... they are in love.

Can't help thinking old Wilkie would have thrown us a few more curveballs.

I was hoping to get a sense of why Catton wanted to do a 21st century Wilkie Collins in the first place, but I never did. Pastiche for pastiche's sake?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Airea D. Matthews, _Simulacra_

THE WAY THAT we live now: I don't always pick up the annual Yale Younger Poet book, but I saw this on the new poetry table at Elliott Bay Books and was intrigued by the cover, so I bought it. I was reading it in the coffee shop attached to the bookstore when our younger adult child (whom we were visiting) took my picture and posted it to Facebook. Within a few minutes we found out that our kid is Facebook friends with half a dozen or so people who are Facebook friends with Airea Matthews.

That seems surprising to me, but for all I know it's the new normal.

Matthews's title and section epigraphs invoke the principal intellectual concept of Jean Baudrillard, that the original and authentic are chimerical, definitively unavailable to us, however badly we desire them. But the poems often invoke (by name and quotation) Anne Sexton, one of the great mid-century confessional poets, and confessional poetry typically does hold out the promise of the unmediated, the original, the authentic; it may be messy, it may be embarrassing, but it's authentic. So how square this circle?

The Baudrillard-Sexton conjunction makes the reader wonder how much of confessional poetry is gestural, a set of moves that speak to a certain real but unsatisfiable readerly hunger. Several poems in Simulacra, for instance, mention a father, now deceased, who was addicted to heroin. Is this confessional poetry or only a detail that we tend to read as confessional?

The book's formal versatility (e.g., a poem that adapts Schoenberg's technique of 12-tone serial musical composition) suggests to me that Matthews wants us to think about just that sort of question. Is there a formality to confession? Does form depend on matter?

 "If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein," for instance, crosses the avant-gardism of Tender Buttons with the gritty pain of the Great Migration. The historical pain reflected in the poem could have made the literary experimentation look frivolous, and the poem could have seemed like a parody. But what happens instead is that the defamiliarization that gives Tender Buttons its strange magic makes the losses and hardships of the Great Migration generation visible in a new way.

A memorable debut.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Han Kang, _The Vegetarian_, trans. Deborah Smith

JUST ABOUT ANY Man Booker winner is worth reading, but this one may be a classic.

The vegetarian of the title is Heong-hye Kim, a young Korean woman, raised in a strict patriarchal family, married to a businessman chosen by her father. She has an older sister, who is married to a video artist; they have a young son, and she runs a small cosmetics shop. Finally, there is a younger brother (of whom we see little), cut from the same cloth as the father.

The book is about rebellion, I'd say. Imagine The Awakening, but rather than getting Edna Pontellier's point of view, we get only those of her family and friends as they try to fathom what is going on with her, try to "help" her, correct her, chastise her, take advantage of her, sympathize with her. This strategy makes Heong-hye more difficult to identify with than Edna, but also more enigmatic, eventually more formidable, ultimately more challenging. There is something of Kafka's hunger artist in her, or something of Catherine of Siena...or maybe she's a goddess. She says little, almost nothing after the first of the novel's three sections, but everything she says seems oracular, touched by fire.

The three sections were apparently published as separate novellas in Korean. In the first, we primarily  have the perspective of Heong-hye's husband, annoyed by the possibility that his wife's eccentric diet will spoil his chances of promotion; he sends her back to her family as defective merchandise. In the second, her artist brother-in-law is fascinated by her and seeks to incorporate her weird power into his art, to possess her, but as a mere mortal ends up scorched by his contact with divinity. In the the third, with Heong-hye now in a mental institution, we have the perspective of the sister, whose conformity to the ideal Korean daughter/wife/mother roles begins to shiver and crack as she contemplates her sister's life.

This should be on a thousand syllabusses in ten years' time, thanks in no small part to the translation by Deborah Smith, the fidelity of which I cannot vouch for, but which is swift, elegant, and powerful. Kang has her Rabassa, and her conquest of English-speaking readerdom is assured.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rae Armantrout, _Versed_

TOOK ME A while to get around to this; it appeared in 2010. To tell the truth, I usually skip Pultizer Prize winners.  They tend to be worthwhile without being quite the sort of thing I most like. I was curious about this one, though, because Armantrout seems very left-field compared to most Pulitzer winners for poetry. She was in In the American Tree, after all. As far as I can determine, no one else included in that volume has won either a Pulitzer or a National Book Award--for which prize Versed was a finalist, by the way.

I find myself wondering how this sort of development occurs. I have not read a lot of Armantrout's work, but Versed does not strike me much more accessible or domesticated than her poetry from back in the 1980s and 1990s--a bit so, perhaps, but not dramatically. The poems are still elliptical, elusive, still have a measurable WTF factor:

Repeat wake measurement.

"Check to see."

"Check to see,"

Birds say,

"That enough time

Has passed."

Sometimes there is a vein of dark humor, especially in the prose poems, that could appeal broadly: "I call 911 but reach a psychic hotline." Sometimes, there is a recognizble allusion to popular culture: e.g., Anna Nicole Smith or reality television, as in the lines "One tells the story / of his illness / in such a way / as to make the others love him."

Sometimes there is a cosmo-theological thematic, as in the poem "Dark Matter," or a glimpse at family psychology, as in "Birth Order," but you also wonder if both poems aren't really more about writing than anything else (the latter, for instance, may be about how second stanzas have a peculiar ontological status, inevitably being seen within the contexts created by first stanzas).

So...it just seems surprising that the book got a Pulitzer. Not an unprecedented development (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror got a Pulitzer, for instance), and certainly a welcome one, but how does this happen? Is it just who gets picked as judges? Do attitudes change? How does the unlikely become possible?

The really funny thing is that I keep thinking the poems in Versed address exactly these questions.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jackie French, _Ophelia, Queen of Denmark_ , and Lisa Klein, _Ophelia_

PAUL GRIFFITH'S BRILLIANT Let Me Tell You got me thinking about Ophelia as a Young Adult Novel theme, and it turns out that attempts have already been made. I sampled these two--Klein's novel is from 2006, French's from 2015.

French and Klein had several of the same ideas about how to make Ophelia's story YA-friendly. First person narration, for one thing. More crucially, no madness and no drowning/suicide. Ophelia only pretends to be insane in both novels, then fakes her own drowning, to enable her escape from the infected snakebite that is Elsinore.

Gertrude is fascinating and enigmatic in both--we are for a while kept guessing at how much she knows about Claudius and how sincere her interest in Ophelia's well-being is. Hamlet is likewise fascinating and enigmatic, and his and Ophelia's love is key to both plots, but in both novels he is revealed to be Mr. Seems-Right-but-Not-Quite, a Frank Churchill/Henry Crawford/William Elliott figure, too wrapped up in his obsession with avenging his father to sustain his relationship with Ophelia (in Klein, they are even secretly married, à la Romeo and Juliet).

The true Mr. Right turns out in both novels to be someone else that Ophelia settles down with once all the drama has blown over--Fortinbras in French's novel, Horatio in Klein's.

Both Ophelias have an episode or two in male drag; both are plucky, passionate, perceptive, and possessed of enviable survival skills.

French's Ophelia is an expert on cheese (is this a Danish thing?). French seems to have set herself the challenge of mentioning cheese in every chapter, sometimes to odd effect. On hearing of Polonius' death, Ophelia tells us, "My first thought was of cheese."

Klein's Ophelia (more plausibly) is an herbalist (Klein is a scholar of early modern lit). Klein's Ophelia escapes Elsinore and winds up in...a nunnery. Which is witty, I admit. The novel's Part 3, though, set in the nunnery (where Horatio finds her), gets a bit talky, a bit like a YA Magic Mountain (God, authority, nature).

Both novels had some good passages--getting Ophelia's version of the "nunnery" scene and the "play-within-the-play" scene definitely worked. Klein's is the better-written of the two.

If the mad scene is just a charade, though, and if there is no drowning, is this still the Ophelia we love? One misses the dark, doomy subtext, the black undercurrent. These are Ophelias for the Katniss era, I guess.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Jonathon Sturgeon, "Divine Indigestion"

YET ANOTHER COINCIDENCE (as in immediately preceding post): I finished Nell Zink's Mislaid on the plane, proceeded to a year-old issue of The Baffler that I had not yet gotten around to, and lo and behold, I found an article with a smart, interesting point about Mislaid.

To an extent, Sturgeon's article is an effort to revive interest in Quentin Anderson's The Imperial Self (1971), "largely forgotten," Sturgeon accurately notes, but worth renewed attention: "A closer look at The Imperial Self reveals a critique of a literary intellectualism that holds up because it is imaginative, yes, but also because the condition of the novel has not changed that much." Anderson, he writes, "examined the 'imaginative desocialization' of American literature at the hands of a radical individualism" and sought to "ground literature in social context."

Mislaid and Paul Beatty's The Sellout are Sturgeon's examples of strong contemporary novels that pull against the tide of this all-devouring Emersonian individualism.

The selves is Mislaid are fluid, but they don't absorb other selves, nature, matter, or information. They exist instead in a near-Spinozistic web of pressured relationships. [...] Karen, who is open to being affected by others rather than guzzling them down, is what Quentin Anderson would have called "the transitive person," one "whose world is constituted by [her] ties to other people."

That's a spot-on observation about the book and about its most appealing character. And I need to find Anderson's book.

I wish, though, that in arraigning his "bad" exemplar (Jonathan Franzen), Sturgeon had not resorted to  the lazy argument of taking one of a novelist's characters to represent the situation of the novelist. Sturgeon says of Andreas Wolf from Purity, "Well, Wolf is just Franzen after the divorce, but before he learned to subsume birds." Urk. I don't think so. I have reservations about Franzen's novels myself, but that point won't hold.

Wolf is someone whom the world takes to be a selfless, even saintly apostle of honesty and transparency, but who actually has a terrible secret he will go to almost any lengths to protect, and who eventually succumbs to the tragic contradiction of his own life. That does not seem like even the loosest kind of analogue to Franzen's circumstances.

Reminds me of Amy Hungerford's basing part of her argument in "On Not Reading DFW" on the claim that anything that comes from Mark Nechtr's mouth ("Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way") as good as comes from Wallace's.

Come on, now. We can do better than that.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Brad Gregory, _The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society_ via Mark Lilla

I ORDINARILY DO not write an entry on a book until I have finished it, but since it may be years before I finish Gregory's fairly dense study, I feel an urge to note right now the odd coincidence that I was in the middle of its second chapter when I read the review of it ("From Luther to Walmart") included in Lilla's The Shipwrecked Mind.

(In fact, this was the only chapter of The Shipwrecked Mind that I had not read before; the other pieces had appeared in New York Review of Books, but "From Luther to Walmart" had been published in the New Republic--not one of my usual stops.)

Lilla is none too complimentary. He sees Gregory's book as typical of the nostalgia he diagnoses as central to conservative thought. Conservative intellectuals, Lilla argues, posit a Golden Age that preceded a fall into modernity (and our present bloody-minded anxieties) and then attribute that fall to some thinker or idea, such as the gnosticism and "immanentizing the eschaton" (Voegelin) or Machiavelli (Strauss).

For Gregory, according to Lilla, "before the Reformation the harmony of the heavens was mirrored in Christian life and thought." Reformation theology, which sought only to correct some problems with the church, had unintended philosophical consequences that led to the secularization of the natural sciences, education, and political economy--and their attendant alienation and anomie.

The thing is---since I had just started Gregory's book not long before I read Lilla's review, I happened to know that Gregory explicitly denies having written the kind of book Lilla is describing. In his introduction, he states, "This is neither a study of decline from a Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an ever brighter future, but rather an analysis of  unintended consequences that derived from transformative responses to major, perceived human problems" (20-21; emphasis mine).

So.

Still, even though Gregory, in his own estimation, is not writing out of philosophical nostalgia, and even though he is obviously a thorough and careful scholar and writer, I'm not sure Lilla's characterization is unfair. Gregory is meticulous about drawing connections between Reformation thinking and secularizing social trends, but something in his tone suggests not just that the secularization of the west was contingent upon certain philosophical developments within Protestant thinking, not just that it was avoidable, but that it was also undesirable, and may even be reversible.

As Jeremiahs go, Gregory is subdued. But is there a little Jeremiah in there? Lilla has a point, I think. I plan to carry on with the book, though--Gregory may be no Franz Rosenzweig, but he's an intellectual mensch nonetheless.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nell Zink, _Mislaid_

SOMEWHAT TO MY surprise, Zink's second novel is a bit more grounded, "normal," and domesticated than her first; family conflicts in Virginia circa 1960-1980, set alternately in a small college town and in the backwoods, easily tracked plot, interesting minor characters, plenty of humorous asides…realism of a familiar sort, then, but nonetheless with a bit of an edge, like A. M. Homes, say.

And as with Homes's May We Be Forgiven, and a good many of the stories in the Ludmilla Petrushevskaya collection I read last month, we have (what I would count as) a happy ending, despite plenty of ingredients for a disastrous, traumatic, scarred-for-life blow-up.

The happy ending of Mislaid is not all the plausible, indeed flies in the face of what would most likely happen in the circumstances created by the plot, but its very implausibility is what redeems it, makes it a wondrous thing. While Mislaid certainly unfolds in the voice and pace of of the realist novel, it ends up seeming akin to Shakespeare's late romances, in which similar potentially traumatic accidents, mistakes, and decisions turn out, years later, to have prepared the ground for forgiveness, reconciliation, and content.

How likely is it that Prospero's betraying brother would fall into his hands years later? That the blindly jealous Leontes would have a chance to be reconciled with the wife whom his suspiciousness had killed sixteen years previously?  That after long separations and thinking the other dead, Posthumus would recover Imogen, or Pericles Marina? Not at all likely. Flat out incredible, really. Yet Shakespeare is able to make us see that the world is always more than the likely, more than the plausible.  And a good thing it is, too.

Zink manages something like that. And as with Miranda, Marina, Perdita, and Imogen, a young girl shall lead them. Karen Brown, a.k.a. Mireille "Mickey" Fleming, is a Perdita for our times. She's a minor miracle.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mark Lilla, _The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction_

LILLA IS A particular favorite of mine. The Stillborn God is brilliant intellectual history of the old kind (A. O. Lovejoy, Erich Auerbach, above all Isaiah Berlin), and his essays on the careers of various thinkers have the swiftness, assurance, and clarity of the Edmund Wilson of To the Finland Station and Patriotric Gore. His being skeptical about Marxism and respectful of certain conservative thinkers may explain, I'm guessing, why he does not have the cachet of, say, George Scialabba, the same way Berlin does not have the cachet of, say, Raymond Williams. I have to confess, though, that that skepticism and that willingness to entertain other perspectives are exactly what I appreciatre about him.

Superficially, this book has a lot in common with the Corey Robin book I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It consists mainly of republished pieces, aims to create a kind of collage map of the intellectual right by examining the careers of crucial figures, and uses its introduction and conclusion to sketch an argument that unifies the book's various individual pieces.

Lilla finds (in spots) a greater integrity and coherence on the right than Robin does, though. Robin sees the right's arguments as inescapably founded on making cases for threatened or vanished privileges. Lilla sees them as founded on nostalgia. "Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody's nostalgia," he writes (xiv); each right-wing thinker he examines "believes that a discrete Golden Age existed and that he possesses the esoteric knowledge of why it ended" and thus of how it might possibly be restored (xx-xxi).

I wonder, though, whether the Robin and Lilla summations of reaction do not so much oppose as complement each other, as in the old vase-or-two-profiles optical lllusion, in which you could see one or the other but not both at once. May one describe Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign as nostalgic? Yes--hazily articulated, not necessarily even sincere on his part, but probably authentic  enough as regards many who voted for him. Was Trump also appealing to a sense that male privilege and white privilege and straight privilege were crumbling? Well, yes. But do we have to choose which analysis is more true? Is there a way to think about both of these ideas at once?

A wide stream in my 2017 reading has been trying to understand the advent of Trump, and both Lilla and Robin helped. Next stop--Arlie Hochschild?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Nell Zink, _The Wallcreeper_

RECENT NOVELS BY American novelists that set American characters in eastern or central Europe typically take on the seriousness of eastern and central European novels. They can still be witty or farcical at moments, but (thinking of Caleb Crain or Garth Greenwell, say) they do curve towards the moral gravity and earnestness of Mann, Musil, Broch, Bernhard (who can all be funny--don't get me wrong--but the somber is never far away).

So, a distinctive thing about Zink's The Wallcreeper is that it is set mainly in Switzerland and Germany and has mainly American characters, but it relies on the deadpan, unfazed, somewhat flattened tone of a lot of American fiction (in my personal shorthand, the "Didion-effect") that does not show much elation over fortunate events nor much dismay over unfortunate ones.

The novel opens:

I [the narrator, Tiffany] was looking at the map when Stephen [her husband] swerved, hit the rock and occasioned the miscarriage.

Stephen swerved because he saw a rare bird--the wallcreeper of the title--and he stops to retrieve it. Oddly enough, even though a miscarriage is a serious life event, it hardly gets mentioned again. We are left to wonder how much it mattered to Tiffany.

The bird, however, gets a lot of attention in the following pages, getting a name (Rudi) and even some celebrity, due to its rarity. But on p. 55, Rudi (even though he is the title character) gets an abrupt Janet-Leigh-in-Psycho early exit:

I got my binoculars focused on Rudi in time to see the tiny hawk raise his head wet to the nostrils with Rudi's blood and plunge it again into Rudi's chest. Rudi's beautiful red and black wings with their absurd white polka dots twitched, twitched again, and died. The hawk ate his heart and flew away.

This event too is met with a certain flatness of affect. Stephen is temporarily upset, but Tiffany does not give much away, either at the moment or later.

Situations of genuine gravity keep occurring--betrayal, adultery, drug addiction, the fate of the planet [both Tiffany and Stephen are enviro-activists), and death--but the classic Mitteleuropa earnest reflection (the main ingredient of Nádas's A Book of Memories, which I had just finished) stays far away. Tiffany has frequent recourse to the wry & dry, candidly owns up to her own lapses and misperceptions, but does not give away much about her inner weather. Her emotional life is pretty much under seal.

So why did I end up enjoying this novel as much as I did? I admit, I almost gave up after Rudi met his end. (Zink's epigraph is from Ted Hughes: "I kill where I please because it is all mine.")

Partly, I think, because Zink somehow conveys that Tiffany is feeling a great deal more than she is letting on. Late in the novel, as she and Stephen are roaming the woods, they see a terrible sight:

One day we got to a dead ewe in time to catch the goose-stepping of the griffon vultures arriving to deliver its breech birth along with everything else except its rumen, bones, and pelt. Before I closed my eyes, it skyrocketed to first place on the  list of the most repellent spectacles I had ever witnessed, lending a vivid symbolic figuration to events I had hitherto refused to name.

The miscarriage, I'm guessing--unmentioned, intentionally and fiercely unmentioned, but unforgotten.
And maybe the repression makes sense. After all, in an eat-and-be-eaten world, how much brain-space can one spare for sentimentality?

Partly, too, Tiffany just becomes good company. She is smart, she's funny, and she spreads a lovely constellation of allusions: Horace Andy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Prince Kropotkin and Slavoj Zizek. She even mentions Robert Walser and Thomas DeQuincey in the same sentence. So she's all right in my book.








Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sarah Manguso, _300 Arguments_

I WOULD SUGGEST 300 Conclusions as an alternate title, for while the maxims, aperçus, and one-liners in this book do seem to have under or behind them full arguments and lengthier expositions, what the reader gets its just the succinctly wrapped-up end point of the argument. "Bad art is from no one to no one," for instance, conjures up a whole essay. We get the hard sparkle, intuit the invisible underwater iceberg.

"Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book's quotable passages," Manguso writes.  Imagine a long book like, say, Jennifer Moxley's The Middle Room, a mid-life memoir about writing as an art and as a career, about love, sex, and friendship, about mistakes made and lessons learned. Then imagine the book having 300 sentences or short passages you would tick in the margin or underline. Imagine those 300 marked sentences or short passages in a book all by themselves. That is what we have in 300 Arguments.

Maxims and aperçus that have become famous run to the inspirational, affirmative, and consolatory: "Be the change you want to see in the world," or "The arc of history is long, but it bends  towards justice," or "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all." Manguso tends to swing from the other side of the plate: "Inner beauty can fade, too," or "The most likable person you know just might be a sociopath."

So, Manguso may be our Rochefoucauld. As Swift wrote,

As Rochefoucauld his maxims drew 
From Nature, I believe 'em true: 
They argue no corrupted mind 
In him; the fault is in mankind.

As with Rochefoucauld, the outlook is generally dark, but hard to disagree with, especially given how witty Manguso normally is: "Dying young can really help an art career along. It's the careerist's ultimate paradox."

But when the tone slips into the confessional--

The most fervent kiss of my life was less than five seconds long more than ten years ago with someone else's husband. It still hasn't quite worn off.

Or pays tribute--

Picture a locked storeroom strewn with all the old sheet music I had to give back to music teachers and choral directors, paper lying unused for decades, fading yellow, annotated in sharp pencil, the page containers of such joy that it sometimes choked me silent. No one who picks it up could know how it saved my life, over and over.

Or, as it often does in the final pages, sounds almost valedictory--

I want to shed my fears one by one until there is nothing left of me.

--when we get more than the hard sparkle of the illusionless, and we have something we never get from Rochefoucauld.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Péter Nádas, _A Book of Memories_ (1), trans. Ivan Sanders

HAVING FINISHED SZABO'S The Door a couple of weeks ago I was hankering for another Hungarian novel, so I went ahead and read this... ha! Just kidding.

No, I actually started this about four years ago. It's a 706-page Mittel-European cinderblock of a novel, and it was a bit of a climb. I would read 100 pages or so, take a break for a few months, read another 100-150 pages, take another lengthy break, and so on.

Not the ideal way to read "the greatest novel written in our time" (Susan Sontag), but it actually worked, I think. The prose takes a lot of attention--hence the comparisons to Proust, I suppose, but it reminded me a bit more of something like Broch's The Death of Virgil. You just had to surrender to it--you needed to set aside hours, not just twenty minutes here and twenty there.  After a few days with the novel, I always needed to come up for air.

An interesting thing, though, was that I could come back to A Book of Memories after months away and be able to re-connect. Its world and its voice are so distinctive and rich that when I picked the book up again, the characters and circumstances would pop back into existence within a few pages, as if I had been reading it only a couple of days ago. It's that vivid and that complete.

It braids three strands of narrative.

The first, to quote the jacket copy, "takes place in East Berlin in the 1970s and features an unnamed Hungarian writer ensnared in a love triangle with a young German and a famous aging actress." Intriguingly, though, this is a real triangle, in that not only are both the Hungarian writer and the young (male) German sexually involved with the actress, but they are sexually involved with each other as well.

The second strand is "composed by the writer"--that is, represents the work of the Hungarian writer involved in the triangle--and "is the story of a late-nineteenth-century German aesthete whose experiences mirror his own." I'm not sure how long it would have taken me to figure that out, left to my own devices. My initial thought was, well, this is about a Romantic Werther-Schlegel-Novalis figure (passionate and introspective, full sail into his sturm-und-drang period) and set many years before the relatively modern setting of the triangle story; I would have started looking for ways it connected to or counterpointed the Hungarian writer's story, but the jacket copy headed me off at the pass. It would have been more fun, I think, not to have known it was the Hungarian writer's work until the novel revealed that circumstance. So what is one to do? Not read jacket copy?

The jacket copy continues, "The third voice is that of a friend from the writer's childhood, who brings his own unexpected bearing to the story." Well... kinda. The third strand, set in the 1950s in the writer's home town or village, is mainly narrated by the Hungarian writer, and so is all about the person who went on to have the complicated affair in Berlin--but only the final chapter in this strand, the book's penultimate chapter, is narrated by the friend referred to in the jacket copy, for reasons that would require a spoiler alert. Almost all the third strand is in the voice of the main narrator, the Hungarian writer, so the jacket copy is actually a bit misleading. Jacket copy writers of the world, why do you fuck with our heads this way? Don't we people willing to take a chance on an enormous Hungarian novel deserve a little better?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Susan Howe, _My Emily Dickinson_

HERE'S THE QUESTION: should I shelve this with my Emily Dickinson books or with my Susan Howe books?

As a general rule, a book by a poet about another poet tells you much more about the written-by poet than it does about the written-of poet. As an extreme case, take Yeats. His essays on Blake and Shelley (and going beyond poetry, his essays on Synge and Balzac) provide abundant insight into Yeats's own poetics, but will leave you little the wiser about Blake and Shelley. Eliot aimed at a more objective, scholarly tone, as befitted someone writing for the Times Literary Supplement, but his essays on Milton, Tennyson, and the metaphysical poets tell you a lot more about Eliot's poetics than they do about those of his putative subjects. Even the generous, self-effacing Seamus Heaney--Heaney on Robert Lowell turns out to be really about Heaney.

Possible exceptions: Randall Jarrell and Stephen Burt. Pound, once in a while.

Generally, though…would anyone except a library put Ted Hughes's Shakespeare book in the Shakespeare section?

So, might as well take the personal pronoun in Howe's title seriously and put My Emily Dickinson with my other Susan Howe books.

But--

Howe explicitly posits her book as being in dialogue with Dickinson criticism circa 1985; she sees it filling an obvious gap: "The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson by Jay Leyda, and Richard Sewell's meticulously researched Life of Emily Dickinson, are invaluable sources of information about her living, but the way to understand her writing is through her reading. This sort of study, standard for most male poets of her stature, is only recently beginning." Ruth Miller, Joanne Feit Diehl, and Albert Gelpi have gotten this work going, Howe writes, and she is taking it further.

In short--My Emily Dickinson does for "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" what John Livingston Lowes's Road to Xanadu did for Rime of the Ancient Mariner and "Kublai Khan." (Do people still read Lowes? I notice the book is out of print. It is available on Kindle, though.) Howe situates the tone and imagery of Dickinson's poem in the imaginative context created by Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," Shakespeare's King Lear and the first English history tetralogy, and Cooper's The Deerslayer, to list only those that come up most often.

This is illuminating. While it makes sense to read the text of a writer in more immediate kinds of context--what were the theological conversations in Amherst about in 1862? what was the latest news of the war? what was going on in her family?--it is also true that some important part of a writer lives in the world of writing, not so confined by space or time or circumstances. The poet who rarely left her house, whose life seemed so circumscribed, could even so be in a momentous conversation with great writers long dead.

So, there's a case for placing My Emily Dickinson with Sewell, Cristanne Miller, Helen Vender, et al. on the Dickinson shelf.

Except--

Was Lowes--or any critic--ever so quicksilver in mapping the terrain as this?-- "During the first two Removes of Emily Killdoe's Captivity Narrative of Discovery; the unmentioned sun, blazing its mythopoeic kinship with Sovreign and shooting its rhyme,--flash of sympathy with Gun, has been steadily declining."

Among the plates Howe keeps spinning here (discussing lines 5-6 of "My Life had stood--") are not only Shakespeare and Cooper but also Mary Rowlandson and even a little bit of Lewis and Clark. Don't blink while reading My Emily Dickinson, in other words; its un-skimmable. Rather like a poem, in fact.

Then there are the lightning flashes of Howe's poetics:

A lyric poet hunts after some still unmotivated musical wild of the Mind's world.

Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of poetry.

I think My Emily Dickinson needs to be with The Europe of Trusts, The Birth-mark and Singularities after all.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

James Baldwin, _No Name in the Street_

THERE HAS BEEN a lot of indirection in my reading of Baldwin. This book came out when I was a senior in high school--so why am I reading it only now?

My parents had copies of some of the early books, Another Country and The Fire Next Time, around the house while I was growing up, and I remember having had a sense that they were important, but I never more than glanced at them. Then, in high school, I read Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice, as one did in those days, and Cleaver's sneering dismissal of Baldwin was enough to persuade me that I needn't bother to start with Baldwin now. The revolution was coming any day now, after all.

The revolution was still behind schedule and I still hadn't read Baldwin when I got to graduate school. My catch-up reading in those days was more along the lines of Piers Plowman and Of Grammatology. But one semester, I had a section of Freshman Comp to teach.  The essay anthology I adopted included Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," so that's when I first read him...and I was a convert before I finished the first page. I still think it's one of the greatest American essays. The other selections on the anthology were very nearly as strong--"Equal in Paris," "Stranger in the Village."

So, over the next few years, I got around to the essay collections Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows my Name as well as the early novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room. And then I considered myself done. I'm not sure why.  I suspect it had a lot to do with the relatively chilly reviews the later work received as it appeared, which usually conveyed the idea that Baldwin was a writer whose moment had passed.

It took I Am Not Your Negro to get me back on track. I decided to try the later work I had skipped in the 1980s.

No Name in the Street appeared in 1972. It was a sequel, in a way, to The Fire Next Time, but never became the touchstone that book did. Easy to see why--in early 1963, a writer as gifted as Baldwin was could still just about able to hold the disparate elements of the civil rights movement in a single focus, still maintain a belief that the right words at the right time could make the difference. By 1972, we had seen the March on Washington and the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, but also black power, the urban riots, the Panthers, the assassinations, Viet Nam, the election of Nixon, the depredations of COINTELPRO...a plague of plagues, in short, and no one writer was going to be able to make sense of it all.

But that sense of being overwhelmed is what makes No Name in the Street powerful. That feeling that a surge of energy too vast to handle has passed through the culture, and thereby through an individual sensibility, left it scorched, brittle, wobbling, but still standing, still articulate--the feeling that one gets from Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On or Joan Didion's The White Album or Renata Adler's Speedboat--that's what haunts No Name in the Street and makes it memorable.

Baldwin attempts a  few times to scale the rhetorical heights again, as he did in The Fire Next Time, but it's the more idiosyncratic, more personal passages that stand out. Baldwin, not recognized as a VIP, is lost in the crowd surrounding the church at MLK's funeral. Baldwin tells the media that he will never again wear the suit he wore to that funeral, and so is contacted by an old neighborhood friend who says, hey, can I have the suit, then?--and Baldwin delivers the suit. Hanging out in Hollywood, working on a screenplay about Malcolm. Discussions with the non-too-scrupulous lawyer Baldwin has fired for his friend Tony Maynard, framed for murder.

It's a diffuse book, a strange book, but a great book. We even find out what Baldwin thought of Soul On Ice--and it turns out that Baldwin is kinder and more insightful about Eldridge Cleaver than Cleaver ever was about Baldwin.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Paul Griffiths, _Let Me Tell You_

I HAVE BEEN thinking that Ophelia might make a good subject for a historical-setting Young Adult novel. In every new crop of English majors these days, there are a few Elizabeth Bennet-ites, a few Jane Eyrians, and a few Ophelia-philes. There was even one young woman with an Ophelia tattoo--at least one, I should say.

That Ophelia's story has a foreordained grim ending need not dissuade authors from adapting her as a YAF heroine--YAF is getting fairly dark these days. And indeed, a World Cat search reveals there are already a few examples out there--Lisa Klein, Jeremy Trafford, Jackie French--which I have not read, but I am curious about.

My thoughts were turned in this direction by Paul Griffiths's Let Me Tell You, which I only knew about because it has been turned into a vocal piece by Hans Abrahamsen, sung by Barbara Hannigan. The musical piece was interesting enough that I decided to pick up the source material (Griffiths adapted his own novel for the libretto).

The trick of the novel, and the feature that would make it hard to market as YAF, is that Griffiths set himself the constraint of composing a first-person narrative that uses only words that Ophelia speaks in the play. That one can write even a short novel with such a constraint is impressive; that Griffiths finds way to make the novel illuminating and moving as well is downright astonishing.

The constraint ceases some serious challenges. For instance, in a novel, Ophelia is almost obliged to mention her mother, but Ophelia in the play never uses the word "mother." Griffiths has to resort to phrases like "my father and the other one." Griffiths then redeems the awkwardness of this circumlocution by spinning its implicit sense of alienation to create the plot development of Polonius's wife having had to leave the court due to infidelity.

Similarly, Ophelia never says "Hamlet," but her not mentioning her lover's name in chapter 12, a sustained lyric prose poem, actually heightens the euphoria that passage wishes to represent.

Griffiths even manages to compose a few sonnets (in the novel, they are the work of Laertes' mistress) with his Ophelia-set of words. Good ones, in fact.

Successful though the book is, the constraint does mean that the prose has an odd, filtered atmosphere due to the inevitable lack of certain lexical items, and the references often need puzzling out. Unlikely to crossover to the YAF market, in short. But who knows? Stranger things have happened. It might in time lead to even more Ophelia tattoos.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Amy Hungerford, "On Not Reading DFW" (3)

What, still not done? I guess not. Something about this piece really bothered me. But I think I will be able to confine myself to three further points.

1. Among the things Hungerford dislikes about Wallace is that he was arrogant. Yet she feels entitled to disparage Wallace's character without having known him and to dismiss his work without having read it. Isn't that somewhat...arrogant?

2. Hungerford mentions that Leslie Jamison is one of her doctoral students, and that Jamison is doing a dissertation on "the American recovery culture that grew up in the 20th century after the founding of AA." The dissertation naturally includes consideration of Wallace's writing, by which Jamison is "both moved and inspired." Now, I am merely a fan of Leslie Jamison's work, unlikely ever to have a conversation with her, but if she were to write that she was moved and inspired by a writer I had deliberately chosen not to read, I for one would reconsider. Just saying.

3. I am now facing a refuse-to-read decision of my own. "On Not Reading DFW" is the final chapter of Hungerford's recent book Making Literature Now, but I read it first. Now I have to decide whether I want to read the rest of the book. Even though Hungerford, as she says of Wallace, "would qualify, by many measures, as 'smart'," and even though she, as she says of him, "has "sensed where an interesting question lay," I'm not sure I want to read the rest of Making Literature Now. She has endorsements from a lot of people whose opinion I respect--Mark Greif, Cynthia Zarin, Juliana Spahr, William Deresiewicz--but I find her reasoning in this chapter specious and her tone uncongenial. The book is not due back in the library for three weeks, though, so I have time to think about it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Amy Hungerford, "On Not Reading DFW" (2)

Hungerford has read, she acknowledges, a few things by Wallace--not a whole book, but several sections from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and the long short story "Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way." The latter provides a linchpin for her argument in the character Mark Nechtr's statement that "a story, just maybe, should treat the readers like it wants to...well, fuck him." Hungerford takes Nechtr to be a stand-in for Wallace himself, and she connects the writerly aesthetic outlined in Nechtr's statement to Wallace's relentless exploitation of the sexual opportunities afforded him in his days as a young celebrity author, described in D. T. Max's biography (which Hungerford did read).

As a young male celebrity author of far from repellent aspect, Wallace did have an array of temptations that only the merest handful of men have to deal with--not on a scale with JFK, Mick Jagger, or Tiger Woods, I imagine, but wide nonetheless--and one could argue he did not pass the test with flying colors. But, practically speaking, responsible sexual behavior will not make a very good criterion for deciding who we should read. Among the writers who had dodgy records as boyfriends/partners/fiancés/husbands we could list Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Tolstoy, Mann, Eliot, Pound, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Dickens...on back to Milton and Shakespeare.

Hungerford realizes, I think, that this will not work as a reading program, which is why the line from Nechtr is important. It indicates that the same oppressive impulse that drove Wallace's sexual career (in his younger days, at least) was driving his work as a fiction writer.

But I don't think it was. Is there a bro-ishness in Wallace? Yes. Is the bro-ishness celebrated, exalted, held above critique? I would say no. Just by depicting it with fidelity--in Brief Interviews, in the sections of Infinite Jest about the Enfield Tennis Academy--Wallace made the contradictions and liabilities of contemporary American masculinity inescapably visible, from the inside, as it were. (Eschaton, anyone?) This is one of his signal services to American letters, I would say. But not even the most important one.

At the end of her chapter, Hungerford tells of how, after long avoidance, she was persuaded finally to read Middlemarch, and how much she enjoyed it. She quotes Eliot's famous sentence about how having a feeling "of all ordinary human life" would be like "hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat." If we were to know all there is to know about our fellow beings, "we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."

The big irony in Hungerford's piece, for me, is that I think Wallace understood Eliot's insight into fiction better than any other contemporary American writer. The sections of Infinite Jest about Ennet House and most of what we have of The Pale King are powerful precisely because they make us feel the un-ordinariness--the unique anguish, striving, nobility--of ordinary people. Wallace heard that roar on the other side of silence, and he could make us hear it, too.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Amy Hungerford, "On Not Reading DFW" (1)

THOUGHT-PROVOKING, CERTAINLY. Candid, audacious, a little perverse.

Hungerford is the first person I know of to write about a particular dilemma faced by people who have intellectual credentials of some sort to maintain.

The self-perception of such people (including me, since I'm a teacher) is in part defined by What One Has Read and What One Has Not Read But Ought To. (I pass over for now the What One Does Not Have to Worry About Not Having Read category, mercifully large.)

There are further important sub-divisions in the What One Has Not Read But Ought To category: As Soon as Possible, Next Summer, One of These Days, Maybe Before I Die, and so on.

The dilemma occurs when around those items in What One Has Not Read But Ought To that one realizes, or chooses, to just write off. For instance, I know I ought to read Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, and I have a copy, and may actually get around to it, but Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire? No way. I got through Sister Carrie and about two-thirds of An American Tragedy, and I'm going to call it good. Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River? No.

This decision, for me, always comes with a bit of defensiveness and embarrassment. I am in a way making a bet that Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire just would not be worth my while, but I could lose that bet. What if next year Fredric Jameson puts out a book on Dreiser and the Trilogy of Desire is suddenly a big topic? So I am not actually going to make any public declaration about my Dreiser-avoidance. That's where Hungerford is different.

Hungerford, a scholar of contemporary American literature, does not want to read David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest in particular. She probably has plenty of company there; what makes her essay candid and audacious is that she wants to tell the world that she will not be reading any David Foster Wallace and, furthermore, her reasons for not reading him.Her explaining the decision, rather than passing over it in silence, seems to come from a wish to apply the brakes to the process of Wallace's canonization before the train has completely left the station.

That brings us to what makes the essay a little perverse.  Usually, criticism that makes the case for why such-and-such a writer does not merit serious attention involves reading that writer (as, Hungerford notes, the editor of the LA Review of Books pointed out to her). But that is exactly what she refuses to do. Nonetheless, she wants to take on Wallace's reputation anyway--a bit like the famous instance of Joan Acocella reviewing the Bill T. Jones dance performance that she refused to see.

I wonder if this could kick off a trend of you-can't-make-me-read-it essays: "On Not Reading The Cantos," "On Not Reading The Making of Americans," "On Not Reading Finnegans Wake." Moby-Dick. Middlemarch. Proust.

This could catch on; there is probably a lot of pent-up resentment out there.

(more tomorrow)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, _There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself_ (tr. Anna Summers)

AS FAR AS I can find out, this collection of Petrushevskaya's short stories does not correspond to any Russian language collection of hers. The selection and arrangement are those of the translator--as is, I think, the somewhat tarted-up title. In the story to which the title seems to refer, we read:

3. there were two sisters: one was married, the other was just fifteen, and she got pregnant by her brother-in-law, who hanged himself while she gave birth to a daughter she hated.

So, how did the word "seduced" get in there? The story, it turns out, is not even really about the sisters or the husband/brother-in-law; that sentence is about the only appearance they make in it, and it has none of the femme-fatale-ish flavor hinted at in the volume's title. The story is really about the "hated" daughter (Elena), and that daughter's daughter (Alla), and the daughter's daughter's daughter (Nadya), and how (to vary Larkin's phrase) woman hands on misery to woman, deepening like a coral shelf.

The stories, are short, dry, crisp, brilliant, and they do tend to be about misery.  Not precisely the misery readers of Soviet lit will remember from Nadya Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope or Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, although Petrushevskaya's family was apparently often on the regime's shitlist, but more the routine miseries of dispiriting work, cramped quarters, and disappointed expectations.

Not much goes right for Petrushevskaya's characters, but she does not pity or condescend to them, and she is not at all given to melodrama or any kind of overstatement. An odd thing, though--often the stories end with a just-slightly-upbeat note. Not any kind of last-minute redemption or reprieve, nothing Hollywood-like, just a hint that even with all that has gone wrong for them, the characters have a capacity for survival.

For example, the last sentence of "Like Penelope":

Mama Nina observed her daughter and wondered where this new slow grace in her movements had come from, the twinkles in her laughing black eyes, the wave in her hair, the gorgeous dress.... Of course: she made it herself.

Or of "Milgrom":

The black dress [of Milgrom's daughter Sasha] shimmies down Little Bronnaya [Street], which is filled with light, underneath the setting sun, and that's it now, the day is burning its last, and Milgrom, eternal Milgrom, sits in her little pensioner's room like a guard at the museum of her own life, where there is nothing at all but a timid love.

Both these moments are hedged with irony, and the overall outlook is still bleak, but these people seem able to keep going.

Wouldn't you know, the ending of the story titled "Happy Ending" is the one that seems unrelievedly bleak. A tragically under appreciated wife finally gets away from her husband at last, but just when you think she is in the clear, she returns just for a last look and is snared again for keeps.

Petrushevskaya deserves a wide audience--which is probably what they were hoping for with that tarted-up title. Well, I hope it works.





Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Corey Robin, _The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin_

COREY ROBIN'S TITLE might lead one to expect a historical survey of conservative thought, but in fact The Conservative Mind is a collection of articles and reviews; everything except the introduction and the conclusion were first published elsewhere. Which is fine, in this instance--the three or four I had read already (in The Nation or LRB) I enjoyed re-reading, especially the piece on Ayn Rand, "Garbage and Gravitas," which I would call the sharpest piece on that utterly unique phenomenon that I have ever read--even counting Thomas Frank's chapter in Pity the Billionaire and Whittaker Chambers's review of Atlas Shrugged.

And besides, a collection of articles and reviews can turn out to be a very satisfying, coherent book. Trilling's Liberal Imagination, say, or Jarrell's Poetry and the Age, or, more recently, Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense and Edward Mendelson's Moral Agents. The Reactionary Mind holds together in that way, even though composed of occasional pieces.

Some reviewer--Mark Lilla, I think?--criticized The Reactionary Mind when it appeared (2011) on the grounds that Robin tends not to concede that conservative ideas are ideas, exactly.  They are more reaction formations; they respond to intellectual formations constructed by the left, the responses being provoked by those formations beginning to make headway in society. As Robin puts it in the introduction, "For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on--and theoretical rendition of--the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back."

I can see Lilla's point; that's not all conservatism is. Reading Robin's book would not give you much sense of the genuine intellectual power that one can experience in, say, Joseph de Maistre or Carl Schmitt or Chambers. Robin's tone is a bit that of a diagnostician analyzing a particularly unpleasant disease.

Even so, I think he has an important point. There is something reactive in a lot of conservative thought, as he explains most lucidly in the introduction and in the first chapter, "Conservatism and Counterrevolution."

Conservatism, he explains, tends to make arguments for institutions that are being or have been challenged or even overthrown. As with the well-known principle of not missing one's water until the well has run dry, these institutions were taken for granted, assumed to be simply part of the natural order of things, and as such needed apologia no more than trees did. But once monarchy, or aristocracy, or capitalism, or white supremacy, or patriarchy are challenged and start to topple, the arguments that would prop them have to be rapidly formulated.

As Robin mentions, the founding thinkers of political conservatism, writers like Hobbes, Burke, and  Maistre, come along in the wake of formerly unquestionable institutions being questioned in ways to which they found no persuasive answers. "Here are the answers to those questions!" they cry, a day late.

Same thing with Hayek and Milton Friedman coming along after the New Deal and the advent of the welfare state. There's another good example in Rod Dreher's Benedict Option, the chapter titled "Eros and the New Christian Counterculture," containing an elaborate defense of marriage having to be between one man and one woman. As the prefix "counter" in Dreher's title implies, a lot of conservative thought is making arguments one never expected to have to make, in response to witnessing changes one never expected to see.

The Reactionary Mind thus may not be exactly what its title suggests, but it's smart, brilliantly written, and makes a very valuable point.