Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. eds, _Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay-Z_

I GENERALLY APPROVE of the much wider mission the Library of America has been pursuing under Geoffrey O'Brien. I do not read much science fiction, classic or contemporary, nor many murder mysteries, but I see the sense of giving them shelf space alongside, say, William Dean Howells or James Fenimore Cooper. A few latter-day volumes do make me ask, really? (Barbara Tuchman.) Some seem like long-withheld justice rendered at last. (Joe Brainard.) And some are just catnip for someone like me, such as the present volume.

Fifty selections of rock (and pop) music journalism from 1963 to 2014, arranged in order of publication--which was a great idea, by the way. The subtitle suggests we have a kind of mosaic of rock history rather like Jim Miller's brilliant original Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, starting with Elvis, going through the Beatles, punk, and so on up to the present. Which would have been fine, I grant, but what we get is a bit more interesting.

We get not only a thoughtful let's-take-the-Beatles seriously piece from the 1967 by Richard Poirier, but, hundreds of pages later, Devin McKinney's and Elijah Wald's revisionist takes on the Fab Four from the early 21st century. The book's first selection is Nat Hentoff's liner notes for Freewheelin' Bob Dylan; hundreds of pages later, we get Luc Sante's "I is Somebody Else" from 2004, the best short piece on Dylan I have ever read.

There's a great memoir of Jim Morrison by Eve Babitz, but since it was published in1991, we get to it after we have read pieces on the Cars, the Ramones, the Slits, and...who out there remembers Aztec Camera? A piece on the Runaways follows a piece on Kanye.

And while we do get pieces on Elvis and on Jay-Z, as well as Dylan, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Jay-Z, and a variety of famous folk. there is no attempt to cover every important figure, and a lot of the artists who do get space are not at all Rock and Roll Hall of Fame types--e.g., the Runaways and Aztec Camera. The artists who show up in the volume show up because and only because someone wrote something insightful and powerful about them, something worth reading again, worth anthologizing. Tough break, Eric Clapton. That's the way it goes, Sting. No writer loved the Grateful Dead the way Paul Nelson loved the Dolls.

So, while history of rock and pop haunts the book, what we are really getting is the history of writing about it in fifty sterling examples, from the pioneer genre-definers (Paul Williams, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Peter Guralnick) to the new breed (Sante, Wald, Hilton Als, John Jeremiah Sullivan). It's a fascinating story. Some of it leans towards academic formality (Poirier, Gerald Early), some of it is polished professional journalism (Jon Pareles, David Hajdu). Some of it is liner notes or record reviews. Some of it is just flat-out personal confession that may start with an affinity for a certain band but soon takes a left turn into all the reasons we--and I do mean we--start looking to certain musicians as seers who will help our lives and loves make sense to us.

These musicians may be as pedestrian as Motley Crüe (Chuck Klosterman) or Barry Manilow (Daniel Smith), may even be someone we don't even really like (Donna Gaines on Lou Reed), but the impulse to write out and make clear the way a certain band's music can seem, in those perilous years from seventh grade to your mid-twenties, to be the key--that's the impulse the animates the volume and makes it the only anthology of its kind.

Riad Sattouf, _The Arab of the Future 3: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1985-1987_, trans. Sam Taylor

THIS PROJECT CONTINUES to impress. This volume takes place almost entirely in Syria, save for a brief sojourn to France for the birth of Riad's second brother. Riad's father teaches at a university in nearby Homs while also trying to start a fruit orchard in the village where the family lives. The quotidian corruptions of the former and sabotage by envious relatives of the latter are likely responsible for the wiggles of white that now appear in his black hair; just the deprivation of living in a Syrian village has likely added the tiny lines under Riad's mother's eyes. (Sattouff is a brilliant cartoonist, getting striking effects from the simplest of means.) But Riad's father is not about to go back to racist France, however unhappy his wife is.

Read himself is in school, of course. His grades are excellent, and he has made a friend, but the daily whippings of students (including him, once in a while) create anxiety. He tends to terrorize his younger brother--the bullied learn to bully--and to lust for comics, toys, and videos that are extremely scarce in his small town. His father's tentative reconciliation with Islam leads to his decision to have Riad circumcised, the painful effects of which procedure are still lingering when the father announces that the family is leaving Syria for...Saudi Arabia. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

I need to keep an eye out for volume four.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Geoff Dyer, _But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz_

WHEN I DECIDED to give Geoff Dyer a spin a few years back, I bought Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It and this. I read Yoga first, enjoyed it (LLL June 26, 2016), but felt no particular enthusiasm for it, so this loitered on my shelves for another two years or so. Turns out it's a better book--more cohesive, unsurprisingly, since Yoga is a collection of occasional pieces, but also more about his subjects and less about Dyer, more insightful and less flamboyant.

The core of the book is eight short stories. I'm not sure Dyer would call them short stories, and they are certainly not typical short stories, but they are quite a bit like the short stories of Guy Davenport--that is, they depict actual historical figures, figures Davenport studied long and deeply, and they are written with a poet's feel for language. Dyer's historical figures are all jazz musicians from mid-century: Lester Young, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, Charlie Mingus, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, and Duke Ellington (whose story, about a road trip with Harry Carney to their next show, is broken up into segments and interspersed between the seven others).

The stories are usually set in a particular moment (e.g., "He left the asylum on a clear late-autumn morning, noticing the crunch of gravel under his feet, the waiting car") but evoke the whole career ("Monk was used to always doing what he felt like and if he felt like staying in bed for ten years he'd so that, regretting nothing, wanting nothing"). Leitmotifs occur: encounters with racism, the difficulties of getting paid, the lure of alcohol and drugs. Dyer's portraits tend to drift into poète maudit clichés sometimes, but they still succeed in dropping us into what feel like convincing evocations of the musicians' days and nights.

The stories do not always dwell closely on the music, but to make up for that we have the book's concluding piece, a 30-page essay that draws on George Steiner to talk about the great paradox of jazz, at the same time both saturated in tradition and improvisatory, born of the moment.

I think this is only entire book about jazz I have read, so it would be ridiculous for me to say it is the best book on that subject, but it's hard for me to imagine there are many better ones.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Alan Hollinghurst, _The Sparsholt Affair_

 I HAVE NOT read all of Hollinghurst's novels, but having read four of the six, I'd say he's among the best living British novelists.

This one is structurally similar to the previous one, The Stranger's Child. It has some aspects of the classic multi-generational novel since we are following mainly one family over the course of many decades; it also has some aspects of the classic historical novel, since Hollinghurst wants to get down the texture and preoccupations of particular eras in the past. The brilliant thing is that he forestalls the tedium to which those genres are prone with a kind of hopping or fast-forwarding through time.

We start in Oxford during World War II--though it turns out we are reading a memoir of that period that one of the characters composed decades later--seeing the temporary obsession of one group of artistically-minded undergraduates with athlete and future fighter pilot David Sparsholt.

In the novel's second section, we are in the mid-1960s, getting mainly the perspective of David's son Johnny, who loves to draw people and is also figuring out that he loves other boys. We are in the last few weeks before a complicated political-corruption-plus-male-homosexuality scandal erupts in the tabloids, a scandal at whose center is David--the "affair" of the title.

In the third, we jump a decade to the mid-1970s, and Johnny is now a young man newly arrived in London, studying painting, finding himself in the outer orbits of the circle formed by those artistic people so fascinated by David back in the 1940s. He is also exploring London's new out-and-proud club scene, where he often has to explain his relationship to the still-notorious Sparsholt with an affair named after him.

The fourth section finds us in the 1990s, Johnny doing well as a portrait painter and also a father by virtue of having agreed to be the sperm donor for a lesbian couple.  The artistic friends from Oxford are aging, getting a bit hemmed in by their accumulated treasures. David has re-married and maintains a friendly but not particularly close relationship with Johnny.

Fifth, and finally, somewhere around now--Johnny's daughter Lucy is about to marry,  Johnny himself has become something of a celebrity as a portrait painter and is getting involved with a much younger man who says things like "thanks for reaching out." David dies, and the nude drawing of David made way back in the book's first section, having passed through a few hands, comes to Johnny.

Each section runs eighty pages to so, each with its own Updikean array of glancingly rendered period detail. Since each section also focuses on a relatively short period of time, weeks or months, we feel close to daily routines and quotidian events at all times, in the great realist mode, but since we have the daily routines and quotidian events of related groups of people over five different decades, we also get the long view, a deep historical perspective, especially about the astonishing changes in possibilities for LGBTQ people. All in a book that is not short--400-something pages--but never feels long.

It's a deeply traditional novel in many ways--or should I say one that skillfully mines the  resources of the tradition--while also re-inventing its possibilities.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Jill Lepore, _The Story of America: Essays on Origins_

THE TITLE IS misleading, suggesting as it does a comprehensive, continuous narrative of the history of the United States like that Lepore has just published, These Truths. Then again, there is little sense in titling a book A Collection of my New Yorker Pieces, Most of Which You Have Probably Already Read. When, when, when will I learn to check the copyright page before dashing to the checkout counter, brand new book by a favorite author in my perspiring hands, in a frenzy to part with $27.95?

Well, no harm done. Lepore's New Yorker essays (and the one from American Scholar) are brilliant, well worth re-reading, and I am happy to have them all here in one place, now that the New Yorkers in which they first appeared were recycled long, long ago.

The subtitle is quite accurate--would have made a great title, actually. Lepore is deft at uncovering origins, especially the origins of those things so familiar that they seem to have always been here exactly in the form we know them now, having emerged intact from the brow of history. Longfellow's poem about Paul Revere, bankruptcy laws, ballots, Charlie Chan--there's a story behind each, and Lepore knows not only how to find it but also how to tell it.

And I must add: brilliantly retro cover, which seems to have been whisked via time warp from some 1940s popular history, right down to the curvy little banner bearing the subtitle. Kudos, Karl Spurzem!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Zadie Smith, _Feel Free_

A GREAT BIG collection (400+ pages, thirty essays plus the Harpers columns) of Smith's essays and occasional prose since Changing My Mind (2009), largely from New York Review of Books, New Yorker, Harpers, with a few unpublished pieces...why do I love Zadie Smith so much? I mean, I had already read most of these, but I went ahead and read them all again, enjoyed them every bit as much. It must be the perfect poise of her prose, partly--the agility with which she can go from the familiar and light to the thundercloud dark. That she can be funny without being shallow, intellectual without being ponderous. That she always conveys something of the living voice without ever being just chatty. That literature runs in her veins, but she can respond so tellingly to music (Blue), film (Anomalisa), painting, dance. That she can find a way to meet even the worst, most challenging occasions ("Fences: A Brexit  Diary") and also write "Joy" with its happy interjection, "Blessed Q-Tip!" That she always sounds like herself, and herself is an infinite variety.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Henry Green, _Nothing_

PUBLISHED 1950--this is the fourth Green novel I have read, but the first from after World War II. Centerstage is the same generation Green had always been writing about, the Bright Young Things as they are sometimes remembered, the Children of the Sun as Martin Green put it, the Brideshead Generation according to Humphrey Carpenter. Now, though, they have adult children with careers and marital prospects of their own.

These adult children are living in the time of austerity and Attlee, however, and are not having the high old times their parents had at the same age. "They had such a lot of money once and we've never seen what that was," says Philip Weatherby to Mary Pomfret, to whom he is about to become engaged. In some moods, Philip and Mary are glad to be making their way without the privileges their grandparents' wealth created for their parents; when Mary complains of her job, Philip reminds her, "You wouldn't want to go back to the bad old times, Mary [...]. Not when we're making this country a place to live in at last."

"You'll forgive me but your whole generation's hopeless I must say it, so there!" according to Jane Weatherby, Philip's mother--love that "you'll forgive me." The younger set returns the sentiment:

   "They all ought to be liquidated," he said obviously in disgust.
   "Who Philip?"
   "Every one of our parents' generation."

Did I mention that Mary's father, John, had a pre-war extra-marital fling with Philip's mother, Jane? The slender, unspoken, but apparently not negligible possibility that Mary and Philip are half-siblings may account for Jane's immediate and intractable opposition to their engagement. Can she thwart it? Yes, she can, and she does, so much as to say,"we may be creaky and corrupt and contemptible but we got through the Slump and won the war and we can still beat you at any game you propose." The greatest generation!

I have yet to hit a dud novel by Green. Best 20th century English novelist not named Woolf, perhaps.

Heidi Julavits, _The Folded Clock: A Diary_

TRUTH TO TELL, even though I enjoyed the two novels by Julavits I have read, I picked this up mainly because I was curious what I might learn from it about her husband, Ben Marcus--probably the living American fiction writer I am most intrigued by now that Roth is gone.

Nothing particularly startling about Marcus comes up, though--he doesn't wrap household items in cloth, or continually check wind speed, or mutter darkly about Thompson in his own home life, I guess. As far as one can tell from this, he's a reasonably ordinary person.

Julavits herself comes across as stressed, distracted, likely to fixate on inconsequential matters, tending to be overmatched by circumstances--none of which is all that believable, really. Julavits has published four well-received novels, co-edited an influential magazine, and taught at an Ivy League institution while raising a couple of kids and maintaining property in both New York City and Maine, all of which suggests she is much better at staying on top of things than she here presents herself as being.

Remember Erma Bombeck, whose newspaper column presented her as the neighborhood's most hapless mom, always behind, always losing track of things? This despite her having a widely successful syndicated column, speaking engagements, television appearances? Or Lucille Ball, who in her television incarnation never found herself in a situation she could not turn into a total fiasco, while her actual self was running a prosperous media empire. (See Todd Haynes's Dottie Gets Spanked.)

I read The Folded Clock slowly, about an entry a day, so it took me about a year finish--which is perhaps what suggested the Erma Bombeck comparison to me. I always found Erma highly likable, and I likewise became very fond of The Folded Clock. I find myself hoping for a sequel, actually. As in Brian Blanchfield's Proxies, the entries got a little longer toward the end, more thoughtful, more affecting, downright moving when Julavits was writing about her marriage and children. I'm ready for more, even without any Ben anecdotes.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Paul Williams, _Outlaw Blues_

I AM WORKING through Shake It Up, the Library of America anthology of rock-&-pop music journalism, with a student who is doing a "directed readings," and one of the volume's first items is "Outlaw Blues," the first chapter of Williams's first book, which is mainly a collection of his pieces from Crawdaddy!, founded by Williams, often cited as the first U.S.A. periodical devoted to rock music.

Re-reading Williams's tripped-out excursus on the Rolling Stones' Satanic Majesties Request and Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing at Baxter's was a Proustian madeleine for me, as I had read Outlaw Blues when I was in high school, probably 1970 or 1971 (it was published, a "Dutton Paperback Original," in 1969). Back then, I devoured Outlaw Blues, reading it in a day or two and then re-reading it--the most enlightening, stimulating, and original thing I had yet read about the music that was occupying an ever-growing domain of my mental landscape. In fact, it has had only a few rivals for me since. Now, nearly fifty years on, seemed like an opportune time to re-read it.

Most of the pieces date from 1966 and 1967, a time of soaring confidence in the power of popular music to shape culture. Williams writes:

   At this stage of its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.

This extravagant hope had already gone rancid around the edges by the time I read the book, post-Manson, post-Altamont, post-Beatles breakup, post-Self Portrait, but it still spoke to me, somehow. The artists listed in the parenthesis are all in my own pantheon, as are most of the other groups Williams discusses elsewhere in the book--Love, Buffalo Springfield, the Rolling Stones--and I think the music of 1966-67 and Williams's way of talking about it remained foundational for me ever after. It was because of Williams that I bought Blonde on Blonde, fell in love with such unlikely projects as Their Satanic Majesties Request, and became obsessively curious about what Smile sounded like.

Williams died in 1995. I never read another book of his--apparently he became a kind of New Age seer, as the above reference to "awareness of the universe" pre-figures. But I owe him an immense debt, which I gladly acknowledge here.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Stephen Greenblatt, _Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics_

THE SUBTITLE MAY as well have been "Shakespeare on Trump." Even though the current POTUS is not even mentioned once, this is a book called forth by the urgencies of the hour. Greenblatt goes through the plays and turns up example after example of power illegitimately gained and grievously abused, and in each case finds one or more eerie similarities to He Who Is Not To Be Named.

For instance, Jack Cade, whose brief career as leader of a peasant uprising is represented in 2 Henry VI:

Cade himself, for all we know, may think that what he is so obviously making up as he goes along will actually come to pass. Drawing on an indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence, the loudmouthed demagogue is entering a fantasyland--"When I am king, as king I will be"--and he invites his listeners to enter the same magical space with him. (38)

Or (obviously) Richard III, who gets three chapters:

He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.
   He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of public good that he holds in contempt. (53)

Or Leontes from The Winter's Tale:

That is part of the point: once the state is in the hands of an unstable, impulsive, and vindictive tyrant, there is almost nothing that the ordinary mechanisms of moderation can accomplish. Sensible advice falls on deaf ears; dignified demurrals are brushed aside; outspoken protests only seem to make matters worse. (131)

Even Coriolanus--who essentially, it seems to me, has nothing important in common with Trump--gets pulled into the book for his "overgrown child's narcissism, insecurity, cruelty, and folly, all unchecked by any adult's supervision and restraint," even though Trump fluttered no dovecotes and has no aristocratic disdain for mixing with the masses. (By the way, this account of Coriolanus is the first I have come across with a charitable view of the tribunes.)

Good book--written in a bit of a rush, I guess, and slips into cliché and easy targets more often than Greenblatt's books normally do, but well worth reading. Hard to tell how interesting it will be when Trump is long gone, but we can be glad Greenblatt went to the trouble.

...I wonder if he thought of looking at the narrative poems as well? I'm thinking of The Rape of Lucrece, of course, given our chief executive's well-known grabby proclivities.

Lisa Wells, _The Fix_

HER FIRST BOOK, and arrives with noteworthy recommendations: the Iowa Poetry Prize and blurbs from D. A. Powell, Brenda Shaughnessy, Timothy Liu, and Shane McCrae.

It's a drilling-down kind of book, reminding me a bit of Heaney's North in its short lines, its one-word titles, its willingness to peer into the abyss.

It's also a book of close shaves. In "1989" the speaker recalls the time "I attempted to defect // to the lion enclosure, stuck neck-deep in the bars / the pride stirred, rose upon their haunches," a memory juxtaposed with that of a moment of brinksmanship on a subway platform, "When the ravening out of the darkness speeds / and the bad star advances in the channel [...]".

The speaker has spent some times on the margins--"I've come to kneel / on the filthy kitchen floor / of the punk squat"--and gone in for some high-risk behavior: "we feel the subcutaneous lace / of strychnine unstitching in fitful / intervals." Things have at times appeared to have gone irretrievably wrong--"Deep in my circadian clock / the seasons wheel / but something stays / / displaced." But perhaps not utterly irretrievably:

Mother, in your hands
my head
is not such a bad creation.

I mean, the fault's not
in your fingers.

If I could just retrace
my steps and

find the fix.
Knock it in me.

In a few spots some kind of fix seems to have been found. Two different poems are titled "Revelations," two more titled "Resurrections," and images of germination and growth recur: "To the tightly wound stem / pushing through dark earth / / unfurling when finally you feel the sun" ("BEAST"), "A seed is a box water opens" ("Resurrections II").

Maybe something is going to work out after all. Just as Heaney's line opened up in Field Work, so Wells's line does in more recent work (which I've only heard read aloud, but the lines sounded longer). There's a thin, bright ribbon of hope dangling down in the abyss, not enough to hang onto, but one is glad it's there.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Jonathan Littell, _Les Bienveillantes_, interim notes ii

I STARTED THIS five years ago--five and a half, actually--and am only halfway through it, but since that means I am now on p. 710, I feel entitled to record some notes.

--Littell must have done a power of research for this project, but some passages are so clotted with acronyms that I find myself wishing he had not (as it appears) decided to use every last bit of it. An appendix to which I have frequent recourse is there to help me remember that an SS-Obersturmführer is equivalent to an Oberleutnant in the Wehrmacht and that the RSHA is the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (central office for the security of the Reich)--but when I have to flip back to it four or five times to read a paragraph, I think, sheesh. Of course, it does make sense that Max Aue would routinely refer to such things in his memoirs, and it even makes sense that the SS was, among much else, a classic modern bureaucracy with its own classic modern bureaucratic arcana.

--World War II lore was part of my growing up; the war was only nine years over when I was born, so all through my school years I heard about Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and so on--not just through history classes, but through television, comic books, movies, and so on. But only rarely did I hear about what was going on in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which, it turns out, was absolute unshirted hell. I had learned a lot about this in recent years from Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands and William Vollman's Europe Central, but Les Bienveillantes presents it even more vividly. Aue is present at both at Babi Yar and Stalingrad, as well as a lot of more routine scenes of horror in Ukraine and the Caucasus. The novel is doing a lot to dislocate me from my western perspective on the war, and I'm grateful.

--the Oresteia parallel is emerging more saliently as the novel proceeds, and it getting more disturbing   as we go.

--The further I go, the more persuaded I am that the novel is just as brilliant as so many of its original reviewers said all those years ago. The Stalingrad scenes are unforgettable, and the hallucination with which the wounded Max's stint in Stalingrad ends may be the most amazing thing I have read this year--the Lee Scoreby episodes from Phillip Pullman's Golden Compass as written by L.-F. Céline.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Traci Brimhall, _Saudade_

SO, SUPPOSE YOU took Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah, in which a narrative of a marriage is suggested by paired sets of lyric poems--a narrative furthermore sometimes in the shadow of the history lived by African-Americans in the middle decades of the 20th century--if, as I was saying, you took Thomas and Beulah and set it in Brazil amid some of the darker moments of that country's history, but added a couple of layers of generations, and added a little Macondo ("time passes and all the children born of the boto are named Maria")... and then, for the finishing touch, got a good dose of ayahuasca down its throat... what you would get might well be a lot like Saudade.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Lucie Brock-Broido, becoming her admirers

“He became his admirers,” wrote W. H. Auden in his elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” describing the day the Yeats died. Some part of Yeats, in other words, continued to exist so long as people admired—read, discussed, inspired others to read—his poems. 
Lucie Brock-Broido became her admirers on March 6, 2018. In her case, that group consisted mainly of fellow poets. Brock-Broido did not do the sorts of things that gain poets admirers among the large reading public that does not read much poetry. She did not write a novel, or a memoir, or essays for Harpersor the New York Review of Books; she did not take any conspicuous positions on public questions or serve as spokesperson for a cause; she did not even win a major award, although she was short-listed regularly. She devoted herself to writing poetry and to teaching (her students are an important sub-set of her admirers).
Devoted to the writing of poetry though she was, Brock-Broido was not prolific. She published four collections during her lifetime, just a fraction of the production of John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, or Jorie Graham. Those four books may nonetheless be enough to generate admiration for a long time to come. They contain hardly a poem—hardly a line—of less than the first intensity, and moreover they seem all by themselves to constitute a completed arc: the youthful  dazzle and confidence of A Hunger (1988), the flowering of mature ambition in The Master Letters (1995), the more difficult, more personal austerity of Trouble in Mind (2004), and finally Stay, Illusion (2013), a work of power and authority, though of a peculiar kind, the kind of power or authority that questions its own premises.
The title, itself suggestive of power and authority, comes from Hamlet. The imperative, spoken by Horatio to the departing ghost of Hamlet's father, both declares the ghost to be unreal and assumes it can be arrested by a command. But if the ghost is not real, how can it obey a command? Does it recognize any authority? Does it have power over even its own actions?
In the play, we soon learn that the ghost has commands of its own, acts that it desires to see performed. But it cannot perform them itself. It must rely on agents to act on its behalf, and moreover, it must rely on their love.  "If ever thou didst thy father love," the ghost tells Hamlet, "avenge his foul and most unnatural murder." The ghost has, as it were, become his admirers.
The ghost in this respect evokes poetry itself, somehow powerful even though, as Auden went on to remark in his Yeats elegy, it "makes nothing happen." Re-reading Stay, Illusion now, it seems  uncannily to be already addressing the poet's passing. Brock-Broido's poems were always aware of mortality, certainly, and the elegiac was one of her characteristic modes; what is new here is a sense of being at the bar of judgment. "Who was I--" one poem begins, a poem whose title, "Selected Poem," alludes to one way that poems find admirers (as the title of another, "Uncollected Poem," alludes to the phenomenon of a poet's admirers seeing into print work that the poet may not have wished to publish).
"I cringe to think I stood for nothing," we read in one poem. "For whom left am I first?" asks another. Charges are levelled; someone has failed to use to its fullest what she was given: "How dare you come home from your factory / Of autumns, your slaughterhouse, weathered /And incurious, with your hair bound / Loosely, not making use / Of every single part of the horse/ that was given you," we read in "Contributor's Note," and "Lucid Interval" chides, "Don't be so fanciful. If you'd add those mustard-family / vegetables to the pot roast / It would feed so many more"--as if Brock-Broido were telling herself that if she had been a little more down-to-earth, her work would have been read on Writers’ Almanac. Nonetheless, "Non-Fiction Poem" declares that the poet can take pride in her body of work: "Have I ever—even once—been disingenuous, not told you / Of the truth and nothing but."
As in Hamlet's most famous speech, the idea of an afterlife bobs up. "One thing. One thing. One thing. / Tell me there is / a meadow, afterward," one poem states, even while another suggests that what we have here should suffice: "My heart's desire would be only to desire, but not to grasp. / And not by yonder blessed celestial anything I swear." "Extreme Wisteria" is a kind of résumé for an unnamed "her" who, we are told, "Believed, despite all evidence, / In afterlife, looked helplessly for corroborating evidence of such." 
Brock-Broido now knows whatever there is to know about the general afterlife. About the more particular afterlife of a poet, that is in the custody of her admirers, a group any reader who genuinely cares for poetry should consider joining.

Anne Carson, _Glass, Irony & God_

THE FIRST BOOK by Carson I read was Autobiography of Red, and I have basically kept up since then without ever getting around to exploring the back catalogue. That is, until now, and so I am thinking what a fool I was not to get around to it sooner. Glass, Irony & God leapfrogged right over everything else to become my favorite Carson volume.

As in her other work, the poems here reflect her co-vocation as scholar, and as in her other work the scholarship is lightly carried, never throwing the poem out of equilibrium, and never losing a lyrical quality. It's almost as though she were the last of the High modernists--which makes it stunningly appropriate that the book is introduced by Guy Davenport, the then (1995) reigning Last High modernist. The torch is passed.

Eliot and Pound were rarely as funny and never as self-deprecating as Carson can be, though, to say nothing of their being less acute about gender questions by several orders of magnitude.

And that's one of her paintings on the cover.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

David Runciman, _How Democracy Ends_

THERE IS SUCH a spate of these--Fascism: A Warning by Madeline Albright, How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder--that I figured I should read at least one. I went with Runciman because The Confidence Trap was one of my favorite books of 2014. It was the right call.

Once again Runciman enlightens by doing an end run around the congested areas of the conversation. Is our moment like the 1930s? We've heard a lot about how it is, but Runciman advises we look instead at the 1890s, with its own economic crash, its own populist insurgencies, and its own nativist anxieties (e.g., the Dreyfus Affair). It was "the great age of conspiracy theories" and a time of technological upheaval. I was convinced.

Democracy found a way to save its own bacon in the 1890s with an energized progressive movement--Runciman mentions not just Teddy Roosevelt, but David Lloyd George and Jean Jaurès.  Could it happen again? Well, maybe.

Plenty are skeptical about democracy's ability to address slowly-unfolding catastrophes like climate change, since it will always be in democratic politicians' short-term interests not to disrupt long-established patterns of production and consumption, but Runciman finds reason for hope in democracy having found a way (thus far) to avert nuclear destruction. I don't know if we can give democracy all the credit for this, since the Soviet Union and China, neither one a democracy, had as much to do with averting nuclear holocaust as the democracies did, no? But it does suggest democracy has deeper resources than we think.

Runciman is less optimistic about whether democracy can survive our age of the internet giants, though. Will Facebook, Google, and Amazon eventually decide that they ought to run everything, and furthermore, be able to do so? Will AI, once achieved, decide it ought to be running things, like 2001's HAL? Is this the new Leviathan?

Runciman is not as worried about Trump as some, nor as alarmed by the Brexit vote, but he is none too sanguine about long-term prospects for democracy: "Western democracy will survive its mid-life crisis. With luck, it will be a little chastened by it. It is unlikely too be revived by it. This is not, after all, the end of democracy. But this is how democracy ends."


Bit of a downer, that conclusion.

Nice shout-out to Roth and The Plot Against America in the "Further Reading" appendix, though: "Even in the age of Trump, I don't think Roth's alternative past is our collective future. Still it is one of the scariest and most compelling works of fiction I have ever read."

The outlook is bleak. In the meantime, I should really read Roth through again.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Sam Sax, _Bury It_

I HAD PASSING doubts about this as I was reading it, but it kept defeating those doubts.

What doubts? you may be wondering. First, the cover notes that Sax was "two-time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion," and while I often enjoy slam performances, it seems to me that the urgency and rhythmic invention of a good slam performance typically fail to make their way onto the printed page. They succeed in this case, though.

was it the times, was it the tyrants,
was it the man murdered in his bed
besides his wife, the price of food,
the burning rubber forests, the boys
sent across the world to die?

 ("The Weather Underground")

While I imagine that passage would be riveting in performance, it is also riveting to read: a concise summary of the events that might have radicalized youth politics circa 1969--the death of (I assume) Fred Hampton, Vietnam--lit up with alliteration, headlong syntax, the imagery of the brutality of authority.

Second, as I mentioned in passing in the previous post, Sax often writes about edgy life circumstances: taking drugs, selling drugs, selling one's body, unprotected sex, sex with strangers, unprotected sex with strangers, suicide. Now, some writers who deal with edgy, transgressive content entrust the whole labor of creating readerly interest to that same edgy, transgressive content. That is, they seem to feel that because they are providing a glimpse of a world grimly fascinating in and of itself, they are under no obligation to pay attention to style or structure, to be original, to be nuanced. I don't want to mention any names--it's just that I was just briefly worried that Sax was going to let himself coast in this fashion. He does not.

The five main sections of the books are titled "Rope," "Draw," "Stone," "Toll," and "Suspension," which after a while I realized are all different kinds of bridge, an image I then realized figures several places in the book as a way of suggesting both connection and separation, and furthermore is a frequent site of suicide. The instance of Tyler Clementi, the young gay cyber-bullied man who jumped off the George Washington Bridge, is remembered in "Surveillance," those of many other young gay men in "Gay Boys & the Bridges Who Love Them" and "Bridges" (about the Golden Gate Bridge), and, somewhat surprisingly, that of John Berryman, who leapt from the Washington Avenue Bridge connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1972, in "Objectophile" ("the man stretched  / between two cold cities").

(Sax also has a poem about the collapse of the I-35W bridge between Minneapolis and Saint Paul; as a midwesterner, I am grateful that he did not decide to mention the east coast bridge and the west coast bridge and leave it at that.)

The book's opening poem, one of two titled "Will," imagines the drowned bodies of the suicides brought to the surface, as a fisherman "feels something bite below the river / & pulls up boy, / after boy, / after boy, / [...]". The phrase "after boy" is repeated fifty times, an effect that must be unnerving in performance, when the audience would not be able to simply turn the page and skip to the end.

The book is dedicated "for my family / blood & otherwise." That "otherwise" is picked up later ("my family in under surveillance. / the king / must die") and suggests the new queer sensibility in American letters is stepping out of zine-and-chapbook world and into the prizes-and-endowed-chairs world. But Sax, having once hustled, might see becoming an established poet as just another hustle: "i was paid a thousand dollars for writing a poem about a dead man who hated me / i was paid and each dollar is a ghost haunting my wallet" ("Politics of Elegy").

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Nikki Wallschlaeger, _Crawlspace, pt. 2; Anders Carlson-Wee; Sam Sax

I PURCHASED CRAWLSPACE because I liked a poem by Wallschlaeger that was published in The Nation--"It's a Daisy." "It's a Daisy" (not in this volume) and quite a few of the poems in Crawlspace draw on Wallschlaeger's experiences and perspective as an African-American woman; since I was reading the book at the same time as the furor over another poem published in The Nation, Anders Carlson-Wee's "How-To," I kept thinking about whether writers' identities set boundaries to who or what they can write about.

Carlson-Wee's poem draws on the experiences of the homeless and the vernacular of African-Americans, but he is neither African-American nor, apparently, homeless. Hence, in the view of many (some of whose letters appeared in the September 10/17 issue of The Nation), his poem is an appropriation, a claiming of what is not his to claim.

The magazine's poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, saw the point of the objections and apologized for publishing the poem. In a new statement in the same issue as the objecting letters, they stand by the apology.

That surprised me--I expected them to be a bit more staunch. I'm from an older generation, though--Grace Schulman's and Katha Pollitt's responses to the apology sounded right to me. But even Anders-Wee himself has apologized on Twitter: "I am sorry for the pain I have caused, and I take responsibility for that." If the poet himself is saying "My bad," I'm not sure where the grounds are for making the case for artistic liberty.

But--to return to Wallschlaeger--should I ascertain that she actually is an African-American woman before I endorse her poems? I mean, I'm reasonably sure she is. But if it turns out she isn't, does that de-legitimate the poems?

I just started reading Bury It by Sam Sax, whom I also first read in The Nation. A lot of the poems invoke a risk-embracing youth--drugs, unprotected sex with strangers. Do we need to know that Sax really did take drugs and have unprotected sex with strangers in order to find the poems worth our attention?

I don't actually feel like defending Carlson-Wee's poem all that much--I didn't think it was terrible, but I also did not feel inspired to search out his book(s). But the idea that poets and writers may only write from perspectives they have some sort of real-world claim to inhabiting--that no white woman should imagine herself into the perspective of Crazy Horse, no Irish poet write as a Holocaust survivor, no African-American take on the voice of Lao-Tse--is that sustainable? Wouldn't we be losing something valuable?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Nikki Wallschlaeger, _Crawlspace_

A BOOK OF unrhymed sonnets, sometimes a bit Shakespearean (wallop in the final couplet), sometimes double or triple or even sextuple (last one in the volume). For me, the book was somewhat reminiscent of Laynie Browne's Daily Sonnets in its a wide tonal range; this page might be almost like a journal, that one an exploration of a memory, this other a surreal fantasy, that one tender, this one angry, this other funny.

Wallschläger is good at having one foot on the ground while also shooting through the stratosphere. For instance, #45:

             I get dizzy in burgy
grocery stores, the prattling is
Gargantuan Antarctica dialect,
do I feel grateful their husbands
are downtown working instead
of mildewing here with a loaded
handgun, they got yr handguns
you can buy them in the intestine
department [...]

We're in touch with the familiar here, in the aisles of a grocery store with the husbands downtown, but we've also got Rabelais at the South Pole, an intestine department, and the image of a firearm-carrying man growing fungus. Wallschlaeger's enjambment makes the most of these dramatic shifts of register, a bit like Coltrane, with his abstract sheets of sound leaping out of a Broadway show tune.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Ta-Nehesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze, _Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1_

HARD TO IMAGINE Edmund Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Hannah Arendt scripting a comic book, but we are in a whole new era of the public intellectual as well as a whole new era of the comic book. This one, for instance, cost fifteen dollars; when I started buying them, they cost twelve cents. It is a sumptuous production, though (it even includes a reprint of the Black Panther's first appearance, from 1961), so I won't complain about the price.

And it actually made sense that Coates would get a commission like this. Having read his first book, The Beautiful Struggle, I knew that he was a bit of a fantasy nerd growing up, and he is obviously comfortable with the form. So comfortable, indeed, that he begins very much in media res, with a whole lot of storylines already in full-tilt motion before we get much exposition.

A member of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda's all-female Praetorian Guard, is being held prisoner, but we don't know why; her lover, also I think from the Dora Milaje, busts her out, and they connect up with a resistance movement, but we don't know what/who/why they are resisting. There is enormous civil unrest in Wakanda, and the workers are angry at the monarchy of T'Challa (i.e, the Black Panther), but we don't know what caused the rift. Tutu, leader of the resistance faction known as The People, is meeting up with some white guy, but we don't know who the white guy is. And what is going on with T'Challa's sister? How does the lecturer whose grey dreadlocks are pulled back into a ponytail fit into this?

Coates has given himself a lot of story to untangle right from Book One. I found it bewildering, but still intriguing enough to take a chance on Book 2, where I hope some answers start taking shape.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Roxane Gay, _Bad Feminist_ and Annette Murrell, _I Wanna Be a Bad Woman_

EVERYONE OUT THERE who enjoys Gay's essays, about which there is much to enjoy, would find it worthwhile to seek out Murrell's book of poems. This may take some doing, as I do not think it circulated much outside Nebraska, but it has a lot of the same power.

Like Gay, Murrell wrong foots the reader in illuminating ways, sassy when you expect her to be serious, serious when expect her to be sassy. Her tone similarly swoops from academic seminar to hair salon to street to editorial page like that (imagine snap of fingers). She is tartly wise on the vicissitudes of the teaching life as an African-American woman, but keeps far, far away from familiar pieties about identity. She is frank, scarily frank, but she is telling you things you need to know. "Elegy for the Fat Nerdy Black Girl," for instance, gets to places no one else had gotten got to before--now Gay has gotten there as well.

In the opening pages of "The Spectacle of Broken Men," Gay mentions having lived in Nebraska, so I kept wondering whether she and Murrell had crossed paths; Murrell did a lot of performances/readings around here. Maybe not. They do seem to be kindred spirits, though.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Lisa Halliday, _Asymmetry_

FROM ONE ANGLE, we have two interesting, well-written novellas, either of which would have made a  respectable debut. By presenting them as an ensemble, Halliday creates something not just interesting, but unique and worth close attention.

Part 1, "Folly" (the first novella), is narrated by Alice, a bright, literary-minded 25-year-old woman working for a New York publisher. Alice meets and has a fairly lengthy affair with Ezra Blazer, a famous novelist about forty years her senior. It's about the time of the Iraq war, but Alice does not seem to be paying it much attention--not as much as she pays to the possibility that the Red Sox are at long last going to win a World Series. Blazer is a dead ringer for Philip Roth, with whom Halliday did, she has said, have an affair. Saturated with Manhattan detail and an engaging portrait of the Roth-like novelist, who is kind, generous, and wise, "Folly" is a brisk read.

Part 2, "Madness," toggles between two narratives. In one, we track a difficult encounter between airport security officials and Amar Jaafari (an economist, born in USA to Iraqi parents). In the other, Amar recounts his history, his brother Sami's decision to return to live in Iraq, and the family's efforts to re-connect with Sami after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"Folly" is a worthy example of might-as-well-be-autobigraphy fiction, female coming of age division. "Madness" is a more audacious jump, inhabiting a narrator of another gender and another culture, with the added high stakes of addressing the question of the American empire throwing its weight around. Here, too, Halliday succeeds.

The brilliant stroke, though, is her finding a way to make the two fictions speak to each other. Halliday does this in the novel's short (< 30 pages) final section, presented as a transcript of Blazer's appearance on Desert Island Discs, in which he notes that a brilliant young friend of his has just written a fine work of fiction about the Iraq war. "Madness," we thus learn, was also written by Alice, and so represents the opposite pole of fiction-writing from that of "Folly," which is that of her mentor, Blazer, who, Roth-like, wrote fiction by mining every last bit of ore from his own memory and experience (including Halliday, maybe, in Exit Ghost?). The Alice of "Madness" is the kind of writer who imagines her way out of her own circumstances...except that "Folly" shows adeptness at, precisely, mining the ore of your own memory and experience, so she is both Roth-like and not at all Roth-like.

But even more interesting than that is unpacking the suggestion of the title: in both fictions, we are looking at asymmetries of power. Amar is brilliant, accomplished, and I daresay assimilated, but even so he is going to get hung up at the airport. Power is going to show him who's boss. Blazer is generous, kind, and wise, but he also wants the affair strictly on his terms and under his control, and so it is. Alice is inside the American literary elite, kinda-sorta, except that when you come right down to it, she's not.

Amar's and Alice's rhyming situations give one a lot to ponder--this seems to me a great classroom novel. Highly readable, but also formally innovative, and furthermore insightful about identity and power.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Mark Greif, _Against Everything: Essays_

MOST OF THESE appeared in n + 1--"Against Exercise," Greif's best-known piece and I imagine the inspiration for the book's title, appeared in the every first issue--and Greif might be the inventor of the distinctive tone of n + 1: erudite but not formally academic, well-versed in popular culture while maintaining some skeptical distance, well to the left but noticeably less militant than (say) Jacobin.

Greif occasionally swings for the fences, as in "The Concept of Experience (The Meaning of Life, Part I)," a title that unwisely invites comparisons to Emerson that will not go in Greif's favor. For that matter, three of the four essays subtitled "The Meaning of Life" strike me as trying too hard. The fourth, though, "Thoreau Trailer Park," may be the book's best.

However, Greif does gadfly well; the essays twitting fitness aficionados ("Against Exercise") and foodies ("On Food") are smart and entertaining. The more ambitious pieces, e.g. those on "Octomom," YouTube, and the police, work well, too. He usually has an interesting new take on something we have already heard a lot about, like the figure of the hipster or the Kardashians; he knows his way around a sentence, and as a youth he was a fan of Minor Threat. All that makes you okay in my book.

Not sure he's an Emerson, though...not yet, anyway. But "Thoreau Trailer Park," a persuasive look at the Occupy Wall Street moment through the lens of Walden and "On Civil Disobedience," suggests he could get there.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

David Lodge, _Nice Work_

LODGE'S AUTHOR, AUTHOR! was sufficiently pleasing for me to try this, a sequel to the Lodge novels I had already read many years ago, Changing Places and Small World. Philip Swallow has only a relatively small role in this one, though, and Morris Zapp, disappointingly, a mere cameo, but new center-stage protagonist Robyn Penrose is a worthy addition to the cast.

The plot has mainly to do with a "shadow scheme" wherein Robyn, a scholar of the Victorian industrial novel, will observe local factory manager Vic Wilcox at his work, and he observe her at hers. Lodge is very good at rendering both milieus, and the gradual entangling of Robyn's and Vic's lives, though predictable as a plot element, is nonetheless wittily and persuasively handled.

The peculiar thing for me was that Robyn and I have a lot in common. The novel, published in 1988, is set in (I think) 1986. Robyn is 33 and in the second year of a three-year temporary appointment at the University of Rummidge (where Swallow is now department chair). She has a book out and another she needs to finish, but is anxious about her prospects. In 1986, I was 32 and in the first year of a temporary three-year appointment, also with a book in the works. Was I anxious? Lord, yes.

There are differences in our situations, too. Robyn is single; I was married and had a one-year-old daughter. Robyn is thoroughly enchanted with continental theory; I could take it or leave it. But that terrible sense of having invested years in a career that could all too suddenly vanish from under one's feet...that was 1986 for me, no doubt about it.

Things worked out for me, somehow; Robyn's prospects have bloomed nicely by novel's end. Is there another novel about her, I wonder?

Henry James, _The Other House_

MY MAJOR JAMES phase was roughly 1981-84; I read most of the novels and a lot of the tales while working through Leon Edel's five-volume biography. I did not read this one, though. At this remove in time, I'm no longer sure whether I skipped it because it wasn't in print at the time (thank you again, NYRB Classics) or because Edel had a low opinion of it ("one of his most unpleasant novels," "an outburst of primitive rage").

This was James's return to the novel after his switch to writing plays foundered so badly with Guy Domville. Having just reacquainted myself with that crucial episode thanks to David Lodge's Author, Author!  and having purchased The Other House a few years ago thinking I would have time for it eventually, the moment seemed propitious.

Edel had a point; things get unpleasant here. I can think of other fictions by James in which a child dies in a way for which some adult may be indirectly responsible ("The Turn of the Screw," "The Pupil"), and I can think of many examples in which characters perform actions that are selfish, cruel, unethical, or immoral, but this is the first one I've read in which someone is actually murdered.

More interesting (to me) than that, though, was how plainly the novel revealed its origins as a scenario for a play. I'm not sure how receptive the London stage circa 1896 would have been to a play in which a child is murdered, but James is obviously following his plan for a play closely. The novel is organized into three "books" that would work just as well as three acts; each "book" represents a continuous action in a single setting, as if trying to conform to the Aristotelian unities.

Almost all the action, furthermore, is dialogue. No character's point of view organizes the presentation, and all the characters get around to saying more or less exactly what is on their minds--enough by itself to cast the novel as utterly un-Jamesian.  An unfortunate effect of this approach is that the famous James interiority--precisely what made him so key a precursor for the 20th century novel--is all but entirely absent. There isn't a whiff here of What Maisie Knew, which lay only a couple of years ahead.

There are spots in "Book Third"--especially its final chapter--where James hints at what one character is trying to convey wordlessly to another. One can imagine how hard a time he would have had explaining to an actor (or a director) what had to be conveyed, and one can imagine the actor or director telling others how mistaken a conception of the theater Mr. James had. But in these spots we feel fiction writing is reclaiming James, that he is about to take fuller advantage of his mastery of its form than he ever did before.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Murasaki Shikibu, _The Tale of Genji_, translated by Royall Tyler

I READ THIS in the Edward Seidensticker translation back in 1987, in a kind of headlong rush; the school year had just ended, my grades were in, and I decided I was going to read Genji and nothing but Genji until I finished. I read about a hundred pages a day and finished in less than two weeks--a very satisfactory way to read this book; some books work well in short dips, but others call for immersion, and this is one of the latter.

Much as I loved the novel, I never expected to re-read it. As it happened, though, a student wanted to do an independent study around the novel, which I agreed to supervise. I had expected to get by without re-reading the novel, but that expectation quickly revealed itself as fallacious, what with my not having looked at the book for thirty years. Once I had started in with my second pass through Seidensticker, though, I learned there was a newer and (many thought) better translation--this one. So, I went with this one.

I'm in no position to say whether it is more accurate; I did notice that Tyler tends to be more faithful than Seidensticker to Murasaki's practice of referring to characters by designations or offices rather than by what we would consider a name. This fidelity could potentially create problems for the reader, since a character who gets a promotion to a new title will have a different "name" in (say) chapter 22 than he had in chapter 21.  Tyler has provided an unusually helpful apparatus, though, not only providing an index but also introducing each chapter with a who's-who prefatory note.  So, even when "the Counselor" begins being referred to without warning as "the Right Commander," one can stay on track.

My impression, though, was that the Seidensticker made for a smoother, more transparent read. This may have a lot to do, though, with the immersion factor I mentioned above,

As any great book should when read at an interval of thirty years, Genji was a different experience this time. I was less able at 33 than I am now to appreciate Murasaki's handling of the life cycle, to give us a subtly changing Genji, to show, without ever being explicit, how his experiences are changing him. My being older also probably had a lot to do with my being much more attuned to the autumnal tone of the final chapters, which are about young men--Genji has passed on--but young as they are, Kaoru and Niou somehow seem to carrying the weight of years.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Frank Bidart, _Metaphysical Dog_

FROM 2013, AND his best yet, I think, which makes it all the more frustrating that I cannot get Bidart's most recent poems in book form unless I pony tip for the new collected poems and (in effect) re-purchase some six or seven books I already own. Which I would rather not do, even in the car elf a poet I admire.

Back in the day, I got annoyed at bands who included on a "greatest hits" album a track or two that had never before appeared on an album, thus gouging their most loyal fans.

(For example, the Rolling Stones' Through the Past Darkly was, when it appeared, the only album on which one would find "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Honky Tonk Women," which were obviously must-haves, but to have them you had to buy "Let's Spend the Nigh Together" and "Ruby Tuesday" for the third time, if you had already purchased [as I had] Between the Buttons and Flowers.)

(Or Dylan. The only way you could get "Positively 4th Street" was to buy the first greatest hits, but of course you already had all the other hits.)

I could check the new Bidart collected poems out from the library, I suppose. Itch scratched. But I would rather support the poets I'm interested in by an actual purchase. It's just that...

...well, rant rant rant. Sigh.

"Writing 'Ellen West'" is like a 21st century "Circus Animals' Desertion," and the whole volume has a late-Yeats aura for me, the shedding of disguises, the directness, the relative spareness without sacrificing lyrical essence, the honesty, the owning-up. Harriet Smithson is back, and we also have a poem on Obama's first inauguration that still works and a poem ("Queer") that should go up on a wall in every counselor's office in every middle and high school in the United States right now.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen, _The Refugees_

THE NARRATOR'S CIRCUMSTANCES in The Sympathizer are so peculiar that one hesitates to classify it as an immigrant novel. True, a lot of it is set in the United States, and there is a brilliant wedding banquet scene, but it seems more a novel about the war than one about learning to live in a new country.

This collection of short stories (mainly written before the novel, apparently), is about more typical examples of the people who came to the USA, by choice or by necessity, after the war. The trauma of getting here (especially in the first story, "Black-Eyed Women"), the conflict between needing to remember and needing to forget (especially in "War Years"), inter-generational struggles, the church, the ironies of making it, the difficult relationship to the homeland--all the classic themes come up.

Somewhat short of the intellectual punch of The Sympathiser, but more affecting and more tender, certainly. There are glimpses of forgiveness and renewal here, and there is little of either in The Sympathizer.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen, _The Sympathizer_ (3): PMLA

THE NOVEL GOT a platform-full of prizes, including the Pulitzer, but what tipped me over into finally picking it up was the ten (10!) essays on it (and on Nguyen's other fiction and non-fiction) in the March 2018 issue of PMLA (Publications of the Modern Languages Association). I can't remember PMLA ever before giving this kind of endorsement to any contemporary literary work.

I cannot remember any novel getting so swift an elevation to the canon since Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987). Not even Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976) was picked up this fast.

What's going on?

Let's begin by conceding that The Sympathizer and Beloved are excellent novels. But a great many excellent contemporary novels do not get fifty pages in PMLA, so we have reason to look at other factors.

Beloved was squarely in the center of a very hot intersection in academic literary studies (feminism, race, magic realism, re-casting the historical novel) and made a great classroom read (pace Stanley Crouch). It matched its moment, and there we were, instant classic. I taught it several times in the late 80s and early 90s, and it always profoundly affected the students.

It may have made a difference that Morrison was an academic insider and knew exactly where the maximum intellectual energy was circulating in the mid-eighties; given the strength of the book, we'd have to admit that she directed that energy as well as detecting it, had a lot to do with where that energy went.

Is this also true of The Sympathizer? Like Invisible Man, it's an extremely sophisticated take on identity; it is also sophisticated on boundaries, on cultural imperialism, on power, on degrees of complicity. Another hot intersection. That it is a powerful match for its moment is the theme that subtends the whole section in PMLA, though the authors there engage different aspects of the novel and the pieces are...well...not of equal interest.

It all depends, I'd say, on how many syllabuses The Sympathizer lands on. It's a bit longer then Beloved, but at the same time a bit easier to read. There are no leading female characters and relatively little about gender, which diminishes its chances, but there is quite a bit about rape (real and represented) as an instrument of terror and power, which would enhance its classroom impact. There is also, undeniably, a certain beach-read juiciness (guys getting whacked)--higher score on that front than Beloved has, actually--and that can't hurt.

At the same time, the moral ambivalence á la Conrad, Nabokov, and Ellison may be a problem. We like a Strong Clear Message these days.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen, _The Sympathizer_ (2)

ANOTHER LIKENESS TO Ellison's Invisible Man is the unmappability of the novel's take on the historical topic it addresses. On the question of the African-American in the U.S., the novel suggests, everyone--the Communist Party, the "race men," Tuskegee, obviously the whites--is wrong. (Petey Wheatstraw perhaps excepted.) So with the war in Viet Nam in The Sympathizer.

The French, whose main representative in the novel is the multiply-transgressing priest who is the narrator's father, were wrong.

The Americans, especially the intellectuals concocting the ideology behind the intervention, are wrong, as are their efforts to understand or represent the war, such as the film for which the narrator serves as a consultant, The Hamlet (which, by the way, does not seem all that much like Apocalypse Now, to me).  

The South Vietnamese, especially the corrupt general to whose staff the narrator is attached, seem obviously wrong, wrong in their loyalty to the French and then to the Americans, wrong in the corruption by which they enriched themselves, wrong in their brutality towards their own citizens, wrong in their clinging to fantasies of resuming power.

But the victorious Communist Vietnamese--it seems to me--also seem wrong. Do they have the right to subject the narrator to the interrogation and humiliation he undergoes in the novel's closing episodes? I don't know. Call me a liberal wuss unaware of how omelets are made by breaking eggs, but these pages were too reminiscent of Koestler-Solzhenitsyn-Kundera et al. for the new Viet Nam to seem like a victory for the people (cf. Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong and The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh).

The authorities that break down the narrator are the same authorities, after all, whom Nguyen's parents felt they had to get away from, and presumably he grew up in a community for whom the Communists were the despised enemy. In "War Years," one of the most intriguing stories in The Refugees, we meet Mrs. Hoa, who seems at first to be a bullying, opportunistic scam artist, but by story's end seems a genuine, though obsessed, patriotic loyalist, for whom the cause is still not yet lost. She's wrong, too, but more sympathetic than the interrogators who grill The Sympathizer's narrator.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen, _The Sympathizer_ (1)

THIS BEING A novel about Viet Nam and spies, Graham Greene's The Quiet American and Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke are the inevitable comparisons, but I found myself thinking of Jennifer Egan's Look at Me, because that novel too managed to present itself convincingly  as literary fiction while delivering some of the juiciness of genre fiction. Look at Me juggled a variety of points of view   and raised sophisticated questions about identity, but it also had a terrorist, a glimpse of the high fashion world, and mystery and suspense elements. The Sympathizer incorporates a wealth of allusions to American lit (Asian-American in particular) and rigorous thinking about empire and representation, but it also has assassinations, ghosts, and Chandleresque metaphorical flights. Like Look at Me, it's an intellectual ride you can take to the beach.

A similar doubleness haunts the narrator. He is a trusted insider in the South Vietnamese government, but he is really working for the North. He is American-educated, mistakable for a native speaker of English over the phone, but thought of as an alien by the Americans he lives with (the novel begins with the fall of Saigon, and for most of it the narrator is living in Southern California). But the Vietnamese exiles do not see him as Vietnamese; his mother was Vietnamese, but his father was a French priest, and the exiled general whom he serves (and spies on) berates him for his interest in the general's daughter--he's a bastard and a métis, after all. Like Ellison's Invisible Man, to whom the novel's opening alludes, the narrator both is and is not what he seems to be.

A reader might also recall Humbert Humbert, for the (unnamed) narrator's text is a confession written in captivity--but perhaps he is really more like Rubashev in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, for he is writing his confession because ordered to by his fellow-revolutionaries, who have imprisoned him. He joined (still as a double agent) a commando group of South Vietnamese veterans who have landed in Laos to launch the counter-revolution, and when they are captured after a brief interlude of nearly comic ineptitude, the narrator, rather than being feted as an undercover hero, has to submit to the rigors of re-education--hence his confession. Like Rubashev, he has to understand, or pretend to understand, how he, a revolutionary, has failed the revolution.

Here too was a doubleness. Is Nguyen depicting another case of a revolution devouring its children? Is the interrogation and discipline the new Communist government subjects the narrator to totalitarian persecution or justice?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Nancy MacLean, _Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America_; Michelle Alexander, _The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness_

MacLEAN"S TITLE STRUCK me as melodramatic, but even a few dozen pages in, it began to feel like a good fit.

Here's the thing. The extremely wealthy are inevitably going to a minority, so from their prospective, any form of majority rule will pose a threat. The extremely wealthy thus ask themselves: how can the majority (or their representatives) be prevented from imposing taxes and regulations, or ensuring the rights of workers, or protecting the environment or consumers' health, or taking any of the many other measures that might hamper the operations of the wealthy, or their corporations, or their financial institutions? Majority rule needs a pair of handcuffs, basically, or a straitjacket, or a muzzle, or some kind of restraint lest it obstruct the rights of property and the functioning of the market. That is the problem the our apostles of the free market want to solve.

It's an old problem. Tocqueville considers it, and MacLean devotes a chapter to John Calhoun, who was mainly interested in obstructing any majority that sought to outlaw slavery; we could go back to the Gracchi or Pericles, for that matter. But MacLean focuses on James Buchanan--not the hapless president who preceded Lincoln, but the Nobel laureate economist who taught at the University of Virginia, then Virginia Tech, then George Mason, who attracted the largesse of the Koch brothers and the Scaife and Olin foundations (see Jane Mayer's Dark Money), and whose acolytes populated such outfits as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Club for Growth. That is, the story of Buchanan's career sits at the heart of the hardcore secular right, the whole movement for curtailing the role and reach of government in education, health care, worker rights, the environment, financial regulation...you name it.

As MacLean describes in her last twenty pages, they are closing in on getting everything they want.

What especially hit me, though, was that Buchanan got his first leg up, made his bones as it were, in the wake of Brown vs. the Board of Education and the movement in Southern states to resist federal efforts to de-segregate public schools.

That is--racism turns out, once again, to be virtually the sole engine of American history. The effort to keep black people down while at the same time profiting from their labor, intelligence, and creativity turns out once again to be not just a tragic sidebar to our national history, with occasional redemptive moments like the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the secret spring of everything in our national life.

This is what made me think of Alexander's book, naturally. The War on Drugs. What was that really about? Or the Electoral College, which landed us with President Trump. What was that really about? The rise of a political movement that rode to power by arguing that our own government, elected by us, was somehow our worst enemy. What was that really about?

Dig down anywhere, you hit a seam of white supremacy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Questions of Canon Slippage: Anthony Powell again

THAT MARXIST HISTORIAN and mainstay of the New Left Review Perry Anderson is an ardent advocate for A Dance to the Music of Time may not be as surprising as it was that Fredric Jameson thought well enough of Wyndham Lewis to write a short, brilliant book about him, but even so, it is...you know...surprising.

Anderson reviews Hilary Spurling's new biography of Powell in the July 19 issue of London Review of Books, whose editors give him plenty of room--nine LRB 4-column pages--to pay the book some mild compliments (two pages) and then take the Proust-vs.-Powell question head on (seven pages).

In Proust, "the external and internal chonologies do not fit," characters are "garish dummies" or "remain curiously blank," and "his representations of homosexuality coulod never accord with his actual feelings about it." And Anderson is just getting started--there are a few more columns of this.

However, "In scale and design, the architecture of A Dance to the Music of Time is unique in Western literature." In its dialogue, its characters, its attention to history, and its observations on human experience, Anderson considers it distinctly superior to À la recherche du temps perdu.

(By the way, is the architecture of Powell's sequence really unique? Isn't it similar to the roman-fleuve productions of Roman Rolland, John Galsworthy, and quite a few others?)

Number of people I expect to change their minds about Proust's standing in relation to Powell as a consequence of Anderson's essay: zero. It is interesting, though, that one of Gramsci's closest analysts came to the same conclusion as Evelyn Waugh on this particular point.

Did NYTBR decide not to review Spurling's biography? That's surprising, too.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Mark Williams, _Ireland's Immortal: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth_ (2)

THE SECOND HALF of Williams's book is about how Irish mythology was revived and in some ways re-fashioned in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly with nationalist intentions. The paintings one is likely to see on the covers of paperback collections of Celtic myth were typically produced in this era, which accounts for the Pre-Raphaelite/Gustave Moreau look a lot of them have.

Williams underscores that the revivers--W. B. Yeats foremost, but he had many fellow workers--tended to be Protestant. That is a little surprising--wouldn't the Celtic-identifying Irish be the likeliest to be interested in this material, not the Anglo-Irish? But it is not surprising at all, once Williams explains that it was the Protestant nationalists who were most eager to find an ancient basis for a distinctively Irish cultural identity that could somehow sideline the Catholic Church. Hence the variations on the Swinburnean "Thou hast triumphed, o pale Galilean" theme when these Protestant writers imagined Patrick and Catholicism suppressing the swiftness, strength, and beauty of the old gods.

Two more surprises, one a bit disappointing, the other delightful. I was sorry Williams didn't have more time for the most extensive of the old Irish mythological narratives, the Táin Bó Cúalinge. Williams himself seems to have regrets on this score: "I made it clear at the beginning of this study that it could not be exhaustive, and works that have been neglected (not least the Táin) press upon my conscience," he tells us on p. 490. I wish it had pressed a bit harder, sir. Why such short shrift for such a magnificent tale?

The delightful one was that Lady Gregory's versions of the legends get top marks. Many scholars of the Irish Literary Revival drift a little into condescending to her, aristocratic dabbler and wannabe, etc., but Williams notes, "It is greatly to Gregory's credit that she--the amateur folklorist and littérateur--could tolerate the basic idiosyncrasy of the god-peoples and so convey an accurate impression of the medieval material." Less focused than Yeats or AE on shaping the Tuatha de Danaan into awe-inspiring Wagnerian presences, Gregory did a better job of letting the sources speak for themselves, and in a way did them greater honor.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Questions of Canon Slippage: Jonathan Franzen

SO, DID JONATHAN Franzen know, when the New York Times Magazine approached him about doing a cover story, that the story's angle was going to be that his coolness score had dropped significantly? Is that how they pitched it? "Well, Mr. Franzen, as we hardly need to tell you, you are no longer a leading candidate for Great American Novelist of your generation, and our readers would just like to know, how does that feel?" It seems that he hardly would have consented to the interview had he known its angle, but who knows? Maybe he had an Underground Man moment and just wanted to ride that rollercoaster of humiliation.

I would say that Franzen's stock started dropping all the way back in 2002, with his New Yorker essay "Mr. Difficult," a somewhat disparaging take on William Gaddis in particular and experimental, "difficult" fiction in general. From then on--or certainly from Ben Marcus's response in Harper's on--Franzen's stock among the folks who teach in or studied in or just hang around the orbit of any MFA writing program was in the sub-basement.

In the non-MFA, NYC part of the American literary scene, there was still high anticipation for the followup to The Corrections, much popping of corks when Freedom landed, cover of Time, that sort of thing. But Freedom was just not that interesting, really. For all the great early reviews, I don't think I met any ordinary readers who enjoyed it nearly as much as they had The Corrections.

"Farther Away," the New Yorker essay about birdwatching that morphed into a somewhat disparaging take on David Foster Wallace, pissed me off. At that point, he was off my list of people to read. When I saw stacks of Purity in the book store, I thought, "enhh." But I took a chance, and it's good. Better than Freedom, certainly. But many fewer bought it.

The obvious (to me) conclusion is that Purity's sales were off because Freedom was a dud, but the author of the NYT Magazine piece prefers to see it as a case of the zeitgeist kicking Franzen to the curb. The possibility that Purity's relatively low sales were as unrelated to its merits as the merits of Freedom were to its relatively high sales does not enter the discussion. She instead makes fun of his speech mannerisms and indulges in a little schadenfreude about his failures to get his novels televised. It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the man.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Questions of Canon Slippage: Anthony Powell

I LIKED DANCE to the Music of Time when I read in the middle years of the eighties, and I knew at least a few other people who read and liked it (even though it was never a must-read on this side of the Atlantic), so I was surprised when Max Hastings's NYRB review of the new biography of Anthony Powell began by noting that while "Waugh reigns triumphant [...] enthusiastically devoured by the young," Waugh's contemporary Powell "if not forgotten, is scarcely read by people under sixty" and "his reputation [...] has slumped."

I would guess that more people in the USA read Waugh than read Powell, and always have, but I don't think their reputations have diverged so dramatically. The young people I know are unlikely to be familiar with either one, actually.

Hastings circles back around at the end of the piece to give Powell a silver medal: "His books are unlikely ever to be placed on the top shelf of twentieth-century literature, but they deserve to appear on the one below."

Fair enough--but that's where I would put Waugh's as well. In fact, if we look at the British novelists whose work was appearing in the same span as Powell's, say 1920 to 1980, would you put any of them on the top shelf? If Joyce, Proust, Mann, Woolf, Musil, Bely, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Garcia Marquez are on the top shelf for the 20th century, are you going to put Waugh up there as well? Or even Graham Greene? Or Doris Lessing? Muriel Spark? Christopher Isherwood? Penelope Fitzgerald? Kingsley Amis? Angus Wilson? Sybille Bedford? Anthony Burgess? I don't think so.

Henry Green...maybe. But apart from Henry Green, they're all second shelf, I'd say, and Powell fits in with them comfortably enough.

It was and is unfortunate (as Hastings points out) that Powell's sequence invited comparison to Proust's, a matchup in which Powell was badly, badly outgunned. Powell's novels hardly come off badly in comparison to Waugh's, though. Or Greene's, in my opinion.

As long as I'm indulging in shoot-from-the-hip opinion-mongering, I would go so far as to say that British novelists of 1980 to the present are better, as a group, stronger top-shelf candidates, than those of 1920 to 1980. Zadie Smith, Edward St. Aubyn, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Alan Hollinghurst, Rachel Cusk, Barnes, Amis, McEwan. I could even keep going. These are the good old days.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Mark Williams, _Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth_ (1)

MAYBE NOT EXACTLY what the cover (shamrock green with Celtic curlicues) would lead some to expect--that is, an Edith Hamilton-esque retelling of the myths. Instead, we have an historical survey  of the Tuatha De Danaan, the sídhe, Finn mac Cumhaill, and so on, in their literary representations, from the middle ages until the present.

Williams aims (and succeeds) at the kind of book achieved by James MacPherson in The Battle Cry of Freedom. The main narrative is scholarly and authoritative, but composed with the Intelligent General Reader (that possibly mythical beast) in mind, while Williams deals with the knotty controversies among his scholarly peers in the footnotes. These notes are conveniently placed right there at the foot of the page, reviving a practice fallen almost in disuse. Having the notes handy is very useful in this instance, as they tend to be more flavorful than the main text, which has a bit of the aridity that afflicts attempts to write the definitive account of anything.

Ireland's Immortals qualifies as a tome, clocking in a 500 pages exclusive of index, etc.. Part One, roughly the first half, deals with the primary sources of the mythology, which date from the middle ages up to the dawn of early modernity. About these, Williams makes two crucial points.

(1) Even the earliest surviving written accounts of these figures date from after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. The characters and the stories themselves are older than that, presumably, but the only writing system available to the early Irish, a system of notching wooden stakes, was not adapted for recording long narratives, so the stories were not recorded until Christianity and the alphabet arrived. This means that the hope of many later cultural nationalists--that the the myths contained some kind of extractable national essence, some well of pure Irishness undefiled, untainted by Christianity or Latinity--was doomed. Even the earliest surviving texts about these gods were written by people who no longer believed in them (but who nonetheless often found them fascinating). Same goes for the hope of some later Celticizing New Age folks who hoped to find traces of a reconstruct-able pagan religion from the myths.

(2) The later cultural nationalists also hoped that there would be some way to systematize this material, give its gods, goddesses, and heroes stable roles and attributes, as had happened with the Greek and Norse gods, thus creating a foundation for distinctively Irish art, music, literature. No such luck, Williams emphasizes. The primary sources, composed over a span of several centuries, are inconsistent to the point of outright contradiction, not even agreeing on so basic a premise as that these figures are gods, as in divinities, as opposed to mortals with a variety of superpowers, or a race of comely, gifted, long-lived beings like Tolkien's elves (the Tuatha de Danaan may well have been Tolkien's inspiration, Williams argues [475-76]).

Monday, July 9, 2018

Mihail Sebastian, _For Two Thousand Years_, trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh

CLASSIFIED AS A novel, but "similar in style and tone" to Sebastian's published journal for 1935-44 (which I have not read, but hope to). This covers an earlier period--early 1920s to early 1930s, I think. The unnamed narrator (if we can call him that--the episodes are mainly description and dialogue, and the book has no plot to speak of) is a young Romanian man at the university. His friends and acquaintances are if anything a bit more vividly presented than he presents himself; apparently they are portraits of other young Bucharest intellectuals of the 1920s, such as E. M. Cioran and Mircea Eliade.

The atmosphere is highly reminiscent of the journals of Robert Brasillach, or novels like Pierre Drieu la Rochelle's Gilles or Heimito von Doderer's The Demons: young, highly intellectual young men in European capitals during the interwar years, colliding like bumper cars, intoxicated with ideas, oscillating between enthusiasm and disdain, flirting with authoritarian ideas, convinced their generation is on the lip of an enormous upheaval.

Sometimes at the professor's course I feel like we're gathered together in a kind of ideological headquarters of an immense world war, waiting from hour to hour for telegrams about the catastrophe, dreaming of the new world that will be born from its ashes.

The abyss-opening difference is that Sebastian, or his proxy, is Jewish. However fascinating he finds nationalist authoritarianisms, he is, for them, irredeemably other. Not that he does not sometimes sound more anti-semitic than the anti-semites.

    I would criticize anti-Semitism above all, were it to permit me to judge it, for its lack of imagination: "freemasonry, usury, ritual killing."
    Is that all? How paltry!
    The most basic Jewish conscience, the most commonplace Jewish intelligence, will find within itself much graver sins, an immeasurably deeper darkness, incomparably more shattering catastrophes.
    All they have to use against us are stones, and sometimes guns. In our eternal struggle with ourselves, we have a subtle, slow-working but irremediable vitriol in our own hearts.

Anti-semitic violence breaks out frequently in For Two Thousand Years, and it is all the more horrifying knowing where it was going to go and what is was going to do a few years after the novel's publication in 1934. Wanting to know how Sebastian saw the rise of the Iron Guard is one reason why I hope to find a copy of Journal 1935-1944, but the other reason is that the writing is superbly good.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Julian Barnes, _The Noise of Time_

AT 197 PAGES, and small pages (7 and 1/2 inches by 5 inches) at that, The Noise of Time may actually clock in at a lower word count than the pages devoted to Shostakovich in William Vollmann's 2005 novel Europe Central. Shostakovich's life makes excellent novel material--a brilliant artistic talent living in a particularly fraught time in a particularly terrifying society, his story illuminates a number of the corners of art's relationship to power.  And fiction can simply slide past the tiresome accusation-and-apology ping-pong match that the biographical material on Shostakovich gravitates towards and imagine itself into Shostakovich himself.

But--if you have already read Europe Central, would this be worthwhile? I'd say yes. Barnes's version is more compact and construct, focusing on three moments when Shostakovich was caught in the crosshairs.

First, the period after his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been accused of being too formalist, out of touch with the people; Stalin himself disapproved, apparently, and Shostakovich lived from day to day, night to night, expecting to be hauled to the gulag.

Second, the flight back to Russia after a 1949 public appearance in New York City where he was called out and made to look like a stooge by Nicholas Nabokov (who made his own Cold War compromises, it sounds like).

Third, in 1960, his being strong-armed into joining the Communist Party in order to show the world that everything is dandy now that Stalin is gone.

Barnes's portrait is more intimate, more interior than Vollmann's, without the sense of unfolding history that was part of Vollmann's novel. Shostakovich's famous Leningrad Symphony goes unmentioned, for instance.  The texture of the two novels is quite different, Vollmann summoning up the swirl of a chaotic time in history, Barnes eavesdropping on the composer's thoughts when he is alone, in the wake of traumatic encounters.

The two novelists both seem sympathetic, though, and for similar reasons; both see Shostakovich as man who was doing his best to survive and keep writing music, not interested in martyrdom but not simply caving either, instead trying to placate whom he needed to placate while still finding ways to do work that mattered in constrained circumstances.

Frank Bidart, _Star Dust_

CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED COMICS, published by the Elliot Publishing Company between 1941 and 1962, were not popular among my friends, but I read bundles of them as a boy, because my parents were always willing to buy them for me. My first acquaintance with the Iliad was through Classics Illustrated, ditto Crime and Punishment, and later on I was grateful that, thanks to Classics Illustrated, I was familiar with the plots of several Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper titles without having had to shovel my way through the actual novels.

Thanks to Classics Illustrated, I was also primed for "The Third Hour of the Night," the third installment of a long poem Bidart has been engaged in for a while. The middle and much the longest section of "Third Hour" is in the voice of Benvenuto Cellini, an artist, courtier, and soldier of the Italian Renaissance, who wrote an occasionally truthful and consistently entertaining autobiography that in due course took comic-book form in Classics Illustrated # 38, "Adventures of Cellini." So I was already familiar with Cellini's encounters with patrons and rivals, and with the audacious, touch-and-go, but nearly disastrous but ultimately triumphant casting of his most famous work, a  bronze statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa--an image of which statue is on the cover of Bidart's collected poems, I see.

Gratified as I was to be already informed about the career of the poem's principal subject, I was mystified. Why Cellini? Well... all would have been clear had I started on page one, as a reader is supposed to, and not decided to read "Third Watch" first because I was so keen to see where it would go.

Star Dust has everything to do with making--the erotics of making ("Phenomenology of the Prick"), the political economy of making ("Young Marx"), making and 9/11 ("Curse"), but above all the sheer irresistible impulse and need to make. "Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves," declares the re-purposed Hamlet who speaks in "Advice to the Players," then declares again in italics, "Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves."

Cellini was not the most distinguished maker of the Italian Renaissance--the bar was high indeed in that place at that time--but he left behind the most developed account of how it feels to make things, with more information about what is going on within the maker than we have of any comparably accomplished figure of his time. Bidart's 33-page poetic distillation of that account surpasses even that of Classics Illustrated.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Hergé, _Le Secret de la Licorne_ and _Le Trésor de Rackham-le-Rouge_

TONNERRE DE BREST! Little Riad Sattouf's learning to read via Tintin (see The Arab of the Future 2) led me to pick up a couple of Tintin books that had been around the house for a while without my getting to them. These two are linked stories about baby-faced Tintin and his pal, the crusty old salt Captain Haddock, finding (in first book) instructions to find an old pirate's treasure and (in second) the treasure itself.

Pretty familiar stuff, really. And (to my mind) a little less satisfying, as narrative, than Treasure Island, because Stevenson had rival groups in competition to find the treasure first, adding urgency to the hunt. Tintin and Haddock have rivals for finding the instructions (which have been separated into three different pieces of parchment), but not for finding the treasure; the sole obstacle to their finding the treasure is their own tendency to misinterpret the instructions. A bit less exciting than having to outmaneuver Long John Silver.

What is satisfying, even sublime, about these books is that Hergé loves to draw ships, especially La Licorne, the vessel commanded by Haddock's 17th century ancestor. We have not only an episode in historical flashback on the decks of La Licorne itself, but the story begins with Tintin finding a scale model of that grand old ship. Turns out there are three such models (each with a parchment hidden in its mainmast) that have to be found, so Hergé gets to draw a fully-rigged 17th century ship on almost every page, and he does it with love every time. He depicts it from any number of angles--what a master of foreshortening he was--and the drawing is always immaculate, radiant.

The 20th century boat on which Tintin and Haddock set off to find the treasure is also rendered in loving detail, but the real heart of the tale is that Hergé gets to draw that 17th century ship over and over.