Loads of Learned Lumber

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.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Thomas Powers, _The Killing of Crazy Horse_ (2)

THERE ARE TOO many ironies in thinking of Crazy Horse as a great American, chief perhaps that "America," or its state apparatus, murdered him. It's obvious Powers admires him, though, and that there was much to admire. Powers sticks close to the known facts, leery of speculation, and if he has any of the novelistic imagination that (for instance) Mari Sandoz (God bless her) let loose in her account, he keeps it reined in.

Crazy Horse is a figure that plucks at the imagination, though. His name in his own language, Tasunka Witko, might be more literally rendered "His Horse Is Crazy," with "crazy" here standing in for a word that could also mean a kind of visionary delirium. He seems to have been the kind of charismatic figure whom a community naturally turns to, but who also stands a bit apart from the community norms. He was made a "Shirt Wearer" at a young age but also had that distinction taken away for some kind of infraction of community values. He was famously taciturn but also possessed of extraordinary insight.

Towards the end of Powers's account, I found myself thinking of...weird as this sounds...Jesus, another charismatic figure who in some ways was apart from his community (as in his "the Law says tats, but I say this" moments). Towards the end, they both showed signs of exhaustion, Jesus in his last week in Jerusalem, Crazy Horse in coming in to the Red Cloud agency. They both just made it into their early 30s before they were put to death by the authorities in whose side they had been a thorn, and both were betrayed by friends who had become estranged. Rumors of being still alive after a public death were circulated about both (cf. Elvis and Jim Morrison). Something about them was just plain from elsewhere.

It is, though, hard to imagine Jesus as an intuitive military genius capable of stunning personal bravery in battle. Apparently a maneuver conceived and personally led by Crazy Horse split Custer's men and proved decisive at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He's Jesus plus Simon Bar Kochba.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Thomas Powers, _The Killing of Crazy Horse_ (1)

YEARS AGO I read another excellent book on the Sioux Wars, Custer, et al.--Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star, which I would still recommend, a gracefully written and impressively unsentimental book--and I thought that would suffice for me for this lifetime, actually. But in May, B. and I visited Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska, the very spot Crazy Horse was killed, and saw the monument erected to his memory there in the 1930s. I remembered that back in 2010 when this book was published, I had purchased it, shelved it, then forgotten about it (a sequence e of events all too common in my book-buying patterns). Well, never too late for a great book, right? So I found it and sat down with it. Sat down with it several times, actually; at 467 pages, with another 100 pages of notes and index, it's not a swift read.

Powers is an expert on the CIA, on the development of nuclear weapons, and a variety of related Cold War phenomenon, not an established historian of the American West. This book, he tells us, is the late flowering of a "childhood passion for Indians," which had been reawakened by a 1994 visit to the spot where the Battle of the Little Bighorn took place, then by a visit to Fort Robinson: "The killing of Crazy Horse is not abstract at Fort Robinson," he notes (I know what he means), and he decided to find out all he could about  how that death occurred.

His examination involves a lot of context--the society and way of life of the native peoples of the plains, the finding of gold in the Black Hills, the wiping out of Custer and his men, the U. S. government's protracted and almost invariably bad-faith negotiations with the Sioux over several generations. True to the book's title, though, at the focal point of his microscope are the circumstances of Crazy Horse's death, in almost hour-by-hour, then second-by-second detail.

(When I mentioned I was reading this, several folks thought it was another of those Bill O'Reilly books. Couldn't be further from that sort of thing.)

Powers is particularly interested in the native perspective on this event (and on the whole period, in fact). For historiographical purposes, the documentation of the U. S. perspective is a lot more regular, consistent, and available; the documentation for the native perspective, which mainly takes the form of interviews and family memories, is not at all regular, not at all consistent, and sometimes long removed in time from the events themselves. Accordingly, a lot of traditional historians just dismissed it. Not Powers. He has gone to some lengths to track it down (e.g., interviewing the descendants of some of the Sioux who knew Crazy Horse), combed through it meticulously, evaluated it judiciously, and presented it lucidly.

As Powers presents it, the killing of Crazy Horse was not an execution, not an assassination, in some ways not even exactly deliberate, but the kind of murky death-in-custody that we associate with classic instances of the corruption of police power.

To be continued.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Frank Bidart, _Desire_

I BOUGHT THIS a year or two ago--that is, about twenty years after it was published--and I notice that my copy is from the fourteenth printing. I mean...that's pretty damn good, no? The print runs were probably not large, but fourteen printings suggests the book really took hold.

To my own surprise, since Bidart is accounted more a disciple of Lowell and Bishop, I thought of Ezra Pound while reading this. "The Return," for instance, about Roman soldiers in Germany coming across the remains of a legion that had been overwhelmed. Coincidentally, Pound has a poem of the same title, but what seemed Poundian was the focus on a precise but powerfully suggestive historical incident, the structure of the verse, the use of language from an ancient source (Tacitus), and the exploratory, circling nature of Bidart's poetic investigation of the event, which reminded me of Pound's "Near Perigord," also about long-ago warfare.

Some of the shorter poems in the first half of the book similarly put me in mind of Lustra-era Pound, so while I was reading "The Second Hour of the Night," the long poem in the second half of Desire, with its juxtaposition of Hector Berlioz's account of his marriage to Harriet Smithson and Ovid's version of the myth of Myrrha, it was hard not to think of the Cantos.

How crucial an influence upon the the possibilities for the long poem in the 20th & 21st centuries are The Cantos? Immense, don't we have to say, even if you don't much care for The Cantos itself, or for much of it? Who did more than Pound to liberate the long poem from narrative, to suggest other structural principles?

The toxicity of Pound's politics has done a lot to undermine his reputation, all too justifiably I'd have to say, but you couldn't write the history of 20th century poetry in English without him, if only for his importing a version of Chinese poetry into English and for dramatically expanding the possibilities for the long poem.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Dominic Smith, _The Last Painting of Sara de Vos_

I PROBABLY WOULD not have picked this up had our book club not voted it in as our June book, but it turned out to be enjoyable. A bit reminiscent of Colum McCann in having three distinct-but-related story lines in three different historical settings, braided together in rotating series over the whole book rather than in chronological sequence.

One story line is set in 17th century Holland and concerns Sara de Vos, married to a painter and a painter herself. They endure a series of bad breaks, the worst being the death of their only child, a daughter. A painting Sara makes to commemorate the lost child, At the Edge of the Wood, has become her only known surviving work at the time of Storyline Two...

...set in 1950s New York. At the Edge of the Wood was purchased by a merchant named de Groot and  has remained in that family for over 300 years. Current owner Marty de Groot is a successful lawyer in addition to having considerable inherited wealth, but suffers from anomie until he discovers his family heirloom has been stolen and replaced with a skillful forgery. He finds out the forgery is the work of Ellie Shipley, a young art history doctoral student whose dissertation is floundering. Under an assumed name, he first hires her, then courts her, plotting a terrible revenge.

Third storyline: Sydney, Australia, the year 2000, and Ellie Shipley, now an eminent art historian for her work on women artists of the Dutch Golden Age, is organizing a major exhibit, and finds out two copies of de Vos's most famous painting, the original and her youthful forgery, are on their way to Sydney. Marty de Groot is still alive and is bringing his painting (is it the original or the ]forgery?) himself. Questions will inevitably be asked. Will she be exposed and disgraced?

Smith obviously did a lot of research for Story Line One, but what with all the details about food and furniture and guild rules and tulips, it feels a little too worked-up. There is more attention to the background than to Sara, who remains two-dimensional.

The Marty-Ellie agon was compelling, though. Their relationship is born in a cloud of dishonesty, dissimulation, betrayal, and corruption, but nonetheless has something genuine in it, something they both badly need: the jolt that would get them out of their respective ruts.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Lucie Brock-Broido, _Trouble in Mind_

IF I WAS asked to recommend a Brock-Broido volume, I would probably go with The Master Letters, a bravura performance that shows her range and ambition. I have been wondering, though, whether Stay, Illusion might be her best, really, confident of its power, a foundation-trembling Bach organ performance. My favorite, even so, is this one.

It's intriguing, for one thing. Why the cover with a detail of the same painting that she used for the cover of her first book? Why the title reference to a famous old blues song? (Brock-Broido's cultural reference points tended to skew high rather than popular.)

For another thing, it's intense. "I" occurs in almost every poem, and the "I" has a coherence and consistency over the book that feels confessional even though nothing very specific is revealed. The second person comes up, too, in some very arresting ways:

     For a poem to be true, it must "come from an Ever."
If you don't fathom that, then you should not be reading this.

I wasn't sure I did fathom that, actually (it's from Stevens it turns out), but I kept reading, and I was soon found out, shortly after Brock-Broido dropped in a glancing reference to the West Bank:

     You did not dream I held political
Ideals, did you. [She was right, I did not.] You should not be reading this and are.

What is it about this book? Imagine a Victorian collection of fairy tales, tending to the disturbing end of Hans Christian Anderson, say ("Little Mermaid," "The Red Shoes," "The Snow Queen"), in an ornate edition with hand-colored illustrations under tissue paper, elegant but just a little frightening, the sort of thing Edward Gorey would keep on a special shelf. Then imagine that that book had a child with The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.  Trouble in Mind is a bit like that.

Something terrible and searing has happened, something on the order of Dickinson's "I never lost as much but twice," some erasure, separation, I don't know what. Dickinson does not seem ever very far away in Brock-Broido; "The Deerhunting" seems like a recasting of "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun," for example. Brock-Broido does not go in for Dickinson austerity, the whitewashed walls in winter light--she likes her jewels and embroidery--but she can drop you in the abyss the way Dickinson does.

Like a madrigal, a pastoral
In the pocket of my houndstooth vest,

You are the only beauty in this
Celestial torture I will call my own.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Rachel Cusk, _Kudos_

CAN THIS REALLY be the end? If so, it ends on an unnerving note, Faye swimming in the ocean as a naked man on the beach locks eyes with her and pisses "a golden jet" into the sea.

The novel begins with a conversation with an airplane seat mate (shades of Outline) en route to a literary festival (shades of Transit). The festival in Transit was just one chapter, however, and in Kudos the festival occupies the whole book. My best guess is that the festival is in Lisbon (a European capital by the sea, steep hills, jacaranda trees). The festival's--any literary festival's--task, as one character puts it, is "the attempt to make a public concern out of a private pastime," the writing and reading of books.

Ordinarily, writing and reading are solitary activities; Kudos is about the economic and social bustle that goes into the commodification of those activities: the translators, the editors, the publishers, the festivals, the panels, the interviews, the prizes (kudos is Greek for "honor")... and let's not forget the patronage. One of the writers Faye meets has recently been a guest of what sounds a great deal like the Santa Maddalena Foundation (see Tomaz Salamun's The Blue Tower), and it does not sound like she enjoyed herself.

Once again, the novel's attention is chiefly on the stories Faye is told by the people she meets, some of them new acquaintances, some of them longtime associates, and one of them someone we have already encountered (Ryan from Outline, who in the meantime has had a great publishing success that has not made him more likable). The tone (it seems to me) is more satirical than in Outline or Transit, probably due to the setting, which seems to encourage posing. In Kudos, Faye seems like a Lillian Ross or a Janet Malcolm, someone who can keep people talking long enough to hang themselves with their own ropes. Several of the people on the novel are supposed to be interviewing Faye, but they always end up dissecting themselves.

It's the summer of the Brexit vote, but that topic does not come often; Faye has remarried, but we learn even less about that. (Once again, Faye's name occurs in the text exactly once, p. 227).) The novel carries a feminist ground tone, though, expressed not so much by Faye as by several of the women writers she meets, some of whom seem a little self-important, but who collectively create a discernible change-has-gotta-come mood. The whole festival--especially the long mid-day meal scene, pp. 123-66--does sometimes seem simply a pissing contest among prickly male egos. Maybe that is what the final page is about.

This is the third novel I've read in recent years that prominently features a book festival (counting Outline and Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers, partly set at the Frankfort book fair) and so far none has given me the slightest inclination to attend one.

Can't believe Kudos is the last one. I'm saddened. We should at least get to meet the new spouse, I think. The man from second-to-last episode of Transit, do you suppose?

Friday, June 15, 2018

Lucie Brock-Broido, _A Hunger_

INTERESTING TO SEE how much of the distinctive voice is already audible here in  the first book. The fascination with alliteration, for instance:

You, born walking on this earth, accidental

American thing, wound in this rock bed gorge,
Watched wordlessly as ice washed over
You till the world was frozen & waited

For the girl to find you there [...]


The audacity of the imagery, too, that Donne/Dickinson willingness to risk sounding mad--"A train like a silver / Russian love pill for the sick at heart passes by / My bedroom window in the night at the speed of mirage"--that's in the very first poem.

And her elegiac mood, the contemplation of things irretrievably gone ("what is lost / cannot be gotten back"), most emphatically her own childhood. The word "girl" occurs some seventeen or eighteen times, I think. "Jessica, from the Well," one of her best-known poems, certainly reads well as a free-standing piece, but in this volume it also engages with a several other poems about experiences that divide us from past selves.

There is even a poem foreseeing her own death and reincarnation, and becoming a creature famous for leaving old versions of itself behind:

I'll be a locust by then, learning in the next life how to fly transparently, how to deposit my old skins on the outside of the screened-in porch in some pastoral set in the last open space in America a hundred years from now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Riad Sattouf, _The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985, trans. Sam Taylor

EVEN BETTER THAN the first volume. The standard for graphic memoirs has gotten high in the last couple of decades, but the way this one is shaping up, it can stand alongside Spiegelman, Bechdel, and Satrapi.

Volume Two takes place almost entirely in Syria, with one chapter for a visit to France. Young Riad, still cherubically blonde, starts school, with the first week devoted to learning the national anthem, and finds out the hard way that corporal punishment is a routine element in a Syrian classroom. He also learns to read, in both Arabic (helpfully illustrated) and in French (thanks to Tintin).

 Riad's French mother is showing the stress of the constraints and deprivations of Syrian village life, but his Syrian father has ambitions--the building of a luxury village on some land he owns--that will require staying put. He keeps angling for the support of those in his family who are well-connected, without much apparent success. From Riad's perspective, the situation of these family success stories does not seem so enviable; their houses are palatial but mostly empty and badly built, the plaster already cracking. The cousins of his own generation that he meets are demons.

One exception is Leila, daughter of Riad's father's much older half-sister. Leila, recently widowed, is back living with her family. She encourages Riad's interest in drawing (Dad wants him to be a doctor)  and gives him quick lessons in perspective. Tragically, she is the victim of an honor-killing. The Sattouf clan decide to turn the killers, Leila\s father and brother, over to the aurhorities, but the authorities find that, well, honor is honor, and release the murderers after three months. The village sees the killers as upholders of traditional values, the Sattouf clan as "weak."

 Last panel: Riad, his mother, and his little brother look aghast as the freed filicide father ambles down the road, free as a bird, dementedly mumbling "Ahh, that's good." Time to leave Ter Maaleh, everyone seems to be thinking, save Dad.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Rachel Cusk, _Outline_

HAVING ONLY READ Transit, the second in the series, I decided to read this before I picked up Kudos. Outline follows the same method as Transit: we have a first-person narrator, a writer named Faye, divorced mother of two boys, but the focus in each chapter is not on Faye but on the person with whom she is in conversation. It may be someone she knew well in the past, it may be a hairdresser, it may be a brand new acquaintance, like the airplane seat mate we meet in the first chapter of Outline, but whatever the case, every chapter becomes a near-monologue featuring Faye's interlocutor. We get a fair number of asides, reflections, and judgments from Faye, but they seem almost incidental, as if she were a peripheral character in her own novel.

In Outline, Faye is briefly (not even a week, I think) in Athens to teach a writing class. We hear from Ryan, an Irish writer who is part of the same program, from several students, and a couple more times from "my neighbor," the Greek seat mate from the plane. We don't actually see the woman whose apartment Faye is using for the week, but the description of her furnishings is so revealing that we feel we have.

As she leaves for the airport, Faye meets the writer who will be staying in the apartment and  teaching in the program for the week ahead, and this unnamed figure gives us what seems to be the key for Cusk's whole trilogy when she describes a conversation she had (coincidentally) with a random airplane seat mate:

He [the seat mate] was describing, she realized, a distinction that seemed to grow clearer and clearer the more he talked, a distinction he stood on one side of while she, it became increasingly apparent, stood on the other. He was describing, in other words, what she herself was not; in everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative. This anti-description, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while he talked she began to see herself a s shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was.

In this way, we know both little about Faye--her name, as in Transit, come sup only once,in both books in the second-to-last chapter)--and a great deal, as the novel's many not-Fayes elaborate their tales.

Neither Outline nor Transit is difficult to read--the prose is as limpid and swift as a clear running stream--but the method makes the novels feel like audacious avant-garde experiments. Not just experiments, but successful ones, as we do begin to get to have a clear idea of Faye through what she takes the time to listen to and record. It's as if The Canterbury Tales were to somehow give us a nuanced psychological portrait of Chaucer...which maybe they do, come to think of it. But that seems the only fiction even remotely comparable to what Cusk is doing here.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

William Gibson, _Neuromancer_

I READ LITTLE genre fiction, but as a person who teaches literature, I feel I should at least be familiar with some of the classics. For  instance, I do not enjoy murder mysteries, but I have sampled Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, just for the sake of getting a sense of the genre; I'm also about halfway through the first volume of Game of Thrones. I even got all the way through Atlas Shrugged and Gone with the Wind. So, even though I do not enjoy science fiction, I felt a bit of an obligation to try this one. I read one of Gibson's more recent novels, Pattern Recognition, a few years ago, but this one from 1984 is the one most often cited as foundational, and furthermore it's a lot shorter than those Neal Stephenson books people keep urging me to read, so I gave it a spin.

Neuromancer established a template for a kind of science fiction called "cyberpunk" in that a lot of it is set in a virtual space created by an interactive computer network. As such, its progeny are legion, and it can justly be called prescient, as it anticipates IT developments that would only be coming along ten and twenty years later.

Found myself wondering, though, why did they not call it "cybernoir." Case, the novel's main character, is a disgraced computer jockey who is commissioned by a mysterious party to penetrate and obtain the secrets of another mysterious party--which sounds like the opening of any Philip Marlowe case (which is why, I decided, he was called "Case"). Like Marlowe or Sam Spade or any of their innumerable epigones, Case has a wounded romantic core throbbing deep under a thick hide of cynicism. Like Marlowe or Spade, he begins to have as many questions about whom he is working for as he does about the target of his efforts. As he get deeper and deeper into the tangled web of...

...you know, to be honest, I never figured out exactly what the MacGuffin in this plot was. But then, I didn't understand what was going on in The Glass Key either. There's enough in the style of the thing to keep pulling one along, though. Gibson is a bit like Chandler on LSD: inches-thick grit rendered in vivid similes, but with an occasional psychedelic tinge:

The roof of his mouth cleaved painlessly, admitting rootlets that whipped around his tongue, hungry for the taste of blue, to feed the crystal forests of his eyes, forests that pressed against the green dome, pressed and were hindered, and spread, growing down, filling the universe of T-A, down into the waiting, hapless suburbs of the city that was the mind of Tessier-Ashpool S.A.

Nice, no? So, even though I never quite grasped what the internal power struggle at Tessier-Ashpool was actually about, toss me a few Maldoror-whiffy sentences like that and I will keep reading.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Lucie Brock-Broido, _Stay, Illusion_

61...NOT YOUNG, exactly, but a good twenty years short of what a healthy person can expect nowadays. And this will be the last collection, I guess, at least the last overseen by Brock-Broido herself. Four makes for a slender corpus (Ashbery 28, Merwin 24 and counting, Graham 13 and counting), but four is all we had of Elizabeth Bishop, too, and four is plenty if they are all as strong as Brock-Broido's. Not a dud in the lot--scarcely a dud poem, even, in any volume.

Did she just not write many poems, or did she have extremely high standards for what she allowed to go into print? Are there stacks of not-quite-there poems that might eventually get published, as in Bishop's case?  Or, as in Eliot's case, are the poems that got published just about all that got written?

Will there be a collected poems, including those she published after Stay, Illusion? That seems a safe bet. Will there be a biography? A definitive critical study? Those possibilities seem less likely, but Bishop's reputation grew immensely after she died, and I can see the same thing happening in Brock-Broido's case.

At least I hope it does.

There's something deeply unfashionable about her work, something unapologetically mandarin in its syntactical complexity, its range of allusion, its music (she liked to pull out quite a few stops), its interlacing with poetic tradition, its distance from the confessional or topical (not that the confessional and topical are absent).

But is being deeply unfashionable a bad bet so far as posterity goes? Hardly.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

William Marx, _The Hatred of Literature_, trans. Nicholas Elliott

MARX IS FRENCH, apparently, although I would not have guessed that from his name. He teaches at the University of Paris Nanterre, and I imagine his lectures are student favorites, because his style is witty and accessible, low on much professional jargon and studded with contemporary touches (Homer had profound cultural authority for ancient Greeks, but was "never a Mother Goose for good little Greek kids").

I picked this up thinking its might be addressing the same phenomenon that Joseph North's Literary Criticism: A Brief Political History was looking at: the skepticism (even suspicion and hostility) that the category of the aesthetic has been regarded in literary studies for the last 20-30 years. Turns out, though, that Marx is looking at a much wider expanse of history, going back to the ancients, finding examples of writers who had objections to literature and/or literature's claims to serious attention. The recurring objections are that literature's producers are that its lack of authority (its sources are suspect), its immorality, its falseness, and its potential to injure the social fabric.

Most of what Marx looks at is already familiar: Plato's exclusion of poets from the ideal community in The Republic, Rousseau, the Madame Bovary trial, C. P. Snow and the "Two Cultures" debate. He does towards the end of the book mention more contemporary figures like Raymond Williams (not that Williams hates literature, Marx is clear) and Pierre Bourdieu, but not in much detail. New to me, though, was the family Le Fèvre: Tanneguy Le Fèvre père, a 17th century humanist and convert to Calvinism, who wrote an eloquent defense of humane letters, Tanneguy Le Fèvre fils, who wrote a detailed condemnation of human letters, and daughter Anne, better known as Madame Dacier, who published landmark translations of Homer.

A fascinating idea that Marx mentions often without going into much detail about, but which deserves more attention, is that skepticism about the value of literature often goes hand-in-hand with homophobia.

I'm still wondering, though, how it came to pass that so many of the people professionally entrusted with literary studies became so suspicious of literature. This book, while interesting, is not going to haul literary aesthetics out of that particular ditch.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

David Lodge, _Author, Author_

THIS CAME OUT in 2004 within a few months of The Master by Colm Toibin, making for what I am guessing would be a super-saturated market for novels about Henry James. I read and liked Toibin's back in 2005, but gave this one a pass even though I enjoy Lodge's academic satires--I imagine I was in the mood for one novel about James, but not two. However, a friend lent me this to read during my convalescence from surgery, and I haven't read a novel about James for thirteen years, so why not?

Lodge devotes most of his novel to James's brief but unhappy attempt to re-invent himself as a playwright. Frustrated by the disappointing sales figures of The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, and The Tragic Muse (all great reads, I would say, if you like James), he did the 1890s equivalent of turning to screenwriting and decided to write for the stage. An adaptation for the stage of his early novel The American made some headway, without being a hit, but Guy Domville, a costume piece in which an English aristocrat turns down his inheritance to become a priest, was a disaster. James came to the stage after the first performance to be met by boos from the gallery. So back to fiction it was.

Lodge is setting himself a challenge in focusing on an era when James's confidence and his judgement are at a low point. Toibin's James seems a lot more like James, the man who wrote the great novels: acutely intelligent, socially astute, the steward of an enormous gift. Lodge's James, by contrast, mostly seems like a fussy bachelor uncle, obtuse and even deluded. He is so hapless and vulnerable that it's almost painful.

Still, Lodge does a great job of capitalizing on the many intersections with literary history that this episode offers. One of James's great friends, Punch cartoonist George Du Maurier, is about to have a huge transatlantic success with his appealingly amateurish novel Trilby at the very moment the Master is suffering his catastrophe. The son of the Comptons, the theatre couple who produce The American, is going to grow up to be Compton Mackenzie.  Three of the the young aspiring writers who get the task of reviewing the first night of Guy Domville go on to become internationally renowned: George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett, and H. G. Wells (James biographer Leon Edel also worked this angle; Lodge's account of the first night maps pretty closely onto Edel's). The play that the producer of Guy Domville has waiting in the wings after the failure of James's play is...The Importance of Being Earnest. And, in the wake of the disaster, James get a supportive note from an admirer of his fiction that he has not met yet, one Mrs. Wharton.

Toibin's novel is also the more Jamesian of the two James novels; Lodge includes quite a lot of wooly exposition. I did appreciate, though, his taking the utterly un-Jamesian tack of addressing the reader in his own voice in the closing pages, explaining how the play-writing experiment, a complete bust as far as restoring James's finances went, nonetheless gave him a whole new world of strategies and tactics for his fiction. As a result, we have The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl--masterpieces that did not sell very many copies, but nonetheless ushered in the 20th century novel as we know it.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Mahi Binebine, _Horses of God_, trans. Lulu Norman

WRITTEN IN FRENCH, and Binebine has apparently lived a lot of his life in the west, but he was born and now lives in Marrakesh, so this novel about a group of young men who become suicide bombers probably has better warrant for taking its from-the-inside view than does, say, John Updike's Terrorist.

As in Joshua Cohen's A Heaven of Others, the story is narrated from the other side of the grave, but unlike Cohen, Binebine is not interested in the landscape of the afterlife, and Yachine (the narrator's nickname, from legendary goalie Lev Yashin) mainly tells us the story of how he and his soccer buddies became terrorists. They come from Sidi Moumen, an impoverished suburb of Casablanca (the novel's original title is Les Etoiles [The Stars] de Sidi Moumen), bond over football, drift into glue-sniffing and kif-smoking, fall into the orbit of a seedily charismatic cleric named Abu Zoubeir, clean themselves up, and are recruited to turn themselves into living bombs to wreak havoc in a luxury hotel.

How sociologically accurate all this is I don't know, but it all sounds plausible. Yachine and his friends have nothing much to look forward to. Abu Zoubeir expertly massages their lingering idealism, rage at exclusion, and hunger for meaning until they are ready to make themselves martyrs. From the other side of his martyrdom, Yachine is a bit dismayed at his own decision and what he gave up for his current limbo-like existence (no houris, no gardens, no fountains), but it's all too understandable. Abu Zoubeir is the first non-family-member in their lives to take them seriously. Why would they mistrust him?

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Jennifer K. Sweeney, _How to Live on Bread and Music_

JAMES LAUGHLIN WINNER for 2009, which means I am now caught up.

For my own convenience, I categorize poets along a spectrum defined by the poles "non-representational" (e.g. Ashbery) and "representational" (e.g., anyone ever featured on "Writer's Almanac"). The more one can say of a poem that is "about" something, the more I think of it as representational. (I can enjoy both kinds.)

By that criterion, Sweeney's poems tend to the representational, having a fairly recognizable departure point in something she has seen or experienced, in a memory of the family in which she grew up. What kept pulling me along from poem to poem, though, was the capacity of her language to swerve and surprise, to resist reduction to the straightforwardly mimetic,as in "33 Umbrellas."

Perhaps in a Japanese rainstorm

33 umbrellas opened at precisely 
the same moment--
a ballooning

then a click--
and you were allowed further.
Go with your blue apples

falling from the night-trees.

Transcribed from a dream? A recalling of that wonderful phrase from the "Ithaca" section of Ulysses, "the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit"? I love the specificity of the number of umbrellas and that sense of initiation in "you were allowed further." Marvels await, obviously--and marvels do await on the very next page of the book, where we find the title poem.

You need not confront the storm
though it comes with its guillotine
of wind and arrows of ice.
Let it come.
Take the wheat in your sage-rubbed hands
and pull out the dull chords.

The idea that one rubs one hands with sage in order to play music with wheat does not quite jibe with any recognizable idea of cooking or of music, which is exactly what I like about it, combined with the idea we will be making our wheat-music in the face of serious adversity. The "aboutness" of this passage has virtually but not quite disappeared behind the horizon line, which I think is perfect.

Things I should not worry about, but do: 

The volume includes a long poem, "The Listeners," which seems to be about the way the poet's sometimes strained relationship with her father was lightened by their liking a lot of the same music (singer-songwriters of the late 60s and early 70s).  Does its title, I wondered, allude to Walter de la Mare's poem of the same title, which was very well known a few generations back (like Masefield's "Cargoes" or Housman's A Shropshire Lad, say)? I suspect not, but I'm kept trying to see how it might, much to my own frustration.

In the same poem we find these lines: "The music teacher told her third graders / if you played 'Strawberry Fields Forever' backwards / it would sing John is dead." I am old enough to have fallen for this rumor back in the day, but anyone my age would know that the supposedly concealed message was actually "I buried Paul" (Lennon was actually saying "cranberry sauce" on the fadeout). It was Paul--not John--whose death was intimated in dozens of clues on Beatles albums, supposedly. And you did not have to play this record backward--the one you had to play backward was "Revolution # 9," and the message thus revealed was "Turn me on, dead man." I could not decide how to read the teacher's nugget of misinformation. Did Sweeney misremember the details, or is the point that this third grade teacher was not only spreading cockeyed conspiracy theory, but getting the clues mixed up?

Similarly, the quoted lines from Joni Mitchell: "and still I'd be on my knees / I'd still be on my knees." Except it's not her knees she would still be on in "A Case of You," but her feet. Did Sweeney mishear the line? Or is she just remembering mishearing it? Or did she change it on purpose to fit the purposes of the poem?

I know I should not let these things hang me up. But I did.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Aharon Appelfeld, _Badenheim 1939_, trans. Daly Bilu

THIS HAS BEEN on my "one of these days" list since 1985. My tipping point was reading Roth's essay on how he introduced Saul Bellow to Appelfeld (at Bellow's request) and how the newly-acquainted novelists conversed delightedly in Yiddish.

The narrative opens in the spring, and Badenheim, a summer resort town within a hundred kilometers of Vienna, is readying itself for its annual influx of tourists. For a short while, we seem to be in Stefan Zweig territory--impresarios, Austrian pastries, various bourgeois comforts, the illusion of an eternal present sometimes created by the resumption of summer routines. Soon enough, though, a hint of Kafka enters, that peculiar tension of the very precise and  the ominously vague: everyone is worried about investigations by the Sanitation Department, even though we do not know what they are investigating.

Turns out the Sanitation Department is investigating family genealogies--that is, the only hygiene in which they interest themselves is racial. We eventually grasp, too, that everyone who has wound up in Badenheim is Jewish. Highly assimilated, used to thinking of themselves as quite different from the Ostjuden of Poland and Russia, not even particularly religiously observant or conscious of difference, but nonetheless Jewish, which is why the powers that be are organizing trains to take them all, willingly or no, to Poland. They board, telling themselves things will be fine in Poland, maybe better than in Badenheim. The novel ends as the train pulls away.

I've seen the book described as an allegory of the Holocaust, which does not sound quite right, as it seems silly to say a forced relocation of Jews to Poland is meant to stand in for a forced relocation of Jews to Poland. Where is the allegory in that? At the same time, the novel is not standard realism, either. A lot of the texture of the novel feels realistic, but the setting and the characters never appear transcribed from life--they seem more elemental, more archetypal than that. (Appelfeld grew up in Bukovina, far from Mitteleuropa, so this is not a memoir of childhood turned into a novel.) Some kind of hybrid of novel and parable, perhaps? It reminded me somewhat of Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things and Kazoo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, both of which post-date Badenheim 1939 and may have been influenced by it.

Great book. I'm baffled, though, by the date in the title. There is no date in the Hebrew title, which I'm told translates as approximately "Badenheim the resort-town." German-speaking Jews were not being sent to Poland until a few years later; in the summer of 1939, Poland was yet to be invaded, the death camps yet to be constructed. There are no references to any particular year within the novel itself. So why "1939"? Appelfeld (who died only last January) must have been okay with the addition, but it seems regrettable, an explicit pinning-down that is alien to the tone of the narrative.