Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Chris Nealon, _The Shore_ (2 of 2): The NWTI

A LINE ON p. 69 of Nealon's book of poems set me thinking.

But I know a dozen teenagers with better politics than Auden

Has Nealon hit upon a simple, linear way to describe the politics of canonical poets? We can simply judge how many teenagers within the range of acquaintance of, say, a college professor would have better politics than Poet X, or Poet Y, or Poet Z.

W. H. Auden would have a Nealon Woke Teenager Index, or NWTI, of 12. Robert Lowell would probably not do as well, perhaps in the forties or fifties--good on Vietnam, but that homophobic stanza in "Skunk Hour" is going to hurt him. 

Elizabeth Bishop might not do even as well as Lowell, given her somewhat scoffing attitude about the women's movement and her support for the 1960s military coup in Brazil. The minstrelsy/blackface imagery in Dream Songs could put John Berryman in the low one-hundreds.

Ezra Pound or W. B. Yeats would be in the high three figures, perhaps, eight hundred, nine hundred. We might have to establish an upper limit for those cases in which the poet has worse politics than any teenager one is likely to meet in the 2020s, like Pound or Yeats. Or Alexander Pope: "Whatever is, is right"? Okay, boomer.

Speaking of Pope, going deeper into the past could raise some interesting discussions. Shelley's revolutionary principles could get him down to eight or nine, even, lower than Auden, but his gender politics could ratchet him up to the thirties or forties. Charlotte Brontë's gender politics could bring her down to the teens, but Shirley's take on organized labor might put her in the nineties. Jane Austen might demonstrate a similar mobility. William Blake may be the only zero in the canon. 

Perhaps we need not even confine ourselves to literary figures. How many teenagers  does one know with better politics than Napoleon? Or Alexander Hamilton? What would Lincoln's NWTI be?




Chris Nealon, _The Shore_ (1/2)

SOME YEARS AGO, I read Christopher Nealon's Foundlings, a brilliant study of some instances of the LGBTQ sensibility breaking (or almost breaking) the surface of public culture in the decades before Stonewall. I only found out recently that Nealon is also a poet--he was one of the readers at a Zoom poetry reading I caught this spring. And a really good one, at that.

The Shore contains five poems, all of them a bit longer than average--ten to twenty pages. Part of the length is accounted for by Nealon's use of "one-line stanzas" (as I think he calls them in one of the poems), single lines standing all by themselves as a sort of moment of their own in a thought process--"Down into matter, flux, the green world" or "The whole taut net of the social order." This generates a fair amount of white space--some pages may have only ten or twelve lines--even allowing for that, though, the poems do feel like "long poems," taking their time, unfolding a thought, crossing it with another, then wait-a-minute-what-about-this, then touching on something from a lifetime of reading, then connecting an old memory.

The effect reminded me of the soliloquies of Henry VI or Richard II in Shakespeare's history plays. Nealon's poems have the same process of opening up of a thought, but are also similarly erudite (helps to know who Ascanius and Hocquenghem are, for example), lyrical ("a hint of lemon in the eucalyptus"), self-aware, willing to probe old wounds, also willing to test out new ideas--"branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain," as Keats says. 

When Henry and Richard give their major statements, they are both insiders and outsiders--royal, but deposed--abject and commanding the heights at the very same time. Nealon's exploration of queerness (throughout, but especially in "You Surround Me"), whiteness ("White Meadows") and the perils of our late capitalist moment (throughout, but especially "The Shore" and "Last Glimpse") have that self-aware clarity that Henry and Richard have when things have gone completely to hell, and might even persuade one that the insight gained is worth the cost of things having gone to hell.

Nealon also offers up a line I feel like commenting on at greater length--but that can gets its own post.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Sophia Rosenfeld, _Democracy and Truth: A Short History_

ROSENFELD PRESCIENTLY ADDRESSES a problem that has only grown more acute in the year-plus since this book appeared.

Democracy works best with an informed citizenry. When decisions depend on a majority vote, we hope that as many people as possible have as much of the relevant knowledge as they possibly can. That is why free speech, freedom of the press, and universal public education are democracy's indispensable  corollaries. 

However, many kinds of knowledge are such that relatively few people can master them. Particle physics, say. How hedge funds work. The philosophy of Wittgenstein. In these areas, we usually have to rely on experts  for what knowledge we have.

But can we trust experts? What if a majority of us think, no, we cannot trust experts, they are trying to manipulate us? 

Or--what if information is pouring out in such an unceasing, prolific fashion, 24/7, that we hardly know which expert to trust?

Thus, our ability to distinguish real knowledge from its deceitful simulacra, our ability to discern and then act in accordance with the truth, lies near the core of democracy, and that ability is always under a lot of stress. 

Rosenfeld is in one respects picking up on what Richard Hofstadter was addressing in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics, though a bit less polemically and with more contemporary examples. And contemporary examples abound all over the world these days, from Brazil to India to Hungary to right here in the good old USA. Climate change, COVID-19, and publicly-funded health care are all topics on which the experts can say one thing while Trump and his epigones say, "nah, that's all bullshit," and too often just enough people will prefer the blusterer to the experts.

Have to say, my very favorite part of Democracy and Truth is Rosenfeld's answer (pp. 140-46) to the many pundits who found in Trump's post-truth tactics a reverberation of various post-structuralist critiques of knowledge. With Derrida having died in 2004 and Foucault in 1984, you would think that these two would no longer be to blame for everything op-ed writers found to dislike in academia, but no...they remain popular targets for a certain kind of grouch who misses the  days of Lionel Trilling. Rosenfeld very convincingly points instead to the dropping of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and the subsequent rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as the turning points, rather than Of Grammatology and Les mots and les choses.


Cathy Park Hong, _Dance Dance Revolution_

WITH MINOR FEELINGS making a splash, there is reason to hope that readers will be inspired to check out Hong's poetry. This one would certainly be worth your while.

Dance Dance Revolution is a poetry collection, but it has a novel-like premise. One of the book's voices is a historian (Korean father, American mother) who grew up in Africa (their father was with Doctors Without Borders). In the course of their research into the Kwangju massacre (a bloody government crackdown on a student protest that occurred in South Korea in 1980, comparable to Tlateleolco in Mexico or Tiananmen Square in China), the historian tracks down a woman was one of the inspirational figures in the protest, its La Pasionaria. This woman is now working as a tourist guide at some deluxe resort town, located in a desert and filled with replicas of world historical sites, something Las Vegas or Dubai.

Good so far? Okay. Dance Dance Revolution includes some passages from the historian's journal and his/her/their notes to some of the guide's discourses (the poems in Part V might be from the historian...I'm not sure), but the greater part of the book consists of poems in the voice of the guide. Some of these are about her present circumstances, some about her memories of Korea, of Kwangju, and of the Ginseng Colony, which seems to be a short-lived experiment in community that started up after Kwangju.

The guide's poems are in an extraordinary hybrid language that draws on the vocabulary and syntax of several different languages at once, sometimes even on different historical eras of the same language. Finnegans Wake is the only handy analogue, but Hong's language is quite distinct from Joyce's--fizzier, saltier, more staccato. Its music is its own.

Within this polyglot nova is a meditation on dissent and resistance. The book was published in 2007, but is set in 2016--presciently, I'm thinking, given that was the year so many folks had to start thinking hard again about dissent and resistance. With so many thousands pouring out in the streets again, this would be a great time for people to pick up Dance Dance Revolution.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Wesley Yang, _The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays_

YANG’S TITLE MISLEADS slightly, I would say. The deliberate echo of the title of W. E. B. DuBois's famous analysis of the African American situation led me to think that Yang's book would be about the Asian American situation. Some of it is, but most of it is not.

The first three essays are, and they are very striking, especially the first, "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho," Yang's unforgettable response to the devastating school shooting at Virginia Tech. I read this piece in n+1 when it appeared, and it its the main reason I took a chance on the book. The essay takes you inside the experience of being an American minority as only a handful of essays do, and in this case it is an American minority that has gotten only sporadic attention and even today is still largely obscured by clichés and stereotypes. "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho" leads off the volume, and the two essays that follow it in Part One, "Paper Tigers" and "Eddie Huang Against the World," are only a subtle shade less intense. As a group, they are revelatory.

That's about it, though. The final three essays in  the book, which constitute Part Four, are about whiteness, Yang engaging somewhat skeptically with critical race theory but not touching much upon the issues raised in Part One. Parts Two and Three are simply general journalistic pieces. Part Two is four personality profiles (the one on Tony Judt I especially appreciated), and the three pieces in Part Three are about being an under-40 male sexual subject in the 21st century. Interesting stuff, well-reported and skillfully written, but not about the souls of yellow folk, really.

I may be missing a connection in Part Three--being a male Asian American in the 21st century may entail a certain anxiousness over one's sexual charisma, as presented in Adrian Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings. That topic does not really come up explicitly in Part Three, though.

The Souls of Yellow Folk definitely works as an essay collection--don't get me wrong. But had the book been called The Face of Seung-Hui Cho and Other Essays I still would have purchased it, but would not have had that lingering aftertaste of disappointed expectations.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Joshua Cohen, _Moving Kings_

I AM A great admirer of Joshua Cohen's fiction, and have been for a while--I got in on the ground floor, so to speak, with Cadenzas for the Schneiderman Violin Concerto. I bought Moving Kings about the time it came out, but until two weeks ago it was just sitting undisturbed on the shelf. I've been wondering why it took me three years to read it. 

The cover, in part. This is the first Cohen book with a boring cover. I know books are not to be judged by their covers, but come on, Random House! You can do better than this! 

And in part because it seemed to be the closest Cohen had yet come to a conventional novel. Not fair of me, I know. But there is a moment when a favorite writer decides to tack towards the mainstream (cf. Ben Marcus, or Sonic Youth signing with Geffen, that sort of thing). You fully understand that it is the right thing for them to do, but that understanding has a melancholy edge.

Well, I shouldn't have worried. Moving Kings is less innovative, formally, than Cohen's previous work, but the sentences still reconcile strength and grace, the novelistic eye still lands again and again on the most revealing detail, and the ambition to plumb the depths of Jewish experience remains at the core of the enterprise. 

The first part of the novel is about David King, who is King David to a small empire, a moving business in New York City and environs. His father was a Holocaust survivor who came to the USA; his father's brother emigrated instead to Israel, where he started his own family. So right there we have an interesting contrast between different paths out of the Shoah taken by members of the same family. 

David's family life takes on familiar kinds of American (and King David-esque) complications, marriage, adultery, divorce, kids who are just a bit contemptuous. On the other side of the world, his uncle has a daughter, who has a son, which son is fresh out of the Israeli army (which has its own empire-building complications). The Israeli cousin calls David up--could he find Yoav a job? Send him over, says David.

Trailing Yoav comes Uri, from Yoav's old unit. Both are suffering from PTSD, but Yoav seems to be making the stronger effort to get clear of it--Uri verges on the sociopathic.

As it happens, David's moving business has recently picking up a new kind of work: evictions. Yoav and Uri find themselves assigned to a team doing exactly this--which rhymes, hauntingly, chillingly, with what they had been doing in Judea/West Bank/Occupied Territories. In Israel, the idea was simply to smash; in New York City, they are to salvage what they think can be sold: "Otherwise, the work they were doing wasn't too different."

That was a sentence I had to stop and stare at for a minute or two. Like plenty of folks, I think what the Israeli government is doing is wrong. But is what's going on when someone gets evicted a few blocks away any less wrong? Am I a hypocrite, a coward, to object to the one but not the other?

Are we headed to a big blazing climax? Yes.

So far, Cohen's tacking to the mainstream is working out just fine.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Emily Berry, _Dear Boy_

READING EXCERPTS THAT have appeared here and there from a longer poem called "Unexhausted Time" got me sufficiently interested to buy Berry's first book (she has three out, it looks like). 

Her poetry seems English to me--by which I only mean that I can't think of any Americans who sound much like this. American poetry gravitates to the confrontational rather than the clever, the earnest rather than the fey. You would have to look for a while, I think, to find a recent American poem that opens in any way reminiscent of the opening of "The Tea-party Cats":

We're suspicious of the tea-party cats;
we don't know why. They all turned out so well
today and aired their charming characters;
they were so smart they frightened us to death.

It is easy to imagine a recent American poem that, like "Some Fears," catalogues fears, but not one that includes "fear of colour leaking from vegetables" or "fear of ill-conceived typography." Similarly, it's had to imagine any American poet since Millay writing a poem like "When Will You Carry Me to the Fair," even with tongue in cheek, and even if it ends on the lines, "Lover when will you pull a root from the earth / and show me its straggly ends?"

The hypotenuse that runs between "clever" and "fey" we might call "whimsy," but I would rather not use that word. It would just give you the wrong idea. Whimsy would work on Instagram, but Berry is too dry and scary for Instagram. Too intelligent, for that matter.  Whimsy might well be the word one initially reaches for first in talking about "Hermann's Traveling Heart," a poem about a tortoise in love, but "whimsy" is too close to "cute" to apply. Even Berry's humorous moments, which are frequent, wouldn't pass any cuteness test.

Judging from the excerpts from "Unexhausted Time" that I read, Berry's new work is as many strides beyond her early work as North was beyond Death of a Naturalist, but I certainly enjoyed it, and very much want a look at the second collection.


Monday, June 29, 2020

Yan Lianke, _The Four Books_, trans. Carlos Rojas

EXTRAORDINARY NOVEL--UNIQUE, even. Officially unavailable in China, I understand. It is set at the time of Mao's Great Leap Forward, in a re-education camp for intellectuals sent out to the countryside to learn about the revolution by growing wheat and smelting steel. (One of the more peculiar aspects of the Great Leap Forward was the expectation that the population at large start smelting steel on a village-by-village basis.) 

All of the characters are designated by their former occupation rather than by name--Scholar, Author, Musician, Theologian, Technician, and so on. Their camp is directed by the Child, that is, Heaven's Child, a designation I am guessing reflects the traditional Chinese idea that whoever is sovereign at a given moment has the mandate of heaven. 

The Four Books provides a lot of vivid daily detail about life in the camp, of the sort you expect from a realist novel, but Yan departs from the straightforwardly novelistic in a couple of ways. 

First, the novel purports to be excerpts from four different texts. "Criminal Records" is a text written by the Author for the Child, recording occasions when the camp's internees (that is, its "criminals") deviate from the rules. "Old Course" is also by the Author, recording his own experiences and less-official observations of the camp. "Heaven's Child" is--I think--by the Scholar, and focuses on the camp's director. Finally, "A New Myth of Sisyphus," also by the Scholar and which Yan holds back until the novel's end, turns the story of Sisyphus into a kind of parable about being an internee in the camp, or possibly about being Chinese under the Communist dispensation.

Second, and fittingly for someone who won the Franz Kafka Prize, Yan sometimes resorts to a kind of imaginatively heightened, just-this-side-of magical-realism narration--which is a good fit, since the Great Leap Forward involved a certain amount of magical thinking, with production goals seemingly set entirely by whim, without the least regard for what was physically or naturally possible.

While a more straightforward novel about the Great Leap Forward would also be interesting, the multiple perspectives gives the reader a finer-grained idea of how the internees gradually--a bit like Josef K--come to accept and co-operate with the assumptions of the authority that has coerced them. The absurdities that begin to creep in, again like those that Josef K faces in the Court and the Castle, make  that acceptance and co-operation all the more unsettling. The final parable too seems a Kafkaesque touch, and rivals Kafka pieces like "Before the Law."

The most impressive aspect of the novel, though, is how Yan characterizes the official, the Child. One expects him to be a bully, a petty tyrant, some kind of amoral monster, any of the  familiar camp commandant stereotypes, but he's a kid, really: idealistic, hopeful, often generous, ambitious but in a boyish, big-eyed way  that almost breaks your heart. He is, of course, complicit with the system, but he is a continual surprise, with the biggest surprise of all at the end.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Edmund Berrigan, _Can It!_

I HAVE NOTICED among publishers of poetry a predilection for "project" books, collections that have some blurb-able preoccupation or recurring form. Well, that's fine. The most enjoyable thing about some collections, though, is that they have no unifying focus at all. Can It! feels like a very motley assembly, and amiably so. Then again, Berrigan's foreword notes his own fondness for books "in which seemingly disparate events unite into a wonderful, though not particularly intentional, whole." Can It! may qualify.

The book contains pieces written over a goodly span of time, and in a good many different forms: poems, of course, but also journal entries, experimental fiction, stoned-sounding interviews, a play, and "The Ball-Hallelujah Connection," which--I think--was originally a text about Andy Warhol and William Burroughs that Berrigan systematically re-wrote by substituting (for example) the word "melt" wherever the word "and" occurred, the phrase "exonerate politically and physically" whenever the word "see" occurred, and so on. 

But Can It! may have a core of sorts, after all, since the texts towards the beginnings often involve Berrigan's memories of his father, Ted, and many of the texts towards the end involve memories of the final illness and the death of his stepfather, Douglas Oliver. The text titled "Can It!" turns out to be a notecard written by Ted Berrigan, dated August 1982 (about a year before he died; Edmund would have been eight, I think). The card has what looks like a title, "Song for the Unborn Second Baby," and the simple two-word text of the title, "CAN IT!" 

I would not say Can It! is about fatherhood (or sonhood), exactly. A lot of it is a bit goofy ("The Ball-Hallelujah Connection," "Cloud Interview 2003") or opaque ("Did His Eye Melt?"). Somehow, though, the peculiar energy of absent older male authorities circulates in the book (sometimes malevolently, as in "The Blood Barn") and gives it a strange gravitas, even at its floatiest. For instance, in "Texas Road Trip," Berrigan travels to Houston to see the Rothko Chapel, only to learn it is "closed six months for renovation." The possibly crucial communication from a forebear that does not quite reach you, that does not quite crystallize into clarity.... Such moments give the book an eerie poignancy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Ted Genoways, _This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm_

SALES PROSPECTS FOR poetry being what they are (Rupi Kaur apart), it makes sense that poets like Paul Auster (back in the day) or Ben Lerner or Lucy Ives (more recently) take a swing or three at writing a novel. A whole host of poets have produced memoirs of various kinds. But here's a question for all unsalaried poets: how about journalism?

Might sound crazy--a good many poets are introverts, and journalism requires going out and talking to lots of people, for one thing; for another, poets rely on figuration and imagination, and journalists are supposed to adhere to the literal and the actual. 

But consider Ted Genoways. After two poetry collections and a variety of editorial work, he turned to journalism focusing on food production, with not only more-than-respectable sales but also some book awards.

Granted, the move makes more sense for Genoways than it may for other poets. He is a relatively traditional poet who relies on precise observation and economy of phrase. He is not given to what is often called "poetic prose," even though it is not all that poetic nor very effective as prose. His writing is not at all vague or impressionistic or over-decorated; rather, it is poetic in the best sense, taut, focused, graceful. The lyric touches do not float about freely, but instead highlight vividly precise statements:

The Miller Nitro Sprayer, a cherry-red colossus on 6-foot-tall all-terrain tires, rolled up to the edge of the freshly-planted field of corn. The twin booms of the spray-rig were spread out in either direction, like a pair of enormous dragonfly wings, unfolded and lowered by a system of hydraulics.

Genoways is likewise skillful in blending his frequent forays into contextual information--the history of irrigation in Nebraska, the development of seed corn hybrids, the Ogalalla aquifer, the rigors of farm markets and farm financing--into an up-close, intimate portrait of one farming family. The Hammonds would have made a good book all by themselves, and the context Genoways provides on contemporary family farming would have made a good book all by itself. He has managed to make an excellent book by doing both at the same time--a remarkable accomplishment.

Around here This Blessed Earth is getting compared to Agee's and Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I'm not ready to  go that far--we'll have to wait and see what posterity says--but the comparison is not outlandish, and that's saying a lot.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Anselm Berrigan, _Something for Everybody_

I CAN THINK of a good many examples of both parties in a couple being published poets--contemporary examples are many--but I have not been able to think of another example of both parties in a marriage being published poets and their offspring also being published poets. A couple of poems in this collection were co-authored by Sylvie Berrigan, who was in elementary school at the time, so the next generation is already being groomed for succession.

Reading Anselm Berrigan's book right after reading his mother's latest, I found myself wondering about apples and trees and distances. Berrigan's poetry is easily distinguished from Alice Notley's (and from his father's and his brother's), but they all seem somehow New York School, certainly within hailing distance of each other and of Koch, Schuyler, O'Hara, no one of them likely to be spotted in anthologies like Garrison Keillor's, for instance. I found myself wondering about the tradition of being at a healthy remove from tradition. 

I thought of this especially in reading the collection's final poem, written to be read at the St. Mark's Poetry Project and also about the St. Mark's Poetry Project and for that matter a reasonably good instance of the kind of work furthered by the St. Mark's Poetry Project. And since Anselm Berrigan grew up in the shadow of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, one starts to think that the anti-tradition represented by the St. Mark's Poetry Project eventually becomes its own tradition--noticeable also in Berrigan's invocations of writers like Joe Brainard and Jim Brodey, not to mention his parents.

Would the genuinely transgressive move, were one Anselm Berrigan, have been to turn into...I don't know...William Logan? Adam Kirsch? 

Then again, one Adam Kirsch is plenty. Even one William Logan may be surplus to requirements, actually.

The kind of continuity Berrigan exemplifies may even be heartening, come to think of it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

W. Somerset Maugham, _Cakes and Ale_

THE BUBBLE REPUTATION...when I was in middle school and high school, I repeatedly got the impression that Maugham was a serious and respected novelist. While I was in college, though, my teachers never mentioned him, and none of my fellow students seemed to have read him (we had all read Kerouac, Salinger, Hesse, Plath, Vonnegut, Catch-22, and they came up a lot).

When I was in graduate school in Chicago, I could find copies of The Razor's Edge, The Moon and Sixpence, and Of Human Bondage in practically any used book store I entered, but none of my fellow students dropped his name, and my teachers ignored him or even chuckled a little dismissively if he came up.

He seems to have fallen off the map as a topic of scholarship. The research library nearest me holds only two books about him published this century, both biographies. The list of scholarly articles looks similarly lean.

And that, briefly, is why I never bothered to read a single thing by W. Somerset Maugham, until this month.

I picked up Cakes and Ale because I had read that Hugh Walpole (a British novelist who was a contemporary of Maugham, very successful during his lifetime, but now even more neglected than Maugham) was so mortified by his all-too-recognizable likeness in a character in Cakes and Ale that he thought he could never show his face in public again. He recovered enough from his embarrassment to resume his social life, but some say Walpole felt himself in the shadow of Maugham's caricature for the rest of his life.

I have to admit--I was curious. What kind of caricature could be that devastating?

So I read Cakes and Ale. And enjoyed it, actually. Maugham was a pro.

Cakes and Ale is narrated by a novelist named Ashenden, who has accepted a lunch invitation from another novelist, Alroy Kear. Kear is the Walpole character, depicted as having a modest-to-negligible talent for writing, but a preternatural genius for schmoozing and networking. Kear has landed an appointment as official biographer of another novelist, the late and well-respected Edward Driffield, through his careful cultivation of Driffield's widow and second wife, who has high hopes that the biography will secure her late husband's status as a major British novelist. Kear knows that Ashenden, as a young man, was acquainted with Driffield, and is hoping to pump him for his memories of the great writer.

Well, this is interesting, yes? The novel goes on to alternate between Ashenden's memories of Driffield and the first Mrs. Driffield, Rosie, a former barmaid and someone who like a good time, and his fencing with Kear and the second Mrs. Driffield over who Driffield was and who Rosie was. Moving back and forth like this between two time-frames, between the story's past and its present, takes skill, and Maugham does it masterfully. He also does a great job of bringing out Rosie as a character--she turns out to be a much more central figure in the novel than her husband.

Maugham explores some interesting ideas about the relation of fiction to experience, and (like Henry James in "The Aspern Papers") scholarly readers' somewhat vampiric relationship to the secrets of a dead writer.

I can also see why Walpole would have been mortified.

Not sure when I will have the time to look at another novel by Maugham, but this one made a favorable impression.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Ma Jian, _Beijing Coma_, trans. Flora Drew

BEIJING COMA SHUTTLES between two time frames. In one, Dai Wei is a student caught up in the ferment that leads to the mass demonstration of May 1989 in Tiananmen Square. In the other, set seven to ten years later, he is in a coma in his mother's apartment, unable to move or speak but still able to hear everything said around him. We learn early on that Dai Wei took a bullet to the head in the final hours of the demonstration, when the People's Liberation Army moved in, and he has been in the coma ever since.

The Tiananmen Square passages, which usually run 8-10 pages, follow Dai Wei as he interacts with his friends and fellow demonstrators, rushes off to get some sleep, checks in on his hunger-striking girlfriend Tian Yi, gets appointed head of security, and so on. These sections, more dialogue than description, succeed in conveying the buzz, the chaos, the excitement of the early days of the demonstration, when triumph seemed imminent, and the gradual, then accelerating darkening when the troops are gathering, demonstrators are drifting away, and the shooting commences.

Ma Jian was an actual eyewitness at Tiananmen, though he was not present at the bitter end, and these scenes have a peculiarly realistic flavor, mainly because people are only occasionally talking about politics and goals. They wonder about when the food will arrive, or scrounge cigarettes, or quarrel with each other, or indulge in utterly ungrounded (it turns out) speculation that Deng Xioaping will ultimately have to give way. Couples form, couples break up. A community forms, with all the the mess and contingency of a community, even while the feeling grows of being at a turning point in history. It's almost like Woodstock--had Nixon sent in the National Guard on the final day to mow everyone down.

The passages set in Dai Wei's mother's apartment provide a glimpse of how China changed after Tiananmen through what he overhears. Hong Kong is handed over. Some of his old associates go to the USA, or get rich, or lose their minds. Falun Gong and other traditional practices gain popularity. Hong Kong developers arrive. Hutongs are cleared out to make way for the Olympics.

At novel's end, Dai Wei may be on the point of waking up. If he does, he will be a kind of Rip Van Winkle, emerging into a society that will have become alll but unrecognizably different--though not at all in the ways the demonstrators envisioned.

It's a long book--586 pages in the edition I read--and I would say it could probably lose about a quarter of its length without any grievous sacrifice. The Tiananmen Square scenes, in particular, sometimes seem to be repetitions without variation. Even so, if you are interested in an up-close, on-the-ground view (as opposed to a bird's-eye, big picture one) of one of the hinge moments of recent decades, Beijing Coma provides that.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Alice Notley, _For the Ride_

I DID NOT understand quite a bit of this, but I did not understand quite a bit of Blake's Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion either, and I suspect they are kindred poems, both compelling even when, maybe especially when mysterious.

For the Ride could be taken for, and may well be, an addition to the post-apocalyptic fantasy tradition, in that we have a character, One, who is sole survivor of some unexplained catastrophe. One is surrounded by a screen or ring of screens, the Glyph, which contains events other characters with which and with whom One interacts.

What the Glyph presents is shifting and unstable, so we have references to One contending with chaos--and that was a big trigger for me. I immediately (and, yes, perhaps mistakenly) associated these with Satan's journey through Chaos in Book II of Paradise Lost. This fit, I  thought--the post-apocalyptic genre, being about re-creation, is necessarily also about creation, pure and simple, every re-creation being its own creation, in a way. And Paradise Lost is about creation, of course, both God's and Satan's rivaling of it, which is exactly what Blake was picking up on in Milton and then on larger scale in Four Zoas and Jerusalem, with his own mythology of creation, fall, and renewal.

Notley's writing a lot of the book in a sixteen-syllable line also put me in mind of Blake and his good English fourteener, and the shaped poems that occur in most of the poem's eighteen "books," if I may call them that, seem analogous to Blake's illuminations, the images that accompany the poems.

(There's also the slightly antique feel Notley imparts by such elisions as "fore'er," or "suff'ring," or indicating that some past tense forms need to have their endings pronounced, as in "scarèd".)

I was even ready to see Notley's Shaker as Blake's Urizen, Notley's One as Blake's Albion, as all the poem's other characters may be his emanations ("phantom amoebic splits off one"). The Many are the One, the One is the Many...that sort of idea.

And Blake's mythology also being psychology, a theory of being--that too may be blowing through the transoms here, with a carom off of Ronald Johnson's Ark...for I have persuaded myself that the ark Notley repeatedly refers to is not Noah's (familiar though it is) but Johnson's poem, his own analysis of the sensorium of the human and  the grounds of being. Johnson of course has his own rich history with Milton (Radi Os).

What brings it all home is Notley's contemplation of language, language as author of our being--can we become authors of our own language and so authors of our own being? (Milton's Satan again, refusing to be cast as a creation.) Something important, I suspect, happens in Book XIV, "Absorbs Them," leading to the whirling linguistic dismantling of Book XV, "I Have Been Let Out of Prison."

For, as she says near the beginning of the poem:

                     Build an ark of words.
One's supposed to be inventing new language, definitely
tearing down the old of gender, tensal submission, whatall,
pomposities to enslave one...Tear it down as ones save ones--
Ark of salvation and destruction of the old at same time.
Wake up! Tear it down! and save one. One is the species, words are.

And then near the end:

   I'm tryin to change the langue
so no social struct
   Just hummin tween the chaons
Yep. Just hummin tween the chaons.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Jonathan Littell, _The Fata Morgana Books_, trans. Charlotte Mandell

I STILL HAVE not finished Les Bienveillantes, though (clears throat) I fully intend to, but I thought I could give this a try in the meantime--seven short stories (or six and a novella, perhaps) originally published a four separate volumes by a French publisher, Fata Morgana.

Most striking to me, coming to this after having read 860 pages of Les Bienveillantes, is the near-perfect absence of the kind of contextual framing historical fiction provides.  Les Bienveillantes is painstaking about names, places, dates; in these fictions, while the details of a scene are usually vibrantly precise, we have no orientating information about where we are, or what year it might be, or even very many personal names.

This difference made it all the more remarkable that the two books definitely seem to be the work of the same author (even though I read this in translation and am reading Les Bienveillantes in French). The novel's narrator, Maximilien Aue, has the same eye for the same kind of detail, the same cool equanimity even while describing shocking events, the same willingness to let a sentence unwind to its end, however long it needs, that the narrators of these fictions have.

The back cover copy mentions Kafka and Blanchot, which sounds about right, both in the suppression of precise localizing detail and in the tone of eerie calm in the face of irrational events that teeter between comic and horrific.  We might mention Lispector and Beckett as well. "Fait Accompli" could almost be the Beckett version of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants."

"An Old Story" made the strongest impression on me. The book's longest story at just under eighty pages, it makes a loop: its ending capable of being seamlessly joined to its beginning. It could, theoretically, become an infinite repetition (which may be what makes the story "old."). The events are dreamlike, swift and shifty and arbitrary, yet the narrator accepts whatever happens and steps into whatever role circumstances offer with scarcely a hesitation or demur. Episodes include an encounter with a Joseph Kony-like child army, a troupe of marauding Cossacks, a luxurious party, and a sex club; they dissolve rather than end, the narrator finding himself at the conclusion of each in a track suit, running down a corridor, until the next door opens on yet another scene in which he will play yet another role.

The story begins and ends at a swimming pool, which makes me wonder whether "An Old Story" is an elaborate homage to John Cheever's "The Swimmer."

The story's import? I know not, but I would say it is altogether safe from Oprah's blessing, and that's something these days.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

R. F. Foster, _Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923_

THIS WAS PUBLISHED five years ago, to coincide (I assume) with the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, so it has something in common with Revolution, the mini-series based on the Rising. Rather like the television series, it takes as primary focus the personalities of and the relationships among participants in the Rising--not in a soap opera way (although Chapter 4, "Loving," has its gossipy passages), but through a deep dive into the archive of the people who hoped for, imagined, planned, and finally brought about the event.

Foster is the leading Irish historian of this period in his generation, most would say, so hardly anyone is better situated to write a book on the rising. It's not (another) day-by-day, hour-by-hour account, though, nor an assessment of its aims, failures, and  ultimate impact. Rather, it is a look at the generation and the culture that produced its principal players, both those onstage and those backstage and those in the alley behind the theater.

From that angle, Vivid Faces puts me less in mind of Revolution than it dioes of another book I am slowly grinding through, Yuri Slezkine's massive House of Government, about the people who brought about the Bolshevik revolution and then tried to create the world's first socialist state. Slezkine, like Foster, looks at what the people read, what they wrote, the clubs they organized, their love lives. And it turns out--keeping in mind all the differences there are between being Irish and being Russian--that the two revolutionary generations had some shared traits, not least a vision of a new, unprecedented world and a willingness to put their lives on the line to bring that world into being.  They share a certain ferocity, a certain idealism, a certain refusal to let the past dictate the bounds of possibility to them.

Foster notes that the comparison already occurred to Irish poet/painter/ visionary George Russell (a.k.a. AE), who published an essay on the topic, "Lessons of Revolution," way back in 1923.

The most grievous of the similarities: both revolutions evolved with startling speed into grim new societies that the revolutionaries would never have sought nor have considered desirable: In Ireland, the cautious, business-friendly, church-friendly Irish Free State of Cosgrave and de Valera; in Russia, Stalinism. All the ardor, argument, and blood sacrifice produce a victory, but the inheritors of the revolution's mantle soon find themselves reconstructing the iron box the revolutionary generation was trying to break apart.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Ronald Firbank, _Vainglory_

STRANGE TO THINK that this was published in 1915, the first full year of World War I, because it depicts characters and milieus about as removed as possible from the mud, blood, and shit of the Western Front trenches. Most of it is set among wealthy, leisured women--the wives of deans and bishops in the Church of England and other members of the upper-class--who are jockeying for position as to who will take the lead on providing a major new stained glass window for St. Dorothy's, the cathedral in Ashringham. 

The dictionary on my computer defines "vainglory" as "inordinate pride in oneself or one's achievements; excessive vanity," so Firbank's intentions may be satirical. The women are mainly interested in impressing or one-upping or undermining each other, with only the most superficial consideration for the dignity of the sacred. 

Much of the novel is dialogue. A short sample suggests the characters' typical preoccupations:

   "Such a pity not to have gone halves. You and Lady Castleyard together. A Beaumont and Fletcher--"
   "So, actually, you've come!"
   "What a wonderful wrap. My dear, what skins!"
   "In case you should feel faint at all in the night you'll find a lobster mayonnaise and some champagne in the vestry!"
   "Dear Lady Anne, how could you dream of such a thing?"
   "In the grey of dawn, when a thousand grinning fiends peer down on you, you may be very glad of a little something...."

Ashringham is a long way from Barchester, in many respects. But then Firbank is a long way from Trollope, apart from a shared interest in what a bishop's wife may get up to. Firbank seems scarcely more interested in the nation's spiritual wellbeing than any of his characters do, and much more interested in creating and sustaining a sphere of studied artificiality that has nothing to do with anything but itself. Which almost makes him sound like Mallarmé...but he's not exactly that, either. 

Lady Barrow lolled languidly in her mouse-eaten library, a volume of Mediaeval Tortures (with plates) propped up against her knee. In fancy, her husband was well pinned down and imploring for mercy at Figure 3.

So suppose we had a Venn diagram with circles representing Trollope, Mallarmé, and Wilde. That little corner where all three intersect is where Firbank hangs out.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Édouard Louis, _Histoire de la violence_

HISTOIRE MAY BE translated into English both as "history" and as "story."  The official translation, I see, went with "history," which is certainly defensible, but let's consider that the book is about a story and about whom stories belong to.

The title page notes that Histoire de la violence is a roman, a novel, but apparently it is autobiographical. Louis was on his way home from visiting friends on Christmas Eve when he fell in with a handsome, interesting stranger. He brought the stranger up to his place, and things went smoothly enough for a few hours, but when Louis emerges after a quick shower, it appears the stranger has taken and concealed Louis's phone and tablet. Louis tries as diplomatically as he can to get the stranger to return the items, but things take a bad turn. The stranger assaults Louis, rapes him, threatens to kill him, and actually does attempt to strangle him. The attacker relents, though, and Louis gets out. He goes back to his friends' apartment, goes to a clinic, eventually is persuaded to go to the police, files a complaint. Some months later, still badly shaken, he visits his hometown in the provinces to stay with his sister for a while and recover.  

All this is skillfully and memorably narrated, with little if any bitterness and recrimination. But more remarkable, I'd say, than Louis's ability to tell the story is his purposeful rearrangement of the chronology of the events. When the book opens, for example, he is on his way home from filing the complaint with the police. As he recalls his being questioned, we see that for the police, Louis's story is one more tale of what Arabs get up to, even though Louis insists, repeatedly, that his attacker was a Kabyle, not an Arab. We know more about this sort of thing than you do, they insist.

By p. 12, we skip ahead a bit in time and are at his sister Clara's place, and Louis is overhearing his sister tell her husband the story of the attack. But for Clara, Louis's story is principally about what happens when you turn your back on your hometown and family and head off to the seductions of Paris.

Louis's departures from chronological order not only create a different kind of anticipation and suspense, but also highlight the ways in which Louis's story gets picked up and re-purposed by others.

The ironies keep piling up. To Reda, the attacker, Louis probably seemed a typical enough fortunate son of Paris...not at all someone who had to claw his way out of a dead-end working-class small town. Though not in the same way Reda is, Louis is an outsider in Paris, too.

The novel (or auto-fiction?) becomes Louis's way of reclaiming his story, peeling off the weedy tendrils of ownership that are growing over it like kudzu as others re-tell the story to align with their own sense of things.

Édouard Louis put me a little in mind of Lucien Chardon in Balzac's Les Illusions Perdues--another young man from the provinces who takes his literary gifts to the capital. He changes his name to Lucien de Rubempré  (Édouard Louis was once Eddy Bellegueule) and ends up dealing with both opportunities and perils he could not have imagined.

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie seems like a much nicer man than Vautrin, though.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Ben Lerner, _Angle of Yaw_

HAVING READ AND enjoyed not only all three of Lerner's novels but also his book on poetry, I was beginning to feel self-conscious and negligent about not having read any of his poetry. I saw this in the Regulator Bookshop on a visit to Durham, NC, and decided, okay, this is the time.

Angle of Yaw is a National Book Award finalist, published 2006. Lerner is drawn to longer forms here. There are four poems in the collection, and the three shortest are all seven pages long ("Begetting Stadia" at the beginning, "Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan"at the end, and Didactic Elegy" in the center).  "Angle of Yaw" is ninety pages long--ninety prose poems in two block of forty-five, on either side of "Didactic Elegy."

Angle of Yaw must be doing well; the copy I bought is from the seventh printing. The success is merited but nonetheless surprising, because Lerner's poetry is no more down to Earth than NASA's Voyager Golden Record, the sleeve of which graces its cover. "History, screams Hamsun, the junior senator from Wisconsin, will vindicate my mustache"--not exactly Mary Oliver. He often juxtaposes lines in startlingly different registers, putting me in mind of Ashbery, and he can be mandarin.

For instance, "Didactic Elegy" is for those who died on 9/11, but it is also an analysis of the situation of the elegy as genre and poetry as an art in the early 21st century. That is, it seems designed to block or frustrate our reflexive response to the idea of a poem about 9/11, or any urge we may feel to admire the author for having appropriate feelings about a terrible public event, or any wish we may have to congratulate ourselves for reading a poem describing those appropriate emotions. It's a powerful thing, in a novel way, like Juliana Spahr's "This Connection with Everything with Lungs," but it avoids all the moves we'rte accustomed to calling "powerful."

 "Twenty-One Gun Salute ofr Ronald Reagan" is satirical, I would say, but without any of the more recognizable satirical moves. Twenty-one nine-line stanzas on what looks like a very formal but shifting pattern, with many of the lines (all of them, maybe?) sounding "found," as in "Jesus likes me," or "Let's add touches of ethnic instrumentation," or "mechanically separated chicken parts."  It's a long way from Pope's imitations of Horace, as satire goes. Still, it gets at something important about the Reagan era, even while not allowing itself to do anything the easy way, much as "Didactic Elegy" ends up feeling like an elegy wthout ever sounding like one.

The three relatively shorter poems are all excellent, but the prevailing tone of the book lies in the ninety prose poems of "Angle of YAw." They go down like gingersnaps. Poised, funny, original, observant, smart as bejeezus.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Diana Khoi Nguyen, _Ghost Of_

A DEBUT POETRY volume, and a wrenching one. Nguyen is the oldest of three children;  her brother, the youngest, died by suicide. Some time before that, he "cut out only his face from every photograph in the hall, carefully slipping each frame back into position."

Interspersed throughout the volume are five poems, each titled "Triptych," that juxtapose the scissored family photo with one poem typeset to fit the gap left by the scissored-out brother, and a second poem typeset to match the dimensions of the photo, but with white space for the gap in the surviving image.

Also interspersed are five poems titled "Gyotaku," the name of a traditional Japanese printmaking method, involving the inking of a real fish. In these poems, the gap-shaped poem is turned into--as it were--a rubber stamp, and used to create a graphic design on the facing page.

Arranged around these ten poems are another fifteen more conventional ones, mainly about the family.

Simple enough to describe the organization of the book, but not so easy to describe its effect.

Imagine that Laertes, rather than Ophelia, had become psychologically estranged and taken his own life. Ophelia is left to mourn--which she does not by leaping into graves and threatening violence, but by writing poems--poems that try to trace with a slow finger the infinitely complicated knot of her relationship with her brother, its particular intimacies and silences, a relationship that from beginning to end took place in the deep shadow cast by the traumas their parents lived through.

As I said at the outset, wrenching.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Lucy Ellmann, _Ducks, Newburyport_, interim report

I AM JUST short of halfway through with this--am on p. 480--but feel like registering my surprise at the quotation from the Book Prize Jury citation to be found on the front cover of my edition of the book: "like nothing you've ever read before." Can it actually be the case that no one on a Booker Prize Jury had read Ulysses?

Lucy Ellmann I imagine has, being Richard's daughter, and I daresay anyone who has read Joyce's novel will, shortly after commencing Ducks, Newburyport, have at least a passing thought about Molly Bloom. A long, unspooling sentence in a female consciousness, reflecting on anything and everything but continually reverting to family, the home, the intimately personal...how can that not put you in mind of Molly Bloom?

Yes, there are plenty of differences between Molly and Ellmann's narrator, plenty of differences between early 20th century Dublin and early 21st century Ohio, and yes, it does make a difference that Joyce was male and Ellmann is female . I am only saying that we may as well acknowledge that Ellmann's novel has a crucial predecessor text.

I would never say that takes anything away from Ellmann's accomplsihment, though. This is an excellent book. It will take me a while to finish--I need a few days between deep dives, I am finding--but it is worthy of its lineage, and you can't say that of every text influenced by Joyce.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Samantha Schweblin, _Fever Dream_, trans. Megan McDowell

THIS WAS TAUT and gripping, as reviewers would say, but I'm not sure what happened, exactly.

The story is set somewhere in the countryside. Amanda and her husband and their three-year-old, Nina, are at a vacation rental. Carla lives in the neighborhood of the rental; her husband raises racehorses, and they have a young son, David, who might be six.

The whole novel is a conversation between Amanda and David about the events of the last few days.

And what are those events?

There may be powerful toxins in the local streams. David was not long ago exposed to them. His mother, Carla, took the extraordinary step of taking him to a local wise woman/bruja, who put David's soul in someone else's body, temporarily, while the effects of the poisons worked their way out. Then David's soul was returned to his body. But he hasn't been the same since. Or so it seems too Carla.

Nina and Amanda were perhaps both exposed to those same toxins. Should the wise woman/bruja be brought in to do the soul-transfer again? Or should Amanda try to get her to the city? Is Amanda herself on the point of death?

I'm not sure, to tell you the truth, what happens to Amanda or Nina, or whether what supposedly happened to David really happened, or even whether Amanda is really talking to David or just hallucinating the whole thing.

The novel does play skillfully on some powerful species of fear, though--environmental toxins, people with occult powers, the vulnerability of one's children. It was certainly scary, though stingy with explanations.


Monday, May 25, 2020

Curzio Malaparte, _Kaputt_, trans. Cesare Foligno

MALAPARTE (WHOSE BIRTH name was Kurt Erich Suckert--German father, Italian mother) was in on the ground floor of Fascism, participating in Mussolini's 1922 March on Rome. Apparently he was a maverick Fascist, though, frequently getting on the wrong side of Mussolini, even going to prison a time or two. His friendship with Mussolini's son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, seems to have saved him from worse. (Under the circumstances, you would think Ciano would come off in this book a lot better than he does, where he seems like a big-headed womanizing buffoon.)

Malaparte spent a lot of World War II traveling in Europe as a journalist for the Corriere della Sera, and Kaputt is based on what he saw--or might have seen, or perhaps mainly imagined--in Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Finland, Germany. Reportage and fiction are intertwined in the book, and no one is altogether positive which episodes he witnessed and which he conjured up.

Did he really see dead horses in a frozen lake, "where, during the winter, the heads of the horses gripped by the ice had emerged above the glistening crust of the ice, and where a little of their jaded odor still lingered in the damp air of the night"?

Did he really see Himmler in a sauna? "Around his flabby breasts grow two little circles of hair, two halos of blond hair; perspiration gushed like milk from his nipples."

Did he really spend time in a military brothel in which young Jewish women were forced to work, knowing that their next stop, once the soldiers tired of them, would be the death camps?

Did he really see a cattle car filled with the corpses of Romanian Jews?

No one knows, basically, but Kaputt, mostly written before the war ended, is the grandaddy of the fictions since in which the Eastern front of the war is revealed as a 24/7 Boschian nightmare: Danilo Kîs's Tomb for Boris Davidovich, William Vollmann's Central Europe, Jonathan Littell's Les bienveillantes. And Malaparte is one amazing writer.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Miriam Toews, _Women Talking_

SHORT AND POWERFUL. Toews's novel is based on actual events in a small, isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia. Women were awaking some mornings to find themselves battered and groggy. Their community leader told them Satan was punishing them, but it turned some men in the community were knocking them out at night with animal tranquilizers in order to rape them. Grim.

Toews's novel is set up as the transcript of a series of meetings held by women in a fictional small South American Mennonite community after they learn that they have been molested in just the way described above. Should they accept things as they are? Should they fight? Should they leave?

The women are present at this meeting because they have already decided they cannot accept things as they are. How can they fight, though, since the men have a monopoly on the community's resources? But can they leave? They can neither read nor write, and know almost nothing of the world outside their community. And the Bible commands submission to their husbands--there's that, too.

It takes them a while to sort this out. As they do, Toews arranges their discussion so that we get a vivid sense of each woman and of the community's history and values.

There's an interesting word in koiné Greek--katargein--that Paul uses to describe the Christian community's relationship to Jewish law. (In Luther's translation of Paul, he used the word aufheben, which on to have its own rich history with Hegel.) The word means an overthrowing, an emptying out, a negation. Paul seems to be suggesting something subtler, more elusive, but crucial--not simple rejection and replacement of the law, but an overcoming of the law that somehow includes the law, in a transformed sense.

The women of Women Talking have a stark choice: a livable life for themselves and (even more urgently) their daughters, versus maintaining their faith. They cannot imagine continuing to lead the life the men have imposed on them. But they cannot imagine leaving their faith, either--it is almost literally all they know. Is there a way of re-understanding that faith? Can the faith transcend itself, overcome itself in a way that transforms itself?

Toews's novel is set in a barn and is nothing but earnest conversation, but the stakes are gigantic.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Olga Tokarczuk, _Flights_, trans. Jennifer Croft

FLIGHTS IS A novel, but one could imagine it a collection of short stories, a collection that varies widely in character and setting but tightly coheres thematically. What makes it feel like a novel is that sandwiched between the 20-30 page "short stories" are dozens of vignettes drawn from observations and reflections from the author's travels, observations and reflections that provide a kind of foil for the themes of the fictions. The structure reminded me a lot of major-phase Kundera (Book of Laughter and ForgettingUnbearable Lightness of Being). Like Kundera, Tokarczuk toggles very adeptly from the essayistic to the fictional to create a sturdy double helix out of her two strands.

Again like Kundera, Tokarczuk gives the book a philosophical center--one reminiscent of Unbearable Lightness, actually, since it addresses the question of whether life is best lived by seeking a kind of gravity or permanence--staying put, preserving, repeating, and so on--or rather by flight, getting out, packing light, risking the new and unfamiliar.

Tokarczuk seems to lean towards the "getting out" answer. The recurring image for achieving stability is mummification, suggesting that permanence requires some form of death. (Kundera might have made the contest more evenly matched.)

It's a beautiful book, nonetheless. The pace is quick, since many of the first-person passages are very short, but it takes a while for the big picture to emerge, mosaic-like, from the many little bits and pieces we are presented with. Once it does, though, we are in high-flying territory. Here is one striking passage, from one of the more developed and clearly fictional episodes. A woman has run away from her abusive husband, abandoning her son, to live homeless in a nearby city. A mysterious figure whispers this to her:
"For anything that has a stable place in this world--every country, church, every human government, everything that has preserved a form in this hell--is at his [i.e., the Antichrist's] command. Everything that is defined, that spans from here to there, that fits into a framework, is written down in registers, numbered, testified to, sworn to, everything collected, displayed, labeled. [...] Get out of here, go far away, beyond  the reach of his breath, beyond his cables and wires and antennas and waves, resist the measurements of his sensitive instruments."

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Robert Lowell, _The Dolphin_

READING A HANDFUL of reviews of The Dolphin Letters convinced me that I really do not want to read through The Dolphin Letters, but it did whet my curiosity sufficiently to look again at The Dolphin, which I had last read back in the 1980s, during a period when I was getting a lot of random reading done in an effort to avoid working on my dissertation.

The Dolphin--all sonnets, like Lowell's Notebook--reflects the period when Lowell abruptly left his long-suffering wife Elizabeth Hardwick and his young daughter Harriet for an Englishwoman, the 14-years-younger Lady Caroline Blackwood, formerly married to the painter Lucien Freud.

As all the reviews of The Dolphin Letters note, in many of these sonnets Lowell took the enormous liberty of quoting from Hardwick's letters to him--sometimes entire poems are quotations from the letters--and the even more enormous liberty of changing Hardwick's wording.

All the reviews often mention Elizabeth Bishop's advice to Lowell after she saw the manuscript, which was, essentially, don't publish: "Art just isn't worth that much." Not worth, that is, the pain publication would inevitably bring Hardwick and their daughter. Lowell went ahead. The book did not get great reviews, I gather, nor much subsequent acclaim, so far as I can tell.

I did not much care for it much myself, the first time I read it. This time, I'm not sure why, I found myself liking it. I'm not as bothered by Lowell's frequent obscurity as I used to be, I think. I think too that when I first read it, I was hoping to find some sense that he understood what he was up to, that there was some sort of justification or rationale in his own mind, at least. He does not have one, really. He does not understand his actions any better than anyone else does. But now, forty years on for me, I'm less puzzled over people not knowing what the sweet fuck they think they're doing.

Something that struck me as disturbing at the time, but now fascinates: all experience happens to Lowell as already a sonnet. Falling in love, guilt, joys of fatherhood, woes of fatherhood, remembering something, reading something--whatever it is, it immediately assembles itself, in Lowell, as fourteen blank verse lines. That seemed warped and weird to me in the 1980s, but now it strikes me as the hallmark of a lifelong craftsman.

The issue of cruelty to Hardwick lingers, true. But she could have trained the flamethrowers on him in Sleepless Nights and didn't, so I guess she forgave him in some way.




Monday, May 18, 2020

Lorrie Moore, _Bark: Stories_

WOULD YOU CALL Lorrie Moore the Deborah Eisenberg of the Midwest? Or is Deborah Eisenberg the Lorrie Moore of the East Coast?

They are certainly distinguishable, but given what they have in common--realist tradition, contemporary settings, subtle sense of humor, gravitating to women characters from the educated classes, light dashes of lyricism in the prose--one quick way to tell their stories apart is that Moore's tend to have a midwestern setting, Eisenberg's a New York-and-environs one.  If (unlikely, I know) one was given a Lydia Davis story and a Mary Gaitskill story, and had to say which was which, you would probably be right nine times out of ten. Or a Ben Marcus story and a George Saunders story.  But with Moore and Eisenberg, you might be stroking your chin for a while,  then just pick based on geographical clues.

This led me to imagine the possibility of a Beatles-Stones or Roth-Updike sort of debate among the fans. The Beatles and the Stones were about the same age, had a lot of the same influences, were playing the same-sort of music, and were contending for the same glittering prizes, so from a sufficiently distant perspective--say, a middle-aged father in Turkey--they might have seemed impossible to tell apart. To their fans, however, the differences are salient and crucial.

 So with Updike and Roth. About the same age, a lot of the same formative influences, working in the same tradition, a lot of the same aspirations. To me, the differences are salient and crucial, era-defining...to most of my students, two guys with fancy prose styles and toxic masculinity issues.

Moore and Eisenberg are not very close in age (Eisenberg is twelve years older), but their first books came out close together (Moore 1985, Eisenberg 1986), they are comparable in output (five collections for Eisenberg, four and three novels for Moore), and they tend to get the same kind of accolades from the same folks. I wouldn't say they are rivals; for all I know, they are good friends and esteem each otrher's work highly. And maybe women writers do not have that who's-number-one anxiety that I imagine Roth and Updike did. But I do wonder what a diehard Moorean would say to a diehard Eisenberger. Something like, "Yeah, I know, but if you really read 'Wings'..."


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Ish Klein, _Consolation and Mirth_

(ISH KLEIN HAS a brand new book out this month, by the way, which I am not going to write about here, having written a review of it for a more prestigious website. That review should be available before too long, I hope. Her new book is called The New Sun Time and is very good.)

Consolation and Mirth (2015) has a middle section of twenty-one old-fashioned riddle poems. What is a riddle poem? A reasonably well-known example is Emily Dickinson's "A Route of Evanescence," to which the answer is "hummingbird." "My Life had Stood--a Loaded Gun" I have seen described as a riddle poem no one has ever solved. Klein's riddles have solutions, but I have to admit they have all defeated me. so far. I plan to keep trying, though.

As in Moving Day, Klein uses couplets and terza rima fairly regularly in this collection, and the movement of the poems sometimes takes some swift, hard turns:
You move to the right so that I must follow with my mind.
I turn and the drunk dog is asleep, the hand is nowhere visible.
I say the hand! The hand! My bucket becomes a red vinyl collar 
You say you will wear it!
Here as elsewhere, my favorite Klein poems are the longer ones that go on unpredictable odysseys, with lots of whoa-nelly hard turns, then end by zeroing in on the heart of the question. "Circular Runes" belongs in that category, as does "Eggheads and Rejects In and Around Science and Fiction Society," and especially "Like on the Subject of the Icebreaker," which ends thus--

There were others who are better at meeting the beings 
the snow has not yet touched and touching them. 
They are not so likely to get mixed up personally. 
They were us once.



Sunday, May 10, 2020

James Baldwin, _The Devil Finds Work_

IN QUEER STREET, James McCourt passes along (in three places, I think) that Gore Vidal once observed to James Baldwin, "You don't get to be Martin Luther King and Bette Davis." Boy, does that sound like Vidal, or what? But--is he right? After all, Vidal himself made a go at being both Abraham Lincoln and Oscar Wilde. So why can't Baldwin be both MLK and she of the eyes?

The Devil Finds Work is particularly valuable because it's more in the key of Davis than that of King, and gives us a Baldwin we only occasionally glimpse in the more famous essays. "Whites may or may not deserve to be hated, depending on how one manipulates one's reserves of energy, and what one makes of history: in any case, the reassurance is false, the need ignoble, and the question, in this context, absolutely irrelevant." The accents of Margo Channing resound in "depending on how one's manipulates one's reserves of energy," and that's a nicely stuck Margo landing as well. Or try this: "Neither does it suggest that the distinction between Big Business and Organized Crime is like the old ad, which asks, Which Twin has the Toni?"

The first chapter of The Devil Finds Work is highly autobiographical, but dealing mainly with Baldwin's first acquaintance with the theater, both in its stage and its screen versions. The other two chapters are largely discussions of particular films and particular performances.

These discussions are definitely about race in the United States as well--Baldwin is writing about Birth of a Nation, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Lady Sings the Blues, and other films in which Hollywood does its limited best to deal with race--but even so, a reader gets the feeling that Baldwin is happy just to dish about movies.

One sentence begins, "My buddy, Ava Gardner, once asked me...". His discussions of The Exorcist and Lawrence of Arabia do circle back around, and tellingly, to the subject of race, but he seems obviously to be enjoying himself in ways he rarely allowed himself to do:
Lawrence of Arabia, stemming, both dimly and helplessly, from T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is a kind of muted and updated, excruciatingly astute version of Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din. The word "muted" does not refer to the musical score, which must be the loudest in the history of cinema, and which is absolutely indispensable to the intention of the film.
Bette on, James.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Ish Klein, _Moving Day_

IF YOU ARE one of those folks who think that all contemporary American poetry sounds alike, (1) I believe you are mistaken and (2) you should read Ish Klein.

This collection from 2011 would be a place to start. Sometimes Klein is surreal, sometimes plainspoken, and the surprising thing is she often is both at once. She comes out with quite atartling  statements that, even as they startle, seem to be matter-of-fact documentary reports. "Standard penises are made of a certain kind of plant," she notes in "No Promissory Notes," a poem that seems like an encyclopedia article from a world similar to but not identical to our own.

The poems often recount first-person tales, and these too seem to take place in a world with a physics a little different from those of the familiar world, in which one mighty be, for instance, an ice cube:
The walls are thick! It's cold!
I am a trayed square among others like ice!
We are getting smaller; it's a good sign. 
And it makes more space. My acquaintances and I
Work on melting each other. It can be done in the shower!
I am not ashamed, how possible with such poor lighting?

The marvelous thing, though, is that Klein's voice inspires perefct confidence. That is, even though I do not know how getting smaller could be a good sign, nor how one could melt an acquaintance in the shower, I am happy to accept both assertions simply on Klein's say-so. (That better lighting might increase the risk of shame I do understand, I have to say.)

Klein also has increased the total of good poems about Hamlet (a category in which I include Boris Pasternak's "Hamlet" and Erik Campbell's "Hamlet: The Action Figure Series." It ends with Ophelia, here called  Orphée (the French name for Orpheus), which makes a certain amount of sense, as she may well be trying to restore someone from the land of the dead, much as Hamlet himself is. I tend to think catastrophe might have been averted had Hamlet been able to maintain his bond with Ophelia--Horatio is a good ally, but (obviously) not enough all by himself. Perhaps Hamlet and Ophelia could have rescued each other from obsession with the deaths of their fathers?

You remember poor Orphée?
A truly good audience. 
Asleep in the reeds and mixed-up theatrically,
she thinks she is the river
and will likely enter its vaguely compelling commotion.
That is, unless 
you, Mr. Hamlet, want to catch her
before she jumps in (she can't swim),
leaving you to th emachinations
and actually alone. 

It's the Hamlet poem Stevie Smith never got around to writing.


Monday, May 4, 2020

Chris Ware, _Rusty Brown_

ONLY NOW NOTICED that my previous post was post #777. Not bad, hmm? I mean, that is a lot of posts.

Rusty Brown was published as a complete volume just last year, but it collects pieces that Ware has been publishing separately for quite a few years. That is, some of it (most of it?) predates Ware's last book, Buildimg Stories. I am hoping that puts in a different light Rusty Brown's being a good deal bleaker and comfortless than Building Stories. Not that Building Stories is a stroll in the park, God knows. But each of the featured characters in Rusty Brown is terribly, achingly alone--sometimes their own narcissism or immaturity is to blame, but not always--so I like having room to hope that Ware's outlook brightened somewhat after conceiving of this book.

The principal characters, in the order in which they are featured:

Rusty Brown, a third grader in a Catholic school in about, I think, 1974 or 1975. In a word, Rusty is bullied. On the day we spend with him, he has accidentally brought to school his favorite action figure--Supergirl--and he spends the day in a cold-sweat extended panic about what will happen to her, or him, if the toy's presence is discovered. A new kid in his class, Chalky White, makes friendly overtures, but Rusty barely notices. Yes, someone finds Supergirl. Yes, something bad happens.

Woody Brown, Rusty's father, teaches English at the high school level in the school Rusty attends. He seems to have burned out on teaching long ago, and burned out on his marriage even longer ago, and never to have cottoned to fatherhood at all. Most of his episode is retrospective, recalling a strange off-and-on affair he had with a co-worker as a new hire at a newspaper (he married on the rebound) and a science fiction story he wrote shortly after--his one burst of creativity.

Jordan, aka Jason, Lint is an older boy at the school, enrolled in one of Woody's classes and Rusty's chief tormentor. This episode covers a much longer span of time--about a page for each year of Lint's life--and he never seems to quite get over having a distant, cruel father, becoming something of a distant, cruel father himself and leaving behind a trail of emotional wreckage when he dies in his 70s.

Joanna Cole is Rusty's teacher--a dedicated and effective teacher, eventually she gets promoted to administration, somewhat to her chagrin. She plays banjo, looks after her aging mother, keeps her school going, but no one, not even her mother or sister, seems to notice what a loyal, conscientious, and good person she is. There is a little glimmer of redemption in the very last panel. I hope.

Ware's uncanny grasp of the structure of comic art--both its traditions and its possibilities for extension and renovation--astonishes. The man is a genius. But the sadness of Rusty Brown is deep. This was hard to read.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Samuel Delany, _Times Square Red, Times Square Blue_

DELANY IS BEST known as a science fiction and fantasy writer, but he is also consistently brilliant and original as an essayist/critic. This book (now 20 years old) looks at the overhaul Times Square was undergoing in the 1990s, the sweeping away of an assortment of porn theaters, peep shows, and other marginal small businesses, the arrival of something more family- and tourist-friendly, blander, more corporate, more homogeneous--its Disney-fication, as it was sometimes called.

"Times Square Red," the first of the book's two essays, is in large part a memoir, as Delany was a frequent customer at the porn theaters over two or three decades. Not to watch the films (which he nonetheless has some brief and astute commentary on--see pp. 74-80), but for the sexual activity in the seats. Apparently, among the mainly-male audience, it was okay to open your pants and start masturbating, at which point some other gentleman might volunteer to complete the job for you, or fellate you. Money might change hands, or not, depending. Names might be exchanged, or not, depending. An audience member might only stop in briefly on his way home from work, or might spend the whole afternoon or evening there.

This sounds a little seedy, but Delany succeeds in making it seem almost utopian, in that ethnicity is not much of a consideration, nor class, nor education--anyone who can afford the modest price of admission may come in and take his or her chances. Scary things occasionally happen, there is a certain amount of odd behavior, but the milieu mainly operates smoothly on simple, shared rules. Delany has a wealth of anecdotes of this unusual but thriving community.

"Time Square Blue," the companion essay, is more academic, a kind of socioeconomic or sociopolitical analysis of the same scene described in the first essay. This essay is a bit heavier than its companion, but never dry.

Mainly, it aims to distinguish "contact"--the accidental, unplanned interactions that occur constantly in an urban environment, in grocery lines, restaurants, busses, and (yep) porn palaces--from "networking," an event (like a conference) designed to accelerate the growth of relationships among people with similar interests. Contact is a more random, less efficient way to form helpful relationships than networking is, but Delany makes a fascinating case that contact is actually just as productive of fruitful relationships--maybe even more productive, because it's a stew with more diverse ingredients, more happy surprises. It's also a good deal less frustrating that networking, possibly because networking means a lot of people competing for a small number of prizes, and plenty of people are just going to be disappointed.

The beauty of the old Times Square was that its heterogeneity made it a place rich in potential for contact. The new Times Square, by contrast, seems designed to prevent surprises, irregularities, accidents, unforeseen encounters. It's more like networking, and like networking, it disappoints; as an urban space, it fails.

"Times Square Blue" also includes a discussion of two perennial questions--"What makes us gay?" and "Why is there so much fear and hatred of homosexuality?" Delany's answers are, as one would expect, fresh and illuminating. I haven't room to recapitulate his arguments here, but to cut to the chase, one is made gay when one is interpellated (in the Althusserian sense) as gay, Delany argues, and fear of homophobia grows out of suspicion of pleasure, out of a fear that pleasure, rooted in desire, seeks and will achieve chaos if left to its own devices. The old Times Square may have looked like chaos, but it was actually a world with loose but functioning organization, serving a simple human need.

Friday, May 1, 2020

René Girard, _A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare_

IN WYNDHAM LEWIS'S The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare, he observes, "Troilus and Cressida is the one play that no shakespearian [sic] critic ever approaches without a baffled 'hem!' and a sense of treading on dangerous ground. It is an eccentric integrant of the series that will not fit in with the smooth picture he [i.e., the critic] has been able to compose elsewhere...".

Lewis has a point here--but he did not foresee Girard. In Girard's analysis of Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida is the central exhibit, the subject of six of A Theater of Envy's thirty-eight chapters. (Midsummer Night's Dream gets eight, Julius Caesar and The Winter's Tale five each, Hamlet one, LearMacbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra zero; Richard III gets half a chapter, the other histories zip.)

Girard (1923-2015) might turn out, years hence, to be a figure on the scale of Freud or Marx--a thinker with a big idea that explains nearly everything. For Marx, the big idea is class conflict, the driver of history. For Freud, the big idea is the unconscious, unacknowledged determiner of what we do and how we feel. For Girard, the big idea is mimesis--that we are basically imitative creatures. We decide what we want mainly by seeing what other people want, and then adopting their desires as our own. (At the very least, Girard completely explains middle school social life.) Since we all end up wanting the same things, rivalry ensues, competition, conflict, eventually violence. If we are lucky, the violence evolves into a myth of "a founding murder," the sacrifice of an innocent that we can ritually re-enact to remind ourselves not to let things get so far out of hand.

Girard finds pieces of this scenario in a variety of Shakespearean plays. The sexual version forms the core of the plot in Midsummer Night' s Dream, Lysander and Demetrius seemingly most interested in whatever the woman the other is interested in. Julius Caesar is the political version, Rome's most powerful men all converging on the same prize, Brutus trying to engineer a "sacrifice" that will create peace, but the murder stubbornly remaining a murder, with civil war ensuing.

Troilus and Cressida is the whole enchilada. Pandarus goads Troilus into obsession with Cressida by describing how avidly others are obsessed with her, then goads Cressida into obsession Troilus by describing how avidly others are obsessed with him. The background for this erotic mimesis is another political mimesis, as Greeks and Trojans kill each other out of desire to secure what the other side desires--Helen. But as in Julius Caesar, the sacrifice--the brutal, cowardly slaying of Hector-- fails.

In The Winter's Tale, though, Leontes' jealousy (his fear and rage that his friend Polixenes wants what he, Leontes, wants) leads to two deaths, but ritual remembrance has the astonishing effect of restoration and healing.

A really worthwhile book--new angles on Shakespeare are relatively rare, and I learned a lot.

Rather like Freud (via Ernest Jones) on Shakespeare, though, Girard sometimes seems to congratulate Shakespeare on having intuited what he, Girard, actually described and named:
"With his awareness of the victimage mechanism and its religious consequences, [Shakespeare] reached an anthropological vision that has remained undeciphered to this day but is finally becoming intelligible, thanks to the same mimetic theory that enabled us to unravel the significance of the comedies" (209).
His original audiences, who knew not Girard, could not really have been able to understand how far ahead of his time Shakespeare was:
"For which spectators were such marvels conceived as we have in this play, still totally misunderstood and disdained after four centuries?" (236)
But Girard, unlike Freud, seems sometimes to be onto himself, as in this remark about an earlier Shakespeare explicator, Stephen Dedalus in the "Scylla and Charybdis"episode of Ulysses:

"...Egomen's reasoning: 'Since Shakespeare knows everything about mimetic desire, and so do I, and since no one else does, except for a few towering asters, I must be a towering master myself'." (264-65)

Friday, April 24, 2020

Lydia Davis, _Can't and Won't_

DAVIS IS BEST knownfor her none-more-short short stories, some just a sentence or two long, little needle-bullets of fiction that you barely feel as they go in but somehow leave a crater you notice only minutes later.

There are plenty of those here, a lot of them based on passages from Flaubert's letters or Davis's own dreams, but the most memorable stories here (to my mind) are the handful of longer ones, all slow-cookers, near-plotless gradual accumulations of detail that by the end overwhelm you.      

"Local Obits": probably just what the title implies, sentences pulled from obituaries in the local newspaper, some as banal as possible ("Albert was an animal lover"), some of haunting particularity ("She will also be remembered for her extensive collection of elephant figurines"), but over ten pages somehow teetering perfectly between the idea that each of us is unique and the idea that really we are all the same,

"The Seals": memories of the life and death of an older sister, seemingly in no particular order, without much overt emotion, but by the end, I was shaken.

"The Letter to the Foundation": a foundation that has awarded the narrator some whopping big grant would like to know how it has changed her life. The narrator explains, very diplomatically, and with due gratitude to their generosity, exactly why it is her life has not changed so very much. Samuel Johnson, who also noticed that much-anticipated outcomes often wind up making less difference than we expected them to, would have loved this story.

And my very favorite, "The Cows." Working at a house in the country, the narrator can see from her windows a neighbor's cows. The story is nothing but a series of observations about the cows, e.g., "They are nearly the same size, and yet one is the largest, one the middle-sized, and one the smallest," but as one observation succeeds another, the cows progress from being a distraction from work to being a welcome distraction, even a relief, and then an object of interest in their own right, and eventually a mute testimony to some wide truth:

They are still out there, grazing, at dusk. But as the dusk turns to dark, while the sky above the woods is still a purplish blue, it is harder and harder to see their black bodies against the darkening field. Then they can't be seen at all, but they are still out there, grazing in the dark.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Compton Mackenzie, _Extraordinary Women_

SO, THIS IS the other English novel focusing on lesbian characters published in 1928. It appeared just a month after Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness, in fact, but did not run into any of the censorship or legal troubles that Hall's novel did. Because Mackenzie was male? Because Extraordinary Women is comical rather than earnest? One wonders.

So far as posterity goes, Mackenzie's novel came a long way short of the fame eventually achieved by   Hall's, but it is a brisk and enjoyable read. It is set shortly after World War I on the island of Sirene (based on Capri) and tracks the alliances, antagonisms, passions, and vendettas of a cosmopolitan group of lesbians, mostly wealthy, or formerly wealthy (in the case of the Russian emigrées), or expecting to be wealthy (in the cased of Rosalba Donsante, who stands to inherit her aunt's fortune).

The dominant characters are Rory Fremantle and Olimpia Leigh, both a little older, both of independent means, both intellectually formidable, and both for the moment intrigued by the impulsive and beautiful Rosalba. She flirts recklessly with both, and with a few other members of the cast. How will this resolve?

Don't worry, I'm not going to tell.

"With the exception of Rory Freemantle, the charcters and events in Extraordinary Women are all based upon real people and actual events," writes Andro Linklater in the introduction to the paperback edition I read, mentioning Romaine Brooks and Renata Borgatti. At least a few people think that Rory is based on Radclyffe Hall. I hope she is, because Rory is a lot more interesting--wittier, more commanding, perhaps even of deeper spiritual resources--than Stephen Gordon, the character in The Well of Loneliness that Hall based on herself. Even though the novel is mainly comic, it has its moments of emotional power, and most of them involve Rory.

Mackenzie apparently got to observe this set from near at hand because many of them were friends with his wife, Faith. And even though he is less than reverential, not even very charitable, and often even willing to mock, the novel is invaluable, I'd say, in giving us a portrait, caricatured though it is, of these women who were, as the title says, extraordinary.

No fewer than three delightful chapters (16-18) are devoted to a party at Rory's villa, and I will close with Mackenzie's philosophy of parties:

A great party should be a world within a world, not a world temporarily outside it. It should effect a heightening and a concentration of ordinary life, so that in retrospect one may perceive the quintessential selvcs of the guests; and when those guests meet each other for the first time after such a party they should feel a kind of sacred elation such as we may suppose was felt by those who had been initiated into the Mysteries.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Stacy Schiff, _Cleopatra: A Life_

IS STACY SCHIFF related to Sidney Schiff? I know Sidney had some American cousins.

To move to a more pertinent question: does Stacy Schiff read ancient Greek and Latin? Presumably, a biographer of Cleopatra would at least know his or her way around the tongues in which the primary sources were written, but it's hard to tell here. Schiff thanks Inger Kuin, "who untangled awkward phrasings [in the translations] and reconciled contradictory ones"--that is, Schiff consulted Kuin about the passages where translations diverged?

Schiff obviously made a deep dive in the secondary literature on Cleopatra, her world, and her times, but I found myself wondering about her access to the primary texts because she reads them mainly against the grain, as it were. The surviving accounts of Cleopatra from her own day (or from within a few centuries of her own day) take a Roman perspective--dismissive of Cleopatra's character and abilities, viewing her defeat with relief and a bit of Roman self-congratulation. A classic illustration of the old saying that the winners write the histories.

Schiff isn't buying it. Rather than the femme fatale who came within a hair of dominating Rome by seducing its rulers, Schiff's Cleopatra is well-educated, a skillful adminstrator, a shrewd strategist, a devoted mother (even while being a sister on whom one should not turn one's back).

This sounds credible--but I wish Schiff had said more about where she found this Cleopatra. By reading against the grain in the Cassius Dio, et alia? In archeological findings? In the secondary sources?

This is a biography more for a general readership than for specialists, so my questions may not matter. Schiff certainly sounds credible, even though the grounds for her conclusions are not always spelled out, and the writing is as brisk and enlivening as a spring wind.


Sunday, April 19, 2020

Jessa Crispin on Ben Lerner

BONE TO PICK, number 1,017:

Jessa Crispin, formerly of Topeka, took issue with Ben Lerner's The Topeka School in Baffler 50, writing, "The Topeka School's Topeka is not a Topeka I recognize, at least culturally." Oddly, the specifics she cites to illustrate the non-Topeka-ness of Lerner's Topeka are drawn from Lawrence and Kansas City, not Topeka, but let's leave that aside for now and simply consider the proposition, "This author's X is not an X I recognize." What does it mean?

Does it mean "This book would be a better book if it better reflected my own experience of X"? But that's silly, isn't it? Do two people ever have quite the same impression of any place? If you want a book that better reflects your own sense of X, why don't you write it?

Does it mean "This book is not fair to X and will give readers the wrong idea of X." This might be a fair objection if the book were non-fiction. But are novels supposed to be fair? Joyce's Buck Mulligan, we could say, is hardly fair to Oliver St. John Gogarty, from whom Joyce appropriated several characteristics in creating Mulligan. Does that matter? Plenty of people would say (have said) Joyce was not fair to Dublin, either. Sinclair Lewis was not fair to Sauk Centre. Jane Austen was not fair to Bath. Novelists are under no obligation to be fair.

And assuredly no novelist writing about Topeka is obliged to be fair to Lawrence or Kansas City.

Crispin's piece is a Baffler "Outburst," and hence supposed to be grouchy and intemperate, so it's a success in that respect, but "This author's X is not an X I recognize" is a formula overdue for retirement.

Ben Lerner, _The Topeka School_

THREE FOR THREE--Lerner is batting 1.000 as a novelist, and this one tries some new tricks. The character circumstanced much like Lerner himself is called Adam Gordon this time, but in a swerve from Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 the story is set in the past, when Adam was in high school, rather than in the near-present, and we get the point of view not just of Adam, but also of his parents Jonathan and Jane, both of whom are psychotherapists at a famous clinic located in Topeka (as were Lerner's own parents).

In the first chapter, Adam walks into what he thinks is his girlfriend's family's lakefront house, only to realize slowly that it some other family's house, a mistake enabled by the identical floor-plans and nearly identical furnishings of the neighborhood homes. The vertiginous moment when Adam imagines all the lakefront living rooms superimposed on each other, eerily one and many at the same time, establishes a leitmotif of the novel--but the leitmotif usually functions not in space, but in time, the present uncannily nearly-matching the past. For instance, here Jonathan is on his way to New York, on his way back to Topeka, and in the middle of infidelity, all seemingly at once:

He [Adam] hung up the phone, collected his keys and cigarettes, and left his room on the ninth floor, its windows open to the storm Without noticing, he passed the doorway in which Sima and I were going at it, and got in the elevator. I was traveling furiously toward him in the dark. I was in the plane, cleared to land, flash of distant lightning. The metal doors shut, the landing gear unfolded, and we made our descent, first person and third, together through the clouds. Jane had talked us down. 

Spaces rhyme, moments in time rhyme. Does the novel rely on one of the insights of psychotherapy, that we unconsciously re-trace past patterns, keep re-enacting our past?

Even psychological crises rhyme, as different characters react to fear of being left behind. Jane's publishing a book that makes her famous precipitates some trust-violating intimacy between Jonathan and Jane's mentor Sima; Adam's and friends' imminent departures for prestigious colleges precipitates a terrible assault by Darren, their friend from pre-school who dropped out of high school. And Darren's abruptly throwing a cue ball at a girl's head in someone's basement rec room somehow imposes itself on Adam, now a parent himself, as he writes the novel:

This is 1909; this is 1983; this is early spring 1997 seen from 2019, from my daughters' floor, dim glow of the laptop, "Clair de lune" playing in a separate window [of the building? of the laptop?], as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony plays in the basement.

This superimposition of the similar--this rhyming--is all the more effective in that Lerner does not particularly underline it until the story's coda, when an episode in which he challenges another man for being a negligent parent gives way to a scene in which he is challenged for being a negligent parent. Or--given that the coda is titled "Thematic Apperception"--is the parallel just a readerly projection?

When we say a novel is poetic, we usually (and unfortunately) mean it has extended, eventless passages of description, but this one is poetic in its structure, in the way it uses juxtaposition to create meaning.