An uncompromising apophatic criticism would look like the writing of Steve Mitchelmore. He does something like what Lerner does with poetry, but he does it with literature in general, and he doesn’t, well, compromise on the validity of his method.
I first came across Stephen Mitchelmore's blog This Space on one of those long, anxious evenings, when the only thing that was going to settle me was to read something new about one of my favourite writers. This was also around the time when I had become tired of being the only one I knew who liked the books that I liked. As soon as I tried to explain to my good friends that a particular book didn't interest me at all, no matter that it was 'profoundly moving' or 'fascinating', it would always seem, in contrast to what they had just said, that I was also admitting to my own pathetic diminution as a person, and I started to think that the little corner of my room where I stacked my favourite books (which were mostly written by dead people -- even I could see that) was a kind of morbid, crusted-over lair...
It's become clear to me that any very patient, generous and creatively intelligent attempt to write about any of this, in the way that Stephen Mitchelmore has done in his blog and now in his recently published book This Space of Writing, enlivens the world that we live in so much more brilliantly and immediately than many of these apparently 'moving' or 'hard-hitting' or 'fascinating' novels. But how can that be? Perhaps it's the work of the writing that does it: the very process and experience of writing that demands that we stay attentive -- not only to the words themselves (which are so often at the point of escaping us) but, as with so many inexplicable aspects of our existence (our dreams, impressions, fleeting thoughts), also to exactly how the writing has affected us.
Read more of this lovely review piece over at Jen Craig's beinginlieu blog.
Well, I've waited around a long time for this, and I couldn't be more thrilled... Zero Books have announced the forthcoming publication of my wonderfully talented friend Stephen Mitchelmore's This Space of Writing:
What does 'literature' mean in our time? While names like Proust, Kafka and Woolf still stand for something, what that something actually is has become obscured by the claims of commerce and journalism. Perhaps a new form of attention is required. Stephen Mitchelmore began writing online in 1996 and became Britain's first book blogger soon after, developing the form so that it can respond in kind to the singular space opened by writing. Across 44 essays, he discusses among many others the novels of Richard Ford, Jeanette Winterson and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the significance for modern writers of cave paintings and the moai of Easter Island, and the enduring fallacy of 'Reality Hunger', all the while maintaining a focus on the strange nature of literary space. By listening to the echoes and resonances of writing, this book enables a unique encounter with literature that many critics habitually ignore. With an introduction by the acclaimed novelist Lars Iyer, This Space of Writing offers a renewed appreciation of the mystery and promise of writing.
Ten years ago my dear friend Stephen Mitchelmore started his superb book blog This Space. It remains a vital inspiration, and the most essential book blog out there.
As I tried to make very clear in my post on Sunday, the small and contained argument that I'm advancing is not that serious and interesting writing about books is not happening online. Categorically, it is. I listed five blogs and bloggers in my original Guardian post – This Space, David Winters, 3:AM, Flowerville, Time's Flow Stemmed – and in my follow up blog, I listed several more – John Self, Berfrois, LARB and Dan Green. Very many more wonderful book-related spaces and places could be mentioned – The Quarterly Conversation and HTMLGiant both deserve a shout, as do Marooned Off Vesta, Infinite Patience and in lieu of a field guide. Without all this fine online work, the cultural landscape would be very much more bleak. Thank god for websites!
I'm really not sure how more clearly I can say this: I'm not saying interesting work is not going on; I'm not saying you can't find great writing about writing online; I'm simply pointing out the observable, and to me rather odd, fact that in very many other fields (all kinds of genre writing, political blogs, philosophy blogs, food writing etc, etc) a named individual of real skill has emerged from the blogosphere to change the debate in their respective fields. Richard Seymour fundamentally changed, and often set, the debate in his part of the Left. Graham Harman has changed the debate in Continental Philosophy regarding realism for good.
Or lets take the offline example of James Wood – via his 'criticism'/reviewing he has changed the conversation by banging on about e.g. Hysterical Realism or bringing our attention to Free Indirect Discourse. Sadly and strangely, nothing remotely like this has come out of the online conversation about books. Take also e.g. Blanchot's NRF monthly essays from back in the day – quietly and insistently his interventions changed the conversation, altered perceptions, re-routed thinking. The Blanchot example could perhaps be seen as being a little arcane, but I think it might be the best example. Blanchot's monthly essays – no requirement here whatsoever that the blogging should be daily or even weekly – slowly, via their form, percolated into the consciousness of literary France, and changed literary critical discourse for good.
Blogging has added more critical voices to the general clamour. Great. Good to have more voices, excellent to have more views. But neither in content or form has it substantively affected the wider book conversation. These days we just have lots more reviewers mimicking newspaper reviews. Plainly, noting this does not equate with suggesting in any way that blogging is dead, or that online writing is not a considerable cultural boon.
The question remains, however, why have no serious literary critics emerged, maintaining a blog, doing innovative work and gaining a following for that work and changing the wider conversation, as we have seen in plenty of other fields? Where are the lit-critical Jack Monroes, Graham Harmans, Paul Slaines, Richard Seymours, Ian Bogosts? I don't see them. And I regret the lack.
In the UK, one blogger, John Self, has become a talisman. John is a superb book reviewer. Everyone should read him. He writes straight up and down reviews in the broadsheet style, penetrating and amusing, incisive and witty, and he has rightly been embraced by the Guardian, and thousands of eager readers. He is a tremendously good writer. He is not, however, a literary critic, and his writing, on the blog, echoes the form and style of response we see every week in the newspapers. That is not a value judgment, it is a fact. And it echoes another fact: no literary critic has yet emerged from the blogosphere; no writer has yet emerged from the large and informed online writing community and changed the wider conversation about writing on writing.
You may well think that the world doesn't need literary critics. Fine response! You may well think that book reviewing suffices. It's an entirely valid point. You may well want to ignore my actual argument and tell me that great writing is happening online here, there and somewhere else. And, as I've stressed, I can only agree that it absolutely is. Wikipedia tells me the "term 'weblog' was coined by Jorn Barger on 17 December 1997." So blogging has been around for a long time. And blogging is just part of the wider online writing revolution, the vibrancy, breadth and depth of which can only be applauded; it astounds and amazes. But in very many other fields, writers have emerged from online and changed their respective fields for good. Particularly noteworthy, as I've said, is the rise and rise of speculative realism which has fundamentally changed the debate raging in modern European Philosophy and is setting the agenda for exciting work ahead. It's a wonder to behold. Has this happened in the field of literary criticism? No, it has not.
Recent article on Greek poet Cavafy is a nice case in point. It takes three translations of “The City”, one of his most well-known poems, from Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard, Rae Delven and Daniel Mendelsohn, and gives them each a spin. For me, it's hands down Delven:
You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other –
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.
It’s often unclear whether Ulven’s voices are meant to be many, or one. They certainly speak and think of similar things. Like Beckett’s creations, all are crippled, decrepit, or otherwise waning. Decay, says one, is the “lowest multiple,” which may be why these characters seem to converge. In their infirmity, each shares something essentially human. As it’s put at one point, “people are only really revealed in decline.” Yet if decay and decline disclose the human condition, they also herald a kind of heroism. Early on, we meet an old man for whom “unbuttoning a shirt is a real task . . . a project in itself . . . a triumph every time.” Replacement is full of such everyday struggles. But because the book balances all events equally, compressing life’s major and minor moments, these delicate acts acquire a heartrending resonance...
David Winters reviews Tor Ulven’s Replacement on full-stop.net.
Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism is "an open-access, peer-reviewed journal published by punctum books (online and in print-on-demand and e-reader editions) that provides a forum for the exploration of speculative realism and post-continental philosophy. Our aim is to facilitate discussion abut ongoing developments within speculative realism." The current issue (Speculations III) is just out.
Worth saying, too, that I bought all three print-on-demand volumes via lulu.com and for print-on-demand books these are very handsome volumes...
O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies is a peer-reviewed, open-access, and post-disciplinary journal devoted to object-oriented studies, both situated within and traversing the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the arts. The journal aims to cultivate current streams of thought already established within object-oriented studies, while also providing space for new pathways along which disparate voices and bodies of object-oriented knowledges might encounter, influence, perturb, and motivate one another.
Located within a post-Kantian philosophical outlook, where everything in the world, from the smallest quarks to lynxes to humans to wheat fields to machines and beyond exist on an equal ontological footing, O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies invites new work that explores the weird realism, thingliness, and life-worlds of objects. Possible methodological approaches and critical modes might include: actor-networks, unit operations, alien phenomenology, agentic drift, onticology, guerrilla metaphysics, carnal phenomenology, ontography, agential realism, cosmopolitics, panpsychism, insect media, posthumanism, flat ontology, dark vitalism, prosthetics, territorial assemblage, vibrant materialism, dorsality, distributed intelligence, dark ecology, hyperobjects, realist magic, post-continuity, and other paradigms for object-oriented thought still coming into being and yet to be articulated.
Thought and emotion also of course come to know themselves, achieve material clarity through things in the world – a ruined abbey, a peaceful river, the jumpy energy of a crowd in a foreign city. These things will (so to speak) explicate our thoughts and feelings for us, they will act as a ‘voiceless language’, in which the unconscious domain mentioned previously will come to rest, disclose itself..
Thought and feeling articulate themselves through that constellation of examples and figures that the world provides for us.It is not that we project emotion or thought outward onto these things. For that implies that the thoughts are already fashioned and require only to be transferred onto an object. Rather do we receive from them, the realm of objects, what it is we are thinking and feeling. ‘What we are thinking and feeling’ is therefore something that emerges retroactively, post 'expression'.
A "new blog mostly on philosophy and literature and the relation between the two" – welcome piccolorium.net.
Easter Island is now little more than a tourist destination, its sacred sites reconstructed without any religious intent, making the island's given name ironic as Christianity supplants another religion based on the continuing life of the dead. Nicolas Cauwe’s narrative, originally published in French and, from a certain stiffness of expression, apparently self translated, has none of the lyric effusions of Pierre Loti’s account of 1872 or the indulgence of other personal narratives such as Katherine Routledge’s The Mystery of Easter Island (1919) and Heyerdahl’s Aku-Aku (1958), which is perhaps inevitable given the exhaustion of Easter Island's enchantment. The stunning colour plates at least offer a glimmer of an aura now faded; a glimmer, however, that still fascinates...Great revew over at This Space.
There is a dream he can realise however, and that is one he had while seriously ill, caused by years of alcohol abuse. He dreamed of Dublin, “a city he had never been to, but which in the dream he knew perfectly well, as if he'd lived there in another life”. That other life is, of course, reading. He has absorbed James Joyce’s Ulysses as a vampire absorbs another's lifeblood, just as Joyce absorbed Homer. As is only natural for someone who has a “remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text”, Riba decides to hold a funeral for the Gutenberg age of print in the very same chapel that in episode six of Ulysses saw the funeral of Paddy Dignam. If literature is dying, then a funeral must follow (more...)
In his stunning, controversial recent article for the New York Times, author China Mieville describes the London Docklands, the definitive Thatcherite regenerated playground of the rich as “a thuggish and hideous middle-finger-flipped glass-and-steel at the poor of the East End, every night a Moloch's urinal dripping sallow light on the Isle of Dogs”. London is a city being overbuilt for the advantage of someone, but that someone doesn't appear to be the people who make London breathe. As Mieville writes, “Everyone knows there's a catastrophe unfolding, that few can afford to live in their own city.”
In his recent review for Eye Magazine, it is within this population that Rick Poynor locates the author of Savage Messiah, Laura Oldfield Ford. "She tells East Enders sick of being 'pogrommed' out of their estates by yuppies that the solution lies in their own hands: Wreck it! Loot it! Burn it!" he writes: "Embedded at ground level, Ford exposes a dispossessed, deeply disaffected alternative London to which out-of-touch political masters should have paid more heed."
Via the Verso blog.
I started writing reviews in the year Josipovici's review was published (1996) and had not read an author entirely new to me that I believed was a masterpiece. As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I thought that this is perhaps the closest I will ever get. Such is the reach of the word masterpiece beyond craft and industry considerations, my instinct was not to review at all but to thrust the book into the hands of friends for whom reading is absolutely central to their lives (not many).
But I must write something. Reading My Struggle was often like reliving fragments of my own life – an intensity resonating in a void – and a review would mean explicating this in formal terms, and that wouldn’t be right. Yet the terms available seemed too personal, something to be shared only by handing the book over in silence. How then to recommend?
But it is not all. We have the novel. In his diaries from his time in prison, published at the same time as The Unseen, Antonio Negri cites Kundera’s fear that ‘our prison records will be the only things left of us.’ They are not. What is hopeful is not the conclusion of Balestrini’s novel, but the existence of the novel itself. Its protagonists have not been reduced simply to their records, but come to us in a living and pungent voice. It is unstintingly real, and poses devastating questions, questions which are ever more important to answer today: how to survive in a way that’s worth surviving? (More...)
The starting point is a George Eliot quote from Middlemarch, a sentiment is expressed of a jadedness with art that lies outside life and doesn't improve the world and favouring instead a view in which everyone's life should be made beautiful. This directly relates to the question what art is for. It reminds us not to obviate the question of what art is for. And what is art for? This is answered by Murphy: To keep us all in good order. p4 How is this to be understood? Murphy describes an instance of protest, by Brian Haw, in 2001, against the war in Iraq. This protest was dismantled later. by the police. An artist called Wallinger reconstructed this protest which was then not dismantled by the police (more...)
If there is one element of László Krasznahorkai’s prose to which critics are most often drawn, it is the length of his sentences. Indeed, they are long: comma-spliced and unrelenting. They run on, at times, for pages, requiring diligence of even the patient reader. George Szirtes, the award-winning British poet who has translated three of Krasznahorkai’s novels, describes the effect as a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” But Krasznahorkai’s prose is not singular in this regard. Post-war Europe has produced a cabal of writers responsible for similar feats of syntax: Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, Bohumil Hrabal, and Witold Gombrowicz, to name a few. Amid such company, Krasznahorkai feels a bit like the uncle whose throat-clearing at holiday dinners causes those at the table to shift uneasily in their seats. He is obsessed as much with the extremes of language as he is with the extremes of thought, with the very limits of people and systems in a world gone mad — and it is hard not to be compelled by the haunting clarity of his vision (more...)
Got Paul Mason's Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere on Monday. Read it in two sittings. Very good indeed: compelling journalism, good basic economic analysis. Essentially, a book-length expansion of his blog post Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere which went viral a year ago. Strong recommendation...
Incisive grassroots account of the new global revolutions by acclaimed BBC journalist and author of Meltdown...
The world is facing a wave of uprisings, protests and revolutions: Arab dictators swept away, public spaces occupied, slum-dwellers in revolt, cyberspace buzzing with utopian dreams. Events we were told were consigned to history—democratic revolt and social revolution—are being lived by millions of people.
In this compelling new book, Paul Mason explores the causes and consequences of this great unrest. From Cairo to Athens, Wall Street and Westminster to Manila, Mason goes in search of the changes in society, technology and human behaviour that have propelled a generation onto the streets in search of social justice. In a narrative that blends historical insight with first-person reportage, Mason shines a light on these new forms of activism, from the vast, agile networks of cyberprotest to the culture wars and tent camps of the #occupy movement. The events, says Mason, reflect the expanding power of the individual and call for new political alternatives to elite rule and global poverty.
Edouard Levé began as painter, became a conceptual photographer and then a writer inspired by the constrained writing of the OuLiPo, and Suicide's solemn insouciance does resemble an object in a white walled gallery. Only through the occasional window – an episode in which the friend explores Bordeaux, an anecdote about him climbing the wall of a graveyard – does the narrative warm to its genre. Otherwise the novel relies on the gravity of suicide to draw the reader through weightless disclosure. This is less a failing than the very challenge set by Suicide: what, after all, gives meaning to a life?
Excellent piece by Mr Mitchelmore over on This Space about Edouard Levé's Suicide.
I have always tended to work obsessively on one topic at a time to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t consider this a virtue. For the past 6 months, that topic has been ancient tragedy: its nature, its savage and troubling beauty, its conflict with and superiority to philosophy, and its massive and unacknowledged relevance to the contemporary psychical and political situation. This is why my cultural ingestion has been a little Cyclopean of late, with one or two exceptions, like belatedly watching all five seasons of The Wire for hours at a time over the holidays. Of course, I turned that into a Greek tragedy too...
Unfolded, Anne Carson’s book length poem Nox is nearly 1000 inches long – or wide, to be exact.
An accordion-fold book housed in a clamshell box, Nox is a single collage-like poem composed of dictionary entries, snapshots, scraps of paper, postage stamps, written memories, and other texts in which we see Carson as she copes with the death of her brother, as she tries to comprehend “the smell of nothing,” “the muteness,” and the meaning of memories scattered across a lifetime. Just as the physical book unfolds and then collapses back into itself, the unifying structure of Nox is the unfolding and collapsing of a short poem by the Roman poet Catullus. Nox opens with the poem – known as Poem 101 – in Latin. As you turn each page or further unfold the book (whichever way you choose to read Nox), you are confronted with the individual dictionary entries for every Latin word in Catullus’ poem. As the dictionary entries mount up and you realize that Carson is working toward an English translation of the poem, these entries induce a kind of literary vertigo. Each Latin word has multiple definitions that can be wildly different from each other, if not seemingly contradictory. The net effect is to make the reader reel from the endless English permutations possible from sixty-three Latin words.
Via sebald.wordpress.com, and one of my current reads...
Speaking of autonomism, and as an example of what post-populist media can achieve ... here's Federico Campagna giving an absolutely enthralling history of Italian workerism/ autonomism on Resonance FM, and here's a grab-bag of autonomist-related resources and links produced by the ever-excellent DSG.
Nabokov, in a digression in his book on Gogol, shows ... how [poshlust] breeds in literature. It is (I quote) ‘especially vigorous and vicious when the sham is not obvious and when the values it mimics are considered . . . to belong to the very highest level of art, thought or emotion.’ He’s thinking of the kind of novels that get reviewed as (he quotes) ‘stirring, profound and beautiful’. The book may be ‘a perfectly honest and sincere (as the saying goes) attempt on the author’s part to write something he felt strongly about’, and may have been written without any commercial motive – but ‘the trouble is that sincerity, honesty and even kindness of heart cannot prevent the demon of poshlust from possessing himself of an author’s typewriter when the man lacks genius . . . The dreadful thing about poshlust is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion . . . is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everyone admits is cheap.’ (More...)
sonofabook on Nabokov's poshlust ("cheap, sham, tawdry")...
There’s a gap between literary and political responsibility, there must be. But literary responsiveness has ethical and political stakes of its own. Here, it is not a matter of producing particular values or norms, not a matter of producing a morality, but literature can enlarge the scope of what we call ethics and politics.
What does this mean with respect to the Arab Spring, and to the protests in Greece, Spain, Britain and the U.S.? These revolts all ask a question about what is allowed to count as politics, about the political as such. This question is posed by way of what you call a ‘popular resistance’ — by way of the creation of a people, the creation of a commons. And that, for me, is where politics — real politics — begins: in the opening of a space in which we can be political. This is quite different from our ordinary understanding of liberal democracy. Politics is renewed in the streets, the squares, in the open air. I think there is something similar here to the responsiveness we find in the work of Lispector and Cixous.
Bartas’ work has so far been characterized by two impulses – a warm nostalgia and sympathy for his characters that betrays the director’s hope and love for them, as in Tarkovsky’s cinema, and an overpowering cynicism, clearly derived from the (post-neo-realist) films of Tarr, that keeps remarking how the characters are all doomed and done for. This (unbalanced) dialectic is evident in Bartas aesthetic itself, which employs copious amounts of extremely long shots and suffocating close-ups. In the former, characters are seen walking from near the camera and into the screen, gradually becoming point objects eaten up by the landscape while, in the latter, Bartas films every line and texture of their faces with utmost intensity in a way that obviously shows that he cares for them and the pain that they might be experiencing.
Spurious on Blanchot:
I think reading Blanchot is elective; it matters that you are claimed by his work and that it becomes necessary to read further. But claimed by what? Blanchot's literary critical and philosophical writings are secondary, in his own estimation, to his fiction with respect to the central movement of his thought. How do we read the fiction, lacking as it does conventional plotting or characterisation? How do we understand that peculiarly tenseless time upon which it seems to give, and that is also brought forward in Blanchot's theoretical writings as it is claimed to occur in the fiction, the philosophy of others - and eventually, as happening in the very relation to the human Other as it is the condition of our experience of the world?
Fiction and reflection assume, with Blanchot, a peculiar unity, but one whose sense cannot be given outside their textual performance, as Kierkegaard supposes he can provide his own work when he writes The Point of View of My Work as an Author. There is a sense that the divide between fiction and theory does not count for Blanchot, and in which everything he has written is by way of narrating an experience whose theoretical elaboration must always be tentative, insofar as it must pass through language (a point that may well hold for Kierkegaard too, placing the meaning of his work outside the retrospective claims he made for the aims of his authorship), and language gives itself to be experience in the manner Blanchot seeks to answer in the general endeavour (a movement of thought, of research) to which his fiction and his theoretical writings belong.
Dukla is a small town close to the Carpathian Mountains. Dukla is a discontinuous set of descriptions of Dukla. Because the book bears the name of the place, the two seem to stand in some sort of relation. Perhaps the relation of Dukla to Dukla approaches the ‘pure’ form of what links a work to its object. But if so it’s a doubled relation, since reality is already relational. After all, Stasiuk’s subject is not so much Dukla as what Dukla reflects or refracts: what its reality relates to him. He doesn’t just look at a landscape; in so doing he looks through a lens at what makes a landscape possible (more...)
In the autumn of 2000, I was a 20-year-old student in Cambridge, at home in the English language but new to England and the English. Producing dutiful but desiccated essays every week on regicide and gender-bending in Shakespeare, struggling meanwhile with the almost complete absence of rice and dal (“lentils”) in the British diet, I suddenly fell violently in love in an unlikely place – Galloway & Porter, a home for cut-price and remaindered books. Thankfully the object of my affections was, like Barkis, willing. She was, to squeeze out the last of my metaphor, The Novel.
“Since there are so many people who are depressed – and I maintain that the cause for much of this depression is social and political – then converting that depression into a political anger is an urgent political project....Anti-depressants and therapy are the opium of the masses now.” Mark Fisher
Interview with writer, theorist, and teacher Mark Fisher about his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?
Superb essay from Stephen Mitchelmore over on the This Space blog about Beckett's Letters: "What makes the editors’ task particularly daunting (that is, in persuading the executors to publish) is Beckett’s reluctance to discuss the detail of his work. When he does mention what he has written, he is excessively dismissive. So, rather than offer a review of the letters, I want to focus on this apparent oddity..."
Once he is famous Beckett receives letters from enquirers curious about the origins of his work. Hans Naumann again: “Has the work of Kafka ever played a part in your spiritual life?”. He apologises for his response: “I am not trying to seem resistant to influences. I merely note that I have always been a poor reader, incurably inattentive, on the look-out for an elsewhere. And I think I can say, in no spirit of paradox, that the reading experiences which have affected me most are those that were best at sending me to that elsewhere.” Reading Kafka, he says, “I felt at home – too much so”. He didn’t finish The Castle because it did not offer this elsewhere: “I remember feeling disturbed by the imperturbable aspect of his approach. I am wary of disasters that let themselves be recorded like a statement of accounts.”
Called the most rapidly ascendant philosopher since Jacques Derrida, Quentin Meillassoux, the star pupil of Alain Badiou, has achieved something akin to cultish sainthood since the 2006 publication of his of his first book, After Finitude. And rightly so, given that his ideas inform the basis of speculative realism, one of the most hotly debated theoretical strains of the 21st century.
Yet, Meillassoux's theses—including his critique of 'correlationism', or the post-Kantian notion that being and thought are perpetually and inescapably intertwined—can be difficult to unpack. Helping us do that is Paul Ennis, editor of the journal Speculations and a recently graduated doctor of philosophy, whose explications of Meillassoux have been sanctioned by no less than the thinker himself.
Q: In Post-Continental Voices, you interview a number of post-Continental theorists about their intellectual and professional development, and their feelings about emergent philosophical strains. So, let me turn your own question back on you: What have been some of the formative influences on your academic maturation, and how did you become involved with speculative realism?
PE: When I started my Ph.D in 2007, I was treading a quite familiar path as far as my department was concerned (University College, Dublin). The plan was to write a thesis on Heidegger and ecological thinking, with a side-line in spatial/topological issues. For roughly two years, I was carrying out this project dutifully and was heavily influenced by the phenomenologists around me. For the most part, I was exposed to the Heideggerian version of phenomenology as ontology, as well as related offshoots of this tradition that stretch into Derrida and the weak theology of Caputo and others. Hermeneutics was also in the background, and I suspect my writing will always have something of this nexus in it.
The names that grabbed my attention during this time were Ed Casey, Stuart Elden, and Lee Braver. These are the kinds of thinkers I aspire to be like. Ed Casey revealed to me that phenomenology could still be carried out as method, rather than historical exegesis. Elden and Braver are master readers of other thinkers, and they are absolutely meticulous when doing so. I'm trying to get back to that way of writing after undergoing a bout of excitement that came with being released from a mental quagmire; more on this release in a moment.
In a more historical sense, I was fond of reading Dilthey and dipped into (the Heideggerian version of) Schelling. Hegel, due to the great respect he had amongst my peers, became quite important toward the tail end of my thesis. My thesis has its speculative crescendo, but the first two chapters lean heavily on Kant and Hegel. I'm not a Kantian or a Hegelian, but I know that the two form the broad hermeneutical horizon for what I do (more...)
The above via Fractured Politics. Paul Ennis received his doctorate from University College, Dublin in 2011. He is the author of Post-Continental Voices (2010) and Continental Realism (2011), as well as the editor of Speculations, a journal of speculative realism. Follow his blog at Another Heidegger Blog and on Twitter at twitter.com/lordwhatever.
Paul Celan is a limitless poet; a poet who requires our full attention, and our quiet patience. His dense, recondite work has challenged readers since the 1950s. His poetry keeps giving because, in truth, at first, it gives so little... For obvious reasons he sees through a glass darkly, but his shadow-drenched lens seems to disconcert and distort so much at first that we can't get a foothold on exactly what his poetry means.
But then we realise something. Celan's words are limpid, but appear so only if we adjust our expectations, allow his words to adjust our expectations: only if we are prepared to listen. Celan’s exactness clashes with what we think of as exact: the everyday is not exact, it is a cliché; realism requires vertiginous originality. But how can one be exact about what is truly unspeakable? One can only write knowing that one approaches and approximates, and that language fails you the while; you run after exactness, but the world gets away and your words fail. Beckett taught us about this failure because he knew failure and writing were synonymous.
I have a post over on the Carcanet blog, Celan and the Demand of Reading, written as a response to Correspondence: Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs which I've recently been reading, and thoroughly recommend.
It is a rather slight piece, for sure, but not too shoddy, I hope. For a much fuller recent post on Celan, let me direct you again to Stephen Mitchelmore's superb essay on The Meridian: Final Version–Drafts–Materials, by Paul Celan.
In a certain way, generosity comes down to Nagel’s famous question “what is it like to be a bat?” This is my whole problem. I’m a bit promiscuous where theory is concerned. I like it all. I can see plausibility in all of it. I love Plato, Aristotle, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Whitehead, Heidegger, Russell, Pierce, Luhmann, Bhaskar, Latour, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. I love all of them. And just as I’m fascinated by how bees or snakes or bats or great white sharks or various humans sense the world, I’m fascinated by the truths that various theories are able to encounter in the world through their “transcendental sensibilities”. I like hearing how the world looks when viewed through the lens of Badiou and how the world looks when viewed through the lens of Wittgenstein and how the world looks when viewed through the lens of Deleuze and Guattari. And the great thing about theory is that where I’ll never fully understand what it is like to encounter the world like a bat or great white shark (though Ian Bogost is making great strides here), I can, at least, occupy the worlds of these various theories and comprehend things in these terms. I don’t need to demolish those other lenses. They all certainly have their blind spots (this is the fundamental teaching of Maturana and Varela, Luhmann, and Lacan), but there is no view from nowhere (the fundamental teaching of OOO). And if that’s the case there’s really not a whole lot of a reason to demolish. No, it’s better to occupy these various lenses, to practice the savage and the wilderness, and find what is of value in these various lenses. That, I think, is generosity. There’s just not enough promiscuity in the academy.
Poetry, ladies and gentleman: an expression of infinitude, an expression of vain death and of mere Nothing.
These were the first words I read from The Meridian, a speech given by Paul Celan on October 22nd 1960 in the German city of Darmstadt on reception of the Georg-Büchner-Prize, as quoted by Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock. The excess of specification is deliberate. On a provincial train twenty years ago I read the words in the dizziness of discovery and recognition. At that time it was fragment of a speech not readily available in full – at least not available to me – found in amongst the dizzying fragments deconstituting Blanchot’s own work. Blanchot understands this enigmatic juxtaposition to mean that “the final nothingness ... occupies the same plane as the expression which comes from the infinite, wherein the infinite gives itself and resounds infinitely.” This would then afford poetry an extraordinary lightness as its social weight evaporates...
It’s hard not to simultaneously feel crushed and filled with wonder and joy when reading Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, all morons. I jest, of course, but truly, in De Rerum Natura, it’s all there. Beautiful poetry, a profound understanding of nature, a beautiful ethical vision and project of emancipation, an account of emergence, a thoroughgoing posthumanism, a [rather misguided] sex manual replete with meditations on love; it’s all there. All too often we get the sense that many philosophers are civil servants acting on behalf of the state, superstition, and ideology, yet with Lucretius we get the sense that we are before truth – or at least the germinal hypothesis that would lead us truth – and the seeds of a genuinely emancipatory project. That emancipatory project unfolds at the psychological level striving to free us from fear and to lead us to peace of mind, that unfolds at the social level, emancipating us from superstition and ideology, and that unfolds at the political level emancipating us from despots and unjust systems (more...)
The second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters will be published in October by Cambridge University Press. The Cahier series, which I mentioned a little while back, will be publishing a pamphlet by George Craig on his experiences translating letters for this volume, titled “Writing Beckett’s Letters.”
I would highly recommend this Cahier to anyone interested in Beckett, translation, or writing. What Craig does is to use his translations as a focus through which to draw a number of apparently divergent but in fact related threads: these would include handwriting (and an author’s physical interaction with a text); particular, in-depth translation questions; failure and futility; the uses of intellectual and cross-genre collaboration; the effects of writing in another language; and the ways in which the effects of writing in another language are transcended.
This is quite a bit of ground for a long essay that comes in at 36 pages (with illustrations), but Craig impressively remains light on his feet while treating each of these subjects with rigor. His method is to use many short, overlapping sections to build up a related set of ideas about Beckett’s writing and translation.
The incommensurability of death then is the dominant theme and determines the style and content. Alice avails herself of the modern world, phoning for taxis, visiting cafés and state-of-the-art hospitals, yet these are the limits of reference. There is only one reference to literature, an unnamed SF novel being read by her husband. It is as if the loss of religious context has also emptied art and literature of consolation; the fate of art has followed the fate of theology. It has disappeared, more or less. However, while characters have bland, pan-European names and live in bland, pan-European cities, as if to emphasise the universality of the incommensurable, there’s only so much that can be drained from the particulars of place and time before it disappears into silence. As well as evoking obscure pathos, such motifs and metaphors inevitably invoke a tradition.
For example, in an otherwise insignificant moment, an unidentified, “multi-legged” insect drowns in Alice’s latte macchiato. The readerly impulse here is to recognise a possible allusion to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, and thereby to appreciate the implications of this absurd event. We may ask: is German literature drowning in consumer culture? Instead, or in addition, we ought to admit the tension this moment generates, when literature tries to exhaust literature by means of literature...
Steve Mitchelmore reviews Alice by Judith Hermann.
For Josipovici modernism is a response in art (all art, music and painting too for example, not just literature) to the “disenchantment of the world”. That disenchantment is the loss of the Medieval sense of the numinous as being part of everyday life. In short, the Medieval vision of a world filled with purpose and divine meaning gave way to what would ultimately become the Enlightenment with its vision of a secular world governed by reason and natural laws (yes, I did just gloss over about 400 years there).
This is absolutely critical to everything that follows. The death of enchantment does not mean that people were happy in the middle ages but disillusioned thereafter. It is not a personal loss of enchantment. The point is that the European concept of the world changed from it being a place in which the natural and supernatural were different facets of the same reality to a world in which the natural and the supernatural were firmly separated (and in which the supernatural could therefore potentially be discarded entirely)...
Nice review of What Ever Happened to Modernism? over on Pechorin's Journal which pinpoints the “disenchantment of the world” as central to Josipovici's thesis.
My post on depression got me thinking once again about the difference between the psychoanalytic conception of the symptom and what might be called the psychotherapeutic conception of the symptom. In what I am here calling psychotherapeutic orientations the symptom is an impediment to enjoyment to be eradicated. Here my symptom is something from which I suffer, something alien that plagues me, something that prevents me from attaining satisfaction or that stands in the way of my satisfaction. While it is indeed true that we suffer from our symptoms, within a psychoanalytic framework my symptom is the source of my jouissance or enjoyment, and is constitutive of my being (in the case of neurosis and perversion; remember there is no “normal” for psychoanalysis) as a subject. In this regard, the eradication of my symptom would amount to my destruction, my disappearance, as a subject.
The Symptom and the symptom over on larvalsubjects.
Larkin once wrote of MacNeice in the New Statesman: ‘When we were young... his poetry was the poetry of everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting. In addition he displayed a sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and cigarette stubs: he could have written the words of These Foolish Things. We were grateful to him for having found a place in poetry for these properties.’
From Joe Moran's blog...
Rilke once said that fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name. Grace Paley, a much beloved short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist, died in August of 2007. Since then, as the year of memorials ended, tributes began proliferating throughout the country. Two documentary films were made on her life; a special Grace Paley Award For Short Fiction was created at the annual AWP Conference of American creative writing programs; and images and quotes from Grace Paley were splashed onto political banners and posters for a myriad of causes and political organizations. One journalist, Nora Eisenberg, writing in Alternet, came close to describing the Paley charisma, writing that Paley was “small, playful, and adorable but an inimitable powerhouse, whose art, and activism shook up the world of letters and the halls of power. . . A year of memorials . . . replayed her spirited activism and arrests, her wild and wise stories, and her remarkable face, which maintained into age and infirmity a child’s quick smile and mischievous gaze.”
But many falsehoods, sentimentalizations, idealizations, and distortions have also accrued in the four years since Paley’s death. Why—with the abundant availability and accessibility of biographical information, has there been a need to develop a political and social icon that has outweighed the literary value of her writing? This raises another, perhaps more threatening, question: why, how, and to what consequence do these many “misunderstandings” add up? How did gossip supplant literary biography—and undo the power of literature itself—and what more questions does this raise? That is, does this loose and uncontested portrayal of an important writer reflect, somewhere, the powerlessness and secondary place literary work is now taking in America’s culture of celebrities? Will literature run below the pedestals of manufactured icons, and become an invisible river drying up beneath us?
Details below of two new research monographs that both look fascinating, via the Continuum Philosophy blog. Markus Gabriel's name is familiar to me as one of the authors of Mythology, Madness and Laughter: Subjectivity in German Idealism which he co-wrote with Slavoj Žižek a couple of years ago. If that book is anything to go by, then this latest should be a fascinating read.
The first is Transcendental Ontology by Markus Gabriel (Chair in Epistemology and Modern and Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Bonn, Germany), in which the author re-assesses the contributions of Hegel and Schelling to post-Kantian metaphysics and the contributions of these great German Idealist thinkers to contemporary thought.The book shows how far we still have to go in mining the thought of Hegel and Schelling and how exciting, as a result, we can expect twenty-first century philosophy to be.
The second new title is Subjectivity After Wittgenstein... by Chantal Bax (Visiting Postdoc at John Hopkins University and the New School for Social Research, USA), which explores Wittgenstein's contribution to continental philosophical debates about the 'death of man' and constructs and defends a positive Wittgensteinian account of human being, and about which Simon Glendinning said the following:
'Wittgenstein is widely acknowledged to have mounted a sustained and, if successful, devastating challenge to the view of human subjectivity that belongs to the traditional discourse of European modernity: the broadly 'Cartesian' view of Man as a rational thinking subject. But at what cost? Can we make sense of concepts central to contemporary ethics and politics – concepts of rights, of autonomy, and of responsibility in particular – if we do not retain that conception. Rejecting it can seem tantamount to a rejection of those central concepts. In this important new study Chantal Bax offers a compelling account of why a Wittgensteinian understanding of the fundamental sociality of the human subject encourages rather than discourages us to engage with questions at the heart of our ethical and political lives.'
The opening paragraph of Peter Handke's Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers, as translated by Ralph Manheim, is a marvel in a book of marvels. Even in English, or perhaps only in English, the sentences, not written but spoken, verify their meaning by enacting the same experience of renewal in the reader. The Afternoon of Writer is only 85 pages long and not a great deal occurs in terms of narrated event, yet the same can be said of the whole. It is a clearing in a forest of books.
When the novel was published by Methuen in 1989, with the paperback of the translation following two years later in the superb Minerva imprint, it completed a series of three consecutive clearing novels: it was preceded in 1986 by Across and by Repetition in 1988. All three are long out of print and a new work by Handke has not been issued by UK publisher since Absence in 1990. Perhaps this fact explains the reason for my sudden need to revive attention for these books and this particular moment twenty years on. The more likely reason is that I want to understand how a quiet, reticent book like The Afternoon of Writer can mean so much more than the overtly worldly and eventful novels that are published instead. How is literary renewal possible?
Lukács first published the Hungarian version of Soul and Form in 1910, so this is its centennial. In the hundred years since the first edition, consider how vastly the world has changed; even Lukács’s own thinking went though profound transformation after penning these essays. Yet the essays still speak to us powerfully: of the difficulty of meaningful communication and the forms though which it can be achieved, of the need to criticize forms of authority without taking on the mantle of authoritarianism, of the sort of suffering that characterizes human alienation and of its honest assessment. In other words, these essays engage ideas that continue to trouble and encourage us, not merely as topics in aesthetic or political theory, but as matters of binding human concern. In a way, one wants to insist that these essays are searching, evocative, and often downright beautiful, simply in themselves. Yet Lukács also addresses a diverse set of thinkers, including his favorite author-heroes, among them Plato, Novalis, Kierkegaard, and Stephan George. And as he does, Lukács inaugurates a unique approach to aesthetics and literary criticism. From the perspective of our distance from that inauguration, we can appreciate where the thought presented here indicates a serious challenge to well-known readings of Lukács as well as to common approaches of our contemporary literary criticism. So, for us personally, when we began rereading these essays we were struck by the perspective they allowed on Lukács’s thinking and on subsequent developments in criticism as well as by their contemporary relevance...
Disobedience seems constitutively imbricated in a relation to law and authority that is grossly hierarchical, unequal, and infantilizing. The disobedience of the child and sinner appears in the context of a supposition of a preference for obedience; obedience is the field that is disturbed and in need of restoration. In some instances, the child’s disobedience invites, perhaps unconsciously, authority’s reassertion. The same may hold for the sinner. For example, Nietzsche’s account of the role of the priests in making man an interesting animal reminds us of the benefits of giving meaning to particular acts; at least God is interested. What might have been a simple expression of strength takes on a signifying power—it means something; there is a difference between the hawk devouring the lamb and the strong devouring the weak. As sin, acts become violations that give presence to, that manifest, law in the sense of divine commands. Invoking disobedience politically, then, initially seemed to me to construe politics in terms of childish petulance, resistance, and misbehavior or, worst, in terms of the sinful acts of the fallen...
As some of you have no doubt noticed, I've been on a major Hegel kick lately. This, of course, is always a dangerous thing where French theory is concerned, as Hegel as so often treated as the Enemy or culmination of all things wicked in the tradition of onto-theology (assuming his thought can be characterized as "onto-theological"). This is especially dangerous for me as a good deal of my research revolves around Deleuze, and one can hardly mention the name "Hegel" in Deleuzian circles without faces turning red, spittle appearing on lips, and curses being made. After all, isn't Hegel the ultimate thinker of mediation, where everything is subordinated to identity, the whole, and the concept. Yet when I turn to Hegel's Science of Logic and the doctrine of essence, I find it difficult to endorse this reading. At any rate, Žižek seems to present a reading of Hegel strongly at odds with this picture. As Žižek writes in The Sublime Object of Ideology:My thesis... is that the most consistent model of such an acknowledgement of antagonism is offered by Hegelian dialectics: far from being a story of its progressive overcoming, dialectics is for Hegel a systematic notation of the failure of all such attempts – 'absolute knowledge' denotes a subjective position which finally accepts 'contradiction' as an internal condition of every identity. In other words, Hegelian 'reconciliation' is not a 'panlogicist' sublation of all reality in the Concept but a final consent to the fact that the Concept is 'not-all' (to use this Lacanian term). In this sense we can repeat the thesis of Hegel as the first post-Marxist: he opened up the field of a certain fissure subsequently 'sutured' by Marxism.
Yup! I'm on a Hegel kick myself at the moment, and this rings true to me.
This quote is from a useful discussion over on the Larval Subjects blog from about four years back. (Žižek's take on Hegel seems sympathetic to what I understand is Jean-Luc Nancy's reading in Hegel: The Restlessness of the Negative.)
The remarkable announcement this week by the Bodleian Library and the German Literary Archive at Marbach that they have agreed jointly to purchase a collection of more than 100 letters and postcards from Franz Kafka to his sister Ottla will cause great excitement amongst Kafka biographers and scholars. New archival material about this exhaustively covered writer is an increasing rarity.
The new material will offer a chance to learn more about Kafka's favourite sister, who is a remarkable woman in her own right. Ottilie ("Ottla") David was totally dedicated to her brother. She divorced her non-Jewish Czech husband, Josef David ("Pepa") in order to save his life, declared herself a Jew to the Nazi authorities and, on arrival at Theresienstadt concentration camp, volunteered to accompany around 1,200 children on a "special transport" to Auschwitz, where she was gassed to death on arrival.
The Bodleian has not yet itemised the material in detail so it is difficult to know exactly how much of this material is genuinely new (a volume Letters to Ottla and the Family was published in 1974) but it is clear from the joint statement by the two institutions that there is at least some brand new material unseen by any scholars and biographers to date. In particular there are said to be new letters from Kafka's last lover Dora Diamant and the young Hungarian medical student and friend of Kafka's on his deathbed, Robert Klopstock (more...)
Not in so many words, but effectively. Here is what [Bank of England Governor Mervyn King] says: the City is responsible for the crash, and the ensuing bank bailouts; these, between them are responsible for the recession and the parlous government finances; these mainly effect people who had nothing to do with what caused them; he is surprised there isn’t more anger about this.
How could this be? That hoary old Marxist nugget, false consciousness, basically seems about the only workable solution as to why the anaesthetized population of Britain refuses to adequately express anger at what amounts to a massive screwing over by the wealthy on everyone else...
The only other factor might be trends noted by the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Zygmunt Bauman. Bourdieu introduced the idea of precarization, the making precarious of people’s positions as a means of social control, expressed perhaps most perfectly in the shifting of power within labour relations in favour of capital. Bauman extends and expands this in his idea of liquid modernity, a place where relations of all kinds lose their fixity and become mobile...
Where labour remains tied to location, capital has become innately mobile, and uses the constant threat of withdrawal as a means of control, shattering the symmetry and destroying the necessary accord, and so stacking the cards entirely in its favour such that it can do as it pleases. The locationally grounded is trumped by the locationally loosed. Bauman was writing this in about 2000; what is incredible is quite how naked this process has become. It is the constant explicit threat: if you don’t like we what we are doing, or make any steps against us, we will leave. The divorce between the locationally tied masses and the elite mobility of capital is quite openly outlined, the gun of tax haven decamping is an ever present one held hard against the head of the populace. This is contemporary capitalism.
From Michael Bhaskar's 10 Membranes blog, written on the 3rd of March.
Worth quoting, I think, because even though the 26th March demonstration showed that people are angry, the continuing cuts programme show that we are not nearly angry enough...
Details of the upcoming Logic of the World event, celebrating Robert Kelly's 75th birthday, and his fifty years teaching at Bard College, on Saturday May 7th at 32 Second Avenue, New York can be found on the Logic of the World 'blog'. Expect talks, readings and performances by Vyt Bakaitis, Carey Harrison, Michael Ives, Pierre Joris, Nicole Peyrafitte, Peter Lamborn Wilson and many more. All are welcome.
There are so few podcasts worth listening to – Entitled Opinions, In Our Time (unless it's on science), KCRW Bookworm – that is worth drumming out news of a fourth. Colin Marshall's Marketplace of Ideas has been going for a few years but came to my attention only recently when Gabriel Josipovici was interviewed about What Ever Happened to Modernism? If you know of any others of equal quality, please let me know.
So says Steve. And, please, if you do know any decent podcasts, let us know in our respective comment boxes!
In the past I have been very critical of literary critics using scientific methods to justify itself, yet here a medical scientist allows literary creation to countermand the positivist inferences of science. Indeed, Mishara recognises that "literature documents and records cognitive and neural processes of self with an intimacy that is otherwise unavailable to neuroscience." One has to attend to literary writing as literary writing rather than only as clinical data. And while documented intimacy is Mishara's concern, for us it can teach us again how to resist dominant contemporary notions of literature as craft, as mastery, as memory, as a record of historical events, as social commentary, as a career, as something less than an impossible letting-go. "In a letter to Max Brod," Mishara notes, "Kafka writes that it is 'not alertness but self-oblivion [that] is the precondition of writing'". For Kafka, writing was a means of transformation, the seeking of an unsayable end, whether or not there are traces left on the page (more...)
Stephen Mitchelmore responds to psychiatrist Aaron Mishara's "remarkable paper" Kafka, paranoic doubles and the brain.
Over at The Marketplace of Ideas...
Colin Marshall talks to Gabriel Josipovici, author of many novels and critical essays involved with the aesthetics and techniques of modernism. In his latest book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, he traces modernism’s roots further back in history than perhaps any other scholar of modernism has done before. It’s all in the service of the titular question, which expresses a deep concern of anyone who enjoys modernist works today: how and why has the Western world so largely ignored the excitement and potential of modernist art, that is, art conscious of its own limits and responsibilities?
As an apocryphal critic pithily put it at the time of its release, Richard Lester’s post-apocalyptic film, The Bed Sitting Room, really is “like Samuel Beckett, but with better jokes.” Carrying on and muddling through after the unfortunate “nuclear misunderstanding that led to the Third World War,” the twenty or so survivors in Great Britain live a salvage-filled existence as they heed well the (constantly repeated) imperative to keep moving and obliviously confront the possibility that they will suddenly mutate into animals, bed sitting rooms, and God knows what else. Nominally based on the Spike Milligan and John Antrobus play from 1963, Lester's cinematic version is a staggering vision of waste and remnant, of frozen, necrotic social relations, and of what we keep doing to keep ourselves busy after the end of the world. It is very dark, it is very uncomfortable, it is very funny, and it is very, very British.
The Socialism and/or barbarism blog brings my attention to a British film it sounds like I need to watch very soon!
Blogger Jodi Dean (i cite) has a new book out: Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. It has just landed chez moi and looks provocative and insightful (no surprise if you've ever read Jodi's excellent blog):
Geert Lovink: "If Ballard invited the 20th century viewer to witness their own mass atrocity exhibition, we now have the update for the 21st century: Jodi Dean's demolition job of the Internet as we know it. With Blog Theory we can finally terminate the hype of blogging and seriously engage the deeply distracted condition of the networked present. The incestuous relationship between journalism and bloggers is exposed to make way for critical reflections on techniques of self-management for our all-too-fragile identities."
McKenzie Wark: "Blog Theory is refreshingly free of received ideas about the wonderful new world of media. Jodi Dean manages the difficult art of being critical of new media without becoming a cranky curmudgeon. She uses psychoanalytic concepts to produce a synoptic view of the decline of symbolic efficiency under communicative capitalism, and the way the blogosphere participates in this dissipation of the totems and tokens of what we once thought of as the public sphere. She clears the way for imagining the politics of media by other means."
Sean Cubitt: "What happens to politics when there is no one in charge? The answer Jodi Dean gives, in this coruscating, rock'n'roll ride through new political and media theory, is communicative capitalism--the obligation to communicate in a new world turned into a market for communications. Dean's radical call for a new media politics will challenge political scientists, communication theorists, and media activists to sever the ties, and create and unforeseeable, dramatically material future."
Charlotte Mandell (RSB interview; Charlotte's own site) is one of the very best translators around, with about 30 books under her belt, including works by Apollinaire, Blanchot and Michaux. Her most recent translation is of Zone, December's RSB Book of the Month.
Here she talks to Scott Esposito about the difficulties of translating a book that is written as a 500-odd page run-on sentence:
I think it’s a vividly appropriate conceit for a narrative that takes place entirely on a train, since it feels very rhythmic and also inexorable – the sentence keeps going on, just like the train, and it won’t stop until it reaches the terminus. I like the fact that the book has exactly 517 pages, which is the same number of kilometers from Milan to Rome. So the narrative is very closely linked to the train ride, especially with the chapters in the Table of Contents referring not to the actual chapter breaks but to the towns the train is traveling through at that point in the book. Time and space are very closely linked, both in the narrative and on the page. History in Zone is a very personal thing, and, as Stephen Mitchelmore points out in his review of the book, the narrator discovers that history is not temporal but spatial: it surrounds the narrator as he travels through Italy and crowds in on him like so many vengeful ghosts. (More...)
Just an affirmative shout, if one were needed, for the LRB blog. Recent posts have included excellent articles on the Wellcome Collection’s High Society exhibition and Jeremy
Hardy Harding on human rights violations in Western Sahara, but I think my favourite, dating back to the end of November, was a piece by James Meek on the Irish bank bail out:
You could be forgiven for not noticing it, but the new British government has just been forced to do what the old British government was forced to do: bail out Britain’s banks. The bail-out of Ireland marks a new stage in the privatisation of government by the financial system. Two governments, the British and the Irish, have been effectively taken over by a venal banking network which, using ordinary savers and productive businesses as hostages, forces the state to cough up whatever sums are required to save it from the consequences of its own greed and idiocy.
Even before coming to power the dominant Conservative side of Britain’s governing coalition was making Gordon Brown the scapegoat for the UK being broke, maxed out, skint, and claiming that only by savage cuts in state spending could Britain hope to salvage some vestige of public services among the ruins. Why, then, is this same British government about to lend Ireland, a member of the Eurozone, some £7 billion to see it through its current financial difficulties? (More...)
From This Space:
Ramona Koval: You say modernists look with horror at the proliferation in modern culture of both fantasy and realism, both Tolkien and Graham Greene, both Philip Pullman and VS Naipaul, out of respect for the world. Tell me what this horror entails. Why?
Gabriel Josipovici: The last part of that phrase is something that I touched upon when I was saying that this is not simply a clever modernist trick that springs from a desire to make the reader see that everything that can be said about the world is still going to leave a lot unsaid which is there in the world. So, in a way, they are trying to make you... just as much as the lyric poets are trying to make you... see the world itself as it is out there, and what I was saying there was I think this proliferation of fantasies from Tolkien through to the Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman and so on, is a curious sort of indication of the way in which we would rather just turn away from the world and live in pseudo myths and mythologies, and they are pseudo, they're not the real thing as they were in cultures that really had myths and really believed in them. And similarly I think straightforward realism also stops you actually recognising this mysterious thing that our lives are open, are not going to be subsumed in a narrative we can easily tell, but we are constantly going to come up against something which is much more mysterious, much stranger, much more un-inchoate than we imagine.
The Millions brings my attention to Dying by René Belletto, a writer described here as "on the experimental side: Beckett seems to be the governing shade... with a touch of Maurice Blanchot and a sprinkling of Mickey Spillane":
Mourir, first published in France in 2002 and now expertly translated by Alexander Hertich as Dying, has just appeared in a handsome paperback original published by the Dalkey Archive Press. It’s a work of unusual though never-confusing complexity, a novel of reflections and correspondences that contains all of the author’s strengths: Belletto, who has a brilliant grasp of pacing and possesses a connoisseur’s knowledge of film, is a natural storyteller with a strong, sure voice, and his books prove difficult to put down (more...)
Mr Mitchelmore has been reading Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves:
... a short, relaxing book about the author's library of 20,000 volumes. The phantoms of the title are not missing books but "sheets or cards inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf". So the book is about reading his books and the practical problems of owning so many - storages, organisation, protection - as well as the more abstract, biographical issues of ownership; why, for instance, this bibliomania? Bonnet's response is deflected by anecdotes and light-heartedness: even if a book on his shelves has not been read and, like the essay on Slovenian grammar he possesses, may not be quite essential, it still may come in useful one day (more...)
The title of this book is a question asked by a professor of English and answered by a practising novelist. Apart from Milan Kundera, no other living writer has engaged with modern fiction with such depth of learning and lightness of touch. I have been reading Gabriel Josipovici's fiction and non-fiction for over twenty years but little prepared me for the sustained focus and force of this remarkable book. Until now his literary critical works have been collections of essays, even his book on the bible, The Book of God, is a series of discrete essays. Given this back catalogue which includes the lectures given at UCL and Oxford University, it's predicatable that the new book has been characterised by some as an academic treatise rather than an accessible essay in the classic sense. The deceit needs to be countered not only because it is wrong but because it also confirms Josipovici's verdict on English literary culture as "narrow, provincial and smug". This can be demonstrated by bitter and dishonest reactions, as well as some more respectful if condescending assessments (more...)
We need to talk about something. It’s quite serious. It affects a lot of people. And I genuinely believe it costs the book industry millions of dollarpounds every year, in addition to incalculable personal misery. We need to talk about book guilt.
When I created bkkeepr, it had (still does) three commands: start, finish and bookmark. I assumed a happy, linear model of reading. You start a book; you finish a book. Simple, right?
But almost immediately I started getting feature requests: with one, overwhelmingly popular one: abandon.
Is Vasily Grossman beginning to achieve (in the English-speaking world) the recognition that is his due? I've never read him, so I actually don't know if he is even due said recognition (he doesn't feel like my kind of guy) but RSB interviewee Robert Chandler (Grossman's translator) reckons he is, so I should probably pull my finger out and give him a read. I should probably pull my finger out and interview Robert again too, as we last spoke about 5 years ago!
Recent sightings (and citings) of Grossman include: Vasily Grossman, Russia's greatest chronicler, awaits redemption (in the Guardian); In praise of... Vasily Grossman (Guardian CIF); Anti-Socialist Realism (TNR); Everything flows: Robert Chandler on Vasily Grossman (Vulpes Libris); and A Russian titan revealed... (BookSerf).
The nature of film is such that it is difficult to feel that one takes it in completely; no sooner is one frame mentally captured than it is succeeded – in a process that could be called ‘jaillissement’ – by another. Film moves too fast for even the cinematographer to be in full control of the things that it throws up (over and above the way in which any kind of text may be uncontrollable by its author). Directors and editors can choose to minimise these characteristics of the medium, manipulating both images and audience so as to create a final sense of semiotic order and unambiguous declaration: such, according to a somewhat sweeping and antagonistic Tarkovsky, was the practice of Eisenstein, who ‘makes thought into a despot’. But Tarkovsky himself does his best to accentuate the life of its own that film, with its density and speed, possesses. And often, as in The Sacrifice, it is the very profusion and inexhaustibility of the sequence of images and the possible implications and offshoots of narrative that give hope to an otherwise generally bleak set of representations of human existence.
Here, then, there is an obvious starting point for the uneasy project of comparing Levinas with Tarkovsky (or indeed with anyone): both make the most of the resources of their respective media to speak distinctively but with a kind of self-undermining. The saying of the philosophical essay of the moment, and the unrolling of time, both in simulacrum and in the real time of the audience, in film, are both held up as somehow redemptive and transcendent in their resistance to reduction and control.
Tarkovsky and Levinas: Cuts, Mirrors, Triangulations [PDF] by Dominic Michael Rainsford (via wood s lot).
"... moral values are inaccessible. And they cannot be defined. In order to define them, you would have to pass judgement, which is impossible. That's why I could never agree with the notion of the theatre of the absurd. It involves a value judgment. You cannot even speak about truth. That's what's so distressful. Paradoxically, it is through form that the artist may find some kind of a way out. By giving form to formlesssness. It is only in that way, perhaps, that some underlying affirmation may be found."
Beckett and "the absurd" over on This Space.
The latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation has landed "with essays on Nobel laureate Herta Mueller, Jonathan Swift, Per Petterson, and more, plus 19 reviews, includin William Gaddis, Jose Manuel Prieto, and Gilbert Sorrentino, and interviews with David Shields and others."
They also have an all-new blog: "The Constant Conversation [has] a group of contributors drawn from TQC's ranks, the site delivers book news, reviews, and fresh links every day."
The centrality of melancholy to Sebald's work is probably the equivalent of Bernhard's cynicism; manifestations, that is, of contingent facts of life: the peace of the East Anglian landscapes, for example, compared to the venal denial of Vienna. Writers become who they are for many reasons, some more obvious than others. Self's thesis is that distance from Germany and closeness to the Jewish community in Manchester guided Sebald's determination to bare witness to the Holocaust and thereby help to remove the taint on Germany. But more than that: to bare witness to the presence of destruction in the peace of the English present. He writes about the destruction of German cities by the Allies and the destruction of nature in the abattoir of industry. Self's lecture is particularly welcome for bringing the English taint to our attention (more...)
Excellent post over on This Space which ranges from Amis through to Bernhard and W.G. Sebald...
I'm not a great one for reading challenges (it is, as I've written before, sometimes quite enough of a challenge simply to read anything at all), but as 2010 has seemingly become my "Year of Shakespeare" I'm thinking of joining the folk over at 38 Plays: 38 Days in their effort at reading each of Shakespeare's 38 plays in as many days...
Yes, it is a somewhat brutal rush through a corpus that should be lovingly savoured but, at the same time, I'm rather excited by the idea that by early April I could have read the whole lot and then I might know which ones I need to return to (to do the loving savouring bit) sooner rather than later.
In a fleeting fit of energy midway through last year, I proposed to some fellow bloggers that a symposium, hosted here at RSB, on Gabriel Josipovici's superb novella Everything Passes would be a jolly good thing. Well, as I've discussed (in my recent Hamlet and Lear pieces) it quickly became obvious to me that, last year, I didn't have the energy to organise anything. So, I owe a sincere apology to those friends who wrote some wonderful pieces (which will soon see the light of day here on the site -- hopefully, next week) expecting the symposium to go ahead.
Happily, several bloggers have posted the would-be symposium pieces on their own sites. Richard Crary, Dan Visel, Steve Mitchelmore and now Waggish have all written pieces that expand upon the review Paul Griffiths wrote for me a couple of years back.
Please do read these excellent contributions, and then I'll have a few more up for you here on RSB next week.
For any serious French writer who has come of age during the last 30 years, one question imposes itself above all others: what do you do after the nouveau roman? Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon et compagnie redrew the map of what fiction might offer and aspire to, what its ground rules should be – so much so that some have found their legacy stifling. Michel Houellebecq’s response has been one of adolescent rejection, or, to use the type of psychological language that the nouveaux romanciers so splendidly shun, denial: writing in Artforum in 2008, he claimed never to have finished a Robbe-Grillet novel, since they ‘reminded me of soil cutting’. Other legatees, such as Jean Echenoz, Christian Oster and Olivier Rolin, have come up with more considered answers, ones that, at the very least, acknowledge an indebtedness – enough for their collective corpus to be occasionally tagged with the label ‘nouveau nouveau roman’. Foremost among this group, and bearing that quintessentially French distinction of being Belgian, is Jean-Philippe Toussaint (more...)
More on this over at 3:AM too.
I like Power's focus on work and the changes to work. And I agree with much of what she says about today's "feel-good" feminism, and in particular with her point that we need to address how "'feminism' as a term has come to be used by those who would traditionally have been regarded as the enemies of feminism". For example, those who defended the invasion of Afghanistan in the interest of "women's rights", among other allegedly Western values; also, the spectacle of Sarah Palin is relevant here, embodying as she does many superficial characteristics of mainstream feminism, namely the obsession with placing women in positions of power (Power spends a section discussing Palin in detail. I admit I don't find her terribly interesting as a figure. I am more interested in the implications of the widespread misogynist attacks on her from liberals—the "enemy women" phenomenon.). With respect to the problem of powerful women, Power notes the Margaret Thatchers and Condoleeza Rices of the world and observes that, "It is not enough to have women in top positions of power, it depends upon what kind of women they are and what they're going to do when they get there." I would go further and say that even that's not enough. What matters is the nature of the power and the structure of the system. Any woman who manages to rise to a position of power in such a patriarchal system as we currently enjoy is bound to perpetuate that system (more...)
You'll be hearing a lot about David Shields' supposedly iconoclastic Reality Hunger over the next few weeks (it publishes at the end of the month). It will be touted as the "one book of literary criticism" (or some such) that you absolutely must read and is, in the words of its publisher, an "audacious stance on issues that are being fought over now and will be fought over far into the future." Actually, it's a dog's breakfast that deserves a really robust response -- happily, Mr Mitchelmore is already on the case:
Reading David Shields’ new book – but in what way is it a book? – is a frustrating experience. As demonstrated by the previous sentence, on almost every page of Reality Hunger the reader is interrupted by responses, doubts and questions. "Every artistic movement from the beginning of time" it begins, "is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art." Why, one asks, half-aware of the question because one is trying to get into the book, does he use "artistic movement" rather than "artist"? The answer is soon clear: he is seeking to galvanise a new artistic movement by expressing his own concern with the relation of art to reality. It has an impact on the form and content of the book, so much so that it fails to become a book yet, as a consequence, ends up enacting part of Shields’ manifesto. However, what remains betrays it (more...)
David Belbin (thanks Dave!) tells me:
On May 8th 2010, the University of Nottingham will host a celebration of the life of one of its most widely respected alumni, the novelist Stanley Middleton. The Booker Prize winning author died in July 2009, a week short of his 90th birthday. The celebration will include live music, readings from Stanley’s novels, poems and unpublished letters, together with short talks on his life and work (more...)
For those needing some poetry reviews in their lives, the February 2009 issue (number 23, don't you know!) of Gently Read Literature is now up online.
Raymond Federman was generally associated with those American writers who in the 1960s and 70s began writing what is now called "metafiction," but there was always something about Federman's work that seemed different, its self-reflexivity even more radical and enacted in a more aggressive way. Where Barth and Coover laid bare the devices of fiction allegorically (J. Henry Waugh as "author" of his fictional baseball world) or through the occasional narrative disruption (the "author" making his presence known, as in Barth's "Life-Story"), Federman's fiction was more direct and unremitting in its undermining of narrative illusion. With its prose freed from the constraints of typographical bondage, climbing up, down, across, and around the page, and its "stories" of writers attempting to tell a story without quite succeeding, Federman's fiction as represented in Double or Nothing (1971) and Take It or Leave It (1976), still his most important books, challenged not only reader's preconceptions about fiction but also basic assumptions about reading itself (more...)
Ellis Sharp's blog The Sharp Side used to be one of the most acute and prickly blogs out there (out here!?) in the blogosphere, but either Ellis stopped blogging as much or I stopped paying as much attention as I should have been doing and he, and his blog, fell from the front of my mind. Regardless of that, it seems that Ellis has actually been rather busy...
Over at the New Statesmen Mark Fisher (author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (part of the excellent Zero Books series) -- which I'll review as soon as I see a copy -- and blogger at k-punk) reviews Ellis's new book of short stories, Dead Iraqis:
Sharp replaces the dominant pastoral image of the English countryside, not with a deflated quotidian realism, but with a different kind of lyricism, one coloured by revolt: fields and ditches become hiding places or battlegrounds; landscapes that on the surface seem tranquil still reverberate with the unavented spectral rage of murdered working class martyrs. It is not the sunlit English afternoon that is "timeless", but the ability of the agents of reaction to escape justice (more...)
Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria, on the 7 November 1913 into a working class family. The Diary Junction Blog today continues:
When he was still very young, during the First World War, his father was killed, and his mother suffered a stroke on hearing the news. Camus won a scholarship and studied at the lycée in Algiers until 1932. Thereafter, he took various jobs, joined the Communist Party, studied at the University of Algiers, and married Simone Hié. He also contracted tuberculosis.
Then, 50 years ago today, at the age of 46, he died in a car accident near Sens, in a place named Le Grand Fossard in the small town of Villeblevin. Wikipedia tells me that "in his coat pocket lay an unused train ticket. He had planned to travel by train, with his wife and children, but at the last minute accepted his publisher's proposal to travel with him. The driver of the Facel Vega car, Michel Gallimard — his publisher and close friend — was also killed in the accident." In the car was the manuscript for The First Man (Le premier homme) an autobiographical work about his childhood in Algeria and was published in 1995.
More cheery fodder, about other gone-but-not-forgotten authors, can be found in the Guardian's Living in the memory: A celebration of the great writers who died in the past decade.
Welcome to the Teenies. Be assured, we can expect more deaths!
Bookmunch has listed 50 Books You’ll Want to Read in 2010. If you're anything like me, this is mostly a list of the books that you'll be avoiding next year, but will be getting blanket coverage in the papers... Nevertheless, it's a useful selection of what's coming down the publishing pipe.
Via Steve over at This Space:
In May 2010, the first translation of Thomas Bernhard's early stories is due from Seagull Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The website provides the following information: "First published in German in 1967, these stories were written at the same time as Bernhard’s early novels Frost, Gargoyles, and The Lime Works, and they display the same obsessions, restlessness, and disarming mastery of language. Martin Chalmer’s outstanding translation, which renders the work in English for the first time, captures the essential personality of the work. The narrators of these stories lack the strength to do anything but listen and then write, the reader in turn becoming a captive listener, deciphering the traps laid by memory—and the mere words, the neverending words with which we try to pin it down. Words that are always close to driving the narrator crazy, but yet, as Bernhard writes 'not completely crazy.'"
A new Proust-related blog is to launch next Monday:
You know you’ve been meaning to. You’re pretty sure that you’ve got a dusty copy of Swann’s Way sitting around somewhere. You’ve probably even read the book’s famous opening line, “For a long time I would go to bed early,” and thought to yourself, well, not now, maybe some other time.
That time has finally come. Next Monday, Publishing Perspectives is launching The Cork-Lined Room, a blog devoted to the reading, discussion and study of Proust’s masterpiece of 20th century literature, In Search of Lost Time.
The Complete Review's Literary Saloon continues to be the blogosphere's principal source of information about the global book business. If you want to know what Chinese, German, Turkish, whatever book has just won something, been reviewed somewhere, finally been translated into English or scandalously been ignored etc then the Literary Saloon will most likely have the story. Michael Orthofer, the site's founder and sole contributor, has wonderfully catholic tastes and casts his net worldwide; his global vision is certainly something fully to applaud and acclaim. He does, however, sometimes say the most stupid things.
Witness today's post about the Winners of Sacred Defense book festival. As Orthofer tells us, the 'Sacred Defense' is what Iran calls the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s. In an offhand remark, tangled as ever inside a parenthesis locked inside yet another bracketed sub-clause, Orthofer complains that it is astonishing and sad that the war "is still a major (and I mean major) one in contemporary Iranian literature." Astonishing and sad!? What is astonishing and sad -- beyond the fact that such a well-respected blog still cannot use ellipses properly -- is that such an ignorant statement should occur so casually.
During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War -- backed and extended by the US for numerous geopolitical reasons -- "perhaps as many as a million people died, many more were wounded, and millions were made refugees" (Iran Chamber Society). That it continues to be a focus for Iranian literature, a mere twenty years after it ended, is hardly astonishing and sad. Indeed, with a belligerent USA still stalking the region, it is entirely understandable. And nor is it particular different to "our" own obsessions. The UK book market continues to be flooded with books, fiction and non-fiction, besotted with both world wars; a growing stack of 9/11 novels infects the US. Astonishing and sad, then, that Iran's literary preoccupations are not seen as being remarkably similar to our own.
From Steven Fama's blog the glade of theoric ornithic hermetica (don't blame me for the daft name!):
... despite, or maybe because of it ambiguous character given its prose, and somewhat occult status, Cities – a most fantastic work by Robert Kelly – ought to be celebrated as poetry, and more widely read. And thus the mission here today, in the glade: to show and tell a bit about Cities and its prose poetry, and perhaps encourage some to go out a find it (more...)
Steven suggests that Robert's Cities is hard to find -- the limited edition is, but the piece was reprinted in A Transparent Tree which should be a little easier to get your hands on.
Interesting post from Andrew Seal on point of view:
At times, I think David Foster Wallace actually takes his reader in the opposite direction: convincing them that they're reading a 'highbrow' modernist novel par excellence, where the question of point-of-view is always problematic and the reader mustn't fall into the trap of identifying with one point-of-view. And then he basically makes you commit to a point-of-view: I question whether anyone can get through it (and enjoy it) without doing so. And that doesn't mean that you pick a character to empathize with for the rest of the novel, but that you have to create a position of provisional coherence from which to view the events and data of the novel and process them—whether that is identified with a character or with the author or with some external position. So by the end, you're just reading a very complex "middlebrow" novel (more...)
Nick Cave's new novel is an impressive performance. Two features stand out. The first is the pleasure it takes in words and vivid descriptions: Bunny Munro is a man of the world, a cosmetics salesman on the move; he's always swigging from a bottle of whiskey and emitting "furious tusks of smoke" from his Lambert & Butler cigarettes. It's a lifestyle that takes its toll: he eyes are always "granulated", yet he maintains his appearance: the curl of hair on his forehead is always "pomaded". In order to read his watch, Bunny "trombones" his wrist out of its sleeve. And Bunny never closes his mobile, he "clamshells it shut" or "castaneted the phone". Of course, this is very reminiscent not of Cave's darkly romantic songs but of Martin Amis in his moneyed pomp. Had Bunny Munro contemplated a haircut, he would no doubt instead have considered "a rug rethink". This is why The Death of Bunny Munro has a conspicuously anachronistic quality (more...)
Thanks to Dave Lull for pointing me to this from Sam Jones:
A few weeks ago, my fellow literary obsessive and author of the wonderful blog Vertigo shared some interesting news. Bob Skinner, who began an English-language translation of Wandering with Robert Walser long before Smyth and I began ours, has shared his translation online. This is the first time that Seelig’s book has ever been available in English in (what seems to be) its entirely. Do check it out. It’s a bit of a revelation for Walser lovers.
Dissatisfaction is a peculiarly middle-class indulgence. A life that from the outside appears perfect — moderate success, sufficient income, a loving family — can from feel from within claustrophobic and merely adequate, plagued by thoughts of the successes unachieved, the ones that got away, and a nagging lack of purpose.
Gabriel Josipovici’s two new novellas — each barely over 130 pages and issued together under one, elegant cover — both deal with this quiet despair of the bourgeoisie (more...)
Interesting news via Booksurfer: "Cambridge University Library have launched a fund-raising campaign to acquire the archive of First world War poet Siegried Sassoon's personal papers. These include a draft of the controversial anti-war statement A Soldier's Declaration. The archive is comprised of seven boxes of material, among which are 'Sassoon's journals, pocket notebooks compiled on the Western Front, poetry books and photographs, love-letters to his wife Hester, and letters sent to Sassoon by writers and other distinguished figures'."
The Soldier's Declaration, made in July 1917 was "an act of wilful defiance of military authority. Sent to his commanding officer, it states his refusal to return to duty and his belief that the war, which he "entered as a war of defence and liberation", had become "a war of aggression and conquest" which was being "deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it."
The declaration was subsequently read in the House of Commons on July 30, and caused a storm which only abated after fellow officer Robert Graves persuaded the authorities to send Sassoon to Craiglockhart Hospital for the treatment of shell-shock.
The power of Sassoon's statement resonates as powerfully now as when first written:
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
Oh, when am I not busy! Anyway, today I seem even busier than ever... So, a few web goodies to tide y'all over:
- lots of Ezra Pound links from orbis quintus (I've always been an Eliot man rather than a Pound-head, but I'll be taking the Cantos away with me on my next trip to London so maybe that'll change soon...)
- did Joyce coin 'blog'?
- John Self on Zweig Stefan (as my bloglines feed has it!)
- John Berger archive at the British Library
- anyone else going to the TLS party on Thursday? email me if you are...
Very warm review of Paul Griffiths' let me tell you over on Dan Green's blog which I should have mentioned last week:
...the pleasure one takes in a work like let me tell you is precisely the pleasure of witnessing in a particularly intent way the way a writer is using a structural device to bring character and event into existence (more...)
Good stuff from Dan on Aharon Appelfeld recently too:
I also have trouble reading Appelfeld's novels as allegories, as many other reviewers and critics seem to do, although in their relative brevity and episodic structure they undeniably do seem closer to fabulation than to slice-of-life realism. The two most recent of his novels to be translated into English, All Whom I Have Loved and Laish, might especially seem to invite allegorical interprepation, but while I would not begrudge readers their attempt to find in these novels the kind of accessible "meaning" usually associated with allegory, assuming that the allegorical content is an adequate measure of what Appelfeld's fiction has to offer seems to me at best mistaken and at worst just a way of assigning it to some manageable category that excuses inattentive reading (more...)
Via the Booksurfer blog:
Jeff Klooger who runs the occasional Castoriadis blog has written a critical exploration of the "underpinnings and implications of Cornelius Castoriadis’ reflections on Being, society and the self [Castoriadis: Psyche, Society, Autonomy.] The book introduces the reader to the main concepts of Castoriadis’ work, but goes further to uncover the fundamental philosophical issues addressed by Castoriadis, and to critically examine the issues his work opens up."
Never an easy read, but always rewarding, Castoriadis' work deserves to be better known in the UK. My introduction was by those wonderful pamphlets run off on an old duplicator by the Soldiarity group many years ago - which somehow still seem more appropriate for the subversive spirit that lays at the heart of Castioradis' writing.
RSB-interviewee Simon Critchley is writing in the Guardian's Comment is Free blog on Heidegger's Being and Time. I link here to what is promised to be the first of eight articles that Critchley hopes will "give a taste of the book and offer some signposts for readers who would like to explore further."
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was the most important and influential philosopher in the continental tradition in the 20th century. Being and Time, first published in 1927, was his magnum opus. There is no way of understanding what took place in continental philosophy after Heidegger without coming to terms with Being and Time. Furthermore, unlike many Anglo-American philosophers, Heidegger has exerted a huge influence outside philosophy, in areas as diverse as architecture, contemporary art, social and political theory, psychotherapy, psychiatry and theology... the basic idea of Being and Time is extremely simple: being is time. That is, what it means for a human being to be is to exist temporally in the stretch between birth and death. Being is time and time is finite, it comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death, what Heidegger calls "being-towards-death". (More...)
The latest interview here on ReadySteadyBook is with Owen Hatherley who blogs at sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy, which focuses on aesthetic and political issues in architecture and music, and who has just written his first book -- Militant Modernism:
For myself, and numerous others who aren't part of any old boy networks, or who are neither adept at nor interested in networking and private views, [the internet] provided an outlet which simply wouldn't otherwise exist, or if so in the more retro form of the fanzine. I first started reading on the internet rather than regarding it as a kind of expensive Ceefax because of a rash of blogs around 2002 – Blissblog, New York London Paris Munich, then the less musically-focused, philosophical, political and poetic blogs like K-Punk, Infinite Thought, Heronbone, Citta Violenta, The Pillbox, Lenin's Tomb. I had wondered where the critical writing about popular culture which used to have a space in the music press and to a lesser extent the likes of The Face had disappeared to, and there it was, on the internet. It took another few years of procrastinating before I got mine together. These blogs seemed a reaction to the closing-down of discourse which occurred in the late 90s, where the music press no longer existed as an entity interested in politics and wider culture, and the internet actually created something better, something where there was more potential for response, more space, more depth, and yes, more democracy (more...)
Clavdia writes that she grows "weary of the 'philosophy' and the 'teaching' I do here. It breaks my spirit. Maybe I would like it better if it masqueraded under a different name -- but it is both too close and far too far from the philosophy and the teaching I have done elsewhere..."
There are little lights though -- the light today when reading Koffka's strange Gestalt theories -- a hybrid of Whitehead and Leibniz. The light reading Spinoza last week and speaking of his creation -- learning what it was he had done, and how little it is understood. The light reading these small, simple books -- books about love and friendship and communication and understanding. The light that comes from thinking about a paper project -- a paper on perception and beauty that turns outward to understand the inward. But the greatest light comes from remembering to be strange and to be open and to be sensitive and to remember laughter and make-believe and finding voices and understanding in the places that others have forgotten to look. (More.)
Before I rest up for the weekend, a coupla things to draw your attention to:
- Steve provides us with "a selection that might be called The Best of This Space"
- The Armies by Colombian writer Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (as you know, I was judge, and I'm still scratching my head as to how come Dag Solstad's Novel 11, Book 18 wasn't even shortlisted!)
- interviews over on The Book Depository site with historian Andy Beckett ("The British 70s are full of political surprisess if you make yourself look at them with fresh eyes... the Labour vote in the 1979 election actually went up, especially among wealthier voters -- the idea that the behaviour of the unions sent the electorate running screaming away from Labour is a myth...") and Thomas Traherne expert Denise Inge ("Readers with imagination fall for Traherne. He takes you on unexpected interior journeys into desire and lack, infinity, time and eternity. Reading him isn't always easy since the language of his day is so different from ours and his world view sometimes challenges the assumptions of our time, but he will thrill, surprise and exhaust you...")
- a brief interview with Béla Tarr
- trailer for new Godard film Socialisme
In Max Dunbar's response to Stephen Mitchelmore's critique of Max's review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke (yes, the internet is an echo-chamber!), Max quotes Steve's summing-up of some of the parallels between World War Two and the Iraq war. The parallels are important -- and it is especially important to draw attention to them to someone who suppported the slaughter in Iraq, as Max did.
Max quips that "it may stun Mitchelmore to know that the facts around Western support for Saddam, and the true motives behind the 2003 invasion, are available outside the Medialens chatboards." Well, indeed. But there is an interesting slippage when Max continually suggests that, with regard to that invasion, and to WW2, "it’s outcomes, not motives" that matter. This is, of course, a very convenient way to forget -- to ignore the history of -- how and why wars occur, how we got into Iraq, how the invasion was sold to us, and how those who bought the lies that created the conditions that allowed for invasion further communicated those lies to their own constituencies. This is very similar to WW2. The myth, so often told that very many people do believe it, is that the Allies were White Knights who came to the defence of the Jews. Are we to forget that that is a lie because "it’s outcomes, not motives" that matter? Because saving the Jews became the post-facto justification for the Allies war to prevent German imperial ambitions, are we to forget the anti-semitic nature of much Anglo-American domestic discourse in the 20s and 30s (and beyond)? Perhaps more importantly, however, is that the outcome of the Anglo-American adventure in Iraq has been chaos and death on a huge scale. If "it’s outcomes, not motives" that matter then the outcome here has been catastrophic for ordinary Iraqis.
Mitchelmore, we are told, "upbraids" Max:
... for using the term 'lazy moral equivalence': which is no surprise, as it's a technique he's fond of using. Thus: 'The recent invasions by US and UK forces are direct equivalents of the Nazi assaults on Poland and Russia'.
But as Steve makes very, very clear in his example (which Max does not quote in full): "The recent invasions by US and UK forces are direct equivalents of the Nazi assaults on Poland and Russia in that they violate the sixth Nuremberg Principle and the 1949 Geneva Convention." A factual equivalency then, not a moral one.
Max jokes that those who supported the slaughter in Iraq don't bear any responsibility for what has happened there ("I suppose that's for the tribunal to decide when we are all shipped off to the Hague"). Well, sadly, those who clamour for war from the safety of their front rooms don't have to take responsibility for their words, but they should be reminded that they help create the conditions that make war acceptable and that they thus bear some of the responsibilty for the death and destruction that war brings. It might be a laughing matter for Max, but I reserve the right not only to find it far from funny, but to find such a political position morally reprehensible.
Now that the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is all but decided (see details about the shortlist here) I'm feeling the need to opinionate so, next week, I'll try to pick up the blogging baton again (not least because I want to write about the IFFP09 shortlist)...
In the meantime, Mr Mitchelmore is in superb form opinionating once again about Littell's The Kindly Ones:
The Kindly Ones is perhaps the first novel I have read and felt the need to write about before any hype kicked in. Had it been another, quieter publication, such as Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee or Thomas Glavinic's Night Work, then the review itself would have been enough. All three novels, however different and however removed from the vicious modernist circle familiar to this blog, prompted long attention because they opened a space making narrative possible, even necessary. Or, to put it another way, the space became palpable only through writing like this. Each review was an attempt to make this space clear and thereby to ease future readers into a different kind of reading than that practised elsewhere (more...)
Gabriel Josipovici enthusiastically mentioned reading Stephen Crane in last year's Books of the Year symposium here at ReadySteadyBook: "what a great writer he was! Not just The Red Badge, which is indeed one of the great books about war, up there with The Iliad and War and Peace, even though it is less than a hundred and fifty pages long, but also such short stories as The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel. In fact everything he touched he turned to gold."
Where Gabriel goes we follow; and Richard is already on the trail:
I was struck by the fact that Crane was born November 1, 1871. That is, four months after Marcel Proust (born July 10, 1871). Younger than Proust! In my mind, where Proust feels present, his concerns relevant, Crane has always seemed locked in the dusty past -- not only were some of his writings required reading in grade school, but the subject of his most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is the Civil War. His association with this war is so complete, I think, that it has only served to reinforce the sense I had of him belonging to a much earlier period than he does. In truth, of course, Crane's realism was innovative in its time, and I can see now that it stands as a precursor to the writing of some of the historical Modernists, Hemingway in particular (more...)
Mark Sarvas has been sent a PDF of an article James Wood wrote about fifteen years ago listing out what Wood then considered to be the best books since 1945. Mark has reproduced the list, amongst other reasons...
... as a corrective of its own to some of the foolishness that has cropped up around Wood of late. He certainly doesn't need me to defend him but this list should give the lie to the popular cliche of Wood as the hidebound dean of realism who thinks fiction stopped with Flaubert. The list appears in its entirety after the jump, typed up exactly as it ran (with its idiosyncrasies), but I think you'll find some surprises. Pynchon! Barthelme! DeLillo! And quite a few others. (More...)
Mr Mitchelmore tell us that:
The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940 are exceeding even my high expectations. Above all the gift these letters offer is the chance to follow a young writer as he seeks a way forward, finding glimpses of a path in both writing, music and painting. In July 1937, Beckett responded to Axel Kaun, who worked for Kafka's publisher Rowohlt Verlag and had suggested that he translate a German poet. Beckett declines but doesn't stop there. He complains of finding writing in formal English "more and more difficult, even pointless" (more...)
TRE Prime... features past posts from The Reading Experience, selected and arranged in order from the earliest posts I'd like to highlight to the most recent. If you access the site, you will find that these posts appear both unsorted on the main page and arranged into categories (links provided on the right), each containing a thread of posts related to that subject.
This site might be called a "best of" blog, although I really see it as an opportunity to identify the main subjects and concerns The Reading Experience has explored and to show how these concerns have been developed, restated, and modified over the course of the blog's existence. Each of the categories could to some extent be taken as separate chapters in a larger cybertext that isThe Reading Experience, at least in this circumscribed and idealized form.
Via the increasingly useful Alma Books Bloggerel:
Marcel Aymé, virtually unknown in the English-speaking world these days, is also to some extent not appreciated at his just value in France, where – although some of his short stories and children’s writing are considered undisputed classics – the rest of his considerable body of fiction and drama is now essentially ignored. He was born in rural Burgundy in 1902, spending his childhood there before moving to Paris to become a journalist. His first novel Brûlebois was published in 1927 to critical acclaim, and his follow-up, La Table aux crevés, won the prestigious Prix Renaudot two years later, but it was with 1933’s La Jument verte that his fame became widespread...
Aymé’s 1941 novel La Belle Image (which has recently been published for the first time in English, as Beautiful Image, by Pushkin Press [beautifully translated by our good friend Sophie Lewis]) uses a similar technique: its protagonist, a successful married businessman, suddenly finds out that his appearance has been transformed into that of darkly handsome stranger. This leads him to observe his friends and family as an outsider and, among other things, to seduce his own wife – revelatory experiences which lead him to question his former life of comfort and elevated social standing (more...)
I look at my notes, wondering what I was thinking. Slog, says one. Wonders on every page, says another. Whimsically mad, says another. Keeping the wheels turning. Logorrhea - no doubt spelt wrong, and didn't I mean graphomania? But who knows what I meant. And then, literary splendour, with a dash to V. What could V mean? Ah yes, the fifth part of the book. And literary splendour, which must have been double edged. Splendour, to be sure, incidents and panoramas, wonders and splendours, all that: but of a literary kind. It was all too terribly literary: was that what I meant?
But then I enjoyed V, part five, I have to admit that. Part IV, The Part About the Crimes, was terribly boring. It must explain the word slog, and perhaps the misspelt and misused logorrhea. Admit it, you liked part five. Another note: V madness of narrative. And another V: narrative rush, anxious - where's it going?, almost too fast, almost outracing the narration. And then, so much happens anything could happen (more...)
I should have linked to this earlier, Three Percent's Best Translated Book of 2008: Fiction Finalists:
- Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Archipelago) (Overview)
- 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) (Overview)
- Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions) (Overview)
- Voice Over by Céline Curiol, translated from the French by Sam Richard (Seven Stories) (Overview)
- The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Overlook) (Overview)
- Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Archipelago) (Overview)
- Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions) (Overview)
- Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, translated from the French by Richard Greeman (New York Review Books) (Overview)
- Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis (Melville House) (Overview)
- The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (New York Review Books) (Overview)
Maitresse interviews Charlotte Mandell:
The translator Charlotte Mandell did the heavy lifting for two of the more exciting imports from France: this year's The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, and next year's Zone, by Mathias Enard. Mandell, who lives in Upstate New York, is also the virtuoso translator behind Proust's The Lemoine Affair, a collection of literary parodies of writers like Balzac, Flaubert, the Goncourt Brothers, and Saint-Simon (more...)
Via the KR blog:
Although Richard Sieburth’s magnificent new rendering (available from the essential Archipelago Books) omits the date (following the latest scholarship), I still read Büchner’s unassailable Lenz every January 20th. As does the wonderful poet/translator Andrew Shields, with whom I share a favorite passage in Lenz – but could anyone really have another? Not Paul Celan, for one. Like Shields, I always follow up with Celan’s Meridian speech, which stands with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg” as an address for the ages, and is in some sense a midrash on Lenz’s famous first line (more...)
Scars of Différance (which says its "project is to create an e-library for a Heideggerian philosophy and Bourdieuan sociology") provides a nice pile of Beckett links (thanks Steve).
Well, the actual is real and all that, so, yes, Sebald and Bolaño's books are novels because that is what we call "a fictitious prose narrative of book length"! I don't think we should worry too much about how restrictive the term might be because, in practice, it has always been a wonderfully capacious and imprecise thing. And a perenially contested term to boot: indeed, each and every new work of art potentially contests it...
According to my Shorter OED, short stories of the type contained in works like the Decameron and Heptameron were being called novels by 1566. By 1643 the definition had morphed to be "a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length, in which characters and actions representative of real life are portrayed in a plot of more or less complexity."
What is going on in writing in English over this time? Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, (written circa 1470) was published in 1485, Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia in 1581, the first English translation of Don Quixote was 1620, Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress 1678, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe 1719, Swift's Gulliver's Travels 1726 and Samuel Richardson's Pamela 1740 (dates thanks to Wikipedia). Sterne's Tristram Shandy first appeared in 1759 two years after the OED says the word novel was being used to describe "this type of literature."
The problem with the term, as Richard points out, following Josipovici, is that the Victorian novel became fused and confused with all that fiction could be ("Josipovici has argued that the narrative mode of the 19th century novel became so dominant... that we expect it to hold true for very different sorts of narratives") but, as we've seen, the coinage pre-dates the Victorian era by hundreds of years (Victoria reigned 1837-1901).
In The True Story of the Novel, Margaret Doody argues -- to quote the blurb -- against the "conventional view of the novel, arguing that instead of being the defining achievement of the English middle class, the novel is an older more cosmopolitan creation, a protean form that emerged from the ancient cultures of Africa, Asia and Europe." Doody says, "One of the most successful literary lies is the English claim to have invented the novel.... One of the best-kept literary secrets is the existence of novels in antiquity." Doody is arguing against Ian Watt whose influential Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957) traced the rise of the modern novel "to philosophical, economic and social trends and conditions that become prominent in the early 18th century". But we can recognise the truth in Watt's history of the modern British novel whilst accepting Doody's corrections to his parochialism: "novels" pre-date novels, considerably pre-date Victorian novels, certainly pre-date the use of the word novel in England, and have, for sure, existed in many forms in many cultures (the work of Franco Moretti, the novel as a "planetary form" and all that, is important here).
What I don't know is "why a term of art derived from the French word for 'new' under a very historically contingent set of circumstances" actually arose -- what was deemed to be so new? Presumably -- and Josipovici has argued something along these lines -- Epic poetry, mystery/miracle plays and folk tales no longer functioned as successfully as they once did and what was new was that storytelling was becoming writing. Is that right?
Dan Green and Richard Crary, and their many commenters, are discussing what the novel is and whether the term is useful/restrictive (Richard: "I've wondered why we insist on having the word "novel" encompass so much. Why must it be asserted that the books written by Sebald and Bolaño "are certainly" novels? Are they? What is a novel?").
... I find myself in an ever more hostile political and epistemological environment in which the backlash against theory has not only taken up its place in those ‘post-theoretical’ rhetorics of well known well-trodden high-profile debates (Eagleton, et al) but the backlash has become absolutely generalised: to theorise, it now seems, is to leave oneself open to the distinction of mere crass generalisation.
I am, to be sure, perplexed by the wholesale academic abandonment of theory in my own discipline. But it is not localised there, of course. My discipline’s falling out of love with theory is, inevitably, a falling out of love with the idea of thought as having a kind of ‘power’ as Simon Critchley has put it. For some, the decline of philosophy into theory is the beginning of the problem, but for me that moment marked a particular fecundity in the idea that the given-ness of the world is available to radical question (more...)
Many thanks to Sort Of Books for publishing yet another posthumous work by Stefan Zweig - even if as in the case of The Post Office Girl, Zweig's intentions for the book were somewhat unclear. In an Afterword, the translator, William Deresiewicz, points out that Zweig "nibbled away at The Post Office Girl for years... and given that he chose his own time of death (by suicide)... it seems clear that he never managed to hammer the novel into a shape that satisfied him. Despite its less than perfect state however, we can be grateful for substantial segments of "classic Zweig". In some ways, it could be seen as a short story (although nearly 250 pages long) and that would allow us to be tolerant of its less than satisfactory ending. We could then perhaps put its incompleteness down to modernism, or to an attempt by the author to create a deliberate literary enigma (more...)
Dan Green reports that Josh Corey detects an "anti-literary" attitude behind much contemporary poetry and fiction:
We have overshot, then, the hermeneutics of suspicion that characterized "theory" in the 1970s to arrive at a poetics of suspicion: only literature that puts the very premises of the literary into question can now summon the aesthetic impact we associate with great literature.
Well, half of me wishes that Corey was -- even just empirically -- correct, but most (nearly all) contemporary fiction has been neither troubled by modernism nor postmodernism. I've called it "Victorian literature with Jamesian knobs on" and I think that gets it down pretty well. Establishment Literary Fiction is rarely characterized by a poetics of suspicion, rather it clearly evidences a poetics of submission -- submission to a particular brand of realism that thoroughly holds sway in publishing. A "postmodernist" like e.g. Salman Rushdie uses his postmodernism merely to pay lip service to the existence of the hermeneutics of suspicion, but never so that it will stop the creation of a rollicking read.
Corey, I think, is talking about a particular sub/parallel Canon of American postmodernists which the American academy has -- rightly or wrongly -- valorised. Pynchon, Delillo, Coover, Sorrentino and Barthelme produce "great literature" (books which are studied as examples of great literature in American universities, that is) and they are, indeed, postmodernists. But postmodernism was always a minority sport; sadly, what is generally called great is mind-numbingly dull.
I agree with Corey, however, in some of what he is saying: "only literature that puts the very premises of the literary into question" should be called literature. And why? Not because game-playing is a way to revivify an ossified genre, but because any work that begins already knowing how it will progress (i.e. by following the pattern of a thousand other novels that have gone before) cannot by definition be art. What is created can, doubtless, be artful, but the piece will be merely an exercise in cleverly filling in the dots, following an old pattern and, inevitably, producing yet another version of what we've all read before. Each work of art must begin with the question of how it can best express itself being right at the heart of its creation. And it must produce an answer of its own that is genuinely sufficient to itself, not an answer that is sufficient only to a question asked (and answered) previously of something else. If it doesn't do that its genre fiction, and however well-written, intelligent, moving etc. it is, it ain't literature.
Mark Sarvas has been watching Valkyrie (if you want to know more about the plot to assasinate Hitler, the Sunday Times recommends Valkyrie by Philipp von Boeselager, Germans Against Hitler by Hans Mommsen and Luck of the Devil by Ian Kershaw) and it brought to his mind "the related Coetzee/West contretemps of a few years back":
For those who missed it the first time, Coetzee used Paul West's novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count Von Stauffenberg, (he of the failed July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler upon which the film is based) as a leaping off point for Elizabeth Costello's meditation as to whether the depiction of certain kinds of evil lies beyond the boundaries of art (more...)
My friend Pierre Joris has "been working on finishing/revising/preparing [his] translation of the variorum edition of Paul Celan's Meridian Speech." Pierre is going to post "a few excerpts over the next 3 or 4 weeks" -- so keep an eye out for them. Up on his blog last week he has posted a jpg showing "some fragmentary rewriting around what poetry does..."
Happy new year y'all! Finding it a wee bit difficult to readjust to, you know, working and thinking and sitting still for hours on end, so it might be a bit quiet here this week. Bear with me!
Very kindly, ReadySteadyBook has been shortlisted for the 2008 Weblog Awards in the Best Literature Blog category. How nice! You can vote for RSB -- or any of the 9 other shortlisted blogs -- via the 2008 Weblog Awards website. Thanks so much!
I've just added a few more blogs to BritLitBlogs. Any further additions required / deletions needed? Let me know!
Via wood s lot, a suggestive reading of Benjamin's Capitalism as Religion from Leniency. One of his commenters rightly suggests Philip Goodchild's Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety and Theology of Money as excellent follow-up reading:
Rather than the usual model of capital as abolishing or rationalising the sacred -- making everyday a workday -- Benjamin reverses this to argue that everyday is the feast day. What capitalism imposes is this unremitting requirement for its own worship without mercy. I'm reminded of Blanchot's quip that we have prisons to try to remind us that we are not all living in a prison (more...)
This will be widely linked to, for sure, but here tis anyway: James Wood's Ten Favorite Books of 2008.
As you'd expect, both Netherland and The Rest is Noise get the nod, but he also gives James Kelman's Kieron Smith, Boy some deserving approbation: "challenging, late modernist, fairly unpunctuated, and written in run-on Glaswegian dialect, which must be why it has been received with indifference or hostility in America, and was ignored in Britain by this year’s middlebrow Booker Prize committee. It is Kelman’s tender evocation of his own childhood" and is his "best novel so far".
One of the cleverest films I have seen is Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman who finds himself stuck in time. At first he deludes himself that the same day and the same people and the same circumstances offer new opportunities. Finally, his naivety and false hope desert him and he realises the truth of his predicament and escapes. Is this a parable for the age of Obama? … He will continue to make stirring, platitudinous speeches, but the tears will dry as people understand that President Obama is the latest manager of an ideological machine that transcends electoral power (more...)
D.G. Myers has a provocative -- if also rather silly -- pop at Theory, Seven theses about the history of literary theory, over on his excellent A Commonplace Blog. Provocative because each of the seven theses contain banalities, truisms and misapprehensions in equal measure; silly because -- well, attacking Theory (which is so capacious) in such a bluff way always strikes as fatuous. Nonetheless, the post warmed me up for the day, and you can't ask for more than that on such a frosty morning!
Myers does pull out a quote that I did very much enjoy from J.V. Cunningham who wrote:
If I read books I should know how books are made and where to find them. If I read Shakespeare I should know it may not be Shakespeare. We call the one bibliography, the other textual criticism. If I read a language I should know the language, whether it be of Tudor London or contemporary Western American. We call this philology. If what I read has any real reference I should know something of the referent. We call this history. If the referent is, in part, as it is in Lycidas, prior literature, I should know that. We call this literary history (more...)
There is a useful round-up of some of the Best of the Year lists over on Dani Torres' A Work in Progress blog. BTW, the RSB Books of the Year symposium will land in a few weeks.
Most poetry in the modern age has retreated to the private sphere, turning its back on the political realm. The two intersect only in such absurd anomalies as the poet laureateship. But whereas Andrew Motion does his bit to keep the monarchy in business, one of the greatest of English poets played his part in subverting it. John Milton, who was born in Cheapside 400 years ago today, published a political tract two weeks after the beheading of Charles I, arguing that all sovereignty lay with the people, who could depose and even execute a monarch if he betrayed their trust (more...)
Flippin' heck! (I so have speed envy):
One day a reader came into the library and we got chatting about reading in general and he said that he had been on a speed reading course as he found he had lots to read and peruse during his working life and needed to get through things more quickly. This was a three day course and at the end of it they had been given Animal Farm by George Orwell as their speed reading task and he was delighted to find that he could now read it in 45 minutes. I beamed at him and said how wonderful and did not tell him that I had read it in half an hour as I did not want to upset him (more...)
I've been working away for a few days, so I'm a bit shattered. Here's another link for you whilst I recover and drink tea!
Via a reader's words:
This year’s Nobel laureate Le Clézio gives an impassioned Nobel Prize lecture, in a sense taking off from where Doris Lessing had left it last year. He quotes a passage from Stig Dagerman that influenced him as a writer and touches on many themes including a call for re- claiming the word “globalization” as well as for reclaiming a place for literature in face of the audio and visual media. Among others, he dedicates his lecture to the Mauritian Hindi writer Abhimanyu Unnuth, Qurratulain Hyder (for Aag Ka Darya) and the Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo.
A Journey Round My Skull reprints The Infusion: An "Unsavory Tale" by French novelist, essayist, pamphleteer and poet Léon Bloy (translated from the French by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, first English translation).
Since the death of her husband who was killed at Champigny and whom the young man barely remembered, she had never stopped mourning, and devoted herself exclusively to the education of her son, who never left her side for so much as a day. She shrank from the idea of sending him to school and, in dread of who knows what sorts of dubious persons he might come in contact, she took the burden of his instruction entirely upon herself, until his soul had been built with bits of hers. He drew from this regimen a restless disposition and uniquely vibrant nerves, which engendered in him a sensitivity to the most ridiculous aches and pains -- but also, perhaps, to very real dangers more...
Via A Piece of Monologue:
Much like Edward Hopper, Vilhelm Hammershøi often paints solitary figures that appear on the brink of some kind of narrative. There is also a keen attention to light and shade in austere, minimalist spaces that are characteristic of much of Hopper's work. But, for all their similarities, the two painters are of course worlds apart. Edward Hopper is a painter of Americana, of familiar twentieth-century settings and Hollywood everyman archetypes. While Vilhelm Hammershøi often paints faceless solitary women contained within a Victorian domestic space (more...)
Last Saturday saw a great post from infinite thøught about films that reveal philosophical issues – and no, she doesn't mean the Matrix! We get a fantastic alternative must see film list where infinite mentions what sounds like an incredible Argentinian film called Mobius about a disappearing subway train. There then follows a great post about flimsiness. Flimsy is a word to be used more!
Rowlands was in his twenties when he bought Brenin, a hybrid wolf-dog puppy. It was the early 1990s and he was lecturing in philosophy at Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In his spare time he hung out with the students, getting through a bottle or two of bourbon a night, playing rugby and lending Brenin to his team mates because, of all their big, bold dogs, Brenin was the best “chick magnet. In fact, they used a slightly different expression: more colourful, but not really repeatable”. There is a good deal more testosterone in this autobiography than an older cat-keeping lady can easily relate to.
More than a spitz-loving blogger can probably cope with too, then! (Fact-checking, my understanding is that Brenin, Rowlands' "dog", was actually pure wolf, or so Rowlands was assured. You can buy a wolf-dog hybrid in the States that is up to 96% wolf, but buying and selling pure wolves is illegal. Rowlands didn't know this when he bought Brenin, and says he wouldn't have cared that much anyway.)
Excuse the ramble which follows, but it's fascinating to follow the cackhanded response to Zadie Smith's superb NYRB essay via ReadySteadyBook. Via Monk's House I note: "And maybe Smith in quarreling with Netherland is quarreling in part with James Wood, from whom she has famously diverged before, and who ecstatically reviewed O'Neill in the pages of The New Yorker."
I think this is the key -- not a side issue -- in understanding what Smith's on about: "Lyrical Realism" -- an odd term she must repeat so much only because of Wood's "hysterical realism" tag; the emphasis on Flaubert, the darling of How Fiction Works; the fact that Wood effectively made the reputation of Netherland; HFW vs DFW. The NYRB already reviewed Netherland, too, when Alan Hollinghurst wrote about it the other month: how often does that happen? I reckon it's a more calculated attack on Wood and How Fiction Works than people seem to have realised.
Did you catch this interview with Robert Silvers? "'[Zadie's article is] an ambitious essay, a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind,' Silvers said. In it, she dismantles the status quo in the form of a review of two new novels - Netherland and Remainder - that she holds up as representing where the novel's been and where it's going. 'Some people will be slightly shaken,' Silvers said, with delight." Among them James Wood? It's quite curious since John Banville's moderate piece on HFW immediately precedes Smith's essay. I suspect it has something to do with heralding Smith's arrival as a Wood-status critic pre-Fail Better.
One of the things that every human being learns as they mature is that human relationships are an odd mixture of the simple and the complex. A mother is simply the person who gave birth to you. Simply? Oh my goodness no! A mother is the person who gets you going, but from whom you'll never get away, the person who gets you started, but with whom you'll never finish...
Art, too, is marked by such complexity. Kasimr Malevich's Black Square (1913) is just a painted black square, but it is also the focal point of a thousand years' worth of conversations about painting and representation, and the starting point for a thousand more conversations.
Melville's Moby-Dick, then, is just a great, big book about a whale. Or it is a kind of palimpsest of such complexity that we can and must write anything we like upon its canvas to help to explain it to ourselves. And very many of the differing literary critical strategies we might invoke will help us to explain different bits of its complexity: a Marxist reading that focusses on the experience of working on the Pequod and on slavery; a feminist reading that focusses on the lack of female characters; a religious reading alive to Melville's exquisite symbolism; a psychoanalytic reading that focusses on Ahab's mania... All can help, but none will finally pin Moby-Dick down. Indeed, the lack of success of any such critical strategies to say the final word on such a book is testimony to the wonderful ambiguity of Melville's art.
And how we feel about the book, its aesthetic effect upon us, can never be fully explained. We can use critical tools (formalist, narratological, structuralist, deconstructivist... whatever) to help us see how certain effects of the writing are achieved, but its overall aesthetic effect will remain beyond our ken (it is, in the end, an aesthetic effect on us, and we are forever just beyond our own ken). Art's effects are, finally, inexplicable. Like love, or family ties, there are explanations, but none that are fully complete.
In a post yesterday, Dan Green discusses the "descriptive mode of criticism" which he suggests is the best way "to carefully elucidate the manifest qualities of a given text." He quotes Rohan Maitzen who suggests that "one of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms." Well, that is lit crit 101. If you are reading a comic novel and not laughing something isn't right; if you are reading a book called The History of Sport and it doesn't mention football, something may well be going wrong; if you are reading a book called The History of Cricket and football isn't mentioned, don't panic.
Every novel sets up an almost Platonic ideal of itself, and you can and should be able to measure it up against itself. That might be your first evaluative move. The question here being: what is the novel trying to do/say? It would be unfair to criticise it, at this point, for not doing something it never set out to do. (You might then judge one book against another -- not unlike how in a dog show a chihuahua can be judged against a dalmation -- by seeing how well it lives up to its own ideal of itself. If the vampire novel is scarier than the comic novel is funny and you have just one prize to give, the vampire novel gets it.) But evaluation is just one task. The next question might be, how well is it saying it? This has at least two parts to it. How well is it saying it on its own terms (if it is a dialect novel, its own terms are set differently to a novel in, for instance, Standard English) and how well is saying it per se (above and beyond the dialect, how good is this?)?
But, after this, we are left with at least one other question: was it worth saying? There is, then, an evaluation that needs to be made above and beyond the individual text itself. You can, of course, choose not to make this evaluation and stay with the difficult task of carefully elucidating "the manifest qualities of a given text", but the question of what literature is remains in the air. And that question can't be answered by e.g. a tenacious new critical focus. What literature is -- like what is a mother -- might be both very complex or very simple, but -- just like a mother -- it isn't something we can easily get away from. It may simply be an Ideal, but all is measured against that Ideal whether we like it or not.
A Pragmatic Policy has an extremely bloated and yet rather dull-witted response to Zadie Smith's recent, excellent NYRB article Two Paths for the Novel. It can be enjoyed alongside a similarly uncomprehending attempt at a rejoinder, Zadie Smith’s annoying Critique of ‘Realism’ (sic!), from Nigel Beale.
There are countless non-sequitors and much out-of-place hubris in both responses, which I'll leave y'all to chew on yourselves, but I would like to respond to both parties failure to understand Smith's central point that the "perfection" of what Smith calls lyrical Realism (ELF to me) is not a good thing.
Talking about Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, Smith says, "It seems perfectly done -- in a sense that’s the problem." Neither Beale nor APP gets why this is so spot-on. Perhaps a visual analogy would help them? Artists could keep painting wonderful, detailed landscapes -- different landscapes, in competing realist styles -- but art wouldn't move forward until a dude put a bog in an art gallery and called it art or, 20-odd years later, another dude put a canvas on the floor and started dribbling paint all over it!
The Victorian novel with a few Jamesian knobs on (lyrical Realism, ELF, call it what you will) is not the only path the novel can take. Its dominance means that each year a flood of Booker-ready novels in the sclerotic genre of literary fiction are declared masterpieces. Some of them are near-perfect embodiments of the genre which their near word-perfect amanuenses have bodied forth, but that perfection pushes them far away from literature itself.
Good sense, as ever, from Dan Green, about the lack of critical writing on the vast majority of litblogs:
In a post criticizing science fiction blogs for allowing "the SF blogosphere [to] become a venue for crassly commercial interests far more concerned with selling things than encouraging intelligent discussion," Jonathan McCalmont notes my own previous post distinguishing between "liblogs" and "critblogs" and suggests such a distinction is "more about retreating from the existing public sphere than it is about changing it."
I think he's probably right, although I would describe the effort to establish the category of "critblog" more as a separation of blog-centered critical writing from the necessarily ephemeral "daily digest" style of blogging than a full-on retreat from the "public sphere." Nevertheless, I share McCalmont's dismay that many litblogs have simply accomodated themselves to the "public sphere" of superficial literary discourse rather than continuing in the attempt to provide an alternative to that discourse. This is even more discouraging for "mainstream" literary fiction and criticism, since it gives in not merely to the commercialization McCalmont decries in the SF community but also to the unexamined assumptions and shallow thinking that make journalism-based commentary on "literary fiction" so crippling to begin with.
Hungarian Literature Online have two pieces on László Krasznahorkai: János Szego's review of his new (Hungarian) story collection, Seiobo járt odalent (In essence concealed, in appearance expressed; see also the Magveto publicity page), and Ottilie Mulzet's piece Asian simulacrum: The Chinese journeys of László Krasznahorkai (via the complete review).
BookTrib is a new, US-based aggregator which claims it is "the place where you can find all the book news that matters from all over the web. It’s also the home of The Great American Book Giveaway, where every week you can win books -- free books -- no strings."
At the moment, all the links on their homepage seem to be to the Complete Review's Literary Saloon, but presumably they'll get this sorted:
BookTrib is the result of our endless searching for book news, reviews, and gossip. We yearned for a single place, a starting point, where we could find all the book news as it’s updated, all the time. That’s what BookTrib is, an aggregator that gathers the best, the most outrageous, the most fun, informative, and creative blogs that relate to books and puts them all in one easy to find place.
The scope of Suite Française, had it been finished, would certainly have been remarkable, taking in the whole of the occupation, with dozens of characters, both French and German, and a storyline featuring violent murders, daring escapes, forbidden loves and more. It is not finished, however, and lasting art requires more than broad scope. Several French novels about the war have been celebrated by francophone readers but met with indifference in the English-speaking world, for example The Last of the Just by André Shwartz-Bart, a magisterial work of art and probably the best work of fiction ever written about the Shoah. Given the relative differences in popular response, we must wonder whether Suite Française would have been so favourably received in the UK had it not been for the incredible circumstances of the book’s composition, and the horrors that left it unfinished (more...)
Slow Blogging is a rejection of immediacy. It is an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly, and that many thoughts are best served after being fully baked and worded in an even temperament.
Slow Blogging is speaking like it matters, like the pixels that give your words form are precious and rare. It is a willingness to let current events pass without comment. It is deliberate in its pace, breaking its unhurried stride for nothing short of true emergency. And perhaps not even then, for slow is not the speed of most emergencies, and places where beloved, reassuring speed rules the day will serve us best at those times (more...)
For the more technically-minded of you lot out there... via ProBlogger, Jeff Chandler shows how FireFox 3 can be a great tool for bloggers:
If there is one thing that sets FireFox apart from any other web browser, it would have to be the third party support in the form of themes and extensions. There are so many extensions available for the browser, you can virtually do just about anything. As I become more entrenched as a blogger online, I’ve started to transform FireFox into more than just a browser, it has become my ultimate blogging toolbox (more...)
Highlights: John G. Rodwan, Jr., finds The Same Man -- David Lebedoff’s provocative double biography of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell -- “unpalatable”; Irma Heldman finds that P. D. James’s latest -- perhaps last -- mystery novel, The Private Patient, “delivers the best that P.D. James has to give”; and Sam Sacks actually likes the Booker-Prize-winning (and, to my mind, utterly undeserving) The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga.
In November, the University of Rochester Press will publish Variations on the Canon, a collection of essays by leading musicologists in honour of Charles Rosen’s 80th birthday. The book covers a range of topics from Bach to Modernism... more over on From Beyond the Stave, the Boydell & Brewer music blog.
Infinite Thought, fast becoming my favourite blog, is currently running an occasional series of some of the finest philosophers/theorists on the financial crisis. Currently unearthed are Badiou, Virilio and Jacques Alain Miller.
Also IT has been attending numerous panels and discussions on the crisis and provides a handy digest of the of the views of the likes of Chris Harman, Peter Gowan, Alex Callinicos, Alan Freeman and Robin Blackburn.
Tony Christini has posted a PDF of Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel (thanks Steve) which is "a sustained and passionate critique of James Wood's How Fiction Works" (according to the Contra James Wood blog):
As Gideon Lewis-Kraus notes, writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Wood is a writer who matters. People read him, people of the educated, monied, controlling part of the populace. That's why it's important that what James Wood writes does not matter – in central ways. Nowhere is this more on display than in How Fiction Works, the star critic's most recent book, a truncated politically-charged though aesthetic appreciation of fiction that is spectacular in its misrepresentation of reality, or "the real, which is at the bottom of [Wood's] inquiries." Ask Wood to annotate a novel, and he provides sometimes splendid views of narrative lines by way of an at times "uncannily well-tuned ear," as Terry Eagleton notes. He is eager to discourse at length, often with quick pith, on how to strive toward reality in fiction (or criticism), reality of the profound sort, the truth, a worthy aim. Unfortunately, HFW is resolute in not accurately representing central elements of reality in both fiction and, call it, actuality, life outside fiction (more...)
An interesting discussion is taking place over on The Reading Experience following Dan Green's provocative wee post about A.N. Wilson's review of Rowan William's new book on Dostoevsky. The discussion is marred by the aggressive and rude tone of many of the comments -- especially following James Wood's intervention. As is so often the case, the level of unmannerly boorishness exhibited by some commenters is in a direct, inverse relationship to them having anything useful, sophisticated or insightful to add to the thread.
Recent highlights over at The Book Depository include:
- an interview with a rather curmudgeonly Peter Ackroyd: "I have always been interested in the spiritual wealth of London, and have written about it on numerous occasions. I do not like the term psychogeography. I prefer to call it the territorial imperative, whereby a certain patch of ground – or street, or house – actively influences the behaviour and the character of the people who inhabit it."
- a free e-book of In Stitches by Dr Nick Edwards
- Andrew Motion on poetry's primitive attractions
- Financial meltdown? book list
Yesterday, Mark Wood's incomparable wood s lot announced that it is eight years old. Congratulations Mark!
I have my own little announcement too: the first incarnation of ReadySteadyBook went live in October 2003. We are five!
Lots of new and interesting stuff up at Gently Read Literature, but I'm not sure the blog format really works that well with what they are doing. A good, old-fashioned website would be a better way to go, I think.
An uncharitable interpretation would suggest that Roth is either unaware he's repeating himself or doesn't mind (or care). He has, after all, given his normally recursive tendencies an unfettered hand in his last few books: From the conclusion of the Zuckerman saga in Exit Ghost to the conclusion of the saga of the body in Everyman to the mining, once again, of his childhood in The Plot Against America, Roth has scarcely stepped away from himself. But perhaps the counterfactual structure of The Plot Against America suggests a more charitable reading of Indignation as something of an anti-history itself. The self-righteous, unyielding Marcus Messner can stand in for any number of earlier Roth heroes, and perhaps Indignation -- the song will have a chilling relevance for Marcus -- is meant to be read as a consideration of what might have happened had Portnoy or Zuckerman or Sabbath (or Roth) not had their hour upon the stage. This seems in keeping with Indignation's stated theme, adumbrated in The Plot Against America: namely the great reverberations of seemingly insignificant choices. Roth, it seems, has discovered chaos theory, but, having done so, delivers a disappointingly heavy-handed treatment of his material.
Ultimately, though, this is a disappointing and strangely unmoving read. The limits of the novel’s unusual structure are often painfully clear - there is a complete lack of narrative tension and regular, awkward passages that are clearly written for the reader’s benefit, rather than the intimate thoughts of separated loved ones.
In addition, A’ida’s letters, which are supposed to be profound musings on life, longing and resistance, often come across as embarrassingly pretentious waffle (more...)
Edmond Caldwell, over at The Chagall Position, on B.S. Johnson's relationship with Beckett:
In Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe tells how Johnson got to meet his hero, Samuel Beckett, in Paris in 1966. Johnson had already been sending the older writer what Coe describes as “fan letters” as well as copies of his first couple of books, and as a result of this first meeting Beckett became an even more important figure to Johnson. They would meet on further occasions over the subsequent years, to “drink whiskey and play billiards together” whenever Johnson went to Paris, and they exchanged letters and postcards in between times. On Beckett’s side these were invariably rather “brief and functionally worded,” Coe reports, and although the relationship was clearly a significant prop to Johnson’s morale Coe is agnostic about Beckett’s investment in it beyond hazarding the opinion that there was probably more to it than mere “writerly courtesy.” Beckett certainly proved ready to give practical support to Johnson on several key occasions, including writing a letter to a recalcitrant editor testifying to Johnson’s talent, sponsoring Johnson for an Arts Council grant, and even helping him out financially. In 1973, however – a bad year generally for Johnson – he found the limit of Beckett’s generosity when he used a flattering remark from their private correspondence as a jacket blurb for Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry without Beckett’s permission. Beckett replied with an angry letter that seemed to have brought an end to their relations. On a Sunday night in the November of that same year, Coe reports that Johnson tried unsuccessfully to reach Beckett on the phone a number of times. The next night Johnson successfully opened his arteries in the bathtub.
Just like Scott Pack (indeed, in exactly the manner he describes, including nice email from Huw from i-level), I have received a freebie Sony Reader. I understand Steve and DGR are each getting one too.
Well, it's very nice! Free stuff is always nice. As a device it is pleasant enough but, I have to admit, I'm a little underwhelmed: I can't read under my favourite reading light because of reflected screen glare; page turn is slow -- and one forgets that with real book one flicks a lot e.g. to see how many pages before the chapter ends thus whether to read on or not; also, reading two books simultaneously, only the last one you were reading is conveniently saved, you have to search for other one (I think); and the alphabetical of authors is so wrong -- Melville is under H for Herman!!
However, it is very slim and tidy, and having a hundred-odd books within such a neat, wee package is very exciting. I'll live with it for a bit and report back anon.
Personally, I think e-readers represent a cul-de-sac technology: they'll go off on their own merry way for a bit, improve screen and e-ink technology, iron out their other glitches, and get really good at what they do -- and then the technology will be bundled back into the third or fourth generation i-phones and their competitors. The standalone e-reading device is only ever going to be a minorty-interest toy. However, if good e-reading technology is bundled back into mainstream devices (notebook laptops and phones) I can see it acting as a gateway drug that might lead some innocent young thing from the relative safety of reading on a screen to the hardcore activity of reading actual, real books. Too much hot air has been guffed about e-readers killing books -- I think they might lead a new generation back to them.
It’s been a week of inequality. First off, I finished Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Unjust Rewards - one of the most compelling political books of the year. The magnitude of inequality across Britain is extraordinary, the level of self-denial by the rich disgusting - and next time someone mutters something about dole scroungers to you, simply reel off the figures in here about how much tax dodging the rich do.
What’s this got to with the world of books? Well, this may be an unfair connection but with the dreadful levels of literacy of the young working class you can’t help but think that all the World Book Days won’t make an ounce of difference compared to what could be done simply providing enough funding for schools, and for pre-school help, to teach kids to read.
Secondly, Mark and I went to hear Joe Bageant talking about his new book Deer Hunting With Jesus at the Royal Festival Hall. Eloquent and fascinating, he warned about the disconnection between middle class liberals and an increasingly impoverished American working class and how the Republicans had filled the space left. Although the (mainly middle class) audience were anxious that the American poor should vote in their own interests and for Obama, it was oddly refreshing to hear an American progressive sceptical about what Obama would be able to do for them anyway. I paraphrase, but Bageant’s pessimistic view is that the US needs to reach apocalypse before it wakes up. Check out his blog.
Also at London's Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 17th September, Barbara Ehrenreich is talking with Polly Toynbee about the great wealth divide in America.
In the August 15, 2008 New York Times Book Review, Rachel Donadio wrote about the business of blurbing, that “tangled mass of friendships, rivalries, favors traded and debts repaid, not always in good faith.” Recently, Fourth Estate, a HarperCollins (UK) imprint, published a book by Philip Hoare called Leviathan - with an approving quote by W.G. Sebald. Since Sebald died in 2001, I was instantly curious (more...)
More on this over at This Space where Steve calls for the reissuing of Rosalind's "remarkable earlier novels Dreaming of Dead People (1979) and Is Beauty Good (1989)." Here, here!
Via The Rock Blogger: "A quietly breathtaking video that features a reading of Schopenhauer's writings on noise and the determent of thought in the modern world. The audio is paired with stunning images from the film Koyaanisqatsi which uses time-lapse photography to reveal the almost computerized flow of bodies within a massive city." The excerpts are from Schopenhauer's Studies in Pessimism, read by D.E. Wittkower, with the soundtrack coming from Richard Wagner's Rheingold.
Ultimately the most disconcerting thing about How Fiction Works, and about James Wood’s criticism in general, is that while Wood on the one hand expresses near-reverence for the virtues of fiction, the terms in which he judges the value of fiction as a literary form implicitly disparages it. He doesn’t want to let fiction be fiction. Instead, he asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services. He abjures them to avoid “aestheticism” (too much art) and to instead be respectful of “life.”
The Summer 2008 edition of The Quarterly Conversation is up online -- and the site has a neat new look and feel (and RSS feed). Particularly noteworthy is the interview with Christophe Claro author of Madman Bovary (recently reviewed here on ReadySteadyBook).
As most of you will know, The Quarterly Conversation is the brainchild of Scott Esposito. Something I should've mentioned previously is Scott's excellent review of J.J. Long's W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity.
Mr Mitchelmore ponders the use of the word literary and wonders what is happening:
Last month, there was a puzzling story summary in The Guardian: "Lisa Jewell wins top prize at awards set up to rebrand chick lit and bolster its literary credentials". How, I wonder, can a prize bolster a genre's literary credentials? No doubt the word is meant as a loose definition of serious fiction, and a prize surely affords that; yes, even the Melissa Nathan Award for comedy romance. "Serious" is also loosely-defined: serious subject matter, serious attention, serious sales. But shouldn't "literary" mean more than that? Or rather, don't those who use this troublesome word imply that it means more? Perhaps not. Yet, when ever I read such articles, I smell anguish; a hunger for elusive gravity (more...)
Like George Orwell before him, Samuel Beckett had a strong aversion to being filmed or even having his voice recorded...
You might imagine that Beckett's reluctance to be interviewed came as a result of the overnight fame he achieved after Waiting for Godot but this is not the case. It is a little known fact that an abridged version of the play was first broadcast on French radio. Beckett had the opportunity to say a few words before the play went out but preferred to send a polite note that Roger Blin read out on his behalf. I find it amusing that the opening words of that statement were: "I do not know who Godot is," something he continually had to restate for the rest of his life (more...)
Inexpert though I am in all other fields, I am a connoisseur of sleep. Actually, my speciality is not sleep itself, but the hinterland of sleep, the point of entry to unconsciousness. One of my earliest memories of sensual pleasure (though there must have been earlier, watery ones) is of lying on my stomach in bed, the bedtime story told, lights out (not the hall, leave the door open, no, more than that), the eiderdown heavy and over my head, my face in the pillow, adjusted so that I had just enough air to breathe. I recall how acutely aware I was of being perfectly physically comfortable, as heimlich as I ever had been or ever would be, and no small part of the comfort was the delicious prospect of falling slowly into sleep. Drifting off. Moving off, away, out of mindfulness. Leaving behind. Relaxing into hypnagogia (a condition I may always have known about and desired, if not been able to name), anticipating the blurring of consciousness.
I feel that Beckett's thinking has been misrepresented. That's one reason I wrote The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett. At one Beckett conference in America I mentioned Beckett's view, expressed in Worstword Ho, that one reason for human existence is that pain should exist. And one professor actually said, 'I can't teach that to my students, I'd lose my job!' There may be many people who believe that while pain surrounds us all the time it is somehow constructive to try to ignore it. Beckett doesn't. His thinking is very close to Schopenhauer's in this, although I think by the time he discovered him he'd already come to the same conclusions. Schopenhauer thinks that everything is caused by a kind of Will: Nature has a Will that for him is evil, the cause of suffering. Standard religions - not so much Hinduism or Buddhism - of course, deny this. Beckett asks deeply searching questions about conventional beliefs. Why should a god want to be worshipped, admired, praised? All we're doing is replacing a parental figure with a god: Please, daddy, give me this.
Reginald Shepherd thinks about authorship with Barthes and Foucault:
For us, the idea of the text and the idea of the author are inseparable. This has not always been the case, nor need it continue to be: the author is only one possible specification of the subject. “The author-function is not universal or constant through all discourse” (What Is an Author?, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, p.125). Not only has the importance of the attribution of a given text to a specific subject varied widely from one historical period and/or discursive field to another, but in many discursive fields (the oral tradition of ballad and folk-tale, for instance) there can be no attribution of a particular text to an individual author. We think of a discrete text as invariably produced by a discrete author, but many texts are what might be called negotiated texts, the products of far more numerous and disparate determinations than are taken into account in the blanket application of the author concept as causal or explanatory more...
If the Reagan / Thatcher era of the 80s got us accustomed to one paramount concept, it was that of privatisation - outsourcing, selling on, hiving off - and very few things were exempt, from health-care to education, personnel to transport. We became used to the involvement of private companies in what was previously seen the business of the state, and Stephen Armstrong’s compelling book documents the logical extension of that ethos in to the privatisation of war and armed protection, enabled by the end of the Cold War and the resulting ‘peace dividend’ that made for much smaller national armed forces.
The University of Warwick has launched a £50,000 writing prize, but the best part is that our good friend Stephen Mitchelmore, ReadySteadyBook-contributor, blogger at the peerless This Space, has been asked to be one of the judges:
How does writing evolve? Where is its moving edge? Is all writing at its very best a type of creative writing? To explore these questions and to identify excellence and innovation in new writing The University of Warwick is today launching the £50,000 Warwick Prize for Writing.
This substantial prize stands out as an international and cross-disciplinary award. It will be given biennially for an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language, in any genre or form. The theme will change with every prize: the 2009 theme is Complexity.
China Miéville, award-winning writer of what he describes as weird fiction, will chair the panel of five judges. Other judges include mathematician Professor Ian Stewart and literary blogger Stephen Mitchelmore. A longlist of 15 to 20 titles will be announced in October 2008 followed by a shortlist of six titles in January 2009. The winner will be announced in February 2009 in Warwick.
Interestingly, however, Brod was also a keen diarist, and his diaries formed part of the estate left to [his secretary Ilse Esther Hoffe]. According to Haaretz, a German publisher, Artemis and Winkler, paid Hoffe a five-figure advance for Brod’s diaries in the 1980s, but never received them. In 1993, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Hoffe had removed the Brod diaries from her apartment and transferred them to a safe at a bank in Tel Aviv, where they remain to this day. Artemis and Winkler is now owned by a large publisher, apparently, who is still negotiating access to the diaries. They are thought to contain intimate details about Brod’s life, and may well provide interesting information on Kafka’s life.
whoeverfightsmonsters brings my attention to the "final words from Sam Anderson’s online review of Human Smoke in the New York Magazine":
To dismiss Baker’s project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It’s an auto-didact’s record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes ('What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none'), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources. As in all of Baker’s work, the strength of Human Smoke comes from the defamiliarizing charge it brings to a familiar subject. Its unorthodox form allows it to capture, with brutal efficiency, the daily texture of the war—the suffering, the confusion on the ground, the strike among Viennese mail carriers from the stress of delivering too many death letters. Baker doesn’t hide his omissions or his anecdotes’ lack of context—in fact, each vignette is surrounded by generous white space, so the lacunae are a constant visible presence in the book. It’s the kind of project that encourages, rather than closes off, further reading. Its texture is deeply convincing, and a much stronger message of peace than mere argument could ever muster.
Apropos the publication of his play Conversation in the Mountains (which Pierre Joris described here on RSB as "absolute awful drivel"), TEV asks John Banville "What first inspired you to write about the meeting between Celan and Heidegger?"
Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the thought of these two extraordinary figures encountering each other—the philosopher who had been a Nazi, the poet whose parents had been destroyed in a Nazi work camp—at the famous “hut” in the Black Forest. The meeting took place on July 25th, 1967, the day after a reading by Celan in Freiburg which Heidegger had attended. The conversation in the hut was not recorded, and neither man gave an account of it. Hans-Georg Gadamer, the philosopher, later reported that Heidegger had told him that “in the Black Forest, Celan was better informed on plants and animals than he himself was.” Besides the flora and fauna, did they talk about the war, about Nazism and Heidegger’s refusal publicly to account for, much less apologise for, his membership of the Party? I could not resist speculating (more...)
Fair use, digitization, public domain, archiving, the role of libraries and cultural heritage are intricately interconnected. But the name that connects all these issues over the last few years has been Google. The Institute has covered Google's incursions into digitization of libraries (amongst other things) in a way that has explored many of these issues - and raised questions that are as urgent as ever. Is it okay to privatize vast swathes of our common cultural heritage? What are the privacy issues around technology that tracks online reading? Where now for copyright, fair use and scholarly research?
In-depth coverage of Google and digitization has helped to draw out many of the issues central to this blog. Thus, in drawing forth the narrative of if:book's Google coverage is, by extension, to watch a political and cultural stance emerging. So in this post I've tried to have my cake and eat it - to trace a story, and to give a sense of the depth of thought going into that story's discussion.
More at if:book.
Who are the "true stars of London's creative industries and the powers behind the throne"? Well, funnily enough, despite living in Stockport, it turns out yours truly may be one of them! (Actually, I take this to be, if anything, a vote of confidence in brit-lit-blogging in general.)
The Hospital Club 100 will be the definitive list of who shapes the creative landscape in what is, after all, the most creative city in the world. We're not after fat cats and big wigs. Corner offices and chauffeurs are not a prerequisite for inclusion. We want to know the secret influencers, the creative catalysts, the unheard of power players; the unsung heroes who make the media world spin.
So, if you "feel someone on the long list deserves to be part of the finalists [I'm in the "publishing" category by the way!] on The Hospital Club 100 list, you have one week to cast your vote at thehospitalclub.com where each voter is entitled to nominate up to two people per category and voting is from Monday 23 June until 6pm on Monday 30 June.
Kit of Marion Boyars is bored, but fortunately has football to keep him going:
I am thoroughly enjoying the 2008 European Championship and not solely because England aren't in it. It has now got to the quarter finals stage, and the matches are getting much more difficult to predict (not that anyone who watched the Czech Republic/Turkey game would claim that the group matches were exactly predictable). To help, I have turned, as I often (always) do, to books.
I have developed a system: literary five a side. Five 20th century (otherwise it gets too difficult) authors from each country in question are pitted against each other and then a judgement is made (by me) as to who would win. Marion Boyars authors will feature prominently of course - thank god that the French are out, that would have made for some very difficult decisions.
And Kit's genius system predicted yesterday's Germany 3 Portugal 2 result!
Via Pages Turned:
“We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace (Is Google Making Us Stupid?)
The Julia Briggs Memorial Prize 2009 will be awarded to the top essay on the topic of Virginia Woolf and the Common Reader in a competition sponsored by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. The competition is being held in memory of noted Woolf scholar Julia Briggs, who died in August (via Blogging Woolf).
I cannot recall any other academic novel that treats its subject material with such unremitting gravity. The standard model of an academic novel is to either indulge in high melodrama (Mary McCarthy, Iris Murdoch) or to make light of the intellectual pretenses of its characters (Kinsley Amis's overrated Lucky Jim, Malcolm Bradbury's far funnier Stepping Westward). Williams's approach seems to have been to adopt the social realist approach of George Gissing and Sinclair Lewis's more sober moments and apply it to the incongruous and hermetic world of a university. Consequently, he treats the small events of Stoner's life with a sense of real consequence, as though they were matters of life and death. And so they become.
For the tenth anniversary issue of The Philosophers' Magazine, the editors have put ten questions to ten leading thinkers. On the Talking Philosophy blog they list out how the chosen thinkers have answered just one of them: has philosophy responded adequately to the big events and debates of the last decade, such as climate change and the post-9/11 world?
Spurious reads Golding's The Spire and it has left him needing "more Golding - immediately. I need to read everything if only to have done with it. I need to know of what this book is part - what movement. Madness - but not a private madness. Not the malaise of one character. A kind of existence-madness, being gone mad, the boiling earth ... "
Finishing William Golding's The Spire, I felt the same way as I had done at the end of Muriel Spark's The Hothouse on the East River: a need to read about the book and about Golding if only to contain what I had read, to contextualise it. Above all, I couldn't allow the book its distance, the distance it seems to take from itself in itself such that I was never quite sure what was happening, or rather that what was happening was (in the world of the book) really happening; Dean Jocelin, with whom the narrator sticks, seemed untrustworthy - or was it that he had entrusted himself to something else, manifest as a kind of madness. That he was entrusted to a rambling, coagulating madness that had thickened itself into the narrative.
What had happened in the book? I wasn't sure. I googled 'William Golding The Spire' for study notes to help me. What had happened? I lacked the distance. No: I lacked my distance by which I could hold what I read apart from me. I was struck to its surface like a fly ... Little to say about the book itself, though. Itself: as if it wasn't too heavy for commentary. As though it were not already lost in itself, falling into itself, a book like the spire and cathedral it describes unable to sit squarely on the restless earth. A book beneath which a kind of abyss opens, an anti-spire, the stirring of the earth 'like porridge coming to boil in a pot' which means everything, therefore is as unsure as the visitations Dean Jocelin receives.
Interesting back and forth over on Nigel Beale's blog betwen Nigel and Rónán McDonald, author of The Death of the Critic. The boys are arguing over whether the democracy of the web can ever foster good criticism, or whether "criticism thrives best not in a democracy, but in a meritocracy" (McDonald).
Actually, I don't think that there is that much distance between Nigel and Rónán's positions. McDonald's book is primarily about the demise of the academic critic as public intellectual (but with the best bits in the book being about the rise of the perennially troubled ontological status of Eng. Lit.) and as such makes a nice companion piece to Stefan Collini's Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics (both follow John Gross' The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800; interestingly, Gross gave Collini's book something of a kicking in last week's TLS).
Blogging obviously wasn't at the front of McDonald's mind when he wrote his book and it has been shoehorned into the wider (mostly facile) "bloggers versus critics" debates a little unfairly. McDonald says, "My fear is that those voices [bloggers with a fresh, critical voice] might get drowned out by the mediocre, the banal, the ad hominem and the bilious." Well, isn't this the reality both online and offline? The banal threatens to drown us all, all of the time! But five years ago only e.g. the TLS and the LRB offered a break from this reality, now This Space, The Existence Machine, Vertigo and countless other blogs (hopefully, ReadySteadyBook too!) offer something of a haven from dreary dominant culture.
The next question is: will the intelligent comment that is undoubtedly offered by some blogs grow into strong, critical commentary? I believe so, yes. And if we look at something like e.g. Dan Green's The Reading Experience we can already see a blog being used to build just such a sustained critique.
In his recent post "against science", Steve Mitchelmore writes of this tendency. He notes that Jonathan Gottschall's attempted "scientific" refutation of Barthes' notion of "the death of the author" "relies on a reduction of a complex essay to a 'statement'". Later in the post, Steve quotes at length from Blanchot's "The Essential Solitude" -- at length, he says, because:Blanchot's writing - its unique and relentless patience - is performative rather than didactic. Neither information or wisdom is being imparted but, as Barthes says, it is writing "borne by a pure gesture of inscription" tracing "a field without origin - or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins".Performative rather than didactic: I quote this in order to help myself keep this in mind. When I've spoken of my difficulty with these texts, I realize that this is the primary difficulty I've had. I want to force the text to teach me something, as an authority. I want it to impart information, for this is the mode of writing I have been accustomed to. But if Blanchot's writing is not giving me information, if it is performative, how do I approach it?
Paul Verhaeghen, who recently won the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Omega Minor (which I'll be reviewing for The Liberal soonish), has a Tuesday Top Ten list up on my Editor's Corner blog over at The Book Depository.
Andrew Gallix, over at 3:AM, takes a look at Andy Warhol: I’ll Be Your Mirror: Andy Warhol’s Writing Degree (Less Than) Zero.
The Mole is the Official Blog of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. Lots of info on new Nietzsche-related books and conferences etc. I know I've linked to it before, but it deserves a second shout (you know, eternal return an' all!)
D'you guys know TomDispatch? Verso are publishing The World According to TomDispatch: America and the Age of Empire in July and it looks pretty good.
TomDispatch styles itself as a regular antidote to the mainstream media and says it is written "for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of our post-9/11 world and a clear sense of how our imperial globe actually works." Well, goodness knows we always need a bit more of that, but I must admit I hadn't come across the site until t'other day. Anyway, looks good as I say: go read!
If you want to talk about Péter Esterházy you have to dredge up the past a little. That isn’t always a fun thing to do, especially if you hail from anywhere in the between lands, Mitteleuropa. Still… somebody, as they say, has to do it and for whatever reason Esterházy is up to the task. Why does he do it? I think it is a simple as a line from his novel Helping Verbs of the Heart. “I’m terrified,” writes Esterházy, “yet I feel better now.” (more...)
It must have appealed to Roberto Bolaño's sense of irony that novels, rather than poems, won him his place in the contemporary pantheon. For Bolaño's protagonists, (and, we can imagine, for Bolaño himself) poetry is the art that endures. Still, to read Amulet or By Night in Chile is to find oneself immersed in verse - not because the prose is self-consciously lyrical (not in translation, anyway), but because all of the major characters are poets. Were these characters merely unheralded virtuosos, like Kerouac's Subterraneans, the novels might take on an air of wish fulfillment. As it stands, however, Bolaño's fictionalized Lives of the Poets are an inversion, or complication, of Kerouac's: He seems more interested in the bad poets, the failed poets, than he is in the angelic ones (more...)
According to Jonathan Gottschall (writing in the Boston Globe a week or so ago), "Literary criticism could be one of our best tools for understanding the human condition. But first, it needs a radical change: embracing science." Understandably, this tosh has been batted about the blogosphere, but the finest response came on Sunday from our very own Stephen Mitchelmore who marshals Barthes (whom Gottschall caricatures and misreads), Blanchot and Heidegger against Gottschall's silly scientism:
Power is what Gottschall and the literary bloggers sympathetic to his call remain in thrall to. In their case it is the understandable desire for "relevance", a respected academic career and a book-buying public ready to afford criticism the same market share as popular science. However, for Barthes and Blanchot (and Heidegger before them in Poetry, Language, Thought) the focus remains literature itself.
Via Spurious (where else?)
He was, said Derrida, involved 'body and soul' in the Events. Michel Leiris, in his journals, laughed at him: what was he doing running along with the students? Couldn't he see it would lead nowhere? Levinas, his closest friend, wrote, without identifying him, of an eminent man of letters who "participated in the May Events in a total but lucid manner." "Blanchot is not an ordinary man, a man whom you can meet in the street," says Levinas in an interview. But there he was on the streets (more...)
In Procrastination Lit (via the Literary Saloon) Jessica Winter looks at "great novels about wasting time" -- though she includes non-novels such as Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. Lots of Thomas Bernhard too!
Anyone out there know anything about John Edgar Wideman's Fanon which is mentioned in the piece? Looks interesting.
I interviewed the excellent Clay Shirky the other week over on the The Book Depository. And I heartily recommend Clay's book Here Comes Everybody to anyone interested in web-culture. Indeed, go and see how impressive he is by watching the video I've just posted over on Editor's Corner (which I sourced from LibrarianInBlack) where Clay talks about gin, sit-coms and "cognitive surplus".
Daniel Green is -- quite correctly it seems to me -- cross about the Middlebrow Mediocrity of many contemporary novels:
Everything that keeps our current literary culture mired in midddlebrow mediocrity is exemplified in Amy Bloom's novel, Away, and its reception by mainstream book reviewers when it was published last fall. The novel itself is not per se a "bad" novel -- many worse ones are published and reviewed every season -- but it is entirely undistinguished, to the point that my most immediate reaction to it was to wonder why it needed to exist in the first place. Moreover, that book reviewers would so exorbitantly praise such a novel, as in fact most of them did, strongly calls into question the standards being applied by those working in that branch of "literary journalism" represented by newspaper book sections. If Away is considered by "professional" book reviewers to be an exemplary work of serious literary fiction, which my reading of the reviews leads me to think is the case, then as a culture attuned to the possibilities of fiction as literary art, we in a sad state indeed (my italics).
Dan then takes Lionel Shriver to task:
Shriver's review [of Away in the LA Times] reeks of the kind of rationalization book reviewers constantly offer when recommending "formulaic" fiction written "comfortably within a conventional form." Such fiction may otherwise seem "standard" in its use of all of the hand-me-down practices of traditional narrative, but it's still full of "finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details," as Shriver puts it a few paragraph later. It may be utterly predictable, reinforcing safe and complacent reading habits by going no farther than to pour some "new wine into old skins," but if its "execution is exquisite," then no more should be asked of it. Who needs fiction that challenges formal expectations, offers an alternative to our hackneyed notions of "finely wrought prose"? Writers who pursue such challenges and alternatives are just "game-playing," anyway, so why not just settle for another feel-good novel and its "soft-smile, along-the-way humor."
Nicholas Murray gets involved in the debate about literary biography that continues to rumble 'round the 'sphere:
The always stimulating blog of Stephen Mitchelmore, This Space, is currently growling [correction: see Stephen's post below, he was not 'growling' merely demurring] at a recent defence of literary biography, citing Proust, who in his essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, attacked the famous French critic for his belief that the biographical method was the only one for critics. Proust disagreed, arguing memorably that his work proceeded not from the bundle of accidents that sat down for breakfast in the Proust household, but from "l'autre moi". Proust, it seems to me, was absolutely correct so how can I justify earning my living as a literary biographer? The answer is that biography cannot "explain" or account for a work of art but neither can criticism (more...)
The "anti-biographical" argument -- Dan Green of The Reading Experience has been doing much to advance a new New Criticism here! -- is against those who would claim that biography should be the first and foremost method of understanding a writer and their work. The argument has become sharpened because biography plus plot synopsis is the main method of reading and discussing a work that one sees in e.g. the Broadsheet newspapers or with a critic like e.g. Tim Parks. Biography has the virtue of contextualising a work, but biographical reductionism does violence to reading itself. One has to start with the words on the page. Any piece of writing is simultaneously about both itself and the relationship of the writer to the work expressed in and through that work -- so biography enters here, it has a place, but it should not be the primary prism. Biography should not be a substitute for careful rereading: rereading is the beginning of understanding, not scattered life-facts.
For sure, like so many readers, I can't help but be interested in the lives of those I come to know so little about via reading them. But I don't suppose I can understand their work any better just because I now know about their birth and schooling, their marriages and heartaches ...
I should have mentioned this earlier, of course ... between April 29th and May 4th PEN World Voices has been going on -- if you want to catch up with all that's gone on during the extended event MetaxuCafé is your best bet for lots of reports and impressions (and yet more links can be found via Golden Rule Jones).
The Literary Saloon tells me that they've announced the shortlist for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize "for translations into English from any living European language which have been published, are book-length, and are distributed in the UK."
Always good to see translated books getting some love but, as The Literary Saloon point out, "every title on this list [below] save the Mayröcker poetry collection is a new translation of a previously-available-in-English title. (Yes, even the Hermans, though that Roy Edwards translation from nearly half a century ago pretty much disappeared without a fight.) Surely this can't be a good thing." Indeed.
- Margaret Jull Costa for Eça de Queiroz's The Maias
- Richard Dove for Friederike Mayröcker's Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006
- Jamie McKendrick for Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
- Mike Mitchell for Georges Rodenbach's The Bells of Bruges
- Natasha Randall for Yevgeny Zamyatin's We
- Ina Rilke for W. F. Hermans' The Darkroom of Damocles
I read The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt while relaxing in a snow-bound hotel in Northern France... I like books that create previously unheard of occupations for their main characters (Anne Tyler is also adept at this) and the concept of a shoe-tester is up there with the best - being paid to walk all day around the city of Frankfurt testing up-market shoes and writing reports for the manufacturers. Of course, the job is a pretext for a meandering dissertation on life and its unliveability - for the narrator is a true existentialist, living at the sharp-end where nothing is a given, and the everyday is seen in its remarkability as though through eyes just born to this planet ("through the open door I once again hear the little noises the birds make as their tiny feathered bodies take off with a dense and compact flutter").
A Common Reader (a blog I only found out about this morning after noticing Tom had left a comment here yesterday and which has now duly been added to BritLitBlogs) also brings my attention to the fact there are now at least three English translations of Thomas Mann on the market.
I have the Vintage Classics Manns and my copy of e.g. Doctor Faustus has an unsigned translator's note (!) and is a translation that dates from 1949 (just two years after it was published in German). I know that David Luke translated their Death in Venice, but I'm presuming that Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter who, according to wikipedia, "enjoyed the exclusive right to translate the works of Thomas Mann from German into English for more than twenty years" must have rendered the versions of Doctor Faustus, The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks that I own. The Manns that Tom brings my attention to are new(ish -- 1990s I think) translations by John E. Woods (some of which are available in lovely Everyman editions). You can find out a bit more about Woods at the Goethe-Institut USA and Random House in the States tells me:
John E. Woods is the distinguished translator of many books -- most notably Arno Schmidt's Evening Edged in Gold, for which he won both the American Book Award for translation and the PEN Translation Prize; Patrick Suskind's Perfume, for which he again won the PEN Translation Prize in 1987; Mr. Suskind's The Pigeon and Mr. Summer's Story; Doris Dorrie's Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing and What Do You Want from Me?; and Libuse Monikova's The Facade.
Wood s lot provides some excellent May Day links including The Origins and Traditions of May Day by Eugene Plawiuk (from La Revue Gauche), The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day by the peerless Peter Linebaugh (author of The Many-headed Hydra: The Hidden History Of The Revolutionary Atlantic and The London Hanged: Crime And Civil Society In The Eighteenth Century) and The May-Pole of Merry Mount by Nathaniel Hawthorne (from Twice-Told Tales).
Ooh, I am in a linking mood today!
Cortázar belonged to the boom generation of Latin American writers who broke new ground with their works during the 1950s and 1960s. His literary career, which lasted almost 40 years, includes short stories, novels, plays, poetry, translations, and essays of literary criticism. His work is strongly influenced by surrealism with attempting to raise consciousness above reality in his fantastical short stories. He combined existential questioning with experimental writing techniques in his works and many of his stories follow the logic of hallucinations and obsessions.
Steven Shaviro has Some thoughts on “character”:
For me, this is a key to understanding genre fiction — or maybe I should just say, fiction in general. Plot is overrated. SF novels and comics and movies and the like where it’s all about the plot, how well it is put together, how if a gun is on the table in Act One, it has to be used in Act Three, and so on, bore the hell out of me. The better and more cleverly it is put together, the more it seems to me to be just a dumb, creaky mechanism which provides neither pleasure nor insight. I know that lots of people (readers/viewers as well as creators) get off on carefully crafted plots; but such things do nothing for me.
Blanchot translator Lydia Davis interviewed by Jason McBride at the Poetry Foundation:
Many of Lydia Davis’s best stories involve problems of language, its insufficiencies and irregularities, how lives can be undone—or remade—by a preposition or pronoun. A sound. Punctuation. Misunderstandings pivot on the misapplication of an adjective or the absence of one. Quite literally, tenses make people tense. The page-long story “A Mown Lawn” was included in Best American Poetry 2001. Its opening lines: “She hated a mown lawn. Maybe that was because mow was the reverse of wom, the beginning of the name of what she was—a woman.”
Davis is almost as well known for her translations (of, among others, books by Michel Leiris, Maurice Blanchot, and Marcel Proust) as for her fiction. William Gass has described translation as reading (“of the best, the most essential, kind”), but for Davis it’s the obverse, a kind of writing: “everything but the invention.” The work of translation is indeed, on one hand, very Davisian labor, a way of creating and engaging with entirely new problems of language as well as new solutions (more ...)
I've just posted an interview with web-superstar Clay Shirky over on The Book Depository site (Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody, the book-puff of which runs thusly: "Our age’s new technologies of social networking are evolving, and evolving us. New groups are doing new things in new ways, and we’re doing the old things better and more easily. Business models are being transformed at dizzying speeds, and the larger social impact is in a way so profound that it’s under-appreciated. In Here Comes Everybody, one of the culture’s wisest observers give us his lucid and penetrating analysis on what this means for what we do and who we are.")
Sharon Blackie is the author of The Long Delirious Burning Blue, translator of Raymond Federman's memoir of Samuel Beckett, The Sam Book, and editor of the forthcoming Cleave: New Writing by Women in Scotland and Riptide: New Writing from the Highlands and Islands. She has a croft in the north-west Highlands of Scotland and in her spare time runs Two Ravens Press with her husband, David Knowles (publishers of recent RSB Book of the Week Auschwitz by Angela Morgan Cutler).
"Stanford University Press is pleased to announce that you can now search the full text of our books via Google Book Search. We are currently still in the process of uploading and scanning our backlist, but there are already over a thousand Stanford titles in Google Book Search. When the project is completed, all of our books will be searchable electronically" (via SUP Blog ...)
Sad news: Sandra -- that's Mrs Book World to you lot -- has said farewell to the "blogworld":
Far too much of my time pours itself into the void of the internet and I'm running out of energy and enthusiasm for it. So in future I'm not planning to update Book World save for my list of books read and maybe the occasional interesting quote from books in progress.
I hope Sandra does come back soon -- she was one of the original BritLitBloggers and I always liked her blog because it struck me as a "proper" blog: conversational, intelligent, warm and personal.
I have a small blog/article going up on Picador.com's blog next week sometime (about Oliver Sacks and the importance of narrative to our self-perception). But I can't access the site (and this has long been the case).
Oi! Do you have a British (based in the UK) literary blog, or know of one, that isn't featured on BritLitBlogs.com?
BritLitBlogs.com doesn't feature author or publisher blogs so, if you are a British author who blogs or a British publisher who has a blog ... erm, sorry!
But anyone else who blogs about books ... let me know and I'll add you to the BLB aggregator.
Stephen Mitchelmore picks "a selection compiled from memory of critical and philosophical books about literature that I've enjoyed in recent years ... Be warned though, they may contain erudite literary argument":
- Michael Wood - The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction
- Eduardo Cadava - Words of Light
- Malcolm Bowie - Proust among the stars
- Stanley Corngold - Kafka: The Necessity of Form
- Teodolina Barolini - The Undivine Comedy: Detheogolizing Dante
- John Freccero - Dante: The Poetics of Conversion
- Lacoue-Labarthe - Poetry as experience
- Timothy Clark - The Theory of Inspiration and Martin Heidegger
- Christopher Ricks - Beckett's Dying Words
- William Large & Ullrich Haase - Maurice Blanchot
Ooh, more poetry! FSG are running a month-long poetry blog. Highlights include:
- an all new couplet composed by Robert Pinsky and available for download as your ringtone (which strikes me as bonkers!)
- a whole week devoted to poetry in translation, with posts from many of FSG's award-winning translators
- more original audio recorded exclusively for the blog by Frank Bidart, Les Murray, August Kleinzahler, Yusef Komunyakaa, and more
- free, downloadable broadsheets appropriate for brightening up even the most boring cubicle
I'm back from Oxford and from speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival. Busy day yesterday what with my Today programme appearance and all! If the warm and generous comments left on the blog are anything to go by the talks have gone down pretty well. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to leave a comment.
And a big welcome to everybody who has just come across ReadySteadyBook ... I hope you enjoy looking around the site.
Some of these reports have photographs. Yes, I do look fat. Yes, the stripey jumper was probably a bad idea!
Great piece on Dovid Bergelson over on Three Percent. The further reading rightly points folk to David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism edited by Joseph Sherman and Gennady Estraikh. I interviewed Joseph back in November 2005 here on RSB and hope to do so again (over on The Book Depository this time) very soon.
Hahaha: Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing (worth reading the comments thread too: "nuanced" also makes me want to claw my eyes out, Brian.)
The seven "deadly" words are: poignant; compelling; intriguing; eschew; craft; muse; lyrical. I have to admit, I do cleave to compelling. I'd already noted that when I'm stuck for an adjective, especially in my short, capsule reviews for The Book Depository, I do lazily and regularly reach for "compelling". Shall consider myself admonished!
First published in English in 2006, Jörg Friedrich’s The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 will soon be available in paperback: "Upon publication of the hardcover edition of the book, Peter Dimock, the editor of The Fire, wrote the following essay discussing the book’s importance, its relevance to contemporary events, and how we think about the conduct of modern warfare..."
Sometimes an editor can feel in his bones when the prose on the page of a manuscript he is holding in his hands marks a possible turning point in the way the present decides to understand itself. I have been lucky enough to have had this feeling once or twice in the course of my twenty-two years in publishing. It happened again when, at the urging of another author, I and Columbia University Press took on the project of publishing the English-language edition of Jörg Friedrich’s The Fire.
The essay can be found on the Columbia University Press blog.
Reading some of today’s news, it suddenly struck me: we’re living in the age of the anti-Cassandra.
Cassandra had the gift of prophecy — she saw, correctly, what was coming — but was under a curse: nobody would believe her.
Today, our public discourse is dominated by people who have been wrong about everything — but are still, mysteriously, treated as men of wisdom, whose judgments should be believed. Those who were actually right about the major issues of the day can’t get a word in edgewise.
What set me off was the matter of Alan Greenspan; as Dean Baker like to remind us, news analyses of the housing and financial crisis almost always draw exclusively on “experts” who first insisted that there wasn’t a housing bubble, then insisted that the financial consequences of the bubble’s bursting would remain “contained.”
It’s even worse, of course, on the matter of Iraq: just about every one of the panels convened to discuss the lessons of five disastrous years consisted solely of men and women who cheered the idiocy on.
Fiction does do more than tell stories about people, but it can also do more than pretend to "enter into the consciousness" of people. To believe this by now fairly standard technique of faux-psychological probing into the minds of characters is the only thing that separates fiction from history, or from film, is a rather impoverished view of the possibilities of fiction as a literary form. Indeed, the purely literary possibilities of the "interior" strategy were, it seems to me, pretty much exhausted in the fiction of Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner. Adventurous writers following on their achievement -- Beckett, Burroughs, Barthelme, Sorrentino -- discovered fresh ways of extending their experiments in form, of showing us how fiction can be different not just from history or film, but from previous versions of fiction as well. More such discoveries can be made.
The inimitable Spurious:
I never liked hoarders of books: old men and women who would never lend or give me, when I was young, what I wanted from their bookshelves. Hoarders, collectors, saving books - from what? for what? - and hence depriving them from me. How unreasonable I was (and am), but now I must turn my prejudice on myself. Have I not replaced old editions of my books with new, hardbacked ones? Am I not able to afford 3 or 4 pounds to buy a book out of curiosity? Have I not a row of unread books and that I might not read for many years - editions of Gaddis, Canetti, Milosz, Perec; and even Lydia Davis' The Way By Swann's, in the American edition? How deplorable!
I wonder whether I buy these books, and replace order ones in order to satisfy the victim of literary deprivation I once thought I was - and whether I've missed out on that kind of reading where a book can really be everything. But this, too, is absurd: how foolish to look for a Reading behind reading, and to think it lay there when I was young. I was as foolish a reader then as I am today - as distracted, as frivolous: then and now I felt I never really read a book, but only grazed its surface: that beneath, say, the printed pages of The Sleepwalkers, in that old, handsome Quartet Encounters edition, there was an experience of reading that I'd missed, as though the real book lurked there like a kraken.
Against Happiness is not a cultural critique, it’s a love letter to Wilson’s own emotional state. As the book progresses, the potential audience gets smaller and smaller. It opens talking to all Americans, but by the second chapters he has narrowed his focus to “we melancholics,” and later to “melancholic intellectuals.” By the end he’s just curled up with his aloneness, and we somehow stumbled into his interior monologue.
He sees himself as apart from and superior to all others, referring to the American culture with a sinister “they.” “They haunt the gaudy and garish spaces of the world and ignore the dark margins… They adore the Lifetime channel. They are happy campers. They want God to bless the world. They want us to ask them about their children… They join Book-of-the-Month clubs and identify with sympathetic characters.” These happy types are to be despised and avoided. Wilson turns away from America to take long walks in the woods and contemplate dead sparrows. “I must admit then that regardless of my own efforts to take flight through many escapes America offers, my basic instinct is toward melancholia – a state I must nourish. In fostering my essential nature, I’m trying to live according to what I see as my deep calling. Granted, it’s difficult at times to hold hard to this vocation, this labor in the fields of sadness.”
I've mentioned before that I'm not a fast reader. As I said back last year, I'm a 30-pages an hour man!
Bookninja recently posted on the merits of slow reading (more on Slow Reading over on John Miedema's blog -- thanks Dave!) noting Michael Henderson's mild mocking of Philip Hensher who reckons he reads five novels a week, something I probably manage in a good month:
What a relief it was, last year, to learn of Milan Kundera's opinion that he based his reading on the premise that he got through books at the rate of 20 pages an hour...
Good to know that me and my mate Milan are on the same page. Literally, on the same page, near the beginning, whilst the rest of you have no doubt almost finished!
My recent post asking why fiction is (in response to James Wood's book How Fiction Works) prompted some interesting comments here on RSB and a very good discussion over on This Space, where I've attempted to elucidate my original post by writing, "the 'ontological status', then, of fiction is what I'm thinking about here. Blanchot and Heidegger guide the thinking. For sure, my question touches on the personal reasons as to why a writer might choose fiction to express themselves, but I wanted to draw attention to fiction's own being, to its own ground, to our assumptions about it before we approach or write or read it. These assumptions are rarely aired, but a strain of writing from Sterne through to Robbe-Grillet has attempted to grapple with them in their own fiction."
And now this excellent post from the No Answers blog:
... fiction itself is very much about its own response to this argument. More than representation, more than beauty, perceived or otherwise, more than didactic elucidation, it remains the very thing that rebuffs such questions, and it is within such a general rebuttal that it defines itself. Note that I don't mean by this that fiction is somehow inherently ambiguous, or contradictory, or disingenuous: fiction is simply this -- that which continues to escape.
Increasingly I am coming to feel that Continental social and political theory – especially in its French inflection coming out of the Althusserian, Foucaultian, Lacanian, and structuralist schools – woefully simplifies the social and therefore is led to ask the wrong sorts of questions where questions of political change is concerned ... [we] need to look at the variety of different social formations from individuals, to small associations like groups (the blog collective for instance), to larger groupings and institutions, to global interrelations, treating none of these as hegemonizing all the others, but instead discerning their varying temporalities, organizations, inter-relations, points of antagonism, and so on. This, I think, is far closer to Marx’s own vision – or at least the spirit of his analyses in texts like Grundrisse and Capital.
E.P. Thompson’s critique of Althusser in his excellent The Poverty of Theory (1978) hangs in the air here — and rightly so. Thompson's account is still sharp and wholly relevant: empirical, local and humanistic (and I know that that is a bogey word!)
With regard to evolutionary theory highlighting the possible ways that change can occur in societies, the work of Chris Knight (Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture) shows the way. Knight argues that we became human via a revolutionary sex strike ... you’ll learn more from radicalanthropologygroup.org.
Martyn Everett on "old school lefty" Julian Rathbone:
Nick Coleman, in the Guardian describes Rathbone as "an old-school lefty. He said so himself. His detestation of privilege and the structures which maintain it was profound. His contempt for them was expressed by turn frighteningly, wittily and sexily, and often all at once, but never, ever dully or merely rhetorically," but Julian Rathbone was more than that, describing himself in an article for the Independent as "a romantic optimist with anarchist leanings."
It was this libertarian socialist vision that suffuses Rathbone's books and makes them quite unlike those of any other modern English writer, giving them an alternative system of values and ideas which appealed to the ordinary reader.
In the last few years, there have been several books by writers urgently seeking to not only discredit religion, but also to advance the atheistic viewpoint and to defend "reason", or rationality, from the forces of darkness. Though I often agree with many of the basic points these authors tend to make, my essential position is that the focus on religion by these writers is misplaced. Indeed, if the elimination of religion or, more realistically, the lessening of its influence, especially the influence of its more extreme manifestations, is the goal, then they are taking exactly the wrong approach. But to these writers and others the matter is urgent: they are worried about the survival of the species. Well, let me tell you: in my view, there are numerous good reasons to be worried. But such concern, if genuine, should focus attention on our disastrous political and economic situation, yet it rarely does.
... against all expectations, I did recently read Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great: How Religlion Poisons Everything. My in-laws have a copy, so it was easily available, and I admit to having had a sort of mordant curiosity about it. I also admit I came into it not expecting much by way of argument, but in fact it's much worse than I imagined it would be. The book is quite terrible, for a variety of reasons. But the things that make it bad (and to my mind, virtually unpublishable) are not necessarily those elements that make up my main problems with it and with the popular so-called “atheist books” it exemplifies. It's bad not least because it's hard to figure what Hitchens really thinks he's doing with the book. He's said that, in effect, he's been writing the book his whole life (the link is to an interview, but he also says as much in the acknowledgments). You'd think he'd have taken more care with it. It's full of sloppy thinking, awkward writing, adolescent point-making, and of course, his stylistic trademarks: withering, sometimes glib scorn, and ostentatious displays of erudition (not to mention outright errors: he has Saddam Hussein invading Iran in 1979, rather than 1980). Occasionally he gets out of his own way long enough to tell us about an interesting historical event or figure, but these passages are the exception.
There is nothing in god is Not Great that can't be found elsewhere, other than the ubiquitous presence of Christopher Hitchens himself, with his rhetorical winks and nudges. The book is poorly argued, tonally inconsistent, and frankly childish, from the title and sub-title on down. The inconsistency in tone--as if he intended to destroy religion once and for all with the power of his scorn, but then occasionally realized that he needed to make a feint in the direction of persuasion, with disingenuous displays of humility thrown in for good measure--is part of what I mean when I say the book is sloppily written. For me, these qualities ought to mean that the book should have been sent back for considerable re-tooling before it got anywhere near being published. And yet it was not only a best-seller, but was nominated for a National Book Award. The latter in particular is another tiny sign of an intellectual culture in poor health. Hitchens may say that he'd been effectively writing the book his whole life, but it has the feel of something slapped together quickly in order to cash in on a trend.
And now go and read the whole of Richard's great piece!
More of the kind of eloquence that we've come regularly to expect from Dan Green:
I've never understood the print critics' plaint that without their gatekeeping the literary marketplace will be flooded with inferior work that will unavoidably drown the valuable work. This assumes a "commons" occupied by clueless vagabonds who just happen to be passing through and who need guidance by their settled betters. In fact the literary commons, especially the part of it devoted to poetry, is the preferred destination of those who already value what is offered there, already know how to distinguish good work from bad, and will be perfectly capable of judging the former against the latter. Literature will still be literature once the gates have been torn down. It's just that there will be fewer people claiming the authority to define its boundaries for everyone else.
A discussion of poetry's value over on Bookninja:
“Those who want poetry to make things happen forget the last line of [Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats]: that poetry is itself a way of happening.”
As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But if Seferis and Heaney are right, poetry can at the very least be “strong enough to help”.
I think “strong enough to help” is wrong. “Strong”, here, is wrong. Perhaps better would be: weak enough to give pause.
I'm thinking here of something reminiscent of Rowan Williams’ description of God as a nine-year-old spastic child: “This is the solitude of truth, the solitude, finally, of God: God as a spastic child who can communicate nothing but his presence and his inarticulate wanting.”
Not poetry versus nothing, then, but poetry as nothing, the very weakest of glimmers, barely there yet still lambent. Not enough to steer by, for sure, but just enough to recognise that the darkness is not quite all-conquering.
Via Continental Philosophy -- "John Protevi has a new blog (John McCumber and Robin Durie are also contributors): Meta-Philosophy: Reflections on the Practices and Institutions of Philosophy."
John explains: "As the title indicates, we’d like to provide a forum for discussion of issues relative to philosophy in the world and in the university."
Just at the moment, I really don't have a minute to write anything substantial, but I've just finished Wood's hugely disappointing How Fiction Works, so I would like to respond, both to Nigel's article and to Wood's rather weak new book. Perhaps over the weekend? I'll try.
Very briefly, my major beef with How Fiction Works is, I suppose, how it is being sold to us. "His first full-length book of criticism" this is supposed to be a definitive -- a summing up of "two decades of bold, often controversial, and now classic critical work" -- and "searching" statement from "one of the most prominent critics of our time" about "the machinery of story-telling." But it is little more than a Dummies guide to narrative, detail and characterization. It heats up a little towards the end -- in Truth, Convention, Realism, the key chapter, and one that really needed working up into something a good deal more substantial -- when Wood argues for the persistence in art of a realism really better called lifeness. But most of the rest of the book is pretty meagre stuff.
His assertion that the history of the novel is really the history of free indirect style is interesting. And it surprised me that Barthes and Viktor Shklovsky are his favourite literary theorists -- even if this book "conducts a sustained argument with them." Sustained I didn't find it. It's a great crib, no doubt, but "one of the most prominent critics of our time" should surely be doing a lot more than writing a kind of student's guide to the novel.
They've announced this year's Reading the World list over on Three Percent. And I've listed out all the titles on Editor's Corner for y'all too. Many of these look like pretty decent books. I'm particular keen to read Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews), The Assistant by Robert Walser (translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky) and The Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge (translated from the French by Richard Greeman)
And it won't surprise the keen ones amongst you that today is Valentine's Day. Origins explained over on The Book Depository February newsletter.
There are two cliches about the Nazis: one is that there wasn't a single one to be found after WWII; the other is that those who were discovered were only following orders. Both are reasonably well-founded. But actually, as Enzo Traverso points out in The Origins of Nazi Violence, the alienation that this implies, the separation between conception and action, was already embedded in the capitalist social pattern.
Interesting stuff on Vertigo, the Sebald blog, on changes made to one of Sebald's work prior to full publication:
A fellow book collector who also concentrates on the works of W.G. Sebald recently asked me if I had ever taken a close look at the uncorrected bookproof that Harvill Press issued in 1996 prior to the release of Sebald’s book The Emigrants. I had not; it had been sitting, ignored, on the shelf since I purchased it years ago.
I have written earlier about some of the changes that occurred when Sebald’s book Die Ausgewanderten was published in English. In the original German version the epynomic character of the fourth story is Max Aurach, but in Harvill’s published edition he becomes Max Ferber, in order to hide the fact that this figure was partly based on the living British painter Frank Auerbach...
Sunday is the one day of the week that I try not to blog, not to read other blogs, nor even, if I can help it, look at a computer. So, The Sunday Salon is absolutely not for me ... but it is a nice idea:
Imagine some university library's vast reading room. It's filled with people --students and faculty and strangers who've wandered in. They're seated at great oaken desks, books piled all around them, and they're all feverishly reading and jotting notes in their leather-bound journals as they go. Later they'll mill around the open dictionaries and compare their thoughts on the afternoon's literary intake....
That's what happens at the Sunday Salon, except it's all virtual. Every Sunday the bloggers participating in that week's Salon get together--at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones--and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another's blogs. Think of it as an informal, weekly, mini read-a-thon, an excuse to put aside one's earthly responsibilities and fall into a good book.
Imani reproduces part of The Art of Fiction interview no.195 with Oe Kenzaburo from The Paris Review. In the article, the interviewer says at one point, "In America, literary criticism and creative writing are, for the most part, mutually exclusive." I'm not sure that that has ever been quite true but, regardless, Oe's response is perfect:
I respect scholars most of all. Although they struggle in a narrow space, they find truly creative ways of reading certain authors.
To understand literature we need the three-pronged attack that Oe outlines: submersion in the author's work; submersion in the critical response to the work (both general critical and academic); and then we need to triangulate that reading with ourselves and dwell on how this study plays with our previous reading and learning.
The interview ends with this gem: the interviewer says, "It sounds like when you travel you spend most of your time in your hotel room reading." Oe Replies:
Yes, that’s right. I do some sightseeing, but I have no interest in good food. I like drinking, but I don’t like going to bars because I get in fights.
Many readers of ReadySteadyBook are also readers of Stephen Mitchelmore's peerless This Space. You will have noticed, no doubt, that an uncharacteristic quiet has settled over Steve's blog of late. Sadly, this is because he was involved in a serious road accident on Saturday 19th January.
Steve was cycling near Ditchling Beacon, in thick fog, and was hit from behind by a car. He was taken to The Royal Sussex Hospital where he underwent a head scan. His broken arm was then plastered up and he was placed under observation for 48 hours. He was released from hospital, but a few days later readmitted when a fracture at the base of his skull was found. Happily, is he now out of hospital again, with his parents, and slowly recovering from his ordeal. I'm sure all readers will want to wish him well. However, if he ever scares me again like that, he's a dead man!
I've just posted a nice, chunky interview with Professor Esther Leslie over on The Book Depository. Professor Leslie is the author of of Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant Garde and Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry and two books on Walter Benjamin: of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism and the recent, excellent mini-biography cunningly entitled Walter Benjamin.
Dispatches from Zembla brings to my attention that there is a new issue of Bookforum online. Latest issue includes an article on Knut Hamsun, an extract from Roberto Bolano's forthcoming book and a short review of the fab sounding Against Happiness: "... happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment ... may annihilate melancholia."
Do blogs need to be peer-reviewed? Well, some blogs some of the time might benefit I suppose (although blog comments are a form of peer-review, of course)... Anyway, lots of links about this at the The MIT PressLog.
"The site has been designed with a dual purpose in mind. In the first place, it is a diversion for curious readers and for lovers of Jonathan Swift's more famous works. But it is also intended as a scholarly resourse for students and teachers of Swift's writings, and for literary historians of the eighteenth century more generally. The biographies, booklists and chronologies that support the Journal have been prepared to a high academic standard, and all the information on this site may be used with confidence."
Morning. It has snowed terribly all night, and is vengeance cold. I am not yet up, but cannot write long; my hands will freeze. "Is there a good fire, Patrick?" "Yes, sir." "Then I'll rise; come, take away the candle." You must know I write on the dark side of my bed-chamber, and am forced to have a candle till I rise, for the bed stands between me and the window, and I keep the curtains shut this cold weather. So pray let me rise; and Patrick, here, take away the candle.
Well, ok, it didn't actually snow last night. But it did rain. It's been raining for days. I don't remember life before rain. It's a good job Patrick is here to make the tea. Patrick? Patrick!?
Our Horses in Egypt is an unusual, less-is-more book and I had to concentrate hard because Rosalind Belben has a unique narrative style and the dialogue often doesn't quite seem to make sense. In the early chapters I often found myself reading it aloud to really grasp the meaning and then it dawned on me, this is pure dialogue, a conversation as you would really hear it. It's pared down and spare, often unfinished, the voicing of a seemingly random thought. Here was a writer who wanted me to work.
Rosalind Belben a writer who is constantly challenging her reader to fill in the gaps and silences and make the connections for themselves.You most certainly do not get it all on a plate, the challenge of ambiguity and the potential for confusion all far more representative of real life.It is often several chapters on before one moment of confusion becomes a eureka one.
From the Bibliophile Bullpen blog:
One of the viral conversations bouncing from biblioblog to biblioblog, is about Advanced Review Copies, everyone wants to pitch their 2 cents. If you are on the Bookfinder Insider Mailing list you already have an inbox filled with tuppences. For more in depth reading Scott Brown's pennies can be picked up here and Adrien Kohn's can be collected here.
In a nutshell, publishers have been sending out review copies since the beginning of time. Freelance and salaried reviewers read and review the books, try to get some reviews published and then have been free to keep, sell, burn, eat or otherwise dispose of the books. Because booksales are down all over the map, publishers are pinning the blame this profound drop in sales on the tiny percentage of advanced review copies, bound galleys, proofs and other prepublication copies that have found their way into the used book market. This in a word is 'bullshit.'
Via Three Percent:
When we first opened the voting, for the Best Translation of 2007, it looked like Bolano was going to win by a landslide, but in the end, it was Dorothea Dieckmann’s Guantanamo that came in first by a substantial margin.
The Savage Detectives finished a strong second, and Out Stealing Horses (which I thought would win), came in third. The Assistant was fourth, and all the other titles were pretty much bunched together.
Sam gives us a nice quote from the web site of his literary agency, Dr. Ray-Güde Mertin:
Gonçalo M. Tavares was born in 1970. He spent his childhood in Aveiro in northern Portugal and studied Physics, Sport and Art. He teaches Theory of Science at a university in Lisbon. Tavares has surprised his readers with the variety of books he has published since 2001 and has been awarded an impressive amount of literary prizes in a very short time. In 2005 he won the Saramago Prize for young writers under 35. In his speech at the award ceremony, Saramago commented: “Jerusalém is a great book, and truly deserves a place among the great works of Western literature. Gonçalo M. Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him!”
One of my favourite blogs, Ellis Sharp's The Sharp Side has sadly given up the ghost. Yesterday, Ellis closed down his blog with these words: "The Sharp Side terminates here. Farewell."
Ellis had a vibrant and pungent voice and I'll miss his blog. He was always an attentive reader: his recent post on The 5Oth anniversary of Malcolm Lowry’s death being a case in point.
I wonder why he has decided to stop blogging?
Well, the blogging will begin again in earnest on Wednesday. Probably. Depends on how drunk I get tonight. Sadly, Mrs Book is rather unwell, so I doubt I'll be getting too damaged!
Every insurrection requires leadership and drive. In storming the citadel of Establishment Literary Fiction, Lee Rourke has, over the past two or three years, emerged as the V.I. Lenin of the literary underground. As the editor of Scarecrow he has both set out a manifesto and passionately and enthusiastically promoted a very diverse range of writers from the margins of our culture. We are no longer in the realm of Martin and Julian and Ian but in a bleaker, less consoling place. Stewart Home, Ann Quin, Noah Cicero, Tom McCarthy. And many, many others. An alternative geography of literature to the ones in the corporate supplements, the corporate review pages.
T'was I who first coined the phrase Establishment Literary Fiction and I'll be writing more here on the blog, and elsewhere, about what I consider it to be very soon. But I just wanted to note, today, that by deriding most current literary fiction as merely a particular brand of genre fiction, I wasn't suggesting that the remedy for this was something one might call "anti-Establishment Literary Fiction."
Novels/short-story collections are churned out in their tens of thousands each year. The antidote to this excess of mediocrity is art. It is artistry that is lacking in so very much of what is pumped out today, and being anti-corporate is no guarantee that what you are writing is not going to simply be an inverted form of Establishment Literary Fiction itself.
Via the Literary Saloon:
As Three Percent mentioned, Peter Handke has sold off another lot of his papers (this time from the past two decades or so) to the Austrian National Library; see, for example, the AFP report, Austria pays 500,000 euros for Handke manuscripts, as well as the official ÖNB press release, Handke-Vorlass geht an die Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.
In Die Presse Anne-Catherine Simon reports (in German) on the hand-over of the papers: apparently Handke stuffed them into two suitcases and a bag, and handed them over in Cheville on 8 July; the library isn't quite sure what to do with the empty suitcases.
Edward Champion's excellent Return of the Reluctant blog is, sadly, no more. Yesterday, Ed announced that he was "done with blogging. And I’m serious this time." He'll be sorely missed. He does hold out this glimmer: "... if I do come back through a blog, and, frankly I’m on the fence right now, it will be in a new form."
Well, whatever the format, let us hope he is back soon.
Over on This Space, Charlotte Mandell translates Emilie Colombani's review of Maurice Blanchot's Chroniques littéraires du Journal des Débats Avril 1941-août 1944:
There is however no rhetorical posturing in Blanchot, nothing even that could signal that exclusive and rather outmoded cult of "art for art’s sake." If, like Valéry’s Monsieur Teste (about which one of the most brilliant readings ever offered can be found in this collection), Blanchot is more fascinated by the workings of the mind than by its results, he is not one of those Neo-Parnassians who live idly remote from the preoccupations of the city. For him as for Sartre, although in a very different way, literature can only be a matter of "communication," yet in the noblest and strictest sense of the word. Every work forms with its audience a dialectic relationship where the distinction between essential and non-essential is never simple.
RSB contributor Paul Griffiths "is one of the University of Rochester Press' favourite authors. His biography of Jean Barraqué, The Sea on Fire, is a scholarly and imaginative triumph, while his collection of occasional pieces and reviews, The Substance of Things Heard, was described as "illuminating, translucent, sagacious" by the TLS. Griffiths is also an accomplished librettist..." and today he writes about recent performances of his collaboration with one of modern music's greatest composers over at the From Beyond the Stave blog.
Over at Three Percent, a list of the Best Translations of 2007. The guys have this to say:
If there are any titles anyone would like to add, please post them in the comments or e-mail me (chad.post at rochester dot edu) by Saturday. At that point, we’re going to take the list and together with the help of a few other international literature experts, we’re going to narrow this down to a “Top 10” list. And after that, we’ll try and set up a poll so that everyone reading this blog can vote on their personal favorite...
Adalbert became a tutor to the aristocrats of Vienna and was held in high esteem there at least and gradually established a profitable writing career. Sadly life and his liver went into a terminal decline and with it his mental faculties until finally Adalbert slashed his throat with a razor at the age of sixty-three. He died two days later which doesn't bear thinking about and is probably best glossed over.
Via Three Percent: "It's a few days old now, but the New York Times review of Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing is worth checking out. Saunders does a good job of explaining how Kharms isn’t simply an "absurdist," but an author who basically objected to the essential artifice of fiction:"
All of us who write fiction have, I suspect, felt some resistance to this moment of necessary artifice. But for Kharms this moment hardened into a kind of virtuous paralysis. I imagine him looking out his little window there in St. Petersburg, seeing people walking around out there in those Russian hats, and just as he’s about to invent some “meaningful,” theme-causing things for them to do, he freezes up, because per his observations, such meaningful, drama-exuding things do not happen so tidily in reality.
The Winter issue of The Quarterly Conversation is online. It includes The Literary Alchemy of César Aira by Marcelo Ballvé and Scott Esposito on Enrique Vila-Matas (which winningly begins, "In these seemingly anti-literary times, authors tend to do all they can to support literature; Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas is the first I've seen to treat it like a disease").
...how would I ever find the time to read all the classics, while also following through on Modernism, on post-Modernism, and keeping abreast of current fiction (for some reason this seemed really important to me)? Plainly, I could not. Worse, I felt then that the time had long since passed when I'd be able to internalize these crucial patterning texts, so that I could usefully notice and understand a linguistic or structural allusion. Or be able to truly understand and assess a given work's achievement. I worried about the sequence in which I should read books, to allow for maximum pleasure and understanding. To a huge extent, I wanted, yearned, helplessly, to have already read the classics. I wanted somehow to be able to simply plug into my brain, Matrix-style, Homer, Sophocles, the Bible, Ovid, Virgil, Dante. . . I didn't doubt that there were still people who read the classics for actual pleasure; it simply did not occur to me that I could be one of those people. I didn't feel guilt or shame about this. I felt fucked.
I read Ronan McDonald's The Death of the Critic last week and liked it well enough. I've seen it dragged into debates about print media versus the blogosphere, but really it has precious little to say about the blogging. The vast bulk of McDonald's book is taken up with the history of the critic (and owes much to John Gross's The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters). It is an interesting romp, and McDonald is good at showing how Eng.Lit.'s permanent worries about its own ontological status (is Eng.Lit. a proper thing to study? how does one study it?) and criticism's growth and mutations have been closely tied together. After blaming cultural studies for killing the critic -- the critic as public intellectual that is -- he ends his book with a guarded call for a new aestheticism. Along the way, McDonald has some warm words for F.R. Leavis which I was glad to see.
Anyway, over on Todd Swift's blog, McDonald did have this to say about blog stuff:
I know there are excellent critics working on the internet and I hope that they get the recognition they deserve. I feel that blogs have unleashed a wave of energy through the criticism of the arts. And I certainly don't endorse the caricature of blogging as amateurish and semi-moronic.
But there are dangers in the blogosphere too. My chief concern is that the talented critics writing therein will end up being swamped out by the mediocre and banal. The open door policy of the web allows in much talent, but also much dross. The small circulation magazines of the modernists had the advantage of also being few in number. I do think that there is something to fear in the volume of comment that the Internet affords. It makes it easier to miss the good stuff. And to point out that some critics have had authority in the past is by no means ot endorse 'tyranny'. It is to say that we need to read the best criticsim, just as we should be reading the best poetry.
Lowry’s problem was that those he had professional dealings with in the world of publishing couldn’t read. His theme was that of a writer who no longer believes that fiction communicates a truth. Out of that perception emerged his writing, in a form which shattered orthodox narrative: the drama of a writer’s struggle. And what purer narrative could there be than writing about writing?
The Observer's Books of the Year list -- the first of the many to come -- is up online. Like Steve, I was really pleased and very surprised to see Toby Litt choose Pierre Joris's translations of Paul Celan (issued by Green Integer Books; Celan, it seems, would have been 87 last Friday had he not killed himself back in 1970) and intrigued by Peter Ho Davies' recommendation of the work of Charles Baxter. I'm a big fan of Pierre so it was a real thrill to see the Litt notice; the Baxter book, The Art of Subtext, arrived here a week or so ago -- I'll try to get around to it this coming weekend. The rest of the list didn't really bring anything exciting to light ... but, regardless of the almost inevitable disappointment, one always trawls such lists in the hope that they might turn up something good or surprising.
Jonathan Derbyshire chaired a talk at the RSA by Dan Hind a couple of weeks back. Jonathan, normally a pretty solid reviewer, penned an incomprehensibly bad notice of Dan's book a few months back for the New Humanist magazine. Anyway, forget that, and go and listen to Dan's talk over on the RSA website.
Been a wee while since I linked to the splendid Spurious:
Many of my admired authors have a small pallette of concerns, of moods, of characterisation, of plot. A small palette, painting dark grey on black - but that is enough, for it is in the wearing away of plot, of character, in the exacerbation of mood that I find I can discover that kind of non-reading, the inward waterfall that draws me to its edge.
Bergman complained Tarkovsky came to make Tarkovsky films - but then the same can be said of Bergman, whose characters often have the same surname and run uneasily into one another. Bernhard writes Bernhard books, and Duras, and Blanchot ... they may seem to concentrate themselves into an idiom, making themselves dense, but it is rather a wearing away that they accomplish and that is their accomplishment: idioms worn out, idioms stretched finely over nothing.
...who was better at imagining a whole cast of characters than Charles Dickens? And what happened when the Indian mutiny broke out? Did Dickens use his prodigious imaginative gifts to understand why there was resistance to the British occupation of India? He certainly dreamed of being Commander in Chief of the British army of occupation. In this role, he assured his dear friend Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, he would “do my utmost to exterminate the [Indian] Race” and “with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution…blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”
I began to read the first few words and felt myself slipping, slipping, as if down a polished chute, those aching blank spaces dragging me across to the next portion of dialogue as if across a dangerous precipice. I had to put it down for a while because it frightened me. And for the same reason I had to pick it up again. When it was finished, I was stunned. It was quite the most extraordinary piece of writing I had encountered in a long time.
In his discussion of finitude leading to the bad infinite and finally to the true infinite, Hegel was interested in articulating the continuity of discourse in the move from, in the words of Blanchot, "undeveloped interiority to the exteriorization that alienates it, and from this alienation that exteriorizes up to an accomplished and reinteriorized plenitude." It is here where many have been concerned with the possibility of the other being reduced to the same.
If this kinda thing makes you thrill with excitement -- and it does me! -- then get more via Aufhebung.
The excellent Boydell & Brewer, publishers of the wonderful Joseph Conrad: A Life, has decided to enter the blogosphere with a music related blog which will give some background information on the numerous music books that they publish. It is nicely called From Beyond the Stave (d'you see what they did there!?) Still early days, but it will certainly be worth keeping an eye on this.
I've just mentioned Lydia Davis's essay The Problem in Summarising Blanchot (forthcoming in Proust, Blanchot and a Woman in Red [Sylph Editions]). Well, summarising the great thinker does not seem to be a problem for Steve This Space Mitchelmore in his fine essay Always beginning again: Blanchot on Beckett.
Steve's essay is a response to the "gross caricature" of Blanchot's reading of Beckett to be found in Pascale Casanova's Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution. I've read Casanova's book and I enjoyed it. Whilst I disagreed with her take on Blanchot, I think her target was actutally those unnamed, academic critics who adopt a sub-Heideggerian approach to reading Beckett inspired by -- but poor parodies of -- Blanchot's deep engagements. I sensed that her beef was more with those who mimicked Blanchot but, for sure, she blames Blanchot for the "mysticism" and the "hierophantic glosses" he has, she avers, inspired.
Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution starts with Casanova's wonderfully clear reading of Worstward Ho. Casanova is saying, here, that those who run too quickly towards the idea of Beckett as inpenetrable or, worse, as some kind of prophet, who consider him to be sui generis, handicap themselves before they even start reading. With close attention to the text, and a bit of historical context, even Beckett's most difficult works can be read and understood without recourse to what she would think of as Blanchot-inspired mumbo-jumbo about Being. Certainly, Casanova herself shows that the fine art of close reading is all we need to understand any work and I would commend her book for that reason alone. Philosophy needs to take a back seat whilst we concentrate on what is in front of us on the page.
As Steve states, however, Casanova woefully misreads Blanchot. He isn't a mystic, he is a harsh realist, the most demanding of readers, who knows that we read and write in the face of death. In fact, it is mysticism to pretend otherwise:
In The Unnamable, we continue without "characters under the reassuring protection of their personal name" or even with a story, it's just "phantoms without substance, empty images revolving mechanically around an empty center that the nameless 'I' occupies". This is "experience lived under the threat of the impersonal". Surely this is straightforward explication of a text; nothing hierophantic at all?
Indeed: "straightforward explication of a text" and done as only Blanchot can. Once we have read a text, however, as closely and as carefully as Casanova herself reads Worstward Ho, we must then engage with the meaning of that text. Its meaning is always about, always tied up with, our own lack of meaning, the absurdity of our smallness. Its meaning is always about how the text itself engages with us engaging with its engagement. As soon as we have carefully read what is in front of us on the page, "philosophy" -- inspired by Blanchot or not -- is the only thing that will allow us to be straightforward about writing and about reading, about life and about death.
Back in April, This Space drew our attention to The Cahiers Series from Sylph Editions. Steve now has details of the fifth book which is due out next month. Proust, Blanchot and a Woman in Red looks wonderful:
The cahier comprises three linked pieces by the translator and short story writer, Lydia Davis. First is A Proust Alphabet, which gives an account of several words and issues of particular interest, encountered during the author’s recent translating of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. There follows a short article on the French thinker and novelist Maurice Blanchot, entitled The Problem in Summarising Blanchot. Finally comes a series of dreams and dreamlike moments, recounted in Swimming in Egypt: Dreams while Awake and Asleep. The cahier is accompanied by photographs by Ornan Rotem.
Each week, the American National Book Critics Circle "will post a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries." On Tuesday, John Updike chose his five: Mimesis by Erich Auerbach; Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster; T.S. Eliot’s Essays; Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle; Roland Barthes' Sade/Fourier/Loyola; and, a rider, Criticism: the Major Texts.
On Mimesis, Updike says:
Mimesis by Erich Auerbach: a stunningly large-minded survey from Homer and the Old Testament up to Woolf and Joyce. Quoting a lengthy paragraph or two from each classic, Auerbach gives us an essential history of, as his subtitle has it, “the Representation of Reality in Western Literature.”
So, what would your five be?
Interesting new blog from Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything:
This blog, the result of a collaboration between myself and the Institute for the Future of the Book, is dedicated to exploring the process of writing a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google's ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states?
Via The Bookseller:
Library campaigner Tim Coates has made his last contribution to his popular blog, The Good Library Blog, and opened it up as a public web forum instead. "I wanted to change the tone and open up the discussion to other people. It was in a rut," he said.
Coates' last entry on 18th October attracted praise from both sides of the debate. One commenter, "Peter", said: "I don't always agree with your views, but you've raised many important issues (and some hackles) that needed to be aired." Another, Amanda Field, praised its "consciousness-raising" brilliance. "[It's useful to know] that people all around the UK are battling against the same problems."
Lee Rourke has just written to say that there is a "new scarecrow up." Best go read it then!
Diary of a Bad Year is an exceptionally moving investigation of what it means to have singular opinions in a plural universe. The short, diverse essays at the top of each page signal a diminishment of writerly power. They might evoke a hollow echo if published alone. At least one reviewer sees this as a problem to the success of the book. Yet if they were more fully-developed, they would crust over what is currently an open wound. And it is the gaping wound with which Coetzee's is concerned. Success, in this sense, would be failure.
I think Steve is pretty near spot-on with this, but I don't agree completely. I think there was a tiredness to the novel, beyond JC's tiredness; a frustration with the novel form, beyond the frustration discussed in the essays; a perfunctory quality to some of the writing, beyond the artful intent to leave the work "open": success would, indeed, be failure here, were the work to be too complete, but I still think Coetzee could have failed better.
An essay over on Mike Duff's The Joyful Knowing blog entitled Blanchot and Hegel's abstract negativity that I'll respond to at the weekend. For now, the opening lines:
In Literature and the Right to Death, Maurice Blanchot invokes, like Bataille throughout his Inner Experience, the concept of pure nothing, (or, as a power, a becoming) abstract negativity, that Hegel defines early on in the Master-Slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit as well as in the beginning of the Science of Logic. The use for this is clear, and also aptly summarizes what I think Bataille thinks of it also, with respect to the work of literature. Blanchot says that "Literature professes to be important while at the same time considering itself an object of doubt," in the sense that it, "by its very activity, denies the substance of what it represents" and thus is "its own negation".
Steve chooses "ten books that defy simple classification" and they are as below -- but the full annotated list is over on Editor's Corner:
- The Writing of the Disaster by Maurice Blanchot
- The Great Fire of London: a story with interpolations and bifurcations by Jacques Roubaud
- Extinction by Thomas Bernhard
- Poetry as Experience by Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe
- Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl by Gert Hofmann
- Selected Writings I-IV by Walter Benjamin
- Collected Poetry & Prose by Wallace Stevens
- The Total Library by Jorge Luis Borges
- Everything Passes by Gabriel Josipovici
- The Singer on the Shore by Gabriel Josipovici
Over on This Space, Steve reproduces Jean-Luc Nancy's tribute to Maurice Blanchot on the 100th anniversary of his birth:
Writing (literature) names this relationship. It does not transcribe a testimony, it does not invent a fiction, it does not deliver a message: it traces the infinite journey of meaning as it absents itself. This absenting is not negative; it shapes the chance and challenge of meaning itself. "To write" means continuously to approach the limit of speech, the limit that speech alone designates, whose designation makes us (speakers) unlimited... (More.)
Via the (new to me; thanks Robin) Outside Philosophy blog:
Peter Hallward, the excellent philosopher working at Middlesex University in London -- also part of the Radical Philosophy editorial collective -- has written an outstanding article on the interests of the British press. He contrasts the blanket coverage of a missing child to the almost total overlooking of the death of 80 Haitians at sea, deaths for which British authorities are responsible due to their callous disregard of the lives of those they intercept fleeing the poverty of Haiti. Poverty for which, it should always be recalled, American policy bears great responsibility. The article appears on what looks to be an important resource, haitianalysis.com.
He led a tormented life, and I cannot help but feel sadness for a would-be rebel who spent most of his life, as did Kerouac, living at home with his mother. He also drank himself to a horrible death. But while it is true that most great writers were tormented souls, it does not follow that most tormented souls were great writers. To call Kerouac’s writing mediocre is to do it too much honor: its significance is sociological rather than literary. The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.
I have seen some of the most mediocre minds of my generation destroyed by too great an interest in the Beats.
Linebaugh’s starting point is to argue that you cannot understand the history of London without understanding property relations within that society. And you cannot understand property relations and the development of capitalism without understanding the struggles that took place between those who had property, and those who had little or none.
I'm back ... I think! What a hectic summer. Somehow, the rain has exacerbated how busy I've been.
Montano's Malady [is] about a man who is literature-sick. Every situation in his life is immediately related to a memory of literature. Someone, he decides, looks like Robert Walser, which reminds him of that WG Sebald said Robert Walser looked like his grandfather and died in the same way, walking in the mountains, and so on. (Vila-Matas reminds me, incidentally, of a comic WG Sebald, if you can imagine such a thing). The narrator introduces his son, Montano, whose malady is the inability to write any further. The struggle with literature-sickness and Montano's Malady maintains the book's energy and, as Three Per Cent's review says, is also a sort of manifesto for a renewal of literature against its enemies (aka "Pico's moles").
Look what I found (well, via Anne at Fernham): Blogging Woolf: Focusing on Virginia Woolf and her circle, past and present.
Ed makes The Case for John Barth:
If literary blogs exist to dredge up the underrated authors of our time, I must ask why the litblogosphere, so capable of unearthing the neglected, has remained so silent concerning the great novelist John Barth. If Gilbert Sorrentino, William Gaddis, and David Markson cut the mustard with their postmodernist innovations, then Barth likewise deserves a spot in the This Guy is the Real Deal pantheon.
I've never read Barth, but I'm intrigued. You guys know him?
Great debate over at Languagehat on how best to translate tu and vous:
In Orlanda, by Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman, one of the characters suddenly switches from the formal “vous” to the informal “tu.” This is a crucial moment in the narrative. The speaker is a prissy, bourgeois woman of thirty-five. She is addressing a young man with whom she entertains a somewhat ambiguous relationship. For the Francophone reader, this unwitting switch from “vous” to “tu” signals an important shift in the woman’s feelings. The problem for the translator is how to convey this to the English-speaking reader ...
The Mole -- Official Blog of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society: tunnelling, mining and undermining since 2007.
Mr Stephen Mitchelmore, over on This Space, gives us a perfect thumbnail sketch of Peter Handke:
That's Peter Handke folks, author of Repetition about a 20-year-old Austrian man's journey from his home village to cross the border into a foreign land and "search" for his dead brother using his dictionary of Slovenian terms. And the author of On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, about a pharmacist who abandons his apoteke to travel across Europe. And author of My Year in the No-Man's Bay in which a writer imagines the adventures of his friends in foreign lands. And the author of Crossing the Sierra de Gredos about a German woman who travels to somewhere probably not-German. All internal worlds avoiding the entirely foreign, apparently.
In his piece, Steve correctly suggests that the title of Handke's book of poems, The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld, fairly much sums up his "deep awareness of the paradox of reading and writing" and its relationship to the Real.
I'm running out of time (again), so I doubt I'll post anything new here today: apologies for that. On Friday, though, over on Editor's Corner, I did write a longish blog about the Booker prize which might prove to be of interest:
The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is an odd phenomenon. Each year, the Booker longlist (just 13-strong this year, previously a list of 20 titles), shortlist and winner casts a long shadow over the UK literary fiction scene, and defines what literary titles get pushed in the country's bookshops.
Gaining the prize is guaranteed exposure for the novel concerned and can fully establish the career of the writer who wins. This isn't always the case, of course: when controversial Scottish writer James Kelman won with his (astonishing and quite superb) How Late it Was, How Was he and his publisher simply provided an awful lot of books for the remainder shops! The book sold in its hundreds, not the usual tens of thousands that a Booker winner can expect these days. And Kelman's book seemed to be a turning point for the prize, for a few years after the committee steered clear of "difficult" titles and picked a crop of more populist winners in the subsequent years.
The Man Booker committee says the prize "promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year," but its rules (not least its stricture that any publisher must agree "to contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist") mean that very many fine books fall through the baggy Booker net. It is an oft-repeated figure that about 10,000 books are published in the UK each month. Many of those books are non-fiction and so immediately rule themselves out of consideration for the Booker, but very many are not. The prize, however, faced with this deluge of writing only considers a tiny handful of books. This year, just 120 were read by the judges.
As the Literary Saloon points out this ensures that even some very, very big hitters were left out of this year's longlist. No room was found for: Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee, Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje, My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru, The Song Before It Is Sung by Justin Cartwright, and The Rain Before it Falls by Jonathan Coe. And goodness knows how many gems by obscure writers have been missed. Disappointingly, the committee did find room to include journeyman dullard Ian McEwan with his mediocre and underwhelming On Chesil Beach. The scandalous omission of Rosalind Belben's wonderful Our Horses in Egypt damns this year's judges still further.
The Booker Prize is good fun. It gets books -- and often some very decent books -- onto the news and into the bookshops. And the longlist isn't a bad overview of some of the year's best books. But it is not a definitive filtering mechanism and, objectively, the prize often fails to fine the very best book of the year. It fails because, quite simply, it just doesn't look hard enough. Considering just 100-odd titles is something of a disgrace.
If you really want to know the best book of the year, ask the bloggers. They cast their net much wider and bring far more insight and passion to their reading than the Booker judges ever can.
I'm not feeling very well! I'll get over it, but it means I've been rather slack here at RSB. Forgive me!? (I have, however, written a piece about the Booker prize over on TBD.)
So, as I have nothing to offer you today, please go and read Richard Crary's Smoothness of Surface where he discusses Henry James via Gass and Josipovici.
The memorial stone in Makar's Court, just off the Royal Mile, is seen as a suitably "dignified" tribute to the Edinburgh-born writer, who died in April last year. The simple stone slab will feature either a quotation from one of Dame Muriel's novels or her autobiography.
At the Makar's Court, she will take her place alongside Rabbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, who are also celebrated with inscriptions outside the city's Writers' Museum.(...)
The Muriel Spark Society has been planning a tribute to the author ever since her death, but has struggled to find funds.
But now, following a "generous donation" from an anonymous donor, the plans can go ahead.
I should've mentioned this a few days ago: Ellis's To the end of everything: Ann Quin’s 'Tripticks':
One of the very few critics to respond to Quin’s work is the American critic Philip Stevick, in his essay Voices in the Head: Style and Consciousness in the Fiction of Ann Quin in Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction ... Stevick usefully draws attention to three aspects of Quin’s writing which doubtless account for resistance to her work: the instability of the narrative voice/s, a narrow, ahistorical focus on the inner turbulence of a self in conflict with others, and indifference to storytelling and the manipulated patterns of a plot.
Over on the Kenyon Review blog, Jerry Harp has been Rereading Harper Lee. I'm not convinced I need to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, however. For all the social significance of its homilies it never really felt like more than a good children's book to me. Actually, I think I probably enjoyed the 1962 Gregory Peck film.
As readers of Harper Lee will recall, a central point–perhaps the central ethical lesson–of the novel occurs when Atticus tells Scout about the importance of climbing into another person’s skin and walking around in it, a lesson that Scout puts into practice in her dealings with her brother, Jem, and then with other persons such as Tom Robinson and Arthur Radley, persons who have been marginalized, made “into ghosts,” as Atticus puts it when discussing Arthur Radley with his children.
For a wee while, back in the mid-nineties, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, I used to work in an idyllic, small secondhand bookshop at the top of Hardman Street in Liverpool called Atticus. I'd often have a bottle of red wine on the go and get quietly pissed over the course of an afternoon, listening to Radio 3. Good times.
Author Michael Otterman has a blog over on his American Torture site. His book, also called American Torture, which was one of my Books of the Week back at the beginning of May, is out now from Pluto Press:
Michael Otterman reveals the long history of US torture. He shows how these procedures became standard practice in today's war on terror. Initially, the US military and CIA based their techniques on the work of their enemies: the Nazis, Soviets and Chinese. Billions of dollars were spent studying, refining, then teaching these techniques to instructors at military survival schools and interrogators charged with keeping communism at bay. Along the way, the US government produced torture-training manuals that were used in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere. As the Cold War ended, these tortures -- engineered to leave deep psychological wounds but few physical scars -- were legalized using the very laws designed to eradicate their use. After 9/11, they were revived again for use on enemy combatants detained in America's vast gulag of prisons across the globe -- from secret CIA black sites in Thailand to the Pentagon's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Here's the thing though: I've dug around and found very little in terms of translated literature. There's the recently published The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida (thanks to the Complete Review for this) but seemingly very little else. The Islands are well known for their thriving literary and poetry scene but I can't seem to find anything else that is readily available - anyone got any nuggets of wisdom out there, on this or any other aspect of the culture and history?
The Mountain *7 blog has fallen for Elizabeth Bishop:
I do seem to have rather fallen for Elizabeth Bishop recently - and not just for the spare warm wisdom of her poetry. After reading a small piece about her somewhere I went looking; and in the gaps between these three anecdotes and in the poem at the end there is something quietly beautiful, worth finding.
For more Bishop, do take a look at the lovely essay, Elizabeth Bishop: Why Is She So Good?, that the poet Anne Stevenson wrote for me for ReadySteadyBook a little while ago:
Bishop herself, in an essay called Writing Poetry is an Unnatural Act (brought to light in the recently published Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box) defined three qualities she most admired in the poetry she loved: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. Quoting Coleridge, she argued that the best poetry conveys “the most fantastic thoughts in the most correct and natural language”, opposing it to “the tiresome practice of conveying the most trivial thoughts in the most fantastic language.”
I've been arguing with the fabulously-named Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky over on the excellent Kenyon Review blog about the literary worth of Salman Rushdie's work. I'm not a fan, Sergei is:
I see The Satanic Verses as Rabelaisian in style and intent: a satiric excess that reflects what happens to language when empire makes it both an official language of power and a language of immigrants. The secret of empire is that you never truly conquer another people: you marry your children to them. That’s also true in language. You don’t teach those you conquer to speak your language; instead you find yourself speaking Anglostani on the streets of London or Calexican on the streets of L.A. To me, Rushdie’s linguistic excess is funny, and the inconsistencies in his tone reflect the clashing of worlds. That’s the most important narrative of our time, and if the writing sprawls and lacks purity, that’s exactly the point.
This is an odd book, professing to be a novel; wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic; in places charmingly and vividly descriptive. The author has read up laboriously to make a show of cetalogical learning... Herman Melville is wise in this sort of wisdom. He uses it as stuffing to fill out his skeleton story. Bad stuffing it makes, serving only to try the patience of his readers, and to tempt them to wish both him and his whales at the bottom of an unfathomable sea...
Catherine Tate as Donna, the runaway bride
Completely concurring with Emma over on the Snowblog who said yesterday:
Words cannot convey the horror, shock, sadness and derision I feel upon hearing that Catherine Tate is going to be the new Companion. I utterly give up. Russell T Davies, you are *ruining* Doctor Who and it's not yours to ruin. It's going to be dire. I am so mad.
Tate seems such a backward step to me. Her annoying mannerisms (and, jeez, Donna the runaway bride was such an annoying character) coupled with her limited actorly range (plainly, I'm out of my depth talking about the telly!) surely mean that the new Companion will move Doctor Who back towards the sillier plots and away from the recent darker episodes.
Carey Mulligan, star of the Blink episode
Why can't it have been Carey Mulligan (who did such a splendid job as Sally Sparrow in Steven Moffat's excellent Blink episode)?
Don't do too much TV, but I do like my Who ... and this has pissed me off!
Yesterday, Steve reminded me, was Franz Kafka's 124th birthday. Steve quotes from "the final paragraph of Ernst Pawel's biography from 1984 with the winning title: The Nightmare of Reason." Reason, and what reason means, is very much on my mind at the moment, of course, with my ongoing Dan Hind interview.
Admitting that the quote (below) is a "little excessive perhaps," Steve says, "I'd say his "innermost self" was his innermost non-self too and that giving shape to anguish is the opposite of anguish. Anyway, for Kafka, reason was as problematic as faith" --
The world that Kafka was 'condemned to see with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable' [a quotation from Milena's obituary] is our own post-Auschwitz universe, on the brink of extinction. His work is subversive, not because he found the truth, but because, being human and therefore having failed to find it, he refused to settle for half-truths and compromise solutions. In visions wrested from his innermost self, and in language of crystalline purity, he gave shape to the anguish of being human.
Alex Good is enthusiastic about Tom McCarthy’s Remainder – but to my mind, oddly so. To me, the book isn’t at all self-consciously literary. Its virtues include its plain, stripped-down qualities rather than any nudging of the reader in the direction of influences. I’ve read The Collector several times, and not once was I reminded of it when I read Remainder. And while Ballard may be a more plausible influence, he’s not an overt one and I didn’t once think – hmm, this reminds me of Crash – when I read the book. Lots of novels remind me of other novels. Not so Remainder, which struck me as utterly and brilliantly original. Whatever the influences may have been, they have been absorbed, filtered and made invisible.
... blogs tend toward shorter pieces than magazines or newspapers. Straight up reviews tend to be shorter than longer critical essays. I still expect all of them to deal with the subject of fiction (and poetry!) with the same sort of honesty, earnestness, intelligence, insight and passion. I want all of them to make me think about fiction in new ways, to expose me to authors I've never heard of, and make me reconsider the ones I have. And if you can do that, I'll call the work you do it with whatever name you want me to.
Eric looks at this subject through the prism of the differences between the work of the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani and James Wood ("who writes chiefly for the New Republic and The Guardian"). Essentially, dismissing Kakutani and lauding Wood, Eric only sees a difference of "of quality rather than of genre" between the two. I'm not so sure. I think at some point the differences in quality (and, often, length) between a review and criticism make the distinction useful. Certainly, at one extreme, the difference is obvious: a 200-word plot summary is not criticism. As a review gets more complex and in-depth, though, it is a distinction one often feels but that isn't particularly easy to define.
One difference between the two forms might be the focus in reviewing on the book in hand, the story it is telling, and how successfully it accomplishes what it sets out to do: synopsis plus brief evaluation. With criticism, the book is additionally placed in its wider context and set against other works (often within a particular -- and sometimes particularly technical -- critical apparatus): synopsis, context, evaluation. With a review, the theoretical perspective is rarely made apparent -- the review is a "common-sense" take. Criticism is aware that any "common-sense" view of literature is naive: it hides an ideological reading it simply isn't aware of. Criticism incorporates the knowledge of the existence of its own perspective into its reading. Kakutani blathers; James Wood -- whether you agree with it or not -- has an explicit theory and measures work against it.
Nice: separated by a common language -- "Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK." (I can now spell "separate" correctly each time I type it because Mrs Book, a teacher, told me t'other day that "there is a rat in separate" -- genius!)
Some believe the dream comes from the gods. Some believe that the dream comes from the ancestors. Some believe that dreams come from a part of the dreamer’s self usually remote or removed from consciousness. Some believe that dreams are scraps of memory and fantasy, remnants of the day. All of these beliefs are probably true enough in their ways, and certainly all have been productive of creative and analytic results. Scriptures and assassinations, benzene rings and orphic odes arise from dreams.
What if the dream is something else as well? Not individual, not a message from God or from the archetypes or from the soul. We hear Freudians speak of the language of dream, but what if dream is language, is language the way language is language: systematic, intentional, focused on saying something. What if dream is above all, exactly as language is, social. This is the aspect of the dream that is seldom considered, dream as arising from the speaking back into a community, a community of native dreamers (so to say).
It was to examine the idea that a dream seeks an intended audience outside the dreamer, that the Annandale Dream Gazette was founded years ago. The dreamer dreams towards someone—and that someone is within the community. Thus two goals are achieved by harvesting the night’s dreams and publishing them: the dream may find its intended hearer, and we may gradually come to learn the nature and shape of the community itself, the community into which one dreams.
So: the dream is public. The dream is social. The dream is communication. The dream intends to speak to you. These are the notions to investigate.
I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promotory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this mighty o'rehanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire; why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, how like an angel in aprehension, how like a God! The beauty of the world, paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dusk. Man delights not me, no, nor women neither, nor women neither.
Patrick Kurp on Aharon Appelfeld over at Anecdotal Evidence:
The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Romania. Eight years later the Nazis seized Czernowitz, his home town, killed his mother and deported Appelfeld and his father to a concentration camp in the Ukraine. He escaped and remained a fugitive for three years before joining the Red Army. Read some of the details the details in The Story of a Life, his emblematic chronicle of 20th-century horrors narrated by a voice as quiet and oblique as the voices in his novels. Where Piotr Rawicz, another Holocaust survivor, narrates scenes of unbearable cruelty in Blood from the Sky, Appelfeld’s aesthetic remains rooted in indirection. Even when his narrative is dry and fatual, a mist clings to his words. I can’t think of another novel in which so much is left so eloquently unsaid as Badenheim 1939.
I met Appelfeld 20 years ago at a holocaust conference I was covering as a reporter. He was soft-spoken, laconic, avuncular. I introduced myself and we talked. I no longer have my notes but I remember how disarming his affability seemed. Did this explain his aesthetic, his reliance on absence as presence? How could a boy who lived by his wits from age 8 turn into so gracious a man?
A few links for you:
The Millions blog on Clive James (via enowning):
To the extent that they endorsed or downplayed (respectively) totalitarian regimes, Heidegger and Sartre could be seen to have fallen short of their own philosophies. But to reach this nuanced verdict, one has to have actually tried to understand the philosophies in question, and James can't be bothered with philosophy (not a great quality in a cultural critic). Even Hegel and Kant get his goat. I had always thought of the anti-intellectualism and paranoia as a combination peculiar to the American far right, but apparently it can afflict Aussie humanists, too.
Benjamin Markovits on Henry James: The Complete Letters:
The fact that we still like him as much in his confident maturity as we did in his hesitant youth may have something to do with the sweet, dull, generous, loving loneliness of the role he has been cast in here: a man on his own, thinking of others, and sitting down to write them a letter.
- The US-based initiative Reading The World is back this June:
Reading The World is an exciting collaboration between booksellers and publishers interested in bringing international voices to the attention of readers like you. As a result, throughout the month of June and beyond, many independent bookstores across the country will be displaying the titles found on the following pages. These forty books represent some of the most exciting literature being written outside the United States. From Lithuania to Iraq, from Norway to Chile, the writers offer an excellent introduction to a variety of cultures and ideas found outside our borders—ideas and cultures that we must have access to in order to understand our world.
- On July 3rd, to mark the publication of her novel Guilty, Peter Owen are going to hold an Anna Kavan evening at the London Review Bookshop. Brain Aldiss, Doris Lessing Virginia Ironside and Christopher Priest will be holding a panel discussion about Kavan's life and work amidst a few brief readings.
Pierre Joris's Nomadics blog is back after a couple of months of silence with details of a new book of poems from Pierre called Aljibar. (For those interested, it can be purchased directly from the publisher, Editions PHI, or, starting in late June, from the Canadian co-publisher, Editions des Forges, or, directly via Ta'wil Productions.)
Via Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence:
The poet-translator Michael Hofmann reviews The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, by Zbigniew Herbert, in the May issue of Poetry. Hofmann idolizes Herbert but eviscerates his latest translator, Alissa Valles, and addresses the question of why John and Bogdana Carpenter, Herbert's longtime translators, were not given the task. Here's a sample of Hofmann's rage:
"Alissa Valles's Herbert is slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect. The original (I'm quite sure) is none of those things. This Collected Poems is a hopelessly, irredeemably bad book. The only solution to its problems would be a bulk reinstatement of the old translations. These things matter so much; it would be nice if they made a difference."
Hofmann goes on to say:
"New translation" is never the infallible trump that publishers sometimes wish (do they ever believe it?) when they are driven to play it. Old translations hang around, even when they are notionally superseded or replaced, even when they have been discredited, which again is manifestly not the case here. Constance Garnett's Tolstoy, Scott-Moncrieff's Proust, Edwin and Willa Muir's Kafka, H.T. Lowe-Porter's Thomas Mann—all have their adherents. Notable instances in poetry would include the Rilke of J.B. Leishman or C.F. MacIntyre, and the Cavafy of Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherard. As the song has it, the first cut is the deepest.
Richard Duguid has good news over at The Penguin Blog:
There was much excitement in my department, Penguin Copy-Editorial (popularly known as Editorial 2), on Thursday, when final proofs of the new Penguin Classics translation of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) were signed off. First proofs of Kant's extraordinarily dense and difficult philosophical Meisterwerk arrived in the department on 27 March ... 2001. Yes, after a mere six years, one month and a bit we, along with translator Marcus Weigelt, have finally satisfied ourselves that all is well with the text and that printing can now commence (though in a fit of nervousness over when we might actually finish, the publication date was last year moved to November 2007, so you'll have to wait a while to get your hands on a copy).
Richard goes to to praise translator Weigelt's introduction:
While the text itself might be too much for most of us to stomach, the translator's introduction is a work of comic genius. The opening few pages are some of the funniest I've read. At least in a Classics introduction. Unlike most intros, this one tells it to you straight: 'You are not going to enjoy reading this book. No one ever has. Even professional philosophers can't hack it.' Which is strange, because of course it's hugely influential and significant.
Nice rant from Katya over at the Hesperus Press Blog:
I honestly don’t believe that our society has ‘dumbed down’. I think we as an industry need to provide the range to allow readers to make their own decisions, for god’s sake let someone choose the author with the funny name. And the media need to expand their attentions to more than the books with the largest marketing department behind them.
The inimitable Ellis Sharp takes down "crap writer" Lionel Shriver:
These days I don’t need a bucket to throw up in – I need something at least the size of a horse trough.
For those of us who care about such things, the publication last year, for the first time in English (translated from the German by Michael Hoffmann), of Bernhard's first novel, Frost, was a major literary event -- of significantly more importance than most of what seems to set the book world atwitter. Frost was originally published in 1963, twelve years before Correction (which is the earliest of the other Bernhard novels I own). Flipping through the book, right away differences are apparent: actual paragraph breaks! Rarely a paragraph longer than two pages! And, at 342 pages, the book is considerably longer than his other fiction (100-150 pages longer than Correction and The Loser, more than twice as long as both Old Masters and Concrete). In other ways, however, it quickly becomes clear that Bernhard's concerns in this novel were of a piece with his later fiction, though he had not yet refined his methods.
I am now back in sunny Stockport having returned from the madness that is the London Book Fair at about 9 o'clock last night. At the Fair, I contributed rather amateurishly to the Promoting Books Online seminar run by the Publishers’ Publicity Circle. My excellent co-speakers, David Freeman (Meet the Author), Anna Rafferty (Online Marketing Director, Penguin) and Rose Wild (Books Editor, Times Online) more than compensated for my nonsense, however -- thanks to them for being such an excellent panel. And thanks to the PPC for inviting me along to speak. Apologies to those who turned up expecting to see Scott Pack for whom I filled in at the last minute!
To those readers finding ReadySteadyBook for the first time because of my Book Fair talk: welcome! I'd also encourage y'all to take a look at BritLitBlogs to get a fuller sense of what is going on in the British literary blogosphere...
I always find the LBF experience to be very contradictory: I'm both energised and enervated by it in almost equal measure. The whole corporate jamboree aspect is unpleasant, but you meet up with lots of old friends and, if you're lucky, make a few new friends along the way. I finally met Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians of Melville House Publishing which was a real thrill and I also met up with lots of the hard-working publicists and marketing people who keep me and RSB in books throughout the year: lovely to have met you all!
As you may have noted, April is National Poetry Month over in the US. Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux have launched a National Poetry Month blog called The Best Words in their Best Order. They promise:
... a lot of great stuff planned for the month, including newly recorded audio from many of FSG's frontlist poets. Posts this week include Seamus Heaney, reading both his own poem and one by Ted Hughes; Thom Gunn (recorded in 1996) reading Elizabeth Bishop; and alternate cover art for Frederick Seidel's recent collection Ooga-Booga. Derek Walcott, Paul Muldoon, Yves Bonnefoy (reading in French!), Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and C.K. Williams are all to come.
This has the advantage of at least being quite comprehensive. Abbas Raza, over at 3Quarks, "found both sides to be remarkably honest, sincere, and free of glibness and antipathy for the other. Some of what Sullivan writes is surprisingly touching in a personal way ... It is worth reading in its entirety": "Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism."
Over time, Stephen Mitchelmore has proved himself to be what I've called him before: the finest writer we have in the literary blogosphere. Those who read his This Space blog are regularly treated to the most thoughtful meditations on literature and its troubled meanings. On Saturday, in the Guardian's From the Blogs column, Richard Lea misrepresented Stephen quite outrageously. Lea quoted a post disparaging Ian McEwan, allying it with a positive comment about McEwan from Book Dwarf, thus reversing Steve's negative appraisal. Either this was mendacious or idiotic on the part of Richard Lea. And I'd like him to tell us which it was: can he not read properly or was he being dishonest? It is surely one of the two. I know his colleagues at the Guardian read this blog, and I've regularly corresponded with Sarah Crown who usually composes From the Blogs. So, if Lea doesn't read this, she can pass the message on to him. I await his response.
Update: Richard Lea is away on holiday, but his colleague Sarah Crown has replied both to me personally and in the comments (below).
Yesterday, the complete review celebrated eight years of being online. A magnificent milestone; a great website. Well done!
My blog over at The Book Depository website, Editor's Corner as I've styled it, hadn't really got going over the past couple of weeks. I've posted some interesting links, but the blog hadn't really got an identity. Well, hopefully that is beginning to change. Over the past couple of days, I've blogged Waterstones goes lowbrow, What use copyright? and How can publishers influence blogs and bloggers? Each of these posts could happily also have been posted here, but I want to keep RSB for more literary (and personal and political) matters and over at Editor's Corner just deal with stuff that is affecting the publishing industry. Obviously, there will be the occassional overlap, but the intention is to keep the two fairly much apart.
Update: The comments facility on my Editor's Corner blog wasn't working. It now is. I thank you!
Victoria, over at Tales from the Reading Room, takes a look at "defamiliarisation":
Well, of course, when I started to think about this, all that came to mind were examples of people getting very upset over the issue of dashed narrative expectations. Back in the 50s and 60s in France, a new literary movement developed in reaction to the socio-political realism of Existentialism, and it was called the ‘nouveau roman’ or the new novel. What was new about the new novel was that it tried not to look like a novel at all. Rather in the way that modern art stubbornly refuses to draw pictures of things we might recognise, so the new novel attempted to dispense with character, plot, and often punctuation, to see how far you could bend the rules and still have something like representation. And, my God, did people hate it!
After a good, long while of waiting, a new Scarecrow (no.45, Offbeat & Brutalism...) has hit the web. For all your post-Beat, cult-lit needs!
I attended a fascinating, wonderful, incisive (just think very positive adjectives!) talk by Gabriel Josipovici on Wednesday evening -- entitled Whatever happened to modernism? -- at the Commonwealth Institute, Russell Square, Big London. And I wasn't the only one: excellent report on the evening from Ellis Sharp and also from Steve at This-Space.
Sandra, Mrs Book World to you, thinks she has Bloom Syndrome:
I think I have Bloom Syndrome: a condition in which the sufferer is unable to read any work of literature unless it is deemed Significant by Harold Bloom and which often results in the reader losing the will to live/read, crushed under the weight of canonical imperatives. The Syndrome develops gradually with the sufferer firstly accepting the notion that some books are better than others, placing undue emphasis on books which have won prizes or been favourably reviewed by The Clever People in newspapers. This begins the descent into genre deprecation in which all romance/chick lit is dismissed as unreadable, followed gradually by an inability to stomach any fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers and finally, mystery novels (these are the last genre to be abandoned because Clever People occasionally admit to reading them as a guilty pleasure). Thereafter sufferers quickly develop Classic monomania, a state of mind in which the literary tastes of the now emaciated reader have become so distorted that she can take only small doses of books endorsed by His Bloomness as being Works Of Genius. If left untreated, the Syndrome can result in a fatal loss of the love of reading.
Her suggested self-cure is reading "a book for pure pleasure irrespective of the name on the cover or what The Clever People think of it." But I don't understand this. I'm with Steve, I only ever read for pleasure, and I don't understand this talk of "guilty pleasures". Further, I don't understand how and why "engaging fully and thoughtfully" with a book is deemed to be synonymous with that book being difficult or arcance and the reading of it a source of displeasure:
Of course, this philistine drivel flows from the assumption that Great Art is a Platonic realm and good for you like a sermon, while "guilty pleasures" are what we'd all prefer to engage in instead. When I read litbloggers on this subject, for example the otherwise excellent LitKicks just the other day, it's like they've been taken over by the Nick Hornby hypnotoad. It isn't about snobbery but making the distinction between an ephemeral need and what is needed at the deepest level. How many times does it need saying? If a mass-market, blockbuster paperback offers to fulfil the latter need, then please tell us about it!
This is why I read litblogs, to find the books I need to read on a very personal level. As I don't read mass-market, blockbuster paperbacks, I'm open to convincing suggestions. I'm not a snob you see. I'm happy to "confess" that I watch lots of trash TV. Top Gear and Most Haunted are among my favourites (even though I don't drive or believe in ghosts). But if I'm going to write here about what I watch, I'd prefer to write about Eloge de l'Amour. Not because I'm "ashamed" of the others or because I'm trying to put up an intellectual front, but for the same reason restaurant critics write about eating the finest food and not about shitting it out.
The other day, I noticed a snide and cretinous wee remark from pro-war leftist Norman "normblog" Geras concerning something Dylan Trigg had said in my recent interview with him. Far more interesting and noteworthy contributions to the debate about "postmodern relativism" and its attendant issues comes via Sign and Sight:
French philosopher Pascal Bruckner accused Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash of propagating a form of multiculturalism that amounts to legal apartheid. His fiery polemic unleashed an international debate (here). Buruma and Garton Ash were quick to answer. In a subsequent piece, Paul Cliteur criticises the "postmodern relativism" of Buruma and Stuart Sim. Sim answers [here].
There is an interview with the peerless Gabriel Josipovici over at Cruelest Month. (Gabriel's novel Goldberg: Variations is just out with Harper Perennial in the States; also worth noting once again, Gabriel's website):
It is all very well setting a short story in an earlier period, but I had no desire to ‘research the period’ as I would have had to do if I was to write a whole novel set in it. I not only do not particularly like historical novels (with a very few maverick exceptions, such as William Golding’s The Spire), I don’t believe in them or think they are a viable road for the modern writer to go down.
Mark Sarvas, a New York-born son of Hungarian parents, a voracious reader, a Francophile and a foodie, comes to Los Angeles to be a writer, sells some screenplays and starts an acclaimed literary blog, The Elegant Variation.
In a post earlier today, Jonathan Derbyshire quotes from (some of?) his forthcoming interview with Nick Cohen, "in which he and I discuss his forthcoming book What's Left?" I suspect that I will have plenty to take issue with in Cohen's book, but I've yet to see a copy, and so will reserve my comments to simply trying to work out what Jonathan (and Cohen) mean in the following. Cohen is quoted as saying, "Because you’re no longer a socialist putting forward a programme, you don’t have to stand for anything. That’s why so many people read Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore – they don’t have to commit to anything. They just have to jeer." Jonathan calls this a "chastening diagnosis" He goes on to say, "at least in setting it out Cohen shows that there is still an alternative on the left to Chomsky’s suave nihilism and Moore's lumpen idiocies."
The only coherent reason for singling out Chomsky and Moore in this way is that they are both bestselling authors. Politically their methods are miles apart and, whilst no doubt many people buy books by both writers, their agendas and their constituencies are very different too. Moore's populism is useful for puncturing the pomposity of the powerful; Chomsky's critiques are far more considered and careful. Regardless of this, I take objection to Cohen's statement that those who read Chomsky and Moore do so merely to "jeer". Of course, when one buys a book one commits to nothing whatsoever. But many of those who have bought books by Chomsky and Moore, like I'm sure some who will buy Cohen's book, do so because of a profound interest in what is going on in the world. Those books represent just part of a way that they might begin to understand and engage in it. Further, I have no idea whatsoever how Chomsky can be called a "nihilist" (Derbyshire I'm sure knows what this word means, so I have no idea why he applies it). I'm guessing that it might be because Chomsky offers a partial critique of the Left from the Left, but I'm unsure. And the phrase "Moore's lumpen idiocies" sounds like the silliest kind of snobbery to me.
What underlies this rather forceless little attack on Moore and Chomsky, and those who read them, is Cohen's statement, followed by Jonathan's comment that "‘socialism as a practical political project is simply dead.’ What remains is the anti-imperialism of fools." What that actually equates to meaning is that those who opposed the war in Iraq, and the subsequent killing of 650,000 Iraqi civilians, are idiots. Well, I'm an idiot then. I console myself by thinking, nay jeering, that at least I know what nihilism means.
On July 2 we will observe the 30th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov’s death, a reality that remains unacceptable. I have never fallen so hard for a writer as I did for Nabokov in 1970, when I started reading all his available books, out of order, early self-translated Russian titles mingling promiscuously with the American and post-American masterpieces. One of the reasons I fell in love with Tristram Shandy was that I read an essay by Frank Kermode in which he likened Nabokov’s Bend Sinister to Sterne’s masterpiece. Nabokov was never a systematic critic of literature but his influence on my tastes was lasting. Dostoevsky remains “Dusty,” and Freud, more than ever, is the “Viennese quack.” The aim of reading and writing, he taught us, is “aesthetic bliss.”
In my last post I said, "Whilst on a continuing lookout for new fiction that is 'intelligent, edgy, and interesting' I mostly find mediocrity or much worse." Sayed Kashua's Let It Be Morning is a particurly good example of just exactly what I mean.
I was asked to review Kashua's second novel (his debut was the well-received Dancing Arabs) for the FT. (My review should be published very soon; indeed, it may well have already seen the light of the day. After the sub-editor and I wrangled over every line, goodness knows how butchered it might be when it appears!) In the inside cover of the book there are several glowing notices from US and German newspapers, as well as one from Ha'aretz, the Israeli newspaper that Kashua works for. One of the US reviewers quoted is Laila Lalami, whose often very fine blog, which used to be called Moorish Girl, you may well know. Laila is quoted as writing, "the text is rendered quite beautifully and the absurdity of the events [Kashua] describes so unflinchingly brings to mind Kafka". On Saturday, reviewing the book in the Guardian, Maya Jaggi wrote: "disturbing and powerfully accomplished ... Let It Be Morning is reminiscent of Orwell and Kafka". Wow! Sounds great, doesn't it? It isn't.
My review of Let It Be Morning was my first for the FT. The initial draft was very elliptical as I didn't want to condemn the book too strongly, but the FT's sub-editor, quite rightly, seemed to want me to be more forthright and direct. I still held myself back even in the finished piece, however, simply stating, "Let It Be Morning reads as a rather prosaic documentary. It dutifully reports on the quotidian miseries that occur because of the barricade [the novel is about what happens to an Arab Isreali village when surrounded by Isreali tanks], but the writing itself never moves beyond the commonplace." One word would best sum up the novel and that is adequate. It is fine. It would be difficult to render a narrative about the difficult, liminal status of Arab Israelis totally boringly, but Kashua, a journalist, brings us nothing but a journalistic recounting of events. The glowing reviews seem to think that the fascinating content and context of Kashua's work is enough to make his book noteworthy, but that simply isn't good enough. The book is mediocre through and through.
Rod Liddle's recent Sunday Times article, Has fiction lost its power?, has been widely circulated and commented upon. Indeed, Scott Esposito's always engaging Conversational Reading referred to the article just yesterday. Like Fausto, one of Scott's commenters, I found a number of the book recommendations in Liddle's piece rather unconvincing, and I find the bloke himself (after pro-war absurdities) quite odious. Like Scott, I'm suspicious that Liddle is just a sour elitist but, unlike Scott, I find myself agreeing with the basic, well-worn argument of the piece. Scott says, "When I can read 70 novels a year -- many of them recently published -- and find a majority of them very intelligent, edgy, and interesting, then all arguments for the so-called decline of fiction are going to feel inherently flawed." I'm astonished. I read as omnivorously as most, yet I find nearly all the new novels I read to be very, very meagre fare indeed. Whilst on a continuing lookout for new fiction that is "intelligent, edgy, and interesting" I mostly find mediocrity or much worse.
About Anton Chekhov: One of Russia's greatest writers, Chekhov began his career writing jokes and anecdotes for popular magazines to support himself while he studied to become a doctor. Between 1888 and his death he single-handedly revolutionized both the drama and the short story. Near the end of his life he married an actress, Olga Knipper. He died from tuberculosis in 1904, age 44.
About this project: Constance Garnett translated and published 13 volumes of Chekhov stories in the years 1916-1922. Unfortunately, the order of the stories is almost random, and in the last volume Mrs. Garnett stated: "I regret that it is impossible to obtain the necessary information for a chronological list of all Tchehov's works." This site presents all 201 stories in the order of their publication in Russia.
About the notes: I have added notes to explain both the cultural practices of 19th century Russia and the occasional Britishisms that Mrs. Garnett used in her translations. Passages marked in blue have an explantory note at the end of the story. I am particularly indebted to Edgar H. Lehrman's A Handbook to 86 of Chekhov's Stories and Ronald Hingley's notes in the Oxford Chekhov (Volumes 4-9). A complete list of Constance Garnett's translations of Russian literature is here.
Also, Seamus Heaney, who is currently recovering from a mild stroke, has been named winner of the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry:
Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has been named winner of the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry, collecting a cheque for £10,000. He won for his latest collection, District and Circle, which draws on his travels to work on the London Underground in his younger days. The prize was presented by TS Eliot's widow, Valerie Eliot, at a ceremony in central London. (More via the BBC.)
Tillie Olsen, a leftist, feminist novelist who was targeted by McCarthy-era smear-tactics and wrote, too, of the struggles of writing while also working and raising children died two weeks shy of her 95th birthday.
Her granddaughter commented on my blog and let me know about a really great tribute planned for this Saturday:
"the family requests that on her birthday, January 14th, people whose lives have been touched by Tillie gather with friends in their homes and public libraries to celebrate her life and to read her work together. We would be comforted to hear from you about your celebrations. Please email us: firstname.lastname@example.org"
It would be wonderful if people from the feminist blogging and litblogging community could take a few hours out, on this upcoming Martin Luther King Holiday Weekend, to her.
You can visit the family's memorial site here: tillieolsen.net
I would really be excited to think that we all could re-read (or read) I Stand Here Ironing or some other great story and inform the family about it.
Happy new year! All the very best to all in 2007!
Things should get back into normal gear around here on Wednesday which is also my first day full-time in my new job editing The Book Depository website. It's gonna be another busy year!
Well, I trust you are all having a good winter break? Mrs Book and I are just back from Paris and I won't be doing much here for a few days: there is booze to be drunk and chocolates to be consumed! I have, however, updated the Books of the Year 2006 symposium a tiny bit (make sure you check out the newly added entries from Julián Ríos and Anthony Rudolf) and I will be working on some site housekeeping
Right, see you in a day or two.
We asked ... readers to name writers they feel aren't getting the attention they deserve, those writers they feel are "underrated" — however they choose to define it ... The results, as with last year, are delightful, in the most literal sense of the word. We have writers from almost every continent, poets from the past, essayists who are concerned for the future, and novelists desperate to understand the now. Only two writers were nominated only twice, which tells us we asked the right group of people to give us as broad a list as possible.
The matchless Stephen Mitchelmore has just written a wonderful piece on Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe Trilogy for our edification: The sea closes up, and so does the land. Do take the time to read it, it is, as you'd expect from Mr Mitchelmore, a brilliant essay.
I must admit that Richard Ford has never really appealed to me, but John Banville's recent admission, in Salon magazine, of his fondness for the writer, coupled with Steve's tremendous article, has made me think I should, perhaps, reconsider. Banville said:
I'm becoming a little embarrassed at my enthusiasm for Richard Ford's novel The Lay of the Land, but it does seem to me the finest piece of fiction out of America in a long time. Its two predecessors in the Frank Bascombe trilogy, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, are marvelous works, but this new volume is remarkably fluid and accommodating in an almost Proustian way -- and it's laugh-out-loud funny, too.
And a taster of what Steve has to say:
The reviews take it for granted that this is a novel like any other, only much better than most. Yet right from the start Bascombe consigns his literary career to the past. He won’t be writing a novel again. This will be something much less than that. It will be enough for his to speak in “a voice that is really mine” as he says. The manuscript of his first novel got lost in the post. Soon after he wrote a collection of stories which weren’t. Indeed they got published and were well-received. The film rights were then sold for a lot of money. Using that foundation, he settled down to write another novel. Half way through his son died, and so did the novel. “I don’t expect to retrieve it unless something I cannot now imagine happens.” That ambiguity of that unimaginable something resonates throughout The Sportswriter. It suggests that the novel must find a connection to life that it now apparently lacks.
Last year's ReadySteadyBook Books of the Year symposium 2005 was a great success. So, I'll be doing similar this year, and the symposium should be up on the site over Xmas. No doubt, I'm as ambivalent as many of you are about these lists, but they do sometimes remind one of forgotten titles or, better still, introduce you to books that somehow have passed you by.
Prospect magazine have a fine Books of the Year list up online already, actually:
Books of the year features can seem pretty pointless, ladling hype on books that have already been fulsomely praised. In order to elicit livelier responses, Prospect asked a range of contributors to nominate their "most overrated and underrated books of 2006."
David Cox, broadcaster (nope, I don't know him either), is amusingly cross with regard to these overrated titles:
The Night Watch, Sarah Waters (Virago). An imitation Catherine Cookson for dim but pretentious lesbians.
The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai (Hamish Hamilton). A typically box-ticking, offence-avoiding Booker winner whose supposedly innovative structure is more sensibly viewed as narrative incompetence.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Bantam). Dreary rant by anti-religious fanatic lacking any grasp of all but a minor aspect of the subject he purports to address.
David Herman, writer, has the good sense to choose my year-favourite:
The Singer on the Shore: Essays, 1991-2004 by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet). Superb collection of essays by one of the greatest critics of the last 30 years. Worth it just for the first essay on the Bible.
Finally, Sandra, over at Book World, is "struggling to decide on [her] five favourite books of the year":
Depressingly, there are at least twelve books (which will remain nameless) which with hindsight I wish I'd given up on. But one always reads in hope. And even to the last page I worry in case a tedious book might suddenly pull itself together and turn out to be amazing and that I'll miss something if I give up. So far I have finished 69 books this year (and given up on half a dozen along the way) and I'm seriously tempted to say that it was too many.
Jörg Friedrich's The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 is just out from Columbia University Press. The author will be in the UK, speaking at the London Review bookshop, on Thursday, February 1st (in discussion with Joanna Bourke, author of Fear: A Cultural History; chaired by Peter Furtado, editor of History Today). On the Columbia site there is a podcast interview with Friedrich, an excerpt from the book and there are more links to reviews and the like.
Steve recently wrote about The Fire noting the irony that Friedrich actually supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Back in April 2003, Steve wrote a letter to the TLS in response to a review in their pages, by Daniel Johnson, of three books about the WWII air raids on Germany. That letter begins:
Daniel Johnson is right to dismiss the "moral equivalence" between the air war on Nazi Germany and the "Shock and Awe" campaign against Saddam's Iraq. One was an attack on a nation with the highest military spending in the world, bent on global expansion and threatening to succeed. The other is an attack by the most expensive military force in world history on an impoverished country with no apparent means of defence. How on Earth can they be the same?
I've recently been enjoying John Mullan's How Novels Work (indeed, it was one of my Books of the Week last week). I failed to mention, however, that back on the 5th December, over on the OUP USA blog, John Mullan gave his fine book a nice puff:
Listen to most of the talk about fiction in the media and you will find it mostly concerns what novels are about. Yet novels grip us (or fail to grip us) not because of their subject matter but because of how they are written. And leading novelists of the last decade have carried experiments with form and structure into the mainstream of fiction. To take an American example, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a book with three narrative strands set in different times, intricately alluding to Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel Mrs Dalloway, managed to be a bestseller. In Britain in 2004 the bestseller list was for a while headed by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – a novel of six narratives in different times and genres, nested in a ‘Russian doll structure’, and a knowing variation of a technique developed by Italo Calvino in his supposedly avant-garde If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller…
When is this imaginative innovation, and when is it just trickiness? What terms and ideas is it useful to have in discussing contemporary novels? Thanks to reading groups, these novels are often subject to the analysis and argument that used to be reserved for the classics. The features that we most want to describe (plot, dialogue, character) are not mysterious, but emerge much more clearly if we understand what the words mean, and can compare different examples. Even the stranger-sounding novelistic techniques (metanarrative, prolepsis, amplification) are easily explained and easy to recognize.
Should have mentioned this earlier: Scott Esposito's estimable Quarterly Conversation is now online with the Winter 2006 edition.
Patrick Kurp (and Dave) bring my attention to Golden Rule Jones' work on Robert Walser (1878-1956), the Swiss-German writer who "led a life of obscurity but whose admirers included Kafka, Hesse, Musil and Walter Benjamin":
In memory of Robert Walser, who died 50 years ago on Christmas Day, Golden Rule Jones has undertaken a shamefully belated act of homage on behalf of the English-speaking world by translating from the German, with a friend, Carl Seelig’s Wanderungen mit Robert Walser. Walser spent more than 20 years of his life in mental hospitals. Seelig was an admirer and eventually the guardian of the great Swiss writer, and visited him once or twice a year from 1936 until Walser’s death. Seelig accompanied Walser on long walks in the mountains surrounding his sanitarium at Herisau. By 1936, Walser had stopped writing but Seelig worked to keep his friend’s work in print. Seelig’s book, published the year after Walser’s death, chronicles his visits, but so far as I can tell this intriguing and valuable sounding book has never been translated into English.
Steve has revamped This Space. His new blog template is called Beckett. Nice.
I just have to bring your attention to a fabulous Publisher of the Week interview I did with Lindsay Waters of Harvard University Press over at The Book Depository. Lindsay is the Executive Editor for the Humanities at HUP and has given the most wonderful, chunky answers to my (rather dull) five generic questions.
Sorry! More self-pimping: my "guest-blog" spot at the Poetry Foundation continues. Yesterday, I had a piece on Roy Fisher, and later today a post on Tomas Tranströmer should see the light of day. I'll have more to say about Robin Robertson's new versions of Tranströmer's The Deleted World (Enitharmon) here next week (I likes it!) In the meantime, please read the Poetry Foundation stuff -- and please leave comments! Thanks!
I’m a fully qualified Eng Lit gatekeeper - the right qualifications from the right university - and I just don’t think the broadsheets are any good at the job they claim to do when asserting ownership of literary standards or style. I no longer give a fuck about what the papers have to say about books. It has mostly nothing to with the world of reading and writing, which is all I care about ... Are you fuck in charge of literature, the papers.
Too much has been written already about "newspaper reviewing versus online reviewing" (Scott Pack's phrase which he uses to introduce his rejoinder to Rachel Cooke's ill-informed, nugatory and defensive recent piece in the Observer), so I'll restrict myself to restating what I had taken to be self-evident: the internet is a massive space and "online reviewing" comes in many shapes and sizes and of widely differring quality. An enthusiastic customer review on Amazon is not the same as a review in Jacket magazine and nor does any sensible reader equate the two (journalists and populist academics aside, it would seem).
And no two blogs are the same. Some (often quite winningly) blether inconsequentially on about what books lie unread on the bedside table; some engage in serious criticism. All of this is, surely, utterly unambiguous. My fear with this debate, however, is that the previously mentioned Scott Pack (ex-Waterstones Buying Manager) and the novelist Susan Hill are continually referenced as somehow the voices of the blogosphere, the defenders of bloggers and blogging. When interviewed, I've heard neither cite serious literary websites and blogs (RSB, This-Space, the Literary Saloon, Spurious ... one could list for hours) and neither seem to be particularly well-informed of what they are being wheeled-out to defend. Commenting beyond this risks flattering this idiotic debate with import it doesn't possess. Next time you read an article about blogging in the mainstream media, however, take it with a mountain of salt.
All this week I'll be "guest-blogging" at the US Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. I'll be writing a longish (7/800 word) piece each day in their Journal (not sure about an individual RSS feed -- I'll check). My first piece, on Elizabeth Bishop, should be up later today. (I'll update this post when it goes live.)
Update: it's up!
Further update: the Journal's RSS feed
This essay by Susan Sontag is perhaps the best introduction to W.G. Sebald that I have read. It first appeared in Times Literary Supplement in 2000 and contains the appreciation of three of his books which were published at that time.
Usefully, Alok has also reproduced Cynthia Ozick's review of The Emigrants (first published in The New Republic).
So I am furious that Blair, Bush and the network of self-interested parties who have caused such havoc in Iraq that no one seems to have a solution for it, are going to get away with it. Again and again and again. I am also furious with myself for not having grown up enough to understand that they will always get away with it and for finding no better response than to be furious. It's the anger of the impotent, but impotence is no excuse.
I’m tempted to make the rather bold assertion that the most interesting duo in Western literature of the 20th century is Czeslaw Milosz and Witold Gombrowicz. I say duo because you really have to take the two of them together. When Milosz zigs, Gombrowicz zags, when you’re feeling one way, Milosz expresses it for you, and when the mood shifts, there is Gombrowicz waiting in the wings with a change of pace.
The twentieth century was insane. We forget to remember that. For us, it’s what made us what we are and therefore it has taken on a sense of inevitability, even naturalness. But looking at it from the other way around, from the perspective of those who were going through it and for whom its twists and turns were anything but a foregone conclusion, the century is filled with so many shocks and amazements it is difficult to comprehend. And that, of course, was one of the great, if not the great, themes of literature from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the outbreak of WWI to the effective finale to the 20th century in the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reuniting of Western and Eastern Europe.
Further reading: back in February Penguin released Milosz's New and Collected Poems 1931-2000. This is a huge 800-page doorstop, so if you want an easier way into Milosz try Ecco's Selected Poems 1931-2004.
Ben Marcus, author of The Age of Wire and String, reviews Thomas Bernhard's newly translated Frost in the November issue of American magazine Harper's. Sadly, the review is not online, but Matthew Cheney, over at The Mumpsimus, has picked out a nice quote from Marcus's piece for us:
Bernhard's language strained the limits of rhetorical negativity: if his prose were any more anguished, it would simply transmit as moaning and wailing. Building interest in the grief experienced by people who look at the world and find it unbearable was a dark art of Bernhard's, and his characters do not resist the long walk to death's door but run to it and claw at the surface, begging for entry. After all, says Strauch, the agonized painter in Bernhard's first novel, Frost, "there is an obligation towards the depth of one's own inner abyss," even if meeting that obligation destroys you.
Richard, over at his excellent blog The Existence Machine, says:
Repetition plays a major role in this novel. The re-enactments are repeated over and over again. The narrator's singlemindedness creates restlessness in the reader (or, well, this reader): what, I wonder, is the purpose of these re-enactments? Or, where is this going? Indeed, expectations of "story" are continually raised and then thwarted. But the re-enactments are the point: he is trying to have a real experience, to enter into the experience, and his experience is such that we enter into it ourselves, almost achieve a trance state in our reading... In the re-enactments, as the narrator seeks to enter into the moment, to recreate these fleeting sensations when he felt most real, most alive, as he slows down the process, the prose slows, and we enter into the moment as readers, achieve an almost trance-like state, as he does.
And, today, Dan Wagstaff posts the first part of his interview with Tom over at the Raincoast Books blog.
RB: Is ambiguity a virtue?
TM: For sure. If you were simply communicating a message you were certain about it wouldn’t be any good as literature.
The American LitBlog Co-Op has chosen Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage as its Autumn 2006 Read This! Selection. Janelle reviewed this on RSB back in May and loved it, saying:
Savage holds a doctoral degree in Philosophy from Yale University so it should come as no surprise that this slim volume is full of more questions than answers. Whether Firmin, capable of consciousness and immersion into the great works of fiction, is a better mirror for humanity’s frailities because he is a rat is difficult to state. What is apparent is that Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife merits repeated readings for Savage has filled its pages with much food for thought. This gem of a book should be a treasured addition to any bibliophile’s bookshelf.
I’ve read two of Tim’s choices. James Watson’s DNA book is very good, although notoriously it underplays the role of Rosalind Franklin, who was resented as a very bright woman in a male-dominated scientific culture. (Being Jewish may also not have helped.) An essential corrective to Crick’s book is this very readable account of Franklin’s contribution [Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA].
And there was more on the best science books story in the Guardian yesterday where James Randerson, "science correspondent", writes Levi's memoir beats Darwin to win science book title.
One book that did not make the shortlist was Oliver Sacks' A Leg to Stand On, which was nominated by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The work of the New York-based neurologist was made famous in the film Awakenings. Dr Williams said the book "challenges all sorts of assumptions about mind and body, and sketches a very exciting concept of the body itself as 'taking shape' in mind and imagination".
Over at The Book Depository, I regularly have top ten lists on the homepage there. My Ten Great Science Books list, in no particular order, is:
- Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
- Elaine Morgan's The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
- Kenan Malik's Man, Beast and Zombie
- James Gleick's Isaac Newton
- Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea
- Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel
Chris Knight's Blood Relations
- Edward Wilson's The Diversity of Life
- Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene
I'm also rather partial to Frank Ryan's Darwin's Blind Spot.
Today, I briefly reviewed Anna Politkovskaya’s Putin’s Russia (over at The Book Depository, where this blog is also cross-posted). (I need to get hold of her A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya and I’ll post a review of her other book about Chechnya, A Dirty War, in the next couple of weeks.) Anna, as you’ll know, was recently murdered because of her work in Chechnya and her opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her UK publisher Random House has a tribute page up. Next year, Profile Books will be publishing an English PEN anthology called Another Sky, which contains her last writing, and Harvill Secker will be publishing Russian Diary. The translation of that latter book arrived with her UK publisher in the week she was killed. For more, you can also read her session at the 2005 Hay festival.
The good folks over at 3:AM are organising a tribute to Scottish almost-Situationist Alexander Trocchi (author of, amongst other things, Young Adam and Cain's Book; for more see A Life in Pieces: Reflections on Alexander Trocchi).
White calves, black ski-trousers will be held at The Three Kings pub, Clerkenwell Close, London EC1 (Farringdon) at 7.30pm this Thursday. RSB interviewees Tom McCathy and Stewart Home will both be in attendance. Should be a good night.
The Manchester Blog Awards Shortlist has been announced. I'm thrilled to say that ReadySteadyBook's blog has been shortlisted as one of the three Best Arts and Culture Blogs (alongside music blog Yer Mam! and Bitter and Blue ["Opinion, commentary, news, views and tears about Manchester City and beyond"]).
The other shortlisted blogs are:
Blog of the Year
The Airport Diaries
Best Personal Blog
A Free Man in Preston
Best Political Blog
Blood and Treasure
The idea of eBooks absolutely does not appeal, especially with the current crop of eBook readers being so shoddy (if I was going to invest in, say, a Sony Reader, I'd really need it to be able to hook up to the Network; indeed, I'd need it to be a laptop/reader hybrid), but y'all might be interested in this, via Holtzbrinck Online (the "Internet Marketing Department of Holtzbrinck Publishers [Farrar Straus and Giroux, Henry Holt and Company, Picador, St Martin's Press, Tor Books]):
Simon & Schuster yesterday launched a blog dedicated to eBooks. In one of their first posts, Claire Israel, Director of Digital Content, makes the case for eBooks, writing, "Because life is hectic, and while I may not have hours in a row to read daily, I have snatches of time in the oddest places, and I don’t always have a bulky book with me. But I always have something beeping or ringing or buzzing on me which may be able to hold volumes of books. And there are just too many that I want to read to limit myself to a life of only paper." I totally agree ... Vist the Simon & Schuster eBook blog.
Good friend of RSB, Edmund Hardy, was on Resonance FM on Sunday talking about Thomas Bernhard (and particularly about Bernhard's poetry, recently translated by RSB interviewee James Reidel in his In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon). First, I need to apologise for not letting y'all know about this. And secondly, I still owe Edmund an apology for not having written anything for his Douglas Oliver: Radial Symposium. I had hoped that Edmund's Bernhard appearance would be archived somewhere on the Resonance FM site, but I can't find it. If he is there, please leave a comment directing me. Thanks!
Over at Dennis Cooper's blog (which contains some porn -- so I've removed the hyperlink -- best be aware of the nature of Dennis's site if you are accessing it!) it seems to be Maurice Blanchot Day. Some excellent Blanchot resources on there. (The RSB Blanchot minsite, to which Dennis kindly links, is due to be updated -- along with the other RSB minisites -- in the next few weeks.)
If you put a gun to my head -- not that you would -- and asked me whom I'd consider the greatest writer of the 20th century -- not that asking my opinion is worth risking a police encounter -- I'd say, 'That's easy, put the gun down. Maurice Blanchot.' He's both my favorite fiction writer and my favorite writer of what's alternately dubbed philosophy or language theory. His Death Sentence is either my favorite novel of all time, or it's tied for favorite with Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. To me, Blanchot is to the written text as Bresson is to the captured image, which is to say not so much the greatest at his chosen medium -- obviously a ridiculous proposition -- as he is an artist as singular, ruthless, pure, and infested with belief in the abilities of language as anyone who has ever tried their hand at writing. He might also be the writer who most warrants the words 'not everyone's cup of tea.' Many find his work impossibly dense and cold. To quote from his unusually excellent Wikipedia entry, 'It is difficult yet imperative to note the particular experience of reading Blanchot: his grip on the reader and his ability to mix anguish, philosophical thought, an imagination of death, and a narrative where everything seems to almost happen is often particularly discomforting.' To me, his work's 'discomfort' is the formula for ecstacy. His work is one of the impossibly high standards against which I try to assess my own writing, which leaves me perpetually unsatisfied and disappointed with my efforts, which in turn causes me to keep working hard for whatever good it does.
I've just posted an interview with Hilary Spurling (author of The Unknown Matisse and Matisse the Master) and an interview with Luke Brown of Tindal Street Press (one of the smallest publishers ever to reach the Man Booker Prize shortlist, with Clare Morrall's Astonishing Splashes of Colour) over at The Book Depository (which last night "fought off competition from Amazon's Advantage scheme and BIC's e4books initiative to take The Nielsen BookNet Supply Chain Initiative of the Year": yay! This is an important "industry" thingy: see the BookSeller for more).
Happy Birthday wishes go out to author, socialist, and human rights activist Upton Sinclair, who was born on this date in 1878.
One to note: Robert Hullot-Kentor's forthcoming book, Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno, is due out next month from Columbia University Press. I got this via Brian Sholis:
It comprises over twenty years' worth of the philosopher and translator's essays on Adorno's work. Word earlier this week from another friend, an artist who knows Adorno's writing very well, reminded me of its imminent publication, and, by coincidence, I came across a copy yesterday. (I love how things come into one's field of vision not long after one opens one's eyes.) I skimmed it before and after last night's lecture, and found much to make me want to plunge in earnest into Adorno's writings...
Anyway, the point of this post is to get the word out: I arrived in London two days ago, and will be living (& studying) here until the end of January. Since the express purpose of my stay is to improve my spoken English, I'd like to meet with as many bloggers, writers and artists, etc. as possible.
You can find my email address by visiting my weblog (click on my name on the top of the sidebar). If nothing else, I'd appreciate some good links/resources re: literary London. Thanks.
The matchless Dalkey Archive Press have just released their latest Gilbert Sorrentino novel, Red the Fiend: "a recasting of Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight, this is the story of how a child becomes a monster: of how Red the boy becomes Red the Fiend."
This reminds me that I never mentioned Derik A. Badman's online comic Elegy for G.S. (which is in the latest The Quarterly Conversation). And it also reminds me that I need to do some work on the RSB Gilbert Sorrentino minisite and on my other minisites too.
Many of you, it would seem, have very kindly nominated RSB for inclusion in the Manchester Blog Awards ("winners will be announced at an awards ceremony during the Manchester Literature Festival, at Urbis, on October 16 at 7pm.") Happily, RSB is now well and truly nominated (and "nominations do not count as votes") so, please, don't concern yourselves any further with nominating RSB -- that is now done and dusted -- just keep your fingers crossed that we get shortlisted "in early October."
If freedom is to be really desirable, then it must have a relation to something beyond what you happen to want – a relation, as I said, to something like reason, responsibility, even truth.
Happily working my way through William C. Carter's Proust in Love, and soon to turn to The Memoirs of Ernest A. Forssgren, Proust's Swedish Valet, and afterwards probably returning to finish Richard Davenport-Hines' Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris, I realise that I'm always in the mood for some Proustiana! And then, yesterday, Slightly Bluestocking brings my attention to Henri Raczymow's Swan's Way. The publisher's blurb reads thusly:
What begins as a meditation on the fictional identity of the elegant "swan" of Proust's In Search of Lost Time becomes, through a series of turns and twists, an ingenious investigation of the character's real-life counterpart, Charles Haas. Part novel, part essay, part literary sleuthing, Swan's Way is a critical tour de force. Through an inspired reading of Proust's text, Henri Raczymow gradually unravels the multiple contradictions of Charles Swann's personality, brought into focus by the fault lines in Proust's narrative method. The author traces Swann's evolution and the multiple ways in which his Jewish identity keeps peeping through the veneer of respectability of this sophisticated dandy. Through a parallel inquiry into the history of the Jockey Club--to which Haas, a Jew, was, like Swann, exceptionally admitted--and the transformation of the German-Jewish Haas into the fashionable British Swann, Swan's Way evolves into an examination of the question of personal identity and posthumous survival. Charles Haas's Jewish identity is the invisible thread that guides Raczymow through the maze of Proust's work, which serves as a backdrop against which fin-de-siècle French society enacts the ugly drama of anti-Semitism. Blurring the boundaries between life and fiction, Swan's Way leads the reader ever deeper into the unresolved question of literary and personal character.
Franz Kafka's The Zurau Aphorisms (Harvill Secker) is out in November. From comments to a blog entry Jenny Davidson (thanks Dave) made about the book, I think the aphorisms are the same that appear in the "Reflections" appended to Exact Change's lovely edition of The Blue Octavo Notebooks rather than anything "new" per se. The introduction and afterword to the Harvill book are written by Roberto Calasso and, again according to Jenny, "includes some material from Calasso’s K. as additional commentary".
One of my favourite blogs, Brendan Wolfe's The Beiderbecke Affair has, from today, ceased to be:
Time to quit. Too much work. Can’t even write complete sentences anymore. Blogging’s been fun, but you know it’s bogus when it prevents you from reading as many books as you want or from reviewing as many books as you want or, most importantly, from writing as many books as you want.
All the best, Brendan.
Nice post from James at STML on Dungeness, home to Derek Jarman's home Prospect Cottage:
Dungeness is Britain’s only desert, a shingle wasteland punctuated by strange plants and even stranger human interventions ... Scattered around these trig points are the homes of the small but diverse Dungeness community: a mix of fishermen and hermits, madmen and artists seeking the last areas of seclusion on the English coast. One of these is better known than many others: Prospect Cottage, the former home of artist, writer and filmmaker Derek Jarman.
More interviews over at Bloggasm, including a fine interview with Stephen Mitchelmore from This Space and good stuff from the interview with Ben Granger from Spike Magazine and from the interview with James Bridle from Short Term Memory Loss.
A recent spat on This-Space, concerning Steve's judgement of Ian Holding's Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted novel Unfeeling, has again highlighted how differently different readers read from one another. Steve was accused by one of those commenting on his post of being "out of touch with general critic's views" (something Steve rightly saw as an accolade!) "Prof. J. Williams, Kent" asked, "Don't you know that the book was widely hailed and got rave reviews when published?" And "Jane, Surrey" wrote, "The novel DID get rave reviews and HAS been highly praised for its literary qualities."
So, bang to rights, Steve is caught out: praised by other book reviewers, shortlisted for a prize, Holding's novel must be "BRILLIANT!" (Prof. J. Williams's word).
When reviewing books -- and I mean reviewing in the widest sense, for instance proselytizing about what you've just read to a bunch of mates in the pub -- the temptation (and one I'm certainly not immune to) is always to hyperbole. A book is often hailed as either "shit" or "great". This is why we turn to the best critics: for argument; for nuance. Sadly, we rarely get it. The most cliche-ridden novels, with the tritest of plots, are regularly hailed as "classics". Each week a "must read" book gets over-praised and the genre of literary fiction continues to spew forth mediocrity. In truth, a "must read" novel comes along very, very rarely. And whilst we wait for the next, we get work that exists along an arc of the undistinguished and prosaic.
What confuses the matter further is that the separation between fine writing and art (what I'd like to dignify as Literature), which seems to me to be Steve's central concern, is lost on many readers. Steve seems to have been condemned by his commenters (who really could have saved their energy by reading the very careful arguments about writing that This-Space has articulated over very many months) for not swooning, as they do, over a polished paragraph or a nicely-turned phrase.
Paradoxical though it may seem, fine writing is not synonymous with Literature. Indeed, it might be better to think that what is synonymous with Literature is paradox itself.
What matters is to allow criticism, or a writing on literature to partake of literature, to embody the same risks. The question of style is paramount; the experimentalism of literature (its modernity), must also be carried over to literary criticism.
Great criticism – Blanchot’s, for example – is part of literature. But it always has its eye, too, on philosophy (and couldn’t the same be claimed of literature itself?). Without philosophy – scepticism about everything received, including what comes by way of the column and other kinds of journalism, which prop up a particular image of the world – nothing. And isn’t there a kind of philosophizing, or at least a kind of research, implicit to literature?
Currently I'm listening to:
The necessity to adapt to the surrounding environment for survival is an animal behavior. The primary human action consists in creating an environment that is favorable to the development of life.
Pierre says, "of the core Situationists, Vaneigem has always seemed to me at least as interesting and often more so than his ex-companion, Guy Debord". I can't agree. The vaguely hippy quality of each of the six stanzas that Pierre quotes is, for me, precisely why Vaneigem was never as interesting, insightful or essential as Debord. Good to know about the Journal Imaginaire, though. Its existence had quite passed me by.
Over at the New York Sun (thanks Dave!) Adam Kirsch on Franco Moretti's The Novel:
The novel, you might say, is like pornography: It may be hard to define, but everyone knows it when they see it.
In the pro-Nazi, isolationist United States of his novel The Plot Against America, Philip Roth creates a fictionalised version of the famous newsman Walter Winchell ... The extent to which Roth intends us to read his fiction as a metaphor for the America of today is moot, but were we to do so Noam Chomksy would be our the best current candidate for the role of Winchell ... There is a plot against America, says Chomsky, and it is real. He reminds us that "the rapid descent to the depths of barbarism took place in the country that was the pride of Western civilisation in the sciences, philosophy and the arts; a country that before the hysterical propaganda of World War I had been regarded by many American political scientists as a model of democracy".
So, Irvine Welsh, the "chronicler of the chemical generation", shock-jock writer of Trainspotting, has come out as a Tory. I don't know why anyone is in the least bit surprised about this. It seems obvious that the innate conservatism of his books -- and of so much "cult fiction" -- reflected an essentially conservative mind. One can only hope that more readers will now realise that writing about smack, or porn, or other drearier aspects of the quotidian, does not a revolutionary make. Transgressive writing is rarely progressive and rarely very good.
Steve Mitchelmore, the finest writer we have in the literary blogosphere, has an excellent article in this week's TLS (sadly not online) reviewing Javier Marias's bloated and over-rated Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream. For those who don't have access to the paper, whet your appetite by reading Steve on Rankin and Proust.
Steve is the only writer I know who can meaningfully bring together a genre hack like Ian Rankin and the freakish genius that was Proust, via Blanchot, and make uncommonly good sense:
This is why I am so wary of books that tend to rely on the art of previous writers, that do not make the language subject to the unique inspiration and ambition of the book it forms. They are too rhetorical and crime (and other genre) novels are, by definition, mainly rhetorical works. While Rankin's eighth novel cannot be on a par with Proust's (if only because the anger is added colour rather than intrinsic to its creation), it perhaps suggests in both cases a desire among readers for something more than routine entertainment, for more than the author to do "a good professional job for the reader". They want the real thing.
The Frontlist ...
... is a consortium of developers and writers from literary communities. We've formed to provide a new fair way to provide talented unpublished writers to have work annotated and critiqued by peers. The most well-received work will rise to the top, to be considered by a publisher.
The Frontlist is a community of talented writers that self-select work that they feel may be of interest to a publisher. Writers, upon signing up to The Frontlist, will be able to submit sample chapters of work that they are looking to publish. They will then be invited to provide detailed critiques on several pieces of work. Once they have finished this, their own work will go up for critique. Each month, the most well received work will be fast-tracked to the desk of a respected agent or publisher who specialises in the work's genre.
... Jason Cooper, a senior editor at Pan Macmillan (Picador) has agreed to read the submissions that achieve top reviews from The Frontlist.
It ain't a pretty website but, if you can force your way around it, and ignore the fact that many of the articles are bloody PDFs, The Commoner has a lot of very fine essays from the likes of Nick Dyer-Witheford (author of the excellent Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-technology Capitalism), Silvia Federici (author of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation) and Steve Wright (author of Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism). Definitely worth taking the time to navigate.
Born in 1937 in Reval in Estonia, Gernhardt studied painting and German in Stuttgart and Berlin. From 1964 until his death he lived in Frankfurt, where he worked as writer, painter and caricaturist. His lively cross-genre publishing activities soon made him the leading figure of the New Frankfurt School of writers and artists behind the satirical magazine Pardon in the 1960s and 70s and after 1979, Titanic. Here is a small selection of his poems translated into English by Ursula Runde, some of which have appeared in Poetry Magazine, and sketches from Gernhardt's German Readers series.
Definitely worth taking the time to look around signandsight's literature features too whilst you are at it.
In an idiotic, and supposedly ironic/funny, post entitled Big up your shelf, Sarah Crown, from whom I would have expected much better, has a swipe at the books that authors pick on the (certainly rather silly) summer reading lists that appear with regrettable regularity this time of year. She berates Alain de Botton for claiming he is "'looking forward to reading Gabriel Josipovici's new collection of essays The Singer on the Shore'. Essays: tick. Little-known (but highly respected) author: tick. Foreign (Josipovici was born in Nice): tick."
Josipovici may have been born in Nice, but he's lived here for the past fifty years! And anyone who has bothered to read The Singer on the Shore will know how essential it is: a superb -- and very readable, even welcoming -- collection.
So, what's the deal here? Just because it is slightly warmer in July/August than in April/May, I'm suddenly supposed to pretend that reading utter rubbish is somehow hip and ironic? I do wish the Guardian would stop coming out with this rubbish.
A very nice post today on Patrick Kurp's excellent Anecdotal Evidence blog on Polish poet, brother of A. Broniszowna, and co-founder of Polish Futurism, Aleksander Wat (whose My Century is out with the NYRB):
One relies on certain books the way some believers look to the Bible -- not as divinely inspired, intended for literal understanding, but as sources of dependable wisdom. At the kitschy end of the wisdom spectrum we find the self-help genre, books designed as mood-elevating delivery systems, books that assure us we are O.K. despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. Publishers and booksellers label this stuff “inspirational,” but serious readers have always assembled their own eccentric libraries of true wisdom, whether sacred or secular.
Michael Schmidt's excellent publishing house, Carcanet ("simply one of the best literary publishers in the world" according to Charles Simic), has just redesigned its website. Nice clean lines, and more easily navigable than its previous incarnation, the site promises more interactive features to come.
Here are a few links to stuff I should have mentioned, but haven't yet:
Mark Kaplan is back blogging at Charlotte Street (his URL was "stolen" for week or so but, happily, it's back up-and-running now). As well as his usual very fine philosophical musings, Mark has found Beckett's Ohio Impromptu online (at the ubiquitous YouTube). Directed by Charles Sturridge and starring Jeremy Irons, it's a compelling piece.
Interesting article: Primo Levi and Translation by David Mendel. (He quotes Levi: "An author who is confronted by one of his own pages translated into a language he knows, feels in turns - or at one and the same time - flattered, betrayed, ennobled, x-rayed, castrated, planed down, violated, embellished, killed.")
And, remember, there is always quality stuff over on Languagehat when it comes to translation and language issues.
I've just found out that James Lasdun (above) has won the National Short Story Prize. My first feeling is guilt that I'd missed the boat and not been able to update the EnCompass news section accordingly. But on reflection, it seems a little strange to me that a prize which was so hyped at the time of its launch, can be awarded so quietly. I gather you had to be in the right place (listening to BBC Radio 4) at the right time (early evening, 15th May) to find out what happened, and I, evidently, was not. (And I'm not the only person who forgot all about the prize pretty much as soon as it was announced - see this post on The Tart of Fiction blog.)
Oh, short stories. Nope, whatever you say, I just can't get that excited about them. Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) ... that's about it for me. Now, novellas: I likes them!
Googling for information about David Grossman (he has just had two books come out, Lion's Honey and Lovers and Strangers, and I hear his See Under: Love is very good, but I've never read him) I came across an Imre Kertész's essay Jerusalem, Jerusalem -- Reflections sparked by the sight of a war-torn city in Logos ("a journal of modern society & culture"). I didn't recall coming across Logos before, so I took a look around the site. Their New Winter Issue is online and it looks very decent. Best of all, it has an interview with RSB pin-up David Harvey.
The strangeness of Stirner was immediate as I worked though the book: it read like an unhomely Hegel, adopting broadly the same structure as Hegel’s Phenomenology but radically inverting the content. If the ghost of Hegel was present in Stirner, then Stirner’s haunto-analytical work on his master generated its own “spooks.” Spooks, this is the term Stirner applies to the disruption of the ego project, made evident by certain meta-narratological myths which bind the human to a specious freedom. Stirner’s dialectical account of the emergence of “the moderns” in the first section of the book concludes with the image of possession and spirits.
Wendy Lesser, editor of the excellent (American) literary quarterly The Threepenny Review, has begun to blog. Well ... kinda! As Scott and Dan have pointed out, it's not really a blog, doesn't have an RSS feed, and seems predicated on a pretty negative view of lit-bloggers! Anyway, welcome to the fray Wendy.
Steve recently got himself into a bit of hot water over at This Space for suggesting that Suite Française is being praised more for its backstory than for its inherent quality. I'll read my copy as soon as I can find it (like a good few other books, I'm struggling to pin it down since we moved), but I fear Steve is probably right. Its glowing reception does seem suspect: I hope it is not simply because of a nostalgic wish for "proper novels" and due to respect for its author's travails. But the remarkable story of the writing of the book does seem to be most reviewers' focus rather than the novel itself. Just look at the way Kazuo Ishiguro (from this weekend's Guardian summer reading article) encourages us to read it:
Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française, written as Nazi tanks rolled across France, captures the chaos, fear, humiliation, and very occasionally, the courage of the French, as well as portraying the complex emotions that developed between occupier and occupied. The story behind this novel, and Némirovsky's own fate, make for a heart-breaking coda.
It's the story within the novel that I want to read. The backstory is history and sociology, I'm interested to read it only if it works as literature.
Levi Asher, over at LitKicks, is having fun with his Overrated Writers Project (please do Ian McEwan Levi -- if you don't, I will!) He did a nice takedown of William Vollmann yesterday (which garnered a good response -- of sorts -- from Ed Champion.) Alma Books have just published Vollmann's Europe Central here in the UK. I must admit, I baulked at the idea of reading it when I saw how brick-thick it was.
Ooh there seems to be a fair amount of "signposting" to do today. Again, I should have mentioned this earlier but, y'know, I was probably drunk. Anyway, Waggish has just read Joyce's Finnegans Wake (nice post on Sunday on The Books on the (Finnegans) Wake) which is the one Joyce book, like many other folks, that I've not read. And, for now, despite Waggish's enthusiasm ("What did I get from it? Among other things, a sense of limitless possibility. Was it worth it? Yes. But I have only invested a couple months, not the decades that others have.") I can't see myself jumping in. It is the limpid, yet depthless, writing of a Beckett or an Appelfeld that most attracts me at the moment. Joyce's difficulty seems like a perverse game. And I don't want to play.
Fantastically, I have complete and utter editorial discretion and can feature whatever books I like. Most certainly, The Book Depository is a commercial site, but my job there is to surface forgotten, ignored and marginal books, as well as -- for reasons of topicality -- those that have become Books of the Moment by being, for example, Book of the Week over on Radio 4.
At the moment, if you visit The Book Depository site, you may get a wee bit of a sense of déjà vu: a good deal of the content (book reviews and interviews) have come from RSB. But, going forward, there will be lots and lots of unique content on The Book Depository that will be quite different to what you'll read here.
I'm thrilled to be helping The Book Depository folk out. I used to work with the Big Boss (Andy) back in my Amazon days and I know how committed he is to extending the range of books that are easily available -- and at a great price (free shipping on everything!)
I'll also be blogging for The Book Depository over on my Editor's Corner. I'll be focussing more on trade-/publishing-related news and, again, on books (crime, graphic novels, erotic, plainly bonkers) that I don't focus on here - RSB being, after all, a literary site.
an organization that was born in February 2005 by a group of socially-minded librarians who wanted to address the vast information resource inequity existing between different regions of the world. Our vision is to build sustainable libraries and support their custodians and advocates -- librarians.
According to the wikipedia: "Norman Manea (born 19 July 1936) is a Romanian writer and intellectual, born in Burdujeni, Suceava County, Bukovina. Because he was Jewish in the time of Fascist-controlled Romania, Manea was deported in 1941 (at the age of 5) together with the rest of his family to a concentration camp in Transnistria, but survived, along with his whole family ... Manea is one of the most internationally famous contemporary Romanian writers, considered more popular abroad than in his native country."
Some great posts of late over at This Space (particularly liked the post on Jean-Luc Godard's plangent masterpiece Eloge de l'Amour). In Upon this blasted heath, Steve refers to the Euston Road Manifesto as "shameful". I used the same word myself to a friend recently ... and added imbecilic and apologist.
This is quite useful (looks horrid though - look and feel, people!): a selective bibliography of open access internet articles on Geoffrey Hill.
I mentioned Douglas Oliver's Whisper "Louise" about a month or so back here on the blog and now Edmund Hardy is proposing a "week-long series of posts on the work of Douglas Oliver by divers contributors" to be hosted over at intercapillaryspace from Monday 24th July to Sunday 30th July. Hopefully, I'll be contributing. Contact Edmund if you're interested in writing a post or want further information.
Douglas Oliver information: see John Hall's review of Whisper 'Louise' at Jacket. Books in print: Whisper 'Louise' (Reality Street); Arrondissements (Salt); A Salvo for Africa (Bloodaxe); Penniless Politics (Bloodaxe) and Selected Poems (Talisman House).
Dante 2000 is 'an information system on the Complete Works of Dante full of original features. The system is an indispensable work tool for students and teachers. Scholars and academics can use the System as an indispensable work tool, thanks also to the possibility of finding Dante's sources and links to the works of "Coeval Authors". Moreover, in the chapter dedicated to Statistics, scholars will find some surprising results of research, conducted on totally new concepts, that looks at whether "Il Fiore" should be attributed to Dante or not.' (via GOB)