Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Books of the Month

So what, have I been reading? Yes but. Time has become scarcer, as more of it has been allocated to my dayjob, which has become every day (but not, thankfully, everyday), weekday, anyway. Thus the increasing infrequency with which I post, not only as it takes longer to accumulate material, but also insofar as reading time is more precious than writing time. So, aside from Guest, this month's reading:

While I don't always fully agree with the Complete Review's assessments, they're not far off, and cover territory not elsewhere charted; one could do worse than to select from their cream of the crop. Still, with my hesitancy compounded by Musil fatigue, I needed a spur from Gotham staff to pick up Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers. It got off to a slow, somewhat unremarkable start, but picked up momentum (and narrative complexity) without let-up as it progressed, though I think The Death of Virgil ultimately superior aesthetically. It's primed me for another massive trilogy, mentioned in the above-linked review, Peter Weiss' The Aesthetics of Resistance -- but I'll have to wait for a full translation.

Pinget's Mahu, or The Material didn't live up to its advance booking, paling by comparison to all the proposed superlatives (FO'Brien, GSorrentino, Queneau, especially Queneau); even the DBarthelme blurb seems overgenerous. Shan't give up on him just yet, but this work is slight, disappointing, a few good riffs but the rest raff.

Tadeusz Konwicki's The Polish Complex was, by contrast, better than expected, worth queueing up for. Integrating Polish history and literature (including a missive from, presumably, Gombrowicz, whom I think Konwicki outshines) into a statement whose aesthetic goes well beyond the political, which the vignette form serves well, like a multicourse meal, which is what Poland had been, historically.

I'm now into and out of, 28.2, Mati Unt's Things in the Night, which has gotten short shrift in the reviews I've seen; it's not as unstructured as claimed, having some relation (distant, familial) both to OBrien's At Swim-Two-Birds and to Nabokov (Ada's L disaster, second person address ... Thulean aside: does Pale Fire's Conmal nod in the direction of Georg Meri?); so far, and in the end, it works, for me, at least (though the popscience errors [intentional, not translational] distract). (The afterword mentions Marju Lauristin's 2004 tribute, "Mati Unt's Blogosphere", but it's not available online, in English anyway.)

I've also been dipping into the Oulipo Compendium, recently revised, and must-have for anyone as interested in this as I am (Derik Badman has this well covered, though he seems to have since moved on); and the poems of Karl Shapiro, in an older edition much broader than that repackaged by LoA. (Almost forgot, but I'd mentioned Kawabata's Palm-of-the-Hand Stories in prior addendum.)


Barbara Guest

The passing of Barbara Guest induced me to read her "experimental novel" this weekend: Seeking Air investigates urban relationships, that is, relationships with/in New York, relationships that occupy interatomic spaces between people, events, destinations, words, author and reader; the primary relationship, between Morgan and Miriam, has its own subconscious, an alchemic source for an alternative surrealism; the secondary relationship, between writer Morgan and Dark muse, merges and blends with the former in the end; these are influenced by, inseparable from, a host of other relationships, among characters, with places, times, signs ... the warp and weft of language ... Prose by poets has been of special interest to me, due to the attention to detail, down to the last word (blame Nabokov), but Guest takes it farther, more radically, down to a preoccupation with prepositions and punctuation. Having fun with etymology: "the adjective 'subtile' was derived from 'the days when the Roman philosophers used to wander up and down under the lime trees [...] -- lime tree being tilia in Latin.'" (§6, beneath the limes, between the lines ... sublime) Putting the real back into realignment (her pun, §89). Ellipses also do interludic service. And I was pulled up by §38, which reads in its entirety: The soul of the apartment is in the carpet. EDGAR ALLEN POE Checking the source, 'in' is an interpolation, more suggestive of Henry James and the figure he lifted from Constance Fenimore Woolson. Which made Dale Going's take all the better. 13.4 Royalty and royalties: a publisher pays tribute. (April Jacket also has Gil Sorrentino and more Malley.)


The quality of mercy is not quite strained

Pity the critic who must review literary biography; what results is nasty, brutish and short. Colin Burrow takes the usual path in considering Biswell's biography of Anthony Burgess, a corrective to Lewis' (but both superfluous in view of Burgess' autobiography, however embellished), as the pretext for observations on reputational economy and a recapitulation of and subsequent judgment upon the subject. Not without pyritic glints of insight, but the full package carries a taint of received ideas à la Bouvard and Pécuchet, or of a Flann O'Brien catechism; he's appreciative of the wordplay, but not of how the fixation with language affects the hermeneutics, missing the catholicity beneath the surface. This is most egregious where it's the most relevant:

The look-at-me cleverness is certainly there throughout his fiction. His novel about Shakespeare, Nothing like the Sun (1964), is particularly full of misfiring bits of attention-seeking. When Will laments his sickness, while the ‘mobbled queen’ Elizabeth I is on progress, there is a classic piece of Burgessian talent abuse: ‘I can hardly move, sick not in my body but only in my soul, centre of my sinful earth. I lie on my unmade bed listening to time’s ruin, threats of Antichrist, new galleons on the sea, the queen’s grand climacteric, portents in the heavens, a horse eating its foal, ghosts gliding as on a buttered pavement.’ This is a terrible piece of writing, but not unrepresentative. The little glances at obvious bits of Shakespeare, from Hamlet, through The Rape of Lucrece and the Sonnets, make it seem as though Will thought only in Famous Quotations, and those Famous Quotations are syntactically redundant in a way that makes them audibly no more than add-ons. By the time the sentence arrives at the hideously un-Shakespearean ‘buttered pavement’ it is all too ready to slip over. The overlay of learning – misguided showing-off rather than postmodern self-consciousness – blows away any intimacy with Shakespeare. You wind up watching Burgess mechanically anatomising Shakespeare’s words.

This is exactly wrong. Words were integral to Burgess, moreso than to most, but no less so than to his heroes, Shakespeare and Joyce. The latter gets his knuckles rapped regularly for the excesses of Finnegans Wake and for the dependence of interpretation upon private information; the former, as much an innovator in language, leaves nothing but words behind (upon which manifold identities have since been misconstructed). The genius of Nothing Like the Sun is the imaginative task of building the Bard from the ground up (another "grammar-school boy made good" prone to look-at-me cleverness), and embellishing; Burrow's complaint is that Burgess is no Shakespeare. So who is? (And just who is Shakespeare? No construct can stack up for [or to] Burrow.) Burgess gets at something essential in Shakespeare, then and now, and Burrow doesn't dig deep enough to uncover it. Pity.


Leseraum II

My disappointment with what I'd read of Gombrowicz (relative to his reputation) led me to look into other 20th century Polish writers, to find there's much more to be had than I'd thought. Dalkey (and Gotham) have restocked the TBR shelf with Konwicki's and Szewc's best, but the good folks at CESLIT have loads to offer, albeit heavy on the poetry among what's translated, while another site covers translations exclusively. Meanwhile, I let myself down easy after Andrić (from sofa to Sofia) with Gospodinov, lighter fare, more compulsive than compelling, but one still must take one's hat off to one with such bees in his bonnet (curiously, recent Valvisitor Adam Roberts is the first author to pop up under that last idiom). But it seems little enough has been translated from deeper behind where the Iron Curtain parted, less still from non-Baltic XSSRs ...

Addendum 2324.3: Adding to the list, 20th century Yugoslav classics, particularly Krleza; and more recently, Pekic and Basara Schmidt, to be acquired for the TBR shelf.