Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence



Rounding out the year's reading, an odd pair:

Joseph Brodsky, Less Than One: A Nobelaureate's strong opinions bookended by the life experiences entitling them. Led me not only to pry Akhmatova and Auden off the shelf, but will have me revisit Platonov (who he says is to Nabokov as a Chomolungma climber is to a tightrope walker; Brodsky shares something of Nabokov's aesthetic but reverses the Dostoevsky/Tolstoy divide) and added Montale to it. His concept of language overdetermining meanings possible in poetry (as the highest form thereof) certainly does not translate to societal relations; words are not people, but, to him, language is nation (but 'strong' rhymes not just with 'song' but with 'wrong'). And the problem of poetry vs verse, art as opposed to craft -- a chronic debate on NABOKV-L visavis Shade's "Pale Fire"; among what's to be read next year I have Nabokov's Eugene Onegin, the only writing of his in English (including translations) that I haven't been through at least once -- Brodsky took perhaps a stronger view, and maintained it to the last. Yet ... Brodsky:Auden::Tsvetaeva::Rilke? Quite a bit to chew on, though the reins stay taut.

William Morris, The Wood Beyond the World: Speaking of arts and crafts, Morris effaced the difference. Read in the Dover facsimile of the Kelmscott Press edition (typography does matter), it's a bridge between medieval romance and modern fantasy. Deftly plotted (and dramatically ambiguated). Yet another facet of Morris' abilities and interests, not so easy to resolve with one another (Carlyle? WTF?!), and a pivot upon which much turned, socially and culturally.

I'm currently reading Gass' The Tunnel (a small prick of conscience?) and 'twill be awhile before I emerge at t'other end ... so, Hoopy New Year! (It's 07. Double 07.)



This year's reading was nothing short of excellent. Expectations were more often surpassed than disappointed, by a wide margin, and more speculative bets nearly always paid off (summer was particularly kind in this regard). Thematic reading was also rewarded, whether exploration of 20thC Eastern European or Japanese Lit, or of the nouveau roman (I only picked up Pinget because of shelving proximity to Piglia [Artificial Respiration still to be found], similarly Sarraute because of Salvayre) and Oulipo (beyond the headline names: Queneau, Perec, Calvino), both of which owe progenity to Raymond Roussel (who in turn owes to Verne and so to Poe). Much of what I read was perforce in translation, depending on an interlocutor to capture the author's distinctive voice -- but this is less of a distortion than what a non-native speaker (not to mention one not culturally acclimated) would bring to the texts in the original. Sadly, such serendipity may fade along with the independent bookstores (Gotham Book Mart still in limbo, ColiseumBooks selling fixtures), where browsing is more likely to yield unforeseen discoveries, not (as in the majors) merely representative of a panoply of schools (unless a generic cash cow [not the case with translation] or otherwise carrying currency topically). Not that I'm likely to run out of reading matter (If only! I have books enough, but time?), but for me the pleasures of the unexpected diversion exceed those of the well-marked path.

It is a fool's errand to try to rank the books I've read this year (around 100, not that I tally) by any measure of merit, as these are incommensurable, each with its own. The best I can do is to isolate the books that gave me the most pleasure, from start to finish and beyond. Not that this narrows the field enough (to a score or so), but I'll settle on two: Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov (in April) and Marcel Benabou, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books (in June). Why these? they extended the pleasure derived from other readings (Russian Lit & Nabokov, Roussel & Oulipo [not to mention Bartleby & Co.]). In any case, I'll be hard pressed to keep up the overall level of excellence in the new year. But it's going to be fun trying.


Last of Fall Leaves

A couple of Nobelaurates supply the most recent reading matter:

Czeslaw Milosz, The Issa Valley (trans Louis Iribarne): A couple of themes of my past year's reading converging (poets' novels, Osteuropa Lit) in an incremental coming of age between Lithuania and Poland, with war (and Germany and Russia) in the background. Variously described as poetic or lyrical, what I found more interesting was the way Milosz conveys (and Iribarne preserves) time's passage by a prose that (without syntactic complexity) demands andante tempo through childhood, relenting to allegretto as plot and maturing character are resolved (also echoing sovereignty among the national contenders within community and family), the consequent losses and gains finely balanced.

J.M.Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K: In being prepared to be disappointed (per last year's wrap-up; this year's to follow), I wasn't, exactly. As with Sebald's Vertigo, it's not the author's best effort, but worthwhile nonetheless: Complete Review gets at some of the difficulty, the change in mode in the middle section constituting a flaw, perhaps necessary for didactic purposes (e.g., institutional rationale from the inside, the bland apologetics of privilege), but even these are undercut (as, in one passage, warning off allegorical interpretation). Meant to be unsettling, there's still a banality that can't be accommodated within the protagonist's context; intended to work like this, it doesn't quite work as intended.



Stanley Elkin, The MacGuffin: In Bellovian territory, moreso than Amis fils ever gets (though Bellow is more rollercoaster; Elkin's prose belies control, the ride still not without g force). Elkin gets a lot of mileage out of confusing MacGuffin (Elkin's rendering unaccountably absent) with The Figure in the Carpet. (He might even be said to anticipate Žižek.) Himself unaccountably absent from most considerations of strong late-20c American writers (thanks again Lannan!), Elkin is more straight than most about his intentionality [pdf]. I had the good fortune to stumble into a college course on contemporary American short stories in the late '70s (the other course that stayed with me was Hawthorne / Melville / Poe -- hey, not bad for a math major), where Elkin's Criers & Kibitzers joined Cynthia Ozick's The Pagan Rabbi and Peter Taylor's In the Miro District for consideration, and it's taken me this long to come back to him -- Ozick didn't take so long (she visited campus as part of the course, replacing stalwart Joyce Carol Oates that year -- I did say good fortune) -- and I was more into the Barth / Barthelme / Pynchon side of it back then, of whom the latter stayed with me, perennial, along with Nabokov and Borges. Even so, it took topical musings to drive me back. Elkin deserves a wider reading. At least by me.


Moh Pynchon

It's only a matter of time now ...
Pynchonite physical properties:
Color: Pleochroistic, highly chromaphoric and idiochromatic, sensitive to trace dispersions
Luster: Vitreous. Thermoluminescent and pyroelectric.
Transparency: Examples are generally opaque to translucent
Crystal System: triclinic but unstable, may appear orthorhombal
Cleavage: Poor in two directions at near 90 degree angles, similarly multiaxially
Parting: Evanescent, multiple intersecting planes
Fracture: Splintery to uneven when present
Hardness: 6.5 – 7 (extremely tough)
Specific Gravity: approximately 3.5 (above average for translucent minerals)
Streak: White
Flame Test: Variable, spectral
Best Field Indicators: Toughness, density, flame test and hardness. Often accompanied by pyrites and calcites.
Index Of Refraction: Multiple, indeterminate.

And just in time for X-maas: Thurn & Taxis boardgame. Free shipping!

Reading: Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems: Spurred by Brodsky's "The Keening Muse" in <1; unfortunately the interplay between formal structure and idea is lost in translation (as with Pushkin per Nabokov); some elements of the Silver Age do not transmute.


The Other's Other

Whenever I visit a bookstore to procure a particular title, I always am on alert for some companion volume to assert itself from the shelf (more generally, though, bookbrowsing has not proven transferable to other venues of shopping, just as my training as a lab technician has proven inapplicable to cooking). In picking up Against the Day, the other title that leapt out at me was Yuri Rytkheu's A Dream in Polar Fog; appropriately enough, given both the farflung venue ("a distant northern land"?), timing (19-teens), and an initial pivot of dynamite -- an explosion mangles the protagonist's hands, and he finds himself at the mercy of a small indigenous community in Chukotka on the Siberian coast. The story [spoilert: synopsis], one part Melville's Typee and one part William Morris' News from Nowhere, is unusual for such narratives in presenting the circumstances filtered through both the interloper's and the communal standpoints. Rytkheu himself is Chukchi (he tacked on the 'Yuri' for documentation purposes when entering the Soviet education system; some manipulation on names occurs with his protagonist as well), born not long before the written form of his native language, though this text is translated from the original ['70?] Russian, which went out of print after USSR dissolution, back in print in '93 in German -- perhaps mirroring the vicissitudes of the region. Which led me to ponder another conundrum: What does a book seemingly so amenable to analysis via a postcolonial theoretical apparatus have to say about the hegemony of the Novel itself? That the novel accommodates and assimilates non-Western literary forms becomes problematic with a nonliterate culture; in this instance, the story is oriented (yeah, well ...) towards an outside audience, its lyricism occasionally erring into sentimentality.

Also read: Tanizaki's The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, parodizing historical forms and the nasal fixation (Freudian not Urban sense, and, actually, dysfixiation).

PSA 'Tis the season to be donors: Many worthy nonprofit publishers of poetry and of translations are supported by (well-chosen) Lannan Foundation grants [click on Details...], but also welcome individual tax-deductible contributions.


Splittin' Image

Pynchon's Against the Day is something of a return to the form of Gravity's Rainbow, which I consider to be the Moby-Dick of the 20th century (though not in terms of its reception). Against the Day isn't up to that standard, but still well beyond what American letters has had to offer otherwise: it seems as if this is Pynchon's final effort, and that he wanted to get everything in while he still could. There is surely a lot going on, more than I can assimilate into a first impression, but the general shape was clear early on, just a matter of how to get there. Which is one hinge for the novel, where the mirror traveling down the road has unusual refractive properties: It gives the lie of path dependence to New Historicism -- looking back, one cannot see the future that was being looked foward to without it being colored by current perspective, knowing how it all turns out in the end. The narrative is supposed to be refractory, the text itself paramorphic, which sounds vaguely mathematical, but has to do with reordering of the chemical variety. Among other things, Pynchon captures the transcendental, almost kabbalistic element that was invested in mathematics before Gödel demonstrated that structure only gets you so far. More generally, Against the Day, framed by a boy's adventure tale, is imbued with a sense of possibilities at the turn of the century, despite the impending collapse into world war (and capitalism [though trustbusting gets short shrift] and Modernism and cynicism ...) and its harbingers. A-and a persistent optimism that beneath all these correspondences is an as yet unimagined identity, depending on how you look at it. Best Easter Egg: the collapse of the Campanile in St Marks Plaza by tetricide (the preferred bombardment method of Inconvenience's Russian counterpart): in its time Tetris was rumored to be a Russian plot to undermine Western productivity. Still puzzling what the midpoint reference to Mark 4 (parable of seedsower) has to do with it ...

Other readings: The other two novellas in the Duras package were stronger than the first two: 10:30 on a Summer Night reworks Moderato Cantabile to advantage, and The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas masters the implicit as the others don't. And Tanizaki's Arrowroot, my first reading of this author, will have me back for more.