Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


The Saint

His empathy was limited to seeing how others saw him. This gave rise to other virtues, humility not least among them.



Arnošt Lustig, Fire on Water, two post-Holocaust Czech novellas: Porgess (trans Roman Kostovski) deals with the narrator's visits to the fair-haired boy of Jewish Prague, paralysed by a bullet to the spine while escaping transport on the last day of the war, and, The Abyss (trans Deborah Durham-Vichr), with David Wiesenthal, another camp survivor, enlisted in border patrol in the mountains, swept into a crevasse by an avalanche, recalling loves past, present, and before either. There's a lot of metaphoric force to these situations, some of it needfully dispersed in characterizing how lives could go on afterwards, but some needlessly dispersed by what sometimes appears to be casual or rushed translation (though in the first case, jazz as motif may explain some of the difficulty).

Cynthia Ozick, The Din in the Head (phrase borrowed from Krashen on language acquisition; okay, kidding, is it Virginia Woolf? not attributed -- but it does appear in Lustig's Abyss as well): The latest collection of essays, many excellent as usual but more misfires than usual, including the title cut, defending the novel against all comers, conflating various modes of internet delivery along the way, particularly silly in that the best essays included herein are online, on Helen Keller and Gershom Scholem (her takes on Saul Bellow [New Republic review], Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Babel [from intro to Complete Works] also well worthwhile, and my interest piqued on Robert Alter's pentateuch translation; but the James entry, obligatory in any Ozick collection, is a bit weaker than usual, and the afterword is, well, unfortunate); it is her ongoing concern with literary language as integral to life (as well as the other way round), and her engaging with the reader as few essayists or novelists can, that has had me read everything she's put into print, except her first novel, Trust (which the obligatory autobiographical essay, weakest of these among her collections, does not persuade me to read), or her last (yet). On balance, less lasting than previous efforts, sooner to be eclipsed (as she says Trilling has been -- but she's the more compelling essayist, even the less excellent pieces offer flashes of insight), perhaps due to a greater topicality (a more private Dabashi explosion recorded in a meeting with Iranian dissidents in an essay on Nafisi). And, for the LS collective, I'll close on an one of the extracts Ozick comments on from Schwartz on Seurat:
O happy, happy throng,
It is forever Sunday, summer, free
All this discloses a poet's escape, if he wills it, from the commanding Zeitgeist. Or even if he does not will it, if it comes unwittingly, unsummoned, from his nature -- libertarian, untethered, deaf to all authority but the imperative inward chant.

A conclusion seemingly at variance with the conclusion of the poem:
The voice of Kafka, forever sad, in despair's sickness trying to say:
"Flaubert was right: Il sont dans le vrai!
Without forbears, without marriage, without heirs,
Yet with a wild longing for forbears, marriage, and heirs:
They all stretch out their hands to me: but are too far away!"


Physical couplets

An alexandrine game, best described by examples:

They're together til something better comes along --
but it never will -- they think too much of themselves.

Their singular attraction cannot be explained
by forces better grasped -- can they be serious?

There's the right way and wrong way to rub each other --
in heated exchanges they manage both at once.

To be updated as more moves arrive. Participation (where have you gone, Anselm Dovetonsils?) welcomed in comments, or wherever (any potential compilation elsewhere copylefted, should anyone care).


Bad Craziness

Flaubert's juvenilia doesn't merit a post on its own, but I'll dispose of it briefly: Germaine Greer's foreword to Memoirs of a Madman, a loose narrative of jaded adolescence, properly warns against biographical interpretation (before indulging a bit herself) and identifies ETAHoffmann's influence, but she and translator Andrew Brown see this work, unfinished as it is in many respects, as more seminal than I can credit: it does not seem to prefigure The Sentimental Education, nor is it a storehouse of ideas Flaubert might later have mined. What is interesting is that it saw the light of day when the Decadents were at their zenith -- it probably owes publication (which Flaubert did not permit in his lifetime) in part to their reverence for Salammbô (which I've put off reading interminably) -- there is something that makes it fit better here than with contemporary works (such as Gogol's Diary of a Madman) or as part of any progression from Romanticism, and indicates Flaubert was ahead of his time even before he was able. Credit Brown with a proposed addition to The Dictionary of Received Ideas: "FLAUBERT: Spent days laboring over a single sentence. -- But some say his works lack vitality. -- Don't forget to mention Flaubertian irony, with a knowing look." Worth mentioning in and of itself. Unlike the book.


Multiple perspectives of Faulkner

William Faulkner may well be America's most successful literary export. It is perhaps no less a testament to his style than to the matter he treats, decline as an aftereffect of profound but distant upheavals as felt in the backwaters, which is in all its aspects antithetical to what America is thought/thinks itself to represent. While this gave rise to McOndo via Garcia Marquez in LatAmLit, the backwash to Europe is what I'm on to.

Robert Pinget, That Voice (Barbara Wright trans), is billed as a "Faulknerian take on rural life" within his larger Faulknerian ouevre, but while the provincial setting (the near environs of Agapa) and instability of point of view and of relations between characters attests to a commonality, Pinget is stylistically closer to Beckett (and to the nouveau romanists). His preface highlights a thematic dual meaning of anamnesis, "whose literal meaning is the recalling to memory of things past, is, in the language of psychoanalysis, a patient's remembrance of the early stages of his illness. In the present case, the anamnesis is triple: 1) That of the narrator, 2) That of the chronicler (relative to the work achieved up to the present time), 3) Formal (relative to the structure of the book, which, after the halfway mark, is recomposed or decomposed by reascending; in other words, the themes are resumed in the reverse order of their formulation.)" The third meaning of anamnesis is not mentioned: the eucharistic prayer recalling Christ's sacrifice and ending with the words "Do this in remembrance of me." (Nor is the split chronology, between All Saints/All Souls in the first half and Easter season in the second, when time is permitted to proceed once again.) Whereas one theme is effacement of scribblings on a slate, and the story begins and ends in the cemetery, the last will and testament of the uncle specify preservation of the manuscript he's compiled out of bits and pieces as an integral part of his house; so this novella stands in relation to Pinget's other writings. I've exhausted what Dalkey offers of Pinget, but Red Dust has much more.

Juan Goytisolo, The Marx Family Saga (Peter Bush trans) brings Karl and his women back in 1993 to witness the effects of the dissolution of the system built on his system. The novel, a satirical send-up not only of Marxism but of Marketism as well, is split into 5 parts, proceeding from the socioeconomic through the literary, Merchant & Ivory cinematic and talking-head dialectic to the utopian. No one is spared; well, one is, in the end, but that would be giving it away, and that would violate capitalistic precepts. Mr. Faulkner figures in as the author/narrator's publisher, introduced in the second part, with a Gradgrindian emphasis on factual fidelity; beyond the meta cleverness, there is a curious opposition between Faulkner and Dickens in play here; advantage to the latter, but displacement to urban settings does not dilute the relevance of the former (especially given Marx's own distance from the class that took him up on it). While not as enamored of this as some, I still highly recommend it.

Cesare Pavese, The Moon and the Bonfires (R.W.Flint trans), was his last novel, while his last translation into Italian was Faulkner's The Hamlet; Pavese borrows the barnburning to build upon it (as noted in the Rudman's nyrb intro, which should be left for last, or longer: no one tells me how anything must be read). Again a provincial setting, in rural Piedmont, and a community of dubious relations, but the narrator is a foundling who found success in America before returning after the war to find he still has no place (not that Americans do, Oakland being one of his stopovers). Thematically this is closest to Yoknapatawpha, but stylistically it derives from Fitzgerald, Hemingway and that ilk. While excellent (remarkably tightly plotted, perhaps too much so at times), this novel doesn't impel me to investigate Pavese's earlier works (though Flint's intro [pdf] better introduces Pavese's life and work), despite even Calvino's warmth: "Each one of Pavese's novels revolves around a hidden theme,something unsaid which is the real thing he wants to say and which can be expressed only by not mentioning it."


Midwinter midweek readings

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, The Lord Chandos Letter and other writings: So far as prose goes, HvH was a one-hit wonder; the other writings, not all complete (here excluding longer efforts, similarly not all complete), show craft and competence, occasionally art, but do not approach the spirit of The Letter. (Hofmannsthal forsook poetry shortly thereafter, becoming Richard Strauss' librettist and then a political essayist.) There's piquancy to the notion that, in this venue, what he'll be remembered for writing was about an inability to continue writing.

Roberto Bolaño, Amulet, trans Chris Andrews: Braced for a let-down after By Night in Chile and Distant Star, I was pleasantly disappointed in my expectation, though the monologic form from a fractured perspective masks some inessential weaknesses. It challenges loftier interpretations of the events of '68 in Mexico City -- it might be termed the 'other' "Other Mexico", seen from outside (by an Uruguayan; Bolaño's surrogate also present) but within the larger Spanish tradition, stripping out Paz's conceits of the centrality of both ancient indigenous and modern U.S. influences ... the Metaphor in Paz's Conjunctions & Disjunctions also gets a work-out:
And that is when time stands still again, a worn-out image if ever there was one, because either time never stands still or it has always been standing still; so let's say instead that a tremor disturbs the continuum of time, or that time plants its big feet wide apart, bends down, puts its head between its legs, looking at me upside down, one eye winking crazily just a few inches below its ass, or let's say that the full or waxing or obscurely waning moon of Mexico City slides again over the tiles of the women's bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature ..."
The narrator's days-long self-sequestration here during the military incursion on UNAM is the hub around which all else revolves, the one certainty, the time that is of the essence. This narrative unfolds as time does not within it. (One oddity: The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data omits Bolaño's date of decease, despite listing copyright as belonging to his heirs; it was present on the copyright page for Last Evenings on Earth.)

FS&G is bringing out The Savage Detectives (trans Natasha Wimmer) in early April, but it's 2666 that I look forward to most; meanwhile, it looks like the best that the spring releases have to offer.


A Nasty Piece of Work In Progress

My hour-long commute home on Friday took an extra four hours. A downed power line stalled my train for half that time a couple miles short of it (my destination a couple miles the other side of it), and electricity was restored only to permit a slow return to the Jamaica, Queens hub, after several other provisional measures (offloading on to a diesel train to the same purpose, or emergency evacuation, as some passengers undertook on their own initiative to the dismay of the train crew and the notification of local police) were mooted. No provision was made at Jamaica other than direction(s) to the bus station a few blocks away (did I mention the freezing rain?), not that any extra buses were allocated until another hour had passed, nor was my inquiry as to my eventual drop-off point answered accurately by the driver (adding another bit of a stroll to the end of the journey).

This provides an apt metaphor to reading Gass' The Tunnel. I've lived inside this book (or vice-versa) for a month, forgoing other novels so as not to confuse the issue; I read slowly, deliberately, even when a text does not seem to demand it -- and demand it this one does: beyond stylistic niceties, the interleaving of many narrative strands requires careful parsing. But for all the pleasures of local density and of complexity, and aside from any repugnance of the narrator and the subject matter (more warp than woof), Gass imposes a dysfunctional author-reader relationship, abusive, a literary sadomasochism, somewhat akin to having Humbert's apologia addressed directly to Dolores Haze. For example, as to the flash & trash I mentioned before, Gass on typography: The meaning is deliberately left ambiguous. But the reader is invited to wonder “what the fuck?” As, indeed, I did, and not only in this instance. Halfway through, I was tempted to set aside the book indefinitely, despite Complete Review's high marks; the only other instance of this (setting-aside) being Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, in which the nyrb's introduction is provided by Gass. Figures. Anyway, it took a reading of Penguin's selected essays and aphorisms of Arthur Schopenhauer, drawn from Parerga and Paralipomena, to re-engage Gass. (I found Schopenhauer, for all the literary interest he was supposed to have excited, profusely and profoundly even ponderously unquotable, and for whom textual vivisection is too kind a fate.) I can see the point of disconcerting one's audience, but disaffecting them? Even the allusions sully their referents. I see no reason to revise my provisional assessment, retaining the throwaway comment as more comprehensive than I knew, as The Tunnel falls short of the excellence of some of the parts. FWIW, Dalkey provides a casebook, not without its own ambivalence.

(Such a negative response always raises the question of whether I am lacking some capacity for appreciating particular aspects of literature. I don't pretend to any canonical taste; I'm not blogging as some kind of surrogate book-reviewing, but to better formulate, while still fresh, what it is that I found interesting about what I've read. What's interesting in this case is that for all the fine ingredients, the book should fail to cohere, just as the birthday cake [and party] does as the story draws to its conclusion -- but overbaked rather than half-baked. We seem to judge people by the books they enjoy [a narcissism of fictional differences?] no less than we judge the books themselves. My detachment is not a refusal to engage, disinterested isn't uninterested; my inclination is to extend the benefit of the doubt, practice a sort of hermeneutics of suspension of disbelief. A book that doesn't live up to expectations doesn't put me off its author [unless it's taken as epitomic; White Noise put me off Delillo for good]. Others may well find merit in what I find meretricious; this is as it should be. But still ...)

Better reading was had in Eugenio Montale's The Storm and Other Things, trans William Arrowsmith. The only complaint is that the supporting notes are a little overdone, distracting from the poetry. Brodsky put him on my list as well as C.P.Cavafy, up next.