Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Frenzied tract or self-indulgent hobbyhorse"

Reading this Bookslut interview with Cynthia Ozick the other day (the interview is from December; I don't remember where I found the link, sorry), I was interested in her remarks about politics and the novel. The interviewer, Paul Morton, is trying to press her about what he perceives as her lack of engagement with the present, a premise to which she objects. He tries to clarify his question:
I may not have been as precise in what I’m criticizing. There’s a scene in Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost that takes place on the 2004 election night. I haven’t seen any writer or journalist depict that night better than Roth does in those 10 pages or so.

I remember it very well. And I remember my reaction to it very well. Notwithstanding my hot admiration for Roth, both in part and as an astonishing whole, this scene struck me as the weakest point in the novel, because -- agree with Roth’s views or not -- it leaped out of the disbelief-suspending frame of the novel to become topical political rage and topical political advocacy. Nothing will kill a novel more than when it falls away from serious irony and veers into frenzied tract or self-indulgent hobbyhorse. Twenty years from now, maybe ten, maybe even five, that scene is going to be as stale and dead and ludicrous on the page as Herbert Hoover’s chicken-in-every-pot oration. It won’t survive even as comedy, though it might as self-indicting cartoon. Still, it goes without saying that Roth’s power and repute will outlast the occasional sermonic glitch.

But think of a book like Fathers and Sons which is filled with conversations that were contemporary to 1861 Russia.

But in Turgenev’s novel, one of my favorites, both sides of the political argument are lived out and imagined from the inside. Turgenev doesn’t sneer, he empathizes, he dramatizes. It’s not mere polemical advocacy thrown down out of animus. You can feel the force of history, and of torn human passions, and the troubled bewilderment of parents, and the draw of family love. For me, the greatest political novel of the twentieth century is A Passage to India, a wonderful case in point of how a novel can transcend its topical politics when the issues themselves have become obsolete. India has been an independent sovereign state for many decades. Its unhappy period as the possession of a foreign power is long over and done with, and today it has a bristling, fruitful international economy. Yet that novel lives beyond the British imperial circumstances of its moment, and why? Because of Aziz, because of Professor Godbole and Mrs. Moore, because of Adela, because of the Marabar Caves, because of a dominating uncanny mystical echo. A beautiful and amazing novel despite its dead political element and yes, the political impulse that may have partly motivated it.
It so happens that I read Exit Ghost just last week. In case you haven't read the book, our man Nathan Zuckerman has returned to New York after several years in self-imposed exile, has entered into an agreement to allow a couple to occupy, for a year, his cabin in the Berkshires in exchange for their apartment in Manhattan. In the scene referred to in the interview, Zuckerman is in the apartment with the couple, who have invited him to celebrate with them what they are sure will be a Democratic victory that night, in the 2004 presidential election, before they officially move out to the cabin. Zuckerman, intentionally, has no knowledge of or interest in what's going on, having stopped following politics years prior, though it seems clear his sympathies are not with the Republicans. His young friends are sure of a Kerry victory, sure of the evil of the Republicans, and just as sure that the latter have destroyed a great thing. They are, of course, disappointed in the event and spend much time denouncing the evil of Bush and Cheney and despairing the direction of this great nation.

A few things interest me about this and Ozick's response to it. First is her assumption that Roth, her hero, in writing this scene, necessarily has failed as a novelist, allowing "frenzied tract or self-indulgent hobbyhorse" to overtake him. Assuming, that is, that inclusion of such a scene can only be Roth taking time to either lecture the reader, or to make his own feelings known, which are otherwise irrelevant. And yet, it is a note-perfect rendition of the kinds of scenes that happened in real life, in true-blue liberal households across the land. Is it relevant to the rest of the book? I think it is, but I'm not going to go to great lengths to argue the point.

Second is her appraisal of the two older novels. She claims that in Fathers and Sons "both sides of the political argument are lived out and imagined from the inside. Turgenev doesn't sneer, he empathizes, he dramatizes. It’s not mere polemical advocacy thrown down out of animus." Note that she refers to both sides of the argument, as if there were only two, as if Turgenev had not selected his two sides to dramatize. In doing so, she fails to notice that two sides are indeed presented in Exit Ghost, that of the politically committed young couple and of the indifferent Zuckerman. And Ozick seems to accept at face value that the only sides involved in the 2004 election, or in any other presidential election, are the Democrats and the Republicans and their respective supporters. But the novel doesn't include any Nader voters, nor any others who might be capable, unlike this couple or Ozick apparently, of recognizing that, awful as they were, the Bush gang did not destroy a "great" thing but were rather implementing an extreme version of basic policies which enjoyed bipartisan support for decades, nor should it necessarily have included such characters. The book is not about the election or about politics. It is, however, largely about the risks of commitment, of life, of involvement, and the attraction of removing oneself from it all, whether for art or security or otherwise. In which case the two "sides" presented are indeed relevant to the novel.

A Passage to India, Ozick claims, is "a wonderful case in point of how a novel can transcend its topical politics when the issues themselves have become obsolete." Apparently, then, it's just fine for a novel to be about politics if those politics don't matter, as long as characters are memorable and place is well enough evoked. How convenient. Is it possible that decades from now Exit Ghost might be able to "transcend its topical politics"? Ozick doesn't say either way, but she implies that the political scenes in the novel are bad by definition. It seems to me that Ozick has allowed her a priori conviction that politics is always detrimental to fiction to determine her take on this particular scene. She claims that it is the weakest part of the book because "agree with Roth’s views or not -- it leaped out of the disbelief-suspending frame of the novel to become topical political rage and topical political advocacy". I'm curious at her assumption that the scene is anything like "political advocacy". What are Roth's views? Are they Zuckerman's or those of the young, politically attuned couple? Both? Neither? It's probably safe to say that Roth strongly identifies with the opinions expressed by the young couple. He is on record as having been appalled by the Bush Administration ("Bush is too horrendous to be forgotten", he says in the linked interview). And yet one can easily see him making common cause with Zuckerman, a sort of "this too shall pass" attitude. So, it could be argued, Roth splits his own attitude on the then-current situation. Possibly, yet it seems to me that this kind of speculation is quite beside the point. I make no great claims for Exit Ghost; it's a perfectly worthy, if sort of slight--in the way that Roth's recent books have managed to somehow be both slight and fascinating--coda to the numerous Zuckerman books. But the question of politics and fiction is important and too often dismissed out of hand by critics like Ozick who find the political novel anathema to aesthetic success, while many who desire the political in their art seem to me to be all too reductive.

I hope to return to these matters in the near future. But before finishing up here, I'd like to hint towards the nature of my problem with the overly reductive approach. I was struck a while back by a comment by jane dark at Ads Without Products, which Ads drew attention to in an excellent post the other day about Lars von Trier's new film, Antichrist:

The most compelling approach to "truth" in the novel is probably Jameson's account of "the real of history" in Political Unconscious and it is exactly what can't be inserted via choosing to do so, as both Ballard and the bourgeois novelists would have us do.
I'd like to meditate on this, and on that which is "exactly what can't be inserted via choosing to do so". . .

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Appropriately Insular

Two weeks ago at The Elegant Variation, Mark Sarvas posted in four installments his interview with Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland. Much of the interview is of little interest to me, but I admit that I made a point to skim through the whole thing because Sarvas hinted ahead of time that they were going to be getting into the much-blogged-about Zadie Smith essay from last Fall, in which Smith discussed Netherland alongside Tom McCarthy's Remainder (for example, I wrote about it here, and, sort of, here). In the event, that particular part of the interview doesn't really go anywhere terribly fruitful. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting points I'd like to highlight, since they have bearing on questions that some of us have been discussing of late. I'm posting this now as a placeholder, which I hope will lead into future posts on these topics.

First, from the third part of the interview, in reference to Nobel Committee member Horace Engdahl's controversial remarks about the alleged insularity of contemporary American fiction:
TEV: Do you think that this question of the insular nature of contemporary American fiction afflicts the younger generation in a way that it didn't the Mailers and the Roths and the Bellows?

Joseph O'Neill: No, I think part of the problem for the young generation may be that they're not insular enough. I mean, Updike and Bellow and Roth achieved their finest, most resonant effects by disregarding conventions of universality. You wrote about what American Jews, or what you have you, were up to in these little towns, and the world followed you.

TEV: Very particular and very personal.

Joseph O'Neill: Yeah. There is no space between these writers and their concerns. You rarely get the sense with them that they are just trying to write a novel. I’m talking about their most successful work. And I think they were appropriately insular with regard to their raw materials.
"Appropriately insular". Whatever one thinks of the particular writers mentioned (I'm much higher on Roth and Bellow than I am on Updike, and I couldn't possibly care less about Mailer than I do), this is an excellent observation. I think it speaks to something important about literature, and has bearing on discussions about writing in general, modernism, post-modernism, and so on.

Then in part four they finally come around to addressing Smith's piece:
TEV: Because I agree with you. It's interesting that you have brought up Zadie Smith because I was going to ask about her next. I think that a lot of people draw the wrong kind of conclusions with a piece like the one that she wrote. I think that it sets up some false oppositions. I feel like this form of the novel is capacious enough to accommodate all different styles

Joseph O'Neill: Yes.

TEV: And the notion that one has to chose [sic] between Netherland or Remainder just seems silly. I liked Remainder a great deal, as well. I don’t feel that they're mutually exclusive, that one must declare an allegiance.

Joseph O'Neill: I'd actually read and liked Remainder before that piece. And I thought it was a perfectly good piece of writing. I'm not sure I would describe it as unconventional, not least because that description, as I've said, would not mean very much.

TEV: Yes. But I think that some of the sentiments that she expresses hold sway among this younger generation of writers, whether it’s people coming out of the McSweeney’s School or the purveyors of the uber-ironic, the tendency toward a hip nihilism or something like that that. That they mistrust, in essence, the idea of a beautiful sentence. Some people find that corny, the notion of a beautiful sentence.

Joseph O'Neill: Well, it depends on how you define them as beautiful. I mean, you know, Foster Wallace wrote many beautiful sentences. I mean, there's nothing but beautiful sentences in his work. Even though he had a particular way of doing it. What makes a sentence beautiful, for me, is its conscientiousness. A hip, ironic sensibility is not necessarily conscientious. Neither is a sensibility that latches on to dusks and dawns and roses.
Obviously O'Neill is put in a weird position, having to comment on such an essay, but TEV sets the terms of the discussion in a not very helpful fashion. Though he's not wrong to observe that Smith set up a false opposition of sorts, I would argue that the much celebrated "capaciousness" of the novel is actually a problem (and by the way think that TEV is one of those who drew "the wrong kind of conclusions" from the essay). But I'll leave further remarks for future posts.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Interview notice

I have a few long-ish posts awaiting my divided attention. In the meantime, over at Conversations in the Book Trade, Finn Harvor has posted an interview with me as part of his ongoing series. It will be seen that I remain, as ever, the eternal optimist. Ha!

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kafka and Brod

What if Brod had destroyed everything? Would Kafka have become Kafka? Would we know his writing? Yes, several stories were published in his lifetime, and would have remained theoretically extant. And this includes, crucially, not just "The Metamorphosis", probably his most famous work, but also "In the Penal Colony", "A Report to an Academy", "First Sorrow", and "A Hunger Artist". Overall, by my edition of the collected stories, approximately 250 pages of fiction, much of it essential reading. Obviously, we would not have The Trial, the second most famous work, or any of the other novels, or certainly the diaries.

Brod emerges as something of a comic figure, pathetic even, the lesser writer in the shadow of his friend, ethically unforgivable to some for the singular crime of not following Kafka's directive to burn. But how much of Kafka's reputation rests on Brod's efforts? That is, without Brod providing a critical framework, in the context of the posthumous novels and saved stories, do these early published stories necessarily survive? Not survive literally, but gain a foothold? I know I'm asking a more or less impossible question, but I like to think about contingency, how easily things could have been different, worse, better.

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On Kafka and the pre-modern

Kafka again. The Diaries, the Collected Stories. After dipping into the shorter pieces in the latter over a period of several months alongside other reading, I finally had both the time and the inclination to read the longer stories (though, so far, just the ones published in his lifetime). One doesn't mind disrupting the reading of a novel, but stories need to be read in one sitting. "The Stoker", for the first time (it is also the opening chapter of Amerika, which remains the only unread novel); "The Metamorphosis"--this for the perhaps fourth or fifth time--remarkable how little I remember in it! "In the Penal Colony"--I remember the basic horrible idea, certainly, but the particulars and the conclusion are as if new to me.

From these stories, I've entered into a more systematic reading of the rest of the collection. In doing so, I noticed something odd in my expectations, coming into focus while reading "Eleven Sons". In this story, a father simply describes his eleven sons, one paragraph for each, in pedantic, critical detail, each son in some way somehow failing to measure up. For example, the second son has "a small irregularity of the spirit that somehow corresponds to [a physical blemish], a kind of stray poison in the blood, a kind of inability to develop to the full the potentialities of his nature which I alone can see." That kind of thing. And that's it. Five pages and out. In that same paragraph on the second son, we read this:
He is clever too, but has experience of the world as well; he has seen much, and therefore even our native country seems to yield more secrets to him than to the stay-at-home. Yet I am sure that this advantage is not only and not even essentially due to his travels, it is rather an attribute of his own inimitable nature, which is acknowledged for instance by everyone who has ever tried to copy him in, let us say, the fancy high dive he does into the water, somersaulting several times over, yet with almost violent self-control. To the very end of the springboard the emulator keeps up his courage and his desire to follow; but at that point, instead of leaping into the air, he sits down suddenly and lifts his arms in excuse.
At the word "springboard" I was suddenly made aware that I had been imagining this son's diving taking place at an old watering hole. No big deal possibly, except that I further realized that I tend to take Kafka's stories as somehow pre-modern. In some respects this is plainly ridiculous: isn't the cliché about Kafka that he is the quintessential chronicler of the modern condition? Alienation, bureaucracy, office work, claustrophobia, all of that? I don't subscribe to that short-hand, but even so, the modern world abounds in Kafka's fiction. Isn't Gregor Samsa a traveling salesman for a big, modern firm? Doesn't "The Stoker" take place inside a large, modern ship? The detailed description of the machine in "In the Penal Colony" speaks of a world in which mechanical devices are ordinary, even if this machine in particular is far from it. More than this, though several stories do not, contrary to the cliché, speak of an exclusively modern condition, little details of the modern world continually appear, in Kafka's literal way. Like that springboard. What is my problem?

I'm again talking about the timeless, mythical quality of Kafka's fiction, the tendency, enabled by Kafka's apparently plain prose style, for his stories to read like parables or fables, whatever they may actually be about. And fables and myths are ancient, and so it follows. There is that slippery, if literal, writing. Of course, some of the stories reinforce my pre-conception. "A Country Doctor", for example, could take place almost anytime. There is the recasting of Don Quixote with Sancho Panza as the hero, there is the story about Poseidon stuck doing paperwork, unable to actually enjoy the seas over which he presides (though someday, perhaps, someday), there are stories with emperors and noblemen and peasants and villages, all arguably contributing to this overall sense of pre-modernity. But the other stories, the ones that are unquestionably in a modern setting, are no less fables, to the extent that at times the very modernity on display brings me up short, forcing me to consider it.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Mid-year Music Roundup, part one

Just past the mid-point of 2009, and what music have I been listening to? Well, I'm glad you asked. As advertized, my intake of new music has dwindled considerably, though this year there's a been a slight uptick over last year, still on the trade-in/store-credit regime.

In another entry I may touch on some of my other listening, but for this post, I'll briefly comment just on the four cds released this year that I have acquired:

Neko Case, Middle Cyclone: an excellent album, though I admit I haven't entered into a zone of obsession with it yet, as I did almost immediately with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood; whatever happens, it's always great listening to that wonderful voice. She can sing. Could do without "Marais la Nuit", the album-closing 30+ minute track of crickets chirping. It's fine once but I tend to skip over it. So far I haven't really zeroed in on most of the lyrics, but I do love this from "This Tornado Loves You": "I have waited with a glacier's patience..."

Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle: this got mostly rave reviews, with listeners seeming to think it's Bill's best record since Smog's Dongs of Sevotion (1999) or, possibly, Knock Knock (1998). For one thing, this view completely overlooks the classics Supper (2003) and A River Ain't Too Much to Love (2005), both of which are far better, in my opinion, than either of the earlier two (both of which, don't misunderstand, I like just fine, though at this late date the latter especially seems a bit over-produced). For another, I think it slightly overrates the new album. It is indeed better than his last album, the disappointing Woke on a Whaleheart, the first under his own name, though that's not saying much by itself (although I admit that I have a soft spot for that one, too, even if I recognize that it's easily his worst record since he started actually writing songs instead of playing with noise). That said, increasingly, I do like the new album. "Jim Cain" is great; "Eid Ma Clack Shaw", "The Wind and the Dove", and "Too Many Birds" are quite good; I'm coming around with repeated listens to "My Friend" and "All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast"--at first I was thrown by his uncharacteristically emotive vocals in these two, but I believe I've gotten over it. "Rococo Zephyr" is pleasant enough, perhaps overly placid, yet it features this great line, my favorite on the record: "I used to be sorta blind, now I can sorta see." Throughout, the writing is stronger than on Whaleheart, the production is less cluttered and random, and Bill's singing is fascinating as ever, so there is much to recommend it, even if it doesn't reach the consistent heights of his masterpiece Red Apple Falls (1997) or the two mid-decade titles mentioned above. By far the worst track is the finale, "Faith/Void", which I'm afraid is simply an awful song. With the repeated line about it being "time to put God away", it sounds like a song that could have been commissioned by Richard Dawkins. I don't object to the sentiment per se (except that I've always liked how Bill has seemed able to tap into some kind of mystery), except that's all it seems like. The main problem with it is that it's utterly boring, and goes on for nearly ten minutes. I've given it several chances, but ugh.

Sonic Youth, The Eternal: well, yes. After all that, yes. What can I say. It fucking rocks. It's better than "Rather Ripped", about on par with (the excellent) Sonic Nurse or Murrary Street, much better than career nadirs Experimental Jet Set & No Star or Dirty (yes, I said it; Dirty is far and away the most overrated album in Sonic Youth's catalog--Woebot was right [link re-found via Matthew Ingram's own contribution to the SY kerfuffle, in which he backs off of his earlier Woebot-era bash a bit], in retrospect this is where they seemed to lose the thread, and they bottomed out with Experimental Jet Set; in my view they re-found it, beginning, tentatively, with Washing Machine, but it took a while), and naturally not the groundbreaker of EVOL, Sister, or Daydream Nation, or the consolidation of Goo. Full of Sonic Youthiness.

Animal Collective, Meriweather Post Pavilion: It has to be said: this is not Animal Collective's best album, though everyone seems to think it is. It's very good, yes, yes, very good, don't get me wrong. But it disturbs me that this happens with every artist. The best album is always the most accessible. Even fans too often get caught up in the idea that a band's rough edges, disturbing tendencies, whatever might be unassimilable, must be ironed out in order for maturity or growth or whatever to occur. I'm sure Animal Collective are just doing what they want, and what they're doing is still pretty damn good, but those rough edges--the screaming, the meandering, the indulgences--were part of what had made them awesome.

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Bloggery and linkage

At A Tiny Revolution, Jonathan Schwarz yesterday took note of "Another Triumph for American Journalism". And last week he noted the similarities between Goldman Sachs's responses to certain interview questions from Matt Taibbi and Saddam Hussein's responses to questions from the FBI, after they forced him to watch a documentary, and quipped, all too accurately: "The funniest part is, you could legitimately argue that Goldman Sachs has killed more people than Saddam."

ladypoverty on jackassery; also on the puzzling perspective on current events offered by Elie Wiesel's account, in Dawn, of the use of terrorism by Jews against the British in Palestine after WWII. I'd like to quote numerous other pithy ladypoverty utterances, but the relevant posts are way too short to justify my quotation of them here. You should check in there regularly yourself.

For those few of you who are not planning on reading David Harvey's The Limits to Capital this summer ("Capital Summer"?), at Lenin's Tomb lenin summarizes a talk given by Harvey, which also happens to serve as an excellent précis of many of the arguments in that book. (See also my own somewhat rambly post from April touching on the same book.)

And, finally, here is a video of an excellent talk given by Chris Knight, discussing Marxism and science, religion and communism, sex strikes and the evolutionary emergence of language and origins of culture, and more. The video is about 75 minutes long, but well worth your time. Unsurprisingly, the link comes to me via Stuart at From Despair to Where?, where in the comments an interesting discussion occurred about the reception of Knight's theory, in particular as outlined in his great book Blood Relations (which, again, I discussed at length here). In the talk, incidentally, Knight refers to an article titled "Painted Ladies" in New Scientist that summarizes some of the argument. That article appeared in October 2001, and a pdf can be viewed here. If you're interested, but wary about jumping right into Blood Relations, the talk plus the "Painted Ladies" article are a good way, I think, to gain some familiarity with these important ideas.

I imagined I would provide more links here today, but then I lost the will, so this will have to do. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Being there only momentarily

Maurice Blanchot, discussing the cave paintings at Lascaux, from his essay "The Birth of Art", found in Friendship:
Art would thus provide us with our only authentic date of birth: a date that is rather recent and necessarily indeterminate, even though the paintings of Lascaux seem to bring it still closer to us by the feeling of proximity with which the seduce us. Yet is it truly a feeling of proximity? Rather of presence or, more precisely, of apparition. Before these works are erased from the history of painting by the ruthless movement that brought them to the light of day, it is perhaps necessary to specify what it is that sets them apart: the impression they give of appearing, of being there only momentarily, drawn by the moment and for the moment, figures not nocturnal but rendered visible by the instantaneous opening of the night.
Does art, then, bring into focus that which recedes from us?--unconcealment?--revealing a shadowy presence, for a moment, of that moment when we first emerged? The sense that the Lascaux paintings give us, of being the birth of art, even they were not the earliest--is the sense that art is always present at the birth of itself? For literature to be art, it should just come into focus, or attempt to articulate something difficult, attempt to express the inexpressible, it should depict something just around the corner, just beyond perception?

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Bored by Hemingway

I tried again last night to read The Sun Also Rises. No particular reason: I was in between books, felt like I wanted some fiction, flipped through a few, reading the first page or so of this, the first paragraph of that, before arbitrarily deciding to give the Hemingway another go. It's not going to happen. I get no pleasure from the prose. I find young Mr. Jacob Barnes, the narrator, exceedingly annoying, and the no-pleasure-in-the-prose factor makes that a major problem. I don't care about Robert Cohn or the rest. I'm not interested in characters who are supposed to be metaphors for the Lost Generation. I don't care about any of it. I made it through the first three chapters, approximately 25 pages, about a tenth of the thing, irritated the whole way, telling myself the while that it'd come into focus, I'll get into it. But, no.

I went through an earlier period scorning Hemingway, without really knowing what I was talking about, outside of hated forced readings of short stories (about fishing, I'm almost certain) in high school. Then I took a stab at this same novel, made it 80 pages in, decided it wasn't for me, but without the scorn. I was younger, read too quickly, and his writing didn't fit in with the more expansive, language-drunk novels I was reading at the time. Since then, I always told myself I'd read it; it would be the Hemingway I'd read, since I really don't want to read his war novels. But, again, no, finally, I'm not going to. I'm not going to read any further. I'm giving up on Hemingway.

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