Posts in category: Criticism

Mind-image topographies & interiority in Murnane

Regardless of authorial contexts (Murnane & Coetzee), this is a fascinating quote. It’s from the Anthony Uhlmann’s recent review of The Childhood of Jesus, in American Book Review (jan-feb ’14).

In his review of Murnane, Coetzee examines passages from Barley Patch (2009) in which the narrative voice contemplates the nature of fiction and the nature of the self. The self, Murnane’s narrator states, is made up of a “network of images.” Coetzee concludes:

The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration. It consists in contemplating the sea of internal images, discerning connections, and setting these out in grammatical sentences… In other words, while there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of… As a writer, Murnane is thus a radical idealist. 

And then later on:

In a passage from Inland (1989) that Coetzee cites in his review, Murnane’s narrator reflects on a quote from Paul Eluard, a poet he claims to know nothing about and to have never read: There is another world but it is in this one. He continues:

The other world… is a place that can only be seen or dreamed of by those people known to us as narrators of books or characters within books. 

Uhlmann’s book, Thinking in Literature: Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov (2011), must be tremendous. A giant theme, and giant writers.

Césaire at Mid-Century

I’m quite proud of a long essay I wrote on Aimé Césaire’s poetry (specifically, the collection Solar Throat Slashed (1948) and the long poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” (1939, 1947, 1956)).

The essay is featured in Issue 36 of The Quarterly Conversation, alongside writing by Laura Sims, Steve Donoghue, Scott Esposito, Daniel Green and several others. Check it out. Free as the breeze.

Jerusalem, Palestine, Sebald, New Directions

Following on the theme of my last post on W.G. Sebald, I thought I’d drag out this old find to see if any of this blog’s readers can help my understanding of an unusual change that occurred to a photograph in Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten: Vier lange Erzählungen (1992) when it was translated by Michael Hulse and published in English by Harvill as The Emigrants (1996).

Part three of The Emigrants is a kind of family history, or intimate biography, of the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth that ostensibly draws on and incorporates postcards, photographs, and a diary/travelogue  directly into the text. In 1913, on the eve of WW I, Adelwarth and another man travel from France to Istanbul and to the Holy Land. “On the 27th of November Ambros notes that he has been to Raad’s Photographic Studio in the Jaffa Road and has had his picture taken, at Cosmo’s wish, in his new striped robe” (p. 140-41).

Adelwarth - New Directions

Oddly enough, the German-language text of the book (at least the one I consulted – Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997) reveals a different image, one which encloses the portrait-sitter within a photostudio border.

Ambros Adelwarth in Sebald's The Emigrants

Why the change? Supposing that there is a reason and that it wasn’t just due to some pressing difficulty in the layout process, – ? – I can only surmise that the publishers at New Directions acted deliberately in cropping out the frame. If so, they effectively scratched out the adjacent words Jerusalem and Palestine. Maybe it wasn’t deliberate, or Sebald ordered the crop. But if the move came from the publisher, I wonder if it wasn’t motivated by the judgment that it would be preferable to omit two words sure to remind readers of a conflict and an annexation that continue today and never fail to inspire strong sentiment. The irony is that the manipulation of historical, photographic evidence to political ends, which Sebald’s books often underline and portray, might have occurred in the process of reaching his English-speaking audience.

I might very well be reading too much into this, or not. In any case if you’ve anything to add, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this unusual find.

The first paragraph has been slightly revised since this article’s first posting.

J Cohen on Sebald

It’s not that easy to review books well, I know. Novelist Joshua Cohen probably does too, as he’s been at it for a while now reviewing for Harper’s and now the New York Times. 

In any case, there’s a few things that rankle in his review of W.G. Sebald’s latest posthumous publication, A Place in the Country (2014). I wouldn’t comment on this, except that I’ve read all of Sebald’s novels (and After Nature) twice and wrote a thesis on The Emigrants. Cohen:

W. G. Sebald was born in 1944 in Wer­tach im Allgäu in the Bavarian Alps, educated in Germany and Switzerland, taught literature in England for three decades, and between 1990 and 2001 became world famous for “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz” — four novels about Jews, set variously in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, Antwerp, Prague, Paris, Suffolk, Manchester and Long Island.

My lord, “four novels about Jews” just won’t work. Austerlitz and The Emigrants, yes, but the focus in Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn is hardly Jewry. My only guess is that he hasn’t read these novels, and so is relaying the commonly touted affiliation of Sebald with Jews and the Holocaust. Then he says

“A Place in the Country,” which contains profiles of five writers and one painter, is the third volume of nonfiction Sebaldiana to appear in English, and the most casually generous, not least because it’s the last.

“Sebaldiana”–I cringe, and ask, why? why invent this clumsy-ass word? Don’t other words work? Sebaldian, fine, but… ugh. This, and a few strange stylistic tics/flourishes, make this review rather inelegant. See that weird, smart aside concluding the opening paragraph:

Shortly after “Austerlitz” was published in English, Sebald died in a car crash. Mortal: the universal identity.

Anyways, we all err. Anyways.

Montreal Review of Books, Spring ’14

The spring issue of the Montreal Review of Books is freshly out, in print and online. Nestled in there you’ll find my review of Byron Ayanoglu’s latest book, a novel in two parts called A Traveler’s Tale (DC Books).

“A breach of judgment of an unforgivable kind”

Tendency, counter-tendency: list-mania, list-aversion. They’re both out there, all over my RSS feed.

Listening to audio of Douglas Glover’s interview of Gordon Lish from 1994, I was surprised as all hell to hear Lish saying this kind of thing. Granted, I perhaps ought not to be surprised, given Lish’s reputation for having an inflexible and uncompromising personality… but, my god, a falling out over a few differences in one’s personal canon?!

“Bloom and I had been great, good pals for a number of years; and that friendship came to a very abrupt end, not without relation to a list of writers he proposed special attention be accorded, and given that that list included on it rather robustly non-Bardic poets of the order of Rita Dove, and failed to cite Jack Gilbert for example, I found a breach of judgment of an unforgivable kind. Such a breach was one of not a few of same, and I didn’t feel I could maintain relations with Bloom with honor. […] I could not let myself keep myself in a friendly relation to him subsequent to the list that he, for whatever reasons that he was persuaded to publish it, did publish.” (Lish’s remarks, around the 8:00 mark in part 1 of the audio)

There’s boldness for you. Whether Lish’s coldness towards Bloom is a kind of literary snobbism, or an honorable attempt to live by his rigorous standards, I don’t know. Snobbism mostly, it strikes me. What do you think?

R Firbank’s Sorrow in Sunlight

One of the more remarkable titles I read this month was a novella by English fiction writer Ronald Firbank (1886-1926). The copy I read was a 1962 New Directions paperback which collects two of Firbank’s last completed works, The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923) and Prancing Nigger (1924). The edition includes a Firbank chronology by Miriam K. Benkovitz, from which I glean that Firbank originally intended for the title of the Prancing Nigger to be Sorrow in Sunlight. (Editor Carl Van Vechten, working for Brentano’s in New York, renamed the novella, presumably on the grounds that the shocking title would sell copies.) I was drawn to read the latter of the two pieces that are collected in the volume largely on the basis of its shorter length, which I imagined would be a good short introduction to Firbank’s work, and also by that, indeed, shocking title. I had first come across the author’s name with some puzzlement when I was reading an interview with Harry Mathews, wherein the interviewer praised Tlooth (1966) and pointed out a resemblance between its and Vainglory‘s (a novel by Firbank) beginnings.

While I can see the grounds for a comparison between Mathews’s and Firbank’s work, I found Firbank’s style in Prancing Nigger to be more reminiscent of Djuna Barnes’s work (Nightwood, 1936, being the sole title of hers I know well) and John Hawkes’s work. A touch of Nathanael West’s merciless and cruel humor too. Firbank’s style proudly displays its inheritance from the decadence and sophistication of the French fin-de-siècle style: refined, sophisticated, elegant, effete even.

Set on an unnamed, Cuba-like Caribbean isle, Prancing Nigger records the dissolution of a provincial family as they move to the isle’s small capital city at the relentless prompting of Mrs. Ahmadou Mouth, who is eager to move up in society and to find eligible suitors for her two young daughters, Edna and Miami. Her husband, whom she addresses invariably with the epithet prancing nigger (hence the title Van Vechten chose), is only a minor character ineffectually fending off her wordly ambitions, and the drama unfolds primarily around Edna and Miami. One of these eventually becomes the paramour of a young local aristocrat. Her brother joins a street gang of sorts and drifts away from the family. As far as plot goes, that’s about it. Oh yes — there’s also a going-away party, an earthquake, an opera fundraiser, a parade, and a character eaten by a shark.

But the style! The mix of pidgin English and Creole, with the narrator’s detached, sophisticated commentary is striking. Have a sampling:

“Start de gramophone gwine girls, an’ gib us somet’in’ bright!” Mrs. Mouth exclaimed, depressed by the forlorn note of the Twa–oo-Twa-oo bird, that mingled its lament with a thousand night cries from the grass.

“When de saucy female sing: ‘My Ice Cream Girl,’ fo’ sh’o she scare de elves.”

And as though by force of magic, the nasal soprano of an invisible songstress rattled forth with tinkling gusto a music-hall air with a sparkling refrain.

There’s also a sly self-referential trick whereby Firbank inserts himself into the text, a kind of signature which, in comparison to the meta-fictional tricks of later authors, seems tasteful, quaint, and restrained:

“She seem fond ob flowers,” Mr. Mouth commented, pausing to notice the various plants that lined the way: from the roof swung showery azure flowers that commingled with the theatrically-hued cañas, set out in crude, bold, colour-schemes below, that looked best at night. But in their malignant splendour, the orchids were the thing. Mrs. Abanathy, Ronald Firbank, (a dingy lilac blossom of rarity untold), Prince Palairet, a heavy blue-spotted flower, and rosy Olive Moonlight, were those that claimed the greatest respect from a few discerning conoisseurs.

Flipping through the pages of The Flower under the Foot, I see Firbank couldn’t resist doing the same there too:

Have you Valmouth by Ronald Firbank or Inclinations by the same author?” she asked.

“Neither I’m sorry — both are out!”

I will definitely keep an eye out in used shops for Valmouth and Vainglory, not to mention Inclination and Caprice, Firbank’s other novels. Dalkey Archive Press, if I remember correctly, publishes a collection of his stories. This is an author deserving of a wider readership. (Although I suspect that, among the adventurous, his readership is already wider than anyone can measure or foretell.)

Note 1: As Dan Visel indicates to me on Twitter, Carl Van Vechten was… something else. You can read all about it here in a review of Edmund White’s biography of Vechten (LARB).

Note 2: For the interested, an e-text of Firbank’s last completed work Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli is available at Project Gutenberg Canada.

Updike’s The Centaur

I agree with the underlying rationale of Bookslut’s Daphne Awards (see Jan 27 post) : indeed, often the best books of their times are overlooked in favour of the much hyped and rather conventional title.

“If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book. Book awards, for the most part, celebrate mediocrity. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favoritism to see that some books just aren’t that good.

Which is why we are starting a new book award, the Daphnes, that will celebrate the best books of 50 years ago. We will right the wrongs of the 1964 National Book Awards, which ugh, decided that John Updike’s The Centaur was totally the best book of that year.”

But have the writer(s) at Bookslut who refer disparagingly to Updike’s The Centaur actually read it? I have, and it’s fantastic! It would be nice to see the book itself acknowledged in more than just a facile, all-too-simple, disparaging manner. I found it to be quite original: a small-town mythology that, in its later phases, branches out to a lyrical, epistolary Manhattan moment. The strange and slow after-school at-the-diner scene, the car that time and time again won’t start to barrel over the rural hills from the cold Pennsylvania farmhouse to the high school, the spider in the narrator’s father’s colon, and the beauty of a snow day — hell, I would read it again. It’s all very beautiful and affecting. But then I’m a white male. Where’s my copy?

I know the point isn’t The Centaur; it’s in fact all the other books published that year; but regardless, that “ugh” strikes me as modish, just as it’s become fashionable to speak of the U.S.’s (former) celebrity novelists (Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, etc.) as if they were hopelessly conventional and reactionary. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Round-up: Classics of Literary Criticism

I threw the question out on Twitter, “is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) the greatest single work of literary criticism ever written?” I think it probably is, but I was hoping some other readers might contradict me or suggest some other worthy candidates for the distinction. Then I thought about it some more. So here’s some whoppers of literary criticism; I’ve read only a handful of these, and I’m sure as hell missing a lot in the few years between 335 B.C. and 1930 A.D. So, as always, comments are welcome and encouraged, below or on Twitter (@jsief).

* * *

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953)  Erich Auerbach

History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) – George Saintsbury

Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong

Anatomy of Criticism (1957) – Northrop Frye (suggested by @bswbarootes)

The Novel: An Alternative History, 2 vols. (2010) – Steven Moore

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1989) – Roberto Calasso (trans. Tim Parks)

Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) – William Empson (suggested by @JustinPfefferle)

The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (suggested by @bswbarootes)

The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and Critical Tradition (1953) – M.H. Abrams

Biographia Literaria (1817) – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) – Wayne C. Booth

The Sense of an Ending (1967) – Frank Kermode

The Counterfeiters, The Stoic Comedians, The Mechanic Muse (1968-1987) – Hugh Kenner

The Banquet Years (1955) – Roger Shattuck

Classical English Rhetoric (2010) – Ward Farnsworth

The Wars, Imagined

Was it even a war, or something else?… I’ve stewed too long in my outrage to be eloquent or tactful. Writings on the history and non-fiction of the bloody war are legion, proliferating as we speak. Too much for me. Here’s a list of resources for the Iraq/Afghan wars in fiction.

Continue Reading

Review: Terre des cons

There’s a new online magazine of Québec literature in translation out there, in fact there’s only one in the whole world, and it’s called ambos (a Spanish word meaning both), and I’m happy to be a contributor to it. If you’re interested, you can hop on over there to read my review and translation from the French of an excerpt from Patrick Nicol’s 2012 novella Terre des cons. It’s a good one!

Continue Reading

Review: J McElroy’s Ancient History

In the Quarterly Conversation, you’ll find my review of Joseph McElroy’s Ancient History: A Paraphase , which Dzanc is soon reissuing, and Trey Strecker’s review of Cannonball.

From my review:

Whatever the message is, Ancient History and Cy’s manuscript (for they’re one and the same) confront the impossible: Cy seeks in his project to embrace a totality that’s larger and greater than the limits of others’ minds. This high ambition stands parallel to that of Michel Butor’s Degrees (1960; cited by McElroy as a precursor and model for his early work), as well as McElroy’s first novel, A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), whose central protagonist, David Brooke, has “perfect recall.” Similarly gifted, Cy has in his brain an unusually developed “Vectoral Muscle” that enables rare feats of attention, perception, and intuition. On the page, this amounts to what Tony Tanner aptly termed a sense of “egalitarian respect for the most apparently modest detail.” A name on an apartment directory-board that’s “mint white grooved in velvety black,” for instance, or, an egg sandwich seen with “the gold-gray damp of the grease coming into the Pepperidge Farm white.” Like these minute touches, McElroy’s prose can, at its best, almost conjure synesthesia.

Continue Reading

Review: M. Segura’s Eucalyptus in the mRb

My review of Mauricio Segura’s novel Eucalyptus is online (and in print!) in the Montreal Review of Books fall 2013 issue. Segura’s short novel is translated by Donald Winkler and available from the excellent Biblioasis.

From the review:

The story’s protagonist, Alberto Ventura, has returned to Temuco in Araucania for the funeral of his father, Roberto. Over several packed days, he tries to understand his father’s life story and mysterious death, gradually piecing together a composite narrative from contradictory accounts offered up by those who knew him. Assembling the pieces isn’t easy, as Alberto’s father’s life is structured around a handful of discontinuities. We see him in elliptical vignettes, alternately as a leftist activist in the early seventies, as a political prisoner under Pinochet, later as a Canadian immigrant and family man, soon as a philandering, abusive husband, and, ultimately, as the owner of a Chilean plantation when he returns to his homeland at the end of the dictatorship in 1990.

Continue Reading

Gide’s Lafcadio on readership

“Poor Julius! So many writers and so few readers! It’s a fact. People read less and less nowadays…. to judge by myself, as they say. It’ll end by some catastrophe–some stupendous catastrophe, reeking with horror. Printing will be chucked overboard altogether; and it’ll be a miracle if the best doesn’t sink to the bottom with the worst.”

– Lafcadio’s Adventures (Les Caves du Vatican, 1914), André Gide, trans. Dorothy Bussy, p. 178-179

George Trow’s education

“My father had, let us call it, a tendency toward schizophrenia. […] By the age of four, although I could not read, I knew what a headline was, what a lead story was, which columnists were respectable and which were not (I learned to loathe Westbrook Pegler before I was in kindergarten), and so on. I learned what the Times represented, and what the Daily News represented, and the difference between the News and the Mirror, and who Old Man Hearst was, and what was wrong with Roy Howard (Head of the Scripps-Howard chain), and on and on.”

– George W.S. Trow, My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998 (p. 11)

Richard Powers on narratology

The discoveries made by various literary scholars, such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Gérard Genette, Mieke Bal, Algirdas Julien Greimas, and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, have had a profound influence on the way I write, and I truly believe that they provide wonderfully efficient shortcuts for writers to discover expressive possibilities that might otherwise take decades of trial and error to figure out.

– in Contemporary Literature 49(2)

Continue Reading

Billy Burroughs and Neuromancer

Something I’m working on led me to check a few passages in Kentucky Ham (1973), which I read in 2006 or thenabouts. It’s published by the Overlook Press with Speed (1970). Both are memoiristic novels by William S. Burroughs, Jr. (1947-1981), son of the more well-known and longer-lived William S. Burroughs (1914-1997).

And I noticed this passage on the first page of Kentucky Ham, which seemed to resonate in my memory with the memorable opener to Neuromancer:

When I returned, or rather imploded from New York City (Viceville–I know a place where one can buy retarded children for whatever use–$2,000, give or take), I wasn’t using speed, it rather seemed that my entire metabolism had developed a speed deficiency. (Kentucky Ham, p. 167; Overlook Press, 1993).

Compare with Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson (1948):

“It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. “It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” (Neuromancer, ch. 1)

There’s not really much to make of this kind of correspondence, except to take it as a reminder of intertextuality, of how writers borrow and steal from what’s available. There’s also the considerable pleasure or delight one takes in discovering instances of literary theft like this one.  (W.G. Sebald’s novels are an especially fertile ground for tracking and discovering embedded texts, along these lines.)

Dalkey Archive Press has posted on their website a massive list of works in the canon… Worth a look. A few in there I might track down when the time frees up.

T Morrison’s The Bluest Eye banned for incest

Ohio Board of Education President Debe Terhar wants all mentions of the Toni Morrison novel The Bluest Eye removed from state guidelines for schools teaching to the new Common Core academic standards. She thinks the book is “pornographic.”

Continue Reading

Reviews: J McElroy’s Cannonball

There’s about seven reviews of Cannonball (Dzanc, 2013) out there. Here are the links and short commentary.

Continue Reading

Review: T. Heise’s Moth (Montreal Review of Books)

I wrote a review of Moth; or, how I came to be with you again, and the review is posted online at the Montreal Review of Books. Check it out. Moth is good, worth purchasing. Sarabande Books is in Louisville, Kentucky, a city to which I owe an eventual visit, being a native of nearby Dayton, Ohio. They do an excellent job, judging from what I’ve seen of their publishing work.

Continue Reading

Dimock’s George Anderson VS. Coetzee’s Vietnam Project

I acquired and began it but gave up on it (around page 85 out of 160) in the middle of last week. This is a rare abandonment, and there remains the possibility I’ll resume it. The writing was compelling, but seriously dry, repetitious, and boring in another. I felt as if the book’s author and narrator were so repetitious and given over to formalities — the conceit of the book’s formally rigid method — that my time was being wasted. And we have so little time, it cannot afford to be wasted.

The only book I have read that is like it is the short work of J.M. Coetzee The Vietnam Project, which makes up the first half of Dusklands (1974), Coetzee’s first published work.

Continue Reading

W.G. Sebald’s exoticisms

I’ve held on to this post so long, held on for so long to these ideas, I am letting this post go, rough as it is. It will never be finished. It is the story of a kind of failure, itself evidence of failure, a quest for understanding that remains forever incomplete. As more fragments will follow, I finally let go of these. Sebald’s work is, I have found, very difficult to talk about.

We have a habit of writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or how you had the wrong idea at first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to do the work. – Richard Feynman

Reluctant to enclose Gide in a system I knew would never content me, I was vainly trying to find some connection among these notes. Finally I decided it would be better to offer them as such–notes–and not try to disguise their lack of continuity. Incoherence seems to me preferable to a distorting order. – Roland Barthes, ‘On Gide and His Journal’

I knew the research paper would be about W.G. Sebald’s novels, but that was all I knew. I had fallen under Sebald’s spell, not on first reading The Emigrants in a ‘Continental Modernism’ course taught by the ribald WW II vet Robert Ganz, but in 2009 on reading The Rings of Saturn after seeing a poster for a lecture by Ross Posnock on Austerlitz, a poster prominently displaying Sebald’s provocative juxtaposition of Wittgenstein’s gaze with that of perhaps a rhesus monkey.

It was only a short time before I had read After Nature, the long poem Sebald published in the late eighties before his arrival as a published novelist; Vertigo, his first novel; and, of course, Austerlitz, his last. I was hypnotized and hooked on Sebald’s writing, fallen under the intense spell cast by Sebald’s long sentences and his visual materials.

Through work in a graduate seminar in contemporary French literature–La Fabrication de l’irréelle dans la littérature française contemporaine–I became familiar with a strange new term which would prove to be for me a challenge and a source of anxiety, later, to explain. Le post-exotisme en dix lecons by Antoine Volodine is not a difficult book, but it is, like Volodine’s other works, strange, however much it is consistent with Volodine’s conception of a mythological future-past of ruins, internment camps, political resistance. He expresses his vision through hybrid literary forms.

Volodine, Detue, & Ouellet

Post-exoticism resonated with what I found compelling in Sebald. Volodine’s vision, realized in his novels and elucidated in theoretical terms, amounts to:

  • Une littérature de l’ailleurs, venue d’aileurs, allant vers l’ailleurs
  • Une littérature internationaliste, cosmopolite, dont la mémoire plonge les racines dans les tragédies du XXe siecle, les guerres, les révolutions, les génocides et les défaites du XXe siecle
  • Une littérature étrangere écrite en francais
  • Une littérature qui mêle indissolublement l’onirique et le politique
  • Une littérature des poubelles, en rupture avec la littérature officielle
  • Une littérature carcérale de la rumination, de la déviance mental et de l’échec
  • Un édifice romanesque qui a surtout a voir avec le chamanisme, avec une variante bolchevique de chamanisme (387)

From Volodine, Antoine. ‘A la frange du réel.’ In Défense et illustration du post-exotisme en vingt lecons (vlb, 2008).

Translation: post-exoticism is:

  • a literature of elsewhere, arriving from, departing from elsewhere;
  • an internationalist, cosmopolitan literature whose memory is rooted in 20th-century tragedies, wars, revolutions, genocides, defeats;
  • a foreign literature written in French;
  • a literature where  the dream-like and the political are seamlessly joined
  • trashcan literature, opposed to ‘official’ literature(s)
  • an imprisoned, ruminatory literature, of pyschopathology and failure
  • a novelistic structure closely tied to shamanism, especially a Bolshevik variant of shamanism.

Elsewhere: a cabal of prisoners secretly circulating texts, working to overcome the isolation imposed on them.

The proposal I wrote in anticipation of my research paper was lucid, engaged, clear, direct, promising. But as I researched and wrote my paper, and continued to over-research it, my focus was exploded and irreversibly lost. In the end I tried to stay close to Sebald’s text. But at times, for whole months, I felt I needed to write lengthy theoretical contextualizations and justifications for why I was talking about post-exoticism, a term that I was never comfortable with, because its sense was split.

On the one hand, Volodine and his elucidation of post-exoticism; on the other hand, a non-literary but totally contemporary post-exoticism, related to the breaking up of empires, the acceleration of travel, and the end of an era during which romantics like Pierre Loti, Paul Gauguin, Victor Segalen, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and a whole host of other European artists, were able to see in other cultures a difference which they found attractive, sometimes repelling, and that they patronized and acted condescendingly towards. (Edward Said’s historical work on Orientalism is what I’m talking about here; in a post-exotic era, Orientalism and exoticism are not done away with, but their historical contours are entirely changed.) I’d also read exoticists like Loti and was aware of Victor Segalen (his law regarding the attractions of human diversity, expounded in his posthumously published Essai sur l’exotisme (1978)) from having reading Baudrillard’s books, where he  refers repeatedly to Segalen and exoticism.

The first problem, which I could not circumvent must have been establishing a stable relation between exoticism and post-exoticism.

Ambros Adelwarth in Sebald's The Emigrants

An antique photo-studio portrait included in the German edition of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992), depicting the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth.

I couldn’t even define the type of exoticism that I was seeing in Sebald, it was too variegated and broad and heterogeneous.

Even now I can read in my notebook the organisational sketches I was making in 2009, but I can’t create true order out of them:

KINDS OF SEBALDIAN EXOTICISM

a) the collection (museum)

b) monumental architecture (inadvertent; neglect, disuse, decay…) (cf. The Eyes of the Skin; The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler)

c) tourist narrators

d) Jews, gypsies, circus performers

e) resort culture

f) ‘overheated, deterritorialized animals’ (cf. On Creaturely Life, Eric Santner)

g) formal syntax (syntactical)

h) Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)

The problem was, I couldn’t describe the exoticist tropology at work in Sebald’s prose, because I wanted to read all five of his books–his entire ‘creative’ output– as if it were a single thing. This would have left no time for ‘close reading’ and it would have been abstracted from the individual context of any single book. But I felt a coherent exoticist strategy, complete with post-exoticist gesturing, was there; a coherent preoccupation with and nostalgic yearning for the historical ‘exotic,’ itself complicated by the knowledge that this was at best an impossible fantasy. Perhaps I ought to have chosen just one (or two) types of exoticism and pursued it as far as I could. But I could not relinquish my commitment to some larger, more elusive totality that always remained just beyond my conceptual, organisational grasp.

It was almost ironic that I discovered such excellent books on exoticism just as the time I had left to trim up my drafts was drawing to a close:

‘The phenomenon of the human zoo illuminates an interdependence, similar to that discussed and popularized by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), between science, spectacle and colonial power’ (Forsdick 378).

‘Populations put on display were depicted in a variety of forms, ranging from posters t illustrated programmes, from postcards (reproduced and translated into several languages to early films, from amateur photographs to the front pages of newspapers. Visitors, readers and spectators would be fascinated by these human subjects, while at the same time being convinced by them of the ‘racial hierarchies’ central to the contemporary context of colonial expansion.’ (‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West,’ illustration pages).

Some Sources:

Barthes, Roland. 1982. A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. Hill and Wang.

Baudrillard, Jean. ‘Radical Exoticism.’ Transparency of Evil. Verso.

Blanchard, Pascal, Bancel, Nicolas, Boëtsch, Gilles,  Deroo, Éric, and Lemaire, Sandrine . ‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West.’ By 1-49.

Camus, Audrey. Her winter 2008 graduate seminar on the work of Volodine, Eric Chevillard and Pierre Senges.

Feynman, Richard. 1966. ‘The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics.’ Science 153 (3737): 699-708.

Loti, Pierre. Aziyadé. 1880s?

Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)

Segalen, Victor. ‘Essay on Diversity.’

20 lines a day, or the notebook of Harry Mathews

Last week the following text appeared at HTML Giant, a collective blog. 20 Lines a Day by Harry Mathews (1988, Dalkey Archive) was the subject of my post. It is excellent. I’ve mentioned Harry Mathews a few times before and this won’t be the last.

The post is discontinuously atomised into 25 discrete paragraphs, consisting of quotations from, comments on, Mathews’s text and related stuff. Bloggers are summarizing books in this way for HTML Giant’s 25 points series. In fact, you can submit a 25 points post to HTML Giant yourself, by emailing brooks AT htmlgiant.com.

Harry Mathews

Harry Mathews by Arthur Gerbault, 1988.

In the fifth floor of the library, I picked Mathews’s book up, read what the premise was, and thought resentfully, What a bunch of bullshit, this looks boring, look how anything gets published. I didn’t know who Harry Mathews was yet. Years ago.

‘You never have earned the right to sit at the table and let someone else clear away the dishes. No accumulation of knowledge can guarantee that you aren’t a fool. The roast is over-cooked. You slice bread for the seven-hundredth time and cut off the tip of your left forefinger. You touch her as coarsely as any boor, being now the boor. You meet an old friend, you have forgotten his name, you cannot look him in the face: not looking him in the face, you wound him and you start lying to him and to yourself. Go off and sulk and complain and explain why it happened. It won’t help. Instead, be an actor, or an athlete, on stage, on the field, giving–as you once eagerly proposed to yourself–everything to the perishable act.’ (p. 100)

‘I have nothing to write in particular, I’m writing these lines because of my rule that I must write them.’ (p. 75)

Some writers set quotas, others set routines, some set both, and some (the scriptomanic ones for whom procrastination is not a threat) set neither. A page a day (Paul Theroux); 50,000 words in a month (NaNoWriMo); two hours every morning (W.S. Maugham); 20 minute blocks (Cory Doctorow); at least a sentence a day (W.G. Sebald); pre-dawn (Paul Valéry, Jacques Roubaud); etc.

‘Whatever I write tells my story without my knowing it.’ (p. 66)

‘Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.’ (Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street,’ Reflections)

“Sometimes the ultimate message is in fact received. It reads, more or less: ‘Your ligament issues from a spa that is given various narcissisms at various time-tables: lozenge, credulity, goggles. And not only your ligament (and that of others): the prodigy that generates mayday has the same orthography. You and the upkeep are one. Give up sugarbowls.’ At such moments you realize, and you remember, that such messages have neve9r been lacking, and that they are all the same, and that the problem (if that is the word) doesn’t involve receiving but deciphering what is received again and again, day after day, minute after minute.” (p. 88)

There’s an implicit link between 20 Lines a Day and the next novel Mathews would publish, The Journalist (1994)One sees how the method Mathews followed for 20 Lines is adopted as a fictional premise and device for The Journalist.

‘Anxiety about writing feels like: I am poor in words, ideas, and feelings, and when I sit down to write, this poverty will be revealed.’ (p. 45)

‘The table is a beautiful thing. The writing board is supported on a base consisting of two tubular legs shaped like narrow inverted U’s, with a tubular foot running across the mouth of each U, projecting about thirty centimeters beyond it on either side. The legs are connected to the board by an adjustable parallelogram made of bone-shaped pieces of flat metal. The knobs of the bones are pierced with pivotal studs that hold the sides of the parallelogram together. Two strong springs, to hold the angles in place, maintain pressure against two other springs fixed just below the board. A single lever controls this disposition and locks the board in place. Changing the angles of the parallelogram permits one to alter both the height and angle of the board in one movement. Board, parallelogram, legs and feet are white; springs, studs, and lever handle are black.’ (p. 106)

For Mathews his ’20 lines’ can be virtually anything: an Oulipian (N+7) exercise; health concerns, particularly facial neuralgia; descriptions of weather and the immediate environment (tropical St. Bart’s, NYC, Lans in France, Italy); progress reports for the writing of the first draft of Cigarettes (1987)bits of Surrealist ‘automatic writing’; family matters; admissions of mourning for his deceased friend, Oulipian Georges Perec; musings on Werner Erhard’s e s t training; throughout, his relentless self-analysis. The book is very much an edited journal intime, but it has the crystalline quality of Mathews’s other work, that relentlessly exacting attention to syntax, poignancy of inner, private experience that figures in the later novels (The Journalist, Cigarettes). Absent are the Baroque quasi-Gothic elements, the abstruseness, the cerebral impenetrability of Tlooth, The Sinking of the The Odradek Stadium, and The Conversions.

‘Stendhal meant something different from this.’

‘When you go to piss in the bathroom with people within possible earshot (and sometimes with no people around at all), you direct your jet at the edge of the pool of water in the toilet bowl so as to reduce the noise you make.’ (p. 124)

During and after having read Harry Mathews’s 20 Lines a Day (1988; Dalkey Archive Press) I set myself the 20 lines quota, using a long quadrillé pad and a fountain pen to trace my thoughts. My readings of Mathews inevitably influenced my own compositions–I used the daily entries as a means of recapping, and recuperating from, the events of daily life. No one can tell what I would have written without Mathews’s influence on me, prefiguring and directing the subjects, style, and approach of my writing. My discipline flagged, I was inconstant. Mathews too. But I am slowly making advances, inroads. There’s progress. I still write in my notebook.

‘Lines of verse count extra.’ (p. 67)

Technologies of the self include notebooks in which one writes diaristic, journalistic, and textual commonplaces from daily life (Foucault). The keeping of such a journal, commonplace notebook, or diary constitutes a practice of mental hygiene. Coincidentally, Foucault died the day before Mathews’s conclusion of his project.

To write 20 lines a day is not daunting (anyone can do it), especially if one imposes no continuity, consistency of form, or subject matter.

Despite the lack of constraint,–the openness of the subject matter addressed in a diary,–a strong internal consistency of writing arises. This is the continuity of the self day in and day out, the author thinking.

‘… Matthison, Mattei, Matteotti,  Mathias, Mateus, Matthieu, Mahieu, Madeu, Mathet, Mathie, Mathiez, Matisse, Matthis, Matteo, Mathelin, Mathiret, Mathiot, Mathon, Matou, Méhu, Mattuaeus …’ (p. 40)

‘Are you going to wait until you are on the point of death to give up this model: your old, old self, tiny, terrified, aware of his power only through the intensity of the anxieties that shrivelled him? A lifetime of refusal ending in a revelation that melts the past in one moment or movement of surrender to the truth makes a fit drama for literature’ (p. 128)

Early in life Stendhal (Henri Beyle) set himself the injunction: vingt lignes par jour, génie ou pas (twenty lines a day, genius or not).

‘You have a fantasy of discovering that you suffer from cancer, or a brain tumor, or some other affliction of a most grave, probably mortal kind. You keep the knowledge of it entirely to yourself. Not only do you not burden those who love you with the news, you become for them a companion of perfect humor, gaiety, and warmth.’ (p. 108)

This slim book compiles a selection of entries from Mathews’ notebook from March 16, 1983 to June 26, 1984. During the interval I and many people I know were born. That’s unrelated.

‘Yesterday evening, having after months of to-do listing bought a new handle for my big pickaxe, I fitted it to the pick head and set it to soak in the bathtub.’

‘Having nothing to write about (nothing particular to write about) suggests a question: what this morning do you particularly not want to think about?’

Continue Reading

Heidegger on philosophy

For the philosophy of technology seminar I’m taking, I summarised and presented a ‘lecture course’ of German philosopher Martin Heidegger,’The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics’ (published originally in 1935; from Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by G. Fried and R. Polt; New Haven: Yale, 2000; 1-54.)

Heidegger is known for the difficulty of his style. But I found much lucidity in ‘The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics.’ Without going into the rant-like and Spenglerian aspects of this piece of writing (diagnosing the spiritual decline of the West, Heidegger rails against, I quote, the darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the reduction of human beings to a mass, the hatred and mistrust of everything creative and free, and the preeminence of the mediocre);–and also without actually summarising what the essay is about (Heidegger begins the essay by saying that the fundamental question of metaphysics is

Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? 

;–and he then proceeds to modulate the question in such a way that it begets a teeming horde of other questions), I want to represent what I left out of my presentation in the interest of time because it doesn’t concern technology at all, but philosophy itself.

According to H., philosophy is extremely unpopular; it is a ‘leading that has no following.’ Philosophy’s essence, which is questioning, ‘questioning-ahead,’–is never embraced by the public or the masses. In fact, when philosophy becomes popular (think of Sartre’s popularity mid-century, the popularity of ‘existentialism’ on both sides of the Atlantic), it’s no longer philosophy–it’s fashion.

One would think that philosophy ought to achieve something, perhaps make aspects of existence more intelligible, render the making of choices easier. To the contrary, Heidegger informs one that: ‘philosophy never makes things easier, but only more difficult’; ‘Nothing comes of philosophy, you can’t do anything with it.’

In these formulations, Heidegger’s view of philosophy seems opposite that of American pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey and William James. There is something positively continentally decadent about this high-headedness.

And Heidegger quotes Nietzsche, where Nietzsche writes that

Philosophy means living voluntarily amid ice and mountain ranges.

The accumulation of these deadpan, clarifying remarks about philosophy’s domain and role led me to wonder whether or not some humour or irony might be intended on Heidegger’s part. I think not. I think not.

What is the point of philosophy according to Heidegger, if ‘you can’t do anything with it’?

The point of philosophy–of questioning-ahead– is that it acts on us; on our thought; on our thinking. On our Being, if you prefer. 

The questioning is not just autotelic, an end in itself. Its purpose is, rather, to alter subjectivity, change life, change lives. Like my post on Albert Borgmann of last week, this post is jagged in comparison to some other of my postings. To make no concession, I’ll leave off with a hyperbolically-inflected ponderous snippet of Heidegger’s ‘Traditional and Technological Language,’ a quote I try to understand:

Technological language is the severest and most menacing attack on what is peculiar to language:

saying as showing and as the letting-appear of what is present and what is absent, of reality in the widest sense;

The attack of the technological language on what is peculiar to language is at the same time the threat to the human being’s ownmost essence

Continue Reading

A Joseph McElroy Web bibliography

All in one place: a compendium of resources on the open web for those interested in exploring American literature’s best-kept secret.

[caption id="attachment_736" align="aligncenter" width="236"]Joseph McElroy photographed by Steve Hall. From page 235 of Anything Can Happen: Interviews With Contemporary American Novelists (conducted and edited by Larry McCaffrey and Tom LeClair; Champaign: U of IL P, 1983). Joseph McElroy photographed by Steve Hall. From page 235 of Anything Can Happen: Interviews With Contemporary American Novelists (conducted and edited by Larry McCaffrey and Tom LeClair; Champaign: U of IL P, 1983).[/caption]

 

Basics

Official website (http://www.josephmcelroy.com/)

See site for a full McElroy biography. Available gems from Reading Room and Essays are: ‘Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts,’ an essay written while McElroy was in the thick of Lookout Cartridge  (Triquarterly, 1974). ‘9/11: Emerging’ (2001), ‘Attractions around Mt. St. Helens’ (ebr, 1997), ‘Thoughts about Consciousness While Cutting in the Brain’ (Shambhala Sun, Sep 2004), and these essays on water: ‘Water on Us’ (ebr, 2010), ‘If It Could Be Wrapped’ (ebr, 2004).

McElroy on Twitter (@watrwake)

‘Failure. Building. Embrace.’ (Interview). By Trey Strecker (RainTaxi, Fall 2003)

What can happen?’. Short essay by McElroy on his use of inquiry and interrogative narrative forms. (the story prize blog, Nov 2011)

Audio

Interviews

Trey Strecker’s fall 2003 RAIN TAXI interview, “Failure. Building. Embrace.”

Taji Maheen’s July 2013 Vice Magazine interview, “Postmodernism and Sumo Wrestlers: An Interview with Joseph McElroy.”

Jason DeYoung’s Dec 2013 interview in Numéro Cinq Magazine, “Sentences are like Home for Me, Even a Wilderness.”

Reviews and appreciations

‘The lost postmodernist,’ by Garth Risk Hallberg; a review of Women and Men for LA Times book review

Joseph McElroy,’ by Andrew Walser; and ‘The Courage of Joseph McElroy,’ by Mike Heppner; both in Golden Handcuffs Review

Scott Bryan Wilson on collecting McElroy in hardcover

‘On Joseph McElroy’; short review (tales from the reading room weblog, Jan 2012)

Other reviews of Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011): by Emmit StinsonDan Visel, and Stephen Burn.

Journal issues dedicated to McElroy

Electronic Book Review (‘a J.M. festschrift, 2004’)

Including an essay by fiction writer and professor William S. Wilson, to whom Lookout Cartridge (1974) is dedicated. See also Yves Abrioux’s ‘Vectoral Muscle in a Great Field of Process.’

Golden Handcuffs Review (Vol. 1, No. 14, 2011)

With contributions from Rick Moody, Flore Chevaillier, Mike Heppner, Andrew Walser.

All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.

Continue Reading

Joseph McElroy on my mind

Just how many are we? Standers in awe of the best-kept secret in American literature? Avid readers, McElroy maniacs. His books now penetrate my life, as my life extends into them. If we note McElroy’s seeming obscurity, let’s not however miss the essential: the growth, the accretion, the writing: of the eight novels, the book of short stories, the uncollected essays and journalism work. Nevermind the tag-lines and reductionist claims that he’s the ‘lost postmodernist’ (LA Times book review); the ‘most important of all “unknown” postmodernist American authors’ (Larry McCaffrey), whose work is the ‘great unmined motherlode of American fiction’ (Michael Silverblatt). These generalizing claims carry little weight relative to what really counts, for me the unflagging spirit of inquiry and reflection — spiritual, intellectual, epistemological, scientific, idiomatic, and otherwise — that characterizes, perhaps in a fractal manner, the man’s loveable, mind-boggling prose.

Continue Reading

Slogans for writers from Walter Benjamin

“Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.” “Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.”

Continue Reading