When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
“Like speech, which leaves no mark in the air,” Teju Cole writes in the calmly incantatory and unsettlingly alert Blind Spot, “our bodies leave no mark in space.” On the facing page is a photograph of two Berliners, two strangers, caught in a moment of uncanny resemblance. Blind Spot is comprised of text-image pairings, each of which takes a place-name as its title. Both men are turned away from us, being busy with the work of looking: one studies a sign from his wheelchair while, a ways off, the other leans against a tree. With no faces to know them by, their nearly matching hats take on a disproportionate resonance. (It’s worth noting at the outset that to try to capture the effect of Cole’s photographs, as a reviewer prevented from reproducing the images, is to reckon with a visual eloquence—spare in its means and tending toward a subdued surreal—that often eludes description. It also serves as a reminder that Cole’s facing text never does this work for us, never makes straightforward description its function.) Here the accompanying prose places his looking in time:
A moment later, the man by the trees has moved on. He has not noticed his echo behind him, and the man who echoes him has not noticed him or, even if he has, has certainly not noticed himself noticing him. There are thousands of such echoes and agreements every minute. Almost all go unseen, and almost none are recorded, unless photography intervenes.
In Blind Spot, Cole creates a space in which to notice himself noticing—he’s the third echo in the series, and invites us to stand in as the next—and the result is something richer and more ambiguous than we might have anticipated. Instead of being explained away, the resonance of the more than 150 photographs Cole has taken and collected here is deepened for being met with such sustained and lyrical textual scrutiny, with the free forays of his capacious mind—one that’s often unconsoled but never merely disenchanted.
Cole, a novelist and essayist—and, as we see here, photographer—who writes a column on photography for The New York Times Magazine, garnered a great deal of admiration for Open City, a novel that takes after W.G. Sebald in the way it makes its protagonist not, finally, a young psychiatrist named Julius but instead the solitary consciousness he’s possessed by, subject to the laws of dream and memory, capable of being swept up on “aimless walks” by all sorts of unsuspected associations, echoes, agreements. In this way, Julius’s inwardness both enforces his separation from the world and ties him to it. More than a few passages in Open City would be perfectly at home if set beside an image in Blind Spot. The reverse is true too: It might have been Julius who said to us, as Cole does in a memorable and almost definitive aside, “I’ve been walking for hours. I’m lost as usual in the precincts that others call home.”
Here, for instance, is Julius thinking back on his father’s burial—or, more precisely, taking up the way time has transformed its meaning, melding the original memory with other and later impressions, freighting this most personal of associations with a significance that moves from the fixity of pain to something at once more encompassing and more emotionally uncertain:
I was on the 1 train on the way to work when it came to mind that he had been committed to earth for exactly eighteen years. In that time, I had complicated the memory of the day, not with other burials, of which I had attended only a few, but with depictions of burials—El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Courbet’s Burial at Ornans—so that the actual event had taken on the characteristics of those images, and in doing so had become faint and unreliable…Sometimes, in waking dreams, I imagined my father with coins on his eyes, and a solemn boatman collecting them from him, and granting him passage.
Those “coins on his eyes” hark back to an earlier passage in which Julius broods on a shipwreck of slaves, some of whose bodies were recovered with relics traditional to their countries of origin. He has come to know his father, in the long remembering, as someone marked intimately by the sweep of history—and, so too, as a presence impossible to disentangle from artworks that might seem alien to that history. So they multiply, the complicating pressures on memory. And if much of the pathos of this passage arises from a muted sense of misgiving at the way memory and imagination spiral out from—and threaten to attenuate—the personal, part of the originality and force of Cole’s vision lies in its ultimate commitment to this same movement, its sense of the self as tending, in a rich indeterminacy, beyond the hard and fast dictates of biography.
The view is linked, in Cole’s writing, to an abiding emphasis on the visual plane: we take the work of looking seriously when we realize how deeply formed we are by what we see; or, put a bit differently, how deeply our ways of seeing shape us. Cole was once a child preacher; now his faith, such as it is, rests in the ambiguous resonance of images which, in all their “radical equality,” call us unwaveringly to the making of meanings:
Years later, I lost faith. One form of binocular vision gave way to another. The world was now a series of interleaved apparitions. The thing was an image that could also bear an image. If one of the advantages of irreligion was an acceptance of others, that benefit was strangely echoed in the visual plane, which granted the things seen within the photographic rectangle a radical equality. This in part was why signs, pictures, ads, and murals came to mean so much: they were neither more nor less than the “real” elements by which they were framed. They were not to be excluded, nor were the spaces between things. “We see the world”: this simple statement becomes (Merleau-Ponty has also noted this) a tangled tree of meanings. Which world? See how? We who? Once absolute faith is no longer possible, perception moves forward on a case by case basis. The very contingency and brevity of vision become the long-sought miracle.
Cole works movingly in places to convey this brevity, and there are moments where the goal of the accompanying prose, it seems, is not to further cement the permanence of an image but instead to restore to us a fuller sense of the subject’s precarious—so that much more miraculous—being in time. Here is Cole in an unabashedly faithful moment: there is only connection, sudden happiness of the man who looks up and finds, all unsuspecting, an echoing presence:
I swear he just suddenly appeared. The angel is the one who communicates between realms. Hermes, medium, channel between things, gatherer of potentials, the flow station of being. Is this Indra, who was as precocious as Hermes was, borne on the winds as Hermes was? Or is it Ganesh, messenger of the gods, opener of roads, first port of worshippers’ call? Out in the sun that day, some kind of Catholic procession was going on, raucous around the old cathedral, but inside the café of the Datta Prasad Hotel, a hermetic air reigned. I raised my camera slowly. His glance took hold of me.
The glance we see, tellingly, is not the kind we’d immediately expect to take hold of somebody. It is shadowed in more than one sense. There’s a surprising guardedness to the man’s expression, for all the ease of his pose, a decided and still-deciding inwardness. Cole’s echo, in other words, doesn’t simply sound the note of uncomplicated presence: he’s not entirely “in the moment,” to take up the truism, nor of it. He’s both there and elsewhere—a reminder that when we look out on the world we do so not just with the eye but with the whole mind. If this imposes a certain distance between us and what we see, it also heightens the possibility of human connection, since the mind’s entry allows for the act of association, that essential human art of drawing connections between things, of more deeply seeing what’s before you by following it out to what isn’t. Here is Cole in two places at once, in a single moment of vision:
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Quite by chance, while I was taking a photograph of the one-eyed car in Zürich—late afternoon, and the sun was going from the streets—I heard a friend’s voice behind me. “Was machst du denn da?” She laughed. I turned around and saw in her eyes a gale force grief, for her mother had only just died the previous week.
Cole has found himself in a row of stalled Bombay cabs, and a passenger in the next car but one has turned to look at him with an intensity that is as hard to ignore as it is to account for. There’s something staggering about the way text and image come together here to hit on a truth slantly, accumulating force by a shared indirection, looking head-on by looking away. We have to picture that “gale force grief,” and we see it more terribly for Cole’s not placing it before us. Part of what this pairing does so successfully is to meet us with a double sense of dislocation: that of Cole seeing past his friend’s casual laughter in Switzerland to something not spoken; and now, in putting the book together—its associations mimicking the work of memory—bearing us on to this man returning his glance in Bombay. The man is very conspicuously at a remove—the frames of four taxi windows come between him and Cole—and yet this framing has the effect of intensifying the instant’s exchange. Such is the sense of heightened concentration, of a zeroing-in, that it’s easy to miss a passenger bent over in the middle cab. To spot him is to inhabit even more fully a space of belated recognition, to live out Cole’s moment—on that street in Switzerland, taking a photograph other than the one we see—of awful clarity.
It’s a clarity that leaves Cole wary of a certain easy sort of beauty, even as he lets us feel its lure. Sometimes his text works to subvert the silent impress of an image. By way of the minute detail or great vista, history is always entering in. Next to a commanding mountainside scene, he sets this:
Windless day. Optical bliss. Many years later, and only in the current century, the government agreed to a fund out of which they would be paid, these now grown children who had been taken from their families, tens of thousands of them, and placed as slave labor in farms all around the country, the Verdingkinder as they are known, the contract children, back when Switzerland was not as rich as it now is. The fund was about half a billion francs. What it could not salve was the memories for these children of unmarried mothers, these gypsy children, these poor children: the angry shouts, the cold nights that cut like a blade, the hatred we naturally bear toward the weak and helpless, the terror of the long days in those mountains with their rough stones and vertiginousness and mocking beauty.
There’s a tragic strain in Cole’s vision, and you feel its full measure in the shock of that last pronoun—“the hatred we naturally bear toward the weak and helpless”—which acknowledges this thing of darkness as our own. And still the lyric accumulations of the last sentence (“the angry shouts, the cold nights”) work toward a different kind of identification, one with the children in question. It is borne of a bracing compassion. Elsewhere Cole offers a memorable definition of man as “the animal that can mourn strangers.” It’s a capacity on display in a lovely elegy-in-miniature, one that shows the suggestive power of Cole’s eye as well his deep trust in what he calls “the common”:
He was frail when I last saw him read. This was in 2010, some years after the stroke. I don’t remember if he had trouble walking then, but we thought of mobility because he read from “Miracle”:
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in—
There was always bipedal grace in his poetry, the this helping the that, a forward motion. Years later his loss left me tottering.
What do we see? A couple pipes standing in for the great poet. I think Seamus Heaney, he of “A Stove Lid for W.H. Auden,” would have appreciated the gesture. To be surprised and moved by the association is to be reminded that what the imagination sees is truth too. Projection is not simply error. Who but Cole would look closely at a handful of metal fold-up chairs and, without moving his eye, come away with an urgent commentary on Black Lives Matter:
Something in the middle of a group of five. Something on the periphery: something first, something last. Something squeezed. Something brown. Something made of metal but susceptible to injury. Something designed for some other purpose. Something on the street. Something held up by others in its group. Something under pressure. Something exerting pressure. Something seen on the way to a rally in the time of Black Lives Matter.
These are acute acts of perception, and it may be worth applying scrutiny to Cole’s way of defining his project negatively, what with its title: he’s interested, he says, in the limits of vision (in much the same way, he has remarked that Open City “is in part an examination of the limits of sensitivity and of knowledge”). It’s a preoccupation whose urgency can be grounded partly in biography: as Cole has movingly described in an essay that takes the same title, and as he touches on several times here, he has suffered from poor vision his whole life. Quite apart from this, he woke up one day with no sight in his left eye and little in the right, and was ultimately diagnosed with a condition his doctor translates as “big blind spot syndrome”—its cause unknown, transitory but subject to return. Following this unsettling experience, Cole says, “the looking changed.” And though in Blind Spot he stays true to the ambition at a higher scrutiny, striving in passage after passage to “look through the skin of the photograph” for what is left out, to remain in the presence of his patiently accruing acts of attention is to realize that this is finally a constructive project, one animated not only by an ethic of alertness but by a kind of saving enchantment. Here and there Cole takes a photograph of a photograph, and the result persuades you of just that “radical equality” he remarks on. He finds a way of apprehending an artwork, of transparently situating it in place and time, that manages to leave intact its essential mystery:
“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him….Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’”
At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen is a photograph of a Catholic procession in rural Southern Italy. Next to it is a high marble relief of a Roman ritual procession from around the time of the Ara Pacis. It depicts a number of women in profile. Between the relief sculpture and the photograph is the museum’s russet wall, split so that which section is in front and which is behind is hard to read. The relief sculpture looks in fact like a photograph of a sculpture, and is difficult to resolve into its three-dimensional form. The women from 1 b.c.e. are on the verge of crossing the red sea and joining their distant Italian daughters and sons.
The facing photograph gives lovely life to this impression. Participants in the less ancient procession, captured in a photograph within the photograph, fix their eyes on us; the women of the Roman sculpture, set in profile, watch them in turn. An intervening sliver of wall does little to diminish the sense of a real looking, an achieved crossing—such is the charged space Cole has patiently created for us, image by image and passage by passage.
Blind Spot is a book composed of such crossings, or the hope of such crossings. Cole says what he values is not the shock of the new but “the shock of familiarity, the impossibility of exact repetition.” Following his mind’s maneuverings, you grow newly sensitive to the superabundance of ordinary transformations that life presents us with. One image enriches, both leans toward and tenses against, another; quietly, somehow, things cohere. In one memorable sequence, a spectator approaches a sculpture in a Chicago museum in more than one sense, the man bowing his head to read a placard and, in so doing, assuming the pose of the sculpted child; both are then lent a probingly unlikely evocation on the following page, in the form of a man in a gray hoodie using a New York payphone; all these are then recalled by an angled lampshade in distant Tivoli.
Such correspondences often strike us over the space of many pages. In its very structure, Blind Spot argues intimately for the capacity of each thing to illuminate, and find itself, in another. And still there are limits Cole remains alert to: grounding experiences that cannot be shared, gulfs he knows knowledge cannot cross. In the end, his close looking and thinking open out on the basic enigma of being. The following passage might have been lived or imagined: it is an existential mystery in miniature, prosaic in its details but imbued with a sense of the uncanny. We are left with a question whose only (and resonant) answer is its own inexact repetition. At the same time, we come away with one photograph, and another (or how many more) that could not quite be taken:
I had parked my car in the shadow of the overhanging rock above the precipice. A man walked past my car, went past the traffic mirror and red safety notice, and stood at the edge. He appeared to be a foreigner. He stood there for a very long time, maybe fifteen minutes. He had a camera but didn’t take any photos. I wondered what kind of life he lived, what his past contained, and how he came to be standing here in this faraway country, at the edge of the precipice. What was he thinking about, there ahead of me?
After taking the photo, I walked past a car parked in the shadow of the overhanging rock above the precipice. I went past the traffic mirror and red safety notice and stood at the edge of the precipice. There was a man in the car behind me, a local, to judge from the plates. He just sat there, not moving, and with no change in his expression. When I turned around and walked past him, probably a quarter of an hour later, his expression was still the same. I imagined that he came here to the edge of the precipice to get away from a difficult life, to enter into aloneness, silence, the cool of the rock’s shadow. What was he thinking about, there behind me?
Lars Iyer’s first three novels — Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus — formed a loose trilogy, although each stood on its own. The books concerned a years-long conversation between a fictional writer and lecturer in philosophy, Lars, and W., his friend, tormentor, and colleague. They longed for nothing more than a truly original thought, or at least for a guide: someone who might either help them to think or, failing that, someone who might at least let them watch while thinking occurred on the premises. Leaders came and went:
Do you remember how he spoke?, [W.] says of our first leader. His seriousness? He wasn’t swayed by us. Our idiocy was annulled. Just for a moment, we were quiet. Just for a moment, idiocy was interrupted and we were calmed. It was marvelous, W. said.
In Iyer’s new novel, Wittgenstein Jr., the cast is different — the characters this time around are a class of Cambridge philosophy students, who mostly move in a first-person-plural herd, and their young professor, upon whom they bestow the nickname Wittgenstein on the first day of class — but many of the concerns are the same. The longing for an original thought, for profundity, for intellectual flight. The tension between a) the aforementioned longing and b) a certain undergraduate tendency to fill the pages of the philosophy notebook with drawings of penises, which is to say the tension between whom you wish you were and whom you actually are. Thought as transcendence. The commercialization of higher education. The friction between the desire to think — to really think — and the baffled philosophy student’s self-loathing desire for someone else to do the thinking for them.
But in the new novel, a leader has finally appeared. The professor lectures before a class that drops from 45 in the first week to 23 in the second, from there to 18, and finally to a tenacious but utterly baffled 12:
None of us understands the problems he is wrestling with, we agree. None of us can follow his method — what is he looking for?
Not all of us care, of course. Mulberry is drawing cocks in his notebook. Guthrie wears sunglasses over closed eyes. Benwell groans audibly when Wittgenstein asks him a question.
No one’s sure whose idea it was to call him Wittgenstein, but it seems somehow fitting. He is a maddening teacher. No one quite follows what he’s trying to convey. But he seems, in some essential way, like the real thing.
Wittgenstein Jr. begins in the first-person plural, and it takes some time for the narrator, Peters, to emerge from the crowd. Once he does, the book shifts gradually from we to I, from a crowd of students to Peters alone. He emerges as a fully-realized character only toward the end. This unusual structure could be seen as a mirror of the transition from adolescence into adulthood, but it also serves to echo one of the book’s major concerns, which is the way sustained dedication to a rigorous discipline can separate a person from the rest of the world. From one of Wittgenstein’s early classes:
He tells us about the vistas of logic. About logic’s austerity.
Logic makes you lose the world, he says. Logic drives you away from the world, into the eternal ice and snow.
How to survive alone away from the world, in the land of ice and snow? Is there a way to live out there without being eaten alive? I’m reminded of a moment in Marilynne Robinson’s magnificent Gilead when the narrator, a minister, reflects on this order of thought:
I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation…and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life.
But Wittgenstein doesn’t want to remain in the desolation, or to retreat from it; he wants to travel through it, to pass the limits of his understanding, beyond logic itself, to think himself to the end of philosophy and step out into a clean and altered world on the other side:
What will he say when the last words of philosophy are spoken?, Wittgenstein wonders. What will he say, when the spell of philosophy has been broken?
He’ll say nothing, he says. He’ll open his eyes. He’ll look up at the sky. He’ll laugh.
The year at Cambridge passes; Wittgenstein’s students drink themselves into oblivion at house parties and pass out on lawns and worry about the future, fall in and out of love and OD on exotic combinations of banned substances, act out scenes from Shakespeare and go for walks with Wittgenstein and try to understand what he’s talking about. As the months pass, Wittgenstein’s lectures grow darker. There are classes where he hardly speaks at all, and when he does, he’s often alarming: “There is a cost to thought, he says. He’ll pay with himself. He’ll sacrifice himself.”
Where the book falters slightly, in my opinion, is in its narrative tension. The Spurious trilogy was largely plotless, and was none the worse for it: plot was very much not the point. Here, the outlines of a plot appear, when Wittgenstein’s students begin to fear that he’s suicidal and move toward trying to save him. But this tension fades out, and other threads assume prominence; later it seems that this wasn’t so much a fully realized plot as a gesture toward plotting.
But this is a minor qualm, and the novel is stunning. Wittgenstein Jr. is Iyer’s strongest book to date. He has again managed to write a book that’s funny, unexpected, and profound, and his prose is suffused with a calm beauty. The book functions beautifully both as a story about a haunted young professor — a leader of the kind who appears once in one’s intellectual life and then is remembered forever after — and a portrait of the last few frantic minutes before adulthood.
Alright, look: Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is big. Like, really big. In every sense of the word. At just under 1,200 pages, the book tackles the subject of the novel in English, a 700-year history. Its pages are densely researched and necessarily erudite. The print is small, and the thing weighs over six pounds. It took me over two months to read it in its entirety. Like I said, it’s big.
But I am going to try to convince you that The Novel is one of the most important works of both literary history and criticism to be published in the last decade, surpassing even such monumental works as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America and John Sutherland’s The Lives of the Novelists. The reason Schmidt’s book is so effective and important has to do with its approach, its scope, and its artistry, which all come together to produce a book of such varied usefulness, such compact wisdom, that it’ll take a lot more than a few reviews to fully understand its brilliant contribution to literary study.
Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, hear me out. First, let’s begin with Schmidt’s approach and its relation to his project’s inevitable place in the canon. Schmidt states, in his introduction, his intention to allow the story of the novel to be “mainly told by novelists and through novels.” Thus he completely eradicates the presence of critics. Rather than a snide excision, this technique enormously improves his enterprise, for what is the most basic element of the novel’s narrative than influence from one practitioner to another? Here we are given Edith Wharton’s preference of calling the Gothic “the eerie,” and Virginia Woolf referring to same as “a parasite, an artificial commodity, produced half in joke in reaction against the current style, or in relief from it.” Here we learn of Jane Austen’s commendation of Maria Edgeworth and how Charles Dickens’s viewed the estate of Sir Walter Scott as “a warning to himself”:
I saw in the vile glass case the last clothes Scott wore. Among them an old white hat, which seemed to be tumbled and bent and broken by the uneasy, purposeless wandering, hither and thither, of his heavy head. It so embodied Lockhart’s pathetic description of him when he tried to write, and laid down his pen and cried, that it associated itself in my mind with broken powers and mental weakness from that hour.
We learn which of H.G. Wells’s novels Henry James viewed as expressing Wells’s “true voice.” We learn that Jonathan Franzen puts Elmore Leonard in the same “entertainer” category as P.G. Wodehouse. We read Michael Crichton’s review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: “The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong…He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties.” (Schmidt refers to Crichton’s career as “almost cynically contrived, fiction as speculation.”) I could go on and on with examples, but the point is that, here, collected in one place, we have the largest repository of the greatest novelists’ opinions and views on other novelists. It would take the rest of us going through countless letters and essays and interviews with all these writers to achieve such a feat. Schmidt has done us all a great, great favor.
The approach coupled with the scope (covering, as it does, a huge swath of time) results in maybe the most complete history of the novel in English ever produced. As Schmidt writes early on, he “set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel,” which basically means he precludes strict emphasis on historicity, movements, and linear evolution. Instead, he focuses on influence––that beautifully organic (yet inexact) process of thoughts begetting thoughts, ideas begetting ideas and styles begetting styles––which, Schmidt’s book implicitly argues, matters much more than the cultural context of any of the works.
Take, for example, Thomas Love Peacock, a marginal figure now but an important one in his time and, in many ways, the history of literature. The way in which Peacock is presented in The Novel typifies Schmidt’s multitudinous achievement. First of all, Schmidt gives Peacock (like he does for every writer discussed at any length) a short biography, replete with insights into how his circumstances relate to his work: after a lengthy hiatus, it was only after Peacock’s wife died that he “began again, more fluently” to write. Secondly, Schmidt, an uncannily astute critic, punctuates this section (like all sections) with critiques of the authors’ work: Peacock’s “masterpiece,” Crochet Castle (1831) is “marred by a strain of anti-Semitism” and “complemented by a vexing hostility to the Scots and their Caledonian hubris.” Moreover, Peacock himself…
…is memorable for the brightness of the entertainment, the leavening and sweetening of the verses breaking the dialogue, changing the key of a description. How various are Peacock’s poetic registers: he can do the voices of the Romantics (Byron in particular), and he can do his own voice.
But what makes Peacock as rendered by Schmidt so fascinating (and Schmidt makes countless writers function this same way) is way he’s contextualized within the framework of other writers. John Fowles, Schmidt tells us, referred to him as “Austen-drowned Peacock,” as Peacock “came in the wake of another writer whose success eclipses his as surely as Shakespeare’s eclipses Ben Jonson’s.” Austen has, in the centuries since, become the esteemed figure; Peacock may have had a better position in the canon if it weren’t for such basically arbitrary timing. Moreover, Peacock was the man who inspired Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry, a vital work of criticism, “though all references to Peacock have been edited out of modern editions.” Further, Peacock relationship to Shelly and his wife Mary, leads to many odd synchronicities. Peacock’s book Nightmare Alley (which itself has much in common with Austen’s Northanger Abbey) was published the same year as Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818. Shelley’s novel nearly succumbed to the same legacy of Peacock, namely that it almost didn’t have one. “Half a century ago,” Schmidt writes, “in The English Novel, Walter Allen did not mention Mary Shelley,” for her book “remained a feature of children’s horror literature” and “was not taken seriously.” But Shelley, who resented her husband’s patronage of Peacock (who became her husband’s executor), has since been critically reconsidered, while Peacock remains in the formidable shadows of extraordinary contemporaneous women.
I’ve barely even scratched at the first third of Schmidt’s book here, but I have to accept certain limitations reviewing Schmidt’s masterpiece. There is simply too much to represent to you. Later, as the story moves closer to the present and the structure of his book takes considerably more radical forms (such as the virtuoso chapter “Truths in Fictions, the Metamorphosis of Journalism”), Schmidt furthers his technique and, more importantly, his almost/kind of/sort of thesis, which is that the novel’s refusal to be accurately categorized, or concretely defined by such-and-such characteristics, is its principal quality. It has an almost osmotic ability to absorb features from various other sources, to combine elements from art and reality to depict something closer to actual lived experience, yet still remain stubbornly artificial, autonomous, so that the distinctions between art and life are starkly clear. Consequently, the novel form’s multiplicity allows, like novels themselves, for dimensions of inexpressible depth. Despite all of Schmidt’s hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, in the end the only term he has for this quality is a “something.”
Which brings me to Schmidt’s astounding artistry. None of what I’ve described above would have mattered in the least had Schmidt’s prose been a snoozer to read. But in every way possible––from entertaining style to convincing authority to elements of undeniable personality––Schmidt’s writing is a triumph of critical acumen and aesthetic elegance. Unafraid to insert his opinions, Schmidt declares, for example, that David Foster Wallace’s “importance as writer…is in the essays he wrote and the original ways in which he wrote them,” not his novels. About Samuel Richardson, Schmidt proclaims in exasperation: “Yet how tedious Samuel Richardson can be!” He defends Stephen King, saying that although his “bibliography is vast…the novels are generally substantial and serious in intent.” Again, I could go on and on. Similarly, Schmidt is willing to invoke personal memories while discussing a text. On James Fenimore Cooper, he notes that his father read The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) to him and his brother because Cooper’s novels were “assumed to be good books for reading aloud,” and that he, Schmidt, was “haunted” by “scenes of brutality.”
Schmidt occasionally surprises with the beauty of his prose––as when he writes of William Beckford that in Vathek: an Arabian Tale (1786), “The reality of the novel merges with the stage paste of romantic masque”––as well as his humor. He notes that Mary Shelley was “linked to that of the American writer Washington Irving,” but that a romance was unlikely, “Irving being a confirmed bachelor or, modern biographers suggest, ‘a confirmed bachelor.'” Or when he finally arrives at a full-on chapter about Modernism, he opens it with this cheeky introduction: “It is not possible to postpone the high tides of modernism any longer,” as if, like history itself, he tried valiantly to resist it.
But it is the narrative, as told by Schmidt, that wows. He is able make a story with no “characters,” a novel with no “plot,” feel as dramatic and absorbingly propulsive as the best kinds of fiction. Part of this has to do with Schmidt’s apparent passion, which appears on every single page, but most of the tome’s energy comes straight from Schmidt’s preclusion of a strict critical approach. He wants to tell a story, not espouse indirectly the import of a given critical approach. Thus, he combines biography, analysis, memoir, and history into a hybrid monster, a modern Prometheus revitalized by Schmidt’s ambition and skill. He’s just so damned sensible, it’s hard to not follow his voice wherever it goes.
That Schmidt refuses, in such a lengthy work, to provide an overall assessment of the novel itself (save for his “something“) remains the book’s greatest strength. As Susan Sontag points out in her seminal essays “Against Interpretation” and “On Style,” the tendency to reduce a given work down to what it’s really saying is gravely erroneous. The illusory distinction between “form” and “content” is needless and harmfully furthers the notion that a “curtain could be parted and the matter revealed.” Style is not, in other words, the mere packaging of content, to be ripped open for the present inside. For anyone to try to objectively name the true “meaning” of an individual novel––i.e. to state the work’s content––would be, ultimately, doing a disservice to the art. Schmidt, too, understands this, that novels––as well as the story of the novel––are not to be reduced to an ingestible and comfortable conclusion. Rather, the story itself is all the meaning we need.
To reiterate: Schmidt has done me, you, all of us, a heroic favor in telling this story. In one single volume, he has synthesized myriad biographies of vastly contrasting artists, the nonlinear trajectory of their influence (good and bad) on each other, the various forms the novel has taken over its celebrated history, and a singular voice that pushes this complex tale along. The Novel: A Biography is a big book, yes, but it is also a big book, a piece of academic, intellectual work that doesn’t succumb to the insular (and boring) habits of much academic, intellectual work. It is a monumental achievement, in its historical importance and its stylistic beauty. The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure––the ultimate unreliable narrator––that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him. It is, itself, a work of art, just as vital and remarkable as the many works it chronicles.
This is what happens when I don’t take notes. Two months ago, I sat down to read Yesterday’s People, a collection of eight short stories by Goran Simic. Born in Bosnia, Simic was already a noted author and poet when he immigrated to Canada ten years ago. I decided to write about these spare, haunting and haunted stories, many of them about life in Sarajevo in the mid 90s. But for reasons that now completely mystify me, I wasn’t making notes, which would have been fine had I begun writing this immediately. Two months and three or four novels later, I began to write and I hit a brick wall.While I remembered the images and the tone of the stories, damned if I could remember any names, or specific details. And the images that I did remember were beginning to blend into each other. I was in a haze. I had been immersed in that world. And then I was out. I had shifted through time and space into other worlds. I was in Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, then in Stephen Clarke’s contemporary Paris, and most memorably I was amongst Balzac’s characters in 1800s Loire Valley, as drunk on his words as I would be if I’d been one of his wine growers in the French countryside. The images of the Bosnian war had been overshadowed. I could never do them justice.So I began to re-read. I cracked open Simic’s collection and dove back in, revisiting the characters, and the horrors of war, and the resourcefulness and resilience of spirit that had moved me the first time.I revisited Nina. We were back in Sarajevo, during the war. A gothic wild west of thievery and morgues, where “we were all slowly going mad.” Nina and our narrator shared a past, and our narrator now spots her amongst the people lining up for water, “a shadow of what she used to be.”In “Minefield,” volunteer soldiers protect a ravine. Their initial Rambo bravado is shattered when one of them blows himself up with a grenade. They grow up fast. They begin doing deals with the other side: “as time passed and our ammunition dwindled, we shot less and swore more.” It’s trench warfare except the two sides volley benign insults and supplies. And then grim reality throws them a curve.In “The Story Of Sinan” we see the early days of the war when “we thought it all a brief private nightmare that the world had nothing to do with.” We meet Sinan whose daily routine has been inconvenienced by the war. To him, it’s an annoyance. He’s a gambler and carouser who lives by his wits. (He tells women, when he’s through with them, that his wife has been released unexpectedly from prison though she was supposed to have served five more years for murdering his ex-mistress). Then another curve, this time a sudden and unexpected act of kindness and selflessness.And as I re-read Yesterday’s People I noticed something that I hadn’t really picked up on the first time. I noticed that the stories are not just about Bosnians – then. They’re also about Canadians – now. In every story, a character either escapes to Canada or someone linked to him does. Sometimes the stories are actually written from the point of view of someone here, now, flashing back to his life there, then. There are photos throughout the stories, snapshots of the narrator’s past. The stories are about memory, about trying to remember and trying to forget. They’re about one’s tenuous link to one’s history. They’re war stories that don’t end in the trenches or in the long line-ups for water. They don’t end when the shooting stops. They’re brought up to date through the memory of the narrator. They’re immigrant stories.
Reading can be rewarding.I’m late to this party. Everyone has been expounding on their love for this month’s book – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But before Oprah, and before the Tournament of Books, and especially before the hype and praise and high expectations, I decided I’d better give this book a shot. So, essentially, I read The Road just a few weeks before it went from hidden gem to full-out media blitz.I read it nearly straight through, in three sleepless nights. I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t want to put it down.While following The Road’s main characters – a father and his son – down into the horrible world of post-apocalyptic wasteland, I felt I owed these characters something – that I needed to continue reading to make their sacrifices pertinent. To make their suffering worthwhile.I was left wordless. I couldn’t think of anything but the book. The tortured landscape. The bands of wild rebels, roaming along the roads, searching and hiding and turning everything they could into a viable source of nutrition. Fighting for their lives in the most terrible ways.Reading The Road leaves nothing but thought. It spells out the special bond between father and son, especially when put to the test. It shows survival like no other. How hard it is to break a spirit. How long it takes a man to die inside, and what that does to the body outside.It leaves you wondering why the world has, for the most part, ended? We barely know. For our own protection, I assume. Could we take the truth? Isn’t it enough to walk alongside these vacant, hollowed out corpses, slumming from camp to camp, fearful of not just death, but of how death can come; armed with enough to make it quick – dying being the only escape from capture.Think of everything we take for granted.Think about brushing your teeth. About drinking a Coke. Shaving. Wearing clean socks. Living in the same place every day, sleeping in the same bed. Sleeping in a bed at all.About hearing birds. About seeing the green buds of the forthcoming spring, the dying leaves of the passing autumn.Think about having friends. Think about remembering the face of those you love. Think about knowing where they are. About where you’re going.And think about your dreams. Because in The Road, there aren’t any. There’s no time for dreaming – no time for considering what lies ahead, what the people you used to know could be doing or where they ended up. Instead, all you see ahead is dark. The only faces you remember are blurred. The only tie to your former life is a child that was born after the destruction, after the killing, after the world slowly spun away, leaving nothing but a charred remain, a zone of impossibility.Who needs to wait for death when Hell has already made itself known?After reading The Road, I thought long and hard about what I would do. I thought about the events that led up to this destruction. I considered the role of global warming, of nuclear war, of driving wedges into every peace-deprived location on this ever warring earth. How far are we from total annihilation? How far are we from turning this dystopian wasteland – one under rigid social control not from a group or government, but from nature, specifically human nature’s will to survive – into a true life prophesy?The Road is a masterpiece. I say that without hyperbole. It’s the best book I’ve read in the past five years. I love the mystery and the subtle reminders of a former life. I love every time McCarthy sends us back a few years, to when people had just begun dying; trying to give us clues as to what really happened.Really, I’m not sure we could handle what happened. Just like the two lonely souls walking along that road couldn’t bear to look back.Why would you want to? Maybe that’s something else we take for granted – the idea that memories don’t disappear, and that sometimes looking back can be more harmful than anything we could do to ourselves. When your only way is forward, and your only reprise is death – why would you ever want to look back down the road. Why would it matter where you came from?The Road. It reaffirms the art of writing fiction. What else can we say about it?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar.
“Let’s keep things simple, for we must do our best to keep things simple, otherwise we would be utterly lost” is one of the refrains found in the new translation of George Perec’s novella The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. Keeping with this guiding mantra, simplicity is what I will aim for in the following consideration in ten somewhat succinct points:
1. The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise was born of a project conceived circa 1968, by a French computer company that hoped to make computers more appealing to and useful for creative types. Of course, it’s difficult to believe that there was ever time when computer scientists had to try to make computers more artist- and writer-friendly, now that the digital mode dominates the arts in so many ways. In terms of text, so much is composed on keyboards and read via technological devices, be it laptop, smartphone, Kindle–this review included–one must conclude that these engineers were quite successful in their campaign.
2. Perec was asked to structure his book by following a computer’s basic mode of operation. The task set before him was to describe the steps an employee would take in order to obtain a pay raise at the large organization where he is employed. The steps were listed in a flowchart that proceeds something like this: Is your boss in his office? If yes, knock on his door. If no, hang around and try to chat with his secretary. Is his secretary in a good mood? Is it Lent? If yes, did your boss eat eggs for lunch? Much revolves around the timing of the approach, the health of the line manager’s children, and the daily cafeteria menu. As Perec reminds you, the aspiring worker, a manager’s gastric problems can easily overshadow the case for a wage increase, however deserved, and so, “You have every reason to glean what information you can on the staff cafeteria menu and to keep an eye on the dietary behavior of your line manager during his midday meal.”
3. Fiction like this, that follows the structure of a computer program, is called “matrix literature.” A situation is presented, the answer is either yes or no, and the next move depends entirely on the answer. Either your boss (mr x) is in his office or he isn’t, either his secretary (miss wye) is at her desk and willing to shoot the breeze or she’s not.
4. However, Perec avoids sounding stiff or unyielding by adding a human element to the structure. He supplies the flesh and spirit to the skeleton, if you will, by capturing the dreary weight of routine, by showing the maddening lengths one will go to in order to predict the precise moment that the boss is available and fortune leans ever so slightly in one’s favor. There are some truths to glean from all of this: even a computer program cannot circumvent the poor mental and physical health of your superior and his family, both of which have more sway than ill-timed pleas. A boss’s constant unavailability results in discovering many imaginative ways to kill time. Office life can be measured in strolls and “chin wags” with secretaries. Opportunity rarely exists and is often missed.
5. In Perec’s essay “Approaches to What?” included in his book Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, he outlines his interest in the quotidian. The main concern set forth in this essay (and demonstrated in this book) is, “How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infraordinary, the background noise, the habitual?” His answer is to dwell on our routines, to realize the intricacies of the everyday, to question the ordinary: “What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our tools, the way we spend out time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us.”
6. If anything, our poor narrator suffers from questioning too much. Deducing just when to approach your line manager for a raise is a very tiring ordeal, especially when performed repeatedly in one’s head and without opportunity to do so in real life. The text is written without punctuation and without capitalization (except for a few almighty office terms such as T60 issues). The narrative arc proceeds in circles, and likewise one sentence runs into the next, leading to a frenetic, neurotic pace of questioning and thinking, circling and stalling, which mirrors the narrator’s strolls around the office. All of these circles around always lead back to the boss’s office, both physically and mentally; it’s tiring, maddening. However, there’s a pleasure gleaned in the recognition that someone else’s office misery is worse than our own.
7. Times, days, and conditions under which one should absolutely not ask for a raise (as you’ll be denied or put off):
Fridays after lunch (mr x’s “gastric functions are likely to overshadow the professorial and managerial capacities associated with his hierarchical rank”)
following mr x’s lunchtime consumption of fish (he may have choked on a fishbone)
following mr x’s lunchtime consumption of eggs (they may be off)
Mondays, Saturdays, and Sundays (if the latter two are not already obvious, this is a losing battle)
during Lent in general (see fish & eggs)
if mr x’s daughters have measles
if mr x has red spots on his face (indicating either measles or food poisoning, ie, eggs)
if mr x does not look up when you knock
if mr x is not at his desk
8. Nothing is straightforward. It would be, we are reminded, if mr x were at his desk, happy and in perfect health, and, having dined on caviar for lunch, also willing and welcome to consider a request for a pay increase. However, this is rarely if ever the case. Fortuitous advances are often nullified by an opposite and even greater misfortune. Consider the streak of bad luck our humble employee encounters when returning for an appointment with mr x on a Thursday afternoon: mr x didn’t come in because his daughters have the day off from school, the next day our employee chokes on a fishbone, then mr x begins his annual leave only to return the day our employee is stricken with measles; by the time he recovers miss wye goes on holiday and when she returns “the economic situation constrains the firm to downsize quite seriously by a miracle you are spared which proves if proof were needed that you should never be overly pessimistic but it’s not a good time to ask for a raise anyway.” Eventually mr x’s four daughters multiply and bear 16 grandchildren, miss wye tires of chattering and lacks “the bonhomie of yesteryear,” or, even worse, she retires. The repetition and delay underscore, with great humor, the role of the “miniscule cogs,” in a sprawling and prestigious organization, who are subject to whim (though precious little whimsy) in its many great wheels.
9. Perec also dwelt on the issues of money and labor in his novel, Things: A Story of the Sixties, where Sylvie and Jérôme’s dreams of fortune and plentitude eventually lead them to give up their itinerant, independent lives for the stable salaried positions they’d sworn off when they were younger. They’ve achieved the lifestyle they’ve aspired for, though it’s not as grand as they’d imagined: “They will be presentable. They will be well housed, well fed, well dressed. They will not be wanting.” And yet there’s a trade-off implied in this contentment. In settling for the delight of possessing nice things and leading a comfortable lives, they are in fact far more average than they’d ever dreamed. Like the office employee, they are also cogs living within a preordained system greater than themselves. Perec writes of the way increasing age brings expectations of conformity and stability, ie, maturity, in attending to one’s work: “For if it is commonly accepted that people who have not yet reached thirty may remain relatively independent and work as and when it suits them, even if their availability, openness of mind, the variety of their experience and what is still called their adaptability is sometimes valued, it is on the other hand required, paradoxically, of any potential partner, once he has passed the milestone of his thirtieth birthday (and this is, precisely, what makes your thirtieth birthday a milestone) that he show some evidence of stability, provide some guarantees as to his punctuality, discipline, judicious behaviour.”
10. This only goes to show that even when you think you’ve made it, you haven’t. Such is the way with Sylvie and Jérôme, and also with our poor office employee. Having cleared the hurdle of meeting with his boss, another patch of thorns is uncovered: How does he broach the question? Is he led off track by other questions, such as whether this is a T60 issue, a question he does not know the answer to? Does he end up working on a new project to prove his value, but the new engineer does not favor him? Must he kill the engineer to get this raise or will fate grant him this one break? As time passes he is willing to settle for less as long as he gets the raise. More time passes, and he is almost ready to retire. It’s never-ending this quest for raises, for things, for security and advancement. It’s also a way to distract ourselves from the endless, ordinary banality of everyday life.