That would be “Novel of The Elegant Variation” for the uninitiated. Book blogger Mark Sarvas can now be known as novelist Mark Sarvas because he announced today that his book was bought by Bloomsbury and will be out in a year. Mark’s been talking about this book since he started his blog, so it’s thrilling to see that he’s getting it published. Well done.
It’s been over a decade since James Wood came on the scene to reclaim literary criticism as its own kind of literature, and though all his enthusiasts have a top-ten list of the Wood essays with which they most strenuously disagree, he comes by his reputation as “our best critic” honestly. Indeed, disagreeing with Wood can be an education in and of itself; if I had to choose one critic to pan my own work, it would be Wood. But what if I could choose a critic to praise it?For several years, Wyatt Mason of Harper’s has quietly been reinvigorating an even more recondite form than the critical essay: the literary encomium. As with Wood’s considered corrections, one can disagree with Mason’s glowing appraisals of Mary Gaitskill or Charles Chadwick (I wasn’t as enamored of It’s All Right Now as Mason was), while still being provoked to think – and feel – more deeply about literature.Congenially, Mason’s tastes are closer to mine than are Wood’s. (Witness his translation of Eric Chevillard’s wonderfully weird Palafox.) I’m particularly in his debt for introducing me to the fiction of Leonard Michaels, and at the end of the month, harpers.org will be offering the essay in question to non-subscribers. For the time being, one can check out a brief, but interesting enough, interview about Michaels.
I’m going away for the weekend. But just in case anyone is in dire need of a book recommendation while I’m gone, try The Count of Monte Cristo. Here’s what you’ll be getting: “Set against the turbulent years of the Napoleonic era, Alexandre Dumas’ thrilling adventure story is one of the most widely read romantic novels of all time. In it the dashing young hero, Edmond Dantes, is betrayed by enemies and thrown into a secret dungeon in the Chateau d’If — doomed to spend his life in a dank prison cell. The story of his long, intolerable years in captivity, his miraculous escape, and his carefully wrought revenge creates a dramatic tale of mystery and intrigue and paints a vision of France — a dazzling, exuberant France — that has become immortal.”Other NewsApparently Arthur Phillips will be following up his best-selling debut novel, Prague, with a thriller about an obsessive Egyptologist, called The Empty Chamber.
One of the interesting things about being the author of an obscure blog is seeing how much I influence world culture. A day doesn’t go by without my opinions being parroted on music video channels and being reprinted on the backs of cereal boxes. Why just the other day I happened to be watching opening round action of this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and I couldn’t help but hear CBS Sportscaster Dick Enberg describe as worthy of Don Quixote, a speech that Mike Gillespie, coach of the 16th seeded Florida A&M Rattlers, was giving to his team before sending them out on the floor to face basketball powerhouse Kentucky. I, of course, immediately assumed that Enberg made this comment because, as an avid reader of The Millions, he knew that I was reading the Edith Grossman translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and reading along at home, he felt comfortable throwing the literary reference into his broadcast. Or there is another explanation that, I will concede, is equally plausible. Don Quixote, like other literary first ballot hall of famers, Hamlet, Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield, is so ingrained in the public consciousness that such a reference will be understood by nearly all who hear it. Not bad for a 17th century Spanish epic. Enberg was using the name Don Quixote the way most folks do, to describe a foolhardy quest. And yet it would seem that Enberg was implying that there was something noble in all this, to use another often cited reference, something akin to David and Goliath. Before I ever cracked open the book, I had this impression as well, that there was something noble about this knight who wears a bowl on his head and tilts at windmills. I see it a bit differently now, even though, admittedly, I am only a quarter of the way through the book. Certainly in telling the story, Cervantes is turning the idea of chivalry on its head, and in doing so is nobly attempting to undo some of the harmful social mores of his time, but the character of Quixote isn’t particularly noble. In fact he is a rather sad specimen who is either totally mentally ill or utterly incapable of recognizing the consequences of his actions; probably he is a little of both. So far, he has inadvertently caused a servant boy to be beaten by his master, he has bludgeoned a number of innocent passersby, and he has allowed his faithful squire, the very likeable Sancho Panza, to be repeatedly thrown to the wolves. In fact, I am starting to see that it is perhaps a disservice to compare the coaches of underdog basketball teams and others who embark on impossible quests to Don Quixote, who, I should also mention, is turning out to be rather unhygenic. Better that these noble folks be compared to Cervantes, who, even 300 years later is still managing to take on the big shots. Like I said, though, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Once, I have finished, and once I have read the Harold Bloom essay that precedes the text, I may have different take on the whole thing, so stay tuned, America.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold and the ditch he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Not in a weird way. The nights dark beyond all reckoning of darkness, days endless gray. He rose from the reeking sleeprags and looked towards the east for a hint of light. Long ago snuffed by lowhanging dust, crusted and festering whoremouth. In the dream from which he’d wakened he and the child had wandered in a cave, scrounging for rotted batmeat. Shadows playing the walls like clownpuppets, the whitegloved fingers gnarled and ginshaken. Encircled by the dim, an abattoir lullaby. They came to a great stone room within which lay a longdead lake, its water stagnant and foul. And on the far shore a eunuch mime, naked save for a filthy gray cravat. Dead eyes milky and hollow. With a thin straw to its dirtscarred lips, it knelt, sipping from the brack. It heard their steps, craning its mimeneck to see what it could not. Skin translucent, ribs charbling and swortled, the heart beating tiredly. Facepaint smeared. It waved sadly in their direction, for it could not speak. Then it scuttled into the inky blackness. The man shook his head in the freezing predawn. No more peaches before bed.
With the first gray light he rose and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Godless and blasted. A madman’s timeshare. The trees dead, the grass dead, the shrubs dead also. The rivers dead. And the streams and reeds, the mosses and voles. Dead as well. He glassed the ruins, hoping for a shred of color, a wisp of smoke, a faroff Cracker Barrel. There was nothing but swirling gloom, a grasping murk. He sat with the binoculars and the gray, and thought: the child is my warrant. If he is not the word of God God never spoke, although he might have scribbled something on a paperscrap and passed it along. He bit hard on his blistered upperlip. If only I had thought to give him a name. If only.
An hour later they were on The Road, an Oprah’s Book Club selection. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks in case they had to make a run for it. Cannibal rapists, roving bloodcults. Greenpeace volunteers. In the knapsacks were essential things: tins of food, metal utensils, a broken Slinky, a canopener, three bullets, a picture of ham. He looked out over the barren waste, the scorpled remain. The road was empty, as was its wont. Quiet, moveless. Are you okay? he said, quotation marks dead as the reeds. The boy nodded. Then they started down the road, humming a sprightly tune. The tune was silent, and unsprightly.
In time they had arrived at a roadside filling station. It was still and precise, a blaggard’s assbath. Ashcovered and freighted with doubt. They stood in the road and studied it. The windows were unbroken, the pumps intact. I think we should check it out, the man said. There might be snacks. Cheez-Its, maybe. The boy looked on as he entered an open door. The man, not the boy. Nothing in the service bay save for a standing metal toolbox, a trash-filled wastecan. Waterlogged tittymagazines. In the small office, ash and dust, soot and flumb. A cashregister, a telephonebook, a metal desk. He crossed to the desk, standing over the phone. He picked it up and punched at the numbers. Three three three, three three three, three three five three three. The boy stood at the door. What are you doing? he said. The man hung up the phone. Jingle Bells, the man said.
In the service bay he tipped over the trashdrum and sorted through the plastic oilbottles. Then they sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs, standing the bottles upside down to drain into a pan. This reminds me of ketchup, the man said as he watched the slowdraining oil. The boy brightened. Can you tell me about ketchup, Papa? the boy said. Please tell me. The man stared, remembering another world entire, a world of jellies and mustards, of condiments boundless. Perhaps later, he said. I’ll tell you about ketchup later. The boy watched the slowing oildrip, chin in his hand. Okay.
On the far side of the valley the road passed through a fearsome charswath. Blackened and limbless trees, ashblown and dead. On a distant rise, the heatscorched ruins of a farmhouse. Tilted roadside lightpoles. Faded billboards advertising motels, the use of irony. An abandoned Vespa. Are you having fun? he said. The boy hesitated, shook his head. Are you sure? Yes, the boy said. I’m sure. The man looked out over the blasted land, the pebblestrewn waste. Impressions? the man said. The boy kicked at a small black rock. No, said the boy. The man’s heart ached. The boy used to love his impressions.
That night they lay beneath their filthy plastic tarp as rain fell from a godless heaven. After stowing the cart in a jagged roadside scarp, they had found a spot a good distance from the road. A thick copse of deadburnt spruce. The dirt underhead was hard, and with the wind and the cold and the running viscous ash it was difficult to sleep. Can I ask you a question? the boy said after a time, his teeth chattering.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
Okay. Tomorrow maybe?
No. Not tomorrow. Not for a long, long time.
Oh. Why not?
Because we’re going to be okay.
The boy considered this. Okay, he said.
There was silence for a time. Then the boy spoke again. But could we maybe die the day after?
No. I will protect you. No matter what.
Okay. The boy paused. But what if we did? Or maybe just me? Could I maybe die?
The man laughed into the tarpgrit as thunder pealed across the wet, bleakened valley. And leave all this? he said.