During summer break, sophomore year, my father and I took a short trip from our house on Sugarbush Drive (memorable streetname, unmemorable neighborhood) to visit the Jack Kerouac House. It was a 20 minute drive down I-4 to the small quaint house that is now situated a few blocks from a sprawling commercial development. Orlando was an agreeable town when Kerouac’s mother moved there, and while Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums there. A few years later, the arrival of the Walt Disney Corporation would radically alter the landscape, physically and culturally.
We walked around the House and knocked on the door. Answering the door was an early-career MFA graduate, the House’s resident writing fellow. The three-month fellowship ostensibly afforded him the time to work on a play about a New Orleans jazz musician. A pair of sunglasses slid down his nose, exposing his puffy eyes: he was just then emerging from a hangover. Work, he explained, was going slowly.
When we asked for details about the House and Kerouac, the playwright politely pointed us to a neighbor, a retiree who was walking across the street. The pensioner claimed to have known Kerouac’s mother, who had actually owned the house, as well as Kerouac. She kept “a nice lawn” and “was a sweet woman,” but he was “a drunk” and a “druggy.” Whether or not it was true was beside the point. My father and I agreed the Orlando Tourism Board couldn’t have dreamed up a better touch of embellished authenticity than a curmudgeonly, fist-waving, stay-off-my-lawn Floridian to America’s Own Free-Love Dionysus. Granted, a residence of a 20th-century American novelist probably never earned much notice in the Tragic Kingdom.
Years after visiting the Kerouac House, during a vacation in Prague, I visited Bohumil Hrabal’s cherished pub, U zlatého tygra (At the Golden Tiger). He once shared a drink with Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel in the same boisterous, salty, regulars’ bar. At one of the shared tables in the backroom, I met a half-British, half-Czech jazz singer who boasted that he played cards with Hrabal’s frequent collaborator, the film director Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, Larks on a String). According to the singer, who can be found performing a fine version of “Strange Fruit” on the west bank of the Charles River most nights, Menzel was the worst director of live opera in history and, at 75, an incorrigible womanizer. The latter, at least, was meant as high praise.
These are examples in my long-held fascination with writer lore and the places they immortalized. It probably began, at eight, when I first checked out the collected short stories of Edgar Allan Poe from the Poplarville Public Library, and read the short, breathless biography in the introduction (Virginia Clemm, alcoholism, his vexed relationship with a father figure). Since, I have sabotaged dates, relationships, other people’s vacation plans, among other things, for a few extra hours in the Eudora Welty House, Rowan Oak, the Lake Isle of Innisfree, Berggasse 19, Richard Wright’s elementary school (or perhaps it was just his schoolchair and the school had been torn down — I can’t remember). How could anyone not be shaken up by reading Franz Kafka’s famous (and famously unsent) 1918 letter to his father now on display at the Kafka Museum? Imbued with the authenticity of Franz’s own cramped, unerringly legible handwriting? Partly, in all these journeys, I was looking for that very same authenticity, the dirt and the air Hrabal or William Faulkner had actually breathed, the unmediated sources of their perfect art. But I was also looking for, and more often finding, myth. Sometimes there were anecdotes embellished by the author, for instance, the public images enthusiastically promoted by Sigmund Freud and Nathaniel Hawthorne; other times, the rumors had been mooted by rivals, promoters, surviving family, and friends.
Over a recent weekend, I consumed Sarah Stodola’s Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. Stodola reconstructs the careers, habits, and influences of major writers in English of the last century, from Edith Wharton to David Foster Wallace; each section ends by summarizing the author’s daily writing routine, and anything that might have disrupted it (Wharton’s frustration over an unsatisfactorily arranged hotel room, Wallace’s lack of discipline). It’s a well-researched book that is affably written and organized, though the choice to avoid quoting or expanding on each writer’s career development seems like a missed opportunity.
Though each chapter takes a writer in detail, Stodola has focused on the “horizontal and vertical,” things that avid readers might find interesting, such as the controlling “image” that guides Toni Morrison’s work or how much time Ernest Hemingway really gave over to socializing. I was reminded of peculiar trivia I had read years ago, but hadn’t fully appreciated at the time: James Joyce’s early infatuation with Henrik Ibsen, Philip Roth’s habit of writing hundreds of pages before finding the first useable syllable.
I’ll almost certainly return to Process when my own enthusiasm for revising wanes, or when I finally start The Custom of the Country, and would like to pluck some well-curated details about its author. Though I also know my interest is slight compared with the insatiable, obsessive appetite of some writers, my fascination is not just a type of highbrow celebrity cult, which tends to be less about the person’s work and more about Puritan pillorying. There is no prying into their intimate lives, either, since I’m mostly interested in things that the authors considered “fair play” — documents sold to libraries, autobiographical writing published with their permission, property that their families curate on their behalves — rather than, say, Henry James’s sexuality.
Instead, I, and thousands of others, are interested in how they chose to live with their work. I too live with their work, sometimes comfortably, sometimes miserably, the terrible beauty that their novels and poems are. Stodola offers some research, but I still wonder: How did Faulkner gain perspective on a place and people that were in such uncomfortable proximity to his Oxford house, while Joyce was able to sustain an intimacy with his city, his country, and its politics from more than 1,600- kilometers away?
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women explores this theme with deft control and cool poise: how we mortals interact with genius. In these 13 stories, Bergman observes a range of influential, often-mythic, often-thwarted women: a jazz singer, bit actresses, artists. The collection’s stories examine how both their fame and femininity exerts a powerful attraction on the hangers-on, attendants, and survivors that orbit them. The “almost famous” are alternately callous, benevolent, brilliant, self-effacing, self-serving, merciless, and wounded. That word, “almost,” is singly devastating, salvific, and penetrating: their failures haunt them but haven’t doomed them.
“The Autobiography of Allegra Byron” envisions the too-short life of Lord Byron’s tragically neglected daughter by Claire Clairmont. Sent to the Convento di San Giovanni before she had turned four, Allegra is a confused, frustrated child patiently nurtured by one novice nun. In one indelible scene, the abbess begins to praise the theological education of her wards to Percy Bysshe Shelley, a surprise visitor. Shelley, the formidable Romantic poet and polemicist who was expelled from Oxford in 1811 after he published The Necessity of Atheism, has turned up at the Convento to visit his niece, but is appalled to discover that the child of a Romantic arch-firebrand has to recite church creed.
Can you recite the Apostles’ Creed for your friend? the abbess said, a note of pride in her voice, as if she was eager for Shelley to report Allegra’s progress to her father.
I believe in God, the Father almighty. Allegra looked up at Shelley’s eyes, perhaps sensing his horror. Her voice fell flat.
That won’t be necessary, Shelley said, holding up one hand in protest. I’m quite confident in Allegra’s recitation.
After the girl is taken away for her evening prayers, he says to the narrator, the younger nun,
She appears greatly tamed, Shelley said to me as the abbess and Allegra disappeared down the hall, though not for the better.
A story that balances mischief and bleakness, “Romaine Returns” is about a servant named Mario, who manipulates the household of the early-20th-century artist Romaine Brooks. Brooks’s decadent youth has been ravaged by post-traumatic stress disorder, and she has become a reclusive shut-in and virtually given up art. When her friend-dealer contacts her, Mario is surprised that she had ever had friends. He wonders, “It’s hard for Mario to imagine Romaine deep in anyone’s heart. He stares at the lavender card stock with disbelief and jealousy. He wants words this intense, this loving, coming in a letter with his name on it. But he’s never been in love.”
In “Saving Butterfly McQueen,” a medical student remembers a semester she spent as a confused young religious proselytizer. In Augusta, Ga., her vanity and ambition leads her to the doorstep of McQueen. The well-known African-American actress has publicly disowned her celebrated career as a racially stereotyped movie actress and any belief in God. In Bergman’s imagined Augusta neighborhood in 1994, McQueen is glimpsed in a pitch-perfect scene: her most famous role, as Prissy in Gone With the Wind, is profoundly embarrassing in post-Civil-Rights America — the cringe-worthy “I don’t know nothing bout birthing no babies,” the staircase scene in which Scarlett O’Hara shoves her down. McQueen attempts to reclaim part of that dignity. She renounces her faith. She donates her body to science. She proudly reminds a reporter that she wouldn’t allow Vivien Leigh to slap her.
The narrator, the proselytizer, has the grace and wisdom not to explicitly point out her hypocrisy or other failings. Marco’s soul-destroying jealousy is also tautly drawn. As in many of Bergman’s stories, the writing shines through understatement, the well-placed detail, the disciplined accumulation of theme and style. That few of the sentences or passages pull at your cuff to highlight them and paste them on a Goodreads page is a testament to Bergman’s craft. Each sentence is deeply rooted in story and voice and is more effective for not having too-precious prose.
Another strength is the way that she manages to balance romanticizing her subjects with providing characters with depth and mystery. I think about my trips to see subjects when I read Bergman, because she has accomplished the hope of every literary pilgrim: reaching for a greater depth of understanding without grasping, seeing without gazing.
None of this cult-worship started with my generation. Remember that Aristotle tells a fanboy story about Heraclitus: a group of foreigners decide to go out of their way on a journey to visit the famous Greek philosopher. When they arrive at his house, “they saw him warming himself at his stove.”
Surprised, they stood there in consternation — above all because he encouraged them, the astounded ones, and called for them to come in, with the words, “For here too the gods are present.”
Martin Heidegger, in his “Letter on Humanism,” claimed that the anecdote illustrates the banal, everyday dwelling of genius, or godliness. He suggests that the unfamiliar thing (god or genius) happens here among all these familiar things. They expect intellectual charisma — incendiary, paradigm-shattering, irascible — or at least a man baking bread, but find an old man in a quaint house, the most ordinary of places, where the great Heraclitus is heating his bare feet.
Another recent novel has also shone some insight on impressionable youth, the cult of genius, and the problem of familiarity and estrangement. Lars Iyer’s novel Wittgenstein Jr is set at a British university, among a group of graduate students enrolled in a seminar by a man who might either commit suicide or write a great philosophical work in the style of Being and Time or Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The students half-mockingly name him after the great German philosopher. Iyer mirrors some of Jr’s behavior on the actual Wittgenstein’s own insane antics, including beating a sick child unconscious in the 1930s Austria, as catalogued in Wittgenstein’s Poker.
Aside from picking off biographical details, the novel itself seems to draw inspiration from the arc of Wittgenstein’s career. The first half is dense with the study of logic and propositions, before the second half gives way to a looser, direct, yet more conventional and approachable style. In the second half, Iyer almost completely discards the preoccupation with philosophical puzzle-solving altogether. The last hundred pages could be described as a kind of campus love story.
The flinty personalities. The abrupt changes in style and approach. The disembodied philosophical chatter. It’s a triumph that Iyer pulls off this high-wire act so brilliantly. It’s irreverent, smart, and off-kilter. One of my favorite passages describes the professor’s arrival at the university:
He’s trying to see Cambridge, Wittgenstein says. He’s done nothing else since he arrived. But all he sees is rubble.
The famous Wren Library!, he says, and laughs. The famous Magdalene Bridge! Rubble, he says, all rubble!
We look around us—immense courts, magnificent lawns, immemorial trees, towers, buttresses and castellated walls, heavy wooden gates barred with iron, tradition incarnate, continuity in stone, the greatest university in the world: all rubble? What does Wittgenstein see that we do not?
The bitterly wry tone comes to inform how his students respond to Wittgenstein’s baffling lectures. Wittgenstein’s classes dwindle in size, and his remaining students are mostly half-hearted in their attempts to emulate his philosophical dedication. Instead they’re preoccupied by his general oddness, his sexuality, his comments that seem to indicate that he plans to kill himself, and his tendency to use intellectual palaver to disrupt Cambridge’s bourgeois conventionality:
A don, walking his dog, greets Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein nods back.
The dog is a disgusting creature, Wittgenstein says when the don is out of earshot. Bred for dependency. Bred for slobbering. We think our dogs love us because we have a debased idea of love, he says. We think our dogs are loyal to us because we have a corrupted sense of loyalty.
People object to pit bulls and Rottweilers, but pit bulls and Rottweilers are his favourite dogs, Wittgenstein says. They don’t hide what they are.
People love Labradors, of course. But the Labrador is the most disgusting of dogs, he says, because of its apparent gentleness.
Some undergraduates might be able to resist such deliberately provocative cant. But a handful of students can’t resist those kinds of observations, the type that seem to reanimate the banal surface of things, spoken by a deeply knowledgeable university professor. They form a quasi-cult around him and can’t resist his unusual charisma. To this day, I can’t resist charismatic thought, however flawed or incomplete the idea might be, and I’m not likely to learn how to anytime soon.
For that matter, I can’t resist putting together a “lit-itinerary” for a trip I plan to take to East Asia later this year. Did you know there is a recreated statue of Apollo on display at the Yukio Mishima Museum? How well did Kenzaburō Ōe’s mother keep her lawn? Perhaps, the Museum has a recorded testimonial from one of his neighbors, complaining how he was really just a lazy, drunk slob — I can hope. And I ask myself, in what Kyoto bar might a fellow literary pilgrim relate to me the praiseworthy sexual longevity of one of Japan’s great dilettante artists?
Recently, Lynn Stuart Parramore tried to explain “Why a Death-Obsessed Pop Siren Is Perfect for Late-Stage Capitalist America.” She was referring, of course, to Lana Del Rey. Parramore explains that the Ultraviolence chanteuse is only the latest heir to a long lineage of decadent femmes fatales that rise to cultural prominence at moments of perilous social transition or imminent collapse:
This potent combination of women, sex and death is going to be one of the calling cards of late-stage capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our life-affirming instincts. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, these Eves of the Apocalypse — suicidal brides, young women fixated on pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong.
Parramore’s thesis may not seem to have much to do with Ira Glass’s controversial assertion, tweeted after seeing a performance of King Lear, that, “Shakespeare sucks.” But when you consider that one of the late 19th century’s favorite sources of death-and-the-maiden imagery was the drowning Ophelia, weltering picturesquely among the strewn flowers of her fatal madness, the Shakespeare/Del Rey connection becomes more plausible. Just as Parramore (and others) criticize Lana Del Rey for social irresponsibility, for promoting an anti-feminist celebration of sadomasochistic sexuality and for embracing capitalist spectacle unto death, so the most persuasive and compelling attacks on Shakespeare have charged him with amoral aestheticism and a sensationalized skepticism about human potential.
Ira Glass’s infamous tweet complained of King Lear that it had “no stakes” and was “not relatable.” Rebecca Mead and Adam Kirsch have explained at eloquent length why Glass’s expectation that Shakespeare be “relatable” is a naïve and even pernicious application of the narcissistic standards of advertising to serious art. But is Glass’s assertion that King Lear lacks “stakes” really so off the mark? This is a play in which traditional authority and the religious foundation on which it rests have collapsed into nothingness. Its villain, Edmund, worships no god but amoral nature, and its forlorn metaphysical conclusion is, in the words of the brutally blinded Gloucester, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.” It’s not wrong to say that there are no stakes in the tragedy’s meaningless cosmos. At the play’s conclusion, a set of numb and chastened survivors mutter small consolations in a blasted landscape.
Turning the final page of ultraviolent King Lear in a literary anthology, you would expect it to be succeeded not by Milton’s Puritan justification of God’s ways to men or Pope’s Enlightenment assertion that, “Whatever is, is right,” but rather by the God-haunted and God-abandoned worlds of Kafka and Beckett. Shakespeare’s despairing modernity— — if by “modernity” we mean the collapse of all tradition and a resulting ontological insecurity — is uncanny, so uncanny that we can see elements of Lana Del Rey’s persona prefigured in Lear’s daughters: in the desperate and fatal sexual longings of Goneril and Regan, in the mysterious born-to-die intransigence of Cordelia.
This sense of an after-the-deluge world gone wrong, a world where faith, hope, and love are powerless to improve the human condition, has long disturbed Shakespeare’s critics, most notoriously the poet Nahum Tate, whose happy-ending re-write of Lear held the English stage throughout the 18th century.
But there are less moralistic ways to critique Shakespeare than Tate’s bowdlerization. In 1986, the brilliant polymath critic George Steiner gave a remarkable lecture called “A Reading against Shakespeare,” later collected in his No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995. In this densely learned paper, Steiner attempts to synthesize into a coherent and persuasive argument the complaints against Shakespeare made throughout modern history; he focuses particularly on the criticism of Leo Tolstoy and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein, Steiner explains, implicitly relied on a concept of the poet as spiritual authority and moral prophet. For European thinkers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, it was not enough to be a prodigious coiner of words and creator of spectacle, as Shakespeare undoubtedly was:
Shakespeare is the incomparable Sprachchöpfer, the prodigal wordsmith, the limits of whose language are, in the idiom of the Tractatus, the limits of our world. There is scarcely a domain, constituent of men’s works and days, which Shakespeare has not harvested in language, over which he has not cast the encompassing net of his matchless lexical and grammatical wealth. Disposer of a vocabulary of almost thirty thousand words (Racine’s world is built of one tenth that number), Shakespeare, more than any other human being of whom we have certain record, has made the world at home in the word. This does not, however, make of him a Dichter, a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind. An authentic Dichter, urges Wittgenstein, ‘cannot really say of himself, “I sing as the birds sing”—but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself’ (Milton’s ‘warbling notes of wood-notes wild’ is fairly obviously present to Wittgenstein when he makes this suggestion). ‘I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the Dichterlos’ — a term again resistant to translation into English and into the entire register of Anglo-Saxon sensibility, but signifying something like the ‘calling’, ‘the destined ordnance’ of the poet.
Because his plays express no sense of a nearly divine vocation, of a mission to save humanity by transmitting ethical truths, Shakespeare cannot be the equal of Dante or Milton or Goethe, of the Greek dramatists or the Russian novelists, all of whom wrote to commune with the divine and to bring light to the world. What had in the Romantic tradition long been seen as Shakespeare’s unique strength — what Keats famously called his “Negative Capability,” his capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” — on this view becomes a liability, a social irresponsibility, a feckless acceptance of humanity’s doomed and ignorant lot without any attempt to improve it. Shakespeare can be seen as the paradigm of the apolitical artist, the dissolute aesthete reviled not only by the religious conservatives of all faiths but also by those who nurse radical political hopes, such as the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy, the Soviet sympathizer Wittgenstein, and even the socialist-feminist Lynn Stuart Parramore. From this perspective, we find Shakespeare at the origin of that dangerously aloof aestheticism for which Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile has given us the most memorable picture in contemporary letters: the literary soirée above the torture chamber.
Accusing Shakespeare of reactionary politics is a longer tradition that one might expect; it certainly predates those deconstructionists, Marxists, postcolonialists, and feminists that the Bardolotarous Harold Bloom notoriously castigated as the “School of Resentment” in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, Shakespeare’s plays lure Septimus Warren Smith into the Great War to fight for an England he associates with the Bard’s poetic achievement. But after the war, the shell-shocked Smith discovers a different moral in Shakespeare:
Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language — Antony and Cleopatra — had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity — the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same.
While other classic authors are implicated in Septimus’s very 20th-century sense that, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (to quote Walter Benjamin), Shakespeare bears the brunt because he is the British icon whose poetic splendor tricked Septimus and his generation into fighting a nationalist and imperialist war that has destroyed their lives.
In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus makes a similar case in his lecture on Hamlet in the National Library of Dublin. The young colonial intellectual sees Shakespeare as the poet of empire, anticipating the postcolonialist critics of P.C. academe by more than half a century. “Khaki Hamlets don’t hesitate to shoot,” Stephen bitterly observes of the British empire. Joyce’s autobiographical hero imagines the Elizabethan playwright as a litigious capitalist (Shakespeare was part-owner of his own theatrical company and of the Globe theater) who projected his avarice onto Shylock in a classic instance of anti-Semitism. Stephen even pictures Shakespeare as a money-minded hoarder of necessities during famine, an image of horrifying relevance to Ireland:
— And the sense of property, Stephen said. He drew Shylock out of his own long pocket. The son of a maltjobber and moneylender he was himself a cornjobber and moneylender with ten tods of corn hoarded in the famine riots.
Stephen further speculates that Shakespeare’s nihilism was caused by wounded male pride, stemming from a betrayal by his wife, construed by the playwright/investor as yet another piece of his property:
But a man who holds so tightly to what he calls his rights over what he calls his debts will hold tightly also to what he calls his rights over her whom he calls his wife.
To sum up the political case against Shakespeare: his nihilism and skepticism translate directly into a political agnosticism all too willing to collaborate with oppression and injustice, especially when it is in the interests of shareholders. On this reading, what is at stake in Shakespeare is profit. Therefore, comparing him to Lana Del Rey, the putative commodity-image studio creation of the erstwhile Lizzy Grant and her industry collaborators, doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
“And yet,” as George Steiner likes to say.
G. Wilson Knight wrote an essay in the 1930s reviewing Tolstoy’s polemic against Shakespeare. Knight concludes that, while Tolstoy’s utopianism is admirable, the kind of a purely ethical art he desires will never satisfy us, because audiences require a metaphysical drama that speaks to all of experience, one in which “[p]ersons both satanic and divine will inter-thread its story.” This conclusion, disturbing to moralists of all stripes, recalls another great analysis of Shakespeare by Knight, his classic “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet.” (Both essays can be found in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy.)
Knight spends much of “The Embassy of Death” building what looks like another Bardoclastic case, by patiently demonstrating the virtues of every character in the drama besides Hamlet. Claudius is a thoughtful king, committed to resolving international conflict through diplomacy rather than war; Polonius and Laertes are sensible to warn Ophelia away from the unstable Prince; Ophelia and Gertrude are innocent victims of Hamlet’s cruelty. These secondary characters are “creatures of earth,” Knight says, who love life and seek to make it as pleasant as possible, whereas Hamlet is a soul-sick death-bringer among them, a diseased intellect who trails destruction in his wake. Knight seems to make an irreproachable judgment against Hamlet — and, by extension, against the writer who expects us to take this monster for a hero:
He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.
What can Knight say to mitigate this conclusion? Nothing — so Knight surprises us instead: unlike Tolstoy or Wittgenstein, Knight devastatingly concludes, “It is Hamlet who is right.” In other words, the dark Prince’s evil vision has truth, if not morality or good politics, to recommend it.
Without mentioning G. Wilson Knight, Simon Critchley, and Jamieson Webster have come to a near-identical conclusion in their recent book, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, a doctrine they define as “the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insights into the truth induces a disgust with existence.” They go on to ask, “What is so heroic about Hamlet’s disgust? Do we even like him?” But that, as Critchley and Jamieson well know, is like asking if Hamlet is relatable. Of course we shouldn’t like him — but on the evidence of the play’s tenacious prestige, we do anyway. The authors of Stay, Illusion earlier relate, “We kept noticing occurrences of the word ‘nothing’ in Hamlet…and discovered that nothing, as it were, structures the action of the play and the interplay between its central characters.”
Hamlet’s — and Shakespeare’s — charismatically demonic knowledge of the void at the heart of reality, the death that is the essence of life, catches something very real in our experience (or mine, anyway), a basic metaphysical uncertainty that should disturb all of us, a faithlessness and despair that no doubt has the poisonous potential to ruin the plans of our reformers and revolutionaries, of our dispensers of Christian charity and our disseminators of socialist-feminist politics, but a grim knowledge that nevertheless murmurs constantly beneath the busy clamor of everyday life and that seeks passionate expression in the face of all protest. Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks. It doesn’t and shouldn’t please us if we want to believe in a better world, and it may not cheer the fans of NPR, but Shakespeare’s visionary perception that precisely nothing is at stake in each of our lives will probably continue to worry us as long as there are playgoers and readers to experience it.
Image Credit: LPW
I’ve been dipping in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, for no particular reason, other than that I like thought — I’m sick of the relentless, numbing emotionalism of American culture.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks deserves every bit of attention and success it has received, for the way it addresses the ethics of science and race. Also, I am a huge fan of historical characters that would be forgotten if it wasn’t for a talented, curious writer who doesn’t succumb to the pressures of being in this (boring) moment. Thus I loved Monique Brinson Demery’s Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu.
It took me only a couple of days to read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. One of the things we are good at are the systems of thoughtlessness — witnessing the dissection of one of them was both rewarding and disheartening. I’m a huge fan of Graham Robb’s work, particularly his biography of Rimbaud and his books on Paris and France. But Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century was a revelation in the power of its conviction and erudition.
I loved Laurent Binet’s HHhH, its intelligence and ethical commitment. Gary Shteyngart is one of the funniest people alive, but Super Sad True Love Story is not just very funny, it is also sad and sadly true.
And it is, of course, the centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which is one of those miraculous books that gets better with every re-reading.
And I’ve gone through dozens of books on soccer in 2013, but I’ll just mention two: Barca: the Making of the Greatest Team in the World by Graham Hunter and Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning by Guillem Balague, both full of great stories, meticulous research, and recollections of great soccer matches. In my entire life, I’ve read only one book about American football, which I despise every day of my life. But Rich Cohen’s Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is one of the best sports books I’ve ever read and now I have something to talk about with men at Thanksgiving.
Looking into the future, I enjoyed and admired Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman (coming out in February 2014), because it is a book about reading (as translating), and full of love for it. Presently, I’m enjoying Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase (July 2014) — it is funny and smart, inventive and poetic, makes me want to write down every other sentence. And I shudder to think it is only her first book.
I read a lot, so I’ll stop here.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.