When Americans read innovative Eastern or Central European fiction, their minds often linger on three or four particularly phenomenal and unique writers—Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Franz Kafka—and their distinct but related strains of surrealist writing. When American readers first encounter the name László Krasznahorkai, whom Susan Sontag described as “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” they might come to expect from him that same sense of spectacle and bleak humor implied in his multisyllabic name. Sontag’s prescription in particular—an exceptional blurb, to be fair—stokes the apocalyptic flames of expectation. The World Goes On, Krasznahorkai’s newest collection of short stories translated into English, paradoxically follows the Kafkaesque tradition of surprise by not surrendering to the surreal. In fact, the new book from “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse” conveys an assaulted sense of hope more reminiscent of Charles Bukowski than Bulgakov. That’s not to say Krasznahorkai doesn’t delve into the nightmarish—he does, but with unremarkable relentlessness rather than showy surrealism.
Bulgakov’s name, incidentally, does come up—Ixi Fortinbras, a man visiting his friend-turned-banker, Paul, in Ukraine, wants to visit the famous writer’s old home. Instead, he spends most of the story in a car, eavesdropping on the mostly inane prattle of Paul and another financier before winding up in a brothel and, later, at Ixi’s behest, traveling toward the irradiated land surrounding Chernobyl, obsessed with finding an authentic Ukrainian something among brothels and vacuous financial gossip. The World Goes On comes to read like a litany of such obsessions. Listing them will, like a quick description of any fixation, give you no idea of the actual life surrounding them, but it will give you some sense of the breadth of Krasznahorkai’s obsession with obsessions. They include: the world, motion, the death and internal life of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, artistic depictions of sex-workers, water, waterfalls, rivers, drops of water, and more. Water, that vital thing, seems to signify Krasznahorkai’s entire project. His prose certainly tumbles like a waterfall—whole stories run in single sentences, but this seems less stylistic and more intrinsically tied to the stories themselves, as though they couldn’t be told any other way. Even so, Krasznahorkai’s prose can sometimes try a reader’s patience. It can’t really be read aloud faithfully either, at least not in a way that won’t leave you frustrated or passed out. A reader’s eye will sometimes find itself submerged, searching the page for a place to begin again when it loses Krasznahorkai’s complicated but finely woven thread of thought. Like water, his writing blends into a seamless, rushing whole. Uninterrupted clauses filter into paragraphs that often stretch multiple pages—a veritable torrent of text that resembles a shape of significance, a body of water or a startling moment of human life.
And that’s what lies at the heart of these stories—moments and modes of thinking explored in punctilious detail. A quarry worker searches the countryside for water and stumbles into a devastated palace. A translator wakes up in the middle of a Chinese freeway during a rote business trip. These quick summaries might describe what passes for boots-on-the-ground plot in Krasznahorkai’s stories, but they do little to describe their breadth, tone, resonance, or the maddening vertigo you come to experience alongside their characters. You’ve likely already inferred that a good deal of the stories in The World Goes On feature a main character either wandering (usually endlessly) in search of a something (whether it’s an idea, a thing, or an escape) and you would be right. These stories are, in contravention of Central and Eastern Europe’s black humorist tradition, lacking that comedic gut-punch, but still bleak and probing. Moments that seem orchestrated for laughs return, after just a few seconds of reconsideration, with heartbreaking clarity. In “Universal Theseus,” for example, while the narrator waits in line at a post office, a nervous woman cuts in front of him, and asks the postal clerk about sending a telegram. After failing to complete the telegram form multiple times and visibly enraging the clerk, the woman, whispering with eyes downcast, asks the clerk to send a single word in the telegram: useless. The book is full of these endings. Although we might look at the words arranged on the page as constructed to provoke a single release—a laugh—they also have the power to leave you sickened with your own sense of humor. So, yes, this does recall Kafka and Gogol, and the entire tradition of Eastern Bloc satirists who laughed through tears. These stories force their readers to adopt an empathetic and patient eye, even if it sometimes feels futile.
In one such story, “A Drop of Water,” a tourist lost in Varanasi, India, finds a man with a body “like a giant globe of fat” lecturing on the properties of water flowing in the Ganges. In a rambling monologue part manic and part profound, the globular man covers water’s connection to the spiritual, the infinite, and the infinitesimal:
[A] single drop of the Ganges is in itself a temple […] because water itself somehow escapes approximations […] it still possesses a tremendous number of other properties that should not exist […] these attempts get us nowhere when we consider water having such properties as memory […] which must exist for sure since after we melt ice back into liquid water, this ice returns to the identical liquid crystal system it had possessed previously […] in other words, water knows about everything that has happened on Earth, and is currently happening, so that our knowledge is insufficient for understanding even a single drop of water [.]
Naturally, Krasznahorkai’s tourist can’t turn away. The more the bloated man speaks, the more his face reveals something striking: “the beauty of that hidden face is becoming more and more obvious, that beautiful face enfolded within the mass of blubber is anything but aggressive, just like his voice, it too contains something heartening[.]” Krasznahorkai notably flirts with a notion outside the typical postmodernist wheelhouse—hope. He doesn’t commit to it, however. The bloated man undermines his speech on size and spirituality by begging for spare rupees. The tourist walks away convinced he will never escape, that the squalor of Varanasi will swallow the whole world.
Just as themes of water and wandering recur, so too does Krasznahorkai’s prose. In “Nine Dragon Crossing,” the aforementioned story where a translator wakes up in the middle of the eponymous convergence of multiple Chinese highways, Krasznahorkai reminds readers not just once or twice, but six times that “the locals” call Nine Dragon Crossing Jialongzhu Jiaoji. This kind of redundancy is maybe uneconomical and certainly unnecessary, but Krasznahorkai doesn’t use maximalism to show off or manufacture a sense of authority, but to join a story with an overwhelming idea. Rarely does he elevate prose for its own sake, and the particularities of word choice certainly come down to the translators—John Bakti, Ottilie Mulzet, and George Szirtes—who must have put in long hours to make this book somewhat grammatical. The fictional translator’s predicament in “Nine Dragon Crossing,” however, is never explained. Although we come to learn he had been drinking, Krasznahorkai devotes no space to telling the reader how or why the translator—drunk or otherwise—managed to negotiate traffic and fall asleep in the middle of the freeway. Similarly, the translator simply exits the problem, as if carried forward in the story by an indifferent current. For Krasznahorkai, plot and all the logistics it demands generally step aside to let the story’s mania occupy the reader’s attention.
But these stories, if a little narratively thin at times, live within a wider structure if still equally inconclusive structure. The entire book is bracketed under the pronoun “He,” with the first section titled “Speaks,” the second “Narrates,” and the third “Bids Farewell.” This bit of textual framing doesn’t reveal anything tangible so much as it conveys an almost ineffable thesis or, to use a much safer word, sense. Some stories in the first section read more like treatises than actual narratives. The title story describes the “ineluctable modality of chance” (a construction straight out of Ulysses, this time applied to chance rather than visibility) where “all [we] will ever be able to know are of the consequences of ineluctable chance, those terrifying moments when the whip cracks[.]” It turns out Krasznahorkai is describing 9/11 and its demarcative effect, the “collapse of the Twin Towers and caving-in of the Pentagon,”a “new world” where “everything was as obsolete as our conviction to rely on experience.” He portrays tragedy not in a way that, frankly, would be unfair to expect of him—with raw data or primary accounts—but with a horrific marveling at rupture. Krasznahorkai, or, perhaps, just his narrator, ends the title story with anecdote: “I began to describe what I saw, together with the others, in this new world, I began to write down what I felt, that I was unable to comprehend, and the old sun began to set in the old world, darkness began to fall in the old way in my old room[.]” It’s near impossible to call this story hopeful. After all, Krasznahorkai tells us that “the darkness […] had broken loose, it was closing in, it was already here.” Still, isn’t the potential for actually charting this “new world,” however horrific its inception may be, a hopeful thing? Krasznahorkai’s work doesn’t seem to want to politically bewitch or motivate its readers, but it does point to, if not endorse, that sentiment that’s seeming less aphoristic and more political by the day—have hope, for the world really does go on, believe it or not.
Although the larger scope of The World Goes On pushes beyond postmodernist pretension, Krasznahorkai still indulges more than a little bit. He includes a story with “seventy nine paragraphs on blank pages,” which comes across like a conceptual art piece. Humble footnotes (by postmodern standards, anyway) tease that a story maybe had been printed with invisible ink, but they never develop into anything more significant than the footnotes themselves, as if indicating we have more to glean from absence than presence. He disparages “literature that pretends there is such a thing” as absolution or “ultimate meaning.” Those 79 paragraphs on blank pages reveal a reluctance to recognize knowledge or narrative.
In fact, Krasznahorkai lays a preemptive trap against reviewers like myself, and seemingly against anyone who would try to discuss his book with any kind of confidence. In “One Hundred People All Told,” which is all polemic and no narrative, Krasznahorkai describes the degradation of ideas and the futility of communicating in general, where “every single link in the original chain of thought has been turned into the most egregious error, every single item in the texts is erroneous, every single item in the commentaries erroneous[.]” This kind of epistemic nihilism is all fine and good, but it begs a really easy question—why bother? Why write pages upon pages of punctuation-free story to convey in hundreds of pages what others have communicated in fewer words: There is no hope, and we will never understand one another. The book itself stands in defiance to its own despair, and all the seedlings of hope glossed over throughout its stories suddenly seem more important, more poignant, contrasted beside that heavy, constant dread.
The World Goes On is an achievement, but not standard literary fare. Krasznahorkai nimbly maps the climate of modern obsession and languor, approaches his peculiar brand of storytelling with philosophical, psychological, and emotional nuance. When Krasznahorkai’s narrator declares “I would leave everything here […] this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me,” we know that the narrator will take nothing with him because he has left all he could here. In a literary landscape sometimes over-reliant on motion and plot, Krasznahorkai pauses to consider the actual mechanics of motion, its directions, the components of its moving, the traveler’s relation to the mover. He almost never names his travelers, though, and never deigns to give them a home.
Bill Goldstein and I met in the spring of 2014 at Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming. Our studios were actually quite far from each other but we became fast friends in part because we shared the same work schedule: every morning we’d meet in the quiet kitchen for a pre-dawn breakfast, both of us eager to get to our desks before procrastination could claim the day. A lot of the time we joked around; my coffee was always sludgy with grounds, Bill said, and I would remark on his debonair bathrobe-and-pajamas combo. Other times we talked novels. Bill not only hosts a segment about books on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, he also went back to school a few years ago to get a PhD in literature, and we’d often sit for longer than planned chatting about Edith Wharton or a contemporary novel we loved. Sometimes we would discuss our works in progress. While I was wrestling with my second novel, Bill was writing a literary history of 1922, specifically, the creative and personal lives of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and E.M. Forster. His studio was filled with books about these figures, and I knew that before coming to Ucross he had dug into primary sources at many libraries and archival centers; his book struck me as so much more expansive than mine, and I enjoyed hearing about it. Sometimes one of us would have a breakthrough with our writing. Other days, we were made miserable by a bad paragraph or uncooperative chapter. I distinctly remember Bill worrying he’d never complete what he had begun.
Well, he didn’t have to worry: The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature was published last month, receiving praise from such varied publications as The Times Literary Supplement, People, and The New York Times Book Review. I myself tore through the book in just a few days. I loved it. Bill renders this history vivid, compelling, and even dishy. It made me want to re-read The Waste Land and seek out D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo. It inspired me to return to my (lately neglected) third novel.
It also made me grateful for my own literary friendship with Bill. All of our sprawling, funny, and thought-provoking conversations in Wyoming informed my work and helped me to clarify my aesthetic intentions; I’d like to think that in some minuscule way I was involved in the making of The World Broke in Two. Bill was kind enough to continue our conversation here for The Millions; he answered these questions via email.
The Millions: As someone who only writes fiction and the occasional personal essay, I’m interested in the process of writing biography. It strikes me as such a daunting and mysterious task! How do you shape all this history into a compelling—and, perhaps more importantly, intimate—narrative? Tell me about your process. How did you go about researching this material, and then organizing it?
Bill Goldstein: I wouldn’t say I was aware that it was going to be either or both of those things while I was working, or even that I was consciously shaping it to be that. The editing process is so different from the writing and the researching (and the researching, at least for me, was so much easier than the writing). I think, at least from the evidence of what my own main subjects were dealing with in 1922, that one thing writers of fiction and nonfiction have in common is the difficulty and anxiety of writing. Poets, too—because I think T.S. Eliot said it most succinctly, when he wrote to a friend in December 1921, just before The Waste Land began to take its final shape, “I do not know whether it will work.” (Being Eliot, he wrote it in French—“Je ne sais pas si ça tient.” I think he turned to French for that one sentence in the letter because it was too frightening to say it in English, and yet he had to confide it to someone.) This was just before he went to Paris, in January 1922, and began to edit, with Ezra Pound’s help, what had been nearly 1,000 lines of poetry into the poem half that length that was published at the year’s end. At almost the same time, Virginia Woolf was editing Jacob’s Room, her first unadulteratedly modern novel, into its final form, and was worried that it was only “sterile acrobatics.”
So much of my book is about my main subjects’ insecurity about what they are working on, and their absolute despair that they will be able to do the work they want to do. Whether they will achieve their artistic goals—or whether, physically, they will be able to finish the work. I loved that Virginia Woolf, just before her 40th birthday in January 1922, wrote to E.M. Forster that writing was like heaving bricks over a wall—she had a severe case of influenza—but also cautioned him that even though she was about to turn 40, he must count her only 35 because she had spent so much time sick in bed.
But finding lines like that is why the research is the best part of biography. Also because the process is comparatively straightforward, as opposed to the writing or editing. I spent a lot of time in libraries and archives, and it is just wonderful to be able to go through original letters, diaries, manuscripts—you’re actually holding them, and that’s thrilling in and of itself —but then you always convince yourself (and you’re right) that you must look at more. My focus is pretty specifically 1922, but I found so many important things looking in later and earlier archival material. So much depended on how much time you had in any one place. I was lucky enough to have a fellowship at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where I researched for two months. You don’t have to do the same kind of triage as when you are in a place for only a few days or a week. The New York Public Library was a similarly endless resource, and luckily I live here. You gather this enormous amount of stuff, and then you have to cut most of it.
In terms of writing and editing, I found that the thing I most resisted, but in the end most depended on, was simply chronology. You’d think that in the story of a year that would be obvious! But that is somewhat alien to my digressive mind, and I learned I had to keep the story as chronologically clear as possible, and that involved, in the editing, sometimes working paragraph by paragraph. If one paragraph did not follow logically from the previous one, and I was spending too much time working on a transition that inevitably became too baroque or abstract—I gave up, basically, and cut it. It only took me several years, and imminent deadlines, to sharpen my mind that way.
I think one thing nonfiction writers can do that is perhaps harder for novelists is that whole chapters can move around—they are much more discrete than chapters in a novel, I would imagine. I don’t know that novelists write in order—I certainly didn’t—but then once I got back to the chronology, I could find the place for things I had drafted, or I could cut. The chapters fit into place because of the time period they covered. Though I remember once many years ago interviewing Ann Beattie, who said that in writing her novel Love Always she didn’t want to “tell a story chronologically.” She wrote the novel in pieces, and when she had finished all the chapters, she spread them on the floor of her living room and re-assembled them “like pieces in a puzzle.” What “foiled” her, she said, was “having to fix it technically, to go back and revise the chronology.”
Talk about losing myself in research—I just went back and looked up the interview.
TM: Was there any sweet little piece of history that you couldn’t fit into the book?
BG: Do you know the phrase l’esprit d’escalier? Literally, the spirit of the staircase? What you think of saying to someone only after the conversation has ended, some caustic or brilliant reply that only comes to you when you’re on your way out—dramatically—down the stairs? When I do my TV segment, I almost always think more of what I should have said, what I wanted to say, than I do of what I did say. So, in terms of the book—most of what I wanted to get in I had to leave out. I feel almost as much despair now about all that I couldn’t use as I did when I was trying to organize all my research notes into a draft. But there are two quotes I tried to fit in, moving them from place to place, and they just never fit. One was a line of Clive Bell’s to his mistress Mary Hutchinson. Clive Bell was married to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. He admired T. S. Eliot’s poetry but did not warm to him as a person. Mary, on the other hand, was close to Eliot, was very sympathetic to him in the many financial and marital struggles that in 1922, as at other times, consumed his life (and which made their way into The Waste Land). I think Clive liked to tease her with his barbs about Eliot, a kind of literary foreplay, almost. Eliot published The Waste Land in late 1922, but also spent a lot of time that year working on the first issue of The Criterion, a literary magazine he inaugurated that year (and which he edited in one form or another until 1939). Eliot wrote the prospectus for the magazine in the summer, and Clive, as he often was, was dubious of Eliot’s efforts. When the prospectus arrived, he wrote to Mary that the morning post brought many letters, “all, except yours, very dull—bills for the most part.” One of the very dull things she had likely seen herself: “the prospectus of The Criterion on which most unluckily, though perhaps prophetically, a swallow shat before I had time to read it. You will lend me your copy I dare say.”
The other quote was one of E.M. Forster’s. He read Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in late 1922, and wrote her a beautiful letter about how ecstatically he read it, and what a profound an effect it had on him and, he thought, on the work (A Passage to India) that he was trying then to do. I quote the letter at length. It just didn’t fit to have the wonderful kind of P.S. that he offered to a friend, more traditional than he was, to whom he recommended it highly, but with a caution: “Good. Very very very very very very very—modern.”
TM: You rely on diaries and personal letters to provide insight into these writers’ careers and domestic situations. There are some real gems here. For instance, D.H. Lawrence remarks that the people in Ceylon would be as “beshitten” there as anywhere else on “this slippery ball of quick-silver of a dissolving world.” In her diary, Virginia Woolf describes an evening spent with T.S. Eliot; he was, “sardonic, guarded, precise, & slightly malevolent, as usual.” Can you describe what it was like to interact with these personal papers? Did reading correspondence or private writings alter your understanding of these writers, or even change the course of the book as you might have first imagined it?
BG: Yes, and yes. When you write a nonfiction book, you usually write a proposal first, for your agent and prospective publishers. That, of course, takes years of work (or at least it did for me). You have to do a lot of research, but in researching that, I relied on published material—Virginia Woolf’s complete letters and diaries are published, and Lawrence’s letters too. But when I began working most of Eliot’s letters of the period were still unpublished, and most of Forster’s letters (and his diaries) were also unpublished. You don’t know, of course, what you don’t have, or even whether you will find it or if it still exists. I knew the story of 1922 I wanted to tell, and knew that there was a story in these people’s lives that I could tell by focusing on one narrow bit of time in which they did important work. A story that by necessity the definitive biographies of all of these people could not tell because they had whole lives to encompass. Each of them had a little about 1922, of course.
I knew the story, then—of Woolf, for example, writing “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” in the spring of 1922, the story that by the end of the year gives rise to Mrs. Dalloway; of Forster’s picking up his “Indian fragment” (which becomes A Passage to India) after nearly a decade. In the same way, I knew where Eliot and Lawrence began and ended the year. In the book, the story is the same—the stories, I suppose I should say—but the details are almost completely different from what I’d planned. What I hadn’t counted on was the range of unpublished material by them and about them. The fact that Woolf’s diaries and letters, and Lawrence’s letters, for example, have been published in complete editions obscures the other salient fact—that so much private writing by and about my subjects is available in archives and libraries and has not been published. There’s so much of Eliot’s correspondence and Forster’s that hasn’t been collected yet, and it was all a revelation to me, including much that they wrote later that revealed essential aspects of 1922, and their work—and their private lives—in that period. Even more thrilling for me—because finding it all was completely unexpected—were the diaries and letters of the people who knew my main subjects extremely well, and either loved or loathed them or both. That was a perspective I never thought to have, and discovering them provided me with some of the most juicy and insightful and bitchy and jaundiced raw material (see Clive Bell’s letters to Mary Hutchinson; and there are hundreds of them at the Ransom Center). The trouble, then, was that I had more than I could ever use—which brings us back to the editing paragraph by paragraph. My editor, Gillian Blake, had a very help suggestion (really, directive)—quotations should be ornaments. Perhaps that’s something every editor says—but it related very specifically to a dilemma my drafts posed to both of us, and that advice helped me enormously.
One other thing about working in these archives is the thrill of holding the original letters. You’re looking for particular things, of course, and you get so used to moving quickly through the papers. Sometimes I would have to scan letters looking only for capital letters—to see if any of my subjects were mentioned. And then every so often you just stop yourself in awe and realize, these are Virginia Woolf’s letters! This is her paper, her ink, she wrote this—it’s not a facsimile. The same thing with drafts. You are holding Eliot’s typescript. You are holding D.H. Lawrence’s notebooks. At the Ransom Center they have Virginia Woolf’s copy of A Passage to India inscribed to her by Forster. And Ezra Pound’s copy of The Waste Land, in which he made not one single pencil notation, unfortunately.
The challenge, I think, is to convey some of the excitement in the book.
TM: I read The World Broke in Two on vacation, far from my writing desk, and by the time I was done, I was thinking a lot about my new book, eager to get back to it. Part of that is due to reading about these brilliant writers and their artistic processes, challenges, and goals. I loved learning about Woolf’s interests in depicting human consciousness, and how inspired she was by Marcel Proust. I’ve read a lot of Forster but didn’t know much about what was happening in his personal life as he returned to the book that would become A Passage to India. And then there’s Eliot, struggling to finish The Waste Land, take care of his ailing wife, and go to work as a banker, a job that demoralized him and caused him great anxiety. Last, we’ve got D.H. Lawrence, giving himself the challenge to start and finish a draft of a novel in six weeks. These could be writers I know personally, in 2017! I felt a connection between their artistic struggles and passions and my own, which was exhilarating. Was that your intention, or was that simply an intriguing part of these writers’ lives that you couldn’t help but focus on, being a fellow writer yourself? Did their processes echo your own, as you worked on your book?
BG: I struggled for a long time with the book, as we’ve discussed. It took me over six years to finish it. And practically every day as I wrote I was immersed in these writers’ despair (which eventually becomes triumph in one way or another by the end of 1922). And I kept thinking of my own difficulties, “But they are Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster! Who am I?” It was comforting on the one hand and intimidating on the other. I mean, what right did I have to struggle? The end result was not going to Mrs. Dalloway or The Waste Land. But at least I had a much smaller goal!
I was talking to a friend just after I was finished with the book. He works in politics but admits he is really a struggling screenwriter. When he said something about how hard it was to do it, and even to find the time, I told him about what Woolf, et al were going through in 1922. He said, “Most people think great art just happens—but it doesn’t.” I think that’s what my book is about. It helps goad you forward, at least a little, to know that whatever struggle you are having with your writing doesn’t indicate, by itself, that you are doing bad work or aren’t a good writer. You can recognize you are not Woolf, Forster, Eliot or Lawrence, and still try to do your work.
TM: You have a PhD in English and you’ve written this literary history of 1922. But you’re also very much part of today’s book culture: you host “Bill’s Books” where you review contemporary work, and you were the founding editor of The New York Times books website. I’m curious how it felt, to be immersed in two literary worlds, past and present. What feels different? What feels similar? Do we have modern day counterparts to these brilliant minds? (And who is our modern-day James Joyce—arrogant, uncouth, genius?)
BG: It was a relief to move between the past and the present. I mean, each was an escape from the other, though of course having to do so much work in the real world leaves you less time for writing. But if you don’t earn money, you can’t write. It’s not a new dilemma. Forster put it wonderfully (and sadly) about his own journalism, which he was doing in part to distract himself from his failure at his novel: “How fatuous!…Always working never creating.” So much is the same, or at least we seem to feel the same way about some things as the writers in my book felt then—overwhelmed by their own work (of course), but also, as Woolf, who was also a publisher of the Hogarth Press, felt, simply by the number of books published. She made fun of the sheer number of books published, and the hype about them (that’s not the word they used then, but she describes the same machinery for it, both from the publisher’s side, creating it, or trying to, and the public’s side, the press’s side, trying to make sense of it). She wrote an article in 1922 decrying this very thing, part of which was trying to understand what her own place was in that universe, not only as a publisher, but as a writer—where would her own work fit in? How would Jacob’s Room make its way in that world? It was the start of her trying to figure out what role the “common reader” plays in making an audience for a writer—but also a posterity for a writer? Would she be read in later years? She could barely see her way to finishing the work she was doing—but still she was anxious about whether she and it would have a posterity. She and Leonard Woolf conducted a mock debate for the BBC in 1927 about whether too many books were being published. The text survives, but not a recording, unfortunately.
As for who is like Joyce—two things. One, I love that you’re quoting Clive Bell’s reaction to him when they met in Paris in 1921, which is from one of his letters to Mary Hutchinson, and which I think he also shared with Virginia Woolf and which influenced her own sense of him as a person (she and Joyce never met) and more vitally as the writer of Ulysses. And two—I think I know too few writers well enough to answer your question. I only know the nicest ones.
TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you, what’s the last great book you read?
BG: You mean other than Woman No. 17? I recently read and liked Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout; and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (in alphabetical and chronological order, conveniently enough). The last great book I reread is Mrs. Dalloway.
Ekphrasis is an aesthetic notion the meaning of which has shifted over time. The literary critic Christopher Benfey once described it as “writing inspired by a painting.” This definition works well enough for me. Not only is Benfey’s interpretation usable, but it’s consistent with how writers often interpret literary inspiration. “I learn as much as painters about how to write as I do from writers,” Ernest Hemingway said. And James Baldwin: “painters have often taught writers how to see.”
The ekphrastic impulse also includes film. Richard Ellmann compared Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to “the moving cinema-like eye which homes in on a detail, then springs back to survey a panorama.” Not to be overlooked is the photographic snapshot, exemplified by John Dos Passos’s 51 “Camera’s Eye” sections interspersed throughout the U.S.A. trilogy, usually to freeze a kinetic urban moment (one that, in certain editions, was illustrated with a Reginald Marsh drawing.)
I suppose the spirit of ekphrasis informs almost every modern novel. But few manifest the practice more explicitly than Virginia’s Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Set on the Scottish Isle of Skye, built around a young boy’s desire to sail to the local lighthouse, and ultimately defined by a piercing exploration into the adults around him, To the Lighthouse relies on a modernist aesthetic deeply indebted to impressionistic painting.
Scholars and critics have already explored Woolf’s relationship with impressionism from many angles. We know a lot, for instance, about how Woolf shared an impressionistic aesthetic with her contemporaries, how her background might have inclined her toward impressionism, how her impressionism may have informed her feminism, how her impressionistic strategies were honed in early short stories, and how her impressionistic memory was visual. But the impressionist impulse seems to always come from afar, from the context of her life and art. Less understood is how impressionism provides a guide into the inner workings of the novel itself. The text instead of the context.
Woolf routinely blurs her scenes into an impressionistic haze. She describes Mr. Carmichael, a poet visiting the house on the Ile of Skye, as a person “sunk…in a grey-green somnolence which embraced them all” (evocative of some of Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings). A former painter’s influence was powerful enough to insure that future painters who visited the Ramsey summer compound (such as Lily Briscoe) only made pictures that were “green and grey, with lemon-coloured sailing-boats and pink women on the beach” (see Monet’s Regattas at Argenteuil). As Mrs. Ramsey entertains her son James in the kitchen (he’s upset about not going to the lighthouse), Woolf observes “how life, being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.” The image — memories being transmuted into a wave — provides an implicit suggestion that nothing in the natural world mimics an impressionist painting more accurately than the ocean crashing into a mayhem of foam (see Monet’s “Storm at Belle Ile” or, although pre-impressionistic, Gustave Courbet’s “The Wave”). Repeatedly, Woolf advances the impressionistic theme that, as she notes about Lily’s much tortured painting in progress, “beneath the color there was the shape.”
It’s hard to imagine a better description of the genre.
I’ve read To the Lighthouse twice, both before and after my introduction to ekphrasis. After is much better. And not just because of the expected benefits that come from rereading. An overt awareness of Woolf’s impressionistic focus allows one to appreciate what visual art accomplishes within the contours of Woolf’s ambition. Speaking in general terms, impressionism becomes a scrim behind which Woolf hauls her novel into ever-deeper psychological territory — territory that literature had heretofore mostly avoided. In Woolf’s hands, impressionism permits the interior life to float through the narrative like black ink in a basin of water, creating slowly shifting forms rather than hard lines, which seems about right if the goal is to explore the amorphous nature of the inner self.
Art historians identify impressionism’s defining feature as light. But Woolf stresses distance. Impressionistic space — be it in the form of big skies, hovering churches, fields of haystacks, or an expanse of lily pads — becomes the capacious room for Woolf’s largest questions. Fearlessly, she plunks these queries into the novel like stones in a pond, confident that the ripple effects won’t displace too much: Is it good, is it bad, is it right or wrong?…What does one live for?…What does it all mean?…What is the meaning of life?…What am I?…Who knows what we are, what we feel?
In most contexts, these overwrought queries would ring hyperbolic. Instead, they resonate at a distant remove from the grimy details of everyday life, as well as beneath Woolf’s protective but soft gauze of color. In so doing, these big questions collectively orient the reader toward meaning beyond the characters. Instead of seeming indulgent, they guide us towards complicated psychic truths that are both integral to the self but transcendent to it. Not incidentally, this strategy of gentle abstraction may help explain why Woolf had ambiguous feelings about James Joyce’s Ulysses — where the entirety of Dublin comes at you in a fire hose of detail 00 but approved of Whitman’s poems, with all that careful and rhythmic homing in and springing back.
Woolf’s debt to impressionism culminates in the eventual trip to the lighthouse (it only took 10 years to get there!). James’s sister Cam watches the shore recede from her comfortable perch on the boat. As the lines around hard objects fade, she enters a frame of mind capable of confronting the big questions that Woolf presents. “[T]he lawn and the terrace and the house,” writes Woolf, “were smoothed away now and peace dwelt there.” Later, with the distance between Cam and the shore having increased, with even more dingy detail “smoothed away” by the solace of space, Cam concludes that the people on the blurry shore “were free like smoke, were free to come and go like ghosts. They have no suffering there.” Cam’s is hardly a random observation. It’s indicative of a mind liberated by distance, a mind primed by abstraction to invite queries into phenomenon bearing on the inner self and, again, what lies beyond it. Have you ever, during a moment of turmoil, looked up to seek a breath of resolution? Yeah.
Woolf harnesses this impressionistic power to direct her psychological investigations into even minor figures such as William Bankes. Observing the jerky movements of a hen, Bankes, worries, as one well might, that “the pulp had gone out of” his friendship with Mr. Ramsey. Then he looks up and outward “at some far sand dunes.” It is, by most standards, an utterly innocuous gesture. But, as Woolf explains, “in this dumb colloquy with the sand dunes he maintained that his affection for Ramsey had in no way diminished.”
It’s a small realization — one of millions that make us whom we are — and it couldn’t have happened under Bankes’s nose, but only in the “acuteness and reality laid up across the bay among the sandhills.” Staring at a humble hen, for reasons we’re invited to ponder, flattened Bankes’s insight into his friendship status with Mr. Ramsey. But when he looked across the bay he was “alive to things which would not have struck him had not those sandhills revealed to him the body of his friendship.” Who knew the position of your head carried such significance? This phenomenon we are also invited to ponder.
In the novel’s penultimate scene, Lily stands in grass near the shoreline and watches the sailboat slice its way to the lighthouse. As the space grows between her and the crew, which includes Mr. Ramsey, she suddenly laments how “she could not reach him.” Earlier in the day, the chronically insecure but brainy Ramsay was fishing for a compliment from Lily but Lily — for reasons she couldn’t explain to herself — refused to oblige. But as she watched “the boat now flatten itself on the water and shoot off across the bay,” she changed her mind. “The sympathy she had not given him weighed her down.” To alleviate her guilt, to now reach out to Mr. Ramsey, Lily “dipped into the blue paint.” As Woolf notes, she reached for art because “the problem of space remained.” So the gap between them — which Woolf describes “a fine gauze which held things” — needed to be closed. But, significantly, only painting had the power to do that.
And not just any painting:
Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one color melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses.
This gorgeous but impossible aesthetic highlights the novel’s ultimate and most moving ekphrastic moment. Woolf slyly transfers the novel’s grand literary challenge to Lily’s painting. Lily even more slyly transfers her artistic challenge to the crew heading to the lighthouse. The crew guilelessly makes it to the lighthouse and, mission accomplished, as waves crash around them, gain insight into themselves. And the reader is left in an impressionistic blur that somehow clarifies more than it obscures.
In 2011, I spent Bloomsday at Shakespeare and Company, the famous English bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris. The store is a jewel box: two stories, stacked with books buried beneath more books. On the first floor, a piano room provides a corner for readers to hide in, beneath towering stacks of hardcover biographies. There’s the children’s section with a miniature bed draped in red velvet, a typewriter tucked into a booth along the hallway, and then the library, lined with benches and books, the windows cracked, framing Notre Dame and cherry branches. Because it was Bloomsday in the store named for the store that had originally published Ulysses, an artist had been commissioned to draw Joycean-inspired works. There were readings throughout the day and devotees drifted through.
I’d been living there as a tumbleweed for nearly three weeks. The tumbleweed program is unique at Shakespeare & Co and has been a feature of the store since it opened in 1951. In exchange for some hours of work, artists are allowed to sleep between the stacks, free of charge. Since the early days, the program has become a bit more defined. Tumbleweeds help open and close the store, as well as work for two hour scheduled shifts throughout the day. Since it was the middle of June, the store was packed. I was one of seven staying at the time, many of whom I already considered close friends.
That evening, the tumbleweeds hopped a cab to a lavish home where the store was hosting a party for their first Paris Literary Prize. The party was an aberration in the daily routines I’d become adjusted to: taking a shower in either the public showers on Ile de la Cité or in the third floor, doing my best not to splash water outside the tarp or incur the housekeeper’s wrath, also doing my best not to wake a sleeping George Whitman. Then I’d pull on jean shorts and a t-shirt, grab a book, wander along the Seine, help between the stacks of the store, run off to some park or some wine bar or some museum. I purchased a copy of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, the cover blue with a liquid woman and most of the pages paperclipped to keep them together. Most mornings, I woke early, bought a coffee and croissant, and read Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital along the Seine, until it was time to make my way back for the store to open.
On Bloomsday, however, the tumbleweeds had been enlisted to help at the party. We were required to look presentable. We had to do our best not to smell like we’d been sleeping on the floor of Shakespeare & Co for weeks. We had to wear black dresses. I picked up mine for five euros from an H&M. The tumbleweeds poured champagne and refilled cheese plates, pausing to listen to toasts and an opera singer, stealing away to touch up lipstick next to the chic Parisians who put our pink shade to shame. Then, we got drunk on champagne and danced.
At the end of the night, there weren’t enough cars to get everyone back to the store. We were offered a choice: waiting thirty minutes for the next cab, or taking three free bottles of champagne. We took the champagne and we walked. It was a few miles, but we just had to stay on the one road and keep going. We drank straight out of the bottles. We held hands and exchanged secrets and skipped a few steps forward to turn and photograph ourselves: tipsy tumbleweeds in black dresses.
The bookstore has just released A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Edited by Krista Halverson, the biography reads like a multi-faceted oral history and is told in many layers: colored photographs, tumbleweed biographies, recountings from former employees and writers-in-residence. The story it tells is as varied, unique, and romantic as the shop is. It’s a difficult thing, to capture something as expansive as the history of Shakespeare & Co, but this history manages to come close.
At the center of the story is George Whitman. He opened the store, originally named Librairie le Mistral (“Le Mistral”), in 1951 on 37 rue de la Bucherie, across the Seine from Notre Dame. He’d purchased the building — back then without electricity and fashioned like three long, railroad-style rooms — from an Algerian grocer looking to move out to the countryside with his family. Despite the building having been condemned for nearly a century, Whitman decided to go for it.
Over the next six decades, the store would go through many chapters. The events, in and of themselves, each seem larger than life: the Beat Generation infiltrating the store; the spies that circled it, applying for employment, during the Cold War; the years the shop was closed down because the Parisian authorities had finally figured out that Whitman didn’t have the appropriate permits; the filming of Jorge Luis Borges’s collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Invasion, and then, years later, Ethan Hawke’s fictional book release in Before Sunset. The store has been at the center of riots and movements, with Whitman often leading the charge. He created a home for bohemians and wanderers in the middle of Paris. It didn’t always flourish, but the community grew, and when it came time to give back to the store, after a fire ravaged its shelves, benefits were held around the world. The list of authors that haunted the shop is formidable: Allen Ginsberg, Richard Wright, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Doris Lessing, and Jeanette Winters, among so many others.
Whitman, who died in December of 2011, had long wanted to write a history of the store. The title, A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, was his. He never got around to it, as easily distracted as he could be, but the story of Shakespeare & Co is his story to tell, and he told it to varying degrees of truthfulness. As is quoted on the back of the book, Whitman said: “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.”
Whitman himself could seem like a larger-than-life character. I was lucky enough to meet him before he died. Even in his pajamas, his untameable white hair poking in every direction, he held a room. Lawrence Ferlinghetti described Whitman as a “romantic wanderer, the kind of wayward Walt Whitman carrying Coleridge’s albatross.” To Anais Nin, Whitman seemed “undernourished, bearded, a saint among his books, lending them, housing penniless friends upstairs, not eager to sell.” Allen Ginsberg said of him: “He’s a saint, lives on nothing, gives shelter to everybody. Helps young poets, too, but he’s very poor. Someone should do something for him. His only income came from books.”
Whitman told many that he considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to be about him. He hid money in books and then forgot where he’d put them. Sometimes he’d refuse to sell a book if he didn’t want to part with it. Once, he got it into his head that he wanted a pyrotechnic wishing well in the middle of the store. It was ill-planned and dangerous and someone else had to rush in and stop him from burning the shop down. Whitman was known to set his hair on fire if a reading was boring or if he needed a haircut. Other times, he’d interrupt a reading by tossing chicken down from the top floor for his dog to catch
When his daughter, Sylvia Whitman, started to help maintain the bookstore, doing her best to bring it into the 21st century, he resisted. He hated any attempt she made at modernity and did his best to sabotage her. If she alphabetized books, he’d come down after closing to return the store to its rightful disorder. He attacked the newly installed, no-longer-life-threatening stairs with a hammer, the same hammer he used to destroy the toilet Sylvia had installed. He literally stole the cash register under cover of night and, the next morning, pretended he had no clue of its whereabouts. Best guess: bottom of the Seine.
He also loved to tell stories about Shakespeare & Co, helping to imbue the shop with its own mythology. Whitman winked at a relation to Walt Whitman and an affair with Nin: “I might have loved her once.” In her journals, Nin wrote how Whitman had originally come to Paris to find a houseboat, inspired by her story, “Houseboat,” except that the books had mildewed, so “he moved as near to the river as possible, and often from his window, watching the river, he had the illusion he was living on a houseboat.” Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart appropriately sets this recounting aside, with a swift: “This story isn’t accurate.” More than likely, it’s a story Whitman told Nin.
At the beginning of Halverson’s attempts to collect these stories into a publishable history, she worked on the top floor of the shop, where Whitman used to live. She sorted through his papers, all kept in wine crates and plastic tubs. Many friends of the store came by, offering their own experiences and inquiring after stories they’d heard: “Did William Shakespeare really establish the shop while on vacation from playwriting in London? Was James Joyce buried in the building’s cellar?”
Halverson writes that “the story of Shakespeare and Company is not simply a set of facts and dates; it’s also a feeling, an emotion.” She “wanted to construct a book like a box of treasures that would be valuable both to those who know the shop well and to those who’ve only just learned of it.”
With A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, Halverson has managed that. The book is electric, dense with details and filled with the ephemera and lore and love one finds when stepping into the shop.
Each night at the bookstore felt like magic. There was the night we ran through the streets during Festival de la Musique, listening to terrible bands playing on street corners and getting drunk off bottles of red wine we clutched at the neck; there was the night we went as a group to a bar down a side street off of another side street where the bartender was a ninety-year-old woman who served bottles of one variety of beer and reserved most of her bar for sleeping birds and a fat cat leashed to the front door; there was the night we tried and failed to put on a reading of The Importance of Being Earnest. The tumbleweeds were all the same breed: young and eager, imaginative, strange, and kind. We all understood how lucky we were to be staying at the shop, and how singular those weeks would be. We did our collective best to make the most of them.
These tumbleweed biographies collected in this book are one facet of the “box of treasures,” offering a window into the store, through the eyes of those who have slept on its concrete floor. Helen Martin stayed at Shakespeare with her husband in 1951, right at the beginning, and made stew with George “right over the books.” Linda V. Williams was enlisted by Whitman to mind the store in the midst of the student revolution, only to find herself in charge of two Scandinavian girls being chased by the gendarmes. The 25-year-old Amanda Lewis stayed at the shop until the end of 2002: “I stayed exactly a month and slept in the children’s section surrounded by picture books and went to the soup kitchen and walked around looking at churches and drank red wine in the library and fell asleep at night in the middle of paragraphs and was so, so content.”
By the time I stayed there, Sylvia had taken over management of the shop. She and her then-fiancé, David, pushed me repeatedly to write my biography as my time at the store neared its end. I kept putting it off. I didn’t know what I could possibly say. I didn’t have a photograph to include, which was required, so a friend, Brit, and I ran off to Palais de Tokyo, where they had a photobooth. We each did an individual set, and then we did one together, vogueing behind editions of Bluets and Invisible Cities that we’d borrowed from the store.
It was my final day in the shop. I’d made plans with friends to drink wine and eat cheese on the Seine after the store closed down, but before I could do that, I had to fulfill my one last requirement as a tumbleweed. Back on the third floor and faced with a wall of binders filled with tumbleweed biographies, I sat down at the computer. I told a version of my story, as I’d been taught to do by the versions of the store’s story I’d heard while I was there.
Now my biography is one of the dozens included in A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Near the end, close to the present tense, a page is darkened with my typing, my solo photobooth mugs angled across the page. Kelsey Ford, aged 22, stayed at Shakespeare & Co between May 31 and June 24, 2011.
As George said, “All the characters in this bookstore are fictitious, so please leave your everyday self outside the door.” Shakespeare & Co is a store that houses stories. To become one of them is a small, special thing.
Image credit: Brit Bachmann
Season three of Peaky Blinders has a sexy, comic-book, super-villain version of a Russian Duchess. She is marooned in England after having fled the Bolshevik Revolution, and her sadistic wiles drive home a moral that is central to the gangster genre: Sure gangsters are cruel, but they are nothing next to the corruption of established power. The “Blinders” may have gotten their name from the razorblades they slice into their enemies’ eyes, but their ferocity is decidedly working-class. They have to clock in every day and break not just heads but their own backs and hearts on the labor required of a gypsy family that wants to rise above its station. Meanwhile, the Fabergé femme fatale, whose secrets are way more sinister than anything hiding in the Blinders’ newsboy caps, stays clean under an enamel of imperial stateliness.
Such unambiguous class bitterness is refreshing. It’s exactly what’s missing from recent American novels about decadence. Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, Emma Cline’s The Girls, Edmund White’s Our Young Man, and Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass are good novels, but they are all one gangster-moral short of reckoning with the 1 percent.
One way that these novels manage to be about decadence without also reproaching conspicuous affluence is by ignoring work and aestheticizing idleness. Another way is by setting the stories in a distant, socio-politically empty version of the 1970s — a world of rotary phones, full ashtrays, and irresponsible parenting that is all but untouched by Watergate or stagflation. Ausubel’s novel is about parents who accidentally abandon their children after learning they have lost their inheritance. Cline and Wilson’s debuts are about young women charmed by evil forces that nearly destroy them but somehow eventually earn the young women’s tacit respect. And Edmund White’s novel is about an immigrant’s struggle to, well, be a supermodel despite the fact that he is in his 30s. With the exception of Mira, Wilson’s bunhead-turned-visiting-assistant-professor-of-performance-studies, none of these novels’ main characters work.
In the context of our very New York-centric moment of 1970s nostalgia, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty reads like a Woody Guthrie song (albeit one about rich people) — a tall, American tale that ripples outward from New England to California and the Caribbean. Amid such well-funded homages to the dirty-real Big Apple as Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and the TV shows that Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann are making for HBO and Netflix (though Scorsese’s has already been nixed), Sons and Daughters is an almost magic-real fantasy about what happens when a rich family loses all its money. In a sentence, what happens is this: Husband (Edgar) and wife (Fern) fly the coop on separate, post-traumatic vision quests while their accidentally-abandoned children (led by Cricket, a cross between Tina Belcher and Scout Finch) go native in the backyard.
Though it’s set in the 1970s — late summer of 1976 to be exact — the sources of ease and plenty are decidedly pre-’70s: Edgar’s family’s money is from steel, Fern’s is from a wicked alchemy of cotton, slaves, and sugar. Edgar’s father is an honest-to-goodness “steel tycoon” against whom Edgar rebels in the form of a muckraking roman à clef. Edgar has read Karl Marx at Yale and is thus ashamed of his father. He cares about exploited workers, though he can’t tell the difference between a steel worker and coal miner. Push comes to shove, Edgar is just anti-work. He doesn’t want to claim his patrimony not because it’s evil but because to do so would mean micromanaging balance sheets, “suffering on one side and profit on the other with a thin column of vacations between.” He mourns the loss of Fern’s slave money (which has financed the first 10 years of their marriage). Slave money is better than steel money; it facilitates ennui better, allowing Edgar to transcend the acquisitive impulse and get a long, unobstructed view of how terrible human beings are.
Fern is haunted by her wealth’s provenance. She thinks about what it means to buy and sell human beings, to parade naked bodies in parlors while ladies mill about in dresses and gloves. Fern has a heart of gold. For her we suspend our disbelief that it’s a burden to be a daughter of ease and plenty. In addition to the waking nightmares about slavery, good rich girls have to live according to such adages as “a good woman saw her name in the paper three times: when she was born, when she was married, and when she died” and cultivate the kind of beauty that is “for the purpose of enjoyment by men and envy by women.” They have to lead lives of dignified sorrow: “To prove that they were worthy of their wealth, they had all silently agreed to remain in the upper margins of unhappiness.” Poor little rich girls.
Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass is about an aspiring ballerina in Balanchine’s New York. It has the requisite creepy old-dude mentor who eventually destroys the girl’s innocence. It has anecdotes about how dark the heart of Russian ballet really is: a refrain about how ballerinas in the age of gaslights sometimes caught fire and died in the wings while the show went on. Wilson’s world is a world wherein Russian expatriates have helped New Yorkers develop a palate for beautiful young girls who ritually dance themselves to death. Despite the sinister quality of the enterprise, the intense, destructive labor of being a ballerina “comes as a relief” to Mira, an 11-year-old who is otherwise abandoned on the periphery of a marriage that is falling apart, sometimes actually abandoned to shop girls by a mother who disappears with strange men. Ballet is Mira’s (very costly) ticket out of reality. In such a context, she’s not surprised that the Russian Tea Room, the place where Mira first meets George Balanchine himself, serves up blood-red soup that tastes like dirt. Everything that is beautiful and rich is served up with a dose of superfluous cruelty.
The titular girls of Emma Cline’s The Girls are hardly rich, but they are Russian-duchess-level cruel. When we first meet them, en route to a dumpster dive, they are gliding through a suburban park like “royalty in exile.” They are untouched by the dirty business of doing what society expects of them, and for Evie Boyd, it’s love at first sight. The enamel in which these girls are cloaked is supplied by Russell, the novel’s Charles Manson stand-in whose imminent superstardom and fuck-the-squares philosophy is the girls’ key out of bourgeois jail (though compulsory sex with middle-aged men is the price of that key). The girls smugly, gullibly perform transcendence of ideology. They have that “vague dislike for the rich that all young people had. Mashing up the wealthy and the media and the government into an indistinct vessel of evil, perpetrators of the grand hoax.” Which is to say that the bitterness that fuels the girls’ rebellion is not a bitterness toward decadence but a bitterness toward a childish conception of “the man.” Until Russell order-66s them into coldblooded killers, their rebellion is simply an artful form of idleness.
Of course, artful idleness is pretty much the stuff of the modern novel. Sure Leopold Bloom had a job, but Ulysses is a decidedly post-quitting-time novel. And sure buying flowers ain’t easy and Big Ben strikes the hours, but Clarissa Dalloway never once clocked in. The Blooms and Dalloways of our time, Ben Lerner’s Adam Gordon or Teju Cole’s Julius, say, smoke hash and stalk “life’s white machine” and/or reboot the flânuer for a globalized present.
Such aestheticized idleness is likewise a key feature of what Nicholas Dames calls “throwback fiction,” ambitious novels set in the 1970s. Novelists are drawn to this decade because, among other things, it “lacks the unbearable, compulsory dynamism we live under” and thus allows stories to be “ruminative rather than dynamic.” It allows novelists to write 1000-page novels about a super-particular time and place (à la Hallberg’s City on Fire).
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2012) is the throwback novel that almost bends idleness to a politically efficacious end. It relishes the slow passage of time while also illustrating the class dimension of aspiring to not-work. It’s a novel about how doing nothing can be a way of doing something profound. It’s a novel wherein a woman who gets hit by a meteorite while sitting in her kitchen becomes wise to time:
time is more purely hers if she squanders it and keeps it empty, holds it, feels it pass by, and resists filling it with anything that might put some too-useful dent in its open, airy emptiness.
This is the empowering inaction of a labor slowdown — Kushner includes one of these in the novel (specifically, a work-to-rule strike). Not working means retreating from the tyranny of the clock. For the narrator (a 22-year-old known only by her hometown-inspired moniker “Reno”), it means gaining entry to a SoHo art scene full of middle-aged men who wear “work clothes” but don’t really care about labor: Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is an exercise in “risking men and front loaders.”
Reno’s first SoHo art project is to film limo drivers while they wait for their hires. She envies the sweaty, miserable chauffeurs: “To wait by a car and to know with certainty that your passenger would appear.” Such waiting — spoiler alert — is what Kushner uses for the novel’s climax, the pregnant moments of Reno waiting on the Swiss side of Mont Blanc to play getaway driver for a Red Brigade soldier. In short, The Flamethrowers turns waiting into a revolutionary act.
Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, takes “waiting” in a decidedly less esoteric, more pedestrian, direction. It’s the one novel I’ve read this year that takes work seriously, that balances decadence with an honest day’s work. It is, as Gabrielle Hamilton claims, the “Kitchen Confidential of our time,” but not because it is an exposé of the restaurant business so much as because the same industry people who used their shift breaks to walk to Barnes & Noble and buy a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s book in the early-2000s will be drawn to Danler’s book.
More than rewriting Bourdain for the front of the house, Danler rewrites the 22-year-old-ingénue-in-the-city plot. Where the first thing Kushner’s ingénue does when she gets to New York is make waiting into an art project, the first thing Danler’s does is get a job, waiting:
I don’t know what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.
This is about as profound as Danler’s narrator gets, as Danler is more interested in capturing the voice of a young woman than she is in convincing us that young women are smarter than their misogynistic sponsors assume that they are. Danler’s narrator’s voice represents what seasoned server Simone calls the “gross disparity between the way that [22-year-old women] speak and the quality of thoughts that they’re having about the world.”
The novel follows a year in the life of Tess, a newly-hired backwaitress, a year of being ignored, insulted, stoned, bumped, and betrayed by the people whom she will eventually have no choice but to call family. In short, she joins the working class. She reads the rulebook, finds hidden there such compensatory pleasures as the “shift drink.” She develops a palate (and a tolerance). She burns and scars herself. She learns that the key to good service (the 51 percent) is to be “fluent in rich people,” “versed in that upper-middle-class culture” without also misunderstanding it as something worth joining. Rich people circulate “in crowds that reinforced their citizenship.” They sleepwalk through a “movie they starred in…dining, shopping, consuming, unwinding, expanding,” while the industry people are both invisible and “on a pedestal at the center of the universe.”
Reading Sweetbitter will cure you of your romance with idleness, with the first-world downtime social media engines need us thinking we love so that we will continue to generate free content. The aestheticization of idleness in recent novels reminds me of what Sean McCann and Michael Szalay, in “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking After the New Left” (2005), describe as the shortcomings of literary culture in general over the past half-century. According to McCann/Szalay, literary practitioners and scholars alike have embraced forms of retreat that started out in ’60s countercultures and have become cornerstones of libertarianism. “Dropping out” may (or may not) get you beyond the reach of forces that want to shape your consciousness and dictate your aspirations, but it also leaves to fate systemic social problems that organization and planning might redress. Enlightened retreats from solvable ills still abound in recent fiction. Which is why we need more novels like Sweetbitter, novels that don’t give decadence a pass and that suggest that clocking in (not dropping out) is revolutionary, that the rulebook can set us free.
Was Anita Brookner a vampire? She died last month at age 87, the author of two dozen novels, from A Start in Life (published in the United States as The Debut) to Strangers. Her author photo remained unchanged over the three decades she was publishing her novels, like a vampire’s might. In it she looks pale, ladylike, alert, carefully coiffed — hard to pin down in terms of age or date. Her teeth aren’t showing, the better to nip the unsuspecting reader.
Brookner’s novels are inhabited by middle-class types, solitary and stoic. As some readers have noted, nothing much happens in these books; people go to the shop, they return to their quiet flats, they eat a little, they make tea, they think. Sometimes they visit the hairdresser or a museum. Sometimes someone dies, and there’s a quiet funeral. Conversations are economical and frequently unemotional. Sadness puffs around like a gas. But these are men and women holding white-knuckled to the ledge above “the abyss that waits for all of us,” as a character puts it in Latecomers. Below the placid surfaces lie exile, adultery, unrequited love, loss, amorphous fear, and dread. Nobody does depression quite so elegantly. Buffeted and baffled by life, her characters’ strength is in their stasis.
Like one of her white-knuckled heroes, at first look Brookner may seem static as well. Her novels were produced at regular intervals — slim and attractive, with nary a word out of place. In them all excess is gross, whether verbal or sentimental or gastronomic. In Dolly, the title character inspires repulsion in the narrator, Jane, with her flesh and her open sexual need. Jane watches in half-horrified fascination as Dolly, like several other Brookner creations, runs away with the story, the freak who doesn’t fit easily into Jane’s tiny, tidy world.
Brookner harbored some fondness for her freaks; it’s not easy to find what publishers call “comparables” for Brookner, either. When her masterpiece Hotel du Lac, a novel about an Englishwoman recovering in Switzerland from an affair, won the 1984 Booker Prize against 10-1 odds, some puzzlement ensued. Who was this writer, and how should she be categorized? In Look at Me, Frances, a solitary researcher half-hoping for friendship, tells us, “problems of human behaviour still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed.”
The sometimes cursory Frances might file Brookner with early-20th-century novelists. Like the Edwardians, Brookner’s characters are privately concerned with class and sex and money, whether or not they admit it. Their childhoods revolve in their heads. Like E.M. Forster’s people, hers are trying to work out how to connect. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, they tell life to “stand still here,” even as it rushes past them. Like T.S. Eliot, they look hard at time: how to fill it, how to get more of it, how to find their way back to a lost, foggy, genteel era. Like Samuel Beckett’s men, they wait.
But it’s a mistake to see Brookner as a throwback from an earlier age. Look again, and you’ll see the way Brookner quietly muscles Modernist themes beyond their limits. Her characters aren’t sure they want to “only connect,” or to wait for life to turn up. Like any good vampire, Brookner feeds on her literary antecedents, picking their bones; she uses them to build her own structures, subtly questioning the tropes of the psychological novel of yesteryear. She one-ups Woolf’s and James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness, showing us minds at war with their owners: In Look at Me, lonely Frances — feeling her life paling before that of a powerfully attractive couple — observes “somewhere, intruding helplessly and to no avail into my consciousness, the anger of the underdog, plotting bloody revolution, plotting revenge.” Rather than submerging us inside consciousness à la Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses, Brookner is always outside her people, just at their backs — an intruder tuning us into their thoughts at a slight remove, whether in first- or third-person narration. She can see them, but they can’t see her. Uneasy but unaware they’re being observed, they reveal themselves fully.
As the intruder draws near, Brookner’s wit reveals itself. She appears to observe her troubled characters from neutral territory, all the while inviting us to see the claustrophobic patterns they’ve woven of their own lives. Like petit-point embroidery, the details are hypnotic, the product of intensely focused skill. (The physical details shine, too; Brookner was a professor of art history as well as a novelist, and it shows. Her interiors and clothing and features are always finely described.) Brookner’s characters are aesthetes who often turn to museums and galleries for help, though she reminds us in Making Things Better that “art [is] indifferent to whatever requirements [we] might bring to the matter.” But Brookner’s own highly-wrought art isn’t quite indifferent to us. Read closely enough, and you’ll feel it watching you, too.
If you’re not alert, you can miss these elements of Brookner’s work. And if you’re not alert, she doesn’t want you as a reader. There’s a velvet ruthlessness to Brookner: Keep up, she seems to say, while she slips into French for a page, or discusses paintings you feel you ought to know. But the flip side of ruthlessness is trust. She trusts her readers to know what she means. Occasionally we can feel her eyes flick towards us, the same way she looks at her characters: You see, don’t you? We end up wanting to please her, a very neat trick on a novelist’s part.
We on Team Brookner also end up trusting her entirely. You mainline her books one after the other, infected by her intense sensibility before you realize it. You can fall drowsily into her closed worlds and curl up in them. Remain vigilant and you’ll recognize her power, though it will still wind up seducing you. Bram Stoker described his Dracula as having “a mighty brain, a leaning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse.” Brookner’s friend Julian Barnes wrote that she was not at all one of her lonely heroines, despite what male critics have decided: “She was witty, glitteringly intelligent, reserved, and unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon.” In her deft hands, Brookner’s characters face oblivion as bravely as they can; our task is face their author just as bravely, baring our necks.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
When, in 1921, a young French writer working as a translator for James Joyce asked the writer to reveal his schema for Ulysses, Joyce balked, saying that “If I gave it all up immediately, I’d lose my immortality.” What he meant, at least in part, is that he wanted his opus to be relevant in perpetuity. At Full-Stop, Dustin Illingworth reads Ulysses on Twitter and asks: can the book survive the transition from the page to social media? Pair with: Josh Cook on The House of Ulysses by Julian Rios.
The way historical fiction works is by using some basic recognizable details to situate the reader in a time and place (the historical part), and then to imagine the rest, in order to make a narrative (the fiction part). Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a fictional account of a historical event — the experiences of Australian soldiers in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the Thai Burma Death Railway, also known as The Line, in 1943. A plan by the Imperial Japanese Army to speedily construct a railway between Bangkok and Burma, they used, among others, tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war. One of them was Arch Flanagan, the father of Richard, to whom The Narrow Road to the Deep North is dedicated: “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335).” The prisoners were starved and abused, thousands died.
The imagined details of this book: Dorrigo Evans is a doctor and a colonel of the Australian soldiers in the camp. He is handsome, intelligent, a natural leader, irresistible to every person around him, even his captors. All of his weaknesses come from how good he is, how virtuous: “The more he was accused of virtue as he grew older, the more he hated it. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” In the camp, the Australian soldiers die off as they are beaten and starved to death by the rank of brutally efficient Japanese commanders, who themselves have been driven mad by the conditions under which they live. The Japanese see the Australians as useless — oversized, stupid, and lazy — and are annoyed by their constant singing and joking. The Australians see the Japanese as slave drivers, demented by their devotion to the abstraction that is the Emperor. Both believe that the other is morally corrupt in some way. In the vacuum that follows the end of the war, however, all moral reasoning that made sense at the time becomes unfamiliar. The war ends, and everyone who survives tries to fold themselves into the compromise of normal life. There is an epigraph is from Paul Celan, which speaks of the horror of returning to life after deep, specific suffering — “Mother, they write poems.”
Outside of the camp, the most important story is Dorrigo’s love affair before the war, with his uncle’s wife Amy, which took place in a hotel pub in Adelaide. The love affair is stopped by the war, but its memory and the sadness of its failed connection stays around, forming a Shakespearean subplot. The primary subject of this book is human suffering, and all the endlessly interesting ways in which people cause themselves and others to suffer. The strange euphemism “Prisoner of War” eventually comes to describe every character in the book.
The title comes from the travel journal of Basho, the Edo poet. Basho took a long solitary journey north, questioning, in his journal, whether life has any meaning at all. The question of meaning, and whether or not it can be extracted through the study of history, has preoccupied writers of historical fiction over the past fifty years. Authors such as Peter Carey, Laurent Binet, Salman Rushdie, and E.L. Doctorow, have felt the need to meta-theorize or “postmodernize” the re-creation of the past, to question the writing of history and the usefulness of fiction even as they do it. They are preoccupied by the need to tell the difference between the real (unattainable), the true (mostly nonexistent), and the told (unreliable). The conclusion, insofar as there is one, is that meaning and memory are slippery surfaces across which we can only slide.
Part of the problem of meaning, for what might be called the postmodern or “meta” writers of history and historical fiction, is plausibility. That is, the reader being able to believe what they are reading is “true,” (true, in this sense, meaning that it really happened). Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the French historian who founded the movement of “New History,” began in the 1970s to write history using the first person “I” pronoun, as a way of moving history from story to discourse, and signaling to his readers that they would never read history that hadn’t been written by a human, and therefore wasn’t subject to being falsified by a human imagination. Data are unable to speak for themselves, intervention is needed. History becomes fiction, in this view, because it is narrative. Flanagan presents an opposite pole to this view. This book is historical in every sense; it could almost have been written at the time of its setting, in the 1940s, before the parsing of the horror of the Second World War caused us to reorient our worldview in almost every sphere of life, and to question the very possibility of meaning.
In historical fiction, the world has in some ways already been invented, and the task of the author is to describe it, that is, to fictionalize it. According to E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Writers of historical fiction change story to plot, using description.
The difference between history and fiction, Sir Philip Sidney argued, in his A Defense of Poetry (c.1579), is not what did happen, but what could. It was a rebuttal to those who were suspicious of the power of fiction, from Plato to the Puritans:
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature.
The imagination required to write fiction, in Sidney’s line of argument, is not gnosis but praxis, and becomes an empathetic force, a virtue. Fiction is “true” not in a historical sense, but in a moral one, exactly because of its inventive power. Fiction, unlike history or philosophy, can create a world that didn’t previously exist, out of the one that does.
Description is where the story is, and also where the postmodern complaint with the story is. It’s where the poetry of the writing is. Those writers of literary historical fiction over the past forty or fifty years who have become fed up with traditional, novelistic historical storytelling have often revived the Platonic quarrel with poetry, in questioning of the usefulness of that leap to fiction. Description, though, is what Flanagan revels in. He is a storyteller in the mythic sense, of lives determined by emotion, error, and turns of coincidence and fate. This book goes from one end of a life to other, with an epic journey and a romantic tragedy in the middle (there are many references to Ulysses; Dorrigo’s life continually marked with poetry). The plot is driven by suffering and desire. Destiny of the characters is the number and nature of words spoken (One of Dorrigo Evans’s tasks is to choose which soldiers get sent on the march and which stay behind, essentially, which ones will stay alive and which won’t, an echo of the Judenräte).
Haiku poetry, the great poetic forms of restraint, is interspersed throughout the chapters, highlighting the overflowing quality of Flanagan’s sentences. His sentences are poetic, even if they lack the precision and control of the poetry that intersects the chapters:
A drop dripped.
Tiny, whispered Darky Gardiner.
The noise of the monsoonal rain flogging the canvas roof of the long, A-framed shelter — bamboo-strutted and open-walled — meant Darky Gardiner could hardly hear himself. The clamor of the rain made such nights only more desolate, worse, in a way, than the days when he was just trying to survive but at least had company to do it with. The jungle shuddering in sheets of noise, the incessant drumming of mud churning as the rain slammed into it, the strange slaps and punches of invisible water runs, all of it he found dismal.
Another drop dripped.
There is an amputation scene that the squeamish will have to divide up and read in shifts, taking breaks in between to hold the open book aside, turn their faces away and gasp for air. It’s all part of the stinking sensuality of Flanagan’s writing. It isn’t enough to be told the story. We sit through it, like a cinema for smell and touch.
His language is ornate:
Dorrigo would sway back and forth and imagine himself shaping into one of the boughs of the wildly snaking peppermint gums that fingered and flew through the great blue sky overhead…he would drink in the birdsong of the wrens and the honeyeaters, the whip-crack call of the jo-wittys, punctuated by Gracie’s steady clop, and the creak and clink of the cart’s leather traces and wood shafts and iron chains, a universe of sensation that returned in dreams.
His dialogue can be dramatic, almost to the point of seeming parodic:
She took a puff, put the cigarette in the ashtray and stared at it. Without looking up, she said, But do you believe in love, Mr Evans?
She rolled the cigarette end around in the ashtray.
Yet even when his writing cloys, it still feels sincere, in its faith in the redemptive power of art after tragedy.
Flanagan seems to be at heart a novelist, without interest in questioning the utility of historical fiction, only in using it to create fiction; using one experience to make another. In history, other than narrative, all we have are statistics, and the leap required to get from statistics to history is one of imagination. That leap is where Flanagan lives, as a writer. Belief, as Flanagan shows us, comes not just from accuracy, but from the power of the writing itself. “A poem is not a law, Sir” a soldier tells Dorrigo, known in the camp as Big Fella. “But he realized with a shock it more or less was.” In Flanagan’s books, story becomes true by being poetry. The truth in this book is not that of the historical sense, but in a Keatsian, moral sense. We don’t read historical novels like War and Peace to find out about the French influence in Russia, but for the very pleasure of exercising the imagination — for their virtue.
There is an endearing overabundance of almost everything in this book, which in its enthusiasm, becomes part of the pleasure, though some faith is needed to get through some of the love scenes, and to travel along with the humorless, masculine sentimentality of the hero. Readers of this book should do away with all suspicions, and get ready for an avalanche of feeling and sincerity, or else risk living in the sad restraint of Flanagan’s characters.
Ferris Jabr writes for The New Yorker on the “profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing,” and cites books such as Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway as evidence this “curious link between mind and feet” is a serious literary force. After you’ve finished reading Jabr’s piece, be sure to check out Michelle Huneven’s essay “On Walking and Reading at the Same Time,” and then perhaps go for a little stroll with a good book.
When I was growing up, there were few books on my parents’ bookshelves and most of those were in Greek or French, with a smattering of volumes from the Time-Life series (the ones on jazz and opera). But among the very small handful of books in English, there was one with a thick spine of military green and one word printed in a thin, elongated font: Ulysses. When I was about ten, I first took the book down from the shelf. I’d been raised on my father’s bedtime stories from The Odyssey and a family-cultivated belief that the heroes of ancient Greece were my ancestors. I flipped to the first page, but I couldn’t make anything of it at all. That first sentence looked like normal English. It had no words I didn’t recognize. But something about it was off (was “Buck” someone’s name or a noun? And what was a “Stately plump”?). And as I moved on deeper into that first page, I became more confused.
I don’t remember now whether I paged through to the other sections I would come to know as “Laestrygonians,” “Oxen of the Sun,” or “Circe”. If I had, I would most certainly have had even more reason to do what I did then, at age ten: put the book back, shaking my head and vowing to try again in a few months. For years afterwards, I would pull Ulysses off the shelf every few months or so, start reading, become confused, and replace the book, deciding that I was still not ready to understand it.
The funny thing is that the only reason my father owned the book in the first place was that he belonged to the Book of the Month Club and he had chosen this particular tome, instead of his usual crime novels, thinking it was about the Greek hero. Which it is, in a way, but not in the way my father expected. So that made two of us who couldn’t understand Joyce’s masterpiece. My father’s Greco-chauvinistic book-buying was as far as he got into Joyce’s oeuvre. But I eventually went on to study Joyce in college and graduate school, and to spend one summer reading every page of Finnegans Wake, watching the words flicker into meaning every now and then as I prepared to write my dissertation.
For many years, June 16, Bloomsday, found me in cities ranging from Monte Carlo to Milwaukee, at the annual Joyce conferences that were my scholarly bread and butter. The conferences spanned several days, and depending on the calendar each year, it wasn’t always possible to set the keynote address on the 16th itself. This meant that, for all the intense focus on Ulysses and Joyce’s other works during the days around Bloomsday, the day of Ulysses’ narrative often got lost in the more general hubbub of the conference. Someone would invariably exclaim, while in line at the cash bar or to see that year’s Derrida protégé, “It’s the 16th!” and the rest of us would beam with pleasure for a moment.
I never happened to be at a Joyce conference in one of Joyce’s home cities—Dublin, Trieste, or Zurich. Mine were Copenhagen, Venice, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Monte Carlo, a nice mixture of the exotic and the mundane (no offense to Philadelphia or Milwaukee, but Venice they’re not). Monte Carlo is where I missed the sighting of Princess Caroline, but did witness one of the most memorable scholarly Joyce spats of the 90s, over the publication of a new edition of the sacred tome. But the geography never mattered. Even if we weren’t in Dublin where people dressed as Leopold and Molly, Stephen Dedalus, and Buck Mulligan decorated the streets, we brought the world of Ulysses to, say, the Tivoli, or the Grand Canal, or the Art Museum and the Rocky statue. We clambered into a gondola making jokes about Gertie MacDowell’s exposed drawers, and we circled the Tivoli Ferris wheel over and over, commenting on Joyce’s confirmation that there is nothing new under the sun.
Does this mean that Ulysses has a universal reach and a universal appeal? That it applies to all of us everywhere and anywhere? Well, ok. But who makes jokes about James Joyce in the real world, anyway? I mean, you had to be there. But most people aren’t, and with good reason.
The Joyce conferences were, in a way, the wrong way to celebrate Bloomsday, since they required you to be surrounded by people with rarefied intellectual concerns. We were all Stephens then, with not enough of us taking Leopold’s approach to life, mixing rumination and delight. So this Bloomsday, I’ll open one of my copies of Ulysses and I’ll start out with stately plump Buck Mulligan. I’ll touch down briefly in the melodious bar of “Sirens,” and I’ll let Molly’s long sentence carry me from Gibraltar to Dublin to Howth and to that lovely final affirmation that could be in any city at all. And I’ll think of my father, whose loyalty to his country and his culture opened the door for his daughter to enter into a new world.
When a new thing enters our lives there is a tendency to describe it in its most positive terms. As the internet has become a central part of daily life, we’ve gazed on it with optimism, deciphering its essence from outward effects. Political fundraising has accelerated, search engine algorithms deliver us our daily facts, and our web of friendships have mushroomed. In our grandest moments it seems like a step forward, making us smarter, better informed, and more socially connected. In reality, the great aggregation project has shown us a vision of our world that is increasingly non-sensical. If there is an enduring truth revealed by the internet, it is that the world only seems to make sense when you filter most of it out. Without that filter, our histories, assumptions, and beliefs drift apart in an unordered soup of digital equivalencies.
David Thorne’s The Internet is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius is a celebration of the non-sequitur, proof that all things can be simultaneously true when given the cover of the internet. Thorne is the author of the website 27bslash6.com and Playground is an edited assembly of the site’s most noteworthy entries. The pieces are either email exchanges between Thorne and various unsuspecting correspondents (e.g. a bossy colleague, the police department, someone inquiring about his for-sale car) or absurdist essays about someone irritating in Thorne’s daily life.
Thorne’s most famous piece concerns an exchange with Shannon, the receptionist at the branding firm where he works as a designer. She emails him for help making a “Missing” poster for her cat Missy. The subsequent exchange exploits all of the intangible elements of communication that are absent in online interaction. Shannon’s only instructions are to make a poster using an attached picture of Missy. Though the subtext will immediately connect to a model of a “Missing” poster we have all seen in numberless variation, Thorne takes advantage of the lack of more specific instruction to indulge himself.
The resulting image is a dramatic poster styled after a movie one-sheet, the title “Missing Missy” posed in block letters against a white background while Missy’s image has been shrunken and set cryptically into the lower right corner. “It’s a design thing,” Thorne wrote when Shannon replied in confusion. “The cat is lost in the negative space.” The poster goes through several ludicrous iterations before finally arriving at a workable compromise, the formulaic contact information and wording in place while leaving Missy in a red top hat.
Later, Thorne imagines a week-long diary for Thomas, the firm’s creative director. “Have just ordered a new MacBook Pro because my current one is almost six months old and I cannot be expected play Solitaire at these speeds.” In another passage Thorne imagines the romantic needs of an obese, flat-topped man called Barry. “I am available and looking for that special woman. She has to enjoy never leaving the house, cleaning me with a damp cloth, and experiencing the beauty of a baby’s smile,” Thorne writes. “I placed an ad in the singles’ columns that simply read: ‘Woman wanted.’ I felt it would be superficial to include that she must be athletic and named Candy. I will screen them when they call.”
In these sections there is a cruelty to Thorne’s writing, which, taken in context of his playground metaphor, is adolescent. Or rather, his merciless wit comes wrapped in a satirical padding that points to a resigned adult somewhere inside, piloting a ship of adolescent foolishness. Thorne is at his sharpest when addressing angry readers of his site who’ve written to him in outrage over an earlier post. “I have read your website and it is obviously[sic] that your a foggot[sic],” writes one George Lewis in a terse bit of reader feedback.
“Thank you for your email,” Thorne replies. “While I have no idea what a ‘foggot’ is I will assume it is a term of endearment and appreciate your taking time out from calculating launch trajectories or removing temporal lobe tumors to contact me with such. I have attached a signed photo as per your request.” Thorne uses politesse to mock his correspondent’s intelligence while drawing them deeper into the exchange by making assumptions on an issue the correspondent has been vague about. It’s a standard comic setup of two people operating under completely different understandings, but it also exploits how much of our meaning is subtextual. Moreover, we have adapted our behaviors to suit the text-only nature of internet communication and now have automated responses to figurative language.
“Foggot” is, of course, a misspelled slur, but its etymology reveals a murky history that makes its modern sense as a pejorative absurd. The root word meant sticks for kindling. In pre-enlightenment Europe older women who were often given the task of tending to fires on the hearth were colloquially called “faggots” after the sticks they collected. This tradition survived well into the 20th century, most notably in Ulysses when Joyce refers to Mrs. Riordan as “that old faggot.”
The word was also sometimes used to describe soldiers as something disposable, and it was also occasionally applied to women who were burned at the stake, equating their very bodies with kindling–and it’s worth noting this cruelest sense of the word probably isn’t applicable to homosexuals as, even in countries where their sexual orientation was a capital offense, the prescribed method of execution was hanging and not immolation. In the 20th century, it came to be used more broadly to describe menial jobs and, later, a sort of patronage system that existed in British schools wherein an upperclassmen would appropriate an underclassmen to run errands. Yet somehow the word came to be among the most offensive things you might say to a stranger, both a slur against his identity and a derogation of the sexual preferences of a long-abused minority. This is not what the word means, but it’s what we take it to mean. In this way the most irrational of our suspicions can eventually be made true, conjured into existence by the masses.
Thorne, of course, knows exactly what George Lewis intends by the word “foggot.” And yet he builds an elaborate interpretation that is non-sequitur because of the gulf between the word’s meaning and the cruel intention of the person using it. Because so many of the non-verbal indicators of intentionality are unavailable online, this bizarrely aggressive yet incoherent language has become the standard. In another entry, Thorne imagines the experiences of an older man who thinks “the internet is rubbish.” After dismissing Google, eBay, and email as wastes of time, Thorne’s curmudgeon ends with a recounting of his experience on /b/, the random subject area of internet message board 4Chan.
I spent a good hour on this site and still have no idea what it is for. All I could work out is that I am apparently a ‘newfag’ and cannot ‘triforce’ but am unsure as to why I would need to triforce in the first place. I asked some of the people on there for their advice regarding triforcing, but the only answer I seemed to get was ‘nigger.’
Thorne’s responses when confronted with this sort of internet belligerence are no less coherent but they do offer a counterbalance of optimism and goodwill. In every exchange, Thorne matches his correspondent’s worst case assumptions with surprising generosity and openness. He responds to insults with thanks and by sharing personal anecdotes and curiosities. In so doing, Thorne exhausts the internet fury of his counterparts. Whereas they have taken the initiative to contact him for the only purpose of belittlement and scorn, his persistent replies lead to the other person running out of energy and ability to participate in the exchange. Thus the refrain of Thorne’s correspondences involves the aggressor asking his presumed victim “Please don’t email me again,” to which Thorne always answers “OK.”
These types of surreal exchanges are perfectly suited for consumption on the internet, each one requiring only a few minutes of investment to run its comically distracting course. In book form, the pieces have a permanence that amplifies the absurdity, making it feel like evidence of the internet’s effect on the human personality. For centuries our recorded documents have striven to present a serious face which, even in moments of satiric exaggeration, evoked a social or emotional condition of some poignance. Either by self-discipline or editorial rigor, people cleansed their recorded thoughts of the irrationality that must surely have been a part of the human intellect then as it is now. The internet has eradicated self-discipline and editorial rigor and the result is the ordered expressions of generations past have become tiny rhetorical islands flooded by an ocean human absurdity.
The last century has been one obsessed with productivity and social progress. Since the Industrial Revolution there has been strong evidence to argue that life is getting better. Infant mortality rates, life expectancy, relative poverty, and economic efficiency have all grown at an accelerating pace. This points to an irresistible narrative view of history, that record of our existence on earth can be be viewed in terms of linear progress made possible by new technologies.
In its own way, Thorne’s Playground offers an absurd counter to this narrative, showing that for all of the improvements technology can bring in one area there are many other areas that it impoverishes us relative to what came before. A more productive life is not necessarily a more meaningful life. Between the lines of Thorne’s jabs is a recurring interest in space, time travel, the Large Hadron Collider, and the limits of our understanding of the material universe. We live in an era of amazement, when science and cosmology has so tantalizingly opened the door onto a new set of questions about our perceptions of the world and the rules that govern it.
This era is likewise an era of remarkable stupidity, with bureaucracies built to enforce late fees on DVD’s that exceed the value of the original several times over and school boards that conspire with churches to show children religious theater during school hours. The benefits of progress come with the price of being repeatedly confronted with our own essential absurdity. For Thorne, the only appropriate response to these intrusions on whatever order we might imagine ourselves in isolation is encapsulated with his book’s final words, ironically supplied by one of his unbidden correspondents. “Fuck off.”
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
Ulysses is the literary equivalent of Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu or any of the world’s other great, beautiful, challenging locations. Just as there are guides, travelogues and travel television shows designed to communicate a flavor of those locations while providing the traveler with the tools needed to actually visit them, there are guides and books hoping to create readers of Ulysses while providing those readers with the tools needed to actually read and appreciate it. There are Gifford’s Annotated Ulysses, Blamire’s New Bloomsday Book, Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, and many more guides, skeleton keys, and potential philosophical structures.
The House of Ulysses by Julian Rios isn’t exactly a guide or skeleton key to Ulysses, though it does offer short summaries of the episodes. Nor is does it provide a direct intellectual structure for understanding Ulysses, though it certainly intellectually investigates Ulysses. Rather, House is a critical novel, or novelistic criticism, or some other mixture of the actions of creation and interpretation. The House of Ulysses is essentially a book club novel with six speakers; “the Circeone” who leads the group, the silent “Macintosh,” a man whose Mac laptop displays information about the episode in question and who is a reference to one of the mysteries of Ulysses, “Professor Jones,” and “The mature reader (did she call him Ananias?), the young female reader (Babel or Belle?), and the old critic. Let’s call them A, B, and C, for short.”
The House moves episode by episode through Ulysses with “the Cicerone” presenting the plot, historical context, and some of the many subtle threads of details that weave through the work, with “Passageways” sections in which the speakers discuss the episodes. Though “discuss” might not be the right term as the speakers rarely directly respond to each other. Instead, they pile observations, critical insights, questions, philosophical flights of fancy, non-sequitorial conclusions, and bombast into a babbling tower of interpretation. At times the “discussion” is almost a vaudeville act; one could imagine the speakers participating in the intellectual equivalent of the exchanging of hats from Waiting for Godot.
Though the discussions never lead to anything on the same continent as a conclusion, they contain some of the best criticism about Ulysses I’ve ever read. Whatever else can be said about House, Rios gets Ulysses at a level that allows him to encapsulate its spirit and core in single statements. “…and it was also a way of referring to the secret unity of literature through ages and culture.” “The revelations and knowledge emerge gradually, said A, as is so often the case in cities.” “Ambiguity through contiguity.” “Imitates and dynamites such enormities, so many delusions of past grandeur.” “Words are the real hallucinogens here.”
One way to describe Ulysses is as a novel of mundane details, like the feeding of a cat, a forgotten tuning fork, and bad advertising copy. Rios uses the “discussion” to elucidate many of the subtle details and connections in Ulysses. “[Stephen] could have used those two pennies to settle the debt with the poor dairymaid.” “We could also imagine as crossed the two keys Stephen and Bloom have left behind; the one for the Martello Tower, the other for 7 Eccles Street.” “Another throwaway—Jacob for Elijah escaping in his chariot.”
The obvious question raised by a book like this is: “What if you haven’t read Ulysses?” What if you don’t know about the dairymaid, the ad for the House of Keyes, or Throwaway the winner of the Gold Cup horse race? Unfortunately, House does not have enough content independent of Ulysses to be read and enjoyed by someone who hasn’t read Ulysses. It has speakers, but no characters, and statements, but no plot. Its jokes are all inside jokes. For his part, Rios seems perfectly comfortable with writing to this particular audience, focusing his prose more on the critical than on the narrative components of his novel.
Ultimately, this means that House of Ulysses should be approached as criticism even if it uses techniques of fiction to convey its ideas. Ulysses is a dramatic expression of the relationship between life and literature through ambitious experiments in narrative style and method. So it makes sense for criticism about Ulysses to experiment with styles of interpretation. Doing so allows the critic to explore and celebrate multiple levels of Ulysses within the same act of interpretation; elucidating details, making connections, and describing themes, while experimenting with the nature of communicating interpretation and thus directly engaging Ulysses’ statements on the nature of style.
I was left with one dominant effect from reading The House of Ulysses; the desire to read Ulysses again. There are readers who have decided they will simply not read Ulysses, and no one will convince them. There are readers who haven’t ruled it out, but Rios won’t convince them. There are those who have it on the list, and when they get to it, Rios and his House will be there to deepen their reading. But the readers who will get the most out of the novel are those whose familiarity with Ulysses will allow them to appreciate Rios’s criticism. Criticism has a number of different goals, and one of them is to motivate a reader to return to the source text with new eyes. In terms of this goal alone, The House of Ulysses is a brilliant work of criticism, one that reveals without dictating, written in the spirit of the source work, with a sense of humor and a profound love of literature.
I may as well confess, by way of prolepsis, that Mathias Énard’s second novel, Zone, is the kind of book that can tie a critic in absolute knots, not only because, due to its most striking formal feature – it is a single, 517-page sentence – the damn thing more or less confounds quotation, but also because the duty to move beyond a mere inventory of its contents toward some evocation of the reading experience feels unusually…well, critical, the difference between contents and experience being in this case sort of like the difference between staring at the pitted black grooves of side two of Dark Side of the Moon and actually traveling to the dark side of the moon, as in a sense Zone’s narrator and antihero is, or anyway the dark side of something, call it the Twentieth Century, call it human nature, or call it, as he does, “the Zone” (i.e., the wartorn region around the Mediterranean where “wrathful savage gods have been clashing with each other . . . since the Bronze age at least”), and that’s where I had thought to start, adumbrating the particular historical darkness of the Zone and the conflicts swirling in and around it like the eddies of Énard’s prose, except that the attempt to comprehend all this, which as the novel opens is consuming self-identified civil servant Francis Servain Mirković, age thirtysomething, felt in my retelling as flat as the pull-down map in a high-school classroom, and, as I could practically hear readers clicking over to Gawker (and I hadn’t even reached the end of the first sentence!), perhaps something more lively was in order—say, a dramatic recreation of a 2006 editorial meeting at the book’s French publisher, Actes Sud, where a junior editor barely out of puberty is attempting to justify his ardor for the manuscript to a panel of jaded superiors who, not having read it, sigh at intervals and drag wearily on their Gauloises as they hear that F. S. Mirković is actually both a brutish Croatian war criminal and a hyper-literate French spy; that he has boarded a train to Rome under false passport to sell a briefcase full of secrets to the Vatican before getting out of “the game” for good; and that he will still be stuck on the Milano-Roma overnight diretto when the novel ends, so that, despite its noirish Maguffin and feats of syntax worthy of The Guinness Book of World Records, or at least a Guinness, Zone is a novel in which, broadly speaking, nothing happens, unless you count Francis thinking at great length about history in its personal and global aspects, and though the overlords of the publishing house may have perked up a little at this last bit, cerebration being pretty much France’s national pastime, it must still have sounded incroyable, this bouillabaisse of Descartes and Dachau, Sebald and Seinfeld, Mrs. Dalloway and Mission: Impossible, and not in the good sense, and this again (to make a very Mirkovićian recursion) is how I had thought to begin, cool giving way to heat, first pass tragedy, second pass farce, but still like the junior editor I seemed to be failing to do this remarkable book justice, and in fact I began to wonder if Énard himself had felt a similar sense of obligation to his material, only scaled radically up, an obligation to the Zone’s war-dead (“young, old, male, female, burnt black, cut into pieces, machine gunned, naked”) to make it new, per his epigraph-furnisher, cameo fascist, and tutelary shade Ezra Pound, though of course if I were truly to take a page from Énard taking a page from Pound, I would have to plunge into, as opposed to merely gesticulating near, questions about Zone’s seemingly mismatched ethical and aesthetic ambitions (for as Francis finds, in the course of his train ride, bedrock has a way of asserting itself through even the mind’s most turbulent involutions), and also questions about how Énard gets these ambitions to work in harness, how as the clauses mount and cascade and carry the reader forward, Francis’ un-excellent non-adventure manages to generate its improbable urgency, as if in that briefcase were not some soon-to-be papal papers but a bomb that threatens to take our hero with it when it blows, questions whose answers were at first hard to see, as from a train it’s hard to see the trees for the forest, the forest in this case being that enormous formal dare – the novel as single sentence – which should (again, in theory) have killed both Zone’s chill and its heat, yet the more I thought about the novel’s form, the more it, too, started to seem like a kind of Maguffin, every bit as conventional in its own way as that briefcase (paging Ving Rhames!) or, say, as your average act of stunt-reviewing—and here I’m referring not just to Énard’s particular high-Modernist, comma-spliced rendition of stream-of-consciousness, which in less adroit hands than the translator Charlotte Mandell’s might feel at this stage in the history of the European Art Novel positively fustian, but also to the novel’s two least successful gambits, viz., a pattern of Hellenic allusion likewise cribbed from Ulysses (chapters keyed to Homer, recurring epithets, invocations of those Bronze-Age gods), and the irruption of a short story that Francis is reading into the text—herrings whose conspicuous incarnadine distracts us from Énard’s deeper debt, which is not to 1930 but to 1830, which is to say that Zone really makes its bones where the hoariest Balzac novel does, in the steady concretion of detail, from Francis’ recollections of his mother, a fiercely patriotic Croat who “would have made an excellent soldier” (she applies her iron fist instead to teaching piano and browbeating her son, until it seems to him that “with her no, no, no, not so fast, not so fast, from the neighboring room,” she is “directing [his] masturbation”) to his time as an enlistee in the Balkans (where he sneaks across Serbian lines with a comrade to drag back a stolen pig and later must drag that same comrade’s body to a funeral pyre); to alcoholism and depression in a Venice so cold Francis sleeps rolled up in an old rug, with “shoes on because the rigid carpet was like a tube and didn’t cover [his] feet”; to wrecked relationships with two women vividly undeserving of Francis’ psychodrama; and ultimately to the French intelligence services, where a shellfish-loving alopeciac named Lebihan sees in the haunted veteran a potential “asset”—not to mention the brilliant incidentals, erections in tour buses, the zinc tops of bars, “Turkish MCs chanting bingo results in five languages,” a vision of Donald Sutherland as Christ, details knitting train to trench, past to present, the real to the imagined, and as Zone’s locomotive sentence wends through them all out of order, we come to feel that the “impossible gulf hollowed out by war” is not, as Francis suggests, the one separating soldiers from bystanders but the one that, as in the Springsteen song, runs through the middle of his skull, in light of which the stories of other lives that periodically seize the text—stories of battle and exile and murder—might indeed look like Francis’ attempt to forget himself, “to disappear wholly into paper,” were they not also a way of understanding himself, the history of the Zone being, like the history of Francis himself (and, Énard probably wants to suggest, like the history of any of us) one of perpetual strife between the higher faculties and the lower, the civilized and the barbaric, Eros and Thanatos, Apollo and Dionysus, so that in resurrecting Janus-faced Francis, Zone also breathes new life what that had come to seem the lifeless stuff of AP exams, the “nation of the dead” (as the Scottish historian Gil Elliot puts it) that along with the aesthetic disruption of Modernism, that other crisis of representation, had seemed to lay a younger generation of European writers under a heavy curse—on the one hand, your characters can’t just sit around eating French fries (or, as in 2666, Fürst Pücklers) as if the Twentieth Century hadn’t happened; on the other, to write directly about all those deaths is to risk the worst kind of kitsch, the second-worst being perhaps the too-slavish aping of Joyce—but then again, one man’s curse is another man’s blessing, for by seizing these two crises, one ethical and one aesthetic, and smashing them together like two dumb stones, as hard and as wildly as he can, Mathias Énard has found a way to restore death to life and life to death, and so joins the first rank of novelists, the bringers of fire, who even as they can’t go on, do.
Bonus Link: An excerpt from Zone.
Serge Carrefax, the protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s new novel C, has a problem with perspective. A Mr. Clair comes to his parents’ country estate to tutor him and his sister in painting, among a number of other subjects, but no matter what he does, he can’t get little Serge to draw in three dimensions: “His perceptual apparatuses refuse point-blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration. He sees things flat; he paints things flat.” Now this might mean that the boy is a budding modernist, painting little Léger figures and De Stijl landscapes. Or, it might mean that Serge, by talent and inclination, is more of a cartoonist than a painter.
Tom McCarthy’s novels, with their rigorous denial of psychological interiority and surfeit of learned quotation, themselves resemble exceptionally erudite cartoons. And, since McCarthy has devoted an entire, brilliant work of criticism to the argument that we should treat the Tintin books as classics of world literature (Tintin and the Secret of Literature), it’s tempting to imagine C as recast by Hergé:
We’re on a boat in the middle of the Nile, bound upstream for one of the Necropolises on the west bank. Time has not been kind to the boy adventurer or his friends. Tintin is pacing the decks, declaiming from Hölderin in German. He has augmented his usual plus fours and argyle socks with a leather jacket and aviator goggles, and he has track marks up and down his arms. Thomson and Thompson are flying about all over the place, positively buzzing from cocaine. Professor Calculus is standing in the prow, staring morosely at a glass jar of his own stool. Snowy is dead. His taxidermied corpse is with the baggage. Captain Haddock is at the wheel, as red-faced and world-weary as ever. He was an alcoholic before all this began, and he is an alcoholic still (Tintin and the Secret of the Death Drive, 250 ₣, Hardcover).
Tintin and Serge Carrefax share a certain basic blankness, but at some point the comparison collapses: it’s hard to imagine any amount of drugs or German poetry replacing Tintin’s ageless optimism with Serge’s relentless pursuit of death. Outwardly, C resembles a bildungsroman, beginning with its protagonist’s youth and continuing on through his education and young manhood, but it is not about growth, or education. The span of Serge’s life is bracketed by the transformations that gave rise to the verbal texture of the modern world: his birth in 1898 is accompanied by the sound of some of the first tests of wireless telegraphy (though Serge’s father, a radio enthusiast, gets beaten to the punch by Marconi), and his death in 1922 coincides with the publication of Ulysses and the high-water mark of literary modernism. In between, Serge has a number of adventures, a great many of which have recognizable analogues in history or literature. C is not a book which wears its inspirations lightly. Serge’s father is based on Alexander Graham Bell, and his sexual neuroses come from Freud’s classic case study of the Wolf Man. At various points, Serge reenacts the car crash from the “Futurist Manifesto,” gets taken around Alexandria by Cavafy, exults at the same lines of poetry as Heidegger, takes a cure at a sanatorium out of Magic Mountain and attends a séance with Madame Sosostris from The Waste Land.
An easy smidge of plot holds these episodes together. Serge grows up with his sister Sophie on their mother’s country estate. His sister commits suicide; Serge develops a powerful case of constipation and receives treatment at an Austro-Hungarian spa. During World War I he becomes an observer with the Royal Flying Corps and enhances his vision with cocaine and heroin. Back in London, he studies architecture and spends time with dancehall Amazons. Finally, Serge’s mentor sends him to Egypt. Once there, he buys some scarabs, visits some tombs, and dies.
The plot is sketchy by design, since its purpose is to serve as a vehicle for the novel’s driving obsessions with crypts, codes, and transmission. The whole book is crisscrossed with wires. On the first page, a coil of copper cable accompanies the doctor in the carriage on his way to Serge’s delivery. Serge and Sophie grow up next to their mother’s silk factory, surrounded by cocoons, threads, and looms. Serge takes up his father’s hobby from a young age, learning Morse code and listening for broadcasts of naval disasters from the attic. In the war, he uses the same skills to call in artillery attacks from the air. His sister Sophie is more partial to codes; Widsun, an enigmatic family friend, trains her in cryptography and code-breaking, to her great delight. She is also a prodigy in botany and zoology, and eventually she seems to become a receiver for encrypted messages from the natural world, messages like “…when the bodies…and more bodies come, the parts…a bug massacre in Badsack, Juno Archipelago,” which seem to predict the coming war even as they foretell her own death.
The connection between codes, broadcasts, and death is made explicit when, at Sophie’s funeral, Serge’s father installs a transmitter in her coffin and Serge imagines that he can detect signals from the beyond at the furthest end of the dial. Later, when he is setting up radio towers in Egypt, the pylons are made to rhyme with the pylons of Egyptian myth, the gateways to the underworld. And the underworld is never far off: Serge’s childhood home features a ‘Crypt Park’ (it’s next to the estate labyrinth), and after Sophie’s suicide, death becomes an obsession. Taken prisoner by the Germans, Serge is disappointed when the armistice prevents his execution. Contemplating a roll and slab of butter at the architecture students’ cafeteria, he sees “a burial mound, with gravestone on the side.”
C’s intellectual preoccupations can be fascinating, but they don’t always sit well together. The links it draws between radio, codes, and secrets suggest a new theory of literary modernism, calling to mind a literature that is party autonomic and partly scavenged, carried along subterranean avenues and fugitive broadcasts. His insistence on the omnipresence of hidden patterns enables McCarthy’s best prose, a kind of concentrated physical description which combines amoral detachment with the ecstatic possibilities of pure geometry. Here he is describing the mining of a trench as seen from the air:
Then, as though summoned upwards by this incantation, the earth rises towards him. At first it looks like a set of welts bubbling up across its surface; the welts grow into large domes with smooth convex roofs; the roofs, still rising upwards and expanding, start to crack, then break open completely; and through their ruptured crusts shoot long, straight jets of earth: huge, rushing geysers that look as though they’re being propelled upwards by nothing but their own force and volume, the dull brown matter defying both height and gravity through sheer self-will.
McCarthy steps on woozier ground when the question turns to sex and death. C assumes that the connection between the two is innate and absolute. Serge has sex for the first time with a crippled spa attendant who smells of sulfur and mold; in the act, she buries herself in the wet earth while Serge hears “a scream, or the echo of a scream, erupts from neither him nor Tania but, it seems, the night itself.” Later in Egypt, after many intervening sessions of coitus a tergo (the only kind the Wolf Man could bear), he hooks up with a lovely archaeologist in an underground tomb. During the act, which takes place in a chamber filled with bones, bitumen, mummy wrappings, and the discarded excreta of “a thousand couplings, a thousand deaths,” something bites Serge and a few days later, kills him.
All of this – the idea of a woman’s body as a tomb or instrument of anti-transcendence, the sex in tombs and on top of bones – struck me as dated and kitsch. The same goes for the death-lust that drives so much of the novel – Serge ejaculating into the sky after strafing Germans or contemplating the aesthetic delights of men being burnt alive. These moments read as avant-garde cliché, mannered quotations from the long history of literary bourgeois-baiting. For all his research, McCarthy writes as if the past century simply hadn’t happened, dropping the scandalous tropes of ninety years ago directly into his prim blocks of Neo-Victorian prose where they can no longer offend or surprise.
At its best, C feels like the continuation of an ongoing conversation with the literary past, in which the murmur of the previous fin-de-siècle comes through like static on the radio. But too often, McCarthy gets bogged down in the paradoxes of writing a historicist avant-garde novel. McCarthy has long been fascinated by repetition. This, with C’s themes of death and transmission, might be read as a way of dealing with an inability to overcome his artistic predecessors. If you can’t outdo, restage. C is at once an ingenious commentary on the work of his masters and a grim attempt to turn their innovations into a comfortably reproducible genre.
In the end, C is a strangely conservative book. Its vision of the early 20th Century is of a dark Arcadia, where all the boys are feckless and depressed, sex is a terrifying mystery, and even the menus come with coded messages. It may not be great literature, but it’d make a great comic book.
The best book I’ve read this year, by a long chalk, is Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina. It’s been something of a revelation. She published it in 1971: it was meant to be the first of a trilogy, but she died, pretty young and in odd circumstances, before getting the other two down. It’s hard to describe: nothing really happens in it. Maybe a woman dies, maybe not. It’s set in Vienna – but a massively overdetermined Vienna in which all of history, with all its attendant traumas, is breaking through the surface of the present. It’s structured almost musically, with motifs quasi-repeating, or echoing on several ‘channels’ as it were: so in a typical sequence we pan from a chessboard to maps and atlases, with place names – Venice, the Danube – reeling off; then the narrative opens to a vision of wars over territory, humanity displaced and starving; then back to the game.
The second section (it has a kind of triptych structure) is a phantasmagoric interlude to rival the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses: passages to hell, gas chambers, murderous fathers right out of Plath, whole cemetaries of dead daughters – all the while remaining within the Ringstrasse and its polite confines. Bachmann, it turns out, was a friend of Celan, Frisch, Boll, Grass – the whole gaggle of important German-language writers of her period. And she outshines the lot of them – except Celan, of course, but that’s all-but impossible. Apparently she and he had an intense correspondence which has survived: something to look forward to in 2011 if I can get my hands on it!
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We don’t have to read much of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a measured and accessible polemic against (primarily English and American) contemporary culture, to realize that “Modernism” is perhaps not the best term for what he is describing. A reader looking for a neat history of early twentieth century literature, or an analysis of the usual Modernist suspects, will be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised. What we have instead is a richer, broader and more exciting book than is signaled by the title.
Josipovici’s book is not bound by time. To him, a literary form like the novel is inherently “modernist,” and from its origins it has always “pretended or pretended to pretend to be something else.” Cervantes knew that “the novel is precisely the form that emerges when genres no longer seem viable” and because of this, Josipovici argues, Don Quixote is a more cutting edge novel than, say, the latest Booker or Pulitzer prize-winner. This seems like a bold claim, but it is well argued. His analysis of Don Quixote does what the best criticism should: it produces an itch to read the chosen novel or poem.
Contrary to the more comfortable notion of progress through the ages, Josipovici’s argument states that since the sixteenth century, secularism and revolution have eroded authority and undermined tradition, so that the artist is left only with his or her imagination and individuality to fall back on. To our ears this may sound like a blessing — a liberation — but it is apparently a curse, and not just in Josipovici’s mind. Samuel Beckett is quoted as saying that art is reduced to “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Spontaneous creation is drained, the Muse is vanquished, and the soul is absent. Art now has everything to explain, just when the tools and the desire to do so have disappeared.
One doesn’t have to take on Beckett’s bleak philosophy entirely, but its kernel of truth remains. Josipovici presents the example of Hadyn and Beethoven; the former composed a hundred symphonies, yet Beethoven, “no less gifted, no less industrious… could only write nine.” Why is this? “The answer, quite simply, is that Hadyn didn’t feel he needed to start from scratch every time” [my italics]. This is important, and the central point of the book. How many authors do we read who really seem to start from scratch every time, to wrench the book from within, ignorant of the market, uninfluenced by the clichés of contemporary literature? Where we used to have the comfort of tradition and the “sacramental universe,” we now have the ephemeral trends of popular culture, which could also be defined as a devious evasion of the difficult questions with which Modernism has left us.
Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan — they are all avoiding the responsibility of their art, its functions and its implications. To Josipovici, novels are “machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world,” not reflective mirrors or objects designed for middlebrow comfort. To confront this idea and take it seriously is all that is needed to dramatically affect the art. Josipovici gives us many examples of artists who have realized precisely that: from Beethoven to Picasso, Duchamp to Kafka. He finds modernism in unexpected places: especially striking is his reading of Wordsworth, which sits alongside the more predictable, and marginally less interesting, readings of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Wordsworth helps us to get away from the “clichés that everywhere impede a proper understanding of modernism.”
To write a book about this subject at this particular time takes a certain amount of bravery. England is the inheritor of Larkin’s and Waugh’s cynicism in the face of what they saw as artistic pretension. America, while perhaps more comfortable with its experimental side, still contains a climate of literary confidence, rather than self-doubt; certainty and realist narrative, instead of ambiguity.
A long time ago Philip Roth said that there are around 60,000 serious readers in the United States. That is 60,000 who would buy a Philip Roth book, maybe, but realistically there are much fewer serious readers. The kind of readers who sit up late with Ulysses, or who consider Kierkegaard’s Either/Or to be beach reading. What’s more, of these readers I would guess that a significant percentage of them have a go at writing fiction or poetry. Even if they were all lucky enough to be published, a single popular novel would be enough to sap all the media attention away from them (even in the age of the internet, which, by the way, is conspicuously absent as a force in this book. I’m not complaining; it was actually a serene delight to read a new non-fiction book that did not pour on the dreaded “e” prefix remorselessly.) The fault is not with the authors, as such, but with the culture and the criticism surrounding them. It is this that Josipovici wants to change.
And it is a gargantuan task. If contemporary culture has taught us anything it’s that a worldwide web, a few dragging steps towards equality, and a more inclusive attitude in general have almost no impact on public taste. Most people just don’t care enough about the arts to do anything other than lie supine and wait to be entertained, and one wonders if this book can have any traction in a culture that resists elitism so stubbornly. And yet I can’t help but feel that this book is so alive because the world is turned the other way. Even with insurmountable resistance, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an inspiring, sometimes electrifying, call to arms; a serious book for serious readers.
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.
Joshua Cohen’s mammoth (“Gog, Magog, Goliath”) Witz is the new 800+ page novel to vie for your entire summer reading schedule; to make half your book club drop out; to inspire annotations, wikis, lexicography cults. It will be the ire of the lazy reviewer. Dybbuks of lazy reviewers past (perhaps the ones responsible for the reception of The Recognitions) will ascend from Gehenna, boring into the bodies of our current critical ilk, to make right the horrible aesthetic sin of their mortal life. But will the spirits succeed? Or will our arbiters of questionable taste quote from the first hundred leaves and take a nap?
The ground is ripe for high praise. Cohen has proved adept at handling his image and early reception. He’s young (29, and he already has three novels and three story collections out, mostly through tiny presses that do well for his street cred), attractive, and knows how to draw attention. The barbs thrown at Chabon and Safran Foer in the New York Observer alone were enough to get the ball rolling. The buzz is the rare combination of both existing and deserved.
Witz (Don’t make a fool out of yourself: the “W” is a “V”. It’s Yiddish for joke.) is the tale of the extinction of all Jews save the newborn grown man (with beard and glasses) Benjamin Israelien (ben Israel Israelien). 18 million Jews die on Christmas Eve 1999. America reacts by rabidly embracing Benjamin’s religion (Its name unmentioned, the book conspicuously leaves the word “Jew” as a void, the same one where Witz’s God is hiding.) even as he continues in his apathy toward it, eventually fleeing from his handlers and crossing the country and back, finding his way into Polandland where lies Whateverwitz, Whywald, Nohausen, where the few remaining gentiles are sent for their refusal to convert. The plot is simple and linear, a steel skeleton supporting Cohen’s otherwise omnidecadent Babel tower.
Cohen recently remarked in The Daily Beast that he found his father’s friend’s assertion that Witz was the Jewish Ulysses to be an insult. “Problem is … Ulysses is already the Jewish Ulysses.” I predict (well, I’ve already seen) a lot of Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow referencing as well, and while they aren’t too Jewish, so there could be a Jewish them, Witz isn’t at all a Jewish them either. It’s not a Jewish anything other than a Jewish Itself. It’s big, it’s difficult, and it’s stylistically shooting off a salvo of fireworks the whole way through, but other than those similarities to our other favorite modernist or postmodern bricks, readers of Witz will find out right away that Cohen is doing his own thing.
Cohen’s sentences cascade on and on, with clause after clause snaking down the page. Then a lone period allows you a rest and the next sentence attacks, a sensory assault. If I had to compare Witz to anything it would be to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I’ll explain. A few sentences in each chapter move the plot forward. A change occurs in Cohen’s world (a few more Jews die, a few more “Goyim” convert, Ben is in favor, Ben is out) or Benjamin moves to a new location. Sometimes this change even occurs off the page. Then the rest of the chapter is dedicated to the landscape that these small advances in plot create. Roll in the canvasses. There are cityscapes (New York; Miami). There is reservation land and the Mormon stronghold of Utah (the Mormons are notoriously hard to convert). The bulk of the final sixth of the novel takes place in (and here the Bosch is obvious) the hellscape of the aforementioned Polandland: “…A ram ensnared in a thicket, look, and missing its horns; sheep sheared naked, then garbed in the Skin of the Unicorn, see; locusts, my God they’re Locusts, Samuel … storks on parade; geese born of barnacles, grown from a remained grove of trees, hemiformed, varibirthed, the progeny of Ziz or from zat; deer sniffling the most streaks of snails; gelatinous worms splitting earth; ostricheggs boiling on the back of the salamander, slithered from flame; an ass without rider talking its own tour to itself…” it goes on.
If you think you would enjoy pages of that, Witz is it. I’ll admit that there are not a few times where the reader may strain to comprehend what is happening. The last 30 pages in particular go from Jewish Ulysses to Jewish Finnegans Wake. Not that it’s just this mass of difficult-to- relate descriptions, but at times the amount of detail can be so overwhelming as to make the reader feel like she is wading in nothing but a swamp of combinationwords and faux Proper Nouns.
Here I also note that this novel is beyond bleak. Forget Pynchon’s ultimately optimistic humanism (yes, I would say it overwhelms even his paranoia), or David Foster Wallace’s you-could-call-it-religious outlook, or Alexander Theroux’s you-should-call-it-religious outlook. I could still enjoy the novel, but it was difficult for me to see through Cohen’s beautiful brown eyes at times. Cohen doesn’t imagine a way out of his nightmare world, only eternal return. Post-catastrophe most people remain born into “professions and marriages already vetted by their Parents, your Parents’ Friends, our Stockbrokers, and God, becoming Fathers and Mothers they’ll never kill because that would mean above all their own destruction.”
I’m talking a lot about style and saying little about content. I think it will be a while before we get some good analysis. Who will be the first to read this thing three, five, eleven times? Probably not this reader of modest pace. To the first person who reads Witz and even looks up every word they don’t know, let alone makes notes toward a Unified Theory, I wish you luck. Let us pray Witz secures Cohen his due in his own time.
Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.
It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”
This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”
The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.
While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.
While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.
And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” For once, the fawners nailed it.
And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.
And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output. “Unbearably queer perhaps.”
Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.
In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.” When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”
He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.
John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.” Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.
When I first encountered the work of Péter Esterházy, at the 2008 PEN World Voices festival, all I knew of him was his name. But what a name! The House of Esterházy, like an Eastern European amalgam of the Medicis and the Kennedys, was prominent in Austro-Hungarian culture and politics for centuries, until the upheavals of the 20th Century cost the family almost everything. It’s a cost Esterházy assesses in his magnum opus, Harmonia Caelestis (2000), from which he read that night, in his native tongue. “I don’t speak English,” he said. “You don’t speak Hungarian. This is the problem.” Nonetheless, he sent his audience rushing to the merch tables, where his books promptly sold out.
Esterházy has long loomed large in Europe, having annealed its literary-historical legacy in the crucible of his own idiosyncratic, comic, and humane voice. Among his major novels are Helping Verbs of the Heart and A Little Hungarian Pornography, both available in English, and Production Novel and the enormous Introduction to Literature, both not. This body of work earned Esterházy the distinguished Peace Prize of the German Book Fair in 2004 – the year Harmonia Caelestis appeared in English, as Celestial Harmonies. “A writer whose voice is heard far and wide,” ran the citation. “The youngest of the ‘Joyceans’ didn’t just place his homeland in the center of Europe, he also placed Europe in the middle of literature.”
I finally laid hands on Celestial Harmonies last year and finished it this winter – just in time for Esterházy’s appearance at the 92nd Street Y, in support of the just-released Not Art. Through the good graces of 92Y and Ecco Press, Esterházy agreed to a wide-ranging interview via email, with his stalwart translator Judith Sollosy acting as our intermediary. For those just discovering Esterházy, Ecco has furnished an excerpt of Not Art you can read here.
The Millions: Your acrobatic sentences may remind contemporary American readers of Donald Barthelme, or even of Diane Williams, but I’m guessing that when you turned to novel-writing during the Kádár era, such linguistic self-consciousness was sui generis. Can you tell us a bit about how your style developed, and how it fit into the social, political, and aesthetic climate of Budapest in the ’70s?
Péter Esterházy: My admittedly conscious use of language, I think, was not conscious. It was my hand or my stomach that knew. In short, I didn’t approach writing from the vantage point of theory, but from the side of practice – much like a stonemason. A stonemason is brick-centered, too. At the time this was considered marginal, but at the time marginality seemed the natural state of being. The center is suspect. Everything that is official is suspect. Except, in essence, it’s basically the official that exists. This is what we call a dictatorship.
TM: Did you feel yourself to be part of a broader movement of younger writers or artists, or did you have a sense of doing something quite radical? And how did your academic training as a mathematician inform your approach to fiction?
PE: I think that as far as my reflexes are concerned I would have liked to have been a so-called l’art pour l’art writer. But in a dictatorship everything takes on political coloring, and though a writer may declare, or rather practice, that a text is a text is a text (and a rose), still all this ends up in a pronounced moral sphere, it takes on social function; in fact, whether the writer intends it or not, that’s the role it plays. But that’s all right. It is what happened to my books as well.
At first I noticed similar aspirations among contemporary poets (Dezső Tandori, Imre Oravecz). Clearly, the same thing comes off as a sort of radicalism in prose. But my temperament is less radical than it is consistent. I may have brought this with me from mathematics. You can’t divide by zero if you’d like to win over lots of readers, or if it would seem beneficial for the nation. It is language that is radical, and I accommodated myself to it instinctively. I could tell that it was creating me [and not the other way around]. Whereas at the time I hadn’t read Wittgenstein. But no, I take that back. I read him for my Logic in Mathematics class.
TM: And yet, even as you interrogate language in a decidedly postmodern manner, you’re deeply engaged with the earlier tradition of the bourgeois novel – as if you were, like Nurse Emma in Not Art, “the land of avid readers all rolled into one.” I’m curious about your habits and history as a reader: how you came to these works, what they meant for you, and how your reading practice and your writing practice interact.
PE: For a long time I didn’t read contemporary authors, but I did read a lot of classical literature, all the Hungarians – Kosztolányi, Móricz, Mikszáth – the great French, the great Russians, the great English writers. When I read something, I didn’t think of it as a chore. I always read for my own amusement, my own pleasure. The way I drink wine. And whiskey. And grappa… The way I eat.
When I was thirtysomethingish there came a time when I realized that I was reading almost exclusively as work. I immediately made it a rule to read fifteen minutes of poetry every morning. I go to my room in the morning and read poetry.
TM: The first part of Celestial Harmonies, in particular, is like a conversation with Joyce, Nabokov, Thomas Mann, and Lampedusa, among others.
PE: I read Joyce the way I read Balzac. But Joyce was important because – though it sounds like the arrogance of a young man – I saw that I wasn’t alone. That’s why the Austrian avant-garde was also important [to me] at the time. For example, Handke. Or the modern classical authors, mostly the Austrians rather than the Germans, Musil rather than Thomas Mann, Broch rather than Hesse. Still, I had great, orgiastic experiences reading Mann into the wee hours of the morning. That goes without saying. I didn’t know what I was doing, where I was headed (I still don’t, nor do I mind), and I needed some affirmation. I later happened upon a good anthology of American postmodern writers. (Naturally, the title was Entropy.) Pynchon, Barthelme, Sukenick, Barth. The Eastern European postmodern is always more charged with history. When I use June 16th as a motif, it is Bloomsday and also June 16, 1958, the day that Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian revolution, was hanged.
TM: I was intrigued, in light of these references, to learn from the end matter of Celestial Harmonies that you also leaned on Frank McCourt. Are you a fan? What in Angela’s Ashes appealed to you?
PE: I’m not a great fan. But then, I come to someone’s writing not out of admiration but out of necessity. McCourt knows so much about poverty, and the face of Irish poverty is a little different from Hungarian poverty. When I rewrote some passages, it was this richness and strangeness that was important for me. If I had a streak of envy in me (which I don’t, I’d say modestly), I’d say that I envy those for whom the act of writing is so obviously not a problem.
TM: In the second half of Celestial Harmonies, the allusive symphony of the first part gives way to something more nakedly personal. American reviewers seemed to prefer the latter, but in my mind the two constitute a unity, like the stool and wheel that comprise Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel.”
PE: I also hope that the two together make up a unit. At least, it would be good if this were true. I think that if the Good Lord or Goethe had written this novel, it certainly wouldn’t be in two parts.
TM: How did you arrive at this conception for the novel’s structure? Why is each part necessary to the other?
PE: Let me try [to say it] briefly: As I got more and more immersed in my family’s history, I realized that there were a great many stories, practically infinite, which also meant that the family was wealthy, very wealthy. But I couldn’t find a natural linear way of presenting this, not to mention the fact that it was not the relating of the family history as faithfully as possible that motivated me but the other way around; I wanted to say something universal through the family history. In short, there was this heap of stories. Then I attempted to sort them thematically, daytime stories, nighttime stories, where someone is kissed, where it’s raining. But then what am I to do with the story where someone is kissed in the rain who immediately died as a result? In short, I couldn’t come up with a viable choreography, I couldn’t put the stories in order, because this order didn’t exist inside me. So I was left with the numbering.
TM: Is there some specific effect you imagined the two halves having together?
PE: With the numbered stories I managed some sort of historical perspective. By making “my father” the main character of these stories, meaning that I turned everyone into my father, I basically destroyed the taboo of fatherhood. And so it seemed apt that once we’d come to accept this fatherless world, I should relate a Twentieth Century father-story which is very much like my own father’s story.
The relationship of the two parts to reality is different (just as Revised Edition is different, too). Anyway, it’s something like this. Heine was supposed to have said that bad writers write whatever they hear, we good writers write whatever we can, and Herr Goethe writes whatever he wants.
TM: You’ve mentioned Revised Edition – a kind of third part of Celestial Harmonies that appeared 2004. The climax of the earlier novel, in certain ways, is your late father’s arrest – or maybe I should say the character Mátyás Esterházy’s arrest – amid the crackdown of 1956. In Celestial Harmonies, as in “reality,” your father is released and settles into the quiet life of a translator. However, as you learned after the novel’s publication, he also became an informer for the secret police. It’s this discovery you recount in Revised Edition, which (unconscionably) has not been published in English…
PE: Its non-appearance in English I regret, just like you.
TM: For an American, it’s tempting to read this discovery in black-and-white terms – the hero turns bad guy – but most of us have little conception of how the police state works. Or anyway, I don’t. What understanding of your father’s actions did you arrive at while writing Revised Edition? Do you still see him, as he was in Celestial Harmonies, as representative of his time and place? And what kind of information did he provide to the authorities? Have you made your peace with that?
PE: I even grumble when they say that in Celestial Harmonies I erected a memorial or whatnot to my father. But there’s no doubt that I’m to blame for this popular misconception. Also, if we look at the novels and plays in world literature where there is a father, the father in my novel resembles my real father the most. To me, this complicated answer is important, and judging by your first question, I know that you know this. I use my life as raw material for my novels. If I didn’t have a father, I couldn’t have written Celestial Harmonies this way.
I know, of course, that this is not what your question is about, and I don’t wish to digress. My father’s life is an example of how Eastern European history can crush people, their lives and fate, like a steamroller. In a dictatorship, weakness brings its own immediate reprisal. I think that an American can have little idea about dictatorship. (I know that this may sound rather conceited, as if we know something here, or know it better. I do not think this.) A totalitarian dictatorship – and at the time this is what it was – essentially puts an end to society, and the individual is completely at the mercy of the powers that be. This is an entirely different dimension than America in the fifties, the McCarthy era, let’s say.
Paradoxically, for others my father, while he lived, embodied the independence and generosity of spirit that we discover in the hero of Celestial Harmonies. But when he looked in the mirror in the morning, he saw only an informer. And the day began, and he went about his duties as the father of four children, he went to work, seemed cheerful, etc., without any moral backing – there wasn’t any, because he’d destroyed it himself. In the book I could achieve, sentence after sentence, a balance between the personal memories and love and the recently learned facts, but I can’t do it any more. Now I see only my father’s great loneliness (he died eleven years ago), and all the things for which I am grateful to him. In short, my memories are at work, not my knowledge. (Which also means that I could never reconcile the two properly, because I didn’t understand the whole thing, not really.) But I have no wish to play down what happened to him and because of him. If someone who finds himself in my father’s position swears that he never harmed anyone, he is either mistaken or is telling a lie. It is not possible not to cause harm. That’s the problem.
I read through the reports – the ones they gave me, anyway – from 1958 to 1980, and you can see him slipping into the bottomless pit, the filth, the way he initially puts up a fight, sabotaging, then he tries keeping only to form, at which he often succeeds, though not always. If I didn’t mind the risk of being misunderstood, I’d say that I’ve read lots of reports, I saw German Stasi reports, and my father’s is that of an amateur, meaning that he was not spiteful just to be spiteful. But it makes almost no difference. It would be a mistake to use it as an excuse. Not that I want to make excuses. I know many wonderful things and many ugly things about my father….
My father now appears to me like the world: it’s a pretty bad place, but it is very good, it is magical to be alive.
TM: Your most recently translated book, Not Art, concerns “my mother,” who was not an incidental figure in your previous work. Are the challenges of writing about a mother distinct from those of writing about a father, or are they more or less the same?
PE: To me, everything is merely (“merely!”) a linguistic problem. I can mobilize lots of emotion with the words “father” and “mother.” But my approach is not psychological in nature, and so I see no difference. Or else I deny it, even to myself!
TM: Broadly, it seems, your writing has traced a trajectory from romantic love to filial love…
PE: Not so much with Revised Edition as with Celestial Harmonies, something came to an end, I finished writing something to the end, I walked all through the garden. I must now put the camera someplace else…. For instance, if I write about the family, I will not be looking and writing from the inside, because I’ve already provided the inside view. For me, Not Art already indicates a slight shift, there’s a father and a mother, but their fictional nature has gained weight. It’s my autobiography that I consider fiction. On the other hand, all this is just intellectual sleight-of-hand; practice paves the way. (The way that does not exist, and which comes into being because I walk towards it.)
TM: Finally (just for the hell of it): as a committed and enthusiastic appropriator of texts, do you have any thoughts about the case of Helene Hegemann, the Leipzig Book Fair prize nominee who’s been painted in some quarters as a plagiarist?
PE: I haven’t read her book, and whether what she’s done is all right or not can only be answered in concrete terms. These are not easy questions, and the Internet has changed the situation. Friends teaching at the university tell me how prevalent cut and paste jobs have become, the control-c, control-v “culture”. I wouldn’t dream of supporting this lack of culture. But it wouldn’t be a good idea to leave the regulation of such matters to the law either. It would limit freedom needlessly. At the same time, other people’s work should be honored, including the authors of blogs. We need to find a way of balancing these two, to find a solution. A friendly solution.
[Translated by Judith Sollosy; Esterházy photo copyright Nancy Crampton]
If I could read just one book by Author X, which would it be? This may be the hardest question we can ask a fellow reader, insofar as it assumes that we can teleport straight to the heart of aesthetic experience, rather than journeying there over weeks or years. In fact, we often come to the books we love – and learn to love them – by way of other books: Dubliners primes us for Portrait, which shapes our expectations for Ulysses, which earns our indulgence for Finnegans Wake.
In this way, the justified hype surrounding the English publication last year of late Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (If you read only one book this year…) may have done some readers a disservice. Like Joyce’s, Bolaño’s is a sensibility that demands immersion, and for the kind of person who prefers to adjust to the swimming pool by inches rather than jumping straight into the deep end, the massive 2666 may have felt a lot like drowning.
Further complicating the approach to Bolaño is the suggestion of a single roman-fleuve that glimmers around the edges of the work, now brighter, now darker. A knife in the story “The Grub” resurfaces in The Savage Detectives. The first mention of the number 2666 appears in Amulet, while a note among Bolaño’s papers announces that the narrator of the former is none other than Arturo Belano, protagonist of the latter. (And is Belano the same “B” who features in the short stories of Llamadas telefónicas? Or is that Bolaño himself?)
Moreover: like our own universe, Bolaño’s continues to expand long after the Big Bang that birthed it has gone dark. As Wyatt Mason recently noted in The New York Times,
In addition to the eight [books] that have swiftly and ably arrived in translation in the six years since his death in 2003 at age 50, four new books by Bolaño are scheduled to appear in 2010 (two novels, two story collections) with three others promised for 2011. What’s more, according to recent reports out of Spain, another two finished novels have been found among Bolaño’s papers, as well as a sixth, unknown part of . . . 2666.
And so, to help acclimate newcomers to this odd and essential author; to continue mapping the Bolañoverse, as Malcolm Cowley mapped Yoknapatawpha; and to impose some order on the flood of Bolaño releases, The Millions offers the following syllabus, which we’ll update as further translations become available, and as we take comments into account.
1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]
Together, these two stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important work. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile.
2. Nazi Literature in the Americas 
This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).
3. Distant Star 
When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.
4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]
Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.
What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).
6. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]
Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.
7. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” ; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978”  (from Last Evenings on Earth)
The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The last three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. (One wonders when all of Phone Calls (from which these three stories are excerpted) will appear in English.)
8. The Skating Rink 
I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.
9. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]
To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…
…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?
11. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) 
This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.
Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.
13. By Night in Chile 
Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.
Thumbtacked to the wall above my desk is a line from Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. It runs: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Paley could speak of “open destiny” with some authority. A writer to the marrow, she was also a mother, a rabble-rouser, and an inspiration. It must have been hard for her to imagine, working as a typist in the 1950s, that she would someday be honored as a national treasure. That the strikes against her (Radical; Working Class; Daughter of Ukrainian Immigrants; Woman) no longer seem like strikes is a testament to her trail-blazing.But Paley’s most significant significance (to this writer, anyway) is her voice. In 1959, when vernacular prose and aesthetic refinement seemed like the opposed ends of the literary jumper cables – contact to be avoided at all costs – The Little Disturbances of Man crossed wires, and made sparks. Paley came on like a philosopher and a carnival barker, like a reporter and a poet (which she very much was). Her sentences met her friend Donald Barthelme’s criteria for greatness – truth, beauty, and surprise – without the slightest sign of strain. They could rival the richness of Ulysses while seeming as spontaneous as a shout in the street.In “A Conversation with My Father,” for example, Paley’s fictional stand-in, Faith, tries to heed her Dad’s deathbed request: “to write a simple story […]. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.” She spins a story about a neighbor whose son becomes a junkie, and her father insists that she end it there. “I had promised the family to always let him have the last word when arguing,” Faith tells us, “but in this case I had a different responsibility. That woman lives across the street. She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in the house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.) Therefore: She did change. Of course her son never came home again. But right now, she’s the receptionist in a storefront community clinic in the East Village. Most of the customers are young people, some old friends. The head doctor has said to her, ‘If we only had three people in this clinic with your experiences…'”Grace Paley died yesterday, at age 84, having battled breast cancer. But given the buoyancy of her spirit and her passionate engagement with the world, hers is not the kind of death that leaves readers bitter. Rather, it offers us a reminder of our own “open destinies.” I’ll be raising a glass to Paley tonight, and revisiting her remarkable body of work for years to come.