If literary non-fiction is actually a genre distinct from history or reportage, not just a sales category, then Georges Perec's W. Or The Memory of Childhood, first published in the author’s native French in 1975, translated by David Bellos in 1988, must be one of its foundational texts. Perec, one of the first members of the workshop for potential literature (OULIPO), harnesses the group’s dedication to artificial language constraints to tell the story of his early childhood in Nazi-occupied France. Perec’s father was drafted and killed in the Nazi offensive in 1940, his mother was deported with most of Paris’s Jews, probably in 1943, after she’d packed him off to stay with his father’s relatives in the relative safety of an alpine village where he attended a Catholic seminary school until the Liberation. The tale focuses less on the facts of such tragically damaged and destroyed lives as how Perec himself became aware of them. It’s a narrative of astonishing indirection, false memories cluttered with the movies the child saw, the books he read, and yet it gains its force through this very indirectness as we feel the author straining after an impossible restoration. The title refers to a story that Perec claims to have written as a teenager, a utopian fable about a desert-island society organized around a continual olympics. These games become gradually more and more violent, the rules more arbitrary, until the outline of a concentration camp emerges. This emerging allegory alternates with the adult author’s accounts of his often less-than-successful efforts to remember everything the good child needed to forget for his own survival. The letter W (double v, in French) turns out not only to be the double of the teenager’s imagined “vaterland,” but also the key figure of “a fantasmatic geometry” whose transformations through reflections, further doublings, 90 degree rotations, foldings and unfoldings, resolves the letter into swastikas, SS symbols, Jewish stars, and the forbidding X that marks the spot of something never knowable inside the self. More from A Year in Reading
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The weird and fascinating history of books used in swearing-in ceremonies gets its latest entry: the new Ambassador to Switzerland just took the oath on her personal Kindle.
Looking for something to watch this weekend? Got Hulu Plus? Well, start working your way through the veritable treasure trove that is the Criterion Collection. And don’t worry. If you’re as overwhelmed by the selection as I am, this top ten list by filmmaker Dean Peterson can serve as a great guide. Also, for what it’s worth, I’m partial to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev.
A few years ago it felt like one could scarcely read a think-piece in any newspaper or magazine without coming across some mention of the word "meme." Now it seems as though the new meme is the word "trope." Trope is everywhere. One recent incarnation was in Peggy Noonan's column about Sarah Palin in last weekend's Wall Street Journal: "Maybe [Mrs. Palin's supporters] think 'not thoughtful' is a working class trope!" This sentence indicates that a good trope can pull the wool over our eyes.This week, after finishing Philip Gourevitch's excellent book about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, I became engaged in a conversation with a knowledgeable friend on the subject of that country's rebuilding. She knows her stuff, my friend, but her constant references to various African tropes - the tribal trope, the central-Africa-as-eternally violent morass trope - drove me to distraction. Just what the heck is a trope? I felt like the one dry body at the trope pool party.I'd guess that trope has to do with an agreed-upon narrative, an archetypal reading of a story or situation according to the simplest and most widely-held beliefs, a kind of narrative stereotype. In journalism, the trope would appear to be a surface interpretation of words or events that skews away from a deeper understanding of the truth. Trope as I see and hear it used seems indicative of at best this sort of surface reading, and at worst a kind of falseness or even deliberate obfuscation by the invocation of the archetype. I think this is the meaning that my friend used when she talked about how the Rwanda narrative was often defined by western journalists according to a trope of simple tribal warfare - an idea that we can comprehend. But the trope steers us away from the truth of what actually happened.The good people over at dictionary.com define trope as the following: "any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense." Trope is closely related to metaphor or figure of speech. Seems deceptively simple, and I'm still dry.At Wikipedia, I found a tidbit that's closer to my understanding of how trope is used now. I found it under the entry for trope in literature: "Various scholars throughout history... have argued that a great deal of our conceptual experience, even the foundation of human consciousness, is based on figurative schemes of thought." The writer also notes that "Tropes (in the sense of figures of speech) do not merely provide a way for us to talk about how we think, reason, and imagine, they are also constitutive of our experience." Here the writer has footnoted a work by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. entitled "Process and Products in Making Sense of Tropes" from a collection called Metaphor and Thought. "In modern usage," the entry concludes, "'trope' often means 'a common or overused theme or device: cliche.' [footnoted to the 2009 Merriam-Webster online dictionary] though [sic] it is important to differentiate between an overused theme/motif/figure of speech that has lost its meaning (Cliche) and a theme/motif/figure that is used excessively owing to its effectiveness."I ran my preoccupation with trope by the chief Millionaire, Max, and he steered me to a website, tvtropes.org. There they define tropes as "devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations." The site asserts that tropes are not really cliches, since cliches are by definition "trite" and what is trite is by and large not of any real interest. The site operates according to a Wiki-style open democracy. It contains a catalog of numerous tropes that pop up in the plots and visuals of TV shows and movies. There is some really interesting stuff here. It all hints at the idea that there are a limited number of story lines out there, or certain set ways that a story can be told. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. A chasm exists between trope in literature and trope in real life.Some might even argue that any and every story is bound to adhere to certain lapidary parameters of narrative arc and character development. Anyone who has attempted to write a screenplay with the help of one or more of the numerous books on the subject know what I'm talking about. In my opinion, it's a little deflating for the fiction writer to be confronted with the notion that the basic structural elements of a story have not been significantly improved upon since they were codified by Homer.The ubiquity of trope in ideas writing these days can be explained by the memetic propagation of a cool word in the collective consciousness. This idea is a trope of sorts. And that's the trick with trope: when you start thinking about it, not only is it everywhere, but it is, in fact, everywhere. As the Wiki excerpt above suggests, trope is one way in which we apply order and cohesion to the world. It's history repeating itself. It's why one story is a Greek tragedy, and another a Shakespearean romance.Perhaps that's why events like those that transpired in Rwanda in 1994 are so profoundly troubling. They have no precedent in our store of human narratives. There is an irony here, too. As trope takes over, we seem to be confronted by more and more happenings that flip the script. 9/11 is one example, as is Hurricane Katrina and its tragic aftermath. On the positive side, the election of Barack Obama was an unprecedented event, though that too can be couched in terms of a trope. The American Dream. Horatio Alger.Trope helps us grasp inherent truths. Trope entertains us. And it helps us understand the greater narratives of our lives as individuals and members of a society. Turns out I was waist deep in the pool all along. But, as most usage of the word these days hints, trope is a trick. Easy explanations invite our skepticism.
My last post touched on the Pynchon wiki, and a quick visit over there reveals an unexpected problem the wiki's participants are dealing with:Just got some, um, interesting news that the paperbacks of Against the Day will be paginated differently from the hardbacks. And, adding insult to injury, the UK paperback won't be paginated the same as the American paperback. We have to be somewhat amazed at the publishers' total lack of understanding regarding how Pynchon readers approach Pynchon's novels, and quite disappointed in the lack of any attempt by the author to respect the interest of his readers.A page has been set up to discuss the best way to deal with the issue. (Incidentally, isn't it quite common for paperback editions to be paginated differently than their hardcover counterparts? I'm surprised that the Pynchon fans, in their attention to various minutiae, didn't already have a contingency plan in place.)
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