Thursday, January 22, 2015

from Nov 17, 2014



Developers had refurbished all the old houses on Bow Street and the agent and I perched in one of the new restaurants there sipping martinis and slurping oysters.  We watched salt being unloaded onto the Portsmouth harborside from a huge Bulgarian tanker flying under a Maltese flag from the port of Valletta.  We laughed as we savored the briney terrors of creatures and spirits unknown to us.  
A few months before, the agent had e-mailed me that she believed I could get a good contract with a small but distinguished publishing house based on a story of mine that had appeared in an obscure journal in England.  All I had to do was turn it into a novel.  I sent off a vague proposal for doing so in ways as yet unclear to me and we were eating cod cakes at an overpriced bistro in New England.  Thanks for coming up, I said.  Oh, always enjoyable to get out of the city.  Especially to go to Maine, the agent said.  This is not Maine, that is across the river there.  Well, to me it feels like Maine and is close enough.  Right.  New York has lots of things, I added, but not everything.  She asked if I had offers from other publishers?  No and if any came along I would not be enticed.  How will the novel develop she wondered?
I’ll tie in loose ends that come along as I proceed, I wished I had said.  But if she noticed my hand tremor slightly she gave no sign and I repeated my desire to stay with Frank because his reputation as a publisher I respected more than any inducements another outfit might try to offer.  Besides, I assured her this opening scene would not work in any other sort of story.
A miniature flag of the Order of the Knights of Malta stood in the corner of the bookshelf behind the receptionist and tilted against the side of the box in front of it a postcard from Valletta.  They guarded a tightly packed row of books.  Each section of the whole rosewood wall unit was loaded with books and a dusty collection of cards, notes, tiny baskets, ceramic tiles, small bowls, statuettes,  items from a hundred souvenir shops from across the globe.   I thought I would ask the young woman about the Maltese flag, but our attention became absorbed in the paperwork in front of us.  Lara wanted me to have the tests yet again even though I felt fine and we both knew we were satisfying her compulsions.  Since her father had died four years ago, somewhat suddenly of an undiagnosed cancer, she had become obsessed with making sure we both had enough tests to insure against any similar catastrophe.  I managed to keep to one such exam a year.  We waited for close to an hour, the waiting room packed with people mostly our age.  Lara was reading a long book on her iPad these days.  I had forgotten the book I was working on so I leafed through the pile of magazines.  No articles on travel escapes to Malta or any other islands I might be curious to visit.  Beautiful photo spreads of lots of sunny places, sparkling cities, remote beaches and blue depths and expanses.  
Visits to medical centers of any sort trigger thoughts in me that are by now familiar and even consoling.  In large hospitals, in small waiting rooms, we learn to savor our solitude.  Everyone is in the same situation with or without a diagnosis for a specific problem.  Death is taking down someone nearby and we don’t know it, usually, often, and we get attacked by it every so often.  Someone we know dies suddenly or gets a shock of a diagnosis.  If I am symptom free at the moment, for the time being, it makes me delighted and even more on guard as the years add on to each other in my private spinal chord plus enclosing body which it struggles to keep erect.  Hemorrhoids, new eyeglass prescription, indigestion, poor sleep every so often, anxiety attacks, nervous worries, memories of more severe breakdowns, the adolescent depressive states, the short-term hospitalization for mental or nervous problems, lowered cell count, stress-induced insomnia, stomach difficulties, poor appetite, overweight, overeating, underperforming heart rhythms, breathing difficulties, pain in the knees, arthritis that “comes with age.”  Even without a specific crisis, our baggage of health imperfections keeps filling, expanding, getting heavier.  If you’re conscious of time at thirty or forty, you begin a kind of zen reversal once you get past sixty, an aptitude for denial, for ignoring the progressions, for focusing only on the moment at hand and for imagining the next, the upcoming without imagining their worst possibilities.  Algorithms take care of realities, our hearts look for comfort at every turn, in every breath, we become masters at being grateful whether we are really grateful or not.  Our dishonesty with ourselves at what might happen now or later, turns into an unshakeable faith in what is good right now.  Ironies appeal less and less, clever observations fade before the embrace not so much of resignation as of the acceptance of the comfort and security of what is, now.  

I never knew if Lara understood any of this when I tried to say something of it.  She didn’t know, or she did know, that I couldn’t comprehend the grip her obsessions about diagnosis, about the pronouncements of a medical authority, had on her.   These visits to clinics, to doctors and medical centers, became simply entre’acts for other stage of our drama together.  Interludes.  You welcome, eventually, a patience for fulfilling the script at hand that much younger people don’t even have the convolutions in their souls to even imagine.  
I learned this during Olivia’s illness.  Anxiety, terror, depression pushed me to find some glimmer of exaltation somewhere.  When we eventually came out into the other side, it was elation stronger than I had ever felt.  I realized we learn to hover, to oscillate, to compress both feelings into a lifelong devotion to the hum of vitality itself, the faint buzz of consciousness wherein we simultaneously die and live, feel sadly joyful, desperate-ecstatic. 

Her concern for my health figured in a larger collaborative relationship we had forged and at this point her self-interest involved wanting my encouragement to go ahead and adopt an older child.  Lara brought up the possibility about a year ago, not long after her forty-eighth birthday.  We were looking at a disturbing, as always, Diane Arbus exhibit one weekday afternoon at the museum which we often visited.  Lara was self-employed, and I, now a writer.  

Lara had been my student, briefly, years before at a time when I thought I wanted to try university teaching.  It was a dull class, I realized soon enough, on contemporary novels.  She was the best student and we had a few coffees.  I went back to practice, our lives diverged.  Years later when I returned to Portland, she said hello to me one day at Whole Foods.  We fell into a friendship that never would have been possible earlier.  She and her boyfriend of years had broken up a few months earlier.  We found  we enjoyed walking around town, the promenades, the boulevard, the port.  We continued, going on six years.  Our close friends knew we enjoyed looking, not at one another, but at views, paintings, movies together.  Lara now felt age was making her face one key question:  why not adopt a child, even an older child?

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Great show by Paula Poundstone last Saturday night here at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, NH.  

In her honor the final paragraph of Eric Chévillard’s wonderful book of meditations, The Crab Nebula:

     And then Crab sank into silence, slowly, inexorably, vertically, he sank in and eventually disappeared from the gaze of the audience.  There was some confusion among the spectators, a moment of uncertainty, of incomprehension, but they quickly settled on the only credible hypothesis:  a trapdoor had opened beneath Crab’s feet--of course, there was a trapdoor concealed in the stage--and by common agreement, this symbolic burial of the character, replacing the fall of the curtain or the sudden blackout that traditionally signifies the end of a show, was in itself worth the price of admission; with one blow it erased the long days of boredom that had preceded it. (Applause.)

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Another really good line

this-space.blogspot   Stephen Michelmore says

Recently I suggested the reason why the works of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard maintain a fascination with readers is not due to the extreme length of their books or similarities in subject matter but instead the ambiguity of their genre: both are presented as novels yet are so closely aligned to the reality of the authors' own lives that we read them more aware of everyday mystery and chance than in a traditional memoir, and far more so than in 'gritty' realism.

Good Lines

Dwight Garner in today's NYT

10:04 by Ben Lerner (Faber and Faber). This is an intimate yet oddly grand novel of New York City, . . .  The novel’s narrator, a writer, says he hopes to compose a book that is, on some level, “a long list of things that quicken the heart.” Mr. Lerner has written this sort of book.

The almost offhand intensity of Mr. Knausgaard’s prose is a secular sort of miracle.  on vol 3, Boyhood Island

"a memorable portrait of a man caught between two societies."   Maybe I will have to read this Teju Cole after all.  Did like Open City so much.  

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

More on Lerner

I'm thinking that in ten or fifteen years Ben Lerner might write a big novel somewhat like the one I just read by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles' ---Where Tigers Are at Home  which won France's 2008 Prix Medicis.  Similar poetic sensibilities at work.  Layerings of various voices and characters and time frames.  More anthropology than Lerner will get into, but he can replace that with his attentions to cultural events and behaviors.  Where Lerner has Whitman for the historial base, Blas de Robles has Athanasius Kircher.  That gives the book a narrative thread around which the contemporary events are embroidered.  

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Ben Lerner's Second Novel

"Harmony was established at last, and only one straggler continues to disrupt it with his anxieties, his shames, his endlessly reiterated adolescences.  Only man was unable to do away with his consciousness".   Eric Chevillard, The Crab Nebula 101

This book has such good lines every page or so.  Nearing the end now.  

Great German movie last night I had read about and Dennis reminded me of.  We get to finish it this evening.  Very funny.  So hard to explain humor.  Schussmacher.  Break Up Manager.  

Sunday night  we even watched a second of his movies--the red baron and started a third before giving up.  Talented and cute young German actor Mattias Schweighöfer.   Beer with Feeny at Fosters.  His GRE scores are nice and high--96 percentile.  He’s ready to get out of here and on to grad school full-time.  

Am I liking Lerner’s second novel as much as I had liked his first?  Don’t think so but that could be because he has matured and grown up more, both the person and the writer.  

Jeff Armstrong.  Fifteen years my senior.  Fascinating in his own right and yet also that appeal of the much older.  Not quite fatherly, too young for that, and yet much older than brotherly.  Senior, authoritative, experienced, wiser than one’s peers or near-peers.  The charm of the older maybe paragon of something or other.  At the same time, responses that still seem very young---the eternal student with his professor,  English majors in the grad student lounge.  

Lerner puts into his novel the story he published in the new yorker after he talked about how it came about.  Cool and yet it gives us the differences in voice and tone and purpose.  Further deepens all the themes he’s already got going.  He is good.  

 1:34 Monday A longed-for day off of sorts and now I don’t know what to do with myself so I will write and be glad all the while that I’m not currently as famous as the young literary lion of Kansas and Manhattan who I am glad as well that I am not.  About two-thirds through his 10:04.  He is now in Marfa, has been there a week or maybe two.  He is over thirty but he is young still and spooked still by his success with New York publishers and agents and the lure of more money than he’d expected to have by this age--two hundred and seventy thousand dollars after fees and stuff.  Probably a 300k advance which maybe has been standard for a while in new york for promising writers of his first and second book stature.  Poor Sebastiano had to be glad to get that measly little check from the writer’s union second or third book fund, was it $7500. ?  And earlier one of his acquaintances from Iowa, she had gotten the big 300k advance for her first book and where is she now?  A name I’ve not heard anything of since, since her story was in the New Yorker and her advance was news for five minutes among her Iowa peers back in, was it 2005, or 06 or 07?  How quickly the famous pass through the veils of fame back into quietude like the rest.  I think of Jamaica Kincaid, the bright light of a few years back,  New Yorker family connections and all.  Where have we heard of her of late?  

Now at this juncture, would I, should I, put this passage into my so-called novel, even the very very bad one I had hoped to write in vague imitation of Lerner’s new book?  Remember how excited I was two months ago to get it?  How much I needed to have it at once just to see it and start it and use it as my essential prompt and template for getting my own work started and finishes.  Now that I am two-thirds through the very book itself I can pause and stand back and wonder what was I thinking?  A kind of mania in and of itself that covers over, stands in for, the absence of genuine motivation, of a genuine pressure of creativity.  

Now the sunshine is super-bright out in the early afternoon backyard.  I’ve caught up on the laundry.  Rick and I took a short walk earlier before lunch.  Heated up fajitas from last night for lunch.  Bad apple pie, for me, but at least not pecan cake or fruit cake.  Believe it or not I am fruit-caked up.  Excess never lets you down.  The palace of wisdom beckons as reliably as ever.

Sweet emails from Nicholas inviting us to be part of his honour at Buckingham Palace on February 6.  Party at the Sloane Club after the palace.  Not sure whether this is his private party or if the palace also throws a number of parites around town to round off the day for everyone.  Have to ask.  
Petie took Willow off swimming early and they planned to go on to Tilton to the Paris nail salon on main street for their beautification rituals centered around the shell-like growths humans have at the ends of their upper and lower extremities.  Nails they call them, as in “as hard as”  those devices they make and use to fasten together pieces of material used to build things, houses, furniture, roof tiles.  

I give a kudo to Lerner for this phrase on page 182 where he enters into a building or house in Marfa where a party is taking place:  “There was a sense of incoherent opulence.”  Yes.  That’s Texas and every art scene therein.  

Page 183 Lerner uses the word “dissect.”  He’s used the word or a variant too many times now, in the whole book.  If he uses it once more in the remaining forty pages I’ll have to take him off all my lists.  
Now 3:16  Nice nap.  Feel sort of sorry for Lerner.  Nervous for him, at this point, as though I’m watching to see if he will complete his assignment(s) or not?  As though we are watching the normally unreported, inside process of someone who is writing a dissertation in order to gain the doctorate. I can guess where that comes from in my own experience analogically, since I wrote such a thing so many years ago and felt the pressures of having to do so.  But all this is there in Lerner’s book and I guess he knows it and has decided to make all of that the book itself.  Now I probably will go back and look at the piece in the NYRB that Phil sent some months ago that had prompted him to rant a bit against Lerner and against which rant I defended Lerner based only on my enjoyment of his first book, a surprise enjoyment, maybe like everyone who had read Lerner’s first book and which skyrocketed him out of the middle of his generation’s first writers into instant stardom within the tiny worlds of big success poets (where is Campbell McGrath when we need him? huh?) when they are young.  Double-checking here---the internet yet another instrument of cruelty in our hands.  On Goodreads, McGrath’s 1996 book had 92 ratings.  Peak, there.  His 2012 book got forty-one ratings.  
But it is time for goûter,  almost 3:30 and perhaps I’m being harsh on both Ben Lerner and other writers.  

Still, what a luxury it is to be home and nothing much to do but nap, wake slightly, and nap a bit more again.  Winter.  

Tuesday  Dec 30  Rick found a Northeastern Huskies mug at the dump which has become his prize souvenir.  Agenda for this bright day is to see the Hobbit movie in Imax 3D at 3:30 in Hooksett.  

Finished Lerner last night and yes I guess if I were reviewing it for a major publication I would give it all the glow it has already gotten and that it deserves.  Lerner let me down by repeating “dissect” yet again and another variant in the remaining third but of course he is doing so on purpose as part of his poetic constructivist license.  Main thing is that by the final few pages you do feel the joy of his having pulled it all off after all.  I picked a few more nits before we got there.  Some phrases that grated on me, but I suspect I was being generationist there and not allowing the youngsters their new vocabularies for old things. 

10:04 risks having the “concept” or concepts overpower everything, all the stuff about time past and future and present and it risks being too clever by half and too precious and too young and too savy---it risks these things and almost loses it as a high-wire act but yes at last it does pull it all together and it is the achievement few manage in their second important literary work.  It does not read as lightly and as exuberantly as Atocha did.  That was just unexpected pleasure.  This is self-conscious and anxious and careful and risky---all those things but not a great pleasure, somehow.  Enjoyable pretty much, but you’re too aware that the book is too aware that so much is at stake here and we’d better not blow it.  The Marfa scenes could have been elided a bit more.  The whacked out college student in his office might have been cut altogether--but both went too well with Whitman and the wounded soldiers to have lost them.  Still, they almost don’t work and maybe one of them doesn’t.  It’s that sort of book.  But after a debut like Atocha how can you do a next.  Now Lerner has to keep it going.  Or invent something further.  Now I can return to vol. 3 of Knausgaard and relax again and enjoy a work that does not raise all these temporary nervousnesses but which carries us through with the desperate confidence of a forty-year old master rather than a thirty year old wannabe who is, for sure, pretty much there already too.  

First began to discuss Lerner on the first of this month.  Fred sent me a query from DC about it, and a link to the review in the New York Review of Books.
I replied at length.  First Fred and then me in what I paste in below:

1. Poetry: Have you ever taught a course on poetry?   If so, what kind of poetry - 20th century or what?

2.  I just sent you a review of the latest novel by Ben Lerner, the author of "Leaving Atocha Station" and a grad of the Brown U MFA program.   I have such a hard time believing that anyone would publish his kind of "post modern" diffident self-absorption.   The reviewer even admits that there is no story.  It's just a collection of vignettes of slightly fictionalized events in Lerner's life.  But then the reviewer, "a senior editor at Harper's" calls Lerner's writing brilliant and not to be missed.   I'm left thinking that Lerner and this reviewer are two NYC bright lights whose families are related.   

The review reminds me of the NYer review of the Turing film.  After panning the script, the NYer reviewer says one should see it for the "acting."   Oh please!!!!   In films, the casting director and director always select "actors" who fit the role, so that the actor does very little, if any, acting.  

So going to a film because of the acting or reading a novel because the author tosses out a few similes is, to me, scraping the bottom of the barrel for reasons to like the work.

Brown is something very different from when I attended.  I'm not saying I liked Brown back then, but ever since it got to be ultra politically correct and produced writers like Lerner, it has become an embarrassment, I think, to anyone who is truly serious. 

Dec 1

to FJ

1. Well, as Clinton and many other guilty parties would say, depends what you mean by "taught," depends what you mean by "poetry," depends what you mean by "a course."  

. . . .

All that said, I liked this review of Lerner's book and I agree with the writer, Harvey, that Lerner has earned himself a place in some yardstick.  Remember twenty years ago the great white 35 year old writers where the American Psycho guy and such.  Cocaine and wild nights in the city.  I really liked Lerner's first book and I've actually read the first ten or so pages of this new one.  

Why?  He's distinguished himself from the run-of-the-mill products of the creative writing schools of his generation.  Franzen is now 45, even close to 50?  So Lerner is younger and you have to allow him those things we allow the kids.  He's so much better than other recents writers of his age group.  I think because of what Nab said about Gogol---Gogol, Nabokov says that Gogol’s plots are unimportant: “The real plot…lies in the style."  Nowadays I think we like to say because of the voice.  Lerner breaks all the so-called rules of the creative writing classes and trusts his voice, the voice he knows he's making up, as voice.  

By the way I've never read Gogol.  Yikes.  I would much rather read Lerner than try to plow through a new novel by Franzen.  I think spending a lot of time with ol' K Burke warped me in these ways too because his books are offbeat and ultra-capacious, he can throw almost the kitchen sink into his later books and has this habit of stopping after one thought seems finished and saying in print to his reader "So, where are we then?" Sort of like "what shall we do next to pass the time?"  Beckett-like, all of this.  

I did stop trying to be excited by contemporary poetry after a while, though, and went back to prose and novels.  The poets seem to go for instant dazzle as shamelessly as French theorists do.  I'd almost say that Leonard Cohen is the best poet of his/our generation.  Forget Ashbery---he's simply at the top of his coterie, or was.  Coterie politics, that's what so much of what we have been fed as "culture" seems to come down to.  

Could well be that Lerner has been "tapped" by friends of his family in some vein of the publicity biz, but I have enjoyed what I've read so far.  It's fresher than what fills the young writers magazines, as far as I can tell.  By the way, have to send you our friend, Ed Schwartz's, book, "Jews that I knew."  Createspace and very short and fast read.  Catskills humor from his childhood growing up there.  Best section are some Shakespeare plays re-told in yiddishesque dialogues.  

Monday  evening  Nov 10

Big day.  

Decided in the pool this morning to imitate Ben Lerner’s new, second novel.  Reviewer in Bookforum gave it a sweet review and even said “this is a beautiful novel.”  Something like that.  “This is a beautiful and original novel.”  Christian Lorentzen, editor of London Review of Books  Decided that was the trigger my creative process was looking for.  I will buy it, even in hardback, and imitate it, paragraph by paragraph, translate it, that is, “translate” it, ok, from age 35 to age 70.  Why the heck not?  Am looking for a winter project, a wintery project, and have always wanted to do this, to copy someone else’s novel. And I like Lerner, liked his first book a lot because he covered so much of living in Spain that I recognized and liked from my own many times of living in Spain, in Madrid.  Wondered if the title is a direct echo of another book but could only come up with “Leaving the Finland Station” but just checked and the real title of Edmund Wilson’s history of socialism is “To the Finland Station.”  Any way, there it is .  Major writing decision, major moment in this writer’s long and storied life.  

In popular music a cover version or cover song, or simply cover, is a new performance or recording of a previously recorded, commercially released (or unreleased) song, by someone other than the original artist or composer.

Why don’t writers do covers?

Paste in here Calasso’s passage about plagiarism in writing.  

The entire history of literature--a secret history that no one will ever be able to write except in part, because authors are too skillful at obscuring themselves--can be seen as a sinuous garland of plagiarism.  By this I do not mean functional plagiarism, due to haste and laziness such as Stendhal’s plundering of Lanzi; but the other kind, based on admiration and a process of physiological assimilation that is one of the best protected mysteries of literature.  The two passages that Baudelaire took from Stendhal are perfectly in tune with his prose and come at a crucial point of his argument.  Writing, like eros, is what makes the bulkheads of the ego sway and become porous.  And every style is formed by successive campaigns--with squads of raiders or entire armies--in the territory of others.  

    --Roberto Calasso, La folie Baudelaire 2008  Trans. Alastair McEwen 2012

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

One of the great small passages in Roché’s novel that could never make it into the movie, any movie:  

“Jim had a private emotional life of his own which was entirely French and which didn’t intersect the field of their friendship; Jules didn’t want to be concerned in it in any way.”  73  Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché

Monday, July 21, 2014

Valeria Luiselli brings St John of the Cross into her rich mix early in the “novel.”  Good for her.  Awesome in fact.  Brilliant.  The book seems to grow steadily, slowly, even slyly, more and more astonishing.  

“That’s the way literary recognition works, at least to a certain degree.  It’s all a matter of rumor, a rumor that multiplies like a virus until it becomes a collective affinity.”  Luiselli 35
More on Salter.

The early novel, A Sport and Pastime, seems flawless.  And like much afterwards in Salter's work.  I came into Salter through the letters with Robert Phelps and as I finished reading his memoir, Burning the Days, I wished Salter had had Phelps help him edit the book.  I will admit that it did give me me one thing I was looking for---a personal view on the whole of mid-century (20th) of our lives.  He is about twenty years older than me.  He can write passages of great beauty.  A romantic sensibility at work.  And yet a narrowness of vision and focus.  Maybe also a lack of depth and humor.  A day or so after finishing the book, I heard Leonard Cohen singing one of his classics on the Live in London album.  His spoken introduction is wonderful and funny.  He jokes about taking the full gamut of anti-depressants and says he has studied deeply in all the world's great religions.  "But cheerfulness kept breaking through."  Yeah, I thought.  Come on, James Salter, you say you want us to envy your life but you are never as funny or as charming or as deep, really, as Leonard Cohen.  "We are each of us an eventual tragedy." Salter says two pages from the end of his autobiography.  Well, ok, I see what you mean but, geez, put a bit more of a spin on it.  Shakespeare, Leonard Cohen, Beckett, even Bernhard, manage to do so.