Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday night Feb 24 almost 5:30

Need to post a Midway Review because I’m past midway in Hollinghurst’s novel, The Stranger’s Child.  I’m on page 240 in the 435 page Vintager paperback.  Paul the bank clerk is fantasizing about having the school teacher, Peter Rowe, as a lover.  Peter and Corinna teach at the preparatory school for boys that occupies Corley Court, which was of course the childhood home of Corinna.  Paul is helping the arriving crowd park their cars for an event taking place at the school, or are they at the town square?  We are in 1967 and we started back in 19? 1910 perhaps.  So we are in the third or fourth of the five generations who are being portrayed. Totally enjoyable book, so exquisitely well-written that I read more slowly than usual and often pause and re-read just to be sure I’m getting details.  And to enjoy them once more.  Half-way into it, I realize that the most interesting quality about it is that even by now I don’t really know what the book is about. It is about the family, the families intertwined, in some ways by the great house itself, Corley Court, and it is about the passage of time, the generations, and history but history in the proper sense is very much in the far background.  With each section or book, Five of them, there is a shift to a character around whom the rest of the story revolves.  Paul seems to be the one in Book Three we have seen the most of, so far, although Peter also seems featured and the possibility of their romance or flirtation might be what will be the central even.  But even if it is, we know that in the next two Books, the saga will move onward, and exactly how and where we don’t yet know.  The pleasure in this reading feels at once very familiar---British novel of manners, sort of, and family-historical sweep, but again, sort of.  Hollinghurst discovers in here perhaps something as new-familiar as any other writer working today.  We could even place him favorable next to his younger generation Norwegian compeer, Karl Ove Knausgaard.  But where K has taken six volumes, Hollinghurst, the older master, has found how to do his tale in one volume of five slim near-novellas, linked. Even enwebbed.  In each section we enjoy a full portrait of the family as it works within the larger community, not of the nation but of the local region.  A rich cast of characters, memorably drawn in spare lines, and a narrator’s presence as enjoyable as any novel you can recall.  Many reviewers mention James.  Yes, but I have not read James in such a long while I can say I can see why but I won’t attempt to chime in on that point.  I have not read early Hollinghurst either.  I read his Booker prize novel, The Line of Beauty.  

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Last Night:  Finished Sex is Forbidden.  Here is a short passage on page 251:

         The liquid swirled white and brown. Ralph was solemn, moving the heavy motor round and round while I kept the bowl still.  I could see the concentration in his jaw.  There was a veil of cocoa on his young man’s stubble.  Honey on a razor’s edge.  The heavy mix was lifting and falling in soft slaps.  Under cover of the noise, he asked: ‘Can I kiss you again, Bess?’

Ok, Parks, you win.  To explain how well placed, how well poised this seemingly small, unimportant little passage is would take half a book.  With Beth saying to herself “young man’s stubble” we see without yet fully seeing how much she has grown, is growing.  

Parks brings off the final fifty pages of the book with the aplomb of a magician, master of his repertoire of tricks. The book ends with all elements balanced and counterbalanced, maddeningly delightful in a romantic sit-com sort of way.  We smile, we are charmed, all our resistance has fallen, what a wonderful story of Beth growing beyond her recent spate of bad luck and tragic suffering.  How ready she is to embrace life more fully, celebrating by changing her name from Beth to Lisa.  Her temptation for a fling, the diarist Geoff H. is entranced by the ashram and plans to stay on as the sort of Server Beth has been for the past nine months.  They flirt with each other but they don’t give in.  Beth goes to help her mother after news reaches her that her dad has finally left his unhappy wife after thirty-one years of marital less-than-bliss.  Was the Dasgupta Institute helpful to Beth in helping her find her way?  How can she know, how can we know, it was something she tried and failed at and succeeded at and she left when life took her forward.  

Parks has a great knack for this kind of novel or story-spinning. The passage I quoted above shows this--the brilliant detail of the cocoa on young Ralph’s stubble, the inventiveness of the whole mini-scene in the larger scheme of the book.  Entertainment in our contemporary modes.  The Spectator blurb on the back cover says: “eminently readable” and “teases you” to the end.  Yes, it is all true, the book is like that and as I said sort of irritatingly so.  A set of captivating tricks and the satisfaction of finding out everything you hungered to find out about, once all of the keys are struck, the effect evaporates.  Quickly.  Too quickly. To whom am I anxious to say, You’ve got to read this book?  Can’t think of anyone.  

I worry today that I'm being too harsh here.  Maybe, maybe not.   
“But the true voyagers are only those who leave just to be leaving; hearts light, like balloons, they never turn aside from their fatality and without knowing why they always say: Let’s go!”  --Baudelaire

from Flaneur--suitable for this last week of waiting before we fly.  

9:30 pm  Now I have read every word in the whole issue #2 of Flaneur and I’ve even seen a brief interview with the publisher, Ricarda Messner, on YouTube filmed in Montreal which issue no. 3 will feature.  And I read an interview with Fabian Saul on Pretty satisfying reading experience.  Learned a bit about Leipzig, of which I knew nothing.  Through the fragments we glimpse history and people.  It helped or was just fun to look up places on the street on Google street view.  

Beautiful design work throughout.  Very enjoyable.  On Facebook there is a little window for suggesting an edit.  I could suggest Avenida Menendez Pelayo in Madrid.  Or Rue Viala in Paris.  Or --- I was trying to think of a street in Boston but I can't come up with one---the ones I think of are way too major.  It will be interesting to see what they choose for Montreal.  
Arapiles in Madrid could be good too.  Or Condesa de Venadito.  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Now I am on page 192 in Sex is Forbidden by Tim Parks.  I'm through the Middle.  And I have had the feeling for the past thirty or so pages that the Middle has been too long, too much Middle.

Will Beth accept and practice all the teachings of Dasgupta Institute, Buddhist practice and that way of dealing with life, or will she not?  Same question more or less for the older guy she has been stalking by reading his diary, GH.  We don't quite know his real name yet.  We have gotten more of her story and more of his story.  Both are going back and forth, back and forth, trying to decide, trying to find out, if they can really buy into, achieve, the teachings of the Buddhist practice preached in this ten day retreat.

My experience of the book has been ruined, of course, somewhat, by the fact that I read a little bit about it before I started it.  But it was that prior attention that made me decide to give it a look in the first place.  Parks has made some new statement in his life's work, or some Turn in his interpretation, his attitude, toward what stances he wants to take towards all of these big questions in life.  But the book now feels like it is trying too hard to dramatize the back and forth of indecision, of the confusions experienced in all such retreats and meditative withdrawals from ordinary life.  What we have underscored is the fact that we are reading, after all, a sort of tract or pamphlet and not so much a novel as we want to think we enjoy novels.  We are in the midst of a teaching fable, a novel-like koan, another imitation of one of the Buddha's teaching tales, or even those of Jesus.  We are being made to think, to search for meaning just as the characters themselves are searching for meaning, but we're more clear now that they are not characters but aspects of our own minds, our own selves, of EverySelf.  Beth, GH, woman, man, lives messed up, mid-way into their own trajectories, we are deep into spiritual reading, or what is a simulacrum of such for hip contemporary readers, but as lively as the writing is, as clever and with-it the descriptions of ashram detail and as inventive the life stories are, we feel delayed and blocked with each passing page.  Was this really the best way to present all of this?  Why not have started with the new position rather than re-enact the discovery of it, the journey of it?  However Parks in real life did go through major phases, major changes of view, can he effectively capture that in the style of this kind of fictional re-telling?  I am much more skeptical than I was at the outset, and I don't think that is what he wanted from me by the time I've gotten to this stage of the book.

About seventy-five pages to go.  I will enjoy them, the book is a pleasure, but will I smile in utter admiration.  I don't think so.  Come on, Tim, surprise me.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Wonderful and beautiful snow day here in Center Central, New Hampshire.  

You’ve heard of Goodreads and of course book reviews on Amazon etc.

I’m inventing Midreads or the Midway Review——reviews of books when one is about half-way in.  I’m on page 92 of 278 pages of Tim Parks “Sex is Forbidden,”
the novel about the ashram where he supposedly changes his life and changes
the kind of novel he now wants to write.   By page 92 the book is humming along
nicely.  He clearly has written lots of books and is confident in every move the
book makes.  He’s got a clever set-up, Beth the woman who works as the ashram,
the newcomer visitor she is sort of stalking and secretly reading his secret and
forbidden diary, the other characters in the ashram, both permanent and visiting, the guru himself and his main disciple, the whole scene of people coming to find ways to deal with their terrible lives.  

Beth is funny and the book is bound to get funnier, we think.  She is plagued by
all the same human failings we all would have if we tried hard to get into the
devotedness of ashram life but just, finally, couldn’t.  She has tried, tries, to be
competely calm, meditative, simple, focused, mindful, charitable, in the moment.
But she can’t quite bring it off.  She hungers, again, for male relationship in spite of the ruined ones she has tried to move on from.  She loves the illicitness of reading the strange man’s diary, which she had found and keeps going back to
whenever the forbidden chance to do so presents itself.  His life as he writes it
in his diary book is a mess.  He scourges himself with remorse and confusion
about what to do next, who to try to be, who he wishes he had not been.  

Beth dislikes fat Marcia but is forced to help her and be kind to her.  She is 
learning a bit more about the saintly Mi Nu who lives apart in the bungalow
and not with the community proper.  Beth is not as much a mess as she thinks
she is, and we forgive her her faults more than she does so far.  

After I contact my website developer in Silicon V, I will finish this brilliant
midway review.   First I will get the website up and running, with all future rights in my name alone, all profits and tie-ins will link to my financial accounts, and then everyone can sign up, a new social media site will be born and people
will relish talking to each other about the books they’ve started but not yet
finished and they will feel doubly liberated to know they need never finish the
book to enjoy all the rights and privileges of MidReads and the MidwayReview.

I might eventually sell the rights to MidwayReview to the University of Chicago since they often use Midway as one of their tags for themselves.  

Tim Parks will have to keep googling his book to find out sometime in the future
just how much I liked it or not after I’ve finally finished it.  

all of the above copyrighted and registered to me; all rights reserved; all legalities certified and justified.  No poaching.  Only filty lucre and praise.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Started Tim Parks’ novel “Sex is Forbidden” to see what his recent big change is about.  His true fans didn’t like it.  But so far it seems pretty ordinary and is starting to be funny---when our heroine, Beth, finally writes her own entry in the forbidden journal of the guy she is stalking in the meditation ashram.  

Read more of Hollinghurst yesterday and then re-read much of it last night to be sure I caught every nuance.  Am sure I did not, quite.  Have to be a Brit of his generation to catch more of it.  But he is exquistely good, Jamesean for sure and feels more lucid because contemporary.  Downton Abbey has helped me slide into Hollinghurst---same period more or less and formality and all that.  Britishness.  As foreign as every other foreign.  Somehow the tv show demonstrates that even more than novels do.  The pacing of the dialogue, the non-sequiturs that pass for dialogue and conversation between, among, characters.  American writers would just not do it that way.  Not sure if Julian Fellowes writes every single word.  That might be how and why it is so strange.  Liturgical really.  I’ve decided that--that Masterpiece T is not theater at all but liturgy.  Worship ritual.  If you don’t go to church every sunday morning, PBS gives you a virtual liturgical fix every sunday evening. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Most interesting thing all day, few days ago, may have been in the Dunkin Donuts before the movie.  Twin brothers in their late 30s, each with neatly trimmed heavy black beard, talking Christian theology and church, the dominant twin lecturing the quiet twin about the true nature of Christian interpretation and worship.  Mentioned the Church of the Sepulchre and realized they meant the one in Jerusalem.  That and the fact that they looked Greek-American made me decide they were Greek Orthodox.  I think there is a large population in and around Nashua. Something rather touching about it.  “It is all still going on.”  

“In any reconstruction, it is always only what is pleasing that emerges, while that which genuinely existed eludes demonstration.”   113 Walser

“The author of the clown essay deserves recognition in my view because he takes seriously the good cheer that stems from immediacy.  I am just reading a book by a celebrated novelist who cold-bloodedly antagonized yet another celebrated novelist by one day writing him a letter that accused him of having a “sycophantic soul.”  In truth he merely envied him his open, carefree mode of artistic production.”   112 Walser

That carefree mode seems apt with regard to the work of César Aira.  

The Hare feels longer and “earlier” than other Aira books I’ve enjoyed.  I suppose I am staying with it more because I’m now, have long been, a “fan” and so I give him all the benefits of the doubt.  With Sergio De La Pava, though, I loved A Naked Singularity but had to finally speed through the end of Personae.  But I’m still a fan of De La Pava, too.  He writes in American English and he’s terrific.  

Been thinking about the start of interest in translated lit.  Catholic childhood in western Maryland, on West Virginia line.  Everything was in Latin in church so prayer books etc were Latin and English.  That must be the “source.”  Learned to sing Gregorian chant in college just a year or two before the Vatican did away with it.  La Salle college in Philadelphia.  Standard English major with a touch of French but not enough to do more than stumble through L’Etranger and barely make sense of it.  Married Virginia a few years later, however, and she was a Spanish major and since then she has taken me to Spain lots of times and in ’98 all through lots of Latin America.  

After a few weeks in a Spanish-speaking country I can get back into it but I’ve never had more than the present tense.  Zen Spanish I call it. Strange as to why I never fully dove in and mastered Spanish enough to read the lit.  We made money on our travels by teaching English conversation classes.  Then in my teaching at Plymouth State I fell into teaching the world lit, global lit, classes in translation.  Plus I started a course in Travel Lit that I taught for years.  Somewhere along the way I decided to make a positive out of “flaneuresque” reading and decided that translated English tends to have its own tics and textures of style and even thought.  By then I had found out more about Beckett’s whole project of going into French and back into English.  And by then I had more of a sense that staying in one language could be fully justified from various (bogus and possibly valid) angles.  I could tell too from reading Spanish authors in English such as Javier Marías just how good a translator Margaret Jull Costa is.  She also does Pessoa.  etc etc

One sideline:  we took our son to Spain when he was 10-11 for our longest stay there—16 months.  He became perfectly fluent and started correcting his mother’s use of the tilde—after she hung up the phone one day.    Fifteen years later he married a French woman and now has perfect French too.  He has a musician’s ear for it.  His wife speaks English, and German too.  Those darned Europeans.  Her mother is a German teacher.  

Virginia is a scholar of Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclán—Spain’s great Modernist writer— impossible, yes, to translate.  Joyce/Pound/Yeats/Pessoa rolled up into one.  Maybe that helped keep me from trying, or confirmed me in my laziness. I had never heard the word “flaneur” until I was maybe 45? or even 50.  But I was already a confirmed wandering layabout by then.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday night now.  Read a review of Knausgaard in London review and a review of Tim Parks in NYRB.  Rupert sent the former and Phil sent the latter and I’ve written this to both.  
I hope Parks is deeply grateful for the long and very closely considered review.  I almost wonder if the review-essay is not better than the novel itself.  It is so detailed that I found myself having less and less interest in possibly ever looking at the novel itself.  And maybe it is an example of that old saw—damning with faint praise because while Walton does say (politely?) that Parks really does deserve a bigger reputation than he has had to date, he doesn’t rave about the current book in any convincing or persuasive way.  He finds it to be strange and after each detail he adds we say to ourselves, “even more strange than you had told us.”  And then there are the moments of comic relief, at Parks expense it seems, when we get the  details about the naked bodies and the place where I chuckled out loud: the paragraph about how the publishers don’t seem to know what to make of the book: “they quote a review optimistically describing it as a ‘fast-paced comic novel,’ a phrase in which only the word “novel” feels accurate.  More appropriate would have been the quotation from Schopenhauer that Parks used in his demolition job on Salman Rushdie: ‘The art [of the novel] lies in setting the inner life into the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life’—although you can understand why the sales department might have vetoed that.”

Finally, when I learned that Parks has lived in Italy since 1987 or something, I thought of your ex-pat friend who lives in France and I got off on an inner rant that goes like this:  sorry, any writer who lives the ex-pat life in some warm, picturesque or faux-toney place like Italy or Corsica or such, can no longer be considered a “serious” writer back in his native land and reviews of his work will be forbidden.  I thought too of Jonathan Carroll, American novelist who has lived in Vienna for years (after the peace corps maybe?).  Long string of novels published steadily over the years.  No one has heard of him but enough have heard of him somewhere (UK?) that he has a following, a core of readers, a publishing record.  

And my point now is?  A big journal like the NYRB should play some sort of game its own power and delusions and announce a policy of randomly publishing every so many years only manuscripts from the slush pile, review only books by self-published authors, find writers who have a miniscule reputation in a specific locale.  

Or some other such fantasy project.  Look up Ron Rash—for example.  North Carolina author—the voice of  Appalachia, winner of the Thomas Wolfe prize and of the biggest money prize for short stories.  

I guess Tim Parks does nail it.  What the heck do we want & wouldn’t it be better if we all took up Buddhist meditation.  

The review of vol 2 of Knausgaard is written by Sheila Heti.  She makes the mistake, in my mind, of building her review on a moment when she actually met Karl Ove K briefly and asked him briefly about a specific moment in the book and he replied Oh no, I made that up.  Why on earth would she believe him even if they were there in real life speaking to one another?  As a writer herself, wouldn’t she know that at any given moment, under any sort of momentary provocation an inquiry, a writer, a person, is liable to say anything for any zillion number of reasons.  Especially people in the arts, the performing arts, actors, writers, comics, poseurs, fakes, pretenders, interviewers, anchor people, spokespeople, shapers of public opinion and taste, journalists, etc.  And then for Heti to make a reviewer’s crisis-drama out of what is true, how can we trust Knausgaard in some other part of the work if he says he “made up” that poignant and telling detail about the orange peel and his father sweeping his hand through his hair.  We all really pick and choose by our own lights and moods when we want to be literalists and when we want to be mythologists and contextualizers.  And so do the writers we enjoy reading.  There is an item making the rounds on Facebook precisely about this, at least about the form of it, the form it takes, the basic trope.  A writer named Rachel Held Evans post an item on her site called “Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony . . . ‘…Or divorce, or gossip, or slavery, or head coverings, or Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, or the “abomination” of eating shellfish and the hell-worthy sin of calling other people idiots.  Then we need a little context.Then we need a little grace.  Then we need a little room to disagree.”

Same holds for the literary worlds, I think, and the ever on-going hand-wringing about fiction and non-fiction, truth in fiction and truth in life and truth in memoir or re-created narrative or on and on.  Tim Parks has found that taking up Buddhist meditative practice really won’t solve these questions any more than reading novels will do so.  Vonnegut told us that reading novels was the Western form of zen meditation.  
Rick Whitaker has taken a more extreme version of this anxiety to it’s logical and admirable point of perfection.  His new novel An Honest Ghost is a total mosaic of passages from other books, other writers.  I’m only about one-third of the way into it and I’ve begun to learn how to enjoy it more fully as I keep reading.  For one thing I’ve taken to, finally, almost restrain myself from constantly turning to the back of the book where we can find exactly who said that originally, what book each phrase comes from.  There is a loose and recognizable narrative that belongs to Whitaker as the originator of the book, the collector and arranger of the quotations.  But there are two books, or a bicameral set of experiences:  the narrative as poetic assemblage and the list of sources for each chapter.  The Chord and the Arpeggio.  Since the story is much about being gay, however, I find myself wondering if Whitaker has not re-invented a new/old kind of closet for himself, or for his characters.  With a perfect mosaic of other voices, we have no narrative voice telling the whole story.  Or at least not one that is much more available to us than the thin lines of grout between the tesserae will have be necessary.  I read Whitaker’s first book some years ago and I took a look at it again to refresh my memory.  It gives the reader the real pleasure of the narrator’s voice, a memorable voice, distinctive, complex, companionable, genuine.  I wonder now why Whitaker, so successfully public as a gay writer has decided to re-closet the narrative voice he is capable of creating, even if it is behind not quite a solid door but a curtain of shifting beads.  The “second” book listing the sources is fine as a variant of the old commonplace notebook:  Whitaker has read widely and deeply and you get to be surprised at times (I thought I was the only one to have read Kenneth Burke’s only novel, or 8 Gates of Zen by John Daido Loori).

But the “first” book, the story, is too percussive as tale.  Closer to music and poetry, prose poetry, poetic sequence.  That’s how I am now trying to keep reading the book.  Not sure I will or want to finish.  It has all the curiosity factor of a strange, found object, yes, and the appeal of an Oulipo sort of game, yes.  But as with a chocolate ice cream cone, after three or nine licks, the most intense excitement dies fast and one keeps eating just because.