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.

Friday, December 13, 2013

My junior year at Maryland I started to think about grad school.  There was a youngish professor in the philosophy department who talked a little bit about it.  He wanted me to major in philosophy in grad school and I think he was from Northwestern.  He might have suggested that I look up departments and faculty members and such to shop around.  Again, I had no idea what it was all about or how to do it.  I finally decided I couldn’t possibly do philosophy.  I enjoyed his courses in people like Plato but other courses involved contemporary language analysis, lingusitics and epistemology and I could barely understand one third of any of it and wrote bullshit papers that managed to get Bs.  I guess I looked at Northwestern and then at Chicago because Dad had once taken the whole family on the train there when he went to a grocers' convention and I had faint and happy memories of that adventure in the Windy City.  Can’t recall where else I applied nor if I was accepted anywhere.  Some memory of asking a professor and having him say, well if you got accepted at Chicago that’s the place to go.  Might have been Duquesne in Pittsburgh, the other place.  I must have vaguely known that Peace Corps was an option after college but it was fairly new and I had no first-hand urging from anyone in that direction.  Plus in my mind it would have felt too much like joining a religious order again, missionary version.  

There was the clear mandate to keep a student deferment going somehow and a clear notion that I had no idea of what I wanted to do about anything.  I enjoyed the full year, four quarters, at Chicago tremendously even though I did feel like I had to run extra fast to catch up with all the bright shits from the ivies and other better colleges.  Funding ran out in some way after the year in Chicago for the masters so I looked for a teaching job and felt really lucky to get one at a small college downstate in Decatur, Illinois, Millikin University.  Miss Milner roomed next to me in a rooming house across the street from campus.  It was her second year at the college.  No clear memory of when we decided to get married, maybe late fall or early winter.  Colleagues at the college, we learned later, had a betting pool on us.  March of that year Virginia announced she had just gotten a full scholarship to go back to grad school at Chicago.  Her masters was from NYU in Spain.  I managed to complete one paper a year overdue and got my masters that spring.  But when she said she got this full fellowship I asked her why did she apply to Chicago.  I had been thinking about moving out to Berkeley—but had neglected to tell her that.  With her full funding it was Chicago we would go to.  I re-applied there for the doctoral program and managed to get a teaching job at the Calumet Campus of Purdue University, about an hour commute from south side Chicago.  First year back I taught there, then the year after I got into the doctoral program but with some partial funding so I must have borrowed some from my parents.  Two more years in Chicago and we both were at the end of university connected funding and it was Virginia’s “turn” to get a job.  New Hampshire and the rest is history.  There were zero jobs available in ’71-72.  I think she had an offer from a place in Kalamazoo or Kankakee, from a community college in the inner city of Chicago and from Plymouth State.  She had gone for the interview by herself, so I had never seen any of New England until we drove the VW bug and a U-Haul truck here.  I hated leaving Chicago because we had had a great time there.  And we really sort of told ourselves we would stay in Plymouth for two maybe three years max, have our degrees in hand and then most likely live out our days at Swarthmore or Skidmore, Oberlin or Antioch.  Some such toney liberal arts place even if we had never heard of it before then.  We didn’t want to go back to Millikin nor to any part of the midwest.  Harvard would call, surely.  

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I’ve long thought that what prepped me for lit theory were all the religion classes in high school and first three years of college.  Later at MD I switched from theology minor to philosophy minor.  But back in high school, maybe even late grade school, those religion classes we would try to stunp the teachers with questions that tried to trick out every contradiction we could find in religious teachings.  If God knows all, how can we have free will?  If you spend your life murdering people and on your death bed you have a conversion and receive the sacraments can you still get into heaven?  Stuff like that.  Then in college more reading in theology.  Lit crit and lit theory in grad school then seemed a slightly weaker version of such speculative big think.  In fact I nearly got into a little trouble for plagiarism in one course because I cited some stuff from Aquinas in a paper and the prof called me in to his office to ask where I had gotten the ideas and passages and wanted to be sure I really knew about such things first-hand.  

I never took a course with Wayne Booth.  A friend said to me one day, let’s take an independent study with Booth next term.  Why?  I asked. I had heard of Booth but knew nothing about him and never had heard one could take an independent study with anyone.  Well, it would be different and fun, said the friend.  He went to ask Booth and later he and I and Marjorie G-- met with Booth.  He said he would meet with us once a week and asked what we should study.  He said he was working on a book and wanted to have us study either R S Crane’s work or Kenneth Burke’s.  I said I’d never heard of Burke and asked him who he was.  He said he was a critic who disagreed with the Chicago School and attacked them a bit and was also a bit unusual and difficult.  I said, Let’s study him and so we did.  We read one of his books called The Philosophy of Literary Form.  

Booth had been a student of R S Crane, high admired prof at Chicago who had died probably five years before I got there.  Crane led a small band of literary critics in the late ‘50s in a revival of studying Aristotle with an eye to using him to attack and correct the New Critics who held forth at Yale.  They got to be called The Chicago School.  They agreed with the New Critics in being sworn to studying only literary form (close textual analysis) and keeping off the table questions about history and biography.  Burke was “outside” all of these warring factions, partly because he was never situated at one of the big universities.  His power base had been New York where he worked free-lance for mags like The New Republis, The Nation, and earlier the very influential Dial.  Crane’s work was very dry, he was trying to make criticism be as respectable as scientific discourse.  Burke was much livelier and brought in the social sciences.  He essentially advocated subsuming the social sciences under the dominance of literary thought—a position which lost the battle over the long run.  He was definitely a literary thinker so I found it disheartening that his work was pretty much ignored by the literary world, especially as he aged, but got adopted big-time by the burgeoning social science wing of English departments at the time—Communications, which quickly broke away and became much more successful and wealthy.  

Burke started college teaching in the Depression to make some money.  He had left New York to be a farmer-writer in northwest New Jersey right at the time of the crash.  He taught one term a year at Bennington.  That’s where Sontag was his student.  I’m sure he was a big influence on her but I doubt he was the most powerful shaper of her career.  She was probably enrolled in the New York Jewish intellectual elite from the time she was in denim overalls by the age of eight.  But it was unfortunate that she turned to attempting to write fiction.  I think she didn’t try it until relatively late in her career but I may be wrong.  I never read her very much but I had the impression her first and biggest success was with books on critical thought, one especially called “Against Interpretation.”  

It’s amazing how susceptible we are, I was, at 22 when all this started to take place.  I did one paper for Booth and Burke that one Quarter (ten weeks).  He wrote on it—"ready to be published.”  That bowled me over and I had no idea what to do next.  It totally scared me.  I never went to him and said Tell me how to publish this, where.  I had no idea what I was doing back then.  We moved here, took ten years until I finally wrote the dissertation the year Va was pregnant with David and there was a full-time opening in English here and I had to finish the degree or be booted out.  Nothing like pressure.  At the start of grad school it was the draft, twelve years or so later it was getting a job.  

Fifteen? years later Booth writes (we had been in touch off and on) and says Hey I just re-read your dissertation because I’m giving a paper at a conference on the same topic.  It is really good.  Did you ever publish it?  Gee, why didn’t you say that fifteen years ago?   In other words back in our day there was no such thing as “mentoring” —and if you were as clueless as I was, and as lacking in ambition or drive or whatever, you had no “career.”  Well, I oversimplify but that’s basically it.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Just yesterday Scott Esposito published his review of Personae in the Washington Post.
He really likes De La Pava and gives the book as glowing a review as possible.  He manages to describe more accurately than any other review I’ve seen exactly what all is in the book:  
Like its predecessor, “Personae” begins with the investigation of a crime: Detective Helen Tame arrives at a Manhattan apartment where Antonio Arce, over a century old, has died. She eventually acquires Arce’s notebook, and in due time we read the impressionistic memoir at its heart, but only after meandering through excerpts from Tame’s scholarly paper on Bach and Glenn Gould, a short story about swimming out to sea, a two-act Beckettian play, Tame’s explanation of Arce’s death and two obituaries. The book’s final 50 pages — Arce’s memoir — take us from a suicide mission in the jungles of Colombia to a love story in New York City and feature some of the finest writing of De La Pava’s burgeoning career.
Split unevenly among Tame’s section, Arce’s section and an 83-page absurdist play, “Personae,” is united more by its themes than by any one narrative. The play is the strangest and most difficult part of this book. It involves several mental patients engaged in furious conversation. A gun is introduced in Act I and fired in Act II. There’s also a spearing, a gender change, a severed head and an eerie drumbeat that may herald disaster. In spite of all that, what looms largest is the play’s obsessively recursive dialogue, which opens with several pages of argumentation about what everyone’s name is.
This challenging play is balanced by the portrayal of Tame’s and Arce’s extraordinary minds. Tame, who begins playing the piano at age 5 and gives world-class performances at 20 before quitting to become a detective, comes across as a methodical and quirky cop. Similarly, Arce, a commando of superhuman strength and an exquisite writer, is nonetheless tongue-tied at the sight of a beautiful woman.
De La Pava presents characters widely separated by time and space and then shows us how they become drawn into one another’s lives, despite the odds. Most of all, he inquires into why people fight to comprehend others they barely know.
But even a die-hard fan has to concede defeat sometimes and Esposito does:  “But “Personae” is not completely successful.”  He gives a few reasons why, but not enough.  
At the end Esposito still praises the author he helped “find:”  “De La Pava is proof that experimental literature can be devilishly entertaining.”
In a review for the November issue of The American Reader, Esposito gives a very negative review of Marías’s Infatuations.  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tuesday late afternoon
What a struggle to continue reading Personae to the bitter end.  I will take M.A.Orthofer, inThe Complete Review, at his word and say, ok, give it a B+ but I haven’t had such difficulty forcing myself to finish a book since plowing on through Salvatore Scibona’s The End.  

Why did I just not finish it, then?  Personae.  I did manage to skim the last five or six pages.  But, you know, you get so far in and then you just want to keep looking at the train wreck or whatever it is you’ve got in your hands between the front and back cover.  Besides, every so often the writing flashes and clicks, just as writing.  I wondered whether I was just old enough to have never played video games.  Was that it?  They guy is not clueless or anything.  He is doing something here, but what it is interests me less and less and less as I move through the book and then, last twenty pages? not at all.  Not at all.  Please God the third book will be as super fine as the first book is--everyone must read A Naked Singularity because it is just brilliant and funny and superb and unbelievable in all the splendid ways.  

Monday, December 09, 2013

Phil had noted a contradiction in the book---this passage on page 135
“Once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with.”
And a second version on page 233  “ What happened is the least of it.  It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten.  What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”  
Maria Dolz is reporting this now as something she remembers Javier having told her when she had asked what happened to Chabert back on 135 of our novel.  But now Marías has Maria add “That isn’t true, or, rather, it’s sometimes true, but one doesn’t always forget what happened, not in a novel that almost everyone knew or knows, even those who have never read it, nor in reality when what happens is actually happening to us and is going to be our story, which could end one way or another with no novelist to decide and independent of anyone else . . . “  
But we know by now that Marías can allow his character Maria to disagree with what Javier told her about the nature of novels because by now we know that Javier’s claim is true, or rather his theory of why novels are important is by now firmly lodged in our consciousness as true and so now we can disagree with it a bit---enjoy hearing Maria disagree with it a bit as a way of emphasizing her reality to herself and her own meditations on her reality versus novelistic reality, all of which further underlines the great reality we have been giving to the novel we are still reading, whatever our own personal real lives are like.  
I looked up the idea of contradiction in The Infatuations and the first piece it found is a review in the Times by no less than Edward St Aubyn.  NYTimes August 8
He describes the novel so well and knows Marías’s work so well that I now despair saying much about it because if I do I will produce a very poor work of envy---the very motive and emotion that the novel depicts.  St Aubyn points this out so well:
quote  Few things attract evil’s indignation more than a Perfect Couple, whether it’s Adam and Eve or Miguel and Luisa. The particular form of evil that preoccupies Marías in “The Infatuations” (as it did in “Your Face Tomorrow”) is envy turning into betrayal. The definition of “envidia,” or “envy,” in Covarrubias’s dictionary of 1611 is quoted three times in “The Infatuations” (the reappearance of the same blocks of prose is another signature effect of Marías’s novels: prose aspiring to the condition of music, bringing back a theme, not in a vague or allusive sense, but in exactly its original form): “Unfortunately, this poison is often engendered in the breasts of those who are and who we believe to be our closest friends, in whom we trust; they are far more dangerous than our declared enemies.”  unquote
He notes too how Marías conveys great empathy toward the characters and great emotional generosity.  
Such a high level of reflection and digression (let’s not even get into the amount of literary allusion) might easily become too cerebral, but Marías’s powerful awareness of indecisiveness and delusion is born not only of a speculative frame of mind but of a penetrating empathy. At one point the narrator gives voice to Miguel’s bereaved possessions, the clothes hanging in his cupboard and the novel with the page turned down and the unfinished medication in the bathroom cabinet, to consider what they might make of his death. This feeling of emotional generosity tempers the literary thinking, as do the scenes of pure comedy, like the Oxford high-table dinner in Marías’s novel “All Souls,” with its Buñuel-like degeneration of absurd formality into violence and contempt. 
Marías’s line about the possibilities a novel infuses us with could be the epigraph for every novel.
The musical style of the work St Aubyn notes well too :  “the reappearance of the same blocks of prose is another signature effect of Marías’s novels: prose aspiring to the condition of music, bringing back a theme, not in a vague or allusive sense, but in exactly its original form”
It is so good an essay-review I could just copy all of it out--one more big quotation for how it describes his style---
Marías has pointed out that the Latin root of the verb “to invent,” invenire, means to discover or find out. His special gift is to bring these two processes, inquiry and narration, into a conjunction, making things up as he discovers them and discovering them as he makes them up. He never works to a plan, and so his prose stays close to the thought processes of a writer working out what to say next and responding to what he has, perhaps mistakenly, just said. “The Infatuations” goes on to explore the narrator’s relationship with the widow and with the best friend of the murdered Miguel. At first he appears to have been killed by a stray madman. The plot, several times changing our perspective on the murder, works very well as a thriller, but it is essentially a pretext for advancing the skeptical worldview embodied by the style.  
Skeptical worldview embodied by the style.  Seems a perfect characterization.  
Now we could privately debunk a bit just for the exercise.  If Marías is making fun of himself in the portrait of Garay Fontina, the obnoxious writer who is waiting to give his speech for the Nobel Prize, it could be further proof that he is, after all, one of those laureates whose whole trajectory is to win the laurels, in other words the star pupil driven to be the star-of-stars by-the-book, to win the A+ from the teacher, and not by genuine creative brilliance.  What he provides as high entertainment for this generation of readers may not be great literature at all but high-highness of entertainment---yet another variant of masterpiece theater---visible precisely in the supreme command he displays for doing the literary sort of thinking his father the philosopher would have both admired and thought not quite adequate for being not fully philosophical but a fallen literary form of philosophicalization.  Marías may have to suffer winning for literature and not philosophy because I guess there is no Nobel for philosophy.  
“Whatever else we may think is going on when we read, we are choosing to spend time in an author’s company. In Javier Marías’s case this is a good decision; his mind is insightful, witty, sometimes startling, sometimes hilarious, and always intelligent.”   StAubyn
I don’t know if St Aubyn knows that the Spanish consider envy to be their trademark deadly sin.  With that in mind, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what games Marías’s novel might be offering to his countrymen.  “Yes, I might get the Nobel, so I know you envy me or will envy me for this, even though you tend to think that I’m not really a Spanish writer but more of an English writer in Spanish costume.”  “If I don’t get the prize, you will envy me nevertheless simply because of the rumors that I might win.  So here is a set of tales of infatuations, or envies, to show how well I understand our national character and how much I count myself prone to the same dominant sin as the rest of you.”  No doubt there could be much more to it than this.  I need to consult with some Spanish friends who have read the book.  And who know the kinds of games Marías likes to play with his native readers.  

Also we must remember that Marías could have written the novel to the Swedes, to give them a game while everyone waits.  “Well, if you give me the prize, I just want you to know that I’m of good humor about it and not at all as conceited or obnoxious as that terrible writer of my own creation in the novel, Garay Fontina, would be.”  “If you don’t give it to me, rest assured I will not indulge the envy we Spaniards are so prone to, but will celebrate the winner with generous and intelligent goodwill.  After all in this novel I have shown how much fun we all have with even the rumors of Nobel prize-dom.”