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