Happy Anniversary!

Star-Telegram:

Witnesses say that police arrived at about 1 a.m. at the Rainbow Lounge on South Jennings Street and arrested seven people. They said one of those arrested suffered a fractured skull during the takedown and is at a Fort Worth hospital. (…)
The raid happened to be on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York which began on the night of June 28, 1969, as a protest by gays against police harassment and helped trigger the modern U.S. gay rights movement.

It makes you sick, doesn’t it? In related news, I was in Heidelberg last weekend, visiting the old folks, and happened upon a demonstration against violent police. Apparently a young African student, who was in Heidelberg to complete his doctorate in mathematics, was searched by the police, restrained when he protested and hit in the face so hard that he had to be hospitalized for five days. Police says he was intoxicated and violent. Friends say he’s one of the gentlest guys they’ve ever seen, and he was on his way home from a long evening in the University library.

Elias Canetti: The Voices of Marrakesh

Canetti, Elias (2005), Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, Fischer
ISBN 978-3-596-22103-5

In the decade after the second world war, Elias Canetti,winner of the Nobel prize for Literature in 1981, was then a somewhat unknown expatriate writer living in London, a man born in Bulgaria, who was raised in Switzerland and Austria and became a writer in the 1930s, just before the Nazis bundled existing forces and convictions in Germany and Austria and took power. In 1938, he left Austria and went to live in England, where he met many people; two of his friends, about to shoot a film in Morocco, invited him to come along. So, in 1954, Canetti joined a film crew and traveled to Marrakesh in Morocco. Over a decade later, in 1967 he published Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise, (translated into English by J.A. Underwood as The Voices of Marrakesch (Marion Boyars Publishers)) his travel account of that journey. The book, which describes an immersion into a palpably alien culture, is remarkably short at about a hundred pages. It consists of fourteen short chapters, several as short as three pages, each of which seems independent of the others, creating the impression of loosely connected stories, interlinked by a general sense of chronology and build, but these links are not necessary to understand and interpret each, let’s call them: vignette. These are short, concise description of a certain aspect of Marrakesh, of a certain event, smell or sound, of a certain person or group that the narrator met.

I admit, I have not always been the greatest of fan of Mr. Canetti’s work. When I first read it, I have found his autobiography, published in three volumes from 1977 to 1985, somewhat overlong, rambling and self-indulgent, although fascinating and full of arresting episodes and images. I have come round to it in the meantime, appreciating it for the masterpiece it is. I am still not convinced by much in his major philosophical non-fiction work, the massive (and certainly brilliant) Masse und Macht, published in 1960. I cannot, however, find fault with Die Stimmen von Marrakesch. Each of its chapters is written with a precision and economy of means that makes them less like reportage than like prose poems. In the few pages over which Canetti has spread his account, there is enough material to fuel books twice as long. At the same time, reading it, one doesn’t feel the economy, the book has a sumptuous, easy feeling to it, evoking the Suks and mosques of Marrakesh, its merchants, mendiants and its mad people. All of this is structured by an emotional and spiritual hunger, an openness to shock, to violence, to the Other, that is directly transmitted to the reader, who cannot put down this slim book until he has devoured every last page and then puts it away, deeply moved and in deep thought. At least that’s what happened to me.

There are many concerns in Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, but the most central one, as in all travel accounts, is the yearning to understand this alien country, to read it in a way so it makes sense to you. Canetti differs from many writers in that he doesn’t want to understand it, he doesn’t learn the language or get a translator whom he drags around with him on his tours through the narrow and dusty streets of Marrakesh. At one point he outright declares his preference to hear speeches, prayers and entreaties with his bare ear, so to say, to hear the sounds, the raw emotions as they are rasped through the vocal chords of the natives. That said, Canetti speaks French and English perfectly, and most natives can understand and speak French, so his communication with the natives, inasmuch as food and similarly important issues are concerned, is not impeded in a significant manner. His decision not to learn Arabic only concerns his observations, his scrutiny of his environment. He may not be driven by a wish to understand, but his eye is that of a classic ethnologist, and Marrakesh is his village. Nothing enters or leaves this village except him and others like him.

This immobility is encapsulated in his account of a destitute and clearly desperate woman at a bar, who is being pimped out to rich and ugly men by her lover. The men need to be ugly so his jealousy is not awakened. She gets beaten if she recoils from sex and she gets beaten if she takes pleasure in it. Meanwhile, her lover has his own income as the gay lover of the son of a local potentate. This son has had to leave the country at the behest of his father and the strange couple is thus left to their own devices, which mostly means a live in poverty. He won’t leave, and she can’t. Canetti’s village is in a state of stasis and even though foreigners pass through and can even become part of it all, the city has an internal logic all its own: everything points back to Marrakesh. Canetti, in passing, mentions money, touches upon issues of wealth and poverty, implies exploitative mechanisms, hints at problems brewing beneath the surface, but hints they remain. Canetti’s book isn’t a journalistic account of a country and it neither possesses nor aspires to possession of a journalistic or even scientific precision.

In these accounts there is always a danger, to an extent inescapably, of colonizing the alien, the strange country, to read it in terms of your anatomy tables and take heed not of the country as it meets you, but to read it only in terms of difference, to remark upon that which is strange, with reference to one’s own everyday givens. Many of these accounts go even further than that: by not reflecting one’s own situation, situatedness, they colonize everything off the self-established norm as deviant. One luminous, problematic example of such a writing is Goethe’s massive, brilliant account of his travel to Italy, which implicitly treats women, effeminate men and similar ‘deviants’ as symptoms of the foreign country. In Die Stimmen von Marrakesch Canetti shows himself quite aware of this problem, quite aware, too, of the alterity of that other country. Aware of the anatomical function of language, of the interpretative and defining power of translation, Canetti decides to skip language. With an enormous spiritual appetite, he opens himself up to the sounds of Marrakesh.

There are the noises of begging children, chiding, playing, laughing, begging, even instructing him how to perform a religious ritual. There is a madwoman on a balcony, who whispers to him, words in different shades the tone of which he fails to read in a consistent manner. The chapter that is about her shows a progression from bare listening to an effort to understand, which makes him, in the end, read her as a madwoman. The interconnectedness of some processes of thinking and the establishment of certain categories is demonstrated by chapters like this, where we see Canetti’s thoughts move from gentle questing, questioning, to a full interrogation. Whenever he enters this last state, he either starts to categorize people in a way that he, quite obviously, is himself uneasy to do, but which may be, to an extent, inevitable, or, as in a later chapter, he is moved to disgust by what he readily recognizes as his own morals (and there is quite a bit of patronizing inherent in the explicit stating of this, too).

None of these are flaws of this, really, flawless book. These are flaws inherent in the process, and it’s one of the book’s main strengths that it provides a structure and a context for these flaws that it makes them part of its rhetorical thrust and construction. The titular voices appear and reappear in different contexts (a screaming camel in the powerful first chapter that is dragged to be slaughtered is another memorable one), but as the book progresses, we find that they gravitate around two centers. One is belief, the other is fear. Belief is always present in that country, which wears its convictions on its sleeve. There is the belief in God, transmitted through public prayers and through numerous beggars who repeat the word Allah, all day, chanting themselves into a trance. All this, Canetti feels, is powered by a general belief in the power of the word. When he discovers a corner of the town where the story tellers gather a large following around them, and the writers sit stoically, waiting for people to service with their pen, he is profoundly humbled. His mistrust in language, in words, well-funded though it may be, appears to make him a coward, compared to these people who throw their words into the air, or rather: their voices. His emigrant’s voice, filtered through several layers of language, is hidden, artificial, his tongue divulges its truths only with care, bit by bit, as evidenced by the temporal distance between the journey and the publication of this highly artificial book, which, as the title also tells us, is an account after a journey. Not of, not during, no, after. As if he needed the time to render the unspoken, unspeakable, into literature.

Fear certainly plays a role in this. The two central chapters are not about Marrakesh proper, they are about the Jewish community in the city, in the mellah. Canetti is astonished by the fact that Marrakesh is a Jewish melting pot, where Jews from all nations live, peacefully, side by side. The mellah, the Jewish quarter, is a colorful, rich island of Jewishness in a Muslim country. One of the most powerful descriptions in the book is in the first of the two chapters handling the mellah. Canetti describes the Jews he sees sitting by the road and describes how they all watch foreigners, unobtrusively, carefully. The merchants among them possibly in the hope of finding customers, but that is not the main reason, Canetti decides. These people are afraid, their whole existence is governed by the need to be careful, to live in a way that doesn’t challenge the natives and keeps them safe. This story is one that we have heard many times over, by Jews from all over the world. Fear is all over the map, in Die Stimmen von Marrakesh, Canetti’s account of that town at a certain, pivotal point in its history, but it is a way of life in the mellah. Is the publication, in 1967, at an important point in the history of modern Israel, when its Arabic neighbors attacked the young Jewish state for the second time in a few years, accidental? Canetti describes the pride and happiness of Marrakesh’s jews not for being respected and/or equals but for not being persecuted. The fear, the care, that the Jews along the street in the mellah manifest, is something that marked Jews all around the world.

In the end, their fear and their beliefs (well-known to Canetti as they are) and the other citizens’ beliefs, alien and beguiling, full of a confidence that Canetti can only envy them, all these are equally important to the construction of this marvelous book. It turns out that the hunger and appetite behind it, and the unspeakable things Canetti found, were in need of the precision and poetical prowess that Canetti brought to his travel accounts. Although I did not want this book to end, it appears to be in such a perfect equilibrium, that I could not wish it to be any longer. It’s perfect. Read it.

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Flayed without hope

James Wright: Saint Judas

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

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Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg

Beyer, Marcel (2008), Kaltenburg, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-41920-5

Educational books have always been popular, and there are different varieties of these kinds of texts. There are books, for example from which you learn things, although not always correct things. Most historical novels are written that way, Michael Crichton (whose name, my paperback of Jurassic Park informs me, “rhymes with frighten”) built himself a career out of this, so has the diligently dull (or dully diligent?) Richard Powers etc. These books hand you a large amount of information (not always correct (I’m looking at you, Michael)) that you may not have come by otherwise. Then there are books that concentrate upon being insightful, making you see knowledge in a different way. There are vastly more of those around, because that group contains both novels that rely upon the reader’s knowledge of a topic and those from which you learn things). Marcel Beyer’s latest novel, Kaltenburg, longlisted for last year’s Deutscher Buchpreis, is a strange fellow in that it is both a book that imparts knowledge to its readers, in a rather exotic area of expertise; it is also insightful, but in a completely different area. Beyer’s trick here, basically, is to talk about one topic but hinting at another that may or may not be connected with the first thing, and the longer the novel goes on, the clearer the reader sees the underlying theme, until, at the end, he’s completely caught up in Beyer’s ruminations and thinking. This is a masterful novel, by a great writer. Kaltenburg is easily the best contemporary German novel I have read in years (and I gather you remember me swooning over Trojanow’s work), by a writer who is completely and utterly in control of his craft.

Kaltenburg is narrated by an elderly ornithologist named Hermann Funk, a retired professor, who is living in Dresden. One day he is visited by a translator who asks him for advice and information. She is preparing for a conference and wants to learn ornithologist terms both in English and in German. We don’t know how she came up with Funk’s name, or why he agreed to do it; as a retired professor he certainly didn’t need any money. As we enter the book, their discussion has been underway for a while, we’re basically catching up. The whole novel is written from a first person perspective, except when Funk tells us about events that he hasn’t witnessed himself. He then launches into a seeming third person narrative, but it is still his voice we’re hearing, although it may not always be transparently so. The structure of the narrative is highly complex, Beyer constantly shifts gears. Sometimes it’s a plain q & a dialogue between Funk and the woman, sometimes Funk digresses and talks for a while. It’s important to note that, even in the middle of what may seem like a conventional narrative, small asides tell us that we are still in the interview, especially when he steps aside to let the translator ask a question, and yes, it’s a stepping aside; sometimes her questions can only be inferred through odd remarks and phrases, sometimes we don’t get any hints, but the nature of such a dialogue suggests that things have been left out. These comments of mine may sound extraneous but much of this novel is concerned with gazes and domination and I consider it a brilliant idea of Beyer’s to reproduce several of his ideas on, let’s call it: a formal level, as well.

Funk’s monologues are highly associative, partly modeled upon the example of Proust’s memoire involontaire. From birds he segues into personal anecdotes with birds and then, more and more, into reminiscences of his life as a student and companion of Ludwig Kaltenburg, the world famous ethologist, ornithologist and zoologist. It is in one of those reminiscences that we enter the discussion, quickly learning the basic historical parameters of the novel. Funk and his parents had lived in Posen (then Germany, after WWII Poland) at the same time that Kaltenburg, a Vienna native, had. Funk’s parents had encouraged his early love for animals in general and birds in special, putting him into contact with two students of Kaltenburg’s (who, at the same time, were soldiers in the Wehrmacht), one who went on to become a famous artist and one who went on to become a famous documentary filmmaker. Early we learn that an event unknown to young Hermann had sundered Hermann’s parents and Kaltenburg who used to be a regular visitor to the Funk household. As the war drew to a close, both the Funks and Kaltenburg moved to Dresden. In the Dresden firebombings in February 1945, Funk’s parents died. The account of the disastrous night is the single most moving part of the book (many reviewers have been put off by the fact that much of the book does not go down the same sentimental road, but the mechanism of the novel makes this necessary (more on this in a minute)). We then loosely, by no means strictly chronologically, rather in leaps and bounds and rebounds, follow Kaltenburg’s career.

That career takes up again at the University of Leipzig (near Dresden) where he took a chair shortly after the war until, in the 1970s, Kaltenburg left the GDR for West Germany where he published books that made his international fame, books that left his academic turf and contrived to make general statements about human behavior. At this point, the account of Kaltenburg’s career ends, the novel returns to the present and leaves Funk and the translator to wrap things up. Although this is not quite correct: actually, the book is preceded by a prologue of sorts that starts with the end of Kaltenburg’s life, with him missing the birds he left behind when he moved to West Germany, with the controversy that erupted over his most famous books. So, even before we enter the narrative proper, Beyer tells us where we’ll end up and takes thus any direct suspense out of the book, only to replace it by a tension of sorts. The book works like a mystery without any murder, but we the readers still want to understand how things are connected, how the controversy about his late books ties in with the rather harmless and slow assemblage of anecdotes about his time in Dresden; additional suspense is derived from the constant hints at what happened in Posen and from the dark undercurrent below the light banter about birds. If, unlike me, you have a working memory, you may learn quite a bit about birds, ornithology and related areas. A huge part of the book appears to have no other purpose than to lecture you about different domestic birds, bird classifications and how to behave in the company of birds. To read these parts in that way only, perhaps with a few additional thoughts about the hints to Funk’s personal history and past events in Posen, would be a gross mistake, however.

We not only learn about birds, but rather, as I said, about bird classifications and related issues. We learn about the scientific gaze, about the workings of a scientific mind, about his work with living specimen, all these aspects are not simply explained to us, but shown, and repeated time and again. Beyer works hard to make us understand the parameters of this thinking, only to deliver a punch to the guts at the end by showing the consequences of applying such a thinking to humans. There are many atheists I know who think not believing in God is a “daring” (that word is so prolific among a certain segment of reactionary atheists that it starts to lose meaning) gesture that constitutes an ethics all of itself in a way. It doesn’t. What Adorno called the instrumentelle Vernunft has shown its dirty mug during the Third Reich but it has not been invented by Nazis, it and its destructive, anti-human thrust is inherent in much scientific thought before and after that. To anatomize a human being, to subject it to a normed and implicitly contemptuous gaze, that is always problematic, this we know, and it is one of the major points of Kaltenburg. It is a frequent mistake of books that grapple with the Third Reich and its heritage for post-war Germany (including hundreds of thousands of Nazis at universities, in the courts and in political parties) to achieve their effects through making their readers feel guilty. This is not at all how Kaltenburg works, it does not slam sad images of the Shoah etc at its readers at all. It wants its readers to understand, not to weep.

Understand who it is, among others, that was killed in the Dresden firebombings, understand, also, the continuities in German culture, understand what, in seemingly innocuous thinking, is problematic and what kind of thinking could lead to which results. None of this is obvious and none of this is hammered into its readers. It assumes that its readers are well read in German history, cultural and political. I know a surprising amount of people, Germans and British especially, who run their mouth about German history without having read or understood even a modicum of what Beyer presupposes in his book. You need not bone up on German history in order to read this book; I do recommend, however, to look up all the historical names and references that are dropped in the book. Wiki the cities and the names and you’ll be fine, but I do recommend this. As for other things: some readers will see (the introductory section about Kaltenburg’s late career does hint at this quite directly), some won’t, that the character of Ludwig Kaltenburg is a thinly veiled depiction of Konrad Lorenz. The artist mentioned above has his real counterpart in the legendary artist Joseph Beuys and the documentary filmmaker has his in Heinz Sielmann. Konrad Lorenz’s actual career is dissimilar in a few aspects but Beyer, instead of concentrating on the continuities of the Third Reich in West Germany which are all too obvious, he depicts those in the GDR (not absolving West Germany, on the contrary).

Of necessity this review contains only a rough account of the riches of Kaltenburg. There are many aspects, as the opposition of art and barbarism, the role of Proust’s suite of novels, the behavior of birds and the petty everyday murder of them. Much of this would fit in the overall reading of the book I have suggested, some would not. Marcel Beyer has written a multi-layered book that is unlike any other novel I have ever read. His nuanced approach to the topic that contains a harsh, unmitigated indictment without resorting to guilt and shock, the incredibly complex construction of his narrative, it’s really beyond words. It’s really a joke that he did not make the shortlist of the Deutscher Buchpreis, but a veritable hack like Ingo Schulze did. Beyer’s novel should win every prize available.

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Leonard Gardner: Fat City

Gardner, Leonard (1996), Fat City, University of California Press
ISBN 978-0-520-20657-1

Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s classic novel, originally published in 1969, is a grimy, powerful masterpiece about a few lost souls in the Californian province. What makes it a masterpiece is not the basic idea. Writing about sad people, who are out of luck, forever chasing their dreams, that is a well known and well worn concept. A brief glance at my shelves tells me even I own more than a dozen novels and story collections that focus upon this issue or constellation. The same glance, however, also tells me that there are many great books among them. This is actually trite: yes it depends upon the execution, the way you do it, the words and the actual characters you develop and spin around on the page until they come to life. And if you groan, you’re right. This applies to most books, since most books are written in some kind of traditional mode of writing; the truly original, innovative works are few and far between (but, as Lydia Davis’ example shows, this doesn’t keep reviewers from attaching the “innovative” badge on everything that moves). So what is all that blather about? It’s a roundabout way of telling you that Leonard Gardner’s craftsmanship here is incredible. This work, short though it is, seems complete in so many ways that it seems to ask to be read not as some specimen of its genre, but as an exemplary model of the same.

Fat City is about the boxing scene in Stockton, California in the 1950s and focuses especially on two boxers and their manager. The two boxers are chosen to represent the beginning and the end of a career in boxing; one of them is a young man who is lured into becoming a boxer, and the other one used to be a boxer but is now a manual worker and drinker. Their story is told in 24 short chapters, some of which focus on Billy Tully, the older man and some on Ernie Munger, the younger man, some focus on other people in their environment, their manager, a woman, another boxer. Each new chapter effects a change in perspective, we are not left long, continuous narratives, Gardner skilfully swirls us around in his world, takes us by the senses, lets us smell the dirt, the sweat, the blood, he lets us see the bruises on the men’s faces, the hunched, defeated set of their shoulders, and lets us hear their yells of victory, their moans of sadness, their groans of fatigue. As we are whirled through the streets and boxing rings of provincial California, the story sometimes jumps ahead days, weeks, months; enterprises that we have seen develop over a few chapters are suddenly regarded with hindsight, as lost battles or surprisingly won skirmishes. Leonard Gardner’s characters are all convincing, but he doesn’t care whether we are convinced, he spends little time on explaining motives and sudden changes of mind. He gave us a world. It is up to us to fill out the blanks.

Fat City is about three characters, as I said, but one of them clearly takes center stage: Tully, the damaged former boxer, who, at the onset of the story, thinks about starting to take up boxing again. He used to be quite good in his time, boxing against a vastly more famous man, but losing to, as he claims today, manipulations. He lost by technical knock-out, a common reason to complain. According to this, a “technical knockout, or TKO, occurs when a boxer is judged physically unable to continue fighting. Such a judgment may be made by the referee, the official ring physician, the fighter himself, or the fighter’s assistants.” I have heard a few complaints so far, some more weighty, some less. Tully’s was new to me. His corner crew, in the break before the last round, cut the skin beside both of his eyes with a razor so that he was bleeding profusely, as if from a cut received in the fight. The symbolism of this act of sabotage is interesting, aesthetically, but also in that it demonstrates to what extent the boxer can be or feel isolated during the fight. For all the talk about managers and trainers, boxers often hear little of what they say during the fights. They need to cope with the situations that arise best they can, keep their head down and work their hands in a way that ensures their survival. There is no glorious floating like butterflies not stinging like bees. As many fights amongst boxers of lower ranks, boxing is often like a bar brawl. You get punched in the face often and try to punch the other guy more often or harder.

Fat City gives us a few bar brawls as well. Gardner does not construct boxing as some kind of clever metaphor for life or male gender roles or sex; instead he hands us a handful of characters, some boxers, some not, with boxing just one occupation among many others. As a character says early on: “I don’t claim to be nothing more than I am. You maybe can fight, I’m an upholsterer. […] One man got muscles, another got steel. It all come out the same.” This is not the Wrestler (easily my favorite movie from the past Oscar season). Life between the ropes is not a magic calling, it’s not special, it’s just a job, although, when successful, a better-paying one than many other jobs Tully, for instance, is forced to do. Among these is a particularly exhausting stint as onion picker. You put your body on the line and are paid too little to be satisfied, but too much to give up the job. This occupation is remarkably like boxing. It’s exhausting, it wrecks your body and the pay depends completely upon your day-to-day performance. Bodies, sexuality and boxing have often been connected in books. The fascination with well-muscled, half-naked sweaty men having a go at themselves is understandable, but separating that part of life from the rest has always narrowed the power of boxing as a motif. Adding farm work changes all of that. There is a long and venerable tradition of writing about low-pay farm work, especially in California. Novels like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (remind me to review it one of these days) are about human dignity and power, poverty and power, etc.

Fat City
‘s main protagonist Tully is a talented boxer, and his eventual return to boxing seems auspicious at first, but the desertion by his corner crew in the above mentioned fight and the desertion by his wife have broken him. He’s bested in boxing and he’s bested in crop picking. Small wonder he turns to alcohol for comfort. More successful but similarly broken is Ernie. His encounters with women are an unsuccessful attempt to keep the power balanced in his favor. Where, in describing Tully, Gardner offers us farm work as a complementary aspect of his life and character, he pairs Ernie the boxer with Ernie the lover. Ernie is successful with women, but almost despite himself; the same applies to his career as a boxer. He wins sometimes, loses at other times, but his life, both his private and his professional one, shows a clear tendency towards solidity, towards positive progress, although Ernie does not recognize it. It may have been Tully whose eyes were filled with blood by treacherous coaches, but it’s Ernie who is blind, who navigates through his life by ear. Ernie stumbles into boxing as he stumbles into marriage and fatherhood. Both of these men are at the bottom of the barrel, but at the same time, their manager points out that they still occupy a position of privilege. He bills them as white boxers, announcing Ernie as “Irish Ernie Munger”, although Ernie does not have a drop of Irish blood in him.

Fat City, in a very interesting sense, is about race. The aforementioned advantage that being ‘white’ gives Ernie and Tully is restricted to the small padded square between the ropes. Boxing, though it may be a job like any other, is acting, too. And on the small bloody stage that is a box ring, a white boxer, in Tully’s and Ernie’s manager’s opinion is a role that is worth playing, worth highlighting. Calling Ernie Irish in order to underscore his whiteness is ironic, surely, if we remember for how short a while the Irish were then regarded as properly white at all. As Matt Wray writes in the concluding remarks of his very readable study Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, “lubbers, cracker and white trash have been excluded from the category white. […] The social domination that whiteness enables is of many different kinds of social difference.” And both Ernie and Tully, but especially the latter, cannot be said to exercise any kind of dominance in their lives, they buckle down and work alongside black men, they lose fights and women to black men, and even earn less than they, in the few cases where pay and individual characters are focused upon. They are white trash, and the only one who does profit from their ‘whiteness’ is their promoter, who can be said to be the one who invented it. The dark alleyways of life are numerous in this beautiful, enigmatic novel, but it is not without hope. Repeatedly it praises the power of individual resolve, the will to win. On the other hand, it’s the single most powerful character in the novel who keeps voicing these nuggets of wisdom. Tully and Ernie just tumble into the night, as we all tumble, stumble, drop until we are crushed, tired slabs of meat.

Fuck Me Up

One of my favorite songs on one of my favorite albums by a musician who’s put out a lot of shite. Like, really awful stuff. This is just perfect, though. (Yeah I’m sappy). Ryan Adams, “Come Pick me Up”, off of “Heartbreaker”.

“I wish you would / come pick me up / take me out / fuck me up / steal my records / fuck all my friends / they’re all full of shit / with a smile on your face / and then do it again”

this is my second favorite song from the record. “Call me on your way back home, dear / Cause I miss you / And I just wanna die without you / Oh I just wanna die without you / Yeah I just wanna die without you / Without you Honey I ain’t nothing new”

Adalbert Stifter: Indian Summer

Stifter, Adalbert (2005), Der Nachsommer, insel
ISBN 3-458-34819-0
[Originally published in 1857, translated by Wendell Frye as Indian Summer]

Adalbert Stifter is the towering giant of Austrian literature, who helped shape the modern literature of his country. He has written both in the long and the short form, producing very long novels, shorter novellas and short stories alike. In 1857 he published Der Nachsommer, translated by Wendell Frye as Indian Summer, which is his best known and most celebrated work. It is an exemplar Bildungsroman (some even claim, the only perfect Bildungsroman), a meditation upon art, life and love. However, In German-language literary criticism this book as been an object of hot debate. Famous writers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Arno Schmidt, Friedrich Hebbel, Ludwig Harig have raised their voices in praise or derision ever since the book’s publication. Today it’s generally regarded as one of the most important (if not the most important) novels in Austrian literature, it’s taught in schools, at university; a monument of German-language literature. There is no sex, nor violence in this book, it’s not written in a difficult or abrasive style. So how has this book become so contested? What is it that provokes people to passionately comment upon it?

Many people, especially Arno Schmidt, who, in two of his entertaining and brilliant radio essays, completely destroyed Stifter’s two major novels, Der Nachsommer and the historical novel Witiko, criticize Stifter as being complacent and earth-shatteringly boring. Its fans, like Harig, point out how warm and immersible the book is. I daresay, if you share the novels complacent attitude towards the world and connect to its young, questing protagonist Heinrich, you may enjoy it. Personally, I found the book extraordinarily boring, easily one of the most boring “good” books I’ve ever read. This does not mean, however, that I do not recommend the Nachsommer. Without a doubt, this is a very rich book, dense with detail, thought and reference; I even maintain that much that is boring in the novel is actually intentional or at least functional. With less boredom the book would certainly be more fun to read but would it be as good a book? I would not vouch for this. The boredom is derived both from the overflowing wealth of described objects as well as from the deliberate writing that processes any information in careful order, piece by piece.

The fact that this huge (in my edition 791 pp) book contains only a thin plot and spends the rest of its time rambling, doesn’t help either. The protagonist, Heinrich, son of a merchant, has educated himself for the better part of his adolescence (one thinks of Faust’s lament “Habe nun, ach! Philosophie, / Juristerei und Medizin, / Und leider auch Theologie! / Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn. / Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor! / Und bin so klug als wie zuvor.“) and decides, at the onset of the book, to delve into geology, for which endeavor he takes it upon himself to wander around his country, looking at nature and observing it until he comes to a house that belongs to a well-off noble called Freiherr von Risach. All this is stretched over a good many pages; in contrast to some boring books which start to sag after a few dozen interesting pages, Stifter elevates boredom to an art form. There is nothing interesting to turn boring, the very second page had me yawning. It’s because Stifter develops everything carefully, and if an action contains seven steps you can be sure he’ll show us each one of them. Of course, he jumps ahead and sums things up now and then, but when he slows down and lets us take a look, he pulls no punches, boredom-wise.

Here’s an example: when he comes to von Risach’s house, he knocks and asks to be let in because he thinks it will rain soon. Von Risach disagrees. The following discussion extends over several pages, incredibly redundant, and frighteningly dull. At times they appear to discuss the reasoning for their different estimation of the probability of rain, at other times they talk about the area, telling each other what wood is near what river. There is no disagreement there, they are basically finishing each others’ sentences, but it drags on and on and on, so when they decide to step inside to let the weather decide the winner of the rain debate, the reader breathes a sigh of relief. This kind of discussion comes up all the time and I was exasperated. At first I found all this very artificial, very tiresome, but actually, it’s a dull kind of realism. Reading this dialogue aloud, one finds that, minus the elevated language, everyday discussions, small talk, especially, really are this repetitive, this dull and irritating. People do tell each other things that they both know and they do discuss completely useless facts in minute detail, just to be the one who’s right.

At the same time, all this ‘unfiltered realism’ really is artificial: it’s utterly constructed, arranged to form a larger pattern. The sequence of events and the details are all significant, as when Stifter, on the second page, describes bookshelves in his home, and how his father sometimes opens them and how he sometimes takes out a book and puts it in again. The how of this description is far more important that what it describes. The slowness of his father’s actions, the care with which he looks at a book and with which he returns it to is rightful place on the shelf is what’s important, and Stifter needs every word he uses to impress these things on the reader. Stifter knows what he wants, in the same chapter he describes it as “stern exactitude” (“strenge Genauigkeit”). Order. It’s about order, about the system of things. Not in an abstract way, though. It’s the small details of life, the interactions of the individual elements where we see order, or where Stifter shows us its existence; not only that, he also shows us how it should be. “Every thing and every human being, [Heinrich's father] used to say, can be only one thing, that one thing, however, it needs to be completely.” (“Jedes Ding und jeder Mensch, pflegte er zu sagen, könne nur eins sein, dieses aber muß er ganz sein.” (crappy translations are my own)). And how is it determined what that one thing is? By function. Your identity is that one which best fits the order.

This point is elaborated upon as Heinrich steps into von Risach’s house and strikes up a friendship with him. He doesn’t ask for his host’s name and von Risach does not volunteer to tell him. So he refers to his house as the rose house, because on the walls of the house, roses grow plentiful.  They indicate an important fact: Von Risach has a ‘green thumb’.  As we are about to find out, in excruciating detail, he has a large garden, which is rich and full of healthy, beautiful plants and trees. There are various pests about in the country, birds, vermin and others, which are harmful to gardens and crops everywhere, as Heinrich witnessed on his peregrinations. Astonished, he inquires about the secret of the garden and von Risach explains to him (in far too many pages) that the garden is constructed in a way that restores perfect balance. He grew plants that would attract birds that specialize in eating the vermin that is so common and harmful; he attracts bees to crowd out other insects and so on. There is another long and dire conversation that reveals this order that von Risach created in his back yard. He explains that he utilizes each plant and animal in the best possible way, the only way that would create this completely functional balance in the garden. Everything needs to be used in the best way possible, which, as Heinrich’s father’s sentence and other passages in the book suggest, applies to human beings as well. This is what some would call complacent. Stifter has no interest in stirring the pot, in allowing his realism to depict social unrest or anything that could incite it. No, Der Nachsommer tells us that things are fine as they are, or they would be if people would behave as they should.

So, yes, the book is very dull and very complacent, but it’s also really well constructed. Actually, it provides a complete image of the ideology its pushing and all its pictures and analogies are so apt, so like examples for a philophical thesis, rigorously arranged, that, at times, I wondered whether somewhere in his work a counterpart novel, an antithesis, existed. All the details fit.  The garden, for instance, and the application of its model structure to the human sphere. Von Risach didn’t impose a natural order, the garden functions perfectly for humans. Had he left the garden alone for a year and it would likely be balanced all on its own, but it would look disorderly. See, when Stifter talks about an order, he doesn’t necessarily mean biological order. It’s a cultural order, an aesthetic order (this is one of many echoes of Stifter that resonate through Bernhard’s work, in this case Frost) The plants do not profit from looking pretty and growing in rows, it’s the human eye that finds this pleasing. In the analogy, it’s both God’s order that we should not disturb and a more abstract human order, relevant and applicable to the real world. Women, for example. As Stifter tells us in a throwaway phrase,women  can be educated, but only if it does not come at the expense of the only education that matters to them: how to be a wife. The book does not contain any poor people but their place, it’s implied several times, is to be poor; that’s just how things work. The proper order of things is Nachsommer‘s major concern.

Reading Der Nachsommer, one slowly grows accustomed to its rhythms, one starts following the unspectacular winding paths of its narrative with a certain kind of joy. Also, there’s a love story in the book, which becomes more prominent as the book progresses. As a true Bildungsroman, the novel charters Heinrich’s entering society as a full, mature member; ideally, this also means he should be married, or at least have love affairs. As the love affair picks up speed and von Risach steps up his lessons to Heinrich, we witness a man being shoehorned into society, learning his trade, picking up a wife, growing up (there’s a whole Bildungsroman discussion, about the Turmgesellschaft in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and similar things, attached here). Stifter is an extraordinary writer, his writing is always elegant, as I said, always controlled, and it creates a feeling of intense warmth, if you lean back and let the book string you along. But you, or I, anyway, never stop being vaguely bored; additionally, you can’t help but notice how cold, au fond, this book really is. There are several degrees of power, nature (and women) very low on the ladder, human beings, especially men, somewhat higher, art and craft (there’s a huge section dealing with these two terms and their differences alone) somewhere in between. But at the top, there’s no-one.

Stifter asks us to abdicate responsibility, compassion and commitment to a structure, or possibly to God, because the structure has the last word. If everything works as it should, everything is fine. It’s this book’s mantra and it’s repeated time and again. This is annoying, and, ultimately, deeply unsettling and unpleasant. I’ve said it before and repeat it: Der Nachsommer is both a very good and a very bad book. On account of the intense boredom I suffered, I cannot possibly recommend it, despite the excellency of the writing, thinking and composition involved. If you are interested in modern Austrian literature at all, moreover, you cannot pass this book by. It’s importance and stature is enough to warrant reading it, if one has the time. It is a rich book, frequently beautiful and meditative, written by an aesthete and a master of his craft. And it’s boring, annoying and complacent. It’s your choice. Hey, I’ve read it. Would I read it again? Not sure. And Stifter’s writing is instrumental here. I have not seen Frye’s translation, I have no idea if it delivers as it should.

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Cold Toes

Yeah. No new review today. I’ve written one but it’s shite. So I’ll take the opportunity to proclaim my adoration for a youtube user called mytoecold, who posts all kinds of things, some of which are great, some of which aren’t but he’s always amusing. That kid is what, 16? Have I done this sort of thing at 16 (yeah no youtube then, but still)? Here are three videos, one is a piece of, um, criticism, discussing a song by Metro Station and one (the one with the HOT DATE) is a bit of standalone madness. The third (Boy or Girl) is just brilliant in all sorts of ways. Really. Watch his videos.

Diskomiezen und Drogenjunkies

Elsässer über die Ereignisse in Iran MUss man nicht kommentieren. Stellt sich aber wieder die Frage, ob der das ernst meint.

Der Präsident hat klar gewonnen. Und die Leute, die dagegen demonstrieren, sind erkennbar eine kleine Minderheit: Die Jubelperser von USA und NATO. [...] Hier wollen Discomiezen, Teheraner Drogenjunkies und die Strichjungen des Finanzkapitals eine Party feiern. Gut, dass Ahmidenedschads Leute ein bisschen aufpassen und den einen oder anderen in einen Darkroom befördert haben.

Jeff Smith: Rasl: The Drift

Smith, Jeff (2009), Rasl: The Drift, Cartoon Books
ISBN 978-1-888963-20-5

I have been seriously reading graphic novels for a short time now, slowly developing a taste and favorites. The first book I fell head over heels in love with was Jeff Smith’s Bone, a huge graphic novel fantasy opus, sprawling, epic and strikingly beautiful. I have not encountered the balance it strikes between humor, drama and pathos anywhere else. It’s also, for a fantasy opus, surprisingly devoid of the politically questionable tendencies of, for example The Lord of the Rings, which is fed from different kinds of right wing ideologies. Bone is a book, the cuteness and tender romanticism of which appeals to children of all ages; at the same time it is a serious, aware feat of storytelling. In the different peoples, Smith reflects upon issues of alterity, the tourist gaze, different tropes raised by the fairy tale tradition and much, much more. Jeff Smith is not just the writer of Bone, he’s also its artist, and much of the pleasure of that book is derived from Smith’s art. In Bone, Smith shows evidence of a unique way of dealing with his material.

In one and the same book he demonstrates vastly different skills, depending on the character he draws, most impressive for me way the way he handled the bodies of the rat creatures, fluffy yet gruesomely cute monsters. On the same page, when he handled the Bones, a group of cartoonish, simple white creatures that look like, well bones, he adapted his style to a simple, yet expressive way of drawing reminiscent of Kelly’s Pogo or even Disney characters (but the depth of awareness that pervades every page of the book puts Bone miles beyond the realm of Disney cartoons). The ten original Bone books, as well as the 1300 page one volume edition (which I own) were first published via Jeff Smith’s own “Cartoon Books” imprint. As Bone grew to be a huge success, it was picked up by Scholastics. Smith’s next project was to reinvent Captain Marvel (the DC Comics character, yes, it confuses me too) in Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, written for and published with DC Comics. As many independent comic writers turn into major publishing house staff writers given the chance and success, many people expected Jeff Smith’s career to take that turn, as well.

Instead, it’s now a year later and in my hands I hold Jeff Smith’s latest book “The Drift”, the first installment of a new series called Rasl (an acronym, pronounced razzle), self-published again at Smith’s own Cartoon Books imprint. Rasl: The Drift collects issues #1-3 of the individually published Rasl comic books. It’s oversized, 10×12, and completely wonderful. If Bone appealed to kids and adults both, Rasl is an adult only graphic novel, containing violence, sex and inter-dimensional travel. The main references in Rasl are, instead of fairy tales and fantasy narratives, noir novels and movies. The book’s protagonist, Rasl, is an art thief who used to be a scientist, as we find out. He’s no normal art thief, though, he steals artworks from parallel worlds, from different dimensions. He travels with a big device that he carries around in two large bags and assembles when necessary.

We do not yet know what happened to him, why he embarked upon this course and why he started to steal works of art. Instead, the book plunges us directly in medias res, as Rasl materializes in a dimension where Bob Dylan puts out his music under the name Robert Zimmermann, but this time, his art heist goes wrong, as a lizard faced man wearing a black trenchcoat pursues him, and is even able to jump dimensions as Rasl does. How? Rasl must leave a residue of a kind to enable the lizard faced man to follow him. These and other questions are raised in the book but few of them answered.

Rasl: The Drift is surprisingly long at 112 pages if we look at the actual plot related to us. This is because Jeff Smith is using cinematic techniques, making a walk through a desert as exciting as as the chase after the heist, by lavishing many panels on small details, changes of angle, changes of light. This generous handling of space on the page seems to contrast with the thrifty use of actual details in the individual panels, which can seem sparse, penurious. Where a panel in Bone was able to concentrate an enormous amount of kinetic energy in gestures and bent bodies, Rasl: The Drift is full of rigid drawings which acquire speed and agility by each others company on the huge, black-and-white pages of this great book. The atmosphere is that of Humphrey Bogart’s great movies, caught almost perfectly, down to and including small details from these movies.

The main topic of the series, the dimension hopping, has only been hinted at so far. We only know that it works, that it is tiring, depleting; we also know that the different worlds resemble each other strongly, except for small details, and all these people exist in everyone of these worlds, except for Rasl and a few others (raising questions of identity and what it means to be human). In this short book, Smith hints at many issues, from gender roles to naming and even the idea of the trace, know from Derrida’s work. Smith juxtaposes the quantum mechanics with a spiritual discussion of ancient native American symbols, he also seems to hint at issues of race and culture, but at this point, my impressions are rather vague. After all, he is only spreading hints here. This first volume succeeds in being a perfect, intriguing introduction to the series as well as an action packed, suspenseful read.

Rasl: The Drift is a short book that dazzles. It’s drawing upon a set of pop cultural sources (and quantum theory has been consumed by pop culture a long time ago) and yet it reads completely fresh and original. I cannot recommend this book or indeed anything by Jeff Smith (although, apart from Rasl, I’ve only read Bone) highly enough. I am eagerly awaiting the second collection, titled Rasl: The Fire of St. George. As issue #6 is going to be published in July 2009, I realize it’s going to take a while. As a reader of George R. R. Martin’s work and a huge admirer of Lawrence Norfolk’s, I am used to waiting, especially if the book seems so worth waiting for.

Griddy Realism: Ander Monson’s “Other Electricities”

Monson, Ander (2005), Other Electricities: Stories, Sarabande Books
ISBN 1-932511-15-6

I have thought for a while about how to review Ander Monson’s collection of stories, Other Electricities. It is at the same time a very original work of fiction, and a book of stories that seems to add little to the postmodern American canon. If Lydia Davis’ collection of short prose, Varieties of Disturbance, has had little to say that has not already been said in past works of fiction, Monson’s work can be said to do the same, but drawing from a far smaller (in several ways) pool of sources. There are two distinct kinds of sources, though. One is the American short story in the vein of for example Richard Ford, who explores landscapes of desolation and the people in them, in a language that is as simple and fittingly rugged, as it is elevated and elegiac; the most important reference in this kind of source must be Sherwood Anderson’s magnificent Winesburg, Ohio, although, as far as quality is concerned, Monson never approaches either of those two writers (I’m not sure he wants to). The other source is the postmodern American story à la Barth and Barthelme, and especially its contemporary equivalent, Mark Z. Danielewski’s intellectually bland but thoroughly entertaining House of Leaves, a novel that attempts to enrich traditional storytelling by turning his book in a maze of ideas, a disquisition about storytelling that is as self-congratulatory as it is, ultimately, tiring. I’m sad to report that, with this description, much of this story collection is well and even sufficiently described.

Ander Monson’s stories are of varying length, but all of them short: none shorter than two pages and none longer than twenty. These stories are concerned with life in a provincial town (an explanatory section mentions Fargo as point of reference) and the loneliness and despair of its denizens. At the heart of these stories and the main motif that all the stories appear to come back to or at least circle, is a personal tale of loss. The stories are narrated by different characters and focus on different characters, too, characters which leave and return to the stage as Monson’s world turns around its sad center, the only first person narrator, named, in the table of contents, “Yr Protagonist”. This structure suggests that the omniscient narrator that relates most of the other stories and even the third person subjective narrators that relate some key episodes, are really “Yr Protagonist” as well, who is, in the titular story, suggested to be Ander Monson himself. In my notes, I have really obsessively applied the term “Other Electricities” to all sorts of elements and stories in the book, because the term so obviously asks to be read poetologically. In that vein, I’d suggest that the other stories, the other characters, those that do not concern “Yr Protagonist”, are other electricities, too, other voltages that transmit small mirror images of Yr Protagonist’s feeling of loss and desperation.

The titular story of Other Electricities, to which I assign so much significance, is a disjointed tale of familial alienation. After the loss of their mother, Yr Protagonist’s family drifts slowly apart, with all members embarking on a search of some kind. The father turns more and more to amateur radio, broadcasting at night. You have to “tune in right to listen”, “find his frequency”; even his sons are reduced to guesswork, printing out lists of names and frequencies. They do not search and find a single name, they allow for variations or completely different ones. These children who live under the same roof as their elusive father, search for him, for “the rhythms of his voice” in the air. Above, I have not equated the protagonist with Ander Monson, because, although the suggestion, by citing a list of possible names that are “Monson” or end in “-monson”, is clearly there, this story suggests a general indirection, a tropical way of speaking, not just in the way of names (If this was Pynchon, I think most reviewers would read this technique as an application of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), but also in a broader sense:

On the radio, they speak in code. Words that are not words. Words that are words but not the words you think they are. That displace language. Shift it back and forth like light across a room as the day changes. Charge up the air. Charge right through it. Make it opaque.

Interestingly, although much of the story is concerned with the broadcasts, the title doesn’t, not overtly, anyway, refer to them. Instead it is about mysterious lights that just appear somewhere in Michigan, with “no power source, no explanation, no obvious cause”.

Lights appear and seem to rock back and forth. My brother had never been there before. This was another electricity, I told him. Watch that thing.

Most likely, Yr protagonist tells us, it’s “some anomaly along power lines”. This is very fitting in a story that explores the way that lonely people connect to each other over the radio, or, as in other stories in Other Electricities, in bars or in schools. The connection to Ford’s work is most significant here, in that Ford explores and even dissects damaged people and their failings, but not as anomalies. Instead, he proceeds to lift them onto a pedestal which allows him to comment upon the conditio humana. This tension between grimy particulars and elegiac generalities is important not just for his work but for many other writers in the same vein, whether they be called Updike, Anderson or Carver. Monson just states their ills, he makes no attempt to explain it or connect it to a general feeling or anything like that. Instead, he just looks at them, regarding them as inexplicable lights in the distance, in other words, as “other electricities”.

Formulated like that, the stories seem much more readable, more immediately enjoyable than they really are. Monson’s decision to not explore his characters or the community where everything takes place, is mirrored in a prose that clearly seeks to create the impression of sadness, of loneliness. The effort to create an impression, is often very annoying, very palpable, and it drains many stories of the subtleties they might have developed. The examples for the obvious and calculating writing of his are all over the stories, such as when, in a story called “Intermittence”, the third person objective narrator (aka “Yr Protagonist”?) talks about a bank robber who will be “sentenced to years in jail where at least he will not be in need or out of work anymore, or drunk, where at least he will be fed and -sort of- loved.” Other writers are also plain and obvious in their attempt to sadden the reader in compassion, but the level of overt calculation that Monson reaches is remarkable. What’s more, Monson does not possess a prose powerful enough to make up for his weaknesses. Monson’s writing is extraordinary in that it is unremarkable. It’s professional and functional, but bland, which makes the stabs at feeling stand out all the more especially when in some stories, after three pages of plodding prose, the reader is suddenly up against a poetical, no, a “poetical” passage.

And the stories in Other Electricities, (i.e. characters and plots) do their best not to let any surprises come up. There’s a story about a lonely woman driving a snow plow who is wearing a business suit because she will go to a job interview afterward, but her hopes are implicitly dashed by the pervasive pessimism and deterministic sadness that envelops her, her who drinks her coffee alone at bars. It’s not as if the narrator or narrators are caught in a certain point of time, and we can point to possible hope. No, the whole book describes events that have taken place awhile ago and the omniscient narrator frequently fast-forwards and tells us what could or will happen, “the future [is] approaching like a father with a belt.” What happiness we see is projected back. Sometimes Monson happens upon a nice idea to express this. One is the story “Piñata” in which a character who takes the plane back to his home town, has to think of a piñata at his “seventh birthday party”. It may be “unclear” to him why he’s thinking of piñatas just now, but for the reader it has a pleasurably gruesome imagery especially since the character is nicknamed Jelly. On the plane he meets a pretty woman and they proceed to lie to each other about their past while the plane flies them towards their homes. This whole brief story had, for me, strong overtones reminiscent of Stephen King’s work, especially sections like the first half of It. This also means that a good amount of not just the uncanny, but also the simply creepy and weird is associated in this story, but also in others.

So, any happiness in the stories is clearly marked as past happiness, and in most stories it is contrasted with a dire, inevitably dire, future, with all the people in the stories “becoming story, warning beacon.” That last phrase is important. While all the characters in the book are caught in a hopeless maze, future generation may perhaps evade this; not, incidentally, by doing some positively good work, but by “reducing your murderability index.” So what we have are cliché stories, featuring cliché characters in the most overtly manipulative writing possible, but they may not be what they seem. Like the “words that are not words”, these may be characters that are not characters and plots that are not plots. Yes, they may be, as I said above, extensions of Yr Protagonist’s depressed psyche, but reducing the book to that would mean selling the book short. The other function is, as we’ve seen just now, that of a “warning beacon”, and the whole book could be seen as a manual to good behavior and a manual of how to cope with loss, while disavowing any faith in actual manuals. Other Electricities contains a good many stories that either feature excerpts from manuals (from a teacher’s manual: “You students will die on you”) or are called manuals themselves. Those that are called manuals aren’t real manuals, they are basically stories just as corny and soggy as the others, which very lightly mimic the form of a manual, and the manuals that are cited are shown to not be very helpful. Thus, I suggest that Other Electricities is a manual that could succeed on account of it not being an actual manual, if you see what I mean.

It remains to be said that, however much we tweak and fiddle with our readings of the stories, the originality of Other Electricities is not in the stories themselves; the postmodern stories have been done, and far better, by Barthelme, and the more conventional stories far better by Ford and Anderson. Rather, it’s in the connections between them and especially in the mechanism Monson uses to connect the stories. Instead of a framework story or just a thematic continuity, Monson adds notes, tables, explanations and even an index to his book, as well as a series of depictions of electrical grids. His table of contents is a real table, containing all of four columns, rather like Ulysses‘ famous table. It tells us not just the titles of the stories and the pages where they can be found, but also provides us with a list of protagonists and themes for each story. Both of these are curiously incomplete. If we look at the ‘themes’ column as well as at the list and explanation of symbols he includes later, we can see at a glance that it is not meant to be helpful. In the themes especially the level of abstraction tends to be so high as to make it all rather meaningless. Perusing the symbols list, after finishing the book, can be confusing. If we read Other Electricities as a collection of stories and the notes and explanations as extraneous to the book’s ‘content’, the symbols’ explanations would need to be read as misreadings that project meanings onto the book that just are not there.

If, on the other hand, we view these materials as a framework story of sorts, we see that these ‘explanations’ are not elucidating meanings in the stories but instead they add meanings, meanings that need the context of the whole book, that would not be present of the stories were published separately (which they actually were…). And I can only begin to guess at the meanings of the electrical grids. There are dozens of them, schemes, in black and white, of different shapes and sizes. What’s certain is that storytelling is likened to such schemes, as the book not only contains a four column table of contents but also a huge diagram of “Characters and their relationship herein”. People and their stories are like the power lines in the titular story, producing regular narratives and, from time to time, anomalies, other electricities, which the book, in turn, presents and puts into a relationship to another. If people and their narratives are like electrical grids, can they also be repaired, controlled and analyzed like them? To be sure, there is much in this book that makes it worth reading, but, sadly, Monson does not have the writing to match it. He hits us with ideas, with people in strange situations, with potentialities, but follows up on too little of what he outlines.

In a way, his stories are what Sherwood Anderson called plot stories, cold, constructed stories that Anderson contrasted unfavorably with his own, which are “the result of a sudden passion.” And Monson does not have the chops to write good prose, and neither does he have the passion to make up for it. Instead we get a bunch of plot stories, drawn up on charts that we also get to see. Considering the searing pain that we sense in some stories, the loss that is described but not conveyed, the cold could be a protective mechanism, protecting “Yr Protagonist” from the devastation that surely awaits him. Some stories stand out, the titular story, for example, because they have several registers to work with, because they present some novel situations; the fact that the last story is one of them is the main reason why this book is, after all, as enjoyable as it is.

Sonya Hartnett: Surrender

Hartnett, Sonya (2005), Surrender, Walker Books
ISBN 1-84428-656-8

Now, after the last, needlessly digressive review, I’ll try to wrap up things quickly here. Surrender is a very, very good book. Maybe this is one of those books you should just read without reading any reviews first? I have no idea whether I can spoil the reader’s enjoyment with the review, but here’s the thing: this is an extraordinary novel by an extraordinary writer. It’s central conceit, revealed near the end, is not very original nor very surprising, but the novel itself is full of surprises, smaller and bigger ones. Summing up its basic plot, about a small town boy who has experienced violence and hands it back to the world around him, doesn’t begin to do justice to it. Like any great novel, it sheds layer after layer, continuously delivering pleasures to the reader, many of them hidden in the language, which crawls with brilliant and evocative metaphors, suffusing the whole book with a feeling of mystique and earthiness. As I sit here, thinking about the book, I find myself unsure whether a review, however oblique, will not spoil some readers’ enjoyment of this book. Here’s what I say: Surrender is one of the best novels of its kind that I have read this year; if you trust my judgment at all, read it, read it, read it.

Surrender is divided into short chapters that are narrated either by a boy named Gabriel, who is actually called Anwell, or by his wild friend Finnigan. From the very first chapter we are aware that something is amiss in their friendship, and in Gabriel’s dealings with the world in general. It’s not just that we start in a hospital ward, as we are told that Gabriel is terminally ill, he’s “dying: it’s a beautiful word. Like the long slow sigh of a cello: dying.” and then we hear from him why “the sound of it is the only beautiful thing about it.”:

Several times a week I must be cleaned. Water comes to me on a sponge. I must lift my arms shift my heels, lower my flaming eyes. […] I am proffered a pan, and the sight of it shames me; at other times I cannot call for it fast enough. […] I am addressed as if an idiot, cooed over as though a child. […] I am poked, prodded, pinched and flensed, I’m needled and wheedled and cajoled. My existence is nothing but a series of humiliations, what little life is left to me can hardly be called my own.

In these last quotes we can see two characteristics of Surrender‘s language. It is both concerned with the purely aesthetic values of language, the sounds, rhythms and other prosodic qualities of words. At times, the book’s narrative seems to leap into song straight off the page; what’s more, Hartnett is capable of creating two distinct voices, two different varieties of song, two different registers, who both work marvelously. The end would not be as powerful and even devastating if her control of the musical qualities of language were not so consummate. That said, it needs to be pointed out that her style is not subtle; Hartnett is no Updike, she doesn’t go for smoothness, something that she developed as a writer of children’s fiction, where style often seems far more upfront, engaging the reader and his energies in a more direct way. At the same time, her writing also manages to tap the sense of wonder that makes so much great children’s literature so glorious, but we will return to that.

The other characteristic that we were able to see in the quotes above is the directness of the images, the unapologetic use of grimy, dirty, even, in the latter half of the book, brutal imagery. It is not, clearly, Hartnett’s intention of shocking the reader, she references bodily functions and defects in order to issue her characters with a body. That is no small matter; particularly in a novel such as Surrender authors are often liable to concentrate upon a psychological scheme, exploring the heads of its characters without considering the bodies attached to them. The contrast to Brian Evenson’s novel The Open Curtain, for instance, that is similar in many ways, is telling. Evenson bypassed a whole bushel of concerns and problems by constructing his protagonist as a head with an unimportant appendage. As many great children’s book writers, no, as many great writers period, Hartnett tries to take nothing for granted; in her rather short (251 pp in my edition) novel, she constructs her character from the ground up, offering many kinds of explanations for his development and his actions.

In order for this to work, words and images often have to perform triple duties, signifying multiple things all at once. Like Evenson, for example (see my review), the meanings of her names are an important, necessary element of her book where nothing appears to be arbitrary. That Anwell, a lonely, forsaken boy, would shed his name, which is Welsh and mean “the loved one” (that he would be called by such an ill-fitting name is another of many cruel ironies of his life) and assume the name of Gabriel, “the strong man of God”, an angel, no less, a strong, vengeful person, is understandable. But this change of name also touches upon issues of agency and narration, since angels are God’s messengers (as Gabriel himself says in the book: “I am Gabriel, the messenger, the teller of astonishing truth”), blame ultimately reverts to God, who is also a figure of authority and respect; he’s generally also read as kind and loving. I realize these remarks are too reductive and short, but you could write whole pages about these two names in the novel alone and not be finished; this is true of every name in Surrender, as it is of all or most other images, words and phrases. A friend recently told me that novels tend to babble more, whereas short stories and poems need to be concise, need every word to matter. Well, apparently Hartnett did not get that memo. Her writing is always careful and conscientious, with every word counting.

I sense a hunger for meaning in this kind of writing that is reproduced in Gabriel’s narrative. Gabriel’s greedy to understand what happens, he “need[s] the world caught inside the black pit of [his] eyes”. He has not been served well by the world, and on his deathbed, he feels like a trustee, surveying the remnants of his life. When Finnigan, his unruly wildboy friend, tells him that “the bones” (we do not learn until the very end of the book what bones these are) have been found, Gabriel, finally, starts to relate to us the events of his life that have led to his present situation. He is energized by that event:

The fact that it’s found is at my shoulders like a swarm, pushing me through the slop and fug, up and up the mountain. The earth I touch with my hands is cold (the earth is mine, the dirt, the seeds, the grass, the worms, the cracks, the clods, all of it, all). The mud makes cakes on my knees. Up high the breeze is colder, and smells like a snake’s belly, and bites with a snake’s fang.

The earth like (as I said) everything in the book is many things at once, but most importantly, maybe, it’s the earth where the bones were buried. By using the earth as burial ground, the protagonist assumes control of it; not in reality, of course, but in his mind, he colonizes it, he fills it up with his spirit and takes control of it. This is a general quality of his thinking; here’s where his body becomes interesting: this assumption of control, of bending something, even unconsciously, happens with his body as well. Hartnett does not, as many weaker writers would, misuse bodily defects as cheap metaphors. She shows how agitations of the mind can effect the body. That she does not factor out the body is a strength, it helps us situate Gabriel/Anwell, as a person, it also demonstrates the interdependence of mind, body and surroundings.

This is especially important in Surrender, which, in many ways, is an exploration of what Adorno called the authoritarian character. Apart from being a complex character study of Gabriel, it is also a study of small town dynamics and how a family fares as outsiders of the community. This triple relationship between family, town and Gabriel is maybe the most astonishingly accomplished part of the book. The town, Mulyan, is a rural town, and

there was no sadder sound in Mulyan than the moaning of the cows which, every other month or so, were crowded into these yards, smacked and spooked and harried and jostled, and offered up for sale. Separated from their companions and calves, they would call chestily to each other until the mountains reverberated with their sighs.

Gabriel’s family are outsiders in Mulyan, kooks, as Finnigan calls them, largely because of their sick mother, who lives in a room in the house, not wanting to be disturbed, she’s closed off from the world, like a wraith, suffering from a mysterious illness. Mulyan is like many other towns in rural areas, it instinctively rejects what it sees as deviations from the healthy norm, it rejects what it sees as strange, as, in short: malfunctioning. But this is not from conscious hate and prejudice, it’s ingrained in the culture, in everyday behavior, it’s instinctive, thus being both more flexible than conscious prejudice and more immovable at the same time. So when a series of fires break out in town, suspicions arise, attitudes change, but there is no open persecution, no witch hunt instigated.

Into this lack of overt hate, Gabriel’s father pours his energies. Gabriel tells us how his father starts to instigate a hunt on the arsonist. Gabriel’s father wants to restore order to his town, and, I think, ingratiate himself to the townsfolk, trying to create room for himself and his kooky family in Mulyan’s society. One would think that a man who is so intent upon creating and restoring order, would be supportive of the police in their efforts, but he distrusts the young policeman who is in command in Mulyan, he thinks him weak and, above all incompetent, and “Father despised incompetence”. He then raises a vigilante committee, to take matters in his own hands, and even threatens to depose the police officer. Both the town as well as his family create an atmosphere of fear for Gabriel, who is liberated, almost, by his friendship with Finnigan, a boy who is described as unruly. Finnigan and Gabriel have a pact, which allows Finnigan to do bad things, if Gabriel covers for him and only does good deeds, or at least not bad ones.

As many other self-declared unruly or anarchistic or nihilistic persons (the popular slander of Nietzsche comes to mind), Finnigan isn’t truly unruly, he just rejects the particular rules of his society, which is Mulyan, but he insists that his own rules are upheld, and he is true to his word, as far as his pact with Gabriel is concerned. To take up the novel’s title: there are many kinds of surrenders that people offer to others, and everybody’s surrender appears to fuel Finnigan’s resistance, his determination to stay put, it reinforces his fidelity, even, to his own rules, because they provide stability. The last important character I should mention is called “Surrender”, it’s first Gabriel’s and then Finnigan’s dog. Surrender is a wild dog, Gabriel’s violent, yet stalwart companion. As the remembered events draw to a close, or rather, to a cataclysmic finale, we see that it is Surrender who precipitates everything, by being, once again, not true to his name.

Surrender is, as I said, an excellent book, moving, disturbing, and very well written. The conceit of the book is transparent, you will have a hunch early on and the rest of the book just reinforces that impression, yet when the final, explosive events are told, we are still affected, still, somewhat, surprised, if only by the blast of the final events. Overall, however, the accumulation of history and details has, like many realist novels, the effect of a tragedy without harmatia. This is not a realist novel, however, it’s better described as magical realism; the dreams and memories, that colonize the ‘real’ world, do it in such a complete and complex way, that it feels like a blanket of magic draped over a realist landscape. And Hartnett’s language is instrumental in making all of this work.

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A Man’s Gotta Have Values!

M. Majistral from the excellent lit blog tabula rasa interrupts his review to vent a frustration of his:

Mais voilà, pardonnez-moi une grossièreté : j’en ai plein le cul de jouer (et ce jeu dure depuis très exactement quatre ans et un jour) à faire la liste des bons et des mauvais points des livres lus. J’en ai plein le cul de résumer l’intrigue. Oubliez donc les trois paragraphes qui précèdent, virons les chapeaux et les chutes et passons, rapidement sans doute, trop rapidement peut-être, à ce qui fait, selon moi, tout l’intérêt du « Livre sacré du loup-garou ». Pas pourquoi il faudrait l’acheter. Même pas pourquoi il faudrait le lire (ça, finalement, vous l’avez vu plus haut ou ailleurs : amusant, blablabla). Non : ce que je veux brièvement mentionner ici, c’est ce que ce roman de Pelevine (et sans doute plus que certains de ses précédents textes) aura évoqué en moi.

As someone who had trouble starting to write reviews (and is still crappy at it), trying to slip out of his academic skin, trying to transmit his passions for literature and still make a point that could not be summed up by an emoticon, I can understand that. But I think these three things (“pourquoi il faudrait l’acheter”, “pourquoi il faudrait le lire” and “ce que ce roman de Pelevine … aura évoqué en moi”) cannot be easily separated, or at least I try not to separate them. WordPress’ blogcounter tells me this blog’s being read (not that I’d know from the comments) and I hope that people who read my reviews can see that my reviews are, first and foremost, accounts of what the books move in me, of how they move me; and since I am a missionary whose faith in God got lost in the mail, apparently, I then spent a lot of time trying to persuade people to read or not read a certain book. I’m not sure if I misread M. Majistral’s frustration here, but I think he thinks too little of the worth of the first two parts. I know my attempts to force him to read some great writers (Jahnn comes to mind) have been unsuccessful, so far, but you can always try. See, I’m hugely egocentric, and currently pummeled by an unholy headache, but when I think a book is great or important or just really worth reading or thinking about, then I tend to think: you, reader, you need to read this. your life will be better with the book than without it. Yes it’s myopic, but that’s me. The same goes for bad books, too. Why should someone read the Brooklyn Follies when he could read Shining at the Bottom of the Sea or Go tell it on the Mountain instead? Sorry. Have no idea where I’m going with this. Getting some aspirin. Bye.

Mark Millar: Superman: Red Son

Millar, Mark; Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong (2004), Superman: Red Son, DC Comics
ISBN 1-84023-801-3

supermanMark Millar is one of the young stars of the graphic novel. He has revitalized a whole gang of  Marvel Characters with The Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates, he has written a couple of successful standalone works like Kick-Ass and Wanted. In all this, he has been supported by a slew of great artists, most significantly, perhaps, J.G. Jones, who did a breathtakingly great job on Wanted; but Brian Hitch’s work, for example on the tantalizingly complex Ultimates, is also astonishing. As any comics writer, Millar is dependent on his artists, and so far, he has been lucky. In Superman: Red Son, Millar’s lucky streak has continued: Dave Johnson, the artist who did the covers and created and pencilled most of the characters and a good part of the book (the rest was pencilled by Kilian Plunkett), did an outstanding job. The book is worth reading for the artwork alone. But make no mistake, the writing, too, is very good, as I’ve come to expect of Millar. Here he has created an Elseworlds title for the first time. Elseworlds is a series of DC graphic novels that imagine what would have happened to DC heroes under different circumstances, or as DC puts it, “in strange times and places”.

Millar’s conceit in Superman: Red Son is this: what would have happened had Superman landed a few hours later, and crashed not in Kansas but in Stalinist Russia? The Man of Steel meets the Man of Steel. Superman becomes not an icon of the United States but of Soviet Russia. Oh, the possibilities. This scenario is huge enough to explore in thousands of pages. Millar has 150 and he makes the best of his restrictions. Whereas many of the Elseworlds titles explore the what if…? question in DC Universe terms, Millar takes great liberties by changing the DCU to fit his ideas.

Why would Lois Lane marry Lex Luthor when Superman changed into the “Comrade of Steel”? Why does Batman appear as a Soviet character? These and many other questions cannot be answered by simple DC Universe logic. The logic of these changes is this book’s logic. Since I am a comic noob, Millar’s deviation from the DC canon did not bother me, but many readers did have trouble reading the book on its own terms; yet everyone I talked to about this book told me they changed their mind when they finished the book. Millar’s artistic vision is so commanding and Superman: Red Son is so well calibrated, so coherent, that these changes are convincing as necessities. The story needs them in order for the ideas and the thinking to work, and boy, does it work.

superman 2Superman is a child of the Great Depression, a hero dreamed up by two poor boys, Siegel and Shuster, a hero who fights for justice. He doesn’t just bring down evil men, he doesn’t just fight greedy aliens and save the world from annihilation time and again, no, he also supports the poor man on the street, he is a hero with a social conscience. This is what Millar seized on when he chronicled Superman’s fate in Soviet Russia. Superman immediately recognizes the liberating power of communism, he immediately understands what this means: to free humanity from slavery and oppression. Superman needs no convincing. Supporting Communist ideology comes natural to him.

At military marches, he stands next to Joe Stalin, the other Man of Steel, the hammer and sickle emblazoned upon Superman’s superhero suit. Now, you could make the point that the book makes light of Stalin, who was, after all, a mass murderer, but who is painted in a less dire light in the book. This is a problem, no doubt, but unlike movies that cozy up to some Nazis, like Valkyrie, Millar’s novel does not even pretend to be historically accurate. The book, it bears repeating, is an Elseworlds title, with dozens of Green Lanterns, aliens and other wondrous things appearing. Yes, its depiction of Stalin is extremely problematic but it stops there. Its focus is not on historical guilt, its on ahistorical ideas (yes, there is another problem attached to that and not a small one, but we’ll ignore it for now).

As the plots picks up steam, we watch as Superman, who becomes Stalin’s successor after the Georgian’s death, implements a flawless egalitarian society in Russia and then in the whole world. He prides himself upon doing it all without any violence. In Superman: Red Son, countries are joining communism because its successful, not because they are forced to join. In the end, only the United States remain, led by President Luthor, who has sent waves of attacks against Superman, among others a copy-Superman, an army of Green Lanterns and Wonder Woman. The USA are dirt poor, people starving in the streets, yet they hold on, refusing to be collectivized. If this sounds like a cheap Manichean opposition, you don’t know Millar, who’s always expertly subverting and undermining easy dichotomies.

It is true, that, initially, Millar seems to support the old, stupid chestnut that in order for communism to succeed, one would need to shut off the human element, since human beings don’t fit communist dogma (I won’t go into details of why that old argument is fallacious, it has been disproved decades ago). The fact that Millar’s Superman controls every aspect of his citizens’ life could attest to this, as the resistance rhetoric that Luthor constantly flings at Russia. At times, Millar appears to buy into common right wing anti-Socialist rhetoric. In fact, Millar does none of this sort. In the final pages of the novel, where we learn about “Luthorism”, we realize that Millar’s point is that what seems like communism is not communism, in fact, as long as there is still oppression, and well-meaning oppression is still oppression.

supoerman 3This review has gone on for too long, it’s also somewhat digressive. However, one thing remains to be mentioned. Superman: Red Son may not work within the constraints and rules of the DC Universe. That’s, however, because the book needs and exploits the advantage of the outside status this affords it. Millar’s novel is as much about our understanding of our culture, epitomized in an icon such as Superman, as it is about the DC Universe itself. This becomes most striking when we find out that Batman lives in Russia. As a child, he was traumatized by Stalinist goons who killed his parents and vows revenge. In the most adorable costume in the whole book, with the bat sign on a fur hat, he becomes the most dangerous enemy to the Soviet state. This is not the DC canon Batman. Without a doubt, in his creation of the character, Mark Millar had in mind Frank Miller’s Batman, who can be best described as a mountain of hate and muscle.

Miller’s Batman loves the existing order and maims and murders anyone who he sees as a hindrance to his reinstating it. Miller’s misanthropy drips from every gorgeously written page of The Dark Knight Returns, one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. Batman doesn’t love people, he loves order, but not just any order (when I’ll review Hartnett’s novel Surrender, we’ll return to this). He is part of a rigorously hierarchic society, and his mindset, vaguely aristocratic, reflects this. He doesn’t really want justice, as an abstract term, in the way that Superman, champion of the poor and huddled masses, understands it. His idea of justice only refers to upholding the laws and meting out punishment against offenders. You’re either for or against him, and if you are against him, you have forfeited your life. It is not surprising that this character would find life under a peaceful, just, and harmonious society unbearable.

Batman is a fighter for what many right wing thinkers erroneously call liberty. In Frank Miller’s masterpiece, people are not free. They live in fear, fear of criminals and hoodlums and fear of, yes, Batman. This is akin to the ludicrous notion that capitalism equals freedom. People who are forced to work by the threat of starvation are not free. People who carry the yoke of racism, sexism etc. are not free. The list could go on for a while. Superman: Red Son shows up the Western dreams of  so called liberty for what they are. The fact that his Superman feels right, that he feels like a logical development of the canonized Superman demonstrates the contradictory foundations of the moralizing Western argument for liberty and it’s glowing blue icon, the Man of Steel.

superman 2 (2)Mark Millar’s book is powerful, if flawed. It is, if nothing else, a potent exercise in thinking, that is largely dependent upon its artwork. Any lesser group of artists would have made Millar’s vision fall flat upon its face but the pencillers Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett and the inkers Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong have done a spectacular job. In order for this book to be convincing upon any level, it had to match the traditional iconography with new but recognizable imagery, in short: a new iconography. The art is both dynamic, exciting, suspenseful, as it is reduced, iconic, full of pathos. I don’t think Plunkett’s art quite matches Johnson’s, but these are minor quibbles. Superman: Red Son is an original, grand work of art.

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E.T.A. Hoffmann: The life and opinions of Tomcat Murr

Now, how do I start this? This is a fragment containing a continuous story and another fragment. No. This is a cat’s pretend autobiography and a bandmaster’s biography, both unfinished. No. This is a book that is a humorous send-off of the Bildungsroman and a serious critique of the society of its time. No. This is a postmodern masterpiece, that stops at all the right bases: metafiction, pastiche, even McHale’s ontological turn, it’s all in there, but it was published not in the 1970s but in 1819-21. No. Or: yes, all of these. This book is strange, it contains so much, and is, on the other hand, very light and entertaining reading. I rarely reread books, there’s not enough time and too many books, but I reread this one, and it was even more enjoyable the second time around. The author is one of those chaps who wastes nothing, every image serves multiple purposes, every plot strand has significance in several ways; the downside to this is that, for a story about a cat, this book is strangely cold and aloof, much like the cat that narrates a good deal of it.

E.T.A. Hoffmann, despite being one of the titans of German literature, is still in need of being discovered. In this country, at least, he has largely been reduced to a horror writer (For obvious reasons, Hoffmann’s stories are among the most frequently used examples for Freud’s notion of the uncanny (Unheimliche)). The only text of his that is still widely read and that is not a horror story is this one, the Lebensansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern (usually referred to by the first four words of the title. Translated into English by Anthea Bell as The life and opinions of Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kappelmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper; published with Penguin, I believe). It is both a humorous and lighthearted satire and serious criticism; despite his horror writer reputation, satire is Hoffmann’s main strength and fuels most of his work. Hoffmann, also, was unafraid of angering powerful people with his satire. In a climate of repression, with the Prussian state cracking down on rebellious students, he wrote and published a satire on a particularly angered and powerful official. He was immediately canned, and would have, possibly, been prosecuted, if he hadn’t died short afterward.

Dead at 48, he has produced an outstanding body of work, most of it short stories and novellas, with Lebensansichten des Katers Murr as the only longer exception. Additionally, he wrote a large amount of music, pieces for piano, or the stage, but his most lasting influence on music can be found in other people’s music. There is, for example, Schuhmann’s cycle of music called Kreisleriana, inspired by stories of Hoffmann’s featuring his alter ego, bandmaster Kreisler (who also appears in this book). There’s Jacques Offenbach who based an opera on Hoffmann’s tales. Or Tchaikovsky, whose Nutcracker is similarly based on a story by Hoffmann. Hoffmann’s self-image of himself as an artist, someone who creates music and literature, shines in every piece of his work. Satire without heart can be hollow and poor, weak, and, at worst, mean-spirited and dull. At the heart of a work of satire there needs to be a kernel of commitment, a core belief in something, in order for it to work, to be convincing as criticism and a work of art.

In Hoffmann, that core belief is always loud and strong, but Hoffmann’s imagination can, at times, seem boundless and striking, and it can appear to obscure the finer points of his mind, his core beliefs. In this, too, the novel fragment about Murr the tomcat, is different. Lebensansichten des Katers Murr is completely reduced to satire, without the balm of generous fantasy. Instead, he opts for pastiche and parody, each of which words well describes one of its two parts. The basic conceit for the novel is that Murr, a highly literate tomcat, has decided to write his autobiography, because that’s what people do after having lived a life full of experience of the world and its books, especially when they have something worthwhile to tell, and Murr is clearly incapable of imagining that his tale may not be as worth our while to hear as he thinks. He is a cat, as such, relegated to be eternally underfoot, short-lived, inferior to humans, but he doesn’t appear to care. Not in the way that some other cat-centric books like to imagine, that the cat thinks it’s superior to a human being because it’s a proud feline. No, Murr just starts to act and speak like a human being, at least as far as books and knowledge are concerned. In his asides, he says cutesie things like threatening to scratch a wayward listener but these are minor points.

Murr, as a young cat, discovers his interest in books, reading, writing, and his lack of bookworms of his own age creates an enormous sense of intellectual righteousness in him. Quickly he looks down on other cat’s expressions as too vague, he looks down his furry cat nose at everybody that is not as well read as him. But, and here’s the important part, he’s a philistine. He does not wish to understand the books he reads, he does not wish to engage with them; his readings are not encounters with them, he’s merely taking note of their existence. Talking about books, these days, often turns out to be a question of taking sides, we no longer show any interest in engaging with thinking that we do not share, other people’s thoughts are just so much noise that is just an excuse for us to talk more loudly. Even highly literate people turn out not to parrot other people’s thoughts, but just their own prejudice. On the internet I have encountered people who have certainly read multiple books of history but have clearly not understood anything beyond that which fosters their own preconceptions. They will not learn, they will just acquire more books, and remember little except the bare bones facts.

Hoffmann’s Murr is just that sort of narrow minded philistine, who is extraordinarily well read without it making any larger sort of difference. And here is a second thing. Murr will always remain a cat, of course. As I said, this book’s using only a smidgen fantasy. Murr is quite often thrown back upon his felinity, he is, although, mark me, this is a stretch, a perennial subaltern, who does not use his own voice to speak, but borrows his voice from the human culture around him. His intellectual passivity ensures that nothing changes in this respect, but there’s an interesting twist. His autobiography, as we learn in the introduction, is written upon pieces of paper that he found. More to the point: on a manuscript he found, that he ripped apart to suit his purposes. So, without appropriating the voice and the language for his purposes, he does, after all, do something somewhat similar. The manuscript he rips apart, is the biography of Bandmaster Kreisler, of which we only have fragments. Both narratives are in the right order, but only Murr’s is continuous and complete (except for the end, because the book has remained a fragment), and, as Murr’s method suggests, Kreisler’s story just, without any introduction (but clearly marked by visual signs), surfaces now and then, since Murr did not erase Kreisler’s story.

Murr’s book, you could say, is a perfect parody of the Bildungsroman, which is astonishing given that the genre had existed for only a short time when Hoffmann wrote his book. It might also be more accurate to say that it is a parody of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, that book which immediately after publication became the gold standard for the genre. It carefully takes up many central ideas, including the sequence of the educatory events in Wilhelm’s life. Parody usually implies criticism and indeed, in addition to the satiric criticism I outlined above, the Bildungsroman parody has an additional, specific target. Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre was largely adulated when it came out but it had also a couple of rather vehement enemies, among them Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, who wrote his only novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, as a response to Wilhelm Meister. What had bothered him so much was the fact that Novalis thought Goethe’s novel portrayed growing up as a process, wherein one is divested of romantic ideas and artistic élan, and ideally heads towards a career as a merchant. Such a moral Novalis found unacceptable.

Hoffmann must have had similar objections to the book and others that followed in its wake. So, his ridicule of the philistine is also a ridicule of the goals of the Bildungsroman, and of the goals and ideas of Prussian society around him. Hoffmann worked for the Prussian state, in a commision during the crackdowns, evaluating the rebellious students. German politics are always more complex than some would have it. This was not a conflict between smart, emancipatory and well-meaning students and a repressive state denying its citizens basic rights. Among these students were many rabid anti-Semites (most famously, Turnvater Jahn), and the Romantic student movements were to turn into German nationalism that shaped a German people that, at the end of its development, committed the Shoah. At the turn of the century and again in the Weimar republic, it was young ardent students who were most heavily involved in this kind of thinking, not old crusty conservatives. This is not to deny that, on the other end of the conflict in Hoffmann’s time did not stand a repressive state. It did, and many high ranking officials called for severe punishment for the wayward students. Among Murr’s animal friends, there are few people you would sympathize with, the situation is snafu, although Murr is clearly singled out for criticism.

Hoffmann appears to be marvelously aware of the complicated situation, and its demands for criticism that is not manichaean. So instead of juxtaposing two characters on the same level, Hoffmann expresses his Novalis-like criticism by including the biography of Kreisler. Do take note of the ingeniousness of this. Kreisler and Murr live in the same world, they even meet at one point in the story, so they could be part of one longer narrative. Instead, Hoffmann has separated them by more than just space. He separated them by genre as well. Kreisler’s biography is written in a pastiche of Gothic writing, Hoffmann has in his work repeatedly experimented both with that mode of writing as well as with Kreisler. Kreisler is a young, passionate artist. He has already grown up when we meet him, and is thrown into a cliché Gothic story, with changelings, murder and intrigue at a prince’s court. The story is the weakest point of the book, not even Hoffmann appears to show much interest in it, letting it plod along dully; even murders and revelation will not rivet the reader although they did entertain me passably the first time I read it. The major function of these sections, however, is the portrayal of Kreisler the artist, who is unsuccessful at pursuing his artistic vision in the philistine society around him. Although the prince’s court is a clear reference to the court at the end of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, this is no parody. Instead, the text shows the artist struggling to maintain his personal vision and integrity, instead of caving to the pressure like Meister did.

Lebensansichten des Katers Murr is, although its parts are interlocked, structures somewhat like an argument, starting with a thesis (In the beginning, Murr’s parts take up more space than Kreisler’s), and continuing into an antithesis (as the novel progresses, Kreisler is granted more and more space). The fact that Hoffmann was not able to finish the novel deprives us of a synthesis. As a whole, this book is fueled by an admirable energy. While not entirely successful at all times, it coheres wonderfully, and Hoffmann’s ardor at work covers up the boredom of parts of the second half of the book. This is a book like no other one and since it has been translated both into English and French, I recommend you read it. ISBN

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One, Two Step

Poet Linh Dinh, in an excellent brief essay at the NYTimes, relates to us, among many other things, this nugget:

Once, I washed windows after appearing at a community college as a guest poet. It would have been a hoot had one of the admiring students saw me vigorously wiping water before it could freeze on the window pane. “Yo, isn’t that the poet who came to our class yesterday?!”