Diversity: #tddl and the Tin House workshop

If you follow this blog, you may have seen my complaints about Anselm Neft’s reading on the second day of TDDL and its aftermath on social media, where Neft defended his use of racist and sexist slurs because of his use of a specific voice. Of course, his “friends” came out in support of literature and against “censorship” and attacked his critic. So far, so German.

But as it turns out, Neft’s awfulness is maybe part of a larger political moment. I recommend the most recent episode(Jul 19) Still Processing podcast – apparently, during this year’s Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, OR, Wells Tower, an established author, presented a text which sounds eerily similar to Neft’s: like Neft, Wells Towers appropriates the voice of a marginalized person, a homeless person in both cases, and uses this set-up as an excuse to be offensive and insulting to other margínalized people. Apparently, there was an intervention there, particularly after a night of reflection. No such reflection appears to have helped Neft and the various supportive voices in the German-language literary community.

Again, I recommend you listen to the July 19 episode of the Still Processing podcast.

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Alfred: Come Prima

Alfred (2014), Come Prima, Delcourt/Mirages
ISBN 978-2-7560-3152-1

Despite the Italian title, Alfred’s award winning graphic novel is French. Alfred, whose name is Lionel Papagalli, is a 40something artist and writer from Grenoble. This book is a marvel of emotional storytelling. The basic beats of the book are well known and common enough that we all know a novel or movie or comic book about this topic. Two sons return home to their father to figure out the intergenerational sociocultural dynamics between emigré children and their parents. The what isn’t the most important part of Come Prima – it is the how. This large book is consistently spellbinding and moving. Alfred does more than just tell a story about a father and a son, he also, in various registers, tells a story about fascism, about what it means to be working class in a changing world, how we construct our futures relative to our pasts. To what extent are our identities tied up in our memories? Like all good comics, the major achievement of Come Prima is not to ask novel questions, it is to find unique artistic ways to ask and maybe answer them. As the cover suggests, the book is largely a road movie kind of story: two brothers take a decrepit little car to go to Italy, to bury the ashes of their father. On the way we discover various nooks and crannies of the family history, and both brothers gain depth as we hear more of their stories. Alfred has at his disposal an enormously malleable artistic grammar where a shift in colors and realism allows him to show shifts in emotion and tenseness. The main graphic effort in the book, however, are sections painted entirely in blue and red colors, with no black outlines, passages that indicate formative memories – both kinds of drawing, the realistic leaning main visual narrative and the memory paintings, come together in two enormously powerful panels towards the very end of the book. To be clear – Alfred doesn’t offer a particularly insightful tale here – this is all effect and emotion. But it is fantastically done, and truly compelling.

Alfred makes some interesting choices regarding his setting. The book is set in 1958, as we learn from a radio broadcast heard somewhere on the road, and while much of the beginning of the book draws on noir, we soon find that the war, which, after all, had just ended 13 years earlier, is casting a shadow on many of its characters. It is a curious achievement by Alfred to decide not to focus on that aspect specifically, despite it being a central part of why the characters are who and where they are. What this creates is a story that we can all recognize, a story that is, as I said originally, very common: the damaged older brother, the ruptured family relationships, the strange characters encountered on the road – but giving it that historical context deepens the story, and also, implicitly, interrogates those other stories for such a context. The “noir” label generally is interesting that way – the term “film noir” was invented by a French critic in 1946 – and generally, French noir is considered as having peaked in the postwar era, as contrasted with American noir, whose heyday was in the 1940s. It’s true – there’s a whole batch of French noir in the prewar era, including the enormous Le Jour se lève, which I have rewatched just last week, as well Pierre Chenal’s 1939 screen adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was the first adaptation of that seminal noir novel (the first American adaptation followed much later in 1946); there’s no denying the importance and centrality of post-war noir as a force in French and world culture, from the novels of Gallimard’s série noire, inaugurated in 1946, to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jules Dassin. The war, also often implicit in these movies, is also a force in all of them, even clearer, in some ways, in the extremely political Italian noir of the 60s and 70s. Contrary to the usual noir lighting and cinematography, Alfred shifts the genre into the light – Come Prima is positively flooded with sunlight. Outside of that, I think the comic is engaged in a dialogue with the genre of film noir and its validity for our narratives of today. I went on and on about film noir because it’s not necessarily explicit in the comic – apart from the very noir beginning of the book.

But leaning heavily on the tradition of film noir allows Alfred to lightly touch on complex questions of masculinity in some vignettes here and there without having to play the scenes out to the end. The book begins by introducing the older brother, Fabio, a failed and failing boxer, who shies away from a steady job. The implications of boxing for discourses of masculinity are clear (Mailer, Oates), but most of the other scenes in the book deal with the issue as well. Fabio is visited by his younger brother Giovanni, who is asking him to come home to bury his father’s ashes, which Giovanni brought with him. We never meet the father in the book, but the whole tale is about dealing with father figures and one’s own relationship to maleness and fathers. Giovanni, as it turns out, is a father, as well, one who has abandoned his child. Fabio fights on the streets and in the ring to deal with insecurities and vulnerabilities. Even the few female characters are tied to fatherhood and masculinity, from Fabio’s girlfriend in the present, who tries to convince him to take a job with her father’s company, to Fabio and Giovanni’s adopted younger sister whom Fabio has never met. We are rushed through scenes and characters, with Alfred spending languid moments looking at landscapes or focusing on small moments rather than elaborately written scenes – but his reliance on genre means that he can do that without the whole thing feeling rushed. He plays with genre in other ways too – the memory passages are presented to us with increasing narrative detail – every time they return we come closer to some revelation – but when we finally know everything, the “revelation” is a minor detail, and instead of rushing towards some dark family secret, the passage of memory panels turns out to be a quest for a fullness of memory. There’s no secret at the end of this tunnel – at the end, this story is about being honest to yourself about why you have led the life you have, what your various failures mean within the context of your own life and that of your kin. And that, I think, also leads back to the forgetfulness of masculinity, and the erasure of history by the victorious and the virile.

This is particularly salient here because the period of rupture is the advent of fascism. What Alfred here does is extremely clever: he does not use fascism’s destruction of families as the point where this family breaks apart. That’s such a common narrative, but his point of departure is just before everything crashes down. Fabio and Giovanni’s father was a left wing unionist during fascism. He was beaten, broken, he saw friends being killed. In fact, adopting that girl is a direct result of these devastations. And yes, his son was on “the other side” – but not when these things happened. Fabio joined the black shirts as a young man in order to hurt his father and in order to belong to something different, something bigger. By making this narrative part of the novel’s general discussion of masculinity, he implicates the latter in the former – general narratives of masculinity in fascism. In the end, Fabio leaves for Africa and later France before fascism completely takes over, allowing Alfred to include this dark chapter of history but having his story be about more than that. The absent father and his values of cooperation, kindness, solidarity provide the moral background in a story that implicitly interrogates the value of Grand Personal Narratives that always focus on violence, women and alcohol. In the end, the past and the present fuse beautifully into a contemplation of life by Fabio who has always been on the run. “Come Prima” means “as before” – and while we know from Heraclit that we cannot live exactly as before, sometimes we need to return to our origins before we can begin again.

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Mathias Enard: Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants

41iZsXvfN4L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ Heads up: this is not a review – I reviewed the novel on this blog in 2010. My review is here. I just want to draw attention to it as a brand new translation of the book, by Charlotte Mandel, a very good translator who also translated The Kindly Ones, is about to come out. So if you click on the link you’ll find my 2010 review of the book. As you can probably tell, I had a bit of a mixed opinion of the book. And it is still my least favorite Ènard. I do like it more today than I liked it then. And Énard is generally speaking a very good writer I think we all agree, more or less. And while this is not a new review, I have blogged a couple of new reviews over the past week. You can see all of them here. How did you like this book?

Lydia Millet: My Happy Life

Millet, Lydia (2002), My Happy Life, Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-6846-7

So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, as I said yesterday. And this includes several books by whole writers. Those acquisitions were made on reputation alone (and usually favorable pricing situations). One such writer is Rachel Cusk. Another one is Lydia Millet. I own several of her books but haven’t read a single one. So I started with the one that seemed most obviously appealing to me from afar: the 2002 novel My Happy Life. This book is fascinating and absolutely brilliant – and it works with a naïve protagonist – or someone who prefers to tell their story as if they were one – and includes the resulting lacunae of details that are part of our stories and memories – the exactness of fact. Writing like this requires a stylistic discipline and a different exactness of detail that makes this kind of fiction extraordinarily hard to pull off. The easiest out is to use a child or a mentally ill person (or both), because that lets you off the hook in a lot of ways. The resultant bright eyed look at what is often a dark story can be effective, but has a whiff of gimmick about it. When it comes to mentally largely competent adults, the results are often a bit flat and boring or tired – and, most importantly, muddled. I think there’s a misunderstanding about these kinds of narratives. Just because someone doesn’t understand the world as we do, they are not looking at it through a mist. Children are extremely sharp observers.

What Millet pulls off in My Happy Life is a story about a woman who presents to us a world view that is more gentle than the common way we view the world, but she does this in layers and layers of observation, allowing us to see not only that her life is clearly anything but happy – in fact a continuous nightmare – but also how it has become what it is. At its core, it is about the female experience, or a female experience – how power and men grasp at the totality of womanhood – in its essential, basic elements: presentation, representation, self-reliance and biological reproduction. At every step of the way, society grasps at Lydia Millet’s protagonist and fucks her over, denying her agency, free will, and the most basic amount of empathy. In fact, that is what’s ultimately the toughest part about the book – all the men who are unable or unwilling or both to provide some empathy for this put-upon, strong, resilient woman. Why not say your life was “happy” if saying otherwise does not have any advantages among people socialized as men, or socialized to support or defend men. The exactness of detail and style throughout this book is nothing short of brilliant. Millet pulls from multiple registers, uses them all expertly, has always complete mastery of plot, dialogue, and the empire of signs that constitute our reality. In a blurb on the back, someone calls it a “dreamy whirl” – but there’s nothing dream-like about it. Millet’s protagonist may not call a spade a spade, but she describes the spade extremely well, and the distance from what she describes with utmost realism to the name she uses for it has its own literary function.

I mean, before I melt further into this puddle of praise, here’s what the book is about: it is the bildungsroman of a woman who grew up in an orphanage and ended up locked in an empty, abandoned former mental hospital. Her present situation is the framing narrative, that’s where we begin and end. We also stop there in between. From her cell in the mental hospital, she tells us about her life. Her happy life that begins in an abusive orphanage. There are things you don’t think at the beginning that become really clear towards the end of the book – everything in this novel is anchored to wider literary discourses, talks to a broader tradition of literature, a very Irigaray kind of project, overall. So this orphanage is also, of course, all the other orphanages and all their other orphans. And reading it this way recasts various characters in her novel in a different light. The bully – because each bildungsroman set in an orphanage has this morality play about masculinity in it and early fights to persist – here is simply allowed to do what he must, and the woman lets him do that for his own good. Nobody stops him, nobody asks about the beatings and their physical traces on the young girl – things just happen. What the protagonist is taught is how to apologize. She learns to say “excuse me.” She learns to cloak things in a different light. She learns that if she speaks up, if she steps out of line, she will be blamed. At school she is raped – and as a punishment, she’s kicked out of school. She attempts suicide a bunch of times, attempts for which she is punished. She is assaulted and abused by various boys and men early in her life – and that’s how she learns to look at things from a brighter side – it makes things more bearable. These are just a handful of pages that I am summarizing in such detail because what Millet does is a recasting of the common theme of orphanage abuse into the situation of a female protagonist who cannot expect empathy from her readers – much as she cannot expect empathy from people around her. Millet shows how these narratives curdle into terror when you change parts of them.

I mean the Irigaray-like “mirror” is one thing, but My Happy Life reads throughout like a conversation with various feminist theories. But it’s also a critique of pure intellectualism – the protagonist’s pain and trauma are things she learns from – and constructs a view of reality that seems disturbing. Early on she calls abusers “warriors” who “will not be stopped by skin” because “they want to catch the soul. They think that souls are heart and bone, residing in a certain place, and can be known by traveling.” She closes with a declaration of love for the abuser du jour and as a reader you have a couple of options here in how to parse this. One thing is off the table – the naivete of the uneducated, the simple of mind and brain. Throughout her life, Millet’s protagonist is seen reading books. It’s never specifically stressed, but unflaggingly mentioned, in all parts of her life, the protagonist is reading books. She’s clearly not stupid – nor uneducated in a practical sense. What Millet presents to us, instead, is the uselessness of pure knowledge. The protagonist’s knowledge is also embodied – how you deal with the world and how the world deals with you. Much later, the novel’s doublespeak is given a different analogy: on a Polynesia-sounding island (“huts on stilts”?) she learns various words in the local language and reflects on the distance between words, meaning and representation. And as we move from orphanage and school to various phases of her adulthood, Millet engages in similar doublespeak of her own, giving us examples of different power structures that we easily recognize, from capitalism to imperialism, and equating them to the abuse of patriarchy, which the early sections of the book taught us about. This, we learn, is all related – the abuse of power taken by men is replicated in the abuse of power in capitalism, which is replicated in imperialism. This is like that, and the protagonist moves through all of it until she ends up, for no good reason, in a mental hospital. She does acquire occasional problems, but when she describes what could be a delusion, and someone takes her literary, she corrects her interlocutor: this is just a figure of speech. So much for naivete.

And she undergoes all of this explicitly as a woman. Her attempts to find a job land her jobs as a maid and a cleaner. She is repeatedly raped, for a good portion of the book she is continuously raped by an industrialist who keeps her locked up and takes some kind of whip to her body that ends up covering her whole body in scars. This section reminded me of another book I meant to review. Stephen Graham Jones’s book The Least of My Scars is a masterpiece of thriller writing, about a serial killer who is completely without remorse. He is kept as a kind of pet in a house by some rich guy who hand delivers his victims to him and, one assumes, takes his pleasure from that. Like Millet, Jones’s style is masterfully precise, but the obscurities are different, what Jones does is invert externalities into this small apartment, rewriting serial killer narratives, inscribing them into the walls and architecture of one house. Jones uses various serial killer tropes and shifts them around. I should have reviewed that book first, however, since reading Millet makes me see what Jones doesn’t really touch: gender. Women in his book are objects – objects to be murdered (The Least of My Scars is extremely graphically violent), but also objects to be owned. There is an interesting differentiation he makes, but it pales when compared to My Happy Life – the various rooms and enclosures of Millet’s book mirror the rooms and enclosures from literary history, and as much as Jones condenses typical narratives, and violently savages the assumptions of interior monologue and serial killer psychology with his protagonist who has no inner life, his novel stretches into the psychology of those around him – but not into the women. Millet’s protagonist is colonialized top to bottom, from her psychology to her womb. In something of a particularly dark part of the novel, she gives birth to a son, who is then taken away from her. So maybe there’s another similarity between Jones’s book and Millet’s – Jones’s serial killer protagonist uses all parts of his victims in his acts – and Millet’s protagonist is used completely, by a patriarchal society that has no respect or patience for those among it who are assigned female at birth – and immediately, like Millet’s protagonist, shunted into the machine of patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. That Millet connects all this to a mental hospital suggests that we should interrogate the nature of trauma, oppression and mental health.

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Cockroaches and Books

So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, they are sprouting like a malignant plant and God knows there are many, many unread one – it’s not just a museum of The Things I Have Read, I keep buying books like a meth addict. And sometimes there are whole writers whose work I have surreptitiously acquired in bits and pieces but never gotten around to read. I don’t know how long I will have to wait to shuffle off my mortal coil but while I am forced to stick around, I keep digging into these shelves, adding things, replacing things, reading, reading, reading. I have no real prejudice when it comes to genre, though I obviously have strong opinions when it comes to quality. My books are in three languages, the three I read most easily, German, English and French, though I have a small brace of Russian books here. As I type that last sentence, I am left to wonder whether I have written this prose piece before, whether I have forgotten that I wrote it, whether my life or my memory of it which, ultimately, is the same thing, have folded in on each other again. My memory is notoriously bad. I write about books here so as not to forget. Between the ages of 14 and 25 I had read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” more than 6 times, as somehow, the previous readings had left no permanent imprint in my brain – and I was delighted again, every time. Sometimes I have a memory of some text or voice and it sits in some recess of my brain like an angry, cornered rat, attacking my present thinking. That is another reason to keep all these books around; I can get up and pick books off the shelves until I find the text whose ghostly memory haunted whatever I was presently reading. But primarily, these books are not about the present or the past – they are about the folds of future possibilities. These malignant plants that have taken over all the walls in this apartment and some of the floors and night stands and window sills they are the texts and books that I might read in whatever time I have left remaining. So I write and write and write, a poem or an essay per day and I read from these books, these walls of paper and how could I ever switch to ebooks: my life is here, printed and bound and sorted onto shelves. It cannot be deleted with a push of a button and neither can I. Like a cockroach, i stick around.