“This is not a cultural event. This is entertainment!”

You remember I posted two videos of Berryman reading? Well, aparently there’s more where that came from. I found more stuff online today. It’s a reading that a youtube user has put online in six parts. Below is the video to the first part, below that I added the links to the other parts. Berryman is an incredible poet, he soars, crawls, shouts, whispers, cries, beseeches, and all this with an amazing control of language and form. One of the greatest poets of the 20th century. These readings are highly enjoyable.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

Madison Smartt Bell: All Saints’ Rising

Bell, Madison Smartt (2004), All Souls’ Rising, Vintage
ISBN 1-4000-7653-6

This is the way of the world. Those who write the history books keep getting accolades. If we discuss leadership and success, 90% of the time we’ll discuss people like Napoleon Bonaparte or Margaret Thatcher but not Olaudah Equiano or Toussaint Louverture. It doesn’t matter that during the past decades we have learned more, we have grown as a culture, it doesn’t matter that we’ve dredged people up from the fringes of history and learned to look at the dark aspects of success stories; if you look at sources of inspiration, those who identify with the norm will still come up with Napoleon and Thatcher, it’s enough to make you sick. But once in a while a book comes along that does right by people like Equiano or Louverture. Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising (1995), the first novel in a trilogy that charts the slave revolt on Haiti that started in 1791, is, despite its flaws, such a book. Let’s start with this: All Souls’ Rising is an excellent novel that leads you into a strange world full of memorable characters and dark and troublesome stories, and into the swamps of history, where easy judgments are thwarted but moral conscience and commitment is never abandoned.

That was maybe a bit much as a lead-in to a review of an outstanding but not necessarily great novel, one which is, after all, frequently caught up in the nooks and crannies of its plots and rarely finds time to come up and breathe and provide further perspectives or contexts (something that may come in the two other novels); this is, however, at the same time one of its strengths. Bell’s writing here resembles a wave of ideas, plots, voices, it’s an onslaught of creative energy and we cannot help but think that this novel could easily have been three times as long without losing that sense of necessity, of economy, even. Every image, plot strand or change of perspective feels needed, nothing is superfluous; Bell demands much of his readers, he presents them with a historical novel that tries to read the history on hand on its own terms, handing it enough room for contradictions, confusions and reversals, unlike much of E.L. Doctorow’s historical prose, for example. Although I consider novels like Doctorow’s The March superior to All Souls’ Rising, it is undeniable that Doctorow reduces historical complexities to simple situations that can easily be used to extract a message; intellectually, they have a pamphlet-like quality, which has its advantages and is maybe more honest than the equilibrium that Bell aims for.

Nevertheless, Bell’s endeavor is admirable. He wants us to understand the scenario in all its complexities. In order to achieve this, he takes several measures. One of these is issuing us with a plethora of material that helps us to contextualize the novel’s events. There is both an explanatory preface as well as a thorough time-line of the revolt on Haiti that encompasses all of the revolt, not just the events of All Soul’s Rising. The second measure may seem to contradict the goals the first measure achieves but is, in fact, complimentary: as the novel proceeds, Bell is depriving us of a broader context by plunging us into the stories of small people who are so caught up in their worlds that none of them can see the broader picture; things happen around them, as they try to survive in the maelstrom of history. Unlike Doctorow in The March, Madison Smartt Bell completely refrains from telling the leaders’ stories from their perspective. Leaders, people with political power walk on and off the stage but we never see things from their point of view. We are never partial to political reasoning, to political intrigue, to the usual trappings of many historical novels. Although Bell’s not the first nor the last to do this, I find his utter refusal to lend a voice to those in power and explore the stories of those near it or even those far from it, remarkable and it makes for peculiar effect.

The angles and voices he does choose come from different strata of the society on the island and they are not all accorded equal amounts of air time, so to say. Some of the most interesting characters, despite staying an integral part of the story, get their say only once or twice, such as the creole wife of a landowner, who murders one of her slaves first and then leads a group of women to safety through a burning, violent, apocalyptic landscape. She sort of fades into the fabric of the novel later, but doesn’t vanish either. True to the efficient manner of storytelling that I claimed earlier, Bell focuses on those characters that can serve multiple functions: they are all highly active, moving all over the island, thus being ideal instruments to efficiently chronicle the tumultuous events of the revolution without dividing the reader’s attention between too many personal histories. After the first hundred pages, we learn to recognize the voices and know what to expect from each of them. Besides various smaller roles and voices, there are three characters who fairly dominate the narration. They are a black writer, a liberal doctor and an officer in the French army.

These three characters are well chosen. The officer in the army is low enough in the ranks that he’s just as struggling with the small tragedies of his life as the others, he has no elevated position from which to regard political developments. When disaster strikes -and it’s one of this novel’s peculiarities that disaster strikes not once but several times- he’s frequently in the middle of it, not overseeing the situation but ducking an enemy’s bayonet, more often than not. Although we have different characters that can offer us insight into the white population, the officer is important in showing us along which lines loyalties divide, because each party is anxious, as could be expected in a situation like this, to get the support of the army. The white population, huddling together in the two large cities, confronting the bands of former slaves who roam the island, is, indeed, far from united. The French Revolution, the state of the mulattoes, i.e. the so-called “gens de couleur”, the rights of slaves, and class conflict between poor workers in the city and the rich landowners, leads to outbreaks of violence between whites. Thus it’s, somewhat literally, not a black-and-white conflict that we witness. Instead, this is an island full of people struggling, trying not to drown in the heat, trying to create room for survival. The violence stems from the fact that all of a sudden everybody is clamoring and demanding rights, a voice, room. It’s a sudden explosion that plunges the island into a decade of war.

All that is not to deny that race is one of the most important issues and areas of conflict here. But, again, it’s not being duked out between the “white” and the “black” race. There are five distinct groups although not every character can tell all of them apart. There are the rich white landowners who are the whitest of all, mostly because they wield economic and political power. Then there are poor ‘whites’. They insist upon their own whiteness in the course of their rivalry with the third group, the mulattoes, but they are not necessarily seen as ‘white’ by the rich whites, they have to fight for acceptance. Mulattoes, in contrast, are almost accepted. Having black blood separates them from the whites but as it turns out they can attain positions that allow them to order poor whites around. They are only attacked as non-white by those who are their rivals, poor whites on the one hand and, interestingly, women on the other, because many men keep themselves a mulatto mistress. And then there are the slaves, who, in turn, split into two groups. Slaves that come from Africa either themselves or in the previous generation and slaves that are descended from a longer line of colonial slaves. Just as whites are very conscious of the distinction between real, i.e. rich whites on the one and poor whites on the other hand, so are the slaves conscious of the distinction based on descent. In a more general way, it could be said that while these distinctions are multicausal, the color of the skin is one of the least important factors, with mulattoes who could easily pass as white and similar details crowding the book, breaking up certainties.

The question of color and power and voice becomes even more apparent in the second of the three characters, Riau, who is Bell’s nexus for comments upon storytelling. Riau is one of the few literate slaves and becomes for a time Toussaint’s secretary. Just as the officer is our window into the city population and the forces that compel and disturb that group of people, Riau is our insider witness to the slave revolt. There are three significant ways in which he fulfills that function. The first is recounting things that happen, of course. It is not until two thirds of the book have passed that Toussaint gains dominance among all the black leaders on the island. Some of those leaders have been able to take power because they were the most outspoken, most ruthless, most violent among the slaves; some, like Toussaint are natural leaders, they were part of the original power structure, having had responsibilities on the farms, and they don’t want a revolution either, their goal’s a reform. Through the hurricane of events they are then thrust into a role they don’t like but are immensely qualified to fill out.

It is maybe here that I should mention the intense amount of violence that permeates the whole book. Early on in the book we see someone shoot a dog and it is this shot that is like a hint of the darkness to come. Later, on the same plantation, a woman kills in a cold rage verging on madness the black mistress of her husband, making a bloody mess of it all. A short time afterward the revolt begins and we the readers are treated to pages of carnage, pages and pages of descriptions of slaughter, but these are not the images that will stay in your mind. Bell is nothing if not goal-oriented, precise and so he creates a series of images that each encapsulate a complex of issues. The most striking image is that of a white woman, leading a trek of female refugees to the city. Upon being held up by a group of evidently bloodthirsty rebels, she offers them her ring, but doesn’t take it off, instead she slowly, calmly cuts off her whole finger. This display of bravery or madness turns the rebels away, thus saving her and her companions (Its way with female characters is the novel’s most glaring flaw. Women are curiously flat, almost like caricatures.). Despite the restraint that comes from using the force of single images rather than overwhelming the reader with rivers of blood, the amount of violence is stunning, as is the destruction wrought by the angry former slaves.

This is part of conflict between structure and destruction, as it is mapped onto the different parties in this war. Rich whites are violent as well, but they destroy nothing for this, their violence is achieved with (and even: through) the structure. Reading the book, one cannot help but feel that Bell denounces all violence, even what is frequently called ‘necessary’ violence to uphold central elements of the structure, because Bell demonstrates how quickly it can all spill over into madness (although ‘madness’ would put you into a very specialized part of the structure, but that would go too far now I think). Riau does not reflect upon all this, but he is perceptive, it is through his perceptions that we gain insights into the revolt, especially into the role of religion. The book is full of French and Creole phrases, not all of them directly or obviously significant, except for one sort, words from the voodoo cult. Riau is a devout adherent of voodoo, and keeps tabs on how rituals and beliefs support and undermine the efforts of the revolt. The danger of irrationality is plain at all times and Bell doesn’t shy away from making it obvious that Christianity is not better than religions like voodoo which can appear to be sectarian and obscure.  There are several priests making an appearance and only one of those is painted in a positive light, a Jesuit priest with a black wife, and his endeavors are shown to be doomed.

I could go on like this for ages, I have notes on gender, linguistics, Paul Gilroy and some more on structure, but this is, after all a review. Suffice to say that this is a novel rich with ideas and that each and everyone works. The writing is good, bordering on sumptuous. It’s clearly more than adequate to its subject but then, it doesn’t really add much. Bell works through structure, characters and images, not language; his language is clean and poetical, but really not above the level of any good historical novel, although he does avoid the trap of faux-high-brow writing that is so ubiquitous in the genre. All Souls’ Rising is a very good book that draws you in, it makes for compulsive reading, and at the same time, as I said in the first paragraph, Bell should be credited with giving a voice and a story to those, as Carribean poet Martin Carter put it, “who had no voice in the emptiness / in the unbelievable”, those who “heard […] the iron clang”. He presents Toussaint as a hero who takes up the anger and hate and prejudice of the past and transforms it into an orderly revolution, but as a hero whose time has not yet come. Toussaint’s ideals and commitments show him to be an early proponent of the movement that, two hundred years later, Aime Césaire called “négritude”. In this sense, perhaps, Madison Smartt Bell is, after all, like Doctorow, hunting for the lesson, the lecturing line that is threaded through history.

“Measure, then, is my testament”

I want to give witness not to the thought of myself—that specious concept of identity—but, rather, to what I am as simple agency, a thing evidently alive by virtue of such activity. I want, as Charles Olson says, to come into the world. Measure, then, is my testament. What uses me is what I use and in that complex measure is the issue. I cannot cut down trees with my bare hand, which is measure of both tree and hand. In that way I feel that poetry, in the very subtlety of its relation to image and rhythm, offers an intensely various record of such facts. It is equally one of them. (Robert Creeley, from his essay “A Sense of Measure”)

Robert Creeley, whose collection of early poetry is among my favorite books of poetry, a poet of immense power and subtlety, has written a lot of essays, published in 1989 as Collected Essays by the University of California Press. Now they are online. Click here. You know you want this. You know you need to read this. Get to it already. Chop chop.

Blair Mahoney: Poetry Reloaded

Mahoney, Blair (2009), Poetry Reloaded, Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9780521746618

If you know me, you know I collect and recommend books on poetry; I keep recommending especially introductions to poetry. Good introductions are hard to come by, especially as my chosen field of specialty is often not well served by critics. And it’s worse for children. The few good introductions and guides I know are targeted at adults and mostly not fit to be used with younger kids. The only book I ever found commendable for children was Randall Jarrell’s effulgent The Bat-Poet, which remains highly recommended to all and any. There is now, however, a new book that I would add to said list.

An Australian teacher called Blair Mahoney has just published Poetry Reloaded, which is, strictly speaking, a textbook for teenage students, but it’s actually a great introduction into poetry that I recommend to anyone who might be interested in it. It’s fresh, well conceived and very well written. But, oh, you don’t have to take my word for it. If you follow this link, you’ll land at the publisher’s page that allows you to view a couple of sample pages and a plethora of other kinds of information. In a field where even decent publications are few and far between, a book like Mahoney’s is not just welcome, it’s necessary.

In this country, as in others (see Stanley Fish’s commentary), the uselessness of the Humanities is frequently claimed, an assertion that supports and provides the rationale behind cuts at universities and schools. As someone who’s currently preparing a phd on American poetry, my everyday concerns can seem downright quixotic when I look at the syllabus of our department and its academic priorities. Poetry matters! He shouts at the windmills. But appreciation of poetry doesn’t just fall into yr lap just like that, or it doesn’t usually. Reading poetry, properly appreciating it required a special kind of knowledge. To instil this knowledge, this capability of appreciating poems we often, and rightly so, turn to introductions, simple as this may sound.

For adults, who are ready to invest work on their own accord, who may see the worth of acquiring a knowledge of poetry, good introductions abound, by poets and critics both. There is mediocre poet Timothy Steele’s (for sentimental reasons, I think, Steele’s even less accomplished student Vikram Seth has been granted a place in Mahoney’s book) very good introduction, there is The Making of a Poem , Mark Strand’s and Eavan Boland’s amazing anthology, there are various books by Mary Oliver and Mary Kinzie, both highly accomplished poets in their own right. And then there are other books, collections of critical writings or interviews that can be enlightening, as well (J.D. McClatchy would be an example of such an enlightening writer).

But kids? Of all my close high school friends I was the only one who stuck with poetry and made it his life. The poetry classes at university tend to be rather empty; it gets so bad that a friend of mine suggested reading Billy Collins in school to get kids to like poetry. We need to have writers and books who both seduce children into liking poetry and challenge them at the same time. We don’t need to push the likes of Collins on kids, assuming they’re too dense to understand anything else. What we need are books like Poetry Reloaded. Blair Mahoney uses poems by the divine John Donne, he may start a chapter with a poem by Collins but proceeds, in the same chapter, to use Sandburg, Plath and Hardy. He may put in Seth’s waffle but the poem used just before is Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. If I had world enough and time, I’d go into further details, but suffice to say that Mahoney’s project is remarkable and the end result, as far as I see it, is terrific.

So, if you feel the need to turn to an introduction, if you have someone to introduce to poetry, I advise you to turn to Blair Mahoney’s fine and lively introduction, born from many years’ experience as a teacher, according to the bio on the publicity page I linked above. Poetry matters, remember. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Mahoney’s book is out this week. Don’t miss it. I’ll close with the first lines of another great text that is used in the book, Beddoes’s “Last Man”:

Sing on, sing ever, and let sobs arise
Beneath the current of your harmony,
Breaking its silvery stillness into gushes
Of stealing sadness: let tears fall upon it,
And burst with such a sound, as when a lute-string,
Torn by the passion of its melody,
Gasps its whole soul of music in one sound,
And dies beneath the waves of its own voice!


A.L. Kennedy: On Bullfighting

Kennedy, A.L. (2000), On Bullfighting, Yellow Jersey Press
ISBN 0-224-06099-6

Blood. That’s what you expect when you hear the word „Bullfighting“. Blood. Cruelty. Spaniards in tights. Bleeding Spaniards in tights. In terms of literature, the one writer who immediately comes to mind is Ernest Hemingway, the most ‘macho’ of American writers, who wrote a breathtaking book about bullfighting, about the corrida, literally the running of the bull, Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway’s persona has so dominated any writing about the corrida that A.L. Kennedy, in her own account of the spectacle, economically called On Bullfighting, even visits a moderately famous bar to be able to tell a bar story, because „there has to be at least one bar“ in a book about bullfighting. Bullfighting has come to be seen as a province of the masculine, and just as machismo, has come to be regarded as outdated, outmoded. So, if this wasn’t also a decade of growing awareness of animal rights and ecological issues, this could have been a comeback decade for bullfighting in the non-Spanish speaking world given the state of feminism these days and Kennedy’s book, first published in 1999, would have been eerily trendy.

That said, it’s not actually a good book to associate with any sort of trend. On Bullfighting is a wondrous little book, hard to label, tough to slot into a place on the shelf. It is an intimate book, discussing matters of personal relevance, discussing pain and loss, bringing up sadness and exhaustion of the soul. On the other hand, it is quite an earnest, serious discussion of bullfighting, filled to the brim with facts and observations. Kennedy is careful, systematic, providing contexts and varying perspectives to the things she discusses. It is also a book on travel, on meeting a different country, a different culture, while at the same time having the same encounter on the page, reading books, an article. This is a perfect book. Perfectly calibrated, perfectly written. It’s smart, sane, beautiful and enlightening.

The narrative of the book starts in a room in the writer’s native Scotland, as she is about to step from a ledge and end her life. She chooses a quiet day so she’s not “gawped“ at when she dies, because “she’s had enough embarrassment for one life”, nor does she want to hurt or discomfort someone, since, after all, “[i]t’s only me I want to kill.” This situation came about due to a chain of events, including the loss of a loved one, making her “rather averagely brokenhearted” and, perhaps more importantly, the loss of her writing. We learn that she hasn’t written anything in a while:

I am a writer who doesn’t write and that makes me no-one at all. I don’t look very different but I have nothing of value inside.

She lives in a flat that she bought so she’d have room to write, it’s an apartment that contains a writer’s study which seems to her, now, a useless room.

It’s a bit strange to read this in a book that she’s evidently written afterward, and it demonstrates the irony, the inadequacy, ridiculousness, even, of such acts, which she is all too well aware of. But that does not keep her off the ledge. As the mighty Jean Améry, in his classic apologia of suicide, Hand an sich legen (review forthcoming), pointed out, the ridiculousness is caused by the ‘logic of life’ that governs much of our thinking, an imposed set of priorities, things as they ‘should’ be, an expression that refers, of course, to a conventional rule, irrational in the blind obeisance and self-reproducing logic it demands, like similar irrational idiocies like strict manners (all this depends upon the extent; there are cautious, simple versions that I would not describe as I have the stricter, more elaborate version).

So there she is, on the ledge, ready to take the leap. She’s taken off her shoes, which she does for anything important that demands her full attention, and waits, sinks into the moment, until, well, until an atrocious song is played, Mhairi’s Wedding, “pseudo-celtic pap” (listen to a rendition here). It mars the moment, divesting it of any kind of dignity, and thus prevents her from taking the leap. Instead, she takes an offer to write about the corrida and plunges herself into the research and the writing, even if it’s just to see whether something will come of this. From these beginnings, she spins a book that is a description “as accurate as possible” of the corrida, but it’s also about encounters on the frontier between life and death, it’s about faith, dignity, about, au fond, the human condition. I’m not reaching for too strong a description, because Kennedy’s interweaving of personal fear and faith and the fear and faith that permeates the spectacle, produces a potent mix that sheds light on far more than one person’s drama or the corrida.

Bullfighting is about taking and accepting personal risks, but not in the way that a Formula 1 driver or a boxer does, because, as Kennedy points out, the term “Bullfight” is woefully inadequate:

[T]he corrida is not, accurately speaking, a bullfight, although this is the standard English term for it. No man, as has often been noted, can actually fight half a ton or so of bull. What happens in the ring is more complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred and blasphemous than any fight.

It’s hard to improve upon this quote if you want a good and concise summary of two thirds of the book, as Kennedy spends much time looking into the history of the corrida, and relating it to literary, religious and historical contexts. She’s never scholarly, it’s just that when she needs to explain something, she has just the right facts on hand, presented in the right way to make sense of things. Because that is what it’s all about: making sense of things. Much of this book consists of preparations for her first actual corrida that she will watch with her own eyes, facts presented to us while we also follow her path through Spain, visiting places that are important to the corrida or at least to the history of the corrida. She reads stories while traveling and she tells us this. And she tells us stories, stories that are not clothed like stories, more like facts, but in actuality, these are stories.

Stories of the homosexual poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a huge fan of the corrida, who was murdered by fascists in the streets of Grenada, maybe for political reasons, maybe for his homosexuality. And stories of the Inquisition, of streets that converted Jews and Moors had to walk along to prove their conversion. Stories of dying matadors, of old matadors who play with bulls on their farms and shoot themselves when they’re no longer able to. Stories of poems about toreros, stories of dying horses, of ears cut and laps granted. Stories of modern commercial pressure taking over. Stories of vengeance but most of all: stories of fear. Ritual and faith is constantly evoked. Faith in surviving the next encounter with the bull. And ritual to assure this. Matadors are, Kennedy tells us, highly superstitious. After all, their life is on the line each time they go out there, in the afternoon, courting death, with glittering sword, and the traje de luces, the garb of lights. Stories of people stepping up to a ledge twice in an afternoon, meeting the bulls.

But we already established that the corrida is no actual fight. Kennedy tells us that trickery abounds. Bulls are slowed, weakened. When she describes her first corrida, she explains how the picadors and banderilleros, the first two waves of people attacking the bull, sticking various sharp objects in it, butcher the bull to such an extent that all that is left is a slow slab of meat waiting for the coup de grâce. Ideally, the matador only hurts the bull once, when he delivers one precise jab with his sword. In the meantime, he plays with the hurting, bleeding, tired animal. He has twelve minutes do do this. Twelve painful, long minutes for the bull, who isn’t even always killed as he should be. More often than not he’s hacked to death. The three waves of attacks all depend upon skill, and skilled killing of a bull is rare. Whatever merits, aesthetic or else, the corrida may have, can only be attributed to the good variety of it, the skilled one. I’ve seen clips of mediocre banderillero lancing their spears against a bull online. How I know they were mediocre? Because I’ve also seen clips of El Juli do it.

El Juli, whom Kennedy talks at length about, is one of the superstars of his profession, possibly the highest-paid matador in history, and one of the very few who sometimes does their own banderillero work (you can see small clips of him doing that in Shakira’s video “Te Dejo Madrid” (click here)). He’s elegant, direct, precise. His performances are like elegant dances with the bull. When he lances his banderillas, I’ve seen him reach right over the horns and let them fly, thus bringing himself right into the most dangerous zone of all. Because this is where the danger arises. This is where the encounter with death takes place. Here, where the torero places himself over the bull’s horns. The matador needs success, even the mediocre one, and in order to achieve success it’s not important to kill a bull, no the bull’s death is a foregone conclusion, it’s important to place yourself in danger, be brushed by the bull, reach over the horns, step to the side fractions before the bull turns his head.

Toreros are frequently injured, but the bull has little to do with it. The bull has been tortured and butchered into submission. He’s dangerous now, very much so, but only on close distances or when the matador makes a grave mistake. It’s about faith. Matadors are not suicidal. They have faith in things working out, in not being gored, in turning at the right second. In the end, it’s the matador’s decision. This is what Kennedy tells us, over and over again. Her stories always revert to the situation that is sketched at the beginning and is thus shown to be more than just the story of a lonely woman on a ledge. It’s the instinct, the urge to do something, to matter, or the absence of such an urge. And she finds it in the men who pretend to fight bulls but actually fight themselves. Thankfully, Kennedy spares us a discussion of animal rights here, because she knows as well as most of us do, that there are very few among us whose eating habits allow them an outrage that is not hypocrisy. Kennedy dives first into the details, then into the actual fights and returns then to herself again.

Which, of course, she reflects as well in this little marvel of a book. In a way it exemplifies James Clifford’s concept of travel which includes travel that the reader of a text can undertake. In On Bullfighting we have all sorts of travel rolled up into one. She reads books, travels the country and finally experiences a corrida. And all of this is narrated, from the outside as well as the inside. We see her on the stone steps of an arena, carrying two cameras, one pair of binoculars and a notebook. She’s an anxious observer. Anxious of her powers to record what she sees. To return to Jean Améry and the conventional opinion, the logic of life, force-fed to everyone. Yes, this is luxury, to be able to reject life, to endanger life, and it’s not something to do lightly, but it’s also a right or it should be. As we see Kennedy watching herself we cannot but see her also with the eyes of society and though she travels to Spain, she carries her own culture with her like a snail and warps our reading and understanding, which, again, is reflected in numerous ways. Read this book if you know little about the corrida and want to learn more. Read this book if you want your brain and heart to be engaged. Read this book if you want to read a great book. It’s small but one of her best, and she’s one of the best, in general.


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John Boyne: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Boyne, John (2007), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Definitions
ISBN 978-0-099-48782-1

The story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it’s important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.

This is what it says on the back of my edition and I can’t say I disagree. Well, I don’t think you should read or even touch this book, but if you are bent on reading it, the advice above is sound. This review will contain spoilers, lots, really. So, do not read on if you really want to read the book.

Now, for all the others: excellent choice. It’s one of the worst books I’ve read in a while and I regret every second I spent with it. The writing is mostly decent, the construction clever, but its many flaws overshadow the rest so much it’s barely worth mentioning the positive aspects in such a short review. According to interviews he gave, John Boyne wrote this one in a matter of days, on an inspiration, without constructing it beforehand as he usually does. Instead of devoting a certain amount of thought and consideration to a topic that has been the subject of much writing so far, he basically wings it. Reading The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas it’s quite obvious what the idea was. Not working on it, thinking through the kinks, making it work, however, has marred the book, making it into the mess it is. Not that that’s any concern to Boyne, who made it big with the book that sold incredibly well, and was both generously translated and made into a high-profile movie. So, seen from that angle, the book is a huge success, and its flaws go a long way in explaining why that is the case.

I’m starting with the plot and, just a reminder, there will be spoilers: The story is about Bruno, the son of a prominent Nazi officer. His father is relocated to Auschwitz in 1943 and the whole family has to follow. So they move from Berlin to Poland, and Bruno is understandably miffed that he has to leave his friends behind and his old haunts, but he’s not the only one. Everybody hates it there, in the house that is so close to the camp that you can watch the prisoners from it, and they hate it because nothing much happens, because there are few children, because the house is much smaller and much less comfortable than their accommodations in Berlin. Now and then Nazis visit, which is bothersome but on the whole, it’s boring. Until, that is, Bruno discovers the camp where he finds that hundreds of people walk around in striped pajamas and, most importantly, children. He walks up to the fence and strikes up a friendship with a boy on the other side, they talk and find out they’re not just the same age, they’ve been born on the very same day.

During the period of time that follows, Bruno has a few altercations with a Nazi officer who appears to be just generally mean-spirited; also, his friendship with Shmuel, the boy on the other side, grows and grows until, at the end, Shmuel reports worries. Shmuel’s father is gone and the boy has been looking for him all over the camp. Bruno decides to help and dons a striped pajama, which nicely fits the shaved cranium that he sports on account of an infestation with lice. Shmuel lifts up the fence (the spot where they sit and talk is apparently the only one where that is possible because there “the base is not properly attached to the ground”) and Bruno crawls in. When night falls over Auschwitz, the two boys are rounded up with a number of other prisoners, led to the gas chambers. As we hear the door fall shut behind the boys, Bruno’s story basically ends. The last chapter tells us of the aftermath of the events, how the family moves back to Berlin, how they are all mystified by Bruno’s disappearance. When the father finds out what happened, he is devastated, loses all will to live and

[a] few months after that some other soldiers came […] and Father was ordered to go with them, and he went without complaint and he was happy to do so because he didn’t really mind what they did to him anymore.

That poor SS officer. The book closes with a moralistic two-liner, more or less reiterating the old line about being watchful because something like that could happen anywhere. Yeah. It is these two lines which may have prompted many critics, inexplicably, to suggest that this book was a salient and important contribution to literature in general and Shoah literature in particular. Nothing could be further from the truth. John Boyne’s book’s premise, two boys of the exact same age meeting in such a situation may be improbable but that is fine. What isn’t is the underlying, larger premise: that a nine-year old son of a Nazi official would not know what a Jew is (there’s a discussion in the book where his sister explains to him what a Jew is), that he would not recognize the star of David on the “striped pajama” his best friend’s wearing. This is really the central assumption: a completely and utterly innocent boy stumbles into that kind of situation and dies at the hands of this atrocious machinery.

Personally, I found that incredibly hard to swallow. I would contrast this with the haunting episode in Jorge Semprun’s great novel Le Grand Voyage that takes place at a train station in Trier, where the main character’s transport, on its way to Buchenwald, makes a stop:

Il y a une gosse d’une dizaine d’années, avec ses parents, juste en face de notre wagon. Il écoute ses parents, il regarde vers nous, il hoche la tête. Puis le voilà qui part en courant. Puis le voilà qui revient en courant, avec une grosse pierre à la main. Puis le voilà qui s’approche de nous et qui lance la pierre, de toutes ses forces, contre l’ouverture près de laquelle nous nous tenons.

This then becomes part of a discussion between the protagonist and his companion, the mysterious gars de Sémur, who cries out in triumph: ha, see, these are the damn Germans. The protagonist, however, resists this. He asks what happens, how this boy has turned into a Nazi, what makes someone a Nazi, what leads to the boy being outside the train and him inside. The passage closes with this comment

Je me demande combien d’Allemands il va falloir tuer encore pour que cet enfant allemand ait une chance de ne pas devenir un boche. Il n’y est pour rien, ce gosse et il y est pour tout, cependant.

The doubt, the questions of how children turn into hateful creatures, espousing ideologies that they don’t even understand, all this is completely absent from Boyne’s book. Bruno’s just innocent and good. Has he never heard radio broadcasts ranting about Jews, never had a class that taught him about races, never saw one of the ubiquitous posters on the streets? That is strange and completely unbelievable but not enough for Boyne. Boyne is determined to purge his protagonist of all worldliness, of all connections to regular Germans and goes one step further, descending into complete idiocy. See, Bruno doesn’t get the word “Führer” and misunderstands it as “Fury”; dito with “Auschwitz” which turns in Bruno’s wondrous ears into “Out-with”. I do understand that the word Führer may sound strange to English ears, but I can assure you it doesn’t to German ears. There is no conceivable reason why Bruno should have difficulty understanding these things, especially since Bruno’s not stupid or hard of hearing or something like that.

One may cite his age, he is, after all, only nine. It’s an interesting age, since I think Berlin’s streets were largely judenrein by the time Bruno was alert enough to take in his surroundings. The boy in Semprun’s novel’s older as well. Maybe Bruno’s just too young? Do you remember how you perceived the world when you were his age? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it, so many years later? But see, when I was 8 years old the BRD (West Germany) took over the GRD (East Germany), and I vividly remember going to marches before that, loving heroes of the socialist state such as Ernst Thälmann and Thomas Müntzer, being outraged at the 200.000 killed in the bombing of Dresden (I was a gullible kid) and so forth. Now, I shouldn’t generalize from my own example, but the vividness of my memories is striking enough for me to reject Boyne’s assumptions out of hand. Especially since Boyne’s portrayal of Bruno is not restricted to the boy alone. There is one ardent Nazi in his book, two, if we count the father who is very conflicted about what he does sometimes. The other Germans are nice or even oppositional.

Since the book’s simple structure frequently invites us to read it in a symbolical manner, I suggest reading Bruno’s family as representing the German people. The grandparents, i.e. the past, the tradition, are against fascism, Bruno, the future, is completely oblivious of it, and friendly and trusting, and the parents are conflicted about it all. It’s really fascinating but Boyne has found a way to talk about the Shoah without having German perpetrators (the few Nazis don’t count. The old fairy tale of a takeover of Germany by a group of madmen explicitly exculpates Germans, that’s why it was so strong and popular after the war) or Jewish victims, really. There are victims, but the true tragedy of the book is not Shmuel’s (whose name is reminiscent of Busch’s infamous antisemitic caricature called Schmulchen Schievelbeiner) death, but Bruno’s. This seems to whisper: see, it’s not just Jews, it could happen to you as well. There is no sense of why it was Jews especially that bore the brunt of the holocaust, no historical sense of context and connections, and in what sense it “could happen to you as well”. By accident? In the 1930s, were Jews just in the wrong place at the wrong time? By accident on the wrong side of the fence?

Now, you could complain: doesn’t Boyne call his book a fable? Look, it says so right on the cover. Yeah well, that Boyne would call his book a fable is ridiculous and, to an extent disturbing. At the very least it’s a cop-out. There is a responsibility that comes with the topic and Boyne sidesteps it by applying that label. Yes, the tone of the writing does resemble such modern fables as Le Petit Prince but the content is different. Fables usually have no direct connection to concrete historical and political contexts, they are didactic, but they take a detour, by using anthropomorphic characters or personifications. The coincidences and improbabilities in this book do have a tinge of that, but little more than a tinge. The similarity is closer to magical realism than to actual fables. All that the label does is offer Boyne a way out of accountability. He doesn’t even work within an alternative history framework, like Tarantino’s new movie or books like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, at least that would be an unlikely reading, since most details fit the historical situation.

What’s disturbing about this label is the slight white-washing that the events experience at Boyne’s hand which is exacerbated by that label and the noncommittal attitude it betrays. He took the horror out of the events, and downplayed both Germans’ and Jews’ roles in it, as I maintained earlier. The Shoah, in Boyne’s book, is a given and not awfully interesting. Boyne focuses on the two boys at the fence, one of his points, presumably, being that chance put one outside and the other inside. But it’s not chance, is it? It’s a culturally ingrained ideology that had been stable for decades, an ideology that is still going strong. Why did Bruno’s father do what he did? Love of his country, is suggested. Why did his wife go along with it? There is little in the book that would help us answer these questions. See. this book is didactic, admonishing its readers to never forget that these things could happen again, but it is a wholly empty admonishment since it doesn’t offer its readers a way to understand why these things happened. Boyne makes, in a very pronounced and annoying manner, a point about roles that we assume and the uniforms we wear; in this way, wearing the uniform makes Bruno’s father a Nazi and wearing the striped pyjama, in the end, makes Bruno a victim. But this is a highly problematic point because, again, Boyne makes his discussions of victimhood judenrein. Bruno doesn’t become a Jew because of his behavior, he’s just a prisoner, marked by his clothes and mistaken in the dark by the guards.

Thus, Boyne gets by with the least amount of commitment and thinking. Mind you, he’s not the first to look at this angle but the many books that treat this subject in a infinitely more satisfying manner (most of those are for adults, such as Edgar Hilsenrath’s stupefying novel The Nazi and the Barber) how us the problem with the issue. One which is read by teens in school, is Max Frisch’s play Andorra, wherein a village’s prejudice and hate convinces one of their own that he’s a Jew. He starts to behave like a stereotypical Jew and is murdered in the end. He is murdered because everyone else believes he’s a Jew. It’s not as simple as wearing the wrong clothes. Frisch’s point is that prejudice against Jews is about more than simple appearance. It’s a pervasive complex of stereotypes, and one that a majority of the population shared. This pervasive, generally accepted prejudice made the Shoah, the efficient, calculated murder of millions in one of the most progressive European nations possible. To mark it as an accident is a stupendous rewriting of history. Is it an excuse that this a a book for children? It’s not. For one thing, the allusive nature of Boyne’s narrative, where even the gas chamber and Bruno’s death is never made explicit, limits the age group to one that has been educated about the Shoah before reading the book. And for another, Boyne creates a false, a wrong representation of the era, and no difficulty can excuse that. Boyne’s weirdly benign reading of the period is, however, quite en vogue these days.

I’ve not read another book by John Boyne and I never, ever, will, but judging from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, he is a decent writer who doesn’t like to think much. Yes, I said decent writer. If we divest the book of all that I find unbearable about it, what is left behind is a competently structured story, mostly somewhat well written. It’s written from the perspective of a child and you can see Boyne earnestly trying to convey a child’s voice here, and for the most part he gets that voice right. Sometimes that voice slips into a cranky mode but that’s it. However, as with most mediocre books about children, I have the impression that he confuses innocence with stupidity. At one point, Bruno’s asked whether he was watching something and he said he was just seeing it, and that was, apparently, a very smart distinction, or so the author tells us (it’s not), but there’s clearly a confusion, too, at work here, because, if the book were not a “fable” Boyne’s hero would be stupendously stupid, incapable of seeing, really. See, Boyne doesn’t just talk down talks down to his readers by presenting a whitewashed version of history, he even talks down to his own character, which the last chapter makes clear, which appears to be written from Bruno’s perspective since it’s written in his voice, which is revealing.

Boyne thinks too little of his readers and too much of himself. The result is a crappy book that I wish I’d never read and a dangerous book that I wish no-one would read. It is now that we need to remember our history as it was not as we would like it to be. People like David Irving are gaining leeway, the current pope is going down a very problematic path and overall antisemitism has been on the rise during the past years. We need to remember. We need to understand. Boyne understands nothing.


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Bryan Lee O’Malley: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

O’Malley, Bryan Lee (2004), Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Oni Press
ISBN 978-1-932664-08-9

I’m gonna go ahead and say it: I think that Bryan Lee O’Malley is a genius. Or brilliant, anyway. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is the first book of his that I read and it blew me away, or rather: it riveted me to the chair I read it in. It is the first volume of an ongoing series about Scott Pilgrim, published with Oni Press. I’ve almost finished reading the second volume and I itch to get my hands on the other volumes that have been published so far. The book is an exhilarating ride, a barrelful of fun, an amazing book, in short and his writer, if this book is any indication, is one to cherish and to keep an eye on. Yes, this series of his is written in a limited register but he owns that format, that tone so completely and utterly, he has mastered the genre so completely that I have faith in his achieving great things in the world of comics. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life may seem slight but it is a great achievement, a book that bursts with a manic, joyful energy, that takes hold of you and doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Yes, I sound a bit empty there, slinging cheap phrases around, but that’s because I don’t really have the words to truly express how I feel about O’Malley’s work.

Maybe I’ll start somewhere else. When Cornelia Funke, probably Germany’s most well known living writer of children’s and Y.A. Literature, started publishing her Inkheart books (review forthcoming), I was already a fan of her work. She used a fresh and original language, vivid and funny characters. Whenever I extemporized about how good children’s lit could be, I always mentioned her work. Inkheart was (is) a huge let-down. It’s competently written but direly dull, in too many places. It’s smugly literate and annoyingly adult, in all the wrong ways. It’s clearly written for kids but it lacks the spark that animates the best of children’s literature. Before I picked up Inkheart, I never quite knew what drew me towards good or great literature written for young adults, but when I found it sorely lacking in Inkheart, I knew: it was the spark. It can be strong and pronounced, or subtle and quiet, but I found that in all books I admired, it was there. The difference to ‘adult’ literature is, however, frequently read the wrong way. Too often writing for teens is just an excuse to produce shoddy writing. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (review forthcoming) is a particularly horrid example.

Bryan Lee O’Malley, in contrast, does everything right; the spark leaps right off the page the minute you open the book. There’s not a page, not a panel in the book that I would ever label a letdown, a disappointment. Instead of stiffening the dialog Meyer-style, shriveling it up like a raisin, O’Malley’s pen is deft and quick, his language is always fresh, frequently surprising. To my ear he appears to perfectly catch a certain youthful register, but then I’m old, basically inherently lame (saying this is somewhat lame already I’m afraid) but then I’m not here to judge an authenticity contest, I am the reader of this book and for me it all worked magically, perfectly. O’Malley knows when to slip into a teenager corniness, into cool swagger, teen sarcasm etc. This musicality, sureness of tone is further emphasized by the book’s concern with music. Not only is the name ‘Scott Pilgrim’ inspired by a single by the moderately well known Canadian rock band Plumtree, Pilgrim, the character, is also a guitarist in a band and we hear several songs and at one point, O’Malley actually includes the chords to one of those songs. Music also has strange powers; at one point, a band plays a song that regularly knocks the whole audience out.

Speaking of strange powers. The plot is also somewhat strange although it’s, to a large extent, a conventional romance, I guess. The book starts off with Scott Pilgrim on the defense as his friends find out he’s dating a high school girl. Scott is 23 and the girl, Knives Chau, is all of 17 years old, going to a Catholic school, and she’s of Chinese ancestry to boot. She falls in love with Scott, but he, meanwhile has fallen in love with a mysterious American girl, Ramona Flowers, who first appears in his dreams and whom he then meets at a party. As it turns out Scott has a “subspace highway” going through his head. Although Scott is a bit confused about this, this is more or less taken in stride and it’s no oddity in this book where strange, vaguely magical things keep turning up. Scott and his band, for example, have strange powers, but most significantly, Ramona Flowers is not an easy girl to date. We find out that in order to go out with her, a suitor has to fight her seven evil ex-boyfriends first, the first one of which shows his vengeful, jealous face in this book, another one showing up in the next. They are diligent, well-organized and committed. Good thing that Scott Pilgrim is a good fighter, and quite generally awesome.

Bryan Lee O’Malley’s art suits the writing perfectly. Generally speaking, it’s very rough, very simple. It’s fueled by a mad teenage energy, no panel is drawn indifferently, reading the book is like taking a fresh breath of air. The characters are drawn in a few broad strokes, with O’Malley’s concentrating upon a few salient details. It’s cartoonish but the difference from many contemporary animated cartoons which it resembles superficially, is in the precision that O’Malley brings to his art. O’Malley manages to get the right angle, the right stroke of the pen to express something, to really animate his drawings. The low level of detail in his panels further accentuates this, his ability to foreground characters, to imbue them with life. His art is simple but it’s also economical, he uses its simplicity in a way that makes further detail, further refinement seem unnecessary. The teenage hyperbole of its writings, the gushing energy, these things seem to ask for this treatment. And, again, unlike many superficially similar animated cartoons, O’Malley not only borrows from the cinema, he puts angels and constructions borrowed from cinema to great use. Despite its simplicity, O’Malley’s art appears, at times, downright glossy, epic.

One last aspect of the book that needs to be mentioned are video games. I think that video games may even be the most important frame of reference here. Not to deny the cinematic aspect of some frames, but the aesthetic frequently is reminiscent of different video games and even the cinematic aspect could have been channeled via video games; one game especially that is mentioned, Final Fantasy, has always had incredibly refined, movie-like cutscenes. The plot, too, is part of a video game aesthetic, the sudden fighting, the fact that defeated enemies disappear and leave money behind (in the second volume, one of the defeated enemies even leaves behind items), the weird special moves and abilities, all this is part of that. And then there are the direct quotes, such as, for example, objects from classic jump and run arcade games that appear in the second volume, or, most significantly, the name of Scott Pilgrim’s band, which, in fact, can be said to sum up an important aspect of the books. The band is called “Sex Bob-omb”, a “bob-omb” being a walking bomb from the classic Super Mario Bros video games.

The combination in the whole phrase that is the band name is probably as apt a description of the cultural locus this book situates itself in, a mixture that makes for great, great fun. The first (and second, so far) volume of this ongoing series are, to use one of this book’s most frequently used words “awesome”. Yes, it alludes to other issues, too, gender, sexuality, perception, but I didn’t have the heart to approach a review of this book from that angle. It’s certainly a rich work of literature, but it’s as certainly not for everyone. If the description appeals to you, don’t hesitate. If you like graphic novels and trust me, don’t hesitate. As for the others: it’s your loss. Seriously. Don’t miss the spark.

A.B. Yehoshua: A Late Divorce

Yehoshua, A.B. (2005), A Late Divorce, Halban
Translated by Hillel Halkin
ISBN 1-870015-95-9

I don’t know about you but I am constantly on the prowl for great writers I never heard of. That is one of the reasons why I follow the long- and shortlists of different prizes and the surrounding discussions, hoping to come across a gem. Gems, however, are few and far between, and I’ve become careful. I still do dip into the unknown now and then, and, most recently, my stranger of choice was A. B. Yehoshua who caught my attention when he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2005. Two weeks ago I finally read a novel of his, A Late Divorce, translated by Hillel Halkin, published in the original in 1982. I read every page with enjoyment up to the end of this marvelously written and conceived jewel of a novel. Looking, waiting and prowling paid off.

A.B. Yehoshua, judging from this book, is a great writer and A Late Divorce is a masterpiece that I had trouble to describe. But, I’ll try. Bear with me. A Late Divorce is a book about family, about Israel, about religion, about madness, about poetry, about love and about shame. Probably about half a dozen more things, too. The writing is great, as well, although I have to add the usual caveat. I’ve only read Yehoshua in Halkin’s translation. As far as I know, Halkin could be responsible for most of the stylistic goodness; if the translation, however, is even slightly true to the original book, Halkin’s task was a daunting one, because A Late Divorce is an uneasy book, never settling on one voice, one point of view, intent upon chasing the reader through a maze of sounds until the book itself ends with a chase in a masterfully bittersweet ending.

A Late Divorce is about migrations and returns: an Israeli professor, Yehuda Kaminka who teaches in the US, has built himself a home there, with a pregnant girlfriend whom he wants to marry. He returns to Israel, his former home, to obtain a divorce from his wife. It is a book about madness: this attempt of his is more difficult than we may have anticipated, it has required a lot of preparation and still, when the professor arrives, everything is hanging in the balance, because his wife has been locked up in a psychiatric ward ever since she tried to kill him, which is the act that drove him away. It is a book both about religion and family: He arrives on Passover week, a week of ritual and remembrance for those of the Jewish faith; during that week he lives at the houses of his four children, who take turns in accommodating him. Three of his children are married, the fourth is gay but also in a relationship.

In a week of ritual, we watch that family play its old games and go through it’s rituals, in a week of remembrance, we learn what an unhappy family this one is and always was. As the week draws to a close, the tensions rise, but due to Yehoshua’s immense skills, we don’t have a catastrophe waiting at the end, not in any usual sense. Instead, Yehoshua uses these last chapters to twist the knife in his readers’ hearts some more, making them feel a sorrow (and hope) that doesn’t leave when the last page is turned. Although there are no actual repetitions, Yehoshua’s construction creates a sense of repetition, recreating the same sadness and sorrow time and again that dominates the family, injecting new elements, shining new light on some old ones. Not an awful lot really happens in the book but these devices ensure that the book never gets boring, never becomes dull. The most significant and well-executed of the narrative games is how he creates a flow of voices by handing each chapter to a different character; the way one voice follows another made me gasp at times, he seems to have an unerring instinct of how to arrange this in as effective a manner as possible.

The novel is, also, about writing, in several ways; there is for example a fledgling poet, who uses a notebook with two columns, wherein she notes ideas and phrases, one for poetry and one for prose. She always notes both of these at the same occasions, which tells us how the same situation can be channeled through different sensibilities different kinds of writing. However, writing is emphasized most directly in the way that Yehoshua foregrounds his techniques, the tools he uses to convey his story. The book has nine chapters, one for each day, each one narrated by a different family member. Some chapters are, for lack of a better word, special, narrated in a special voice or a special way. I have no idea how Yehoshua renders voices in the original Hebrew, but in Halkin’s translation, Yehoshua’s not going for subtle effects like changes of tone, speech patterns or something like that. No, among these “special” ways of narrating the story there’s the first chapter, which is written in a style resembling stream-of-consciousness, no commas, no semicolons, a hurried stew of a narrative, poured straight from the mind of a child, Kaminka’s only grandson.

There is the chapter of his gay son Tsvi’s lover, who’s a sephardic Jew (there’s a whole strand of ideas in the novel that center upon the status of sephardic Jews in Israel) and, for most people, a closeted gay. His chapter only consists of one half of dialogue, his half. He talks to different people and unearths interesting information, which we only know to the extent that it is reflected in his answers and questions. And the very next chapter features only dialogue. It’s not just any dialogue, it’s one of the most culturally enshrined kinds of dialogue: Tsvi has a session with his psychiatrist. The fact that this last chapter’s narrative technique is reflected to an extent in the content (there are more ways, but impossible to share without spoiling it for some future readers) is no accident. Yehoshua makes good and judicious use of every word, phrase or paragraph he writes. He is not a generous but an efficiently brilliant writer. Nothing escapes his attention.

I have, in past reviews, positively remarked upon some writer’s use of illness, for example, not as a textual gadget but as something that has a logic of its own, and of the writer’s acceptance of it. I have also presented Giordano’s novel as a striking negative example of a writer who is neither generous nor, as a writer, particularly smart. Yehoshua is greedy, he takes everything and fits it into his system, but he doesn’t do it frivolously or carelessly. Giordano doesn’t care about the minorities he uses, not a bit. He exoticises madness, illness. Not so Yehoshua. What he does he does because it’s necessary, needed. He sees no need necessarily to consider others’ logic, others’ situations but he doesn’t use them as difference either, I think. It’s difficult, because the book as a whole is torn, morally. Yehoshua is a very moral writers, but his allegiance isn’t always clear. Often, it’s really hard to see where the projected norm is (unless there isn’t one, but I think there is), from which angle Yehoshua reads the situations and the characters or maybe I just don’t see clearly enough. In terms of what we just discussed, let’s for example, look at the child’s chapter again, which is, remember, the first one of the book, containing a narrative that resembles a stream of consciousness.

Clearly the speed and breathlessness of the way that chapter is told exemplifies central properties of this chapter’s speaker. At the same time, the setup of the chapter is very strange, the story it tells is wondrous and complete enough to serve as a separate story: The old man returns from abroad, sleeps off his jet lag for days while members of the extended family keep calling. The child watches everything and the moment the old man wakes, is the first moment in a while that the boy is left alone, babysitting his infant sister. A diaper-related crisis arises, the boy makes a mess of it, but the ruckus wakes the grandfather and together they set things right, clean up the mess. It’s one of the best chapters I’ve read in any novel, and it serves perfectly as introduction to the book. The family has yet to weigh in completely, Kaminka’s relationship to his wife and the reason for wanting a divorce have yet to emerge, yet to be disclosed but many other things are already stated here. Both are outsiders in the society they live in now, the old man because he is at odds with his family and because he’s perhaps more American than Israeli now, the boy because he’s peculiar, and fat.

And here’s where I return to what I just babbled about: his corpulence, presented as the result of an illness and his isolation from ‘normal’ kids isn’t used as such, especially not in the context of the novel. To be sure, he is no naïve child, he’s ashamed of himself, of his actions, anxious to know what people say about him, almost paranoid and he keeps trying to make sure that people know he’s ill not lazy or a glutton.

The gym teacher called me over try Gaddis he said I’ll help you I said I can’t. If you’d lose some weight you could jump he said so I said it’s not the food it’s my glands there’s something wrong with them. What glands he said who put that into your head? So I explained to him about the glands that make me fat the doctor said so he even gave me a note at the beginning of the year that I wasn’t supposed to jump.

He feels society’s gaze upon him and it’s a heavy load to have to bear as a child. But, and here’s the kicker, the same basic problems, the shame, the paranoiac fear of others’ tongues and eyes, everyone’s afflicted of that. Every single character here is miserable, mad, even Some chapters seem to be told in a pretty straightforward, conventional manner, just plainly told from the character’s point of view, so that we learn both about the events and about the character’s feelings towards them, his experience of them and his role within that strange disturbed family.

These chapters seem simple, especially compared with the others but that simplicity is deceptive. Just as the characters are often not openly miserable (unlike, say, the cast of Christina Stead’s masterpiece), these chapters and the characters that narrate them are also underhanded about other aspects of their mental make-up. Reading the book, we find that few things are told several times, it’s not a Rashomon type of structure, but it definitely works in a similar manner, but instead of seeing an event or an object from several angles, we see a character from several angles. While I still maintain that there’s a moral undecidability involved, as mentioned above (I will return to that in a second), this method, and Yehoshua’s hard gaze at everything, did remind me of Bentham’s Panopticon as described and used by Foucault. It doesn’t, of course, work for the characters, since awareness of the device and self-regulation is key to this, but since much of the book feels like an allegory anyway, it’s more like a reminder to his readers, an admonishment. This is the aspect of the book that’s horrible, really. There’s a cold moral core to much of it. Unpleasant, rigid. And at the same time, this is one of the central places where Yehoshua blurs distinctions. When we hear that Kaminka’s wife, the certified madwoman, stabbed him because she was “disappointed” with him, we can’t but feel Yehoshua’s nod of approval. He’s that rigid.

However, the book also conveys a passion, a personal, political one. While discussing the family and its problems, Yehoshua’s also discussing Israel and it’s situation, it’s history and its future. This is, perhaps, as important and central a reading as one that would foreground the personal relationships, the intrigue, broken hearts and the like. Yes, the book is a huge disquisition about love, about the power imbalance that it can bring, about the role of sex, the harm of ladylike prudery, the role of prostitution in a prude society, the role of homosexuality etc. However, it’s hard to ignore insistent phrases such as his aside about “a homeland still struggling to be a homeland.” There is a worry about Israel in the book, as Israel is surrounded by enemies, regularly harangued by its friends and despised by its enemies. Passages like this one, towards the end of the book, stay with you, long after you finished the novel:

Homeland can you be a homeland? […] It mustn’t be said not even be said but the state of Israel is an episode. Or will history have mercy?

The character voicing this subsequently dismisses the idea of historical mercy, with the cold of Yehoshua’s thinking on his breath. But, in a previous chapter, which is told from hindsight, disclosing the end before we’re there, there is burgeoning hope. It’s not Kaminska returning, because he returns in order to sever his ties with the homeland.

No, it’s the young generation, the children, infants and the as of yet unborn that represent hope and it is this hope that lends this novel its greatness. Yes, alright, it’s written and constructed by an extraordinary writer. This is the only book of his I know and my edition provides no further information beyond the prizes he’s garnered, but as far as the craft of prose is concerned, he’s one amazing specimen of a writer. The family, too, is vivid, and if I have not chosen to dwell overmuch on its dynamics it’s because part of the book’s enjoyment is finding out about that, being prodded and slapped and pushed by the book through the narrow alleyways of that family, listening to insufferable bigots and struggling poets. Through his way of shuffling the chapters he creates, in a way, a music of family, a rhythm of relationships. He reflects upon writing in numerous ways, probably reflecting on his own literature, as well. He’s, really, a very good writer, and the book is harrowing, a tough experience to undergo, but that doesn’t make it great. It is the vision, the hopes, the faith in youth that shines from the book that make A Late Divorce so much worth reading, I think.

Oh Mann Ammann

Eine traurige Nachricht, ein echter Verlust. Der Ammann Verlag schließt seine Pforten. Hier ist ein Interview mit dem Besitzer und Leiter des Verlages, Egon Ammann und hier ist die Pressemitteilung.

Zum 30. Juni 2010 wird der Ammann Verlag seine publizistische Verlagsarbeit beenden. 1981 von Egon Ammann und Marie-Luise Flammersfeld gegründet, erreichte der Verlag sogleich mit seiner ersten Publikation, dem Erzählungsband »Die Tessinerin« von Thomas Hürlimann, internationale Aufmerksamkeit. Für das Frühjahr 2010 bereiten wir unser letztes Programm vor. (…) Die Gründe für diesen Entschluss liegen im fortgeschrittenen Alter der Verleger und in einer Marktsituation, die für Literatur zunehmend schwieriger wird. Ein Verlag mit dem Profil des Ammann Verlags ist eng an die verantwortlichen Personen gebunden und kann ohne sie nicht fortbestehen. Marie-Luise Flammersfeld und ich haben gegeben, was wir zu geben hatten. – »Alles hat seine Zeit.«


Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind

Rothfuss, Patrick (2008), The Name of the Wind, DAW Books
ISBN 978-0-7564-0474-1

Once every few years, a new star rises from the murky depths of the fantasy mainstream. His or her work is subsequently hailed as original, new, groundbreaking, mostly inaccurately. In 2007 the rising star was a young man named Patrick Rothfuss. His debut novel The Name of the Wind made a deep impression upon the scene and had success far beyond the usual circle of fantasy readers. However, while the book is certainly an outstanding read, a huge amount of fun, and quite smart, much of the hype that has aggregated around Rothfuss’ novel, the first in a projected series of three (we know how that usually works out…), is not due to any specific excellency of his but to the dire and formulaic writing that dominates this genre. Even writers such as Tad Williams, who have a lot of talent, a great imagination and energy to spare, spend much of their time coasting along on the gentle waves of a genre the closeness of which to Romance writing (I’m currently making myself read a Sandra Brown novel, hence, perhaps, the association) betrays the conservative bent of the thinking that fuels much of it. Writers like Samuel R. Delany or China Miéville are the exception, not the rule in the field. Before embarking upon the proper review, let me tell you that Rothfuss does not break much new ground, if any. He does, however, rise above many of his colleagues, since his is a smart and self-reflective take on well-worn material.

The protagonist, a man by the fetching name of Kote, runs a bar in the middle of nowhere, as we enter the book. Strange things happen the origins of which are not explained (yet), but in the course of which we learn that Kote is anything but a measly barkeep. He has certain powers. When a man who calls himself Chronicler, apparently a, well, a chronicler, a collector and teller of tales, turns up at the Waystone Inn, Kote’s auspiciously named bar, we find out that Kote used to be a hero and a legend that went by the name of Kvothe, or to give his full name: Kvothe the Bloodless. Kvothe vanished and Chronicler hunted him down to write down his story. Kvothe demands full control over the result and subsequently dictates his life story to the writer. They agree to take three days for this. Hence the full title of Rothfuss’ novel: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One: The Name of the Wind. The present, wherein Chronicler and Kvothe and a mysterious friend of Kvothe’s sit and create stories, keeps butting in, providing commentary but mainly disrupting the reading in a most pleasurable way, drawing attention to the telling. That is, generally speaking, something the book keeps doing, in different ways. It’s quite remarkable how consistently Rothfuss flaunts his concern with signs and narrative and how much this dominates the book. Basic genre assumptions of telling and authority are thus interrogated, if in a nice and gentle way. Rothfuss makes it easy to overlook many of these things by making them basic construction principles not objects of debate, but any good reading of the book would need to focus on these things, I think. His world is completely and utterly convincing, even now as I think back on it the smells and sounds and looks of his world rise before me. This is because he owes a large debt to Dickens, I think, at least as much as to his fellow fantasy wroters. But we’ll return to that.

Now we’ll return to Kvothe and the Chronicler. The full control Kvothe demands is not easily granted. Chronicler is used to be the storyteller, the shaper, the framer of stories, the man who writes and in writing constructs, creates an artifact that contains the basic, the salient facts of what people tell him orally. In Rothfuss’ vaguely medieval world, writing and reading is still a province of a few elite scholars, stories are proliferated by storytellers and singers. Songs especially are important. The connection between fabulation and truth-telling is a close and interesting one here. Rothfuss far exceeds most of his colleagues who, like him use songs both as described objects and as reprinted songs in the books, but, unlike him, use them for decoration mainly. Yes, Rothfuss uses them as decorative elements as well,but songs have a deeper significance, too. Most revealingly in a section early in the novel. Kvothe is part of a traveling troupe, a highly decorated and accomplished one; at the same time he is of a people called the Edema Ruh, who are but a thinly veiled allusion to Roma. All this is related in a series of nice vignettes, anecdotes, it’s all rather cozy and nice to read. Until, well, until Kvothe’s father decides to find out the truth about the Chandrian, a mythical figure that’s said to cause senseless massacres now and then. No one knows why exactly. Thousands of stories and songs about the Chandrian exist and Kvothe’s father listens to a slew of them in each village or town they pass.

He’s like a one-man Grimm brothers, but he is just interested in the story. By and by he assembles a mental library of tales and starts reading them closely, applying hermeneutic methods to these texts (which are at no point actual texts) and extracts from them a version of the truth which he then starts to turn into a song. The proof that the song is actually and emphatically true is in a gruesome event that ends Kvothe’s happy childhood. The Chandrian appears and murders the whole troupe, only Kvothe’s life is spared. Don’t come running and complain about spoilers. It is one of the book’s most interesting aspects that it constantly tells you what’s about to happen, its suspense is of a different kind. So, early in the book, Rothfuss rubs our noses into the fact that in his book, legends, fairy tales and songs can be made sense of within the limitations of truth-telling. Clearly, it suggests a similar reading might be applied to The Name of the Wind, too. I’m a bit befuddled tonight so the only thing that directly occurs to me is the Sinti and Roma tangent. See, traveling people such as the Roma always had a hard time, and today it’s getting worse again. Stories are told by all sorts of people but they are written down and kept and filed by authorities and in turn they help stabilize and reinforce them. The Edema Ruh just as the Roma do not get to write their stories, they sing songs, but when they die the songs die with them. Kvothe’s father’s song is forever lost. He was able to raise his voice but not to record it. So when Chronicler turns up at Kote’s bar and expects to exert full control over the material that Kvothe has to offer, Kvothe, with a lifetime of experience, stops him in his tracks and turns him into a tool. He’s using the writer, but controls him, checks what was written and decides what will be told and what won’t. His song will not be lost. His is a tale of disenfranchisement and of rising to the top despite of that. And it’s not just or even primarily about race, it’s also to a large extent about questions of class and power.

After his parents are killed, Kvothe travels to the next town where he lives on the street for the next three years, living the life of a street urchin. Far from having Gavrotte’s sunny demeanor, his experience in the streets is darkly Dickensian. This episode and much of what happens in the academy later is ‘realistic’, but in a critical manner. These early episodes of living on the street are about fear, first and foremost, about relearning one’s place in society. The trope Rothfuss is using to exemplify that are Kvothe’s feet, which he cut up during his first weeks and months, but which healed and grew thick and strong, sturdy enough to serve as shoes in the absence of money for those. Rothfuss’ gift is visible in the fact that he doesn’t merely use the trope to show Kvothe’s process in his time on the street, to be abandoned once shoes become affordable again. No, he returns time and again to his trope, refining it, proving it to be an apt metaphor for adaptive development. In fact, Rothfuss seems to use the three years in the wet and the cold, hunted by policemen and fellow urchins, sleeping in cellars and on roofs, as a launching point for his exploration of class. As I said, Rothfuss is rather mild-mannered about these issues, but his world isn’t Jordan’s where class is used a decoration, at best. The Name of the Wind returns to class as a factor in answering the question of What will I eat? Where will I sleep? Who will listen to my story? Most impressively in the events after Kvothe leaves the town that has raised him and decides to enter the academy to become what other colleagues would have called a wizard.

A school for people who want to become proficient in magic? Right. J.K. Rowling’s books clearly must be part of the frame of reference here. Harry Potter‘s become so inordinately famous that it needs to be considered and it’s the closest comparison that I could come up with. Usually arcane academies are less hands-on, contain less descriptions of what we would consider normal school routine. What’s more ,a comparison would be profitable, because Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts is so thoroughly different from Rothfuss school, and the main difference is probably this: Rowling’s books, especially the first one, are a paean to consumerism. Without being the least bit critical, she provides, more or less, a series of low-key fantasy examples for what Marx called the Warenfetisch, and constructs a consumerist wonderland. Yes, even in Harry Potter, there are poor people such as the Weasleys, but their poverty is exoticised, it’s cute and all in good spirits. They are jolly people who can’t always afford new brooms so younger kids have to take older siblings’ old brooms, etc. even though it’s a horribly outdated model. Compare this to Kvothe’s bloody feet. No-one, to my knowledge, is really threatened with having to leave Hogwarts on account of poverty, and is thus barred from knowledge. This, however, is the constant threat that hangs over Kvothe’s head and the academy takes steep rates, and is not in the habit of handing out scholarships, thereby ensuring that the skills and the arcane knowledge that can be gained in the academy stays in a certain circle. Kvothe has to fight and scramble to stay in the university and not starve. It’s just as realistic as necessary, but it is fantasy, after all. The mixture makes for addictive, sumptious reading. Kvothe’s struggle dominates the rest of the book, which also contains his quest to find out what exactly happened to his parents, the first beginnings of his legend.

Kvothe is a hero, as exceptional (compared to the common man) as any within fantasy. He’s almost supernaturally smart, agile and talented. But here’s exactly where he differs from the Rand al’Thors (and Harry Potters): his main superpower are his smarts. Rand al’Thor is thick as a brick basically and so are Goodkind’s and a good deal even of Hobb’s heroes. Kvothe is a born scholar, able to hold incredible amounts of knowledge in his head and break a cypher within minutes. He is more brain than brawn, although he fares well on that as well. But there, again, not something that he was born with (one of the most problematic constants in fantasy) but something that he acquired through his family business first and fighting for survival in the streets later. With this, Rothfuss cedes to a demand of the mainstream of his genre, as he frequently does; not without putting a twist to it. Rothfuss, as I mentioned before, is adamant in handing us key pieces of the plot beforehand. We know what will happen to the hero. He channels the reader’s suspense into his curiosity about the world, about its secret, its workings. To do this, one the one hand he uses and repeats certain tropes; on the other, he sends his hero off on a search for the Chandrian, fattening up the narrative with mysterious children’s songs like this

When the hearthfire turns to blue,
What to do? What to o?
Run outside. Run and hide.

When your bright sword turns to rust?
Who to trust? Who to trust?
Stand alone. Standing Stone.

See a woman pale as snow?
Silent come and silent go.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Chandrian. Chandrian.

Just as this song, the book as a whole is rather simple, it wears its complexities lightly, it’s first and foremost a good fantasy read. I read it in all of two days, and enjoyed it every step of the way. Rothfuss writing is not remarkable in any way, not in a bad, as in Goodkind’s case, or in a good way, as Miéville’s. The book is a solid read, but Rothfuss proves himself a smart writer, who is aware of many undercurrents of his genre and turns that awareness into constructing devices of his book. If you like fantasy, you can’t really bypass this book. If you don’t, I guess you could be unhappy with many genre trappings that Rothfuss kept and reproduced. The Name of the Wind is, perhaps, not a very good book, but a very enjoyable one. It’s very much worth reading. I hope this review has made a good case for that.


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Babbling again.

I don’t know why I point out that this thing exists, since it keeps making me look bad but since I pressured Donny, lord and master of Bookbabble, into posting them, I could at least mention them and hope it blows over. Last sunday’s episode of bookbabble has finally been posted, in two parts. Go here for part one and then go here for part two. Ignore the idiot with the funny German accent. Concentrate on Lord Donny, Sparkly Irene, Brilliant Bjorn, Luscious Lorne and the grand and wonderful new babbler, Splendiferous Liam. This is not just fun to listen to, Donny has also assembled a fuckload of links to all sort of poets and poems. It’s worth it.

Poems, Cards and Art

Jeff Encke, a poet and critic, currently living in the Richard Hugo house in Seattle, has produced a remarkable pack of poetry. Yes, you heard me right: pack of poetry. From a collection of poems, he’s excerpted a few texts and printed them on beautiful cards. You can preview the deck here. This is what he himself says

During the spring and summer of 2004, I wrote, designed, and printed a book of poetry on a deck of stylized, casino-quality playing cards. Design-wise, I took my inspiration from the multitudes of art card decks I found on the Internet from artists throughout the world. The wealth of deck variety and obvious intelligence and creativity that went into the design of the cards I found astounded me. Hoping simply to approach the level of quality I had seen, working collaboratively with a friend in Boston on the design, I took four months to research and create all 55 card faces.

That quote is from Jessica Smith’s blog, where you find further information, including details about how and where you can purchase them. Click here. You might know that I am writing on a longer sequence of poems about Russia and planning my phd thesis on Berryman. Both have demonstrated to me the importance of walking down new paths. I have not seen anything like this. Have you?

Thomas Pynchon: Inherent Vice

Pynchon, Thomas (2009), Inherent Vice, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224089487

Ah, Inherent Vice. So. Right, why don’t I start at the beginning. Here’s what I won’t talk about so much. Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s eighth novel, is, as all his books, saturated with references. Unless I am completely mad, there are references to all his books, smaller and larger ones, but I don’t have the memory or the time to chase them all up or at least a presentable portion of them so there’ll be none of that. I do have to mention it, though, mostly because Inherent Vice, even more so than his other books, spends a great deal of time giving shout-outs to other books, writers and pop-cultural references in general. These references, and I am referring only to those of an explicit kind, get so that it becomes a kind of rhythm, a melody of its own within the book, but it’s never obtrusive or annoying. What’s most important: it’s never ‘clever’. To be honest, it felt to me as if he were mopping the floor with peers and epigones like Don Delillo and Bret Easton Ellis, who have perfected the enumeration, the cataloging, even, of American consumerism, into an art form, a sub-genre of its own, even. Unless my memory plays tricks on me, this is the first time that Pynchon goes all out on us in that way as far as explicit references are concerned, and he does it in a way that is so light-handed yet precise, that he puts whole shelves of other writers to shame.

Actually, this is true about many aspects of Inherent Vice. The language in general is light and accessible, so that I have heard many people who could not finish Gravity’s Rainbow, declare their joy and relief at finding the master’s new novel ‘readable’. However, appearances may deceive. I took quite some time reading the book the first time around, for two reasons, both language related. The first is that Pynchon, especially in the first third, employs a subtly rhythmical language, the sounds of words slap into each other, merge, a phrase at the end of one page may echo another at the beginning of the same page, alliterations abound. A few times, after reading half a page I noticed that I hadn’t actually read it, in the sense of understanding it. I just followed the sounds in leaps and bounds. That took a while adjusting to. Overall, the point of this use of language is, I think, that Pynchon deliberately used that light register and I mean, he used it, as a tool if that makes sense.

Typically, light language is used to ferry the reader from plot point to plot point, without taxing him overmuch. Many of these writers could have made a movie for all they care about the actual language employed. What I think I noticed in Inherent Vice is the fact that Pynchon is aware of the register of the language he uses and that he doesn’t use light language to get somewhere in terms of plot, but he uses light language in order to use light language. I’m not sure that all the playfulness is intentional, I think it’s a side effect of the attention that Pynchon lavishes upon his language. There are few other living writers who are so invested in language without stiffening up the text. Because this is the most beautiful thing about this: it IS a light read, not just a “light read”. People resistant to his pyrotechnics do enjoy the book. It takes a master like Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. to do both of these things at the same time.

The other element is also important for Pynchon in general and quite dominant in his latest novel, as well. It’s his, well, let’s call a spade a spade and Pynchon an obsessional writer. He’s obsessed with names, and I’m not just about people’s names or place names either. It would be easy and superfluous to recount all the inanely funny puns that Pynchon has turned into names for his characters, most famously, probably, Crying of Lot 49‘s Oedipa Maas. As I said, this book is full of them, as well. But it doesn’t stop there. It didn’t in his past books and it sure as hell doesn’t here. Pynchon textualizes his landscapes, by turning every word that could carry references to the real world into a name with a symbol system attached to it. Places etc. are far more important in the way that they can be dismembered and made sense of within the textual logic of the book at hand or, indeed, the broader oeuvre. Yes, like much of this review, this is banal, because if you’ve ever read Pynchon, this will be bloody obvious to you, but I found that quite a few people started to do stupid maps blending the California novels and certain known places of residence of Pynchon himself, which, uh, but let’s not go there.

Let’s just return to the business of names and naming. Instead of compiling a list which could go on for at least a paragraph or two, I’ll close this paragraph of mine by mentioning one of the most insistent instances of Pynchon’s use of names. It’s “The Golden Fang”, which, to not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the novel, is basically some shadowy organization. You’ll see. The point is that this name crops up every so often, with all sorts of things changed. The signifier changes, by having that name in translation or in paraphrase, and the signified as well, as the organization keeps appearing differently depending on context and plot position; we will also encounter actual fangs or fang-like objects, and, in one of the book’s best moments, Pynchon actually anatomizes not the ‘fang’ part of the term but the golden by discussing different alloys and the copper contingent in it (which, to turn this process of morphing the term partly around, is a pun again, of course, since cops and mobsters are not necessarily antagonists in the society depicted in the book.

Since I’ve now hinted at the plot, I might as well talk some more about it, to the extent that that’s possible without spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book yet. It’s basically a noir novel with a hippie sleuth as protagonist. As is customary in that genre, as far as I know, he uses a third person personal narrator. The private eye in question is Doc Sportello, and one day an ex-girlfriend of his, Shasta, comes to visit him, telling him about a criminal plan in which she is enmeshed. She wants out but instead she disappears and a very rich, famous and important man, her lover, disappears with her. Sportello has a few run-ins with the police, suffers from loss of consciousness and loss of memory, meets beautiful ladies and grim fellas as he stumbles on along the wondrous yellow brick road of a very typical noir plot. There are important and salient ways in which Pynchon departs from the genre but the book is remarkable in that it does follow genre conventions rather closely, more so than in any other Pynchon novel that I can remember. The plot and hapless Sportello within it, gives off a distinct Chandlerian smell, it’s enough to send one back to the source.

But to that smell, the sweet smell of dope attaches itself very early on. Sportello is a hippie. The book may be a noir but for the most part, it’s suffused by the light and the sun in southern California, and by no stretch of the imagination can the novel be called “hard-boiled”. There’s not much that’s hard about Sportello, although he isn’t stupid or easy prey. He does carry a weapon and in crucial situations is even known to hide one in his shoe, unobtrusively. I called him hapless, but that’s just because the typical noir plot tosses its detective around like a storm a small boat. Actually, and surprisingly, Sportello, as the book repeatedly reveals, is smart and a very capable detective. The softness of him is more a kind of hippie mentality. He is trustful and a gentle soul overall. When he finds out something about the company that the major police officer assigned to the case is keeping, Bigfoot Bjornsen (“named for his entry method of choice”) he isn’t jaded, or cynical. He is personally offended and angry. When people do things that he considers morally wrong, he becomes angry. His deliberations, resulting from that kind of thinking, can sometimes seem a tad childish (and Sportello constantly has to refrain from making quips and jokes. He’s a trickster by nature. Just the honest kind.) but they aren’t.

Doc Sportello is a wonderful creation, he is the book or rather: he’s its warm, beating heart. This book could have been a cold, annoyingly clever mess, brainy but emotionally empty, but Sportello is the reason why that isn’t the case. Sportello is committed. Things are important to him, it’s why he’s such a good sleuth. Everything. Start with drugs: in Sportello’s world, drugs can enhance your mind, and disable you at the same time, which may sound banal, but consider: Sportello does not take drugs as a novelty act, his attitude towards drugs reflects the importance of drugs to many people in his time, the great potential of taking something that would open your mind to new possibilities, grander vistas. Again, banal, maybe, but it’s important to this book and to Pynchon and to Doc Sportello. I am not saying that Pynchon isn’t having a huge amount of fun at Sportello’s expense, he certainly is, but it’s not malicious and it’s fun that Sportello would have appreciated. And this fun saves many parts of the book from a dour earnestness that looms over sections where Sportello ponders how similar he’s become to a policeman. It looms but it never breaks out. Pynchon’s mastery and his use of the light register keep everything smooth and humorous. He’s not necessarily ‘zany’, it’s a much more controlled and versed brand of humor.

Another element of the genre that Inherent Vice belongs to is its treatment of women. As has been pointed out ad nauseam, the hard-boiled novel is focused on masculinities, affording women usually second-rate treatment, structurally even undercutting strong depictions of women. It’s a broad field of study, and any quick perusal of the MLA will point you to a few texts that may satisfy your appetite for information. Anyway. What Pynchon does is very interesting. I think he is intent upon reproducing the feminity as it would appear in any book of that genre. Its women are one of the very central aspects of the hard-boiled novel and Pynchon’s dedication to genre this time around means he can’t do anything about it at this point. However, in his usual fashion, he proceeds and attaches a multitude of mirrors to the walls of the novel, so that the problematic women of noir novels, while not usually explicitly vindicated, are vindicated through all sorts of little devices. One of the most blatant ones is, of course, a series of ties. These ties have been painted for a very rich man and each tie bears the likeness of one of the man’s many ex-lovers. Not their faces, mind you, but their whole bodies, in all their naked glory. What’s more, they are usually depicted in sexual poses, submissive more often than not. This whole tie business is a powerful trope for different kinds of power issues in the book and one could tie a whole, coherent reading of the whole novel around those ties and their connections within the novel.

Yet another central concern of Inherent Vice are oppositions, north and south, for example. In an aside, we learn of a migration of hippies north to where Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland is set, with people like Larry Sportello basically left behind in South California. This particular opposition is, for example, mirrored in one of the most powerful sections, as far as landscape and imagery is concerned: pursuing a lead, Sportello gets on the road to Vegas, where we learn that there’s a prosperous south, the part of Las Vegas where the “Strip” is found, and a more dilapidated north, which has not achieved a comparable popular success. The decay in a casino in north Vegas seems like straight from a movie, with lonely singers performing to no audience; that scene also has a dreamlike, a wistful quality, of a failed vision, squandered energies, a disappearing era. Building projects of the failed variety abound as well in Inherent Vice, repeatedly reinforcing another opposition, that of success and failure. As has been pointed out, the detective in the hard boiled novel shares qualities with that other grand cultural archetype, the cowboy. Frontiers, successes, masculinities, there are countless issues all bound up in this and this is not the place to anatomize them.

I have mentioned a few issues in this review and I assure you that these are but a fraction of what’s going on in Pynchon’s grand new novel, which alludes to heavy linguistic topics like Korzybski (the ‘inherent vices’ of language, so to say), and others like Schrödinger’s Cat. But most of all, it’s a quick, fun read that bears the traces of a lifetime’s experience and development as a writer. Any allegation of repetition severely misses the point. Pynchon has honed his skills to a fine point, he frequently falls back on past books, but every word in this book reveals the mastery that Pynchon has, by now attained. Elements are used in different contexts, are serenaded by a different music. There will be those who apply an autobiographical reading to the book, which I would resist. The book has its hooks firmly in the web that has been created by his past books. And, of course, in other books and texts, movies, songs. Pynchon is greedy, an omnivore, that has always been true for his work and it’s true for this one. And we the readers profit from this. We ride shotgun on his tours through America, and if there’s a similarity in his books, that’s to be expected. As I mentioned, he’s an obsessional writer, who has tried out different tools to get at the sweet nut in the shell that American pelts him with. And yes, he uses similar tools as well. But he works on his tools and develops them further just as he works on the cultural representation of America. He is a great writer, committed to his vision and to his writing. Inherent Vice is an amazing book.


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Theodore Roethke: Straw for the Fire

Roethke, Theodore (2006), Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, Copper Canyon Press
Edited by David Wagoner
ISBN 1-55659-248-5

Before I started to write this down, I spent quite a while thinking about how to describe this book. What is it? On the surface of it, a few things are clear. The edition I own and review here is the 2006 reprint of a book that has actually been published first in 1972. The reprint has been published in the commendable “Lannan Literary Selection”, to which I also owe my copy of Rexroth’s stunning Complete Poems and Geoffrey Brock’s rendition of Pavese’s poetry (Disaffections). Apparently, Straw for the Fire is a selection “From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke”. Roethke is one of the best American postwar poets; the editor of the volume, David Wagoner is a good poet in his own right, all in all, this sounds interesting. Leafing through it, the book appears to contain a few poems and selections of prose, as well as a handful of facsimile reproductions of pages from those notebooks. This is the premise that made me buy the book. I have long adored Roethke’s poetry, poems like “The Waking” and “In a Dark Time” have constantly haunted my life as a writer and reader of poetry, however much other writers dropped in and out of favor. Here’s the second stanza of “In a Dark Time”:

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

So. I was overwhelmed to discover that there was more work of Roethke’s around. But, though the book is indeed „from the Notebooks“ of Roethke, to a large extent, it’s also from the brain of David Wagoner. According to Wagoner’s introduction, what happened was the following: as a former student and friend of the poet, he knew about the wealth of material buried in these notebooks. So he chose almost at random 12 out of the 277 notebooks saved by Roethke’s widow. After that, he chose passages that he considered publishable. Then he did what irritates me most of all. He sorted the pieces he extracted from the notebooks into ‘poetry’, by looking for coherence and arranged them in accordance with the ‘typical’ structure of Roethke’s poems. In the introduction Wagoner spends considerable time explaining to his audience what that structure looks like. I admit that this is frequently insightful but that does not vindicate his project. Indeed, there is so much wrong with the assumptions behind Wagoner’s project that I don’t even know where to begin. What struck me most, however, was the disrespect towards Roethke the poet that this method shows, since it suggests that Roethke, as a poet, is little more than an algorithm of sorts: string together a few ideas, slap on a title and presto! a poem! I can’t begin to tell you as how strange an enterprise this strikes me.

As a poet, Roethke has developed a very distinct style, sounding the drums of tradition yet couching all of this in a language that seems hewed from a very strange and unique tree. In the slim but really indispensable book that is his Collected Poems, not everything is a success, not everything works as well as it should, Roethke never makes it look easy. Roethke is almost always dry, a very earnest poet, who can be witty, but it’s a scholarly wittiness, a learned, dour, bookish wittiness. His writing explores a limited range of themes, but within that range, he has written some of the best poems to deal with those themes. Madness, sadness and spirituality, one could describe them; he’s one of the better modern writers to put religious experience, doubt and ecstasy into poetry. For my money, he’s also one of the best postwar poets to write about love and desire. And, in his masterpiece, the amazing “North American Sequence”, he has proven himself to be one of the best landscape poets of his generation. That sequence of poems, which everyone interested in modern poetry is herewith encouraged, no, urged to read, charts a spiritual journey, but at the same time also an actual journey through the US, through different landscapes and weather conditions, all of them committed to paper by a writer with an eye for the strange and miraculous in nature.

In his best poems he is heads and shoulders above writers like Ammons when they work on similar themes. One major difference to a writer like Ammons is economy. All of Roethke’s poems are studiously worked into shape; although he is a moving, beautiful writer, he is never sentimental in a way that is not contained by artifice and learning. Roethke is careful, he prunes his poetical language with great circumspection. I have always been drawn to him because he suffered from depression and in his poetry I recognized the temptation to look for easy shortcuts, cheap connections that can present a quick, effective rendering of the blackness that can choke one’s soul. And Roethke, in contrast to many other writers, managed to get this under control and make it work for him. And he never, as I said, makes it look easy. Exactly how difficult this was is showcased by Straw for the Fire, which contains little that Roethke would consider publishable, I’d wager; most of it has rolled straight off his tongue onto the page. To publish it the way Wagoner did I find unbelievable. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box, this book nowhere near meets the poet’s own standards. The probability is high that both would be deeply uncomfortable, dismissive, even, with the results. Neither editor (in Bishop’s case, that’s Alice Quinn) does right by the poet whose material they use. That does not, however, mean the book is not readable. In fact, I recommend it.

Why do we read and write poetry? In Straw for the Fire we are witness to someone’s exhibition of the sheer joy in writing, putting words together to make sense of things. Wagoner’s selection, reprehensible though I think it, does have its advantages at times, especially in that it helps us see how Roethke ruminated, obsessed even, about certain subjects, it helps us see how certain phrases and ideas bounced back and forth in his mind; some of them turned up later in published poems, some didn’t, but, overall, the relationship with the published poems is rather subdued. Wagoner refrains from offering us multiple drafts of finished poems (assuming such were to be found in the mysterious notebooks), the texts in this book are exclusively short ideas, frequently just one or two lines of verse or prose (and it’s an indicator of Roethke’s abilities to shape the rhythm of a line that this division is both possible and plausible), so any repetition is more an iteration of a certain idea than a revision of something already written. There are personal and spiritual elements battling in these fragments. Fear on the one side and certaintly, hope on the other. I said that the book demonstrates the joy in writing. But that’s misleading, in a way. It rather shows us the necessity of writing.

One passage proclaims that, “[b]y singing we defend ourselves from what we are.” Poetry as a defense mechanism from our darker selves, from our bad instincts, our depressions. In one of his most memorable poems, “Dolphin”, The Bostonian Robert Lowell called his poetry “an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting“. The slippery nature of what Roethke wants to contain isn’t lost on him either, so he makes numerous attempts, hence the motivation, the necessity. Many writers have talked of this, of the urge to write, the need to put pen to paper, to give vent to a voice or a song that blooms within yourself. In Straw for the Fire you have Roethke’s urges, his poetical needs preserved. The things, tiny ideas and phrases that you jot down to get something off your chest, to preserve a fragment of song before it flutters away, pin down a thought, fix an image. Looking at the facsimiles, I wish someone would publish them as they are, jumbled together, unsorted, full of a strange energy. There are thing written down and left like that, and then there are passages that were worked on, with crossed out words and boxed-in sentences, which is very fascinating to see, but all that is lost in the final book. Yes this is something to lament, but on the other hand the fact remains that what we have in Straw for the Fire is still moving, beautiful, inspiring. It’s less like a collection of poetry and more like a journal but that’s not too shabby now is it.

In “The Longing”, the second poem of the “North American Sequence”, Roethke wrote: “Out of these nothings / – All beginnings come.” The texts in Straw for the Fire are the beginnings, the wellsprings of Roethke’s wonderful poet’s mind. They are warm, tender objects, fragments, “flowering out of the dark”, to borrow a phrase from the last poem in the sequence. This book is as much Wagoner’s as its Roethke’s, but it’s Wagoner’s part that drags the book down and Roethke’s part of the book that makes it worth reading. So, while the whole enterprise is shadowy at best, we would not have been able to read these fragments at all if not for Wagoner’s meddling. Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. And in this case the good is really good.

William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow

Maxwell, William (1997), So Long, See You Tomorrow, Harvill

The gravel pit was about a mile east of town and the size of a small lake, and so deep that boys under the age of sixteen were forbidden by their parents to swim there. I knew it only by hearsay. It had no bottom, people said, and because I was very much interested in the idea that if you dug a hole straight down anywhere and kept on digging it would come out in China, I took this to be a literal statement of fact.

This is the first paragraph of William Maxwell’s marvelous novella So Long, See You Tomorrow, published in 1980, in its entirety. I could close the review now with a few notes on plot, and have done with it in time to catch a nap, because much of this great book’s properties can be found, in nuce, in these few lines. Maxwell proves himself to be that rare breed of novelist: truly concise and precise. I tend to say that this or that short book could have been longer at the hands of a different writer, but that does not seem to be the case here. Maxwell does not make it look easy, he makes brevity look necessary. So Long, See You Tomorrow is like a coiled spring, but all the parts are so well calibrated that I left my lecture with the impression that it would not work in a more expansive mode. This book needs to be short, and I am unable to conceive of its parts as being part of a longer work. The craftsmanship here is impeccable but Maxwell is more than that. He impresses, but at the same time, he also moves us, leads us into a landscape most of us have never visited, makes us part of a story that revolves around love, adultery and murder, the whole nine yards, so to say.

But, for now, let us return to the bit I just quoted. In the paragraph that follows, we learn about a sound that “sounded like a pistol shot”, or “a car backfiring”, but no, “a farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed”. This is no mystery. We learn quickly who killed Wilson and why, this is not where the suspense arises from. That back story concerns two neighboring farmers, who were close friends, both married. Suddenly, one of the farmers falls in love with his neighbor’s wife and embarks upon an affair with her. This disrupts, as could be expected, both of the families and ultimately leads to the cheated husband’s abandoning his farm and leaving. Later, he returns with a shotgun, hides in his old barn and shoots Wilson first thing in the morning, flees and drowns himself in a river. That seems like a heavy story to hang on such a short book, but, as I said, So Long, See You Tomorrow wears its story lightly, and one of the reasons for that is its use of a distancing frame narrative, so to say. The story is related to us not through one of those involved, but through a boy who lived nearby. His best friend was Cletus Smith, the son of Wilson’s murderer and their friendship is the impetus behind telling that story.

And, indeed, it is, as it is so often, the telling which is important here, at least as much as that which is told and the first paragraph sketches the lines along which this telling will take place. The narrator tells us about information that he has not verified himself, that he knows only from hearsay, from what “people” tell him, it’s quite a strange piece of information, to boot, but he believes it, on the authority of people and because it fits other strange ideas already active in his mind. And we the readers are left with this, like this. Take it or leave it. Clearly, we know that the lake is not literally bottomless, but we have not verified it either; our knowledge of the absurdity of that belief is based on similar factors as the protagonist’s. There are other, similar issues there, but this is what I felt to be the most basic element, and the most helpful in reading the whole book, too, since we, quite explicitly, have to trust hearsay as well; after the protagonist shares details of the murder and the ensuing investigation that ended with the aforementioned suicide, after he tells us about his friendship with Cletus Smith and an awkward meeting in a school hallway, many miles from the village they once lived in, after he explains to us exactly who he is and why he’d doing this, he proceeds to tell us the story of the two neighbors from the beginning.

And he introduces this part of the book by asking us to imagine the landscape, the bare, rough rooms, the simple colors and the rich air that envelops and shapes these characters. Imagination, and belief. The protagonist has not been a witness to the events and he does not deny it, but, he maintains, this is not a problem, per se. He suggests to the skeptical reader:

If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it. I would be content to stick to the facts if there were any.

Yes, he offers the reader the opportunity to dismiss unbelievable parts, but what this means, in the context of such a book, is a commitment to a writing that is not unconvincing, that is less vérité and more vérisimilitude, in other words a writing that creates the impression of being true. In a way, he both draws on and creates what Maurice Halbwachs (in his classic La Mémoire Collective) called “collective memory”. The fabulous Jan Assmann, who developed Halbwachs’ theory further in by now canonical books like Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis, differentiates between “communicative memory”, which is, as the term says, communicated, and “cultural memory”, which is written down or stenciled in, which can be dug out, found, be stumbled upon. So Long, See You Tomorrow’s protagonist draws on both to tell his story, which we know since he is transparent about where he procured his information. For the protagonist, though, cultural memory is restricted to police reports and newspaper accounts of what happened. However, in his role as framer of the story, he creates a piece of “cultural memory”, which is the book at hand, more or less.

At the same time, the narrator is also a reflection of the audience. Much of the story is told to make sense of it for himself and to explain to us his reaction when he meets Cletus in a hallway. Thus, Maxwell created a system that frames the story very strongly, maintaining a fierce grip on connotations and reactions to the story by channeling pre-reading expectations as well as post-reading judgments through the mind of his protagonist. His voice is highly suggestive, but all that does not of course mean that Maxwell’s writing is anything but subtle. These obvious, explicit elements work frequently like a smokescreen, to hide the moving, emotional core of the book behind, a profound sadness that follows the events like the cloud of stale perfume that follows an aging diva on her itineraries through her house. Cletus loses his whole family, his life is completely destroyed and dismantled, he’s dropped into an abyss and what’s more, if the narrator didn’t exist, his plight would at best be a footnote in histories. I’ve mentioned Halbwachs and Assmann, but perhaps the most appropriate reference here is Pierre Nora, who differentiates between memory, which is basically the direct memory of the facts as they happened, and history which is basically storytelling. The narrator frequently tries to flit back and forth between these two, drawing on his memory to push people into history who would not normally have found their place in there.

Apart from these two elements, the moving story and the clever narrative, a third element should be mentioned that is just as important as these two and explains why So Long, See You Tomorrow is such a satisfying, gratifying even, read. It’s the book’s ideas. This is, after all, a novel(la) of ideas. There are two that I found particularly interesting. The first is about the economic aspect of the events. In one of the book’s most inspired sections, the narrator discusses the “Emotion of Ownership” or rather the lack of it. The problem’s this: none of these farmers owns these farms, they all merely tenants there. They own nothing, not even, as we realize towards the end, the family dog belongs to them. When they leave the farm they leash the dog to a stake in the yard for the next tenant to use. The actual owners are not big corporations or kulaks but elderly, reasonably wealthy widows and colonels, people who are friends with their tenants, visiting them now and then, taking an interest in their lives. The tenants are poor but Maxwell’s point isn’t social realism of the Tobacco Road or Grapes of Wrath variety. They are poor but not destitute. They manage, every day. Yet they lack the ’emotion of ownership’, they are alienated. They just produce, they don’t have anything, really, emotionally, to do with the finished product. It is, perhaps, this which drives the characters to behave as they do. When Cletus’ father loses his wife, he breaks down, because all that remains, for him, is the farm and it’s not his, so when his wife deserts him, he is completely and utterly alone, deserted, without any resources that would make his fate bearable. He is pushed away from society, outside of it, and what is it he does? Enforce one of the oldest moral codes of that society of his, with an Old Testamental glint of revenge in his eye

And here’s where the second concern comes up. So Long, See You Tomorrow contains concepts of sin and virtue and certain tensions between the Old Testament tradition and the tradition of the New Testament, which is often read as more humane, forgiving, although this depends upon the reader, of course. Preachers of hate, such as Billy Graham, would, I suspect, disagree, but many people find a light and a solace in the New Testament that is more bearable than the harsh glare if the old. Wilson is a nice guy, no, more than that, he is selfless, ready to help at the drop of a dime, most of the people in his town owe him thanks for help and support tendered. He is friendly and open, and Mr. Smith is lucky and happy to have him as a neighbor. Until, that is, Wilson falls for Smith’s wife. He literally covets his neighbor’s wife, and the punishment befits the offense, in a way. An eye for an eye. Wilson destroyed Smith’s life and Smith takes Wilson’s. The goodness of Wilson wafts away in the wind. We know of it, but in the chain of events it’s of no consequence. It’s as if that part of morals is like surface varnish, and the other is the ugly, darkly beautiful underbelly of morals. Tit for tat. An eye for an eye. You take my wife I take your life. It is a testament (no pun intended) to the excellence of Maxwell’s writing, though, that these elements do not take over the book, which is sad but not dark. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a perfectly balanced novella that is, after all, about two friendship, both doomed, and about the arid air that settles, in the end, over the landscape. We are all only tenants of the landscape we inhibit and Maxwell is an accomplished chronicler of the transient nature of our tenancy, and the nature of our sins. This is a moving, smart, and extremely well written book. Recommended to every- and anyone.

(I have read the book two weeks ago. My memory is really awful. I apologize for all and any misrepresentations of this wonderful book.)