Racist Apologist

I’m currently disturbed by some political developments in this country and state (I posted about them here) and today remembered someone who would approve, I assume:

In the case of the Roma, we have a lot of anti-Roma feeling in the UK – to the extent that some people seem to consider it an acceptable form of prejudice. But simply dismissing it as racist – even reminding people that the Roma were amongst the Nazis’ victims – does not tackle the issues, and does alienate people. (…) if one ignores the criminality of, say, Roma, then one is actually going to help the development of racism. Saying it’s ‘cultural’ just won’t do and doesn’t work. And igoring such things as Roma women being sent out to aggressively beg becuase one’s scared of being labelled ‘racist’ does absolutely nothing to deal with the central issues.

And you won’t be surprised to discover the old bigot’s straw man, the fear of being labeled racist. Hilarious. But then again, as I look at my country, maybe not so hilarious.

“he thought he almost might endure / his exile”

Elizabeth Bishop: The Prodigal

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs’ eyes followed him, a cheerful stare–
even to the sow that always ate her young–
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.

But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern–like the sun, going away–
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats’ uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.

Marcel Theroux: Far North

Theroux, Marcel (2009), Far North, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23777-7

Had Marcel Theroux’ latest novel not made the shortlist of the National Book Award, I doubt I would have looked twice at the book, which seemed to me rather unremarkable, a book in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s decent The Road and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (recently recommended by a friend), to name just two of the many post-apocalyptic books published this decade. It’s not that the book is horrible, it’s not. It’s dull, but as a whole decent enough not to throw into the garbage right away although it’s sure as hell not a good book. Its saving grace is not the actual writing or storytelling but its protagonist. Makepeace, who is the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a fascinating character, and, what’s more, a very well drawn one, whom the reader gladly follows across the rickety bridge that is the novel’s construction and writing. It’s a surprise, really, that, after putting this book down with almost a sigh of relief, I felt a vague but definite yearning for another story featuring the jolly heroine of Theroux’ mediocre novel.

By calling her a ‘heroine’ I have given away a ‘surprise’ that Theroux reveals some twenty pages into the story. As we enter the book, we encounter a lonesome figure, patrolling an empty town. The first sentence of the novel ably conveys the atmosphere of that part of the book: “Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city.” That sentence could well belong to a western, but the story is set ‘Far North’, in the vast emptiness of the Siberian tundra. It’s also set in the future, in a world after natural catastrophes have destroyed civilization as we know it. The explanation how the catastrophes came about is, let’s say: interesting.

The planet had heated up. They turned off smokestacks and stopped flying. Some, like my [Makepeace’s] parents, altered the way they lived. Factories were shut down […] As it turned out, the smoke from all the furnaces had been working like a sunshade, keeping the world a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise. He said that in trying to do the right thing, we had sawed off the branch we were sitting on. The droughts and storms that came in the years after put in motion all the things that followed.

Theroux, however, isn’t a scientist (although, in 2004, he did present a TV show on climate change on Channel 4) and Far North isn’t a scientific essay on the topic of impending ecological doom. In fact, the ecology of the story, the science, takes a back seat, almost as much as in The Road, where we have no idea what happened, we’re just confronted with the brute facts of post-apocalyptic reality and how to deal with it. In contrast to The Road, Theroux does express an interest in history, both the general history, for example, of the US, and the particular history of Makepeace’s family and people in her time frame.

All this history is so important in the novel because of its overriding interest in Makepeace’s character. Makepeace is an odd character, who dresses like a man and behaves like one. Due to a disfiguring accident she suffered as a girl, she can also quite easily pass for a man, without actually aiming to deceive. This is because she dresses in the most practical fashion possible and that kind of dress is usually, in our time, as in Makepeace’s, read as masculine. Theroux toys with our expectations a bit at the onset of the story, letting us buy into the idea of this tough male frontiersman who, in the opening pages, shoots a thief for making away with some books. During the rest of the book, the revelation accorded to us, the readers, is likewise accorded to several groups or individuals in the novel who find out what or who that man is who can prowl the woods and hunt caribou with the best of them. He could have revealed Makepeace’s sex at the end of the book, but he didn’t, and some of the reasons for his decision go a long way towards explaining why Far North is such a weak book. One of the reason sis that Theroux is a weak writer.

Not just a weak writer in the sense of a mediocre writer. He is weak in the sense that, instead of working through his ideas and assumptions, instead of engaging more fully his concepts and the world he built, frequently opts for easy, weak solutions. The ecological science might be one of them. Another is the world. People, places and objects flit in and out of focus, without anything that is really endowed with depth. Apart from Makepeace, all characters are caricatures, cardboard cutouts, like the Bad Priest, the Evil Corporate Boss, and a few characters which are even tinged with racism. There is The Muslim, but most importantly, the indigenous peoples of the area, whom Theroux called the Tungus people. These days, these people are called the Evenks, the ‘tungus’ moniker gained currency when the Russians conquered and colonized Siberia, but apparently, it will be popular again in the future (here’s an interesting factsheet about the okrug where most of them live). Theroux places them, and this is what’s problematic, as a group, clearly racially defined, into the ideational structure of the book where they represent the opposite of civilization, an Other of sorts, living in a natural state devoid of ‘civilized’ morality, but also devoid of hypocrisy.

Here, as in other places, Theroux holds back, not ready to doff the overcoat he’s brought with him, spread on the floor for the reader to inspect. The Tungus people are not better or superior to civilized people, they’re just not as bad, and regret drips from Far North‘s pages where Theroux extols their practical morality. The book, in the end, ends up with the image of someone cuddling up in a nest of books while the world outside is slowly reclaimed by nature. Books are good and nature, while not bad, is, in more than one sense of the word, outside, as are the Tungus people. Sex and gender are subject to a very similar kind of indecision. On the one hand, Theroux’ heroine flaunts traditional gender roles, she shoots from the hip, rides horses, can catch and corral several caribou at once and is generally badass. She wears men’s clothing, doesn’t care much for so-called feminine wiles and never expresses an interest in make-up or jewelry. Diamonds are not, in fact, her best friends, but the bullets that she herself casts are. A writer herself, she is thus also shown to be at the beginning of a new tradition, with the whole of Far North the self-narrated manuscript she leaves to posterity, thus usurping a role traditionally accorded to men. But, to see it this way is to dismiss the reason why she behaves as she does. It’s the absence of men.

Granted, Makepeace can better all the men she meets, but it’s still their absence that has her fill in for them. And as for looks and the maintenance of them, men, again, have fouled up her looks which has set her on the masculinized path that we then, in the opening pages of the book find her on. And this is not enough. Additionally, Theroux surrounds her narrative with images of birth and rebirth, in such an emphatic manner that I was under the impression that he strained to smooth out any irritation caused by the first passages. Look, she’s a woman after all, he appears to say. Although I did find another, far more subtle reference I thought I saw in the ties of Theroux’ book to Canadian literature. Nothing in his biography or in explicit references supports this, but hear me out. On the one hand, his construction of the landscape is in keeping with a lot of well-known clichés about the north, which have been particular well explored with respect to the Canadian north. In her 2001 study on the topic, Sherrill E. Grace ends an enumeration of typical elements (a disconcerting number of which turn up in Far North) with the sarkastic exclamation: “and…Voila! A northern novel!”

But Grace mentions another novel about the north, Margaret Atwood’s haunting Surfacing, which is also an appropriate reference here, in a more positive way. Atwood’s novel of contacts with nature and awakenings, replete with images of birth and rebirth, too, might be an antetype, conscious or not, to Theroux handling of issues of sex and gender. His cliché idea of female experience. however, demonstrates how sorely, in this, too, his book is lacking. He mentions an idea but doesn’t really follow through with it. This is what I called weakness and holding back. Tentatively, Theroux shows us what you can do in such a radically altered social landscape, the possibilities in such a narrative, but he quickly smooths things over. The impulses I just described culminate in the last fifth of the book, where he tacks on an impossibly saccharine, contrived and far-fetched ending that would not be jarring in any of the hundreds of telenovelas that crowd daytime television in most countries, and that is a fitting conclusion for a messy book that consists of odd pieces and ideas, some of whom work and some don’t. Makepeace, the protagonist, is one of those that work. She’s such a good character that she can almost make the book work and cohere all on her own.

Almost, I said. Of the other ideas, so many are lame or dull that I caught myself pitying Makepeace as I watch her being shoved through Theroux’ story, in effect running the gauntlet. The most interesting of Theroux ideas is his use of early American history. These are not hidden references: after the aforementioned catastrophe, American Quaker families and similarly minded communities move to the Far North, to start anew, to establish communities in the wilderness, on a different continent. Their fate in general and a cartoonish but surprisingly effective depiction of a particularly pious settlement (Makepeace’s encounter with this community really sets the story in motion) will remind any student of American history of the reports and stories that tell us about that time. No-one who’s read sermons from the time of the Great Awakening can be deaf to the echoes of that rhetoric in the sermons and speeches of Far North‘s Christian preachers and believers. It is, of course, part of Theroux’ essentially conservative tropes of rebirth that keep cropping up in the novel, but as a motif, and an idea it is remarkable, and solitary in the novel in that it is complete and satisfying. Using frontiersmen and puritan-like communities appears to me to be quite a common motif, almost de rigeur, in SF, but I have rarely come across a rendition of that particular theme as interesting as this.

An equally well known but infinitely less well wrought motif is that of the ‘Zone’. In the novel we will encounter prisoner camps, with men used as working slaves and other men employed to scout out ‘the Zone’, a huge abandoned city that was used by the Russians, before the catastrophe, as a scientific and intellectual center. Now, however, no-one is alive or reachable who knows its secrets but maps have survived, and rumors of dangers and treasures hidden in it. Not gold, but odd and inexplicable objects created by a science that the scavengers roaming the city can neither understand nor really make use of. The nature of some of the objects recalls Clarke’s famous bonmot (actually I think it’s one of his three rules) that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If that reminds you of the Strugatzki brothers’ classic science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, or the movie or even the video game that has been made of it, it reminded me, too, and not in a good way. Again, Theroux is content with spreading this coat, too, on the floor, not really committed to wearing it. Theroux dips in and out of the theme, suggesting loads of interesting ideas but following up on few of them. There is a strong undercurrent that is concerned with myth and modernity, and the Zone is part of that, but, as far as its execution is concerned, it’s sketchy at best.

I’ve left the writing for last. Far North is written in what seems to me to be an American idiom or, alternatively, a simple English based upon the American variety of English (I may well be wrong, since Theroux lives and works in London and has barely any connections to the US, according to his wiki). However, although it needs to be stated that Theroux enjoys making Makepeace say trite and trivial aphoristic sentences far too much, the writing is solid throughout the book. The contrast to a book like Paul Auster’s most recent novel Invisible, which is similarly built with a great deal of grandstanding remarks, but written less well, shines a favorable light on that aspect of Theroux’ book, although, by itself, the writing’s not actually good. The simple language and even the flat aphoristic sentences are even put to good use in characterizing the simple mindset and education of Makepeace. As a reader I may have wished for more, for at least an attempt to use language in an interesting way, but you take what you get and with the slim pickings that the book otherwise provides, I’m fine with the writing. But, with all the coats tried on and spread on the floor for inspection, the novel feels quite bare. Not naked in any sensual or interesting sense, more like a mannequin robbed of its clothes. The face may charm you, but the body, in a bland color, with screws and joints visible, is a turn-off at best. Much to Theroux’ credit, the basic idea, the scenario, is a winner, it’s, as Grace would have said, a case of “and…voilà! a postapocalyptic novel!” and while his world-building is perfunctory and cliché-ridden, Theroux is competent enough not to ruin this solid foundation altogether. Far North‘s certainly no recommendation but it won’t make you chop off your own hand either in an attempt to forget the book. It’s really ok.


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“Pourquoi les féministes sont meilleures au lit”

Great article over at sexactu.com. I want to draw attention particularly to

3) Les féministes sont meilleures au lit parce qu’elles aiment les hommes. Sans doute le point le plus important. Je crois sincèrement que les femmes non-féministes méprisent les mecs. Leur discours, c’est que les hommes ont dans leur nature le viol, la violence, la guerre, la domination gratuite, et que par conséquent il faudrait leur pardonner comme on pardonne à un chat de bouffer un lézard. Personnellement, j’ai une plus haute image des garçons et je pense qu’ils savent parfaitement se servir de leur cerveau, donc 1) ceux qui se comportent comme des connards doivent aller en prison, 2) les autres doivent être considérés comme des humains et pas des prédateurs sanguinaires. A mon niveau, théoriser la violence permet d’évacuer la rancoeur. Si je n’étais pas féministe et que je regardais les infos sur, par exemple, les Talibans, peut-être que je me mettrais à haïr les mecs. Et ça, vraiment, j’ai pas envie.


5) Les féministes sont meilleures au lit parce qu’elles sont consentantes. Sinon elles diraient “non”. Et en l’absence de “non”, tout le reste est “oui” – un vrai “oui”, pas “chais pas enfin nan mais en fait aux tréfonds de mon âme je pensais non et tu aurais dû deviner”.

I was told the following one was incorrect but I hereby lodge my protest. It is very perceptive and well-put:

9) Les mecs féministes sont aussi meilleurs au lit. Mes trois derniers mecs étaient féministes. Je ne reviendrai jamais en arrière 🙂 Oh non, jamais jamais jamais.

I notice I haven’t mentioned this blog before but I’ve spent a lot of time there these past months and am recommending it highly. Here’s the link again. The blog is written and maintained by Maïa Mazaurette

Talking the talks. Brian Evenson.

While I’m still hoping for Brian Evenson‘s appearance on bookbabble (we’ve invited him), here are two great interviews with the man. One on the excellent blog Bartleby les yeux ouverts (click here to get to the interview), which talks about issues like translation and deals specifically with The Open Curtain (he also responded to the Fric-Frac Club Questionnaire here). In the other interview you can even hear him, it’s his appearance on the Bat Segundo show. Here’s the link and here are the subjects discussed:

Knowing when a story concept has legs, ideas that never come to anything, the origins of “A Pursuit,” The Open Curtain, maintaining surprise, text sources vs. personal experience, writing fiction moments that hit two simultaneous emotions, grisly moments and descriptive detail, the reader’s imagination, revision and rhythm, not showing work to people, the surprise of audience responses, Bjorn Verenson, certain similarities with characters in “Ninety Over Ninety” and publishing people, Morgan Entreiken, determining the precise moment in which a story ends, open endings and critical theory, story concepts as building blocks for novels, similarities between “An Accounting” and Last Days, conversations between stories, bureaucratic language, investigating religious communities, solitary figures being pursued by men vs. the recurrent theme of community, expanding on conclusions from Ryan Call’s Collagist essay, literalisms and tributes to pulp, challenging the assumptions of “human,” translating, Antoine Volodine, how a line from The Savage Detectives inspired a short story, dwelling upon consciousness, intertextual aspects, absurdity and violence, characters who plunge into dark chambers to experience horror, being the dungeonmaster at 12, knowing the environment, Evenson’s concern for numbers and scales, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, postmodernism and theft, and the satisfaction of genre literature.

“him to whom she was / Eternal nature”

Edgar Bowers: The Virgin Mary

The hovering and huge, dark, formless sway
That nature moves by laws we contemplate
We name for lack of name as order, fate
God, principle, or primum mobile.
But in that graven image, word made wood
By skillful faith of him to whom she was
Eternal nature, first and final cause,
The form of knowledge knowledge understood
Bound human thought against the dark we find.
And body took the image of the mind
To shape in chaos a congruent form
Of will and matter, equal, side by side,
Upon the act of faith, within the norm
Of carnal being, blind and glorified.

Edgar Bowers’ Collected Poems (Knopf, 1997) is one of the best volumes of poetry I own.

No / Suffering Is Lost

Jean Valentine: Happiness (3)

The moment you turned to me on W. 4th St.
Your gentleness to me

The hard winter grass here under my shoes
The frost

I knelt in the frost to your parents

.                                                                             The warm
light on the right hand side of your face
The light on the Buddha’s eyelids

I knelt to my parents
Their suffering          How

much sleep there was in sleep         How no
suffering is lost

I adore this poet. Usually I just leave it at that, but in this case I’m urging you to go and visit her website. You can find all kinds of stuff there, including a lot of poems, audio documents, workshops and links. Since the NBA is going to be awarded one of these days, maybe it’s also a good idea and opportunity to take a look at a poet who won it deservedly, for her extraordinary collection Door in the Mountain: New and collected Poems. The poem above is one of the new ones.

Brian Evenson: Last Days

Evenson, Brian (2009), Last Days, Underland Press
ISBN 978-0-9802260-0-3

Writers like Brian Evenson are a rare breed. As I’ve already noted in my review of his novel The Open Curtain, his writing draws both on the strengths of genre fiction, which include a certain reduction of means and a suspenseful story that draws the reader in, the kind of book that blurbs on the jacket will label “addictive”, and on the strengths of literary fiction, which include a high precision of style and an economical but powerful use of tropes and symbols. In Last Days, his latest novel, he manages to do the exact same thing and the resulting book is a completely satisfying, if gruesome and amazingly bloody read. In what I have, so far, been able to read (other reviews forthcoming), Evenson seems to specialize in different varieties of what is commonly labeled ‘horror’, but his work is so complex and theoretically aware that it works just as well as a book of quote regular literature unquote. Also, as several excellent reviews by individual bloggers from the Franco-belgian Fric Frac Club collective have shown, Evenson’s work is wide open to readings employing, for example, Deleuzian philosophy. This is not necessarily a good thing since the kind of writing that can easily be read with theoretical tools, well used in academical contexts, frequently has its detractors. However, while certainly highly aware of how the genres he uses are structured and how they function, Evenson doesn’t burden his work with extraneous, ‘clever’ information. He doesn’t write for academia or for a fringe group of elite readers. Although Evenson’s books are published by smaller presses, like Victoria Blake’s Underland Press, Earthling Publications, Coffeehouse Press or FC2, an imprint of the University of Alabama Press, his writing isn’t any more ‘niche’ than any other novel of the genre.

Last Days hasn’t been written or even been published in one piece before. It consists of two parts of almost equal length, the first of which, “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”, was published in 2003, in a limited edition of 315 copies. It wasn’t until years later that Evenson decided to continue the story of that small but trenchant and brilliant novella, and wrote another novella, this one called “Last Days”. Now, in 2009, it was finally published, together with its predecessor, as one novel. And what a novel it is, a perplexing ride that can leave you breathless, a book about bodies and spaces, about religion, doubt and a detective you’d better not mess with. That detective is called Kline. “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” is about Kline’s introduction to a sect which practices the voluntary amputation of limbs and the more limbs you’ve amputated, the higher you are in the hierarchy of the sect. Ideally, this amputation is being done without any anesthesia. The pain is integral here, as well as the extent to which the amputation disables you in your everyday task. You can’t have your arm amputated at the shoulder and claim to have amputated seven limbs: five fingers, one hand, one arm. You have to cut off the fingers one by one in order for it to count. In the same spirit, amputating toes isn’t regarded as highly as amputating fingers, because losing a finger is much more of a handicap in your everyday life.

At the same time, there is, in the mutilates’ microcosm, in a bloody denial of the functionality of the body (which also implies a blind and strictly normative concept of a perfectly functioning body, one of many exclusionary tactics pursued by the brotherhood), a strangely functionalist thinking involved. Cleavers, knives and scalpels are almost glorified and occupy a central place in their rituals. Function is transferred from the body and split two ways. Part of it is now given over to machines. The aforementioned cutlery is one aspect of this. Gun prostheses are another. The other part is handed over to an immaterial power structure.  The curious power structure in the compound, where the man who has the least means of moving is the most powerful, is another. I called it curious but it’s more: it’s a sign of the modern age where power is not enforced by brutes with nightsticks and bullets, where power is that which we accept as we behave according to its exigencies. German blogger, musician and novelist Daniel Kulla wrote a song (Der Tausch) the refrain of which, loosely translated, starts like this: “nobody needs to force you / if you join in of your own accord”. If we make excuses for our sloppy thinking, we give in. If we don’t fight because we’re too comfy here, we give in. That list could go on for ages. Brian Evenson presents us with a whole compound full of people who have followed that logic to its extreme: the power structure they subscribed to leads to them lobbing off parts of their own bodies, of their own accord. None of them is forced to do it and the longer Kline stays among them, the more likely he is to succumb to their power structures himself.

But let’s return to Kline: prior to Last Day‘s events, he had a harrowing encounter with a “so-called gentleman”, who hacked off his hand with a cleaver. Kline then turned on a nearby oven, cauterized his hand himself, turned around and, calmly, shot his attacker in the eye. In a previous review I mentioned how interconnected the hard-boiled detective genre and the western are, and an incident such as this one suggests a very similar connection. But Kline isn’t looking for a fight and when the fight comes looking for him, he isn’t really equipped to win it. In contrast to many noir detectives such as Philip Marlowe, Kline isn’t likely, either, to be verbally abusive, snarky or clever. For someone who must have had quite a heady life, Kline, the character, is remarkably blank. This is important because in subsequent events different groups of people, among them the brotherhood, start to project hopes and ideas onto him.

In accordance with the brotherhood’s strict but unusual application of logic, Kline is widely admired in the brotherhood for cauterizing his wound himself. It’s both painful and dangerous to one’s long-term health to do so, risking inflammations and other problems, which is all the more reason for members of the brotherhood to adore someone’s undertaking of such an act. However, Kline’s amputation of his hand couldn’t actually be more at odds with the brotherhood’s beliefs: he was attacked in order to literally diminish him, to take away a part of his body, to make him less capable, as well as making him, simply, less. The pain he suffers isn’t positive in any way, instead, it’s intended to be almost punitive. Kline’s self-inflicted pain is similarly goal-oriented, meant to buy him time, to prepare himself to stall his opponent in order to be able to shoot him afterward. The brotherhood reads his motivations in a slightly different way, mostly because they assume that all amputees, on some fundamental level, share their beliefs. They appear to believe that there is something metaphysical that is inherent in the very act of mutilation.

As the novel sets in, Kline is called, or rather: abducted, to the premises of that strange brotherhood in order to clear up a murder. The plot is full of absurdities, dead-ends and similar noir staples, including a large array of colorful characters, who tend to speak in a short, humorous manner, their dialogue frequently reminiscent of Marx Brothers movies. The horrific nature of the brotherhood’s customs and the often very funny dialogue of some of its members makes for fascinating reading. In “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” Evenson combines basically three kinds of registers. Horror, humor and a kind of paranoia and claustrophobia. When nobody talks, the whole narrative sinks into a gloomy mire as Kline attempts to understand what happens to him, who these people are, and who committed the murder. The moment he enters the compound of the brotherhood, he has trouble leaving it again. He’s shut in with all these zealots and his situation appears to be increasingly desperate. As the novella comes to a close, the tension mounts to an almost unbearable degree until the reader is almost relieved at the end, horrific though it may be. That tension is twofold. One the one hand, Evenson’s plot is forceful and as we see Kline stumbling through the maze of irrational madness, we start to share his desperation. Questions are answered in riddles, and every action is transformed into a kind of indirectness, that makes it almost impossible to solve the crime.

This indirectness, not just in “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”, but also in “Last Days”, is significant. I mentioned Kafka as a point of reference, for many reasons. One of them is that Kafka’s “Kleine Fabel”, that marvelous tiny aphoristic story, seems like a perfect description of the situation that Kline repeatedly finds himself in in Last Days. The other is that the hierarchies of the brotherhood and its customs create an environment that is reminiscent of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Kline, the man who had his arm cut off and still shot his opponent in the eye, is reduced to a pawn, jostled here and there, lost among a community whose logic he barely comprehends. Yes, to a large extent, this is about religion, also, clearly, about Mormonism in particular, but Evenson’s scope is larger.

The religious references are obvious. The quote that precedes the novel is from :

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee…And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee…

This is interesting. In religious contexts, acts like the brotherhood’s are frequently viewed as sacrifices, but sacrifices have a goal, while these particular ‘sacrifices’ are not for anything. At best they purify the soul of him who loses a limb. Mutilation, paradoxically, is regarded as an edifying experience. The more pain and discomfort you have inflicted upon yourself, the more highly regarded you are. In the novel, this is grotesque and even horrifying. In real life, this is far more common. There is an ongoing war of most of the major Christian churches upon the body, in favor of the soul. Asceticism, renunciation, abstinence, celibacy are still regarded as laudable goals by most churches, and even by regular, non-religious people. A very similar parallel structure can be seen in the eschatological thinking of the Pauls, another brotherhood of mutilates, which references different eschatological concepts in actual religions. And were I to do a more thorough and more detailed reading, I would find all kinds of other religious references. No detail in Evenson’s book feels extraneous, to the extent that I was tempted to make a table of all the body parts curt off and find out how they are arranged within the book. But the religious references are more than games, and more than swipes at the quirks and madness of actual religions.

I think there’s a very different point there in respect to religions, and the constant indirection is part of it all. For one thing, there’s precious little successful communication between people who are not part of the same community. The first part of the book finds Kline trying to read his environment which is saturated with signs and which rings with the sibylline pronouncements uttered by the man who summoned him. The second part, again, finds people speaking, but also people listening to Kline speak, hanging on his every word, but Kline cannot make himself understood even to them. I think the situation that I have called Kafkaesque earlier, demonstrates the problem that religions and other communities who use logic just like everyone else, but use it with so strongly different premises that we may find ourselves unable to communicate with them at all. Especially if we read them as alien and grotesque, and I would suggest that Kline’s encounter with the Brotherhood, at least in part, can and should be read as an overreaction by someone fundamentally alienated by what he regards as Other.

In a book that deals so much with indirection, Evenson himself achieves a miracle doing the same. Everything in his plot has a false or double bottom, everything works on several levels at once. Just as the bloody mess of the brotherhood directly mirrors actual religious practice, so do other aspects of the book, such as its use of space: most of the book takes place in rooms or compounds, whether in a hospital or elsewhere. After a while, Kline starts searching rooms and environments for signs of difference, since many elements start to repeat themselves. He is, geographically, de-centered, drops from the world into a sequence of spaces constructed by certain kinds of thinking. These are spaces that, more and more, become his spaces, as the outside world is increasingly dangerous to and suspicious of him.

Here’s where the Kafka reference is important again. While The Open Curtain was mostly about a culture and its religion, I would suggest that ‘religion’, could be but a trope in Last Days. The world doesn’t become more rational, more sane once Kline leaves one of the two brotherhoods which have set their eyes on him. While their specific kind of religiosity is shown to be at odds with people in the ‘real world’, the basic structure of their thought isn’t. Especially since it’s possible, after all, to completely exchange the religious reading of the two sects with a political reading, which could focus on a contrast between a more collectivized, communistic ideology and a pseudo-individualistic ideology like capitalism. That, however, is a whole new can of worms that I’m not prepared to open just now.

I haven’t talked much of the second half of the book, because I don’t want to give too much away. “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” is much more dense, more focused upon its issues and the calamity that waits in the wings. “Last Days” bears all the weight of not just being a good book on its own, but of tying its own story and “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” into a single novel, so naturally, it’s different. Not worse, certainly, and the whole of Last Days is a marvelous achievement by a writer who’s currently producing awfully many good books. Brian Evenson’s writing isn’t prohibitive, it doesn’t crowd out those who lack the time or money (having enough leisure to read thoroughly and attentively is, indeed, a financial issue, to an extent) to pay the books as much attention as they would need to or bring an elevated enough reading horizon to that reading. His books can be disturbing, both on a visceral and on an intellectual level, but then that’s what he’s paid to do, it’s a distinction of the genre he works in. It’s both a joy and a challenge to read Evenson’s books, and they are all highly recommended.

Inventing Meaning

Unfortunately, I’m not very good at “explaining“ my work. I once tried to do this in a question-and-answer period with some students of my friend Richard Howard, after which he told me: “They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks.” That sums up for me my feelings on the subject of “unlocking” my poetry. I’m unable to do so because I feel that my poetry is the explanation. The explanation of what? Of my poetry, whatever that is. As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentangled. I know this isn’t going to satisfy anybody and will probably be taken as another form of arrogance from an off-putting poet. On occasions when I have tried to discuss the meanings of my poems, I have found that I was inventing plausible-sounding ones which I knew to be untrue. That does seem to me to be something like arrogance. In any case, as a poet who cares very much about having an audience, I’m sorry about the confusion I have involuntarily helped to cause; in the words of W.H. Auden, “If I could tell you, I would let you know.” I’m also mildly distressed at not being able to give a satisfactory account of my work because in certain moods this inability seems like a limit to my powers of invention. After all, if I can invent poetry, why can’t I invent the meaning?

from the first of 6 amazing Norton Lectures, held by John Ashbery, published in: Ashbery, John (2000), Other Traditions, Harvard University Press, a book which is highly recommended.

Thomas Stangl: Was Kommt

Stangl, Thomas (2009), Was Kommt, Literaturverlag Droschl
ISBN 978-13-85420-752-8

In Thomas Bernhard’s searing, bitter, but magnificent play Heldenplatz, an aging Jewish professor who survived the Third Reich, and his family meet in a hotel room because his brother has just killed himself. In their discussion the wounds of the past open, the wounds of the trauma of Austria’s Jews. Near the end, Robert Schuster, the professor, exclaims:

They would really like to,
if they were honest
gas us today just like 50 years ago.

His brother’s daughter Anna concurs:

In Austria you have to be either Catholic
or National Socialist
anything else isn’t accepted,
anything else is exterminated.

The play ends with his brother’s widow hearing again the sounds of the 60.000 Austrians who, in 1938, had assembled on the Heldenplatz in Vienna, to cheer Adolf Hitler. Their noise drowns out everything else on stage until the curtain drops. In this play we see an oddly un-chronological view of history. History is what stays, what’s written into culture, language and people’s behavior. Bernhard’s play was written against the background of Kurt Waldheim’s presidency, who was an officer in the Second World War and while not participating in any war crimes in person, lied about his war record and had, as a commission’s report showed, had knowledge of war crimes at the time. Additionally, as Alexander Pollak and Ruth Wodak have shown in their studies, the Austrian press during that time engaged in untruthful as well as openly antisemitic attacks against Waldheim’s detractors, producing a heated and troubling atmosphere that may well have reminded careful observers of the 1930s.

The kind of thinking that informed Bernhard’s work, especially Heldenplatz, can also be found in Austrian writer Thomas Stangl’s new novel Was Kommt, published by Droschl and longlisted for the German Book Award. Thomas Stangl, born in 1966, is less well known than he should be. Was Kommt is a very good and exciting book although it’s not great; the reader keeps waiting for the novel to step up its game just a little, which never happens, which can be a tad frustrating in a novel this good. Stangl’s published by a small literary publisher, and despite winning a prize now and then, isn’t very well known nor as successful as his literary achievements should make him. Most disappointingly for me, he hasn’t been translated into French or English yet, so I can’t really share my enjoyment of his work with most of those who will read this article. And it really is an excellent book, so good, in fact, that I read it twice cover to cover without reading another book in the meantime. Stangl is a virtuoso, both the writing and the construction of the book are amazingly successful. Was Kommt is both (seemingly) simple and dauntingly complex at the same time, which is a result of Stangl’s reduced vocabulary and his use of short main clauses. There is none of Bernhard’s complex page-long constructions. Stangl’s sentences can be long, but when they are, all he offers, in terms of syntax, are paratactic constructions which are easy to parse. These parataxes are often used to create a strong sense of repetition, with words and even whole phrases recurring again and again.

Structurally, however, Stangl’s use of parataxis, as a way of arranging bits and pieces of his narrative, makes for a difficult reading at times. Was Kommt is not a book to be read on noisy trains or while cooking or being distracted in other ways. It demands the reader’s full attention. Stangl builds his text from two different persons’ stories, which take place at different times, but he blurs chronological distinctions and hierarchies, as he cuts the stories apart and offers us the resulting pieces by turns. One of the stories, set in Austria ca. 1978 is about the 15 year-old Andreas Bichler, an overweight boy who loves books, but who is beset by fears. He appears shy, but that’s because his fears have made him afraid of opening his mouth and speaking his mind. When he talks, he feels betrayed by his mouth, by the words he uses. Words, in general, tend to mystify him. An avid reader, he can still be thrown by words as they are used in public discourses. He will save up words he hears from neighbors or his grandmother and repeat them in public in lieu of uttering his own words. It’s like he records language and then plays and replays it again. This defense mechanism, this fear, subsequently results in creating a distance between himself and his memories of himself; memories which are filtered through a language-based system, as he well recognizes. He lives in the present, and Stangl endows him with a language that operates only in the present and the future tenses. Although he is an orphan, there isn’t, to our knowledge, any past trauma that might explain his emotional imbalance or his peculiar linguistic restriction. In fact, Stangl has constructed the two protagonists of his book as sensitive personalities who are assaulted by the society of their time. Andreas is physically abused by his classmates and emotionally stressed by the tensions of his time, which he appears to experience as attacks upon his own person.

Emilia Degen, the other protagonist of the novel, is 17 years old, and is also an orphan, living with her grandmother. Her story largely takes place in Austria in 1937, which is an interesting choice of time. The society had not yet been fully taken over by the Austrian National Socialists who would be one of the driving forces behind Austria’s acceptance of Germany’s annexation of the country in 1938. It had ceased to be democracy since 1933, when then-chancellor Dollfuß abolished parties and the parliament and inaugurated a dictatorship which is known today as “Austro-fascism”. Although Dollfuß, an enemy of National Socialism and a stout Catholic, was assassinated in 1934, the Austro-fascist regime stayed in power until the country’s takeover by Nazi Germany. This is, of course, what Anna in Bernhard’s play refers to: “Catholic” probably refers to the Catholic dictatorship of Dollfuß and to the fact that ‘non-National Socialist’ doesn’t have to mean ‘democratic’ or ’emancipating’. Both were hostile to Jews (as Catholicism itself, in various forms and guises has also consistently been, a tradition that the present pope, in however an underhanded manner, apparently aims to resurrect and continue) and shortly after the takeover, within a very brief period of time, all hell broke loose for Austrian Jews. The atmosphere in Emilia’s environment, even before these decisive events, is distinctly antisemitic. Students in Austria’s Clerical Fascism rise at the beginning of the class yelling “Österreich!” and a teacher of German rebukes a professor’s analysis of Schiller’s plays as flawed because the professor isn’t able to read those plays with a ‘German voice’ which is the only way they’ll come alive, according to the teacher, who, later, will rejoice in the expulsion of Jews from schools and public life in general, exclaiming that “we are now amongst ourselves.”

Emilia Degen isn’t Jewish and Stangl’s aim isn’t a discussion of the usual victims. His goal is the depiction of an atmosphere, aggressively antisemitic and generally contemptuous of human dignity and rights. Like Andreas, Emilia is both physically and emotionally bruised by the events of the book. Unlike Andreas, she falls in love and her love is reciprocated. The man of her dreams is called Georg and her dreams of him, her pining for him are described in some of the most tender and beautiful prose I have had the pleasure of reading in weeks. Georg is a communist and although sex with him (as sex generally appears to be in the book) is a dirty and hurtful affair, their time together saves Emilia from Andreas’ kind of despair, although she isn’t any stronger than he is. Emilia and Andreas both are intellectually impotent and both are either unsuccessful or dissatisfied with sex or matters that concern their bodies in general. Her story, just like his, is mostly told in the present tense, but while his story makes only infrequent use of the future tense, her story contains several significant chapters written in the future tense. History, in Stangl’s book, isn’t that which was, but it’s “Was Kommt”, which can be translated as “that which comes”. And what comes is the darkest period in European history, and much more. Andreas’ present, for example, lies in Emilia’s future and the book makes ample use of this fact by brilliantly opposing one and the other.

In Emilia’s present, Antisemitism is rampant, and fear hovers like a thick cloud over Vienna. It is in the same Vienna, several decades later and in a very similar atmosphere that we encounter Andreas. In his present, the chancellor of Austria is Bruno Kreisky, a Jew who survived the Third Reich by fleeing the Nazis. Isn’t that a significant change? But, as a discussion with Andreas’ grandmother demonstrates, Antisemitism is still rampant, and traces of the 1930s are still in the air. Four ministers of Kreisky’s cabinet had a Nazi past and Kreisky’s actions, whether attacking, without a shred of proof, Simon Wiesenthal as a Gestapo collaborator, or, indeed, Thomas Bernhard for the aforementioned play Heldenplatz, carry more than a strong whiff of the past. This continuity that any look in the history books suggests, is expanded upon by Stangl, who uses the city of Vienna as a canvas whereon he projects his ideas. The extensive use of concrete and well known locations in Vienna suggests an understanding of places in Guy Debord’s sense of a psychogeography. The increasingly dreamlike and confused meanderings of the protagonists near the end reminded me, personally, of Debord’s concept of the “Dérive”. The resulting drift appears to bring Emilia and Andreas closer together, as objects of history rather than its subjects.

Just as he uses Vienna’s rough surface, Stangl also makes use of Emilia’s and Andreas’ bodies. Vienna reflects the past and its presence in that which happens and will happen. The two protagonists’ bodies reflect how these events happen, how small acts, words, fisticuffs, impact upon larger, more abstract issues like language and culture. This is the exact opposite of Bernhard’s late work. Stangl’s repetitive, circling writing is intent not to get abstract ideas like history and language slip away. He pins them down to concrete surfaces and at the same time, by blurring the distinctions between past and present, cause and effect, loosens up the tightly wound system of historical narratives. The plot isn’t really that important, because the two protagonists tell the story as it takes place on and through them. If this sounds weird, it is. And it is a sign of Stangl’s power as a writer that he is able to pull this off, that he dazzles the reader not primarily with words or phrases but with the whole structure and sequence of the book. In fact, the language sometimes seemed almost flat to me. The effect is cumulative. If you give the book the attention it deserves, it will amaze and stun you.

And it’s not that fatalistic, actually. Unless I’m mistaken about what happens at the end, Stangl tells us how we can escape history: “Oder brauchst du das Leben nicht; nur diesen einen Punkt, an dem du Nein sagst, zu allem, was noch kommt; und Nein; und Nein -” Saying no, which, maybe, means dying? Extracting your body from the train of history, stepping aside. It’s not quite clear, the book demands multiple rereads (or more attention than I gave it), but the circular nature of life and history means that if history is that which comes, it is also that which was, spun around. Was Kommt is a marvel and it deserves to be translated and praised and to win as many prizes as possible.

[special thanks to Liam]


New Bookbabble featuring yours truly is online! This time we are joined by the Malaysian literary reviewer Umpagan Ampikaipakan, who fights a country that doesn’t read and Francois Monti, the marvelous Belgian book blogger of tabula rasa and fric frac club fame. Björn, Lone, Donny, myself and of course Renée are also there. Topics, uh, are Herta Müller, the Booker Prize, criminally underrated Science Fiction and Obama. And other things. We’re lucky I didn’t notice who won this year’s Bollingen so you are spared a rant about that. Enjoy. Here’s the link.

Found in Translation

L’an passé, lorsque le Nobel fut décerné à un écrivain français, la presse américaine s’est demandée “who ?”. Cette année, le blogger le plus illustre de France n’a pas trouvé mieux que de s’épancher sur son favori (Roth) et, lui qui a toujours quelque chose à dire, a été contraint au silence par le choix de l’Académie suédoise. De JMG who à Herta qui, on se dit qu’on n’a pas de quoi faire les malins. C’est pourquoi le FFC a contacté son correspondant allemand pour qu’il nous cause de cette Herta Müller, inconnue par ici malgré trois traductions. Ne pas savoir qui est l’auteur est toujours de notre faute, jamais celle du jury.

quoth the introduction over at the land of plenty, a.k.a. the Fric Frac Club, to Francois Monti‘s diligent and competent translation and reworking of my Herta Müller essay. May I add that it’s considerably better than the original? It is. Dig in. Here’s the link. Enjoy.

Terry Moore: Echo: Moon Lake

Moore, Terry (2008), Echo: Moon Lake, Abstract Studio
ISBN 978-189259740-3

I’ve been meaning to review this graphic novel for ages, but, as with many of its colleagues, I am frequently puzzled as to what, exactly, to say about it. Well, to cut to the chase: Terry Moore’s Echo: Moon Lake, the first book in an ongoing series, is very interesting, certainly worth reading, but so introductory that, without having read more books in the series, it’s hard to say anything definite about it. It’s self-published in Moore’s own imprint “Abstract Studio”. The book is rather brief and barely manages to introduce all of what I assume to be the major characters. Unlike other brief first volumes such as Jeff Smith’s Rasl: The Drift (my review here), it doesn’t throw you into the hot action immediately. The overall storytelling is very old-fashioned and the present volume is basically an exposition. Make no mistake, it’s certainly not boring and lots of things happen, there’s an enormous amount of actual, well, action, but the tone and the speed of the whole enterprise is, so far, leisurely. There is much that is intriguing about the setup, but, and this is really strange, the series could now go either way. It could turn out to be horribly tedious or marvelously enchanting and/or suspenseful. It’s impossible to tell and this kind of ambiguity is not necessarily a good attribute of any book.

In my recent attempts to read up on classical and contemporary comics and graphic novels, I had come across Terry Moore’s name before but hadn’t actually read any of his books yet. He is most famous for being the creator of the well-known and critically successful series Strangers in Paradise, a series that combines a look at the mundane affairs of a group of women, among them lesbian and bisexual characters, the portrayal of which won Moore a GLAAD award in 2001, with a Mafia-style thriller plot. The accurate portrayal of the interpersonal relationships won Moore a following far beyond the reach of the genre. Plots and dialogue were especially praised for their verisimilitude and lack of clichés. Personally, I can verify none of this but I do see traces of this kind of writing at work in Echo: Moon Lake, as well. Actually, his new series appears to be fundamentally similar in several respects to his earlier books, and Moore’s vision of his art is intact, or maybe even expanded in all the best ways. Moore is both the artist and the writer of both series and both aspects are very well done, at least as far as craftsmanship is concerned. By now, I’ve read too many graphic novels not to be thankful for someone with Moore’s skills at work.

The story, set in and near the California National Park, is about some new hightech battle suit, which looks like latex, but is actually some sort of metal. It’s both a suit of armor as well as a weapon. We’re not explained what it is, exactly, but these are properties that quickly become obvious (personally, I was reminded of Donna Haraway’s cyborg here and if and when I’ll discuss more books from this series I might return to this). As we enter the story we watch a woman in that suit take flight. This is apparently an effort to test that suit and during those tests she’s shot at from planes. Attached to the suit is a kind of jet pack and she uses it to escape a pair of sidewinders launched at her from an airplane. That escape, however, goes awry as the sidewinders finally catch up with her and kill her. The ensuing explosion sends thousands of small suit-particles down, like viscous metal rain. Julie Martin, the book’s protagonist, is driving through the area and a few hundred of those particles slam through the roof of her car and onto her. She tries to flee them but to no avail. Eventually, those particles that landed on her attract some of those that are lying on the ground and on the back of the car and together they form a suit-fragment, all on their own, like a thick second skin around her shoulders and over her large breasts (I will return to that aspect). This is when the story takes off. In the subsequent chapters, the military starts tracking her down, the dead woman’s boyfriend starts asking questions and a homeless man, who was also struck by some particles, is using the suit’s potential for aggression in his own way.

He’s a bit cracked and imagines that God has blessed him with a weapon and proceeds to shower people with lightning. He wears a long, white beard, has wild black eyes and his face appears to be trying out different kinds of snarls. I dwell on him a bit because it is his portrayal that lifts the book onto another level. The whole pace of the storytelling is slow, the military functions the way it always does, especially in visual media, it’s corrupt, greedy and somewhat mean. Julia’s personal history is very much foregrounded. As in Stranger than Paradise, Moore is most successful when he attempts to convey to us how Julia feels about all this. She lives alone with a dog, her husband, a pretty cop, has just sent her her divorce papers, waiting for her to sign them, and now this. A doctor she consults thinks she’s playing a practical joke on him, her husband thinks she’s trying to confuse him and stall the divorce proceedings and this new suit is completely alien. She didn’t ask for it and she can’t get it off either and she can’t even seem to control its powers, since it appears to randomly zap people who touch it. That story is interesting and the suit clearly works as a trope as well as as an interesting object, but the hobo puts a spin on the whole thing, a kind of urgency. His control of the device and Julie’s passivity are in sharp contrast, causing us to read the book in terms of gender. But there is more. His portrayal, especially the visual portrayal, recalls certain superhero tropes.

Generally speaking, the art is, in a way, old-fashioned, a very clean and bright black-and-white look that seems to always achieve what it sets out to do. Violent, expressive scenes are just as convincingly rendered as intimate interiors. Unlike artists such as J.G. Jones, Moore is not very careful with background details when focusing upon people in the foreground of the panel, although, now and then, he draws whole landscapes by panning away from the action, and he’s excellent at that as well, with an interesting mixture of detailed and sketched detail in there. His main strength, that part of his work, where he most appears to come into his own, however, are faces and facial expressions. In keeping with his kind of storytelling that focuses on characters and interpersonal relationships, his art is very intent to be accurate, precise almost, to show us facial expressions. Faces, even in the background, are not left unattended, which incredibly animates the art. Although, as in any work of the genre, facial expressions are conventionalized, Moore’s commitment to his characters shines through. Now, this kind of animated use of facial expressions isn’t new to comics, but the mixture in Moore’s art is rare. The animated, conventional but lively faces are in contrast to the black-and white art, reduced to significant details (although nowhere as near as reduced as, for example David B.’s work), frequently panning out and in again. Moore has a cinematographer’s eye for good frames, and good, even epic shots. He can be artful when he wants to be and he is also capable of seamlessly slipping into the visual language of superhero comics.

Now, on this blog and elsewhere I’ve frequently pointed out that one of the strengths of the superhero genre are iconic visuals. Moore’s main strength, drawing convincing characters, isn’t normally found nor necessary to that genre. However, Moore heavily borrows from it. Several shots and details clearly evoke superhero tropes. There are Julie’s breasts, which are above-averagely large; this is an important fact, Echo: Moon Lake, after all, repeatedly draws our attention to that fact, not least by placing the suit-fragment squarely there. The use of female proportions in the genre has frequently been remarked upon and it has been amply discussed, so there’s little need for me to do so. I do want to remark on the fact, though, that it’s, as so often, interesting that this focus on female breasts is not accompanied by a heightened sexuality in the story. Quite the contrary, in fact. If anything, the book leans towards a morality based on a Christian understanding. One of the book’s topics seems to be the hubris and danger of scientific positivism (the individual issues ( Echo: Moon Lake collects Echo issues 1-5) are all prefaced by a cautionary Albert Einstein quote), which is balanced by a very intriguing set of religious allusions or underpinnings. The basic fact of religious irrationality isn’t so much acknowledged, as exoticised, in the way that irrationality becomes a subset of religious thinking, with ‘normal’ people being both at the same time.

This, however, is very tentative, guesswork, impossible to verify without reading more. Another ‘apparent’ blind spot is patriotism, which plays a very weird role in the book. Again, it’s impossible to judge, from the evidence of this book alone, but. Another superhero trope is found in the visual representation of the hobo. Every panel featuring him and his new powerful glove, basically screams super-villain. He isn’t ‘the’ villain, in fact, he appears to be somewhat delusional and pathetic, but the visual representation tells a slightly different story, reminding me, personally, of Marvel Universe staple Thor (especially of the slighty mad Thor re-invention by Mark Millar in his Ultimates series). In his depiction and Julie’s are numerous stories. About power, strength and gender inequality. About convictions and weakness. And ultimately, the destructive power of the atomic bomb and similar devices, as they are related to crazy people like the hobo, and to male and patriarchal power structures in general. Moore tosses a lot of ideas around, but without reading more, this is all I can say. I enjoyed reading it and will be picking up volume two (Echo: Atomic Dreams, collecting issues 6-10) soon. Volume three  (Echo: Desert Run) was just published this month, it collects issues 11-15. I haven’t read either but on the strength of the first volume, I will read both,because Echo: Moon Lake is a highly original, highly professional and an intriguing read.


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Free Gratis Dungeoning

Fun news on Robot Viking today

Dungeons & Dragons Online has been around for a few years, garnering somewhat mixed reviews and not really making much of a splash in the world of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Lately, however, the game has seen a huge spike in membership and a lot of buzz on Internet gaming sites. Why? Because they’ve made it totally free to play.

(…) I paid a visit to the DDO site, downloaded the client and gave the game a quick tryout this morning (just enough time to get through the initial tutorial adventure). Low and behold, it really is a solid, fun fantasy MMORPG that’s free.


I think it was in bookbabble episode 45, with the wonderful Glenda Larke as guest, that we talked about genre fiction and about cutting up and portioning books for the booksellers. Now, this isn’t probably of any interest to anyone besides me but I found a statement by Charles Stross on that topic today:

[C]hopping a big story into episodes is, indeed, highly problematic.

I had a taster of this with my Merchant Princes series at Tor. The book I originally handed in, titled “The Family Trade”, would have run to around 600 pages if printed. And I was about 15% of the way into the sequel, titled “The Clan Corporate”, which I estimated would run to 750-850 pages … when I was told “we’re chopping the first book in two, and by the way, can you deliver the rest of the series in 300-page chunks?”

Ever since, I’ve been bombarded by reader complaints about how each book ends on a cliff-hanger, they don’t make sense as stand-alone novels, and so on. Well, no shit: books 1-6 of that series (#6 is finally due out next March) are actually books 1 and 2. (Book 2 grew from the 800-page estimate to more like 1250 pages largely because of the overheads of turning a continuous story into episodes.)

That quote is part of a discussion in the comment section on Stross’ blog. The discussion, in which Stross initially partakes, is interesting, vastly more so than the blog post which spawned it. The post is willfully ignorant (although in a playful manner), which is an attitude I don’t like so very much. But the resulting blanks are nicely filled in by the comments so that the whole makes for enjoyable reading. Next day’s post, clearly a result of that discussion, is considerably better and also recommended.

Bubblebabble (links updated)

And it’s time for a new episode of bookbabble (Episode 46) that features yours truly and his horrible German accent. This time Chrystal Koo, a writer from Hongkong (here’s her homepage) joins us, as well as Gabriele Breder, wonderful journalist, poet and chief editor of the Online magazine Kritik und Sprache, which should be mentioned at least for the very commendable fact that it publishes small bits of my shit now and then. You can see more of her poetry and prose at her homepage Evrenim. I sound like my usual dim self, apparently my equipment’s even worse than usual. You can listen, download or share it here.

Gute Deutsche

SPON zu den Nachwehen der Sarrazin-Äußerungen.

In der Bevölkerung stößt der inhaltliche Kern dieser Aussagen offenbar auf Zustimmung. In einer repräsentativen Emnid-Umfrage für die “Bild am Sonntag” stimmten 51 Prozent der 501 Befragten Sarrazins Aussage zu, ein Großteil der arabischen und türkischen Einwanderer sei “weder integrationswillig noch integrationsfähig”. 39 Prozent der Befragten lehnten diese These ab. Nur Grünen-Wähler stimmen der Aussage mit 64 Prozent mehrheitlich nicht zu (Ja: 24 Prozent).

Die größte Zustimmung gibt es demnach mit 59 Prozent bei Unionswählern, gefolgt von Linke-Wählern, von denen 55 Prozent Sarrazins Ansicht teilen. Von den Anhängern der FDP stimmten 54 Prozent Sarrazin zu, bei den SPD-Wählern waren es 50 Prozent. 69 Prozent der Befragten finden sogar, es sei richtig, dass Sarrazin eine Debatte über Integration angestoßen hat. Nur 22 Prozent meinen, er hätte besser seinen Mund gehalten. Die Befragung fand am vergangenen Donnerstag statt.

Poem of the Day

Elizabeth Bishop: The Bight

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,
and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

Herta Müller, Nobel Prize Winner

For many, including many Germans, it was a complete surprise when Herta Müller was announced as another writer in the German language to win the highest international literary award, the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has increasingly focused on European writers. Did she deserve the honor? Of course she did. Herta Müller is among the best and most important writers in German today, with a work that never shies away from trying new things, a writer who is smart yet not unreadably difficult. On the contrary: her writing, while complex, is frequently buoyed by a pleasurable language, which is warm and is driven by a kind of verbal plasticity that I have not encountered since Günter Grass. One of the defining characteristics of Grass’ style is the surreal quality of his words, his use of nouns is especially interesting and significant in this regard. But where Grass frequently drops off into a surreal plot, opting for a rich stew of a book instead of sharp criticism (which is why his shorter books frequently fall so short of the mark), Herta Müller is always on point, always engaged and worth engaging with.

Herta Müller was born in Romania in August 1953, she fled the country in 1987, with her then-husband, a novelist, as well. Her work is largely concerned with Ceausescu’s dictatorship and the trauma that it left on its citizens. She is a German-Romanian, not because she’s a German citizen now, but because she was a member of Romania’s German community in the region called the Banat. The group she belongs to are the so-called Banater Schwaben (~ the Swabians from the Banat, a region that is part of three different countries, Romania, Serbia and Hungary) and today she’s that community’s most prominent member. She has always, however kept its distance to the Banater Schwaben, mostly because she was always resistant to Nationalism and the community, like many ‘exiled communities’ have engaged in a strongly nationalistic discourse that tended to border on racism (a statement by the community talks about a “deutsches Bauernvolk von hoher Kultur (…) inmitten einer fremdvölkischen Umwelt”). The complexities of being ethnically a Banater Schwabe in Romania are frequently explored in her fiction, as the group has always, on the one hand, enjoyed privileges, especially economic ones, and it also was part of the fringe, the dispossessed, in the context of rising Serbo-Yugoslavian and Romanian nationalism.

This story of ethnicity is frequently combined with a history of being oppressed by and resisting a totalitarian system, a history of violence. As is the case with many of the best German language prose writers of the latter half of the 20th century, among them genii like Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Lenz, violence, as a force, is threaded throughout her work. Violence is always present and Müller is highly adept at constructing situations that are structured by violence or by relationships of power. Recently I have read a few misguided comments comparing her to Jelinek, but Jelinek detects and exposes violence in language and culture, her subject is language, whereas Herta Müller writes about people and cultures. Her awareness of language serves a completely and utterly different purpose: it’s secondary to people but it helps to identify and define situations, contextualize acts and actions within cultural and historical frameworks. What’s more, Herta Müller writes to move people. If her work is so often read autobiographically (which does a disservice to the work), it’s because so much of it feels heart-felt. It’s hard not to see Bossert’s real-life suicide as one of the driving forces in the structure of Herztier (translated, puzzlingly, as The Land of Green Plums by the wonderful Michael Hofmann (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 1996)) which, after the new masterpiece and opus magnum Atemschaukel, is her second-best novel and an extraordinary read all told.

Violence, in turn, is connected to fear and darkness and the progression of her work could be read as an attempt to climb out of it, but it shouldn’t. She herself has said that writing doesn’t help or mitigate the darkness. Instead, her work is the work of a teacher. Writers like Jelinek have been suspicious of teaching, as it can be said to reproduce and execute power inequalities and similar issues, but Müller doesn’t share these misgivings. Like Grass’ oeuvre, Müller’s work is a continuation of traditional storytelling. She, too, is aware of the structure of myth and folk tales but her use of them is constructive. She uses tradition as a tool in constructing and building a story. Memory is important, so are intercultural connections. In this she is, if anything, the antithesis to Jelinek. She teaches us to remember, to look not for repression in words (although we are reminded of its presence) but for the past. The eponymous Herztier (‘Heart Animal’) can be read as a mythical figure in the tradition of Gershom Scholem’s, a mythical symbol of the hidden life, a conflation of the individual (Herz) and the collective (Tier).

I return to this book because, until her latest was published, it represented the fullest artistic statement Müller had published so far. It is a magnificent combination of storytelling and of a poet’s sense of the weight and richness of words and symbols. It’s also the best statement on her stance as far as her Romanian past is concerned. In a speech, Müller differentiated “soziale Angst” (social fear) which is a collective fear, something that is visible in a society’s tendency to, for example expunge and attack foreigners and minorities, and “existentielle Angst”, which is the individual’s fear. Whereas books such as Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (translated as The Appointment (Metropolitan/Picador, 2001), her least great novel so far) concentrate on the latter, her writing is at its best when she combines this with a strong focus on the former. In the protagonists of Herztier and their fears, she’s achieved just that and highlights the connections between that fear and tradition, memory and storytelling. The first sentence of the novel is legendary:

“Wenn wir schweigen, werden wir unan genehm,” sagte Edgar, “wenn wir reden, werden wir lächerlich.”

It can be translated as “’When we’re silent, we become awkward/displeasing’, Edgar said, ‘when we talk, we become ridiculous.’” That awareness is important. To talk is to risk ridicule but how will we provide testimony without talking? Here’s where we return to what I said earlier, about her use of language. Sometimes her criticism is plain and direct, especially if its the easy criticism of dictatorships. Sometimes she evades from harsh language into poetical and mythical, as when she, in an essay, explains why she so frequently uses the word “king” instead of “dictator”: because it’s softer. Soft-spoken, her novel carry big sticks nevertheless. Often, Müller is concerned with the access (der Zugriff) that a repressive system has on the individual. In a very nice appropriation of the feminist discussion of how hair or fashion can demonstrate the access that society has on women in society, she maintains in one of her many great essays that a man’s hair demonstrates the access of the (totalitarian) state on him. Movingly, she recounts how Bossert, a friend and writer who killed himself weeks after having been the target of repressive measures (apartment searched, manuscripts confiscated and he was beaten to a pulp) started to cut random pieces of hair out of his beard and hair, a motif that also comes up in Herztier.

These kinds of topics make many of her books seem bleak, especially ones like Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger or Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet. The harshness of many descriptions in her books, filled with desolation, terror, suicide, with cut-off thumbs and the solace of having a mother-of-pearl button that takes away the fear momentarily, this harshness is not part of a bleak, one-sided attack on a dictatorship, although that is certainly an important and central part of her work. The brilliance of Müller’s work is that her language and her way of structuring, contextualizing situations means that she interrogates the very point of view of her narrators, for example by letting them spout nonsense about history, or by creating situations that are no longer structured by political repression but by other power relationships, as the one between men and women. Repression is something that can be passed down and refocused and Herta Müller is amazingly aware of the intricacies of these relations. And she finds that many of them can be found in the mirror that is language, but her language is not cultural or social language, like Jelinek’s. Her language is the individual’s: “Sprache … lebt immer im Einzelfall.” and “Sprache … läßt sich von dem was Einer mit dem Anderen tat, nicht trennen.” Müller is a dedicated writer, a writer committed to the responsibility that we have as human beings. Hence the remark about teaching.

Before publishing her amazing new novel, which is very different from much that she has previously put out, she started to write poetry. But not just any poetry. Collections such as Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame contain poems that are not written, they are assembled, they are collages. Each page contains an image of a poem assembled of phrases and words (even just letters) cut out of books and newspapers, which is perfectly logical for a woman who is interested not just in language, as an abstract medium, but in language as something that people use. Language as part of actual, printed books and pages, which, in turn are read again by people. By individuals. Another application of this technique can be found in the anthology Vorwärts, ihr Kampfschildkröten, where different poets translate some well-known Ukrainian poets, frequently offering different versions of one and the same poem. Herta Müller’s contribution to that is not a translation or a poem of her own. Instead, she creates collages out of the translated versions, thus creating fascinating new poems. This last is interesting and intriguing, but slight. Her proper poetry, in Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame, however, is actually very good, light, well written, musical. I cannot recommend that book highly enough. Accomplished novelists who are also accomplished poets are very rare and it remains to be seen whether poetry really is a direction she intends to pursue in the future, but that book is an extraordinary accomplishment, on many levels.

And in Atemschaukel, her most recent book, (proper review on this blog forthcoming) her return to fictional prose, she writes about memory. Memory has always been important in her books, which frequently employ flashbacks. It is these flashbacks which are most responsible for the fractured narratives that had people incorrectly complain that she puts style before plot. These are not willfully fractured narratives in the sense of of a postmodern fragment for fragment’s sake. Müller is interesting in that, although clearly postmodern, she doesn’t write in 1970s/1980s traditions of postmodernism, but in 1950s traditions. I mentioned Lenz and Grass, but equally noteworthy are writers like Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann as well as, in a later vein, Walter Kempowski. All of those three are relevant to matters of memory, because the aforementioned flashbacks are but the tip of the iceberg. In her use of words she appears to me to pursue a kind of hunt for the memory that is in words, that hides in the words’ history, cultural and linguistic. This makes for a fascinating language, for a use of words that can appear to be overly poetic, which some German critics have accused her of in the reception of Atemschaukel. It is that aspect of her writing that connects her to writers like Paul Celan whose literary project contained similar attempts.

With, on the other hand, Kempowski (who isn’t likely to be a direct influence), she shares an interest in the power of stories to make or become part of history. That had always been boiling under the surface, but the autobiographical connection had overshadowed it. Her books always appeared to be descriptions of her experiences under Ceausescu and her escape from that. That is a worthy topic and the reasons that I have heard her name in discussions about last year’s Nobel prize as well, but what she did with the new book is amazing. She stepped out of the autobiographical framework and explicitly told other people’s stories. Her mother, as well as many other people from her village were deported after the war and set to work in a USSR labor camp, which happened to my grandmother, coming from a German community in Hungary, as well. Like my grandmother, many of the Romanian survivors of those camps rarely talked about these stories, so, starting in 2001, Herta Müller sat down with some of them and recorded their stories. Her help in this endeavor was the great, recently deceased poet Oskar Pastior, who is himself a survivor of these camps and who contributed most significantly to the stories thus assembled. Together they traveled to the Ukraine to visit locations where once camps were. After Pastior died in 2006, Müller decided to make a novel out of the reams and reams of material they had assembled together, most importantly, his own story.

Without wanting to anticipate my own proper review, let me just say that Atemschaukel is a great achievement that combines many of her strengths outlined in this piece, but applied them to a completely different topic. It can be said to round off her work. I didn’t expect her to win the prize because her work hasn’t had, to my mind, a definite shape yet, which may well be the reason that she did not yet receive the most prestigious German literary prize, The Büchnerpreis, but the longer I think about it the stronger I approve of the Swedish Academy’s decision. I think that this book can be like a capstone to her work, it exemplifies many of her powers and demonstrates that they aren’t just restricted to one topic, that she is not a one-note writer, although her poems should have put that idea to rest a long while ago.

And what is she? Is she a German writer? A Romanian one? German critics have always maintained that writing about Romania is a preliminary step to becoming a real writer, that her worth would only prove itself when she succeeded in ‘arriving’ properly, i.e. writing about Germany. This explains the overwhelming success of her latest novel, since the only subject that Germans more like their authors to write about than Germans, is Germans who are victims. Müller herself never tried to fit into critics’ expectations. Nationality is a thorny subject in her work and she prefers to write about bodies and spaces. Nationalities, ethnicities turn into languages in her work. She sees cultures and nations as webs, as interconnected systems that can’t be looked at on their own. In a statement she once said

Je mehr Augen ich für Deutschland habe, umso mehr verknüft sich das Jetzige mit der Vergangenheit.

Herta Müller is a careful, aware and thoughtful writer, and a gorgeous creator of prose and poetry as well. I’m happy she’ll finally get the attention she deserves. ISBN

Philip Roth: The Humbling

Roth, Philip (2009), The Humbling, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224087933

The Humbling is Philip Roth’s 30th novel, an impressive number of works for any writer, but for a writer like Roth, who has been putting out masterpieces at a surprising rate, it’s even more impressive. Philip Roth, who, currently, is probably the preeminent American novelist, has written so many books and won so many prizes that for many, he has been the forerunner for the Nobel Prize in Literature (which is awarded this Thursday) for the past ten years, and each winner during that period has been greeted with whines of regret of the literary critics who have been rooting for Roth, a reaction that tended to be especially vitriolic whenever women won it. Roth himself is said to be campaigning heavily for the Nobel, and I would argue that his recent publications are part of these campaigns. It’s not just that, after Sabbath’s Theater, he’s predominantly written ‘important’ novels or career-summarizing ones, like Everyman (which reads at times like a pastiche of Roth) or Exit Ghost. It’s also the fact that he, who’s published four novels during the 1980s and five during the 1990s, has published a whopping seven during the ‘noughts’, the last four of which have been appearing at an annual rate, with a fifth (Nemesis) scheduled for 2010. It’s hard not to read this almost frantic productivity as a transparent attempt to prod the Swedish Academy to recognize him.

This frenzy is also accompanied with a slight decline in quality. Whereas the 6 novels published from 1995 (Sabbath’s Theater) to 2004 (The Plot against America) are arguably among the strongest ever published by Roth and constitute an astonishing run of masterpieces, the same cannot be said of his output since then. I realize that not everyone will agree with me on my low assessment of Everyman but both Exit Ghost as well as Indignation have at best met with a lukewarm critical reception. They are also all rather short, which I assume is due to the schedule Roth has enforced upon himself. At 140 pages, The Humbling is even shorter than the last three novels, but as far as quality is concerned, I would rate it slightly higher than those although it’s still well below that which Roth has shown himself capable of. It is an interesting book and certainly worth reading. Whatever weaknesses his late books may possess, Roth never lost the magic of his writing. As a stylist, Roth is still a master. The Humbling is written with a deft pen; Roth dazzles his readers with the elegance and the consummate control he exhibits over his creations. There isn’t one misplaced word or phrase. It’s impossible to read this book and not be profoundly impressed by Roth’s writing, if not, sadly, moved.

The writing’s main job is to make The Humbling‘s protagonist, Simon Axler, a failed actor, plausible and this it does well, so well indeed that, personally, I was gripped with a fundamental dislike for Axler who is a grandiose egomaniac, with strong misogynistic tendencies and a strong elitist bent. As the novel sets in, Axler recalls the end of his acting career. Throughout his professional life, he was an talented actor, slipping into his roles instinctively; acting was never, if we are to believe him, work, it was never difficult. But suddenly he lost his instinct for acting, his “magic”, he immediately stopped being a brilliant thespian and became mediocre, that’s how dependent he was upon his gifts. For a while he tried to work at being a better actor, to try to achieve through toil what no longer came to him naturally, but nothing worked. This disaster seem especially catastrophic to him because “[h]e’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful”. He falls apart completely which is where we meet him. His wife then leaves him and, afraid to commit suicide, Axler commits himself to a psychiatric hospital where he stays for all of twenty-six days. He then retires to his home in the country, rejecting all offers at re-starting his career as an actor. It is in this state that Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of old friends of his comes visiting and ends up being his lover.

She is 40 years old, 25 years younger than Axler and has “lived as a lesbian since she was twenty-three.” She was named after Pegeen Mike Flaherty, the protagonist of John Synge’s 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World. Any thorough analysis of the book would need to dwell on the multiple connections Roth’s novel shares with that play. This isn’t just true for this play, it’s a characteristic of The Humbling: almost obsessively, Roth has his protagonist recall plays and roles, thus creating a rich cultural context for this slim novel. Interestingly, just as Axler is a grandiose egomaniac, who needs everything to be about him, the book, too, doesn’t use these explicit references as a means to broaden its perspective. Instead, it is almost gluttonous in the way that it appropriates these references, using them as hermeneutic tools to deepen the reader’s perception and understanding of Axler and his relationship with Pegeen and himself. In the end, it is these references, or rather the most central one of them, Chekhov’s The Seagull, that brings the book to a close, that serves as a catalyst for Axler’s final breakthrough, his final, almost, epiphany. Structurally, the book’s ending is a return to the beginning. The Humbling has three sections, two of which could be said to be Axler sections and one which one might call the Pegeen sections.

Generally speaking, Axler has a hard time relinquishing narrative control. The whole book is written in a third person personal narrative, telling us Axler’s story, through his own point of view, basically. Other people’s voices and stories are only allowed representation as quotes in his own unending monologue. At times, the only difference between the narrative voice and direct speech of Axler’s appears to consist of a change of pronouns, from ‘he’ to ‘I’. In what I called ‘Axler’s sections’, the protagonist, as so many of Roth’s creations, spends much of his time bouncing questions and propositions back and forth in his skull, getting lost both in self-pity and short-lived hopes. The visit of his agent in the first section, come to offer him a part in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, especially highlights the self-pity. In this part of the book we are made aware of the stasis that Axler has slipped into, the lack of options available to him due to his depression and the resulting self-deprecating act he puts on. This is important. Simon Axler isn’t truly self-deprecating, or humble, even. He is driven by self-pity and this means that he needs to act in a self-deprecating enough manner in order to convince himself. All of this is so transparent and pathetic that we have no problem believing him when he said that he lost his magic, his talent for acting.

Axler is one of the least perceptive characters in recent fiction. His constant self-absorption also means that other people only enter as a kind of censored and distorted side-show. These characters, as well as Axler himself, will remind the reader of other characters in Roth’s oeuvre, just less forcefully drawn, created in a considerably less inspired manner. If some of that material wasn’t so disappointingly thin, one could dismiss The Humbling as ‘more of the same’. Instead, it’s sort of ‘less of the same’, if you get my drift. Pegeen is an exception. A dominant, powerful character in her own right, she resists Axler’s greedy narrative grasp now and then, either insisting on telling a story as a third person personal narrator or even withdrawing the sought-after information from his narrative completely, leaving behind only the bare fact of having informed him. In Roth’s exceedingly well written novel, this is of course indicative of her character, of the role she is to play in their relationship and in the narrative and ideational structure of the book. In fact, the discourses on gender and sexuality that the book engages are almost all centered around Pegeen; she is the active force propelling the book forward, snapping it out of the meanderingly self-absorbed narrative of Axler’s, just as she snaps Axler out of his own depressions.

Although Pegeen and Axler do not really argue, there is, in fact, a struggle going on, behind the happy facade. Axler is used to being top dog, and I would argue that Pegeen’s homosexual history threatens him, even as her apparent relinquishment of the homosexual life style may tickle his self-image as a potent man. Axler’s and Pegeen’s relationship is almost exclusively sexual and it is in bed where Axler has to cede control first. An old man, with all the frailties that old age implies, he isn’t actually capable of being on top any more, which necessitates Pegeen’s taking over of that role. This may sound like an unimportant detail but as their relationship progresses, her climbing into the saddle, so to say, proves to be but the first step of many until, at the end, she completely controls the sexual part of the relationship. However, we might need to add a caveat here. Since all this is filtered through Axler, we should consider the whole story as being part of his incessant self-pity. With all his ailments, losing his sexual potency and dominance may be one of the most important fears preying on his mind, but there are actually no indicators of having an unreliable narrator on our hands, no contradictions, just his annoying and pompous voice leading the way through the story.

Axler is a misogynist, with a very low opinion of women and an even lower opinion of their capability of forming an opinion of their own. When Pegeen discusses her relationship with her father, Axler accuses her of being dependent upon his paternal opinion, of trying to get back in his good graces, an accusation that he will continue to level at her throughout their strange and dysfunctional relationship. He is also vaguely homophobic although I would suggest that the evidence for his homophobia may be an offshoot of his misogyny. There is a very revealing phrase in the book when a customer winkingly suggests that Axler, in the process of getting her an expensive haircut, is her ‘sugar daddy’. Axler, indignant, thinks

All he was doing was helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want. Together they were absorbed in making this happen.

The focus, correctly, is on what “he would want”, for instance losing that “mannish” haircut of hers. Everything that he has to say about her and her lesbian relationships is dismissive and, as I said, vaguely homophobic. Behind this, however, I’d argue, isn’t homophobia at all. Instead, Axler’s clearly confused by a woman who doesn’t need a man, who takes matters into her own hands; what more important to him is that, sexually, she is still more independent and even straps on a makeshift dick and gets to work. Arguably, this is what awakes a desire in him to sire children with her, as a means to tie her to the old roles he’s used to. As an actor he completely slipped into his character’s roles, living them, and so it is in real life as well, where he is, similarly, trapped in roles and subterfuges. He is so trapped in his roles that he need to will himself to enact a role from a play by Chekhov in order to have a certain freedom of actions. This conflict, between traditional and modern roles, as well as between the attractiveness of soft-spoken women and the danger that is posed by the possibility of them stepping out of the narrow lane that traditional roles accord them, this conflict is a topos that keeps resurfacing in the book, sometimes through the literary references, sometimes through minor characters that appear onstage and disappear again like Sybil van Buren, who is torn between killing herself and killing her husband.

It is interesting that a novel with such an arrogant protagonist would be called The Humbling. You’d expect him to get his comeuppance, wouldn’t you? But with an ego like that this can’t, of course, work. The book is not called ‘Humility’, it is not about someone being humbled and attaining humility. Rather, its title is focusing on the process of humbling. George Bosworth Burch, in his introduction to St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s The Steps of Humility, sums up the latter by focusing on three steps: “humility, love and contemplation. They lead respectively to knowledge of truth in yourself, knowledge of truth in your neighbor, and knowledge of Truth itself.” It’s not hard to see how St. Bernard’s scheme could well be the one Roth based his novel’s structure on, but with a twist. His protagonist is an actor, and he en-acts these steps, but the deeper level of recognition, of knowledge, is closed off to him, and the contrast between what is enacted and what lies below that informs much of the book’s tension.

In moments like these, we see why Roth is such a highly regarded writer, but his tricks and games and erudition don’t save the novel which never quite takes off. In many places it reads like a draft. Well written, but flaccid, out of shape. Roth doesn’t deliver the punch the way he used to. What’s worse, ever since Everyman he seems to draw mainly from his own work. Axler, the old actor, is less an original and vivid creation than an inside look at some of the old and cranky artists that have always populated his work. At times, he reads like the voice of Ghost Writer‘s E. I. Lonoff, but as an artist, Axler’s less exacting, less careful. Still, all said and done, The Humbling is certainly Philip Roth’s best and most readable novel since The Plot Against America. It’s certainly worth buying and reading if you enjoy Roth’s work in general. If you don’t like him, this book won’t sway you.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Conventional (Ring*Con 2)

‘t was a jolly weekend that I spent at the 8th annual Ring*Con, a German fantasy convention that brags being the largest fantasy convention in Europe. It was founded as a Lord of the Rings-convention but has since incorporated other strains as well, although Tolkien’s shadow still hangs heavily over the proceedings. Two other major foci this time around were the Harry Potter and the Twilight franchise. I had some fun. I should have gotten drunk before and during the whole thing, but I didn’t and I guess that’s my fault. So I spent the weekend sober, trying to parse images, ideas and politics. The latter was dire: Any focus on Lord of the Rings implies righteous right-wingery and somewhat competent critics tripping over their oversize magical cloaks, metaphorically speaking. The inclusion of Twilight apparently gave license to some of them to spout even more nonsense than they would have habitually done. Speaking and writing about books as poorly written as the chaste chants of Edward’s and Bella’s sparkly love affair invites some critics to self-righteously attack their own profession and its standards (while still using the same, in what I call ‘idiot’s paradox’).

However, first things first. The convention took place in the outskirts of Bonn, about five minutes with the subway from where I live, in the marvelously plush Maritim Hotel. Most of the non-commercial activity took place in four different rooms, or halls, rather. There were lectures, discussions and, what’s usually the center piece of these kinds of conventions, as far as I know, panels with the star guests. The Ring*Con is organized by the FedCon GmbH which organizes a SciFi convention once a year at the same location. Last year, FedCon panels starred celebrities such as Summer Glau. By contrast, at this year’s Ring*Con, the biggest star was Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies and who was a no-show. Instead we got Kyle Schmid and Dylan Neal, stars of the mind-numbingly bad show Blood Ties, we also got Matthew Lewis who plays Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter movies and five different actors who played minor roles in the Lord of the Rings movies. Lastly, Edi Gathegi and Christian Serratos who play similarly minor roles in the Twilight movies. So, the glamor factor was very low. However, a few of those almost-celebrities were great fun. Three of the Lord of the Rings actors put on a hilarious show on the last day of the convention, drawing the largest crowd of all the events I saw.

This convention was, to a huge extent, about fun. There were a few people selling things, a man tattooing customers, the usual assortment of commercial offers, but also two men who built a huge table with small painted figurines, thousands of them, to depict Sauron’s vast armies from the last volume of the Lord of the Rings (see picture below).


There were makeup artists for hire, but dozens of people came with incredible costumes, incredibly elaborate and colorful makeup. There were all kinds of movies for sale but there was also a group of amazingly talented people presenting a movie based on one of Tolkien’s myths, screening it for free and they will also put it up for free on December 1st.

The movie’s called Born of Hope and Kate Madison, director, producer and actress should be congratulated for the amazing work she did on a tiny budget (picture of cast below). In fact, that movie was the best part of the whole weekend. It tells the story of Arathorn, LotR’s Aragorn’s father. Their screenplay is based on a tiny note in the appendices to J.R.R. Tolkien’s conservative canter through myth and (old English) language and sundry areas. The language of it is a nice pastiche of Tolkien’s own style, with all the flaws and benefits this implies. In the movie there is great acting, absolutely great editing and surprisingly great visual effects. The whole movie was shot over several years and with a budget of roughly 25.000 pounds. Here is the page where you can access the project, where you can support them and where they will put up the movie come December 1st. Go there, support them, and read about them. Their energy and patience is inspiring. Don’t miss out.

Born of Hope

Less fun but still entertaining enough proved to be the multitudes of lectures. There were the competent but dull ones like Heidi Steimel, who talked about fairy tale parodies or Dr. Oliver Bidlo who talked about Tolkien and the sciences and Tolkien and science fiction. There were those with lectures that were competent, less dull but still verging on the trivial, like Germany’s foremost expert on vampires, Friedhelm Schneidewind. Schneidewind’s lectures on immortal beings and vampires were clearly based on a vast knowledge of the topic, although one based on breadth rather than depth of knowledge. I’ve taken notes on books and movies that I haven’t even heard before but will read and watch in the near future. Steimel, in contrast, is methodically competent but not particularly well read. Schneidewind’s major weakness is his enormous ego. He is too fond of quoting his own nonfictional work and his own awfully written play based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s charming novella Carmilla, as well as other people praising his work. This is not incidental, it exemplifies his style of talking, of presenting information and knowledge. On a convention that banks so much upon lightness, enthusiasm and generosity, this is more than a small weakness.

But that was nothing compared to the single most incompetent critic I have had the displeasure of listening to in well over two years. I won’t mention the name of the lecturer here, but she was shockingly awful. Her lectures were characterized by a complete and utter lack of understanding even of basic literary critical methods, of literature in general, of the basic difference between analysis and value judgment. She delivered cheap jokes that revealed nothing but her own lack of any kind of understanding. Her referencing of Sir Philip Sydney, Alfred Lord Tennyson to support her inconsistent thesis highlighted the enormous extent to which her mind is fed on wiki knowledge and easy google-able bites of text. In a defense of sorts of the Twilight franchise she built a thesis on what I call idiot’s paradox, which is what happens when you build your thesis with tools that you, on the other hand, reject on principle. All of this was laced with a dismissive attitude that was offensive to a large portion of the audience, some of whom, among them Mr. Schneidewind, complained afterwards.

But this was, although annoying, very entertaining. These paragraphs cannot properly convey all that I experienced this weekend. To sum up, it was a lot of fun and I am deeply indebted to a wonderful woman to’ve made it possible for me. If you find the time, I can recommend it to you. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Although I’ve spent little time reading this weekend, finishing a novel by Roth (The Humbling) and some secondary literature, it was worth it.


Hartmut Lange: Das Konzert

Lange, Hartmut (1986), Das Konzert, Diogenes
ISBN 3257216459

konzertAll major literatures have writers in the critical spotlight, who reap all the laurels, who command all the attention. As a rule of thumb, you can find all of them on the idiotic lists of people complaining about how (and to whom) the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded. And each of these literatures also has excellent second-tier writers, writers who are as good or better than those in the spotlight but who, for some reason or other, despite good reviews and decent enough sales never quite broke through. In Germany, one of those writers is Hartmut Lange. The excellence of his work deserves a wide audience, critical and popular, yet ever well-read people can be puzzled when asked about him. In recent interviews, Lange himself has turned to complaining about the critical bias against him and grumbling about his work being simply too ‘bold’ for the success that has been denied to him for decades. This is not to say that Lange has been altogether without success. He started his career as a playwright in the GDR, where he was successful, both with audiences as well as with critics. He won a major prize yet he then fell out of love with the ruling ideology and, in 1965, did not return from one of his trips to West Germany.

For some reason, he stopped writing plays in the early 1980s when he embarked upon his second career as a prose writer. He has since written mainly novellas, short, brilliant pieces on different topics, tinged with melancholy and written with a sleight of hand that would have made Updike proud. His style is always unobtrusive, elegant. It creates the impression of sumptuousness without ever meandering. That’s the case, as well, in his 1986 novella Das Konzert (translated into French by Bernard Kreiss as Le Recital (Editions Fayard, 1988)), ‘the concert’, one of his best works. It’s not a thriller, but sometimes it feels like one, simply due to Lange’s control of genre and language. He intimates horrible things, but shrouds them in glances and elegant turns of phrase. His book is set in baroque villas and dank graves yet he consistently resists excessive indulgence as far as descriptions are concerned. He doesn’t try to evoke the baroqueness in all its glorious details to us, nor the graves. This novella, as many of his books, is concerned with a shadow world, and his style allows the world to retreat, partly, into shadow. We may not see all the details of his places but we see enough to get a good idea.

Lange-Hartmut-Le-Recital-Suivi-De-La-Sonate-De-Waldstein-Livre-876328697_MLAnother sign of his mastery is his use of the form of the novella. Instead of just putting out a piece of prose that’s too short to be a novel and too long to be a story, and slapping on it the label ‘novella’, he writes, consciously, a novella, a tight piece of prose. Theodor Storm, one of the most important writers in that form in German literature, called the novella “the sister of drama” and “the strictest kind of prose writing”, which is organized through a conflict that’s at the center of the whole construction. I’ve a feeling Hartmut Lange shares that view. Das Konzert is so tight that it’s, as with all books that are written this well, hard to imagine it being any longer despite the fact that the subject could make for quite a long novel. Lange, however, chose a structure and a central organizing metaphor that allows him to write a book of just over a hundred and thirty pages about a topic as vast and expansive as guilt and redemption after the atrocities of the Second World War. Although there are several concerts, the eponymous concert comes at the end, almost unannounced, unexpected, even, but we the readers still see that the whole book’s structure hangs on that concert and its outcome. The book even employs short bursts of violence but although that violence can seem harmless, it has a much more harsh effect on the readers. Again, as with other things, Lange makes the utmost of his use of violence.

But I should mention the plot first, so these remarks make more sense. I’d say the plot is simple but it isn’t. The premise is interesting. It’s the mid-1980s. Berlin is awash with rumor and excitement because Lewanski, a famous pianist, is giving concerts again, forty years after having been shot at the age of 28. Well, not all Berlin. It’s Berlin’s dead who are excited. In a variation of a theme frequently employed in fiction (a recent version can be found in Will Self’s 2001 novel How The Dead Live), Lange imagines dead people living on among ourselves. But they are not part of our society. Their lives are superimposed upon our lives. They live in a different world atop our reality. They have rebuilt houses, eat, sleep and drink in them, although completely different houses have been built in the meantime on the very same spaces. In a premise that reminded me of Miéville’s fantastic recent novel The City & The City, Lange endows his dead with the ability to see both cities at the same time. Although the living are oblivious to the presence of the dead, the same cannot be said of the dead. Unlike Miéville, however, Lange never attempts to explain and finish his concept, which I will call ‘Ghost Berlin’ for simplicity’s sake, fully. He hands us a few facts and expects us to make do with them. We can’t ask questions, because that’s not this kind of book.

Unlike, again, Miéville, he constructs his concept as a metaphor and only mentions or highlights those aspects that make sense in term of the metaphor. One of the most significant omissions that most directly point to the artificial, purely literary, metaphoric nature of the concept, is the lack of any dead that died before the advent of the National Socialists. In his mixture of real and invented characters, Lange parades before us people like the (real) German impressionist Max Lieberman and the (invented) Frau Altenschul, who, one of the first Jewish dead to return to Berlin, opened a salon for the fashionable dead there, the internal dynamics of which strongly display shades of Proust. The writing, however, does not resemble Proust at all, at least as far as his use of memory is concerned. The ghost layer over the real Berlin is a personification, in a way, of memory. Memory as a monument but an invisible and intangible one. Ghost Berlin intersects with the real Berlin in certain places, where the bad things happened, places remembered and avoided by the dead and remembered or used for memorials by the living. In a way, Lange’s ghost layer is a transcendent affirmation of Pierre Nora’s idea of “lieux de mémoire” (of three volumes of that work, two have been published after publication of Das Konzert, so the connection is wholly of my making).

To return to the plot. The young pianist, shot in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, one of the largest ghettos in the Third Reich, appears and starts to give small concerts in Frau Altenschul’s circle and he’s so good that his performance instils a desire in Frau Altenschul to organize a huge concert to celebrate his return. Halted in his artistic development at 28 when he was shot in the neck, Frau Altenschul attempts to lead him to new artistic heights, to help him become a complete artist. He is, however, clearly a disturbed young man, haunted by his death. At his first appearance before her circle Lewanski breaks off his recital, murmuring the word “Litzmannstadt” and declaring that, to play that particular piece, Chopin’s Douze Études (op. 25), he is too young, that he has been ripped from his life too early. In his struggle to regain mastery over his art he is helped by a satiric writer of novellas called Schulze-Bethmann (who is a melange of different German and Austrian writers, like Tucholsky or the great titan Karl Kraus or maybe even Musil), who generously dispenses advice and, later, precipitates the final events. Schulze-Bethmann also helps him to come to terms with a different group of dead people on Berlin’s street: Nazis.

missing langeBasically, for all we know, in Lange’s Ghost Berlin, there’s only dead Nazis and dead Jews (not all of them murdered, Liebermann died in his sleep). Most of the Nazis are deeply remorseful for what they did. Many of them, after all, did it for a higher cause, ‘saving the German race’ and it took death to show them the horrible delusion they were under. The passages dealing with this recognition are potent statements on the longevity (or the lack of it, as it happens) of ideologies, of death canceling out some illusions. The Nazis are the pariahs of Ghost Berlin, ashamed of themselves and shunned by the other occupants of the city. Schulze-Bethmann is one of the few who has regular contacts to them. As it turns out, the Nazis have as much interest in Lewanski regaining his powers as Frau Altenschul. They think that if he manages to mature as an artist despite their murdering him they will be saved, in a way. Art will free them, make them less contemptible. In the end, Lewanski has the choice between attending one of two concerts. One in front of Frau Altenschul and a large audience assembling to hear him, and one in front of an army of dead Nazis, hiding in what used to be the Führerbunker. His failure to play the piece he set out to play dashes the Nazis’ hopes and contains a direct indictment of Germans’ attempts in Lange’s time and the decade after the book’s publication, to extricate themselves from responsibility by erecting monuments and installing rituals of remembrance in schools.

These rituals, as is evidenced by many aspects of German culture, merely pay lip service to remembrance. They frequently evade understanding and try to reduce the topic to guilt and punishment, a reduction that allows then to call for an end to the guilt and the punishment. Any reminder by individual Germans of the historical responsibility, any call for genuine attempts to understand and properly contextualize events is publicly read in guilt/punishment parameters and, recently, tends to elicit that well-worn Nazi trope of ‘self-hating’ Germans. These discourses have been ongoing for decades and Lange manages to compress these issues that have filled shelves full of books, into one brilliant metaphor. At a glance, this metaphor may appear to be of little subtlety, but it’s Lange’s execution of this concept that makes it really work. Actually, as we close the book, it’s Lange’s mastery that stays most with us, and if there is any flaw with this book, this is it. It may not be terribly felicitous in dealing with such a topic to aim to dazzle the reader with your gifts. But it’s a feeble quibble, because while reading the book, we are frequently moved. As Lewanski murmurs “Litzmannstadt” for the last time, we shudder, recognizing the indelible imprint of these horrors on art, history, culture and, what’s more, we see what it means to end a life, to abort a life’s trajectory before its time.

Lewanski is eternally in-between. His is not a life after death. Although he can move, his is a life frozen in the moment of death. As a human being, he cannot develop further, he can just reiterate what happened. In a way, this is a call to the reader to make the utmost of his or her own life. Seeing a life that is stilled, we are reminded of our own lives and of the potential that slumbers within us. And we are reminded of the opportunities to change things and our duty to remember. In an eerie coincidence, the Führerbunker, which had been buried by the Soviets in 1945, was finally unearthed in 1987, a year after Lange published Das Konzert. The Nazis, who, in Lange’s novella, hid beneath Berlin’s streets in the vast bunker, thus lost their habitation. In the final chapter, Schulze-Bethmann tells his murderer “Schuld ist eine große Gelegenheit”, guilt is a great opportunity, and the novella sheds its metaphor as the whole book comes together in the final paragraphs, like Sextus Empiricus’ ladder. This is a masterpiece, written by a master, It’s elegant, moving and thought provoking. As far as I know, this novella has not yet been translated into English. However, Helen Atkins translated a handful of Hartmut Lange’s stories that were published as Missing Persons (Toby Press, 2000).


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