Milorad Pavic RIP

Oh no:

Serbian poet, novelist and historian Milorad Pavic died on Monday of heart failure at the age of 80.

Pavic, whose works have been translated into several languages, is known for his experiments with narrative form. Among his novels, one can be read back to front, and one has several alternative endings.

His most widely read work is The Dictionary of the Khazars, published in 1984.

Here’s what M. Werli of the Fric Frac Club and editor of the admirable Revue Cyclocosmia, had to say about his Dictionary of the Khazars in this post at the FFC:

Concernant le fond, le Dictionnaire Khazar est un roman historique, policier, d’aventures, fantastique et cabalistique. C’est l’histoire du peuple Khazar, de son déclin, de ses personnalités les plus éminentes. C’est une enquête policière et bibliophilique en quête de vérité. Ce sont des récits oniriques pleins d’inventions. C’est une très belle histoire, qui malgré l’étrangeté de sa mise en scène est absolument lisible et passionnante !


“We don’t really do much readin'” (Rant)

Really? Really? Seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen earlier and it’s quite astonishing. It’s dismissive of difference in such a strong way, it’s such a strong statement of old discursive hierarchies, that it is often baffling. Ebert has called this movie “the end of an era” (link) but in many worrying ways it seems to be not just a sign of the times but an indicator of the future. Short- not longterm future, hopefully, but still. Today, we Germans were reminded again of the sagacity of having a representative rather than a direct democracy as the Swiss decided to ban the construction of minarets in their country; for a country where a total of four minarets exist, and no significant problems with immigrants, this is kind of a great illustration of what the term ‘Islamophobia’ actually means. Antisemitism of the very virulent kind is rising again, becoming plain and unapologetic. Postfeminism, and plain misogyny have gained prominence again, as well as a kind of resentment against the public representation, the presence of homosexuality. Resentment is the perfect word actually. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is celebratory, but the loud, crass, widescreen mode of this screams defiance. We’re here, we’re not queer, cope with it. Mel Gibson’s work (link to an older review of mine) is hateful, but it’s also passionate, it’s a defense of the tenets and beliefs that underlie his world-view, while Michael Bay’s artistic project is just a stating of that world-view, a clear and lucid depiction of it, but not an actual defense, which make it much worse. The glaring lights and sounds, the epic length of many of his recent movies, all this at best expresses an irritation of not being given his due, of society moving in a way that is not in accord of what he expects to be his. It is this resentment that made the Swiss initiative succeed, it is this resentment that fuels the hate of some British journalists I know, and it is the same resentment that can make Bay’s movies such a sick fun to watch, although they work best the more you share his ideological premises. Just how funny are two robots, depicted in an almost offensively racist way, with black slang (linguistically, I think, partly channeled through Chappelle’s Show, it’s a pop-culturally mediated understanding of deviant language), gold teeth, who “don’t do much readin'”. This is not about racial hate, it’s a cultural indignation, a description of what’s right and what should be right. Bay is reveling in images of scantly clad women, of airplanes, of heroic shots of military men. The dialogue is just the icing on the cake. Words, eh. Bay doesn’t do much reading, but he does understand his world well and in every frame of this movie of his he presents it to us, loud and in color; this understanding is not something he wants to transmit to us, unlike Gibson. He wants us to celebrate this. He wants, no he needs us to take this at face value and applaud it. Its the only way the movie works, when it works at all. And as I said, this is everywhere.

Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.

If you follow this stuff, this’ll be an old canard by now, but Melville House has published a volume of interview with Roberto Bolaño called Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations (link) . The interviewer was Monica Maristain. The whole thing was translated by Sybil Perez. Here is an excerpt from it and below one question and one answer from that excerpt:

M.M.: Have you shed one tear about the widespread criticism you’ve drawn from your enemies?

R.B.: Lots and lots. Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks on the edge of the sea, which by the way is less than 30 meters from my house and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.


Episode 53 is online. I was late so you get about an hour or more of just the guys talking, until you hear me butt in. The guys, that’s Björn, Donny and Rennee. Their discussion is a huge lot of fun. Here is the direct link and here is Donny’s summary:

We are so agreeable with each other on this episode. The group clobbers each other with this one: should classic works have sequels? What would we consider as a sequel? Which ones were good, not good, and shouldn’t have been written in the first place? Dracula, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Gone with the Wind, Winnie the Pooh, JD Salinger, Shakespeare and many others get dragged into this debate.

A sort of remembered loneliness

Occasionally I see myself, or the ghost of myself, in the places where I first became a poet. On the pavement just around Stephen’s Green for instance, with its wet trees and sharp railings. What I see is not an actual figure, but a sort of remembered loneliness. The poets I knew were not women: the women I knew were not poets. The conversations I had, or wanted to have, were never complete.

Sometimes I think of how time might become magical: How I might get out of the car even now and cross the road and stop that young woman and surprise her with the complete conversation she hardly knew she missed. How I might stand there with her in the dusk, the way neighbours stand on their front steps before they go in to their respective houses for the night: half-talking and half-leaving.

– Eavan Boland (who’s an extraordinary poet, and editor of poetry), from the “Letter to a Young Woman Poet” (link), via peony moon.

Poetry, Doubt

Poetry and doubt require one another, they coexist like the oak and ivy, like dogs and cats. But their relationship is neither harmonious nor symmetrical. Poetry needs doubt far more than doubt needs poetry. Through doubt, poetry purges itself of rhetorical insincerity, senseless chatter, falsehood, youthful loquacity, empty (inauthentic) euphoria. Released from doubt’s stern gaze, poetry -especially in our dark days- might easily degenerate into sentimental ditties, exalted but unthinking song, senseless praise of all the earth’s forms.

from Adam Zagajewski’s essay collection A Defense of Ardor.

Colson Whitehead: Apex Hides The Hurt

Whitehead, Colson (2006), Apex Hides The Hurt, Anchor
ISBN 978-1-4000-3126-9

DSC_0625Although all of Whitehead’s books seem to be genre bastards, Apex Hides The Hurt is difficult to categorize even by Whitehead’s standards. This is both a weakness and a strength of this novel. On the one hand, the book is so well written, so well structured, so intelligently built that it’s hard not to be awed by Whitehead’s capabilities as a writer. There is nothing that escapes his eye, no detail, word, turn of phrase left unattended, the whole book is like a finely crafted work of art, that uses genre as one of many tools to give his ideas shape and form. On the other hand, Whitehead has, for whatever reason, forgotten the story, the life, an energy that is not cerebral, something that moves the reader through the story. In this book. Whitehead turns out to be a bit of a solipsist. In my last review I mentioned that some writers are supervising their readers. Well, the author of Apex Hides The Hurt seems barely aware that he has any readers.

There are several attempts at building a story, three kinds of suspense built in, but Whitehead is not able or willing to follow through on one of them and fashion the necessary drive for his book. His meddling with genres is one of the reasons why that’s the case. Apex Hides The Hurt shares many of the characteristics of his debut novel; The Intuitionist, however, had a noir-ish mystery plot to hold on to while Whitehead wielded his ideas and concepts. There is none of this here. This is not to say that this novel is utterly devoid of suspense. In a sly manner, Whitehead withholds two kinds of information from us, both of which create a mild suspense. These two kinds of information come at the end of the two narrative strands that are intertwined in the book. One is taking place in the present, charting the nameless protagonist’s arrival in a town called Winthrop. He has been hired by the town’s council to advise them in the matter of re-naming the town. Why they would hire him is revealed in the second strand. The protagonist is a nomenclature consultant, that is, he’s someone who is paid to give a name to products, people, campaigns, and he is naturally gifted at what he does. In this second strand we follow his career to its end.

DSC_0622And here we have the two kinds of information withheld from us. The future name of the town is the first: not until the last pages are we apprised of the name that the protagonist chooses for the town; the second is this: although, in the narrative that takes place in the present, we are told that his career has abruptly ended, it is not until the end of the book that we find out why. For good measure, Whitehead throws in a few thriller elements, as his protagonist digs through the town’s history and discovers long lost secrets. These three kinds of suspense (name, reason, archive), however, are pursued halfheartedly; Whitehead constantly saps the energy, the blood, from the book by turning every potentially riveting element into yet another spire in his construction. It’s amazing how much disinterest he displays in these parts of the construction of a novel. Despite all I said, the novel, make no mistake, is still a great read and it still draws you in, but it does so solely on the basis of his ideas, his commitments and his writing, not because of the plot or even the flimsy characters. None of the characters in Apex Hides The Hurt exist because of exigencies of the plot, or because the psychology of one of the characters demanded it, every single character can be read to “stand for” something.

In the narrative that takes place in the present, we have the trinity represented in the town council: there’s Regina Goode, the town mayor, a direct descendant from one of the two founders of the town (named Goode and Field). She wants to change the town’s name to its original name, Freedom. There’s Lucky Aberdeen, a successful entrepreneur who wants the town to be named in a snappy and attractive way that will pull business to the town, the name he came up with is New Prospera. And then there’s Albie, the slightly mad last scion of the Winthrop family, who wants to retain the town’s name. His family originally pressured the founders into changing the name in the first place. The Winthrop family had a very successful barbed wire business and the town that was called Freedom paid with its name for the opportunities that having the business settle there would have afforded them. Clearly, the situation thus mapped out contains a wealth of ideas. Most directly, perhaps, ideas that pertain to American history. See, as it happens, Goode and Field were freed slaves, so the fact that they founded a town and called it Freedom is interesting; even more so when considering that the town of Winthrop, as the protagonist encounters it, is predominantly white and Regina Goode the first black mayor in ages. Additionally, no reader will be able to refrain from associating the name of “Winthrop” with the most famous Winthrop of early American history, John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who was immortalized in Hawthorne’s searing masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. Winthrop is a dominant figure in Apex Hides The Hurt, although always somewhat indirectly. There are a few way that the historical Winthrop ties into the novel.

DSC_0623One of the ways is through the city of Winthrop, Mass, a town that is actually named for the governor. In Apex Hides The Hurt, there is a fictional university that is clearly supposed to be Harvard, but is called “Quincy”. Is it a coincidence that, at the other end of the Massachusetts Bay, there is another small town called Quincy? Quincy is the more famous town of the two, being the city where John Adams, John Quincy Adams and John Hancock were born, thus, when Albie exclaims “But then Lucky told me you were a Quincy man, and I knew I would get a fair shake. A Quincy man is a man of his word.”, it takes on a wider significance. Now, I realize that this is a lot to infer from just the two names “Winthrop” and “Quincy”, because “there are a lot of rich white people named Winthrop”, but, as Whitehead goes on to say, “with names there is no coincidence.” So, to sum up, Whitehead presents to us both slavery, and a rough sketch of the black political experience in the US, as well as the man who first legalized slavery in the Colonies and was part of quite a few developments that shaped the United States and still do. It’s not, however, a small-scale depiction of American history, since the chronological order is mixed up.

But in Apex Hides The Hurt references are always a bit slanted. Another reference to John Winthrop might, for example, be through the title, which is a brand name our protagonist came up with for a cheap line of adhesive bandages and the slogan that accompanies it. It’s hard not to associate “Apex” (you are not told, until you’re a good deal into the book, what the title of the book actually means) with John Winthrop and his phrase “city upon a hill” (from his sermon “A Model of Christian Clarity”), that has long since become part of the American self-image, and it is indeed to Winthrop, this city, this destination that the protagonist comes and where, in a sense, his new life begins. This city seems to carry a certain promise for him, as it had for Goode and Field. He has never led a life that demanded choices, struggles of him, this changes in the town of Winthrop. The choice of a name that he’s been asked to make, mirrors a choice that he needs to make with respect to his own self, to his own identity. A weary traveler, as he arrives, he is subsequently increasingly committed to not ‘deal falsely with his self in this work he has undertaken’ (to paraphrase Winthrop’s sermon), to do right by the town and himself.

DSC_0624Indeed it is the protagonist’s self that seems to be at stake in this mission, and if we look more closely at the symbols and structures, it’s easy to see that it all revolves around him. The protagonist is, which we haven’t mentioned yet, an African-American, and the fate of the black town that turned into a white corporate town, is, in some ways, his fate as well. He rose quickly to the top, didn’t suffer any discriminations and would fit well into the select group of Black Republicans. He’s the ‘Black friend’ all racists seem to be able to marshal in a matter of minutes. He has dedicated his life to camouflaging things, making them look and sound attractive. It’s no surprise that he, in his detached, highly ironic voice, mentions the marketing campaign for the adhesive bandages in passing at best, that is to say the brilliant idea of making colored bandages. Whitehead offers us one of the most frequent examples used in Whiteness studies, the normative use of words like “flesh” in phrases like “flesh-colored”. “Whose flesh?” a savvy ad man asks. Whose flesh indeed. And so, the company starts to produce bandages in all hues and colors, so that everyone can have a flesh-colored bandage. The hues are so well done that the bandages are no longer conspicuous upon the injured body. You can forget you were ever injured, Apex, as the bandages are subsequently named, “hides the hurt”. This is the insanely successful slogan that Apex runs on and they go on and sell huge amounts of bandages, targeted to minority groups and the poor in general.

There is more to this, of course, than just a curious story about marketing and a plot device. In the story, people lose their toes because they forgot the toe was injured because the bandage hid the hurt. I read this as a reference to cosmetic politics that make things seem sound and proper, when they are actually not. What the right disparagingly calls “political correctness” and which is actually nothing but respect for your fellow men, is used, in many cases, as a cosmetic tool. As if racism went away, if we just call people by better names. Cosmetic politics, if we look at newspapers and polls, often make people believe we are living in a post-feminist, post-racial age, and any complaint about discrimination is suddenly reactionary, backwards-looking. Leave the past alone! Germans whine, we are enlightened now, don’t you see, we have days of remembrance. How dare you! They howled as Holder, Attorney general of the US, called his country “a nation of cowards”. But below these bandages, these nice-sounding names and offices (a black president! How’s that for Apex?) hide the rot. Understanding the town, and understanding yourself, in Apex Hides The Hurt, means looking below the surfaces, looking at the rot. There are those who believe that to be too critical is inconvenient, almost a character flaw, but Whitehead’s point is: it’s necessary and urgent! Things that rot eventually die off and may maim the rest of the body. In one of the most fascinating tensions in the book, though, this urgency does not translate into urgent writing.

On the contrary. The writing, as I said, is predominantly ironic and detached. The writing is very deliberate, but cold and frequently almost dull. This is not Auster’s ‘dull’, this is an aesthetically thrilling ‘dull’ because these sentences betray the art with which they have been constructed. There is a stiffness, but it’s also the protagonist’s stiffness. He is used to look down upon people, to dismiss them and their petty issues. Hence also the fact that all kinds of interesting and important issues come up but they barely make a dent in the narrative. These things are just not significant for the protagonist or rather: not yet. The style and, at the beginning, the ubiquitous witty stories about brands and re-brandings, are, partly, a satire of consumerism and advertising. But that’s a surface phenomenon, it’s the Apex. Below this surface, the protagonist’s true hurt hides, and as the book progresses, it breaks through more and more, without ever completely exploding the surface.

DSC_0625The style, and the ad culture it signifies, is important in yet more ways: while racism is frequently regarded as a purely political phenomenon, Whitehead, in this book, proposes that economics might play an important role in the establishment of repressive societies. Winthrop, in this book, is not a politician, he’s an entrepreneur and he exerts economic pressure to make Goode and Field change the name of the city. Or the matter of the normative power that Band-Aid, the leading adhesive bandage, exerts. Each time the book grazes political matters it deflects. I just suggested it may be on account of the protagonist’s disinterest. Another reason might be that they are, each time anew, packaged as economic situations, thus bleeding the concern and the problem from the situation, effectively ‘hiding the hurt’. But, just like any of the other suggested readings of the characters and situations in the book, this, too, is not a definite reading. Whitehead is too brilliant a writer to try to pound home one point and make everything in the book subject to that one point, that one reading. Apex Hides The Hurt is a multi-facetted romp through America, past and present, a realistic allegory that focuses on a small microcosm without ever losing sight of the broader context. You might find it boring sometimes, but you shouldn’t. This book can sustain several rereads without ever stopping to glitter with possibilities. Colson Whitehead is an awesome writer and this is a great book.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Black with Obols

Louis MacNeice: Charon

The conductor’s hands were black with money:
Hold on to your ticket, he said, the inspector’s
Mind is black with suspicion, and hold on to
That dissolving map. We moved through London,
We could see the pigeons through the glass but failed
To hear their rumours of wars, we could see
The lost dog barking but never knew
That his bark was as shrill as a cock crowing,
We just jogged on, at each request
Stop there was a crowd of aggressively vacant
Faces, we just jogged on, eternity
Gave itself airs in revolving lights
And then we came to the Thames and all
The bridges were down, the further shore
Was lost in fog, so we asked the conductor
What we should do. He said: Take the ferry
Faute de mieux. We flicked the flashlight
And there was the ferryman just as Virgil
And Dante had seen him. He looked at us coldly
And his eyes were dead and his hands on the oar
Were black with obols and varicose veins
Marbled his calves and he said to us coldly:
If you want to die you will have to pay for it.

Mmmmh. Louis MacNeice is an amazing poet.

Damals war es Friedrich

Seit ich in letzter Zeit häufiger mal mit britischen Antisemiten zu tun habe, die mir durchaus auch mal mit Zitaten von Jörg Friedrich zu Leibe rücken wollen, hatte ich irgendwie immer vor, mal etwas zum Thema zu posten, aber hab heute via classless‘ blog (der 5-jähriges feiert. Hier eine, hm, Rede des verehrten Herrn Kulla) diesen ordentlichen Artikel von useless gefunden der unter anderem dieses schreibt:

Der Gedanke hinter dem „moral bombing“ war die Absicht, den Durchhaltewillen der Deutschen zu schwächen und somit eher eine Kapitulation herbeizuführen und auf diesem Weg den Tod weiterer Soldaten zu vermeiden.

Das die Deutschen sich dadurch weder vom Massenmord an Roma, Juden, Polen und Russen noch vom militärischen Kampf gegen die Alliierten der Anti-Hitler-Koalition abbringen liessen, konnte damals niemand ahnen. Es zeigte aber andererseits, das man mit der Zivilbevölkerung als entscheidende Stütze des NS-Regimes genau an der richtigen Adresse war.

Waldrop Wins!

While all over the interwebs the NBA wins are discussed, most of the discussions I saw strongly focused on Colum McCann, who won the award for best novel. Here is a sensible take on that book of his on the FFC2:

McCann présente à travers les portraits croisés d’une série de personnes culturellement diversifiées un tableau de New York de 1974 à presque nos jours, où les traces d’un discours sur le New York d’aujourd’hui abondent. C’est le proverbial roman choral qui pue l’artifice à vingt mètres malgré la volonté de vraisemblance, qui s’avère une pure mascarade. Tout est forcé, jusque dans la recherche du petit détail poétique ou psychologique soi-disant bien vu, tout simplement pathétique. McCann étale sa recherche documentaire, et il a bien raison : c’est la seule façon de faire croire qu’il y a quelque chose d’authentique là-dedans.

But, in other but closely related news, there is also a poetry prize being handed out and it went to Keith Waldrop this year. Yeah, poetry. The NYT piece I linked to above gave him 19 words, ten of which were his name, book, and publisher. Oh, the spotlight! Anyway. As with the novels, the field overall was surprisingly weak and Waldrop was, I thought, the clear forerunner for the prize (although Armantrout is probably better known). I’m currently reading and thinking about some books of his and of his wife, Rosemary Waldrop. I’m a bit stunned by The Locality Principle. After first reading it I tossed it away in scorn but currently it’s growing on me. These days I think I’m lucky there’s so much of his work out. He’s certainly interesting. So he won, congratulations. This here is a poem from his winning book Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy:

Keith Waldrop: Below the Earth

My first glance takes in
an army, tens of thousands ready
armed. As a mirror reflects
indistinctly and with a feeble
light, so it cracks and
soon fades. From its surface a clear
image of the beholder.
In these paintings: harbors, promontories,
shores, rivers, fountains,
fanes, groves, mountains, flocks, and of
course shepherds. Sometimes mythological
episodes, figures of the gods, the
battles at Troy, wanderings of Ulysses.
Scorned in these days of bad taste.
Now we have frescos of mon-
strosities, candelabra supporting
shrines, stalks with human heads.
Malachite green, Armenian
blue, red earths in
abundance, vermilion like a drug.

Make of that what you will. Do give his book a look. He’s worth looking into. I promise.

Contemporary Blasphemy

I kinda forgot to post about this but since I finished watching Deadwood Season 3 tonight, and the same night saw an old Daily Show interview with Bernie Goldberg, I thought I’d amend this, it’s from one of Geoffrey Nunberg’s columns (I’ve quoted him here and there on the blog already I think). Direct link here, excerpt here:

That’s the approach taken by the HBO series “Deadwood,” set in a South Dakota mining camp in the 1870’s. As a lot of people have noted, the show is positively swilling in obscenity — the characters use “fuck” and “fucking” with a frequency that would make Tony Soprano blush.1

But “fuck” wasn’t actually a swear-word back then. It was indecent, of course, but people only used it for the sexual act itself. Whereas swear-words are the ones that become detached from their literal meanings and float free as mere intensifiers. Swearing isn’t using “fucking” when you’re referring to sex, it’s using it when you’re talking about the weather. (…)

The words those “Deadwood” characters would actually have used had religious overtones rather than sexual or scatalogical ones. They would have peppered their speech with “goddamn,” “Jesus,” and particularly “hell,” a word that 19th-century Americans were famous for using with a dazzling virtuosity — “a hell of a drink,” “What in hell did that mean?,” “hell to pay,” “The hell you will,” “hell-bent,” “Hell, yes,” “like a bat out of hell,” “hell’s bells,” and countless others. (…)

The new rituals of swearing have altered the hypocrisy that surrounds the practice, too. Time was that swear words were completely absent from public discourse, and genteel people could go through their lives pretending they didn’t exist. Nowadays, it’s more a question of maintaining an official sanctimony in designated public forums.

“Le multiculturel est renvoyé à la case ghetto”

A few weeks ago, Liesl Schillinger wrote an amazingly annoying and smug little article about the NBA shortlist (link here), which closed with these words

On Nov. 18, only one of the five authors that the National Book Awards selected will get the laurels. Will it be the Dubliner turned New Yorker? The Ugandan-British Yank? The Pakistani-American? The Michigander? The West Virginian? Whoever it is, he or she will be a writer who expands the versatile adjective “American,” enriching the world’s understanding of itself.

Francois Monti at the Fric Frac Club has the correct response in a good but saddening article about the same shortlist. Link here and here’s an except that kinda addresses Schillinger’s main point:

Superbe représentation de la diversité et du cosmopolitisme de la littérature et de la société américaine, très multiculturelle. Tout ça n’est que façade : si on regarde les blurbs, on se rend compte que loin d’être une célébration de la différence, tout ça n’est que cases, cases, cases. Le plus bel exemple, c’est Daniyal Mueenuddin : cinq des six blurbs ont été rédigés par des Pakistanais ou des Indiens, le sixième par un Ecossais qui mentionne, en guise de comparaison, deux auteurs indiens. Le message, sans doute inconscient, est clair : il y a de la bonne fiction écrite dans cette région, mais seuls les locaux sont capables d’en rendre compte. Le multiculturel est renvoyé à la case ghetto. Pire : les auteurs du sous-continent indien sont les seuls capables de parler du livre d’un des « leurs », mais ils sont incapables de parler du livre de quelqu’un d’ailleurs : sur les quatre autres livres de la shortlist, ils sont complètement absents. Le livre de Bonnie Jo Campbell, lui, est de toute évidence écrit par une femme : les prénoms des auteurs de trois des quatre blurbs sont Carolyn, Rachael et Laura… Même un auteur aussi connu que Colum McCann échappe à peine moins cette règle : il est de nationalité irlandaise, tout comme quatre des neuf blurbers. Plus mesurée, Jayne Anne Philips n’a que trois petites notes, et elles sont variées (on y retouve d’ailleurs Junot Diaz qui dit qu’il s’agit du meilleur livre qu’il a lu cette année – Diaz est membre du jury du NBA… Pour Marcel Theroux, c’est encore plus simple : un seul blurb.

Snapplebabble (w/Brian Evenson)

The latest bookbabble is up, with star guest Brian Evenson. Also attending: me, stammering, as usual, then there’s Lord Donny, of course, and L.A. woman a.k.a. Renée the wonderful, as well as Björn, Swede extraordinaire. Additionally, we were lucky enough to have Francois Monti grace us with his thoughtful presence again, formerly at tabula rasa, now maître at the Fric Frac Club. Nobody offered me a drink. Here is the direct link and here’s Donny’s summary

The group is pleased to have Brian Evenson, award-winning literary/horror author of Altmann’s Tongue, Last Days and The Open Curtain, among many others. We discuss the man and his work in this interview, covering genres, literature, his work as the Chair of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University, translation works, ebooks and prodigious reading input.

Siegfried Lenz: Landesbühne

Lenz, Siegfried (2009), Landesbühne, Hoffmann und Campe
ISBN 978-3-455-04282-5

DSC_0274Siegfried Lenz is one of the least well known, most important German postwar writers. A few key books of his have been translated, such as his 1968 masterpiece Deutschstunde (translated by Kaiser and Wilkins as The German Lesson (New Directions, 1986)), but in general, he is not as highly regarded or even as much read as contemporaries like Günter Grass or the infinitely less competent Martin Walser, which is a shame. Lenz’ work is rich and offers brooding, long and insightful novels about German history, as well as short, suspenseful novellas and even shorter stories. In fact, many critics have proposed the view that Lenz is a better writer of short stories than of novels, just like Heinrich Böll. His novels are usually written in a tradition that includes Thomas Mann’s good works and Raabe’s last novels, i.e. books that are as adept at individual psychology as at a sweeping (if often harsh) social analysis and criticism. These novels are often as dark as the history they are grappling with, but not outright judgmental. Lenz is a generous writer, writing with a love of the people and the country he enshrines in his work, however negative these books may sound at a first glance. There is a certain weakness that comes with this approach; in his novels Lenz never seems quite as concise and focused as he could be.

The_German_Lesson_300_477This is amended by his stories, which are far more indebted to Gottfried Keller’s stories about the simple people of Seldwyla (I think there is a translation of those published by J.M.Dent in 1929). He channels the same love and generosity in these stories but the economy of his writing is frequently flabbergasting. It’s no surprise that many German schools use Lenz’ stories as model examples of what a well-executed story should look like. And unlike lukewarm writers like Paul Auster, Lenz is upfront and direct, as far as his convictions are concerned. The character in his most well known novel, Deutschstunde, is driven by a need to tell his story, to make it known, to explain himself and the culture that produced him, and while, as a whole, books like Deutschstunde can seem meandering, that urgency is always part of Lenz’ work. Or it used to be. Recently, the formerly prolific writer, who, after all, has published some fifteen novels and numerous collections of stories as well as about ten novellas, has started to write less and less and what he does write frequently seems like a complacent exercise more than a novel that needed to be written. But they are still very good books that show us a writer at the height of his powers as a writer, as far as technical prowess is concerned.

DSC_0278In his most recent books, like the 2008 novella Schweigeminute (which will be published in English translation as Stella in 2010 by The Other Press (Random House)), Lenz is nothing short of stunning. Within a handful of words, Lenz evokes ambiguities, characters, whole histories. Lenz manipulates his readers at will, without pushing himself on them. A friend recently remarked of a different book that it made her feel “supervised” (which is a great expression), and although Lenz certainly controls and supervises his readers, it is part of his mastery to never let them feel that. In addition to this, he’s also creating subtle, very readable and elegant books that are wearing their importance and the thought and the ideas that went into them lightly. It is this quality of his work that makes such an, ultimately, difficult writer sell so well. His 2003 novel Fundbüro was printed with an initial print run of 100.000, which isn’t too bad for a slightly solipsist novel set in a lost-and-found. Fundbüro is interesting in still other ways. In it we can also see Lenz, who made German history the theme he pursued most obsessively (but not exclusively!), starting to play with geography and history, with the tyranny of facts. Many readers and reviewers have been irritated by contradictory details that make the novel (that appears to be highly realistic) difficult to pinpoint historically.

DownloadFor lesser writers that kind of writing can be an excuse to be sloppily sentimental in their treatment of historical or social issues (I’m currently accruing notes on Auster’s treatment of Bertran de Born), but with Lenz it’s one more acknowledgment of the kind of control he exercises over his material. In the same vein, he approaches literature and geography in his most recent book, Landesbühne, which, according to Lenz’ labeling, is neither a short story, nor a novel or a novella; however, the length of it (~120 pages) and the condensed, inward structure of the whole book do suggest a novella, but who am I to argue. Whatever else it is, Landesbühne is a quick read that seems to be easy to comprehend at first but offers several puzzles and complications when you look closer at it. The book is largely set in the Isenbüttel prison. It is narrated (a third person personal narrator) by a former university professor, who has been locked up (the details remain sketchy) after he was suspected of sleeping with some of his female students and giving them the best grades in exchange for the sexual favors accorded to him. The professor is fairly well known in his field; one of his critical works on the Sturm und Drang epoch has become standard reading in schools and universities, and the superficially read prison warden, priding himself on his education, accordingly venerates his most well known prisoner.

DSC_0277Other prisoners include a former referee whose corruption was his ticket to a period behind bars and Hannes, who used to impersonate policemen and, in that costume, fine traffic offenders (who were surprisingly quick to shell out the money). Unusual as this group may seem, the professor, the referee and Hannes are not accidentally chosen, each of their fates provides a comment on how a certain kind of authority works within German society (authority and obedience, and their role in German culture and history is a standard theme in Lenz’ work, as well as the interconnectedness of political (punitive, even) power, with the control and dissemination of knowledge); the book as a whole can be said to be about a crisis and a prevalent strength of these kinds of authorities. But on a more direct level, it is a clever little story with lovable characters that is set up as an allegory, as cold trickery, but that, in the end, transcends these simple categories. It is equal parts realism and playing games with symbols, structure and intertextuality. The former is most visible in Lenz’ treatment of his characters who practically fly from the page, even smaller characters that have a walk-on role at best are sufficiently fleshed out to leap to life the second one reads about them, to which Lenz’ writing contributes a great deal, although in a different way than I expected.

The_Selected_Stories_Of_Siegfried_Lenz__300_441Lenz’ style is rather unique in that it can combine an almost classical diction and elegance with an intriguing contemporary style that shines through not just in the odd pop cultural reference, but also in very specific phrasings that are not restricted to the characters’ speech. In fact, Landesbühne has a very intriguing patterning as far as different registers of language are concerned. Instead of playing off the professor’s elevated diction against other characters’ diatopically or diastratically diverse speech, Lenz uses divergences to further characterize the professor, who, early in the book is shown to be writing a diary. With this simple tool, unobtrusive and not very noticeable at first, Lenz creates a protagonist who is so believable, so warm and present, that the reader believes anything he says. It is the professor vouching for his fellow prisoners’ existence, I think, that lends them such a presence in this book without Lenz having to invest in creating divergent patterns of speech, that often, when it doesn’t work so well, further alienates the reader from the characters; personally, I get this impression from David Mitchell’s work, and even more from that of a writer like Auster, who seems to me to be engaged in a constant project of disavowing his own characters. I accept that this is a peculiar preoccupation of my own, but in a case like Lenz’ book, the utter success of a method can be stunning, even if your interests lie elsewhere. And he makes it look so easy…

DSC_0279That ease is particularly marked by the fact that all this is at the background (or rather: grounding) of a book that appears to be preoccupied with wielding complex concepts and grand ideas. This is what I earlier announced as playing games. Spoiled on critical and postmodern theory, my mind immediately leaped into action as I comprehended the book’s premise: one fine day, a bus from a large local theater visits the prison to put on a play. “Landesbühne” (roughly translatable as “State Stage”) is what’s written on the side of the bus in clearly visible letters. In that premise and the first third of the book, where we watch the company unpack and perform the first act of a play, there are echoes from all kinds of texts and theories, most prominently perhaps Kleist’s essay “Über das Marionettentheater” (“On the Marionette Theater”) and the work of Borges and Kafka. Quotes, paraphrases and other allusions abound. The play that is put on is an invented play by an invented writer called “The Labyrinth” and the portion we are told about is about two old ladies who own a labyrinth that doesn’t allow anyone to escape who enters it. There is no interpretation, discussion or explanation; instead, during the intermission, a few prisoners, led by Hannes, and including the Professor, capture the bus and break out of the prison, only to stop in a small town close to the prison, where people assume that the prisoners are actually actors.

I’m not spoiling anything if I tell you that they are, in the end, re-captured and end up in prison again two thirds into the book, because any reader will have expected that. In a very transparent way, the play they all, partly, saw, prefigures, in a very broad sense, what will happen. They won’t ever really escape. In the meantime, they are sweet-talked by the local mayor into helping the town to build a museum, create adult evening classes and, occasionally, provide a choir. They are ratted out by a local journalist who turns out to have been one of the Professor’s students in the old days, one of the plain ones, with the bad grades. In the passages concerned with their life in the town Lenz almost becomes his old self, creating sentimental, but well-turned vignettes of small town life, spiked, among other things, with references to his own work. And this is part of the point in this section. It is, to a large extent, about writing about this kind of scenery. Unlike his earlier work that was grounded in a precise sense of place, set in cities that anyone can find on the map, Landesbühne is set somewhere unspecified in the state of Schleswig-Holstein. The prison is named after a town that is almost certainly in a different state, and with Lenz’s dispensing of diatopically recognizable speech there is no direct connection to a place. Instead, Lenz connects his setting to old German history and the migration of the Saxons (through the name Isenbüttel) as well as to more direct topical issues connected to East Germany in general and the state of Schleswig-Holstein in particular.

9781590513354All this is, as I said, prefigured by the play, which can serve as a foil with which to interpret the episode. After the poor prisoners are captured and returned to the prison again, the Landesbühne, not to be outdone, returns and puts on a different play, this time, it’s Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. If you groaned just now, you grasped the situation well. Of course, Godot is used to describe the situation the characters find themselves in and Lenz would not be the first (if only!) to use Beckett like that. However, this time, the play serves a subtly different function than the first one, “The Labyrinth” did. During the production of the play, Hannes, devastated, leaves the room, unable to bear any more of it. He recognizes himself in the play and this sets in motion a self-reckoning. Hannes’ life, his thoughts, his experiences and emotions are used here to make sense of the play. This is not as reductive as it sounds. At this point, all the character building I previously mentioned is put to good use. There is no overt interpretation, although some hints and parallels are not very subtle. But in Hannes’ coming to terms with his life and his fate and his reading the play, a kind of symbiosis, for lack of better words, between experience and reading emerges. There is a deep ambiguity in the book’s ending that feigns a resolution but doesn’t, in fact, present one.

And one of the reasons for this is the absence of an interpretative stance. The Professor is the master reader in the book. He has even written a book of criticism, a book about books, and in his role as teacher at Universities, he is directly involved in shaping others’ understanding and reading of literature. As Nietzsche in one of his best known aphorisms points out, life is filled with contradictions and we streamline them at our own peril; applied logic is a constructed reading of all the material available (it even structures the very perception of the availability, one might say) and the Professor is part of the machinery that provides the parameters (and even details) of such a construction. In a very odd way, the book is both critical and affirmative of certain hegemonial practices. By divesting the professor, as the arbiter of critical reasoning, of the authority to continue to administer that interpretative practice (he is basically thrown into the work, in the first two thirds of the book, without being afforded a vista that would allow him to reflect upon his situation) , authority is handed over to events, to experience, to plays he does not know and fellow prisoners whose lives supply interpretations that he can’t readily supply himself.

DSC_0280Similarly, his former female students launch, in the last third of the book, a defense campaign for him that provides an interpretation of his own case, of his own life and his own person that he’s similarly incapable of providing himself. None of these ‘rogue’ interpretations is legitimized as true, but why should they, with the (almost archetypal) authority jailed and confused. On the other hand, the fact remains that he still narrates everything, that he’s still the focus of every perception and that people still come to him. I think that the changes, the apparent slipping down the hierarchal rungs is part of a crisis, maybe the crisis of a particular model of society, but Lenz is unable or unwilling to go further in this small book. This is part of the readability of it all, I think. It’s an old man’s book, registering and subtly describing a crisis but not going all out, not lashing out at a system that he’s, after all, a part of. He cares more than about himself. He cares for his characters, for his story and for the issues that are at the roots of both. Stylistically he’s quietly dazzling, a writer who doesn’t brag to his readers like Paul Auster in his recent work, who demands more of them than Philip Roth in his (whom he resembles in many ways, though) and who is able to give more to his readers than either of them. Lenz was always a writer worth reading and while I prefer his earlier work, and the urgency and richness of it, Landesbühne, like much of his recent output, is the work of a master who hasn’t lost his touch, who merely writes with a finer pen, weighing his words.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Diff’rent Strokes

As soon as you finish Paul Auster’s “Invisible” you want to read it again. (…) You want to reread “Invisible” because it moves quickly, easily, somehow sinuously, and you worry that there were good parts that you read right past, insights that you missed. The prose is contemporary American writing at its best: crisp, elegant, brisk. It has the illusion of effortlessness that comes only with fierce discipline. As often happens when you are in the hands of a master, you read the next sentence almost before you are finished with the previous one. The novel could be read shallowly, because it is such a pleasure to read. (…) So if, like me, part of why you read is the great pleasure of falling in love with a novel, then read “Invisible.” It is the finest novel Paul Auster has ever written.

(from Clancy Martin’s review of Paul Auster’s most recent novel Invisible in the NYTimes)

“One tear, his only possession”

Elizabeth Bishop: The Man-Moth

Here, above,
cracks in the buldings are filled with battered moonlight.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.
He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,
feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,
of a temperature impossible to records in thermometers.

But when the Man-Moth
pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings.
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.
He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb.

Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)
But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.

Then he returns
to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly.
The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.

Each night he must
be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window,
for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep
his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.

If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

Blogging about God

I don’t regularly highlight blogs, except when I mention or link a post of them. I adore quite a few blogs and they turn up now and then, but this is different. This is a blog about the best German novelist of the 20th century, Hans Henny Jahnn. It is maintained by the wonderful Will who also maintains the well known (and fairly popular, I think) and equally wonderful blog A Journey Round My Skull. His blog about Jahnn takes its name from a story included in Jahnn’s magisterial and frighteningly amazing masterpiece Fluß Ohne Ufer (Shoreless River), about a character called Kebad Kenya. Prior to Will’s laudable efforts, no blog existed that was devoted to the man’s work which is largely out of print in German and largely untranslated into English (but well translated into French, curiously).  It’s still growing but already it’s the best resource on the man’s work in English. Direct link here.


(incidentally, in case you crave an update on what I do, amongst other stuff like my phd work, I’m currently translating Medea and Pastor Ephraim Magnus into English).

“Marie NDiaye ne défend rien, elle écrit”

Claro in a very readable post on Eric Raoult’s recent comments on the new winner of the Prix Goncourt. Read the whole thing here. Here’s an excerpt:

Ainsi, Eric Raoult écrit:

“Une personnalité qui défend les couleurs littéraires de la France se doit de faire preuve d’un certain respect à l’égard de nos institutions (…).”

Eh bien non, Monsieur Raoult, Marie NDiaye ne “défend pas les couleurs littéraires de la France”, enfin je ne crois pas, et ce pour plusieurs raisons:

1/ Le prix Goncourt n’est pas une compétition sportive internationale (rappelons que l’expression “défendre les couleurs” a d’abord été lié aux courses de chevaux (couleurs des casaques qui désignent les propriétaires) avant de désigner les habitudes nationales (drapeau).

2/ Marie NDiaye ne s’est pas inscrite à cette épreuve sportive qui n’en est pas une, ce sont des jurés qui ont sélectionné son livre.

3/ Marie NDiaye ne défend rien, elle écrit.

Paul Auster: Invisible

Auster, Paul (2009), Invisible, Henry Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-9080-2

It’s not as awful as I thought it would be. Paul Auster’s most recent novel, Invisible, frequently billed as a return to form, is, indeed, much better than what I read of his recent fare, especially when compared to his dismal Brooklyn Follies. This is not a good book but, in many places, it turns out, it’s a readable one, and while Auster is up to his usual tricks, at least they are well-rehearsed ones. Invisible teems with postmodern feints, with metafictional jabs and intertextual hooks, but like every single book of his I’ve so far read, it delivers a very weak punch. This is baffling in a book that not only takes up or references important issues like racism, but, on a very direct narrative level, throws a story at the reader that contains murder, great quantities of sex, incest and even, possibly, one (or two) secret agents. And there isn’t much else to distract the reader. Invisible displays an obsession with these themes, and it utilizes quite a few of the tricks of the trade to create enough suspense for the reader to read on and on, no matter how much other aspects of the book may annoy him. There are sudden surprises, a revelatory ending and each of the book’s sections ends on a cliffhanger. There is a definite connection of Invisible to many other specimen of the thriller genre. Sadly, this is true for Auster’s writing as well.

Stylistically, a good deal of Invisible is just a little better than reviled genre writers like Dan Brown. This is not to deny the fact that there are many many aspects that set Auster apart from the likes of Dan Brown (who, incidentally, is much better than the smug cliché would have you believe), but the staggeringly low quality of Auster’s prose, especially in his more recent work, has always been a surprise to me, especially considering the far more sophisticated nature of the constructions and ideas that populate his fiction. There’s also a certain skill involved in even the most terrible prose sections, due to the fact that Auster’s prose isn’t uniformly bad. In my review of The Brooklyn Follies I argued that some of the awfulness of his style was part of an unfavorable characterization of the protagonist, narrator and ‘writer’ of the book. Auster does something very similar here. Again, in the character of Adam Walker, there’s an unlikeable protagonist, again, he writes part of the book, again, these sections are remarkably badly written. As the protagonist gradually loses control of his writing, he slips first into a less introspective and then into a syntactically far more reduced style. With each change and reduction, the quality of the writing improves dramatically (though not to a good level). Jim, a famous novelist, who acts as the editor of Walker’s writing, is also using a language that is a cut above Adam’s. Thus, it’s hard to make blanket statements about the book’s writing, although no amount of goodwill will make Invisible a well-written book.


I will inject a warning now. The rest of the review may contain SPOILERS. I will not disclose the final revelation, but since I will definitely comment upon the book’s structure, this may spoil the ‘surprise’ of the reader as certain aspects about the narrative are, suddenly, revealed. I don’t think it’s much of a problem but I just want to be careful here. If you are bent upon reading this book, despite everything I said so far, stop reading this review now, and read the book first. If not, continue, but don’t complain afterwards.


Invisible is consits of four sections. The first is the only one with only a single narrator, un nommé Adam Walker. He tells us a story about meeting a slightly warped Frenchman called Rudolf Born, who draws Walker into a maelstrom of sex and violence. Born, we learn, is highly seductive. Intent upon not missing a single cliché, Auster/Walker constructs that seductiveness as being composed of fear, desire and greed, as Born baits young Walker, an unsuccessful poet/student, with his attractive companion, his funds and an undefinable kind of implicit violence. As the story progresses, he offers Walker a piece of each of the three. He offers him to sleep with Margot, his beautiful girlfriend, he offers him money to set up a literary journal and he embroils him in violence by trying to make him complicit in a murder. These, of course, are all established tropes, usually used to signify ‘decadence’ (throughout the book, there’s also more than just a whiff of Dostoyevskyan disapproval directed at Born). Walker’s stumbling prose, these well-worn ideas and images, together with Auster’s continuous barrage of intertextual references, never lets the reader read this story as believable, but always oddly, coldly constructed, despite the insistently confessional tone that the narrative develops. This is confirmed as the second section starts, where we find that the narrator has changed, and the first section has turned from a narrative that sounds confessional to a ‘confessional story’.

Now, the story is narrated by Jim, who is a famous novelist (I will not start to discuss autobiographical feints in Auster’s prose. It’s a well-explored topic in Auster criticism, and I am, to be honest, not well-read enough in Auster’s work to make a meaningful comparison here. Auster’s, however, clearly toying with these kinds of facts in this story, part of the overall ‘clever’ peregrinations through the modernist and postmodernist toolbox) and who, one fine day (Spring 2007) is sent a manuscript through UPS. The accompanying letter tells him that the manuscript was written by a former acquaintance of his, a fellow student at the time, called Adam Walker, who, as he contemplates his past life on his death bed, has decided to write a story about a particularly fateful year. The story, like Auster’s novel, is supposed to be in four parts, one for each season of the year, and in each of Invisible’s four sections we encounter the corresponding part of Walker’s manuscript (although the last section, in a neat twist, exchanges Walker’s unwritten close of his book with a text by a different character, marking the manuscript’s presence through the absence of actual words by Walker). This change of narrator is one of the surprises I mentioned. All of a sudden, Auster’s camera pans out, seizing the previous chapter’s narrative as an object, ejecting the reader from it and making him evaluate it from the outside.

The second section also contains the next part of Walker’s story, sent to Jim at his own request. We learn that Walker had had a brief sexual episode with his sister, when he was still young and that, that fateful summer, this episode was picked up again, as he and his sister Gwyn launched into an impassioned but secret incestuous affair. This is the major point of the second section. Walker’s writing here is different. On Jim’s advice, he drops the first person narrator and uses, interestingly, a second person narrator – an immediate improvement, since it helps curb Walker’s obsession with poorly phrased introspection. Walker’s story itself is, or could be, hot and sizzling; there’s a certain powerful energy here, but the writing inhibits us from being caught up too deep in it. Sometimes, it reads like the paraphrase of a different, genuinely hot and erotic story. This absence is, in a way, symbolic for a different absence, Walker’s: as we learn in the third section, Walker has died shortly after sending the pages that comprise the second part of his manuscript to Jim, so while Jim is reading the story not as a literary artifact but as the confession of a friend, as part of a specific kind of communication between two living people, he is actually mistaken about the nature, not necessarily of the text, but of his reading, which he only finds out after having drafted and composed (but not sent) a response to what he assumes is Walker’s part of the exchange.

In fact, Walker’s death ossifies the story into, well, literature and as the book progresses, it becomes subject to the tools that we use on literary (whether fictional or nonfictional) texts but not normally on letters or everyday talk. From this, we launch into the third section of Walker’s story, which contains the last extant part of walker’s manuscript, handed over to Jim by Walker’s grieving sister. In this part, we accompany Walker on a trip to Paris, where he will meet Born again, Margot and Born’s new fiancé (and her daughter). He will leave Paris in disgrace which is where the manuscript breaks off. This part of the manuscript is written in the third person, and the more it progresses, the more reduced Walker’s style becomes. Soon it’s almost exclusively paratactic, later, Walker elides even the names and uses one letter only to designate the persons. Walker’s life is running out, he’s in a hurry to get the story out, not stopping for sentimentality or even introspection. As his manuscript nears its end, more and more of Walker’s authorial persona is wrung from the book, and suddenly Walker’s story becomes highly readable. For all the sorrow, fear and intrigue that Walker has, heretofore, tried to inject into depictions of Rudolph Born, it is only in these last pages, wrested from his death-bed, that Born actually does become intriguing.

To Invisible‘s detriment, as Walker’s persona retreats, cedes ground to the story, Auster’s persona becomes more prominent. It is impossible not to see Auster’s overeager hand at work in the book up to this point. It’s all so obviously constructed as a discourse on themes like memory, reality and narrative. Unlike genuinely clever but subtle writers like Brian Evenson, Auster always loved to flaunt his cleverness, express it in the most obvious and plain way possible, and so it is here as well. There is Rudolph Born, who the narrator said reminded him of Bertran de Born, a Provençal poet, immortalized by Dante in the Inferno

Now you can see atrocious punishment,
you who, still breathing, go to view the dead:
see if there’s any pain as great as this.

And so that you may carry news of me,
know that I am Bertran de Born, the one
who gave bad counsel to the fledgling king.

[…] Because I severed those so joined, I carry–
alas – my brain dissevered from its source,
which is within my trunk. […] (Inferno, Canto XXVIII ll 130-141, here in the Mandelbaum translation).

Born is a complicated reference. A writer as well read as Auster will have read him first in Ezra Pound’s translation, and will have found a very violent, grandiloquent poet singing songs in praise of war. Auster retranslated a well known poem of his (which Pound also translated!) and diverges from Pounds rendering of the text: Auster’s translation is more cautious, less euphorically bellicose, and with the specific context that violence had in Pound’s work (and let’s not forget Marinetti and other futurists), Auster’s translation is in itself a commentary on what Rudolf Born represents. In a related way, Born and Margot’s relationship can be read as a clever reversal of the marriage of le bon roi Henri and Marguerite de Valois. Or take Adam Walker, whose story reminded me both of Henry Roth’s story as depicted in Mercy of a Rude Stream (with another clever reversal) and that of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, as depicted in Exit Ghost. Both of those suites of books and their main characters, additionally, engage ideas of biography and autobiography, both, Henry Roth’s more closely than Philip Roth’s, are autobiographical in inspiration and gesture. If we accept the Roth/Zuckerman reference, is the diary (the form, not content of it) at the end a reference to Amy Bellette and Roth’s Ghost Writer, and Zuckerman’s fantasy in that book connected to the dubious epistemology status of parts of Walker’s narrative? There are hundreds of college term papers buried in this book, which reads as if Auster decided to take a basket of ideas and throw them at a wall to see which will stick.

But, at the end, with Walker fading, Auster’s ego (or Jim’s) rises once more and he/Jim decide to make everything just a bit more obvious. I’m as much of a fan of Lacan’s work as the next man, but Auster’s plain use of Lacan’s three orders in constructing the various levels of reality in the book (the book’s narrative always clearly, boringly, as narrative, declining reliability and directness) is not interesting, partly, certainly, because Auster clothes this in his ham-fisted language that has a hard time being subtle anyway. After 200+ pages of indirection, of playing hide and seek with biographies, truth and memory, Jim tells us that he changed every name upon publishing Walker’s story. But not just that, he mentions to us every name he changed. We’re talking about almost a page of names he changed, and it’s not just plain exchanges of names, these are transpositions. There are connections between the names, these relations he professes to have kept in place, thus acknowledging the immense amount of interpretation that has gone into his editing of the book. This is very obvious, very plain, and very, very dull. Auster saps every bit of creative thinking on the part of the reader from the book by forcing these passages on him. Again, feel free to imagine the tens of term papers to be spun from this premise alone. All this is potentially interesting, as is his comparison of sex and violence, as tropes of human interaction, gendered & all; it’s not even just Auster’s writing that ruins it all for me. See, if we’re honest, there are plenty of bad stylists who write breathtaking books as far as ideas are concerned, but Auster isn’t one of them.

Mostly, because Auster’s main problem is elsewhere. Bertran de Born may be a meaningful reference in more ways than the one I outlined. Dante has him describe himself as having a”brain dissevered from its source”. This describes Auster’s situation stunningly well. Auster, in this book and others (though not in all) is a profoundly noncommittal writer. While his book, through the, uh, deconstruction of autobiography and complex use of incest, sex and violence, criticises legitimizing discourses and pointing out the construct behind what is perceived as reality, Auster’s book also expresses a yearning for the réel, and he constructs his own book actually with just these same assumptions that he, on a formal level, criticizes. His strength was never one of commitment or convictions. His characters are frequently felons, liars or deviant in other ways but in Auster’s books these issues are formalized, turned into literary issues.

There is, I grant you this, a certain appeal in that, but Auster distances himself obsessively from the sources, from actual issues, his work transforms issues that matter into clever things. This is exhausting sometimes and, frankly, annoying at others. There is one example near the end where two observations of black workers frame a pivotal event. In a different writer’s hand, these observations would have shed light on the power structure that underlied that event, and Auster has presented everything necessary for it, but all of this, in the end, dissipates into a rhythm, a sound, abstract music. The more one invests in Auster the more frustrated and tired one becomes. The formulaic and distanced style of the first section should be a warning to skim this book, glance at it. It is, in a very superficial and quick reading, that the book yields most. It’s like a clever movie, throwing all kinds of ideas and plots at you and you should enjoy the two hours, but be prepared for an immensely cold, impersonal work, utterly devoid of any commitment except to the author’s ego.

Here is my review of In the Country of Last Things and here of Brooklyn Follies.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Flat One-er with no Bobble

Names for things. Giles Turnbull in the Morning News about kids and names for things. Endlessly fascinating. Read it. Direct link here. It’s a linguistic study with a, uh, very small but cute sample group. This is the insight that led to doing the micro-survey:

Of course! This language of Lego isn’t just something our family has invented; every Lego-building family must have its own vocabulary. And the words they use (mostly invented by the children, not the adults) are likely to be different every time. But how different? And what sort of words?

Hence, a survey. I asked fellow parents to donate their children for a few minutes, and name a selection of Lego pieces culled from the Lego parts store.

(via languagelog)


New bookbabble up! Yessir! This time Glenda Larke, freshly elated from rave reviews for her most recent book joins us. Us, that’s Bjorn, the smart Swede, Lone, the Danish dame, Lord Donny and some crummy German. Direct link here. This is Donny’s summary:

The group talks about censorship in our literature, and as it happens in our respective countries. We discuss about what’s clearly bad, why they should or shouldn’t, and the beef about the whole process. Also, a little on NaNoWriMo, and why teapots can be so titillating they deserved to be banned!

a plume of blood

Ted Hughes: Thistles

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasphed fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Rutu Modan: Exit Wounds

Modan, Rutu (2008), Exit Wounds, Drawn and Quarterly
[Translated by Noah Stollman]
ISBN 978-1-897299-83-8

I am deeply impressed by Rutu Modan. She is a young Israeli writer and artist, whose work has been trickling slowly into our English-speaking hands. There was a wonderful column at the New York Times, called Mixed Emotions (direct link here) from May to October 2007, and then the same year, Drawn and Quarterly published her first graphic novel, Exit Wounds, in a translation by Noah Stollman and it’s one of the best graphic novels I read all year. It is marvelous. Rutu Modan has created a humane, smart, beautiful book that challenges you and charms you at the same time. It is so complete and well-structured that it’s hard to believe that this is her first solo full-length book.

Prior to this publication, Modan was mostly a creator of cartoons and short sequences, most notably as editor of the short-lived Hebrew version of MAD Magazine. She also co-wrote a graphic novel that hasn’t yet found an English publisher or translator. A few stories of hers were published by Drawn and Quarterly as Jamilty and other Stories, and we can only hope there’s more to come. Exit Wounds is a full success, revolving around some similar issues as Alison Bechdel’s “tragicomic” memoir Fun House, but without the portentous Bildungsbürger weight that Bechdel hangs on her narrative. There is a certain lightness to Modan’s book that impresses me more than many other aspects of it, what with all the bleak- and darkness that it has to contend with.

Exit Wounds is, after all, at least in part, a novel about death. It is an explosion by a suicide bomber, murdering people by a bus station cafeteria in Hadera that provides the impetus for the main plot, which is fashioned with many of the trappings of the mystery genre. Many people among the murdered have been identified, except for one. Numi, young woman, watching the news, suddenly, startled, sees a scarf on the the street, unattended, orphaned from its owner. She recognized the scarf immediately, knowing it to belong to her lover Gabriel Franco. The body, however, cannot be identified by any normal means, the only possibility left is a blood test. Gabriel is (was?) an old man, with an ex-wife and children and so Numi decides to speak to his son and convince him to take that blood test.

This is where we enter the story. We meet Koby Franco, a taxi driver in his twenties, who appears to be somewhat ill-tempered and who’s certainly not happy with the direction his life has been taking. One day, a woman steps up to him and tells him his father has been killed in an accident. When he finds out that the scarf is her sole evidence and that she has approached him to make the identification, he dismisses her hypothesis and leaves. Not until weeks later, after not having been able to contact his father, after entering his father’s apartment only to find it deserted, he decides to have a more thorough talk with Numi to ascertain whether her fearful speculations hold any water.

Together they set out on an odyssey to Hadera and other places. Hadera is a city of some 77000 inhabitants, near Haifa. In the early 2000s it has known a fair amount of murderous attacks, numbers which have only gone down after the construction of the West Bank barrier, which, in Hadera as in other Israeli cities, has increased safety noticeably and significantly. Rutu Modan’s story, however, which is inspired by David Ofek’s 2003 documentary No. 17, about someone who died in a suicide bombing in 2002 and could not be identified, takes place before this.

The Hadera we encounter is a lonely place. People are hardened, the explosion, although it has taken place in the recent past, hasn’t left the impression upon their memories that it could have. A woman in the cemetery grins as she talks about a large number of victims to be interred the day Koby and Numi visit. Another woman hasn’t mentioned her being close to the explosion to her husband so he wouldn’t find out she was cheating on him. An immigrant, traumatized, leaves the country, which one of the regular patrons of the cafeteria comments with a shrug, mentioning that “her cleaning got worse.” On Israelis, these heinous attacks seem to leave but a fleeting impression, but that’s only superficially true. In Exit Wounds, the brown, gray and ocher exteriors of cities like Hadera bespeak the loneliness, the sense of loss, of fear even, that permeates the everyday.

This experience of loss, in turn, is part of an exploration of the relationships between the survivors. All kinds of characters are in love, or in relationships. The love story at the heart of the book is especially striking in that it is initially introduced by way of another relationship, Numi and Gabriel’s. A love letter to Gabriel, penned by Numi, quoting a Cole Porter song, serves as a catalyst, as kindling for the fire of what will start out as friendship and end up in a steaming sex scene on a lawn (this scene, by the way, is one of the most perfectly realized scenes I have ever encountered in this medium, these are panels that are sensuous but also fueled by a very intimate kind of realism, slightly off, but highly believable).

The love story sneaks up on you, it hides under the mystery plot and takes up more and more space, in fact, the two stories are intertwined, and as the love theme takes up speed, the reader is more and more enchanted, but despite the magical qualities it develops, the love story always, like that scene on the lawn, stays believable. The character of Numi and her visual representation has a large role in this. Unusual for visual media, Numi, the female love interest in Exit Wounds is rather plain and Rutu Modan frequently opts to dress her in clothes that conceal rather than expose her figure. Since the basic silhouette of the female body is so well established as a signifier, Modan’s decision here is remarkable and ties into other decisions concerning sex and gender, which are also rendered visually.

The fact that so much of the book is as dependent upon the art as upon the writing is another reason why Exit Wounds is so good. I think it’s the mark of an excellent graphic novel that many significant ideas are conveyed visually rather than through the writing. The artwork isn’t a substitute for writing, or an ‘enhancement’, and writers or artists who recognize the unique powers that the art has in telling not just a story, but in exploring and interrogating ideas and concepts, frequently produce stunning works. Rutu Modan’s art, clearly indebted to the ligne claire style of francophone comics, is successful in conveying that tension between light and dark elements I mentioned before.

The precise, highly detailed background, its colors perfectly conveying shifts in light and mood, is often devastating in its depiction of landscapes empty of human beings, or fading passers-by into a brownish background. And even when Modan pits her characters against a flat, monochrome background without any details, the effect is harsh, as it draws out the loneliness in the characters acting in the foreground, their every gesture and facial expression look suddenly so much more significant.

These gestures are interesting in their own right. Modan’s cartoonish way of drawing her characters, significantly less detailed than the background, reduced to a few important, telling lines, eschews the hyperrealistic (but artificial) style that, for example, Terry Moore employs. Despite not always being anatomically correct, her characters appear all the more life-like. I find it hard to describe, but I would describe it as a kind of warm realism, capturing the sense of a gesture more than the precise angle of the limbs involved. Modan’s art brings her characters to life; unlike Terry Moore’s art, for example, which uses, or toys with, iconical imagery, Modan’s interest is less intertextual, so to say; it’s her artwork, more than the dialogue (which is sometimes rather wooden, after reading Mixed Emotions, I blame Stollman’s translation) or other aspects of her writing, which creates the sense of verisimilitude that I have kept mentioning.

This believability, in turn, makes her ideas, whether it’s about the consequences of terror in a haunted populace, as mentioned above, or about issues of gender (women with make-up, for example are drawn with wider eyes, in a more exaggerated, doll-like manner, perhaps signifying the role they assume by dressing up like that), more palatable and the whole of Exit Wounds less like a sustained discourse of ideas about all kinds of things than an affecting and effectual story about a human’s fate and two other persons’ love. That love is not an alternative to the loss that the explosion has caused in the survivors and that permeates the pages of Exit Wounds.

In fact, the central and all the smaller peripheral relationships which become the more visible the more the novel progresses, are, I would argue, structured by absences. Absences drive people into relationships or keep people in them, some, like the embittered waitress at the cafeteria, clearly keep up relationships with the deceased, the eternally absent ones. At the core of all this is Gabriel, Numi’s former lover and Koby’s father. Slowly but surely he emerges as a fascinatingly itinerant character, in search of his identity, professional as well as personal. People who loved him or knew him once can only hold on to that sliver of his personality, the fact that they believe they know him is the perfect indicator that he’s gone again, in search of a different identity. He is always absent, not just in the pages of Exit Wounds, but also in the lives of its protagonists. He leaves behind objects, words, memories which help to construct his past but are useless in the present.

That permanent absence, that elusiveness serves to elevate Modan’s book onto a different level of discourse. Ultimately, she succeeds in welding the personal level (the love story, finding out about your father’s fate etc.) to a transpersonal level, thus raising questions (especially with the political subtext) about different identities, about general questions of inheritance and tradition (after all, the father/son dynamics are highly important). One of the major concerns in Exit Wounds, I think, is the role of the younger generation in a country so dominated and structured by the discourse of the founding fathers’ generation, the fathers’ religion. Modan’s answer is a humane one, a call to step free from the obsession with and the search and constant scrutiny of the past, a call for a communication between individuals of the younger generation, almost, even, an admonishment for them to make their own lives, to jump, even, into the future, relying on one’s fellow men. And Modan does this seemingly without effort, within just under 200 pages, and wholly successful. Extraordinary.

“I hear the enchantment of the work”

I believe poets read poetry differently than non-poets do. When some readers talk, I am amazed by the appetite for paraphrase. When critics talk, I am just as amazed by how completely they hear poetry as a function of culture (another sort of paraphrase). But when I hear poets, I hear the enchantment of the work. Their ideas about a poem are always borne by some conception of intimacy or distance of voice, rigor or looseness of attitude, delicacy or directness of treatment. Above all, poets always seem to listen, even as they compose, to the voice of that something that decides the rightness of their designs.

from the introduction of Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry


And here, after all, it is, Episode 50 of bookbabble, this time with Donny, Lone, Björn and me, as well as our guest, Umapagan Ampikaipakan, who wasn’t scared off the first time he was here and came and joined us for the second time. I was late to that one so you’ll only hear me during the last third but still. Here is the link and here is Donny’s summary:

Uma leads the group in listing each of our 5 desert island reads – books that we’d like to take with us when we get stranded in a desert island. Some of us took some liberties on the topic and decided to list books they haven’t read that they’d like to bring, for whatever practical reasons.


As I’m waiting for Donny to post ep. 50 of bookbabble, which we recorded last week, and tomorrow’s recording of bookbabble creeps closer, which I might or might not participate in, I notice I forgot to post about Episode 49. This was just Donny, Björn and Lone recording and it’s great to listen to, especially since Lord Airhead, yrs truly, isn’t part of it. Here’s the link and here’s Donny’s summary:

A tight group this week, and we’re talking offensive literature. Things that sets us off. I suppose we weren’t surprised when the three of us shared the same view about things that offend us in literature, which isn’t what the topic itself would lead you to believe. Also, problems with the Kindle International edition, NaNoWriMo, Google Wave and the call for the banning of fantasy movies in Malaysia, and Lamb in Vodka!