Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon

Hazzard, Shirley (2005), The Bay of Noon, Virago
ISBN 978-1-86049-454-3

I’m sure I already said this once, but this is the great thing about prizes, with longlists, shortlists etc.: you keep finding new books, or new writers, or even old books that you haven’t, for whatever reason, been aware of so far. Ample opportunity to discover classical books was afforded by the recently announced longlist for the “Lost Booker”. Upon a reader’s recommendation at this blog, I started my journey of discovery with Shirley Hazzard’s novel The Bay of Noon, originally published in 1970 (like all the novels on the “Lost Booker” longlist, naturally), her second novel of only four altogether, so far. As I sit down to write this review, I’m not altogether sure what to make of it. It’s certainly a very, very good book, very well, that is: elegantly written, evoking its setting and its characters so marvelously that we have to remind ourselves that this is, indeed, fiction. Fiction written by a master of her craft, but there is something odd about this book, which can seem spry sometimes, strangely reticent for a book with such a sumptuous background, and such a classical kind of story. On a sentence-by-sentence level it’s consistently enthralling and enchanting, its complex construction and the deft handling of its characters is never less than admirable, but there’s a gap, a loss, a distance at the heart of the book, and noticing the elaborate care of the construction makes the reader only more aware of it. And this despite the story which is rather emotional, sentimental even, a story of loss and love, of displacement and yearning.

There are quite a few books which are similar in several crucial points, and sometimes, Hazzard seems to fall short of such extraordinary achievements like Ford Madox Ford’s near-perfect The Good Soldier. The arc of the story, the characters, the emotional impact seems to be less well wrought, but this is a mistaken impression. The love story is the least important aspect of the novel, and while it’s great for summaries, it doesn’t actually represent the novel very well. Shirley Hazzard didn’t write a book that is, first and foremost, a moving story, I think. Instead, she wrote a very clever novel that makes good use of the discourses inherent in the tradition of the genre, that tells a story in a sweltering underworld, drawing from the cultural background of a whole region, and makes a strong statement about feminity and narrative. And it does all this in a surprisingly naked way: unashamedly, The Bay of Noon foregrounds its conceptual structure. Make no mistake, we are presented with a sad and tragic love story, but it’s highly ambiguous, and the true tragedy, we learn, is outside of the story proper, which is incapable of wrapping up all the book’s possibilities in one tasty emotional dish. The Bay of Noon slops over, frequently, and its main target is the act of writing itself, visible in the way the private history of the characters and the public history of a region intersect, in the manner in which these two kinds of stories are told, reproduced and archived, and how, in each case, meaning is created – or lost. The Bay of Noon is affecting, yes, and moving, but it’s far more than that. Hazzard does more than create metaphors as proxy for her ideas, instead, she opts for a kind of obviousness, using the tools at her disposal in a transparent way, baring the commitments and impulses driving it, giving it coherence. Most of all, The Bay of Noon insists that we understand the role of writing in shaping the understanding of certain everyday issues, as, in this case, human relationships and history. The actual story takes a back seat in this undertaking.

That said, it’s not a bad story, by any measure. The Bay of Noon is narrated by Jenny, a young British woman who comes to Naples to assist in the compilation of an official report. She does all kinds of office work, but most importantly, she works as a translator. In an idle moment in Naples, she seeks out a female writer who a mutual friend suggested she visit, and even arranged for a letter of recommendation. During the following months, she strikes up a friendship with this writer, and the writer’s lover, the (slightly) brutish (and married) Gianni. Additionally, she enters into a strange relationship with a Scottish biologist. Both of these relationships, which do not appear to intersect at first, are oddly like love, without completely becoming, in fact, love. Exploring the complex connections between the four characters allows Hazzard to call on different hierarchies of power as they play out in human relationships, without having to abandon ambiguity. More than anything else, it is this ambiguity that enlivens the odd geometrical shape of the Neapolitan foursome, that highlights the possibilities and limitations that time, place and gender enforced upon them. Sometimes, this leads to a peculiar stiffness, as if we were watching a renaissance spectacle, with objects, characters and places mere symbolical or metaphorical stand-ins for ideas. But we never feel The Bay of Noon lecturing us; in fact, Hazzard embraces ambiguity with such a zest that no single proposition ever emerges from the book, but rather a mixture of ideas and possibilities. The only things we do keep finding are Hazzard’s commitments and her inquisitive mind. Additionally, she’s a wizard at creating full, rich, believable characters. Silences, as in the books of masters like James Salter, are loaded with subtext; we don’t need to interpret them, we ‘get’ the meaning immediately. And the end, the inevitable, sad end of the story, does move us, because we do care for these characters, no matter how studded with ideas each of them is.

Although The Bay of Noon seems to be realistic, the realism (much as so much else in the book) appears to be trained on cultural documents, artifacts and productions, like the movies of Vittorio De Sica, one of which is mentioned early in the novel. Another point of reference, one of the two most central references, is Naples itself. Even more than Venice or Rome, two cities which, throughout literary history, are regularly used to exemplify inner states or ideas, Naples is more cultural reference than city. For every description of the actual city, literary history knows countless fantasies and romances about Naples and the region of Campania. In his study Les Navigations d’Ulysse, Victor Bérard found that part of Ulysses’ travels were set at the Neapolitan coast, especially his encounter with Polyphemus, the hungry (and easily tricked) cyclops. Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens, while placed elsewhere by Bérard, is nevertheless as important, or more important, even, for the cultural image of Naples, which, in ancient times, used to be called “Parthenope” (after one of the Siren sisters), and, if we are to believe some cultural histories, is still colloquially called that way by some of the Neapolitans. Additionally, it has been identified with the gates to the underworld. There is a curious tension between how Naples is generally regarded (and has been for thousands of years) and how the region surrounding and containing the city is viewed. It’s fertile land and idyllic vistas led Romans to call it Campania Felix. Descriptions of Naples tend not to contain adjectives like felix (i.e. happy). On the contrary.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in the fragments published posthumously as La Reine Albemarle (one of Sartre’s most readable, though least well known books), described Naples as “une ville en putréfaction”, which seems to be more in line with traditional depictions. As he continues, he writes that “on va à Naples comme les adolescents vont à la morgue, comme on va à une dissection. Avec l’horreur d’être un témoin”. These phrases are apt descriptions of Naples as many people found it. It’s even more apt in the light of Hazzard’s depiction of it. In The Bay of Noon, we find sweltering heat, unbearable smells, grimy surfaces and a general sense of putréfaction, i.e. decay. Incredible poverty and the utter lack of a sense of tradition and elegance set it apart from cities like Rome, according to Jenny’s account. But behind these culturally saturated descriptions, the shadows from ancient Greece creep up. The Hades looms, and the one-eyed devourer of sheep as well as the enchanting singing sisters. Hazzard’s Naples glitters, her streets are at the same time paths into the underworld, populated by ghosts, and actual, paved, real streets. None of this is really explicit, but many details suggest this kind of reading. The témoignage mentioned by Sartre, the bearing of witness, is also important and salient here. If we talk about a book that makes use of Hell as a metaphor, a novel which is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, we can’t help but associate the tragedies and horrors of the war and its manifold murders. And, indeed, the female writer whom Jenny befriends is a survivor of the tragic events visited upon her city by its inhabitants during the beginnings of Mussolini’s reign, and the Germans and the Allied forces, in the 1940s.A victim, with a stealthy kind of strength, who connects all the different parts of the book and lends meaning and depth to its excursions and ideas, she is a strangely wan kind of character.

She is called Gioconda, and, like Naples, she’s a conglomeration of references and meanings. Her very name is a direct reference of Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous “La Gioconda”, which is probably the most famous painting in the world. Gioconda is mysterious: her motives are never quite clear, or rather: The Bay of Noon doesn’t inquire much into these motives. Instead, we learn about her history and circumstances, and are allowed to construct Gioconda’s motivation from these bits and pieces. From all this, a complex, ambiguous character emerges. Her sadness belies her jocund name, which marks an absence more than it describes what’s there. She’s a smart and successful writer (well, with only one book to her name, but a book that was, after all, made into a movie) with strong opinions, with a circle of (male) friends who all admire her. Jenny’s narrative shows us how easily enchanted one can be by the beautiful Neapolitan artist. Her appraisal, very early in the book, of her new-won friend reinforces the connection between person and reference, between seeing, remembering and writing, between culture and subject:

Gioconda’s appearance has become merged now with knowledge of her, with moods and events and questions, so that in describing it I feel I am giving a false impression and introducing, even to myself, a woman I do not know. If one says that she was rather tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed, with in winter a pale colouring, paler than apricot, one has described nothing more than a woman who is in all probability good-looking. Even in giving these few facets I am getting off the track, for I myself would hardly recognize her from such a description: it is almost as if I were describing here skeleton, without the intercostal tissue that gave it life and singularity. Yet her physical beauty was as strong a part of her character as though she were personally accountable for the deep setting of the eyes or the long rise of the cheekbone.

In this and other descriptions, we hear a faint echo of Walter Pater’s beautiful remarks on the Mona Lisa in his wondrous Studies in the History of the Renaissance, where he maintains that in Mona Lisa’s face show “all the thoughts and experience of the world”. More on point, he claims that “she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave”. In a way, this is true for Gioconda as well. Her status as a survivor has made her a victim of sorts, her every breath seemingly enveloped by a diffuse fear. Talking to Jenny seems to liberate her or at least help her. The answer to the question why Jenny accomplishes what none of her male friends, and her lover Gianni least of all, managed, is crucial to the structure of the book. When Hazzard writes that Gioconda may be “personally accountable” for her beauty, she touches upon the main theme, which is creation through writing. All the cultural and literary references create a sense of irreality, of constructedness, and as we listen to Jenny’s story, we see how she stumbles to create it, how she doubts her own words, and we look closer at the reliability of narratives, and, especially, who writes which history. As it turns out, the book Gioconda wrote is a memoir of the pre-war years, written from the perspective of an outsider, about a family of outsiders. This history, written by a woman, is not completely successful, it takes a man’s adaptation of the story to the big screen to make it a full success. Similarly, while Jenny takes part in writing the report which, for all intents and purposes, can be read as a history of Naples in wartime, she has no part in shaping it. Power over narratives, even over those created by or with the help of women, rests in the hands of men. The friendship between the two women, in this light, and the ambiguities enveloping it, starts to seem almost oppositional and Jenny’s narrative of the friendship a declaration of, for lack of better words: independence.

As we watch Jenny looking for the right words, our gaze keeps reverting to Gioconda, and we keep thinking about how Jenny calls her “self-contained” and “unoppressive”, and, from the narrow lanes of the story, Gioconda as an almost iconic figure slops over. Increasingly, we become interested in that character, and less in the story around it. Time and again, Hazzard tells us how the landscape resembles the characters, and in a region connected with Parthenope, and her search for Persephone (who, as we know was abducted by Hades), that search, and the loss that it connotates, as well as the disastrous role that men play in it (we shouldn’t forget that Parthenope killed herself when Ulysses resisted her song), seems to become a cipher for the female relationship in the story. But the story isn’t celebrating an oppositional friendship, as suggesting the possibility of one. Really, it’s about yearning, about not finding. Even Jenny’s own story is less a reliable map of her memory of that time than a rough approximation, “not to fix our positions, but to show us how we came”. In a sense, The Bay of Noon is about a utopia, a not-place, that could be a eutopia, a good place, but this is developed with the utmost care and a marvelous subtlety. In his recently published book on religion (Returning to Religion), Jonathan Benthall maintains, and he wasn’t the first to say so, that faith, religious belief is often employed as a means to deal with ambiguities, with the obscurities of life and its harsh, rough edges. I think it’s remarkable that Hazzard doesn’t really lapse into faith here, which would be the easy solution. Instead she continues thinking, and keeps the whole construct in suspension, which is a testament to her brilliance. Although the book’s cleverness often translates into a kind of coldness, Hazzard’s writing is astonishing throughout and the novel as a whole is highly, highly recommended. It’s an excellent read, and brilliant to boot.


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Something sexual

Click here for an amusing little Q&A in the Guardian with Peter Carey, who has published a new novel recently.
Review copies? None for me. Shame!

Here is a brief excerpt:

Tell us a secret.
We are going to die.

here is another one

What would your super power be?
Something sexual.

and a last one

If you could edit your past, what would you change?
I’d get rid of all the commas.


Annnd it’s time for a new episode of bookbabble. Donny put up episode 63, with Gem phoning in from the Punjab, and featuring additionally: Lone, me, Bjorn and Donny. It’s a crazy mix of topics, about the iPad, video games and berries with nipples. Incidentally, if you click here, you’ll be directed to the episode and find kinda safe for work images of naughty berries. This is Donny’s summary

The crew welcomes a visit from our favourite English farmer (Gem) as they discuss the recently announced iPad, and all the jokes that come with it. Also, Marcel brings our attention to Electronic Arts’s new Dante’s Inferno, based on Dante’s classic of the same name. Is having a half-naked monk killing monsters in the depths of hell a brilliant idea? Also, Terry Pratchett and euthanasia, and find out what the Odyssey has in common with scantily-clad berries.

Legs, standing

Generally, Stanley Fish’s blog is interesting and on point. In this most recent post, however, he reviews a book, and defends its thesis by piling up blather and empty phrases. The comment section is full of exasperated comments. Read the post and you’ll understand the exasperation. Here is the direct link and this is an excerpt.

Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

It is marvellous to wake up together

Elizabeth Bishop: “It is marvelous to wake up together…”

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
to feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightning struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one’s back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

late 1930s-early 1940s

This uncollected poem cannot be found in Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems. To find it you’d have to pick up the Quinn-edited Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box, towards which I have some reservations (as indicated here). OR you can go directly to the authoritative Bishop volume, the recently published Library of America edition, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz. It contains her prose as well, and a smattering of letters. Bishop’s prose is an integral part of her work and if you consider reading more of Bishop’s, I highly, strongly recommed the LoA edition, which you can buy here.

Thomas Strittmatter: Raven

Strittmatter, Thomas (1990), Raabe Baikal, Diogenes
ISBN 2-357-22507-5

[English translation: Strittmatter, Thomas (1997), Raven, Chatto & Windus
Translated by Ian Mitchell
ISBN 9780701147938]

[French translation: Strittmatter, Thomas (1994), Le Corbeau du lac Baïkal, Albin Michel
Translated by Nicole Casanova
ISBN 2-226-06634-9]

This is an odd book, by Thomas Strittmatter, a writer who has been almost forgotten by now, but who, upon publication of Raabe Baikal, this strangely beguiling novel, was on the cusp of becoming one of Germany’s most famous and most praised writers. Between his first play, published when he was only 20 years old, and his premature death at 33, he wrote several plays, a novel, short prose, and won 7 prizes. His first play, Viehjud Levi, remains one of the sharpest, best written texts about the Third Reich by a writer of his generation and it was made into a critically acclaimed movie in 1999. Praise and acclaim for Strittmatter’s work was loud and persuasive enough to engender a translation of Raabe Baikal into English as Raven (by Ian Mitchell, published by Chatto & Windus, paperback published by Vintage) and into French as Le Corbeau du lac Baïkal (by Nicole Casanova, published by Albin Michel), and it died down quickly enough for both translations to fall out of print almost immediately. This is a shame, because Raabe Baikal is a great book, which borrows from all corners of literary history, but is convincingly original in its own right; it is a generous, fair, compelling read, suffused by clear thinking, but at the same time not a difficult read at all. It’s inconceivable for me why this book isn’t more famous or more widely read. I urge each and every one of you to read this book. It may be out of print, but second hand copies are available, and there’s always the chance of the NYRB classics imprint taking pity upon this languishing masterpiece, and getting it back in print, onto shelves and into the hearts of a multitude of readers. Because that is where this book belongs.

If you heard me yap on about Raabe Baikal at the end of this episode of bookbabble, please accept my heartfelt apology. I misrepresented it. It had been some time since I’d read it, and only retained a very distorted memory of the book. It is nothing like I made it sound, but it is a very good book nonetheless. A better book, actually, than I made it seem. Now that I reread it, I was struck by the marvels of subtlety that Strittmatter accomplishes in this book. They are marvels partly because the book, at times, seems rather raw and a bit crude. Strittmatter makes heavy use of repetition, not necessarily of words, but of motifs, and as we move from page to page, we sometimes get the feeling of jumping from one thick slab to another: the book’s dynamic is established less by its plot and more by these slabs of motifs, that keep recurring in flimsy disguises. But, we soon find, these are slabs of ice, rather than anything else and below them gapes the ice-cold death. Strittmatter, despite the funny, picaresque mood of most of the book, is fundamentally serious about his ideas, and his narrative is propelled by necessity rather than whimsy. If he keeps returning to the same ideas, it’s because they matter, because they constitute identities, and a sense of self, of belonging, of personal dignity. Behind every character of Raabe Baikal, an abyss gapes, and this imminent destruction, the looming shadow of nothingness informs all of their actions. Fear, unconsciously, compels them from day to day, from word to word, and from one action to the next. Some sit still, they rest, and we see how they are swallowed up by a diffuse darkness.

That the book doesn’t feel dark, that it is actually a funny and entertaining read, is due to the protagonist of the book, the eponymous Raabe (Raven), who gained this nickname because he looks just like a raven and because “there’s something dark about him” (his fellow students think). Raabe is a wide-eyed innocent, who believes all kinds of lies and tales, who takes everything in stride, whether it’s death, sordid sexualities or serious crime. The openness of his gaze opens up the world of Strittmatter’s novel. The book isn’t narrated by Raabe, but the narrator often leans heavily either on Raabe’s view of the world or on Taubmann’s, another innocent. While Raabe’s innocence is that of a boy, and can, at times, give way to small cruelties and pettiness, to the irritations and the irritable demeanor of the young at heart, Taubmann is an older man, who is much more serene and more thoroughly innocent. While Raabe’s journey in the book is one of discovery, an attempt to understand the world and his role in it, Taubmann doesn’t attempt to bring order to the world, he is content to state its mysterious and complicated nature. Raabe isn’t averse to retaliating against one of his fellow students by taking a dump in that student’s bed, whereas Taubmann accepts other people’s cruelty as one of many odd facts of the world around him, and offers a deep gratitude for every kind act accorded to him. Loss and sadness will overwhelm both in the end, and both will seek means to cope with it. Raabe’s act is an act of emancipation, at the same time a fulfillment of his education and a step away from his past.

It is this final act, this stepping out into the world of adults, that tells us, more than anything, that Raabe Baikal takes up position smack in the middle of the tradition of the Bildungsroman, fusing different kinds of references, from classical sources like Goethe and Gottfried Keller to more modern ones like Jean Genet’s work. I called the book ‘odd’ and it does contain a lot of unusual elements, but the basic structure is quite strict and traditional. It is, without a doubt, a Bildungsroman, or rather, it’s one long Bildungsroman, with numerous smaller specimen of the genre assembled to form a more complex image of his time and society, like a prism. The story starts in a boarding school; once an élite establishment, now full of mediocre students (“Raabe der Mittelmäßige!”, (Raven the mediocre!), one of Strittmatter’s characters calls the protagonist at one point), it tries to keep its students safe and attempts, if not to make of them future scholars and genii, then to enable them to take up with the world without getting hurt. After school, the kids will all take jobs in the real world, becoming hairdressers, stone masons and cooks. But the longest section by far is the one dealing with the school. The surrealistic, dense atmosphere of the boarding school owes much to Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, but transposed into a context where Walser’s pervasive irony is out of place, and Walser’s fine, subtle, dreamy sketches are supplanted by crude (yet complex) images. In the first chapter, the students are made to watch a cow give birth. Unfortunately, the mother dies in the process, in a lake of blood, deeply traumatizing all the students. Death, often violent, is shown to be part of the fabric of growing up, as killing animals and hurting other people becomes inevitable and a necessary part of all the student’s future experiences. In this, Strittmatter’s book shares links with many other texts, specifically, I think, with books like Beat Sterchi’s Blösch (translated by Michael Hofmann into English as The Cow), and in many ways, with Franz Innerhofer’s debut Schöne Tage ( translated by Anselm Hollo into English as Beautiful Days).

But Strittmatter takes care not to stage this violence as a rite of passage, it is not enshrined as socially sanctioned ritual and the necessity isn’t inescapable. Raabe learns to use violence, as he learns to use other tools. In Raabe’s journey, structural violence, and metaphorical become palpable and real, they have to, because Raabe is unable to comprehend structural violence, he needs to be shown, it needs to be demonstrated to him. Thomas Strittmatter makes it impossible for us to mystify and to intellectualize deeply invasive and violent processes of the moderns world, as they are reflected even in words and art. We cannot evade cruelty and the darkness by moving into the realm of words. Strittmatter, through Raabe’s wide-eyed experience, drags it out into the open, where it is now endowed with shape and color. Red blood, the odd sound of a breaking neck, the soft fur of a shaking victim, these are real. Raabe Baikal‘s characters are all living on the periphery of society, and the impact that this status has on their experiences is encapsulated in these small episodes, which combine actual violence, i.e. violence that can be experienced by everyone, with the representative, slightly surreal kind of violence that has a very real impact on the book’s characters. This is a difficult balancing act, but Strittmatter never lapses into pathologizing his characters, or exoticizing their experience on the margins.

The danger of doing that is particularly strong in a work like this one, which makes heavy use of the surreal, of the magical realist mode of storytelling. Drawing both from the Döblin tradition that ran strong in post-war fiction in German, and from the popular and populist kind of writing of 19th century realist fiction (especially the early work of Wilhelm Raabe (click here for a review)), his characters always seem more like caricatures, like oddballs, rather than real, flesh-and-blood people. This is exacerbated by the fact that they are almost never referred to by their names. Instead, we know them largely through their nicknames. A deaf man is called Taubmann, i.e. “deaf man”, a fat boy who likes to pretend he’s sick and feverish is called Fieber, i.e. “fever”, a girl who looks like a stereotypical bimbo, soft-spoken and handed around by men like an object is called Opfer, i.e. victim. But, the dark undercurrent of the book is about identities and popular prejudice, as well as hierarchies of power, and Strittmatter is incredibly careful in his use of these crude (or seemingly crude) elements. His characters are never really defined as persons, they gain substance through their actions, and through a juxtaposition of different kinds of characters who might seem to share a common identity vis-à-vis socially accepted prejudice. The way he fleshes his characters out and lends them some definition, within a clearly defined and understood cultural framework, in order to outline their role, place in society as it is (while clearly critical of the static nature of this situation), is an interesting contrast to the Bildungsroman antecedents of Raabe Baikal.

The Bildungsroman is notorious for cementing the status quo. The most important and most famous novel of the genre, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, has always been criticized for supporting a bourgeois class, inimical to real art, blind to any kind of fringe, a club that does not accept any but those who are born into it. Even shortly after publication, the novel spawned a great amount of books and texts written to oppose Goethe’s ideas and writing, from Novalis’ only novel to Robert Walser’s aforementioned one. It is in this critical tradition that Strittmatter writes as well, but he makes more use of the basic tropes and structure of the genre than many of his predecessors; this novel displays a deep understanding of the inevitability of some structures, of dichotomies. He doesn’t turn a blind eye to these realities and the reason for that may be that he writes in the wake of Jean Genet’s stunning body of work. For all the books and references I mentioned, Genet is probably the most important and defining one. Strittmatter’s connection of themes like criminality, sexuality, especially homosexuality, of the obscurity of desire, cannot be read divested from Genet’s work, especially the prose. In Querelle de Brest, Genet writes “À l’idee de mer et de meurtre, s’ajoute naturellement l’idee d’amour ou de voluptés – et plutôt, d’amour contre nature.” This book is written at a turning point in his work, where the sexual openness of the debut changes into a brutal embracing of stereotypical depictions of deviant sexuality and associations of it with crime and violence. As Genet’s work increasingly reflects pressures and dominant social narratives, his language starts to pick up phrases and clichés, and his work, both novels and plays, grow increasingly darker.

This is one of the legacies that Raabe Baikal attempts to live up to. It’s crudeness represents the attempt to precisely render the dominant discourse without falling for it, without buying into it, or letting his readers buy into it. If the explanations above seem a bit confused, it’s because the novel is full of paradoxes, adopts paradox as an artistic principle, which makes it hard to say anything about the book that isn’t also wrong. This is an ambitious kind of writing, and Strittmatter isn’t, at this point in his life, quite ready to pull it off perfectly. There’s much that strikes an off note, much that seems a bit labored, and we the reader are, at times, exasperated with this young, pressing writer, so obsessed with death, desire and darkness. But the book is never less than entertaining and fascinating. If it falls short, it falls short of its own potential. It’s still a masterpiece, a very, very good book that you’d be a fool to miss. If you’re easily offended by frank literary depictions of boyish sexuality, shitting on the bed or murder of innocent animals and people, maybe you should give the book a pass. If not, don’t hesitate. And tell me what you thought of it.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 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.)

Wrong about Suicide

Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote a moving, passionate essay about her feelings after two of her poet friends, Sarah Hannah (Click here for a sample) and Rachel Wetzsteon (go here for info & a poem) killed themselves. It’s great to read, informative and moving. But, au fond, the fact remains that she is wrong about suicide. How wrong? Click here for the essay and take not especially of this excerpt:

In the West, in the past, the dominant religions told people suicide was against the rules, they must not do it, if they did they would be punished in the afterlife. People killed themselves anyway, of course, but the strict injunction must have helped keep a billion moments of anguish from turning into a bloodbath. These days we encourage people to stay alive and not kill themselves, but we say it for the person’s own sake. It’s illegal, sure, but no one actually insists that suicide is wrong.

I’m issuing a rule. You are not allowed to kill yourself. You are going to like this, stay with me. When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community. One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means that every suicide is also a delayed homicide. You have to stay.

I’ll review a book (Jean Amery’s classic, trenchant, impassioned essay On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death) on the topic next month that touches on some of these issues. I’ll also review Hecht’s own study Doubt within the next months, a fascinating book I’m not completely sure I know how I feel about. Her home page is, she has a poetry blog dedicated to the Fonz here and a blog at Best American Poetry.

Chick Lit for Men

God. How’d I miss that? Earlier this month, Dick Francis died. He was 89 years old. In the Guardian, Alison Flood offers reminiscences of the great man’s work

I think I was about 12 when I started to get into them myself, and although I haven’t read one for years, Francis’s death yesterday reminded me just how much I used to love them. The thrill, the glamour, the sheer difference of the racing world to my own appealed immensely to me, as did the “lonely hero up against a host of more powerful enemies” theme which seemed to be part of them all. (…) I asked my father if he’d really enjoyed receiving a Francis every Christmas or if they were just grin-and-pretend-you-like-it presents, and he told me they were “always interesting, but a bit in one ear and out the other”. My mother, however, described them as “chick lit for men” and I think that’s a fair summing-up.

Übelst geil

Sebastian Hammelehle stellt bei Spon korrekt fest, was das erbärmlichste an der ganzen lächerlichen Axolotl Roadkill-Affaire ist

Bei Airen hat Hegemann vor allem die sexuell expliziten Stellen abgeschrieben. Einer der Dialoge aus “Axolotl Roadkill”, der, wie Hegemann nun einräumt, relativ wörtlich aus “Strobo” übernommen wurde, geht so: “Ich ficke nicht mehr.” – “Mann, Alter, ich bin übelst geil.” – “Aber warum denn nicht?” – “Ich will nicht.”

Bislang war man ja davon ausgegangen: Wer auch nur einmal auf einem deutschen Schulhof unterwegs war, hat derartige Sätze en masse abgespeichert. Helene Hegemann aber schrieb sie ab.

Adam Roberts: Yellow Blue Tibia

Roberts, Adam (2009), Yellow Blue Tibia, Gollancz
ISBN 978-0-575-08357-8

Here’s the deal. You will have to read Adam Roberts, unless Yellow Blue Tibia, his most recent novel, grossly misrepresents his oeuvre. There is just no way you can bypass this writer, who is so self-controlled, so sure of his capabilities and his craft, who is able to engage both the humorous and the darkly serious nature of his work. Yellow Blue Tibia may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly an excellent novel and a truly dazzling display of skills. So far, he has ten novels under his belt, a few academic studies (including a regrettable one on Frederic Jameson, in the sense that any study on Jameson is regrettable), some parodies and a few shorter pieces. If any of them so much as approach the quality of Yellow Blue Tibia, you’re in for a treat. Read it. You don’t even have to like science fiction, because one of the remarkable things about the book is that it is as much a literary novel about science fiction as it is a science fiction novel proper. In this extraordinarily funny and smart book, Roberts managed to seize his genre, and put it through the wringer, spinning it around, examining it, without ever becoming too intellectual or too cerebral. It’s also a joy to read, a book that scoops up a lot of the canonical postmodern playfulness of the 1970s, but has, below this, the elegant, moving structure of a more traditional novel. What’s more, Roberts’ playfulness is always in the service of real concerns, real problems, and implies the possibilities of real actions. Adam Roberts is a very serious writer, who likes to use the word “ballsack” a lot. And he excels at both of these kinds of writing. Read this writer. You will not be disappointed.

The plot is hard to describe, mostly because it’s actually quite surprising. It’s not that you can’t see the final twist coming a mile off, but Yellow Blue Tibia, at the beginning, hedges its bets, shows you ways of continuing its tale, before stepping up to the plate and fully delivering its story. It starts off like this: in 1945, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, i.e. Joseph Stalin, ruler of all the Russias, asks a group of well-known Soviet Science Fiction writers to convene in a cabin in the woods. They come by train, by mule cart, they are both giddy and elated to meet Stalin, and mortally afraid. Instead of sending them all to the Gulag, however, Stalin asks them to write a story. In what seems to be a very Wag the Dog-ish line of thought, Stalin has decided that the USSR needs an enemy to unite against. Now that the Germans have been beat, and that (in Stalin’s estimation), victory against the US is, at most, five years away, it is time to plan and come up with a new enemy after the US are conquered. And why not invent an enemy? This is what Stalin wants his science fiction writers to do: invent an enemy to rally the peoples of the USSR against, “an extraterrestrial menace. It will be the greatest Science Fiction story ever told! And we will write it collectively! It will inspire the whole of the Soviet Union – inspire the whole world!”. So, this is what they do. After long discussions and deliberations, they come up with a species of “radiation aliens”, and they even imagine some of their early attacks, such as a destroyed US spaceship, and a bomb launched against the Ukraine.

This section is very densely narrated and it contains a lot of the ideas and themes that the rest of Yellow Blue Tibia later pursues. We learn that these men are all tired, all afraid, but they’re all, additionally, Communists. In period novels such as Vassili Grossmann’s Life and Fate, we learn hat even those afraid to be murdered by Stalin’s henchmen, even those in camps and at the front, that there are many ardent Communists among them, because the idea of Communism is unharmed by the horrific political events in the 20th century, engineered by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and their vassals. So it is with the men in that cabin. Their visions, thought, and basic motivation are informed by Marxism even as their faith in the political reality of their country has long gone. These writers are beat, exhausted, they are all soldiers, and they’re tired of war. One of the writers grumbles that, if he were alive today, Tolstoy wouldn’t write “War and Peace but War and War. He would write War and War and More War”.The connection between fiction, and history, as well as individual fates is established in that first section; also, the truthfulness of journalistic nonfiction, as well as, very importantly, questions of authorship. But as soon as we start to enjoy the odd rhythms of that discussion, that creation of an original story, the meeting in the woods is stopped short. Stalin, without offering explanations, dissolves the project, and swears all the writers to silence. For some decades, nothing else, pertaining to these days in the cabin, happens, as the narrator explains. Until 1986, when the narrator is visited by ghosts of his past.

The narrator of Yellow Blue Tibia is called Konstantin Skvorecky, one of the Science Fiction writers from the cabin. Choosing that name was certainly not accidental: in part it appears to be a clear reference to Josef Škvorecký, the Czech writer, who, like Roberts’ creation Konstantin Skvorecky, is a translator from English to a Slav tongue, and Roberts’ use of detective fiction tropes and his use of some elements of the roman noir may also, albeit in a more subdued manner, tie in with Škvorecký’s Lieutenant Boruvka novels. One suspects that all the names in Roberts’ fine novel are fraught with allusions and references, more than one. Is it coincidence that another writer, Ivan/Jan Frenkel shares his surname with a renowned Soviet physicist? That one writer’s surname and the title of his main book are semantically related? These are just a few of the examples and ideas that will creep up on the reader, and that crowd the margins of my copy of the novel. This is part of the method (and success) of this book: it creates a text that is often suggestive of ideas, that implies tangents, and hints at propositions, rather than blathering at length about them. It’s a book, like the best literary novels, that keeps the reader thinking: not just whodunit, but about all kinds of things, more or less connected with the book’s subject matter. And as we make our way through the book, more and more suggestions and ideas accumulate, making us think, not about a specific topic or problem, but making us, in a broader sense, just think. And for every association and loose idea, there is also a theme threaded through the book, recurring in different guises, suggesting different conclusions each time.

One of these themes is the topic of authorship, and, ultimately, of truth, fiction and authorial intent. The book’s subtitle is Konstantin Skvorecky’s memoir of the alien invasion of 1986 but much of the book’s suspense revolves around the question whether the alien invasion is really taking place or not, and in answering (or not) that question, the book makes use of our belief and disbelief in authorizing genres and gestures. An appended fictional Wikipedia entry for Konstantin Skvorecky ties in these concerns with our reading of our own history and how we understand chronology and time-lines. In this, there is an odd connection of Yellow Blue Tibia to the mad work of writers like Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to 1986 and Konstantin Skvorecky’s troubles. After decades during which nothing happened that related to the events in the cabin, Skvorecky, a resigned old man, left by his wife, recovering alcoholic, who makes some money as a translator now, is suddenly swept away by a series of events that are all connected to the story he and his colleagues made up 41 years ago. People claim that the fiction has come true, that UFOs really exist and radiation aliens, as well, and that the January, 28, 1986 breakup and disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle was the attack prognosticated in the story. What ensues is a delightfully strange picaresque tale that borrows quite a few elements of the noir, mostly in its setup of situations with shadowy government agents who may or may not pursue their own agenda. In scene after scene we encounter wonderfully warm and colorful images, although some of the events that are recounted for us, are dark and brutal.

Generally speaking, Roberts manages to bridge the distance between a serious, even vicious, kind of story/background and a laugh-out-loud funny tale with great aplomb. Like all great satirists (cf. Tova Reich), he is able to approach a situation like an interrogation in the cellars of the KGB and lace them with a humor that is at times almost silly, as with an interrogator, who, off the record, enjoys threatening his interlocutors with castration, which leads to a dialog that had me wheezing with laughter. This does not take away or detract from the dark history that Roberts engages here. But Roberts wants more than just instigate sadness in his readers, he wants us to think, comprehend, and contextualize this mass movement with others in the 20th century. He does this not by lecturing us, by cloaking non-fictional propositions in the soft cloth of a novel. Instead, what is on display in Yellow Blue Tibia is a genuine interest in the ideas and concerns of the novel and its readers are invited to take part in the swirls and eddies of its thinking. This makes for a very rich reading that does not bludgeon the reader with a disquisition on, for example, mass culture, or mass movements; we are rather presented with different elements that we can connect if we want to and in what way we see fit, although the general theme and focus of the novel do limit us somewhat. That theme and focus is writing, specifically the writing of Science Fiction. We are presented with a handful of categorical statements of what science Fction is, or is not, of what it can do, and what it can’t. It is, again, not a coincidence, that we are reminded of a classic of SF here, L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky.

L. Ron Hubbard, his dangerous religion and his mediocre writing have often been mentioned in these contexts and they are a great example for mass movements, because in the evolution of Scientology from Dianetics and Hubbard’s work as a writer of science fiction the interconnectedness of fiction and religion becomes most obvious and clear. Hubbard’s pseudoscience, first published in the leading SF weekly Astounding Science-Fiction under John W. Campbell, Jr.’s editorship, is one of Yellow Blue Tibia‘s most important references. Not only does the book feature two members of the Church of Scientology, but its discussion of aliens, its depiction of UFO obsession, and, finally, its overriding theme of how narratives shape our perceived reality share many links to Hubbard’s new religion. The suggestibility of human beings, especially those ‘schooled’ by authoritarian belief systems is repeatedly brought up, with links, perhaps, to Elias Canetti’s brilliant opus magnum Crowds and Power. Crowds, for Canetti, don’t need a leader, they need a direction. Fiction, for both Hubbard and Roberts, provides the possibility of shaping exactly that: a direction that crowds can use as orientation, orientation that is beyond doctrine. It gives direction not just to explicit thought, but to the essentials of perception. In this criticism, Yellow Blue Tibia allies itself with orthodox Marxist thought and its Ideologiekritik, but it exceeds these narrow boundaries as well. Although it is committed to its ideas, it is not settled or determinate. The whole story is pervaded by a thorough ambiguity, an irony, if you will, which does not undermine the ideas of the book, but is part and parcel of these very ideas.

In the end, despite its concern with crowds, it is, I think, in part a rejection of Mao II‘s dictum that the future belongs to crowds. Nonsense, the book says, the future belongs to human beings, but they have to think for themselves. It is crowds and their narratives that are limiting, forcing people onto their narrow paths of thought. In this, Yellow Blue Tibia tars religion and ideologies with the same brush, calling on its readers to emancipate ourselves from hierarchies and structures that are narratives, i.e. fiction (in what is clearly a work of fiction, a contradiction that the book seems very aware of). This is by no means even close to be new, but then Roberts does not employ the gesture of much science fiction that wants to be ‘mind-blowing’. Yellow Blue Tibia is a novel that is very conscious of its antecedents, philosophically and literary. There is Stirner, maybe, Wilhelm Reich, certainly, Golden Age science fiction, 1970s paranoid classics like the novels of Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick, and many many novels about 20th century’s totalitarian systems. The associative, broad nature of its references and allusions means that its connections extend to books that the author may not have read at all, like the trash of Maurice Dantec and Imre Kertész’ fine meta-novel A Kudarc. Yellow Blue Tibia is conscious of the libraries of books that preceded it and doesn’t even attempt to be full of new ideas. Instead, it opts, surprisingly, for something else. The structure of the book’s narrative, as its ending shows us, is incredibly traditional, and both moving and charming, and it’s Adam Roberts’ major achievement that he managed to ground the story and its ideas in a humane, personal narrative that suggests to us that its concerns are more than fun and games. They matter.

As does science fiction. Yes, the book constantly contrasts fact with fiction, showing how lines get blurred, creating an atmosphere, a sense of undecidability, but it’s not plain ‘fiction’. It’s science fiction. Adam Roberts wrote a paean not just to imagination proper but to science fiction especially. Science fiction is stronger than imagination: at one point, a character exclaims

I only mean – it’s science fiction! If your science-fictional imagination is broken, you can rebuild it with imaginary high technology! If your writer’s soul is amputated, then because we are talking of science fiction you can fit it with a robotic prosthesis. You can write again, write better, stronger, as a cyborg!

Good science fiction offers tools not just to understand history or the present but to change our perception. The ‘cyborg’ bit here is significant: technology does not just provide props (as furnishings in historical novels tend to be), it allows the writer to supplement the imagination. Science fiction does not need to pretend to work from within a fixed, limiting world, its hierarchies and priorities need not be the small, polar ones of what we perceive to be the necessary, inevitable limits. There is, I think, an openness to good science fiction that is more than seeing clearer. It’s not seeing clearer, which is implying an exploration of limits, it’s glimpsing possibilities beyond this table, that wall or that window, without indulging in sloppy metaphysics. Science fiction, dark or light, is a kind of dreamy materialism. Adam Roberts does not attempt to seriously engage these possibilities, instead he highlights the literary genre of science fiction, and its viability as a tool in world building. Science fiction, he says, is worth engaging with, worth writing and reading. As is Yellow Blue Tibia. Read it. You will not regret it.


Easily the most boring babble in months because this one features only boring old me and the marvelous Lone. I recorded it, and Donny put it up last week. Here is the direct link and here is Donny’s summary

Marcel and Lone get together for a duet, where they discuss the process of writing reviews. As reviewers themselves, they compare notes on how reviews are done, the research put in, and influences. Also discussed are JD Salinger, on his recent passing, and one of Lone’s true loves: Virginia Woolf.

I want to be good to myself

Tonight I found this poem by a young poet in this 2008 New Yorker issue. It touched and moved me immensely, though for reasons that I suspect to be private, but it’s also good poetry, in many ways, though not entirely my cuppa. In this review, John Stoehr traces Dickman’s literary lineage back to Kenneth Koch, who I also have reservations about. This New Yorker profile is about both Matthew Dickman and his twin brother Michael, who is also a poet (and sounds far more interesting). Both are certainly worth checking out. Now, for the poem:

Matthew Dickman: Troubles

Marilyn Monroe took all her sleeping pills
to bed when she was thirty-six, and Marlon Brando’s daughter
hung in the Tahitian bedroom
of her mother’s house,
while Stanley Adams shot himself in the head. Sometimes
you can look at the clouds or the trees
and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground.
The performance artist Kathy Change
set herself on fire while Bing Crosby’s sons shot themselves
out of the music industry forever.
I sometimes wonder about the inner lives of polar bears. The French
philosopher Gilles Deleuze jumped
from an apartment window into the world
and then out of it. Peg Entwistle, an actress with no lead roles, leaped from the “H” in the HOLLYWOOD sign
when everything looked black and white
and David O. Selznick was king, circa 1932. Ernest Hemingway
put a shotgun to his head in Ketchum, Idaho
while his granddaughter, a model and actress, climbed the family tree
and overdosed on phenobarbital. My brother opened thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body
until it wasn’t his body anymore. I like
the way geese sound above the river. I like
the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they’re beautiful.
Sarah Kane hanged herself, Harold Pinter
brought her roses when she was still alive,
and Louis Lingg, the German anarchist, lit a cap of dynamite
in his own mouth
though it took six hours for him
to die, 1887. Ludwig II of Bavaria drowned
and so did Hart Crane, John Berryman, and Virginia Woolf. If you are
traveling, you should always bring a book to read, especially
on a train. Andrew Martinez the nude activist, died
in prison, naked, a bag
around his head, while in 1815 the Polish aristocrat and writer
Jan Potocki shot himself with a silver bullet.
Sara Teasdale swallowed a bottle of blues
after drawing a hot bath,
in which dozens of Roman senators opened their veins beneath the water.
Larry Walters became famous
for flying in a sears patio chair and forty-five helium-filled weather balloons. He reached an altitude of 16,000 feet
and then he landed. He was a man who flew.
He shot himself in the heart. In the morning I get out of bed, I brush
my teeth, I wash my face, I get dressed in the clothes I like best.
I want to be good to myself.

Khushwant Singh: Train to Pakistan

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Singh, Khushwant (1981), Train to Pakistan, Grove ISBN 0-8021-3221-9

Train to Pakistan, originally published in 1956, is not a very good book, but quite enjoyable much of the time. Khushwant Singh, less than ten years after Partition, in 1947, wrote a novel of less than 200 pages and still managed to create what’s probably best described as an uneven mess. Ideas, allusions, characters and bits and pieces of story float all over the book. There’s no denying that Singh, who has since become a famous public figure and intellectual in India, prefers to lecture rather than write a fully coherent novel. This is not to say, however, that Train to Pakistan is a bad book. There is much in it that is successful, much that is interesting and even engrossing, especially in the first half of the book, which is far more compellingly told than anything in the second half. In the latter half we flounder unhappily through Singh’s feeble attempts to hold all strands of his story together to deliver what is clearly meant to be a moving and inspiring ending to a book that isn’t shy about its intent to present the reader not just (or even primarily) with a convincing story, but with a convincing reading of history. This is one of the reasons why the book is sometimes hard to read or assess for someone (like me) who may not be knowledgeable about Indian political debates in the 1950s and 60s (at all). It’s hard to tell what is a distortion and what is the goal, or: the target, of that distortion or presentation. In the absence of that in-depth knowledge, readings (such as mine) may fall short of properly assessing the power of tropes and images used by Singh. Nevertheless, the most important trope, the basic constellation of the book seems clear, even more so since it’s a widely used topos in world literature. Singh’s novel is set in Mano Majra, a village in the Punjab, a border region between Pakistan and India, shared by both countries. There are five major rivers in the region, one of which is the Sutlej, “half a mile“ from Mano Majra. Information like this allows us to situate the village in the province of Punjab (the region Punjab consists of several provinces, one of which is also called Punjab), which is relevant, since Punjab is an Indian province that is predominantly Sikh, as far as ethnicity and religion is concerned, and it is the conflict between Sikhs and Muslims in the year of the partition that forms the novel’s main impetus. Most of the characters on Train to Pakistan are, in fact, Sikh or Muslim. The roles of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus within the novel form what appears to be a central subtext to its narrative, which employs the village as a metaphor to discuss the fate of a whole nation or nationality. It’s a well-worn, fairly common construction, one that every reader can be relied upon to recognize, and thus perfectly suited for didactic purposes. It’s also the reason why Singh’s characters are paper-thin, with just enough depth to fill out the roles assigned to them. These roles are already visible in this early description of the village

Mano Majra is a tiny place. It has only three brick buildings, one of which is the home of the moneylender Lala Ram Lal. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque. The three brick buildings enclose a triangular common with a large peepul tree in the middle. (…) There are only about 70 families and Lala Ram Lal’s is the only Hindu family. The other are Sikhs and Muslims, about equal in number. The Sikhs own all the land around the village; the Muslims are tenants and share all the tilling with the owners.

As schematic as this description of the village is, so is the rest of Train to Pakistan‘s construction, including the sentimental love story threaded through it. We quickly realize that realism can’t be expected from this book, that its stakes and ambitions are higher than that. Oddly enough, once the allegorical nature of much of the book’s narrative is established, Singh tries to reverse the process in the second half, piling on geographical and historical references aplenty, clearly not completely trusting his readers to make the connection of Mano Majra’s history to the broader history of the region in particular and India in general. At the beginning, though, we are presented with a village that shimmers with charm, meaning and possibilities, and a story with just as many possibilities, and even more charm. The Romeo-and-Juliet-esque story of Jugga, who is both a “budmash” (an English word of Persian origin meaning “a worthless person” or “a bad character”) and a Sikh, and his love Nooran, who’s a Muslim weaver’s daughter, is a clear indication of the direction that the book is going to take. Jugga, a mischief and troublemaker with a criminal record, has had a falling-out with some local gangsters and rowdies, and while he is engaging in a secret tryst with his lover, his former mates and fellow “dacoits” (a Hindi word meaning “outlaw” or “robber”) make a surprise visit to the city, killing and robbing the Lala Ram Lal, the moneylender. It is this murder that summons the rest of the world to appear in Mano Majra, first in the form of a sub-inspector, charged with clearing up the circumstances of the crime. Additionally, a deputy commissioner arrives and oversees the procedure, but he is also responsible for bringing the village ‘up to date’, for introducing it to the upheavals that were troubling the nation, and especially the region, in 1947. Incidentally, both police officers are Hindus and, like the murderous gang, outsiders to the village. In the passages that detail village life before the police arrived, an atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of Sir Salman Rushdie’s work (think the Kashmiri village in Shalimar the Clown) is created, with the few individuals that Singh selects for closer inspection appearing warmly, starkly, in front of the reader. The impression is less that of a village and more that of a family, albeit one with secrets and some animosities. The outsiders, starting with the dacoits, force the community to contract, presenting us a more or less unified front of ‘villagers’. And from this point on, individual conflicts, though they are hinted at in the beginning and feebly re-introduced throughout the book, play a role so small as to be almost non-existent. And the minute we start to look at the village as a homogeneous mass, it starts to fall apart into smaller blocks, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The only exceptions are granted to people with official roles. The priest, the mayor, the policemen. This kind of construction contradicts slightly annoying critics like Peter Morey who try to apply theoretical concepts like the one proposed by Frederic Jameson in his 1986 essay “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” to Train to Pakistan, Jameson’s point being precisely the opposite. In Jameson’s mind, emancipation leads to narratives where the third world subject is no longer a stand-in for the fate of a nation or nationality. Without further discussing Jameson’s theory here (which would be a waste of breath anyway; Jameson being one of the most consistently overrated and useless practicioners of ‘theory’)), it should be stated that Khushwant Singh’s novel is as far from such a kind of writing as possible. Singh’s writing is explicitly, expressly representational, indirect. Singh’s characters’ individuality is dissolved in the broader narrative of the region and the nation. This literary technique is mirrored in the fate of a Iqbal Singh, an agitator from New Delhi, come to spread the message of the People’s Party to rural India. A regular narodnik, he is as young as he is naïve, and, upon being picked up by the police, his youthful resentment and anger allow them to typecast him as a Muslim Leaguer, a powerful accusation in the changing climate of Mano Majra, where Sikhs have come to mistrust their Muslim neighbors and vice versa. The insider/outsider logic of the way the community works makes it easy to convince the villagers (a word that quickly only means “Sikh villagers”) that this outsider, this foreign face, is not one of them, that he is one of those Muslims who keep killing Sikhs and Hindus, sending trains full of corpses back over the border. This process of categorizing people is both criticized and affirmed by the book, which creates an odd reading experience. As Iqbal is stripped of his individuality, we see that this is a bad thing, but a few dozen pages later, the only bad thing about this is the incorrect categorization. This is the first of many elements that are puzzling about this book, which is directly and explicitly critical of the violence and the disruptions that have been taking place, yet at the same time, it affirms them, and the difference between the two statements appears to be an adjustment of the lens and a cheap, general condemnation of violence. It’s as if the novel condemned the actions but approved of the results. What’s more, these are not the only affirmative aspects of Train to Pakistan. In a very strange way, the book seems to approve of the general power balance and social structure that was in place during the rule of the British empire. The schematic description of the village’s social structure might have tipped us off, but, as Ralph J. Crane points out in his essay “Inscribing a Sikh India” (2005), the real giveaway are the roles assigned to the different ethnicities. Singh consistently portrays his Hindu characters as weak, as officials, to wit: subalterns. Muslims are below Hindus, they are objects to be used as the narrative sees fit. Above the subalterns, the Hindus, however, are the Sikh. As confused villagers they may seem weak sometimes, but it’s the circumstances that made them so. In fact, all the power players in Train to Pakistan are Sikh, and any decisive action, positive and negative, is undertaken by them. The best that Hindus can do is propose or scheme. Ultimately, they submit to the power exuded by Sikhs. And as we all know, this directly mirrors the situation in Punjab under British rule, when, among the ruled, Sikh were the rulers. Sikh were better educated as a rule, better off, and as a consequence of this and other factors, more powerful. Education is an important part of this, because what Crane didn’t mention is the baffling linguistic quality of the book. Singh’s subaltern doesn’t talk back. The book, though celebrating the inside half of the insider/outsider division, is written from the outside, as far as language is concerned. Khushwant Singh’s language reads to me, in many ways, like a continuation of Colonialist language. Indian terms, except for a few words that have been assimilated into English, are bracketed, exoticized. The language is always clean, sometimes even bordering on bland, but what’s worse are the self-indictments that the characters deliver in this language. Anything that characters tell us about themselves is weirdly contorted, it’s both charming and self-effacing, but at the same time I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all supportive of the Colonial discourse. Jugga, in prison (of all places) , tells Iqbal, who wants to tell Jugga that he’s a victim of the establishment, tells his bespectacled fellow inmate, that he deserves being jailed, being targeted, because he’s just that kind of guy, he needs something to do, and if that happens to be mischief, mischief it is. Listening to these kinds of statements it’s easy to list the Colonialist diagnosis of people ‘like Jugga’. And this is the worst thing about all this caboodle. Worse than reproducing reductive categorizations, worse than reproducing the language and hierarchies of the freshly departed Colonial masters, is the novel quiet acceptance of the Colonial gaze inasmuch as identities and culture is concerned. Part of the book feels like a report commissioned by an occupying force. In this light, it’s quite fitting that its use of the village and its stunted use of travel hark back to an older time, to a simpler idea of the borders between ethnicities and cultures. You can’t help but think of James Clifford’s dissections of, for example, Malinowski’s work in books like Routes. Singh’s interest in Train to Pakistan is in power and how a cataclysmic upheaval (and Singh doesn’t spare us the gruesome, horrific images and descriptions that accompany this upheaval) can send ripples through that kind of structure, not uprooting it, but making us aware of the true foundation of the whole social construct. In this he succeeds marvelously, but the myopic, affirmative nature of the book (at least it seemed to me to be that way) does detract from that success, just as the confused, over-ambitious second half lessens the fun that the reader had reading the first half. Now, this book is, to an extent, a classic in India, and I admit I am not well equipped to contextualize it properly. The references I use are invasive, to an extent, and I’m quite likely wrong in several respects. My knowledge of India is nil, so, whatever I said in the handful of preceding paragraphs, was of necessity like groping in the dark. If any reader has some links, books or comments to add, I herewith encourage him or her to do so. Below this post, via email or twitter. As for Train to Pakistan, do read the book. It’s not a good novel or an interesting historical/political statement, but I did enjoy myself while reading it.


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Doublebabble (58 & 61)

Apart from demonstrating how wrong about Auster one can be (click here for the snippet), Donny put up more of our episodes. They’re from earlier this year and in the one I am in, I was kinda out of it, so I’m babbling nonsense. It’s episode 58, and features and all-star cast, with Donny, Björn, Lone, Gem and Lars, and me, of course. Here is the direct link and here is Donny’s summary.

Gem and Lars return for this first show for the year, where we touched on quite a lot of things, surprisingly. Music, films and of course, books. This show was a little slow in going, but there are Michael Jackson jokes in there!

The other new episode is Episode 61, another highly entertaining episode. The cast is small but good, with Donny, Björn and guest star Umapagan Ampikaipakan. Here is the direct link and here is Donny’s summary

The guys talk about Apple’s impending announcement of their supposed tablet device (which we now know as the Apple iPad) and its supposed killer ebook-reader features, and the ebook industry in general. Bjorn taps into his experience in the ebook industry for this one.

Note: This show was recorded several days before the announcement by Apple on Jan 27 2010. Also, this is another episode where we jumped in without introductions at the start.

The show notes to both episodes are still missing, but they’ll arrive eventually. Listen to both shows. They’re good fun.

Wrong about Auster (bookbabblet)

While Donny was tardy in putting up new episodes, he took the time to record a 10-Minute mini-episode with bearish Björn to briefly discuss Auster. Needless to say they are wrong about Auster. How wrong? Click here for the 10-Minute snippet, and here is Donny’s summary:

This is a snippet of Bjorn and Donny’s short conversation after the recording of Episode 61. Lamenting yet another postponement to our planned Paul Auster Smackdown show, Bjorn shares his thoughts on Auster’s work. Sort of like a prelude to the smackdown, if you will.

For someone who is right about Auster, go here for a review of Invisible, here for a review of Brooklyn Follies and, finally, here for a review of In The Country of Last Things

Beauty bleak and far from ours

Richard Wilbur: Elsewhere

The delectable names of harsh places:
Cilicia Aspera, Estremadura.
In that smooth wave of cello-sound, Mojave,
We hear no ill of brittle parch and glare.

So late October’s pasture-fringe,
With aster-blur and ferns of toasted gold,
Invites to barrens where the crop to come
Is stone prized upward by the deepening freeze.

Speechless and cold the stars arise
On the small garden where we have dominion.
Yet in three tongues we speak of Taurus’ name
And of Aldebaran and the Hyades,

Recalling what at best we know,
That there is beauty bleak and far from ours,
Great reaches where the Lord’s delighting mind,
Though not inhuman, ponders other things.

Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems 1943-2004 is one of the very best books of poetry published in the last decade. Wilbur is a dazzling, controlled, dignified poet. The poem above was first published in Mayflies (2000). You can also hear the poet read it, if you click here.

No Insight & Revelations

Mikki Halpin is ridiculous in the Salon.

Both Joyce Maynard and Salinger’s daughter Margaret were vilified for violating the great man’s privacy when they wrote about their own experiences with him and exposed his predatory, controlling relationships with women. Instead of exploring the insights these revelations might bring to readings of Salinger’s work (not to mention the women’s right to tell their own stories), critics dismissed their books as exploitative, attention-seeking stunts. (…) This sort of backlash is not exclusive to Salinger — when Pablo Picasso’s former wives and lovers began to expose him as a physically and emotionally abusive man, they were subject to similar criticisms.

Actually, the “not to mention” phrase is the only thing that may be relevant here. I can’t really be bothered to examine the legitimacy of the claim that the biographical facts might be relevant (producing “insights”) to the literary output of Salinger, except in a non-literary mode, but I’m currently trying to stave off annoyance while dealing with literary criticism about Bishop’s work, one, memorably claiming that you cannot understand her “enigmatic” texts without seeing them as mainly and primarily biographic statements. These critics seem to care very little about Bishop as artist and person, and it’s an enervating read. So, no patience for this kind of buffoonery today. I notice though, when I vented my irritation at Nigel Beale’s twattishness in this post and it’s followup post, I didn’t have more patience.

Sentences with Sinkholes

In 1977, in an interview with the Paris Review, Joan Didion said some very true things about Henry James.

He wrote perfect sentences, too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them. I wouldn’t dare to write one. I’m not even sure I’d dare to read James again. I loved those novels so much that I was paralyzed by them for a long time. All those possibilities. All that perfectly reconciled style. It made me afraid to put words down.


Gert Ledig: Payback

Ledig, Gert (1999), Vergeltung, Suhrkamp
ISBN: 978-3-518-41064-6

[English translation: Ledig, Gert (2003), Payback, Granta
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
ISBN 1-86207-565-4]

Gert Ledig’s second novel, Vergeltung, originally published in 1956, is about the destruction that German cities knew at the hands of the Allied bomb squads, about the terrors, the fear and the vast devastation that some of these cities and their inhabitants experienced. It’s an portrayal of senseless destruction and surprisingly devoid of any explicit guilt. This is surprising because in the German and Austrian literature after the Second World War, guilt played an important role, and there was a budding recognition of the horrors that this country’s government had unleashed upon the world, supported by a great deal of the population (actual National Socialists only represented a portion of those who had, in these respects, similar convictions). Jews were largely absent in early post-WWII literature, though, although sometimes they were used as a trope, sometimes as a small curiosity (as in the Tin Drum) in very forthright works of literature. Even as conscientious and careful a writer as the great Uwe Johnson changed Hannah Arendt in his literary homage to her in the Jahrestage into a Prussian noblewoman. While this absence is understandable, it can be odd, and even produce and uncomfortable rhetoric. In some cases, it’s even more understandable, as in books about the bombing of German cities. After all, these cities were judenrein, they didn’t really contain any Jews any more. The inhabitants had made sure of that. But Ledig doesn’t refer to that absence, except in a twisted symbolism, either. Ledig’s world in the book is a world without Jews, a world where senseless destruction reins on a people that, at least according to this book, appears to have done nothing wrong. Invasions of other nations, bombs and rockets aimed and shot at other cities, and genocide, none of this really has a place in the book, which is about the “other” victims, the Germans. The kindest term I’d bestow on this kind of narrative is ‘dishonest’.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Even morally, Ledig’s novel isn’t a bad book by any measure, muddled though it is by Ledig’s odd thinking, but we’ll return to that. Before we dirty the water with morals, however, it’s important to mention and explain that Vergeltung is an incredibly written and impeccably constructed work of art. It was translated into English by Shaun Whiteside as Payback with an introduction by Michael Hofmann. Gert Ledig has only written three novels, the first of which, Stalinorgel (translated as The Stalin Organ by Michael Hofmann (Granta)) is a harrowing look at the war as soldiers at the front experienced it, and must be read in connection with canonical war books like Ernst Jünger’s troubling In Stahlgewittern and Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues. It was universally praised upon publication and quickly translated into several languages, despite the drastic language and the brutal images it contained. Vergeltung, Ledig’s second novel, however, was largely panned by critics and unsuccessful commercially, although it is probably his best book, and, aesthetically, one of the best books of its time. Faustrecht, his third and final novel, was even less successful, and is clearly the weakest of the bunch. It’s also concerned with a time that has been amply explored by German novelists: the situation after the war has been immortalized by countless canonical writers ranging from Siegfried Lenz, Günter Grass to Heinrich Böll and Wolfgang Koeppen. Vergeltung, though, pursues a topic that has not been thoroughly and openly examined, especially not in German literature.

This lack has been mentioned by W.G. Sebald in 1997, in an essay and a lecture (published as Luftkrieg und Literatur) that provoked scholars, critics and writers to seek out and discover bits and pieces of literature about the Allied bombing scattered all over German literary history. Gert Ledig’s book is the most famous re-discovery that emerged from that debate. Ledig’s work had been all but forgotten, and his renaissance, that he barely lived to see (he died before the new edition of Vergeltung was published) was enormous. The book was immediately elevated into the ranks of canonical German literature and its author almost became a household name. Critics in the 1950s were too put off by the gruesome details, and the off-kilter descriptions of carnage to give the fine writing and the meticulous construction its due, and now, with blood and mayhem possessing little shock value to contemporary readers, the work was suddenly accessible, and swamped with critical admiration. Rightly so, at least from an aesthetic perspective. Politically, it is a fraught as Sebald’s own work. Vergeltung follows the stories of a handful of characters in an unnamed German city (several details seem to point to Munich as the model for that city). It’s taking place in all of 69 minutes, between 13.01 and 14.10 CET. Vergeltung‘s narrative, while strictly chronological, is disjointed, with the stories chopped up into small scenes (resulting in ca. 59 scenes)and spliced together anew to form a turbulent, riveting stream of violence. There is no redemption, no hope in the book, which mirrors on the formal level the raw, incoherent experience that allows none of the characters to plan ahead. At the mercy of fate they need to make do with now, to try to live as carefully and as responsibly as possible without being able to overview more than the tiny bubble of time that clings to them. Every second could be their last, and how they react to this limitation, to the imminent danger, this illuminates the characters more aptly and incisively than a sentimental interior monologue ever could.

And the revelations are dire. What looks and feels like a descent into hell from the outside, seems to contain sinners aplenty, but Ledig does not stoop to condemn people. He states what happens, and in which contexts, and leaves us to sort out the connections and meanings. And we can’t help, but feel the fear enveloping every single of these characters. For them, these are the end times, and they all prepare to die, eventually. An older couple declines hiding in the cellar or a bunker. They stay in their house and await what things may come. The description of their relationship reminds the reader of Philemon and Baucis’ mythic marriage, more specifically perhaps of Goethe’s rendering of the myth in his rich Faust II. In what’s almost certainly a direct allusion, Ledig has his couple resist attempts to move them. As they tumble into a darkness at the end of the book, they do so because they chose to. They don’t want to die, but they willingly accept that death is a possible outcome. Something similar happens to a father who leaves the safety of a bunker to walk to the train station in search of his child. He has to fight to be let out on the street and run and elude and resist soldiers repeatedly in order to be allowed to continue his search. In his commitment, he has no thought for his own life or his safety, and the book, in a way, accepts his sacrifice, having his death occur off-screen, suddenly, unceremoniously. We don’t need to see him die, because his death isn’t as important as his indifference to his own fate.

Ledig has created a greedy book that seems to soberly recount events, but, in fact, interweaves its events in a way that creates a symphonic music, with each character serving a purpose, contributing a note; it’s often read as realistic and documentary, when it’s actually not, it’s a recreation of the events by re-constructing the events in a way to enhance the emotional impact. The closer one looks the worthier of admiration the book appears. There’s not one accidental detail, neither as far as the good people of the city are concerned, nor as far as the bad guys are concerned. The difference between the two does not consist in different levels of evilness (or goodness) but in different susceptibilities to fear. There’s one man, who, trapped in a cellar after a portion of the house he hid in breaks down, decides to rape a dying young woman, his only companion. A German critic, inexplicably, talks about “lovemaking that starts as a rape”, but it’s not, it’s straight rape, and the woman cedes to his urge. When he, with the intensity of someone plagued by a bad conscience, starts to pester and bother her afterwards, she tries to get him to relent by trying to relieve his conscience, telling the man that she won’t tell anyone about it, and that it’s fine, really. Since they are both trapped and doomed, as both of them know, this does not reference an actually possible action, it merely demonstrates the two different kinds of behavior, the two different decisions taken in view of the impending death.

Other characters, especially soldiers, faced with the fear of their own extinction, take to drinking, and, drunk, harass civilians. Overall, the portrait of German soldiers is more nuanced and more realistic than that of civilians (or American soldiers). Several kinds of soldiers are depicted, among them, for example, young soldiers, literally shitting their pants, but also captains, ensigns and lieutenants. Questions of obedience, of patriotism and Jingoism are raised within a context that is just as limited as that of the civilian characters’. The soldiers know that they are likely to die soon, especially when and if they show their heads outside, but many of them have joined the army for a reason, and so, an order to assemble a unit of soldiers to hunt for a shot-down US pilot triggers interesting responses. The lieutenant finally manages to corral a group of very young gunners by handing them an Iron Cross. Giving them that cross to bear (it’s one of numerous uses of the cross motif in the book, which is, in general, suffused with religious allusions in general with biblical quotations and references), he convinces them of their duty. With these events, Ledig manages to capture something that happened widely in the last days of the war: young people, some fanatic Nazis, many not, were thrown at the advancing enemy as a last reserve. That many were willing to be thrown doesn’t lessen the magnitude of what happened to a whole generation in 1945, and without an expansive explanation, Ledig condenses that particular moment of history into one of many small stories in what’s a surprisingly short novel. It’s a technique he applies quite a few times. Every event, even though it may be based on reality and even though it is narrated as if in a documentary manner, is actually symbolic of something, or representative of a piece of cultural or historical context. Everything in this highly accomplished book wears a pathos of artifice. Ledig is fond of that pathos, like most of his contemporaries. And it wears it well.

That artifice is also found in Ledig’s language. Although much of it is very in tune with the writing of his time, he manages to make a remarkably original use of much of it, so much, indeed, that the reader can’t help but gasp at some of what Ledig does. Ledig uses very short sentences, a technique that was popular at his time, and that, a few years earlier, was eulogized by Wolfgang Borchert, arguably the greatest writer in the years immediately following the war (in his “Manifesto” (“Das ist unser Manifest”, 1947) he claims, with the pathos of the survivor, and the anger, arrogance and pride of the very young writer, that the time for using hypotaxes was long gone, that now was the time for parataxes). Short, breathless sentences, loaded with ire and theatricality, knew a great popularity in the decade after WWII, but the mastery that Ledig puts on display in Vergeltung is rare. He rapidly slips from focus to focus, subtly but quickly adjusting his lens all the time, so that a brilliant, horrifying dynamic develops that pushes the reader from one brutal image to the next. And another remarkable aspect of Ledig’s language is his off-hand vocabulary, his use of vocabulary that conveys an odd plasticity to the violent events he depicts. His language, both in the vocabulary he uses and in his use of short sentences and swiveling foci, makes the world he created come alive for the reader.

When he tells us about a pilot who has to drag the carcass of a fellow soldier from the turret of his plane, bit by bloody, soaking, squishy bit, or when he shows us a man who is “grilled” in the bubbling tar of the asphalt, we shudder. It’s not the violence that shocks us, its the immediacy of the depiction. And we know that immediacy is an effect that has to be created, it’s not a question of authenticity, it’s a question of craft and artistic commitment. This may perhaps read like a paradox, but this apparent paradox makes the book so readable and re-readable. You can read the book on a purely intellectual level, as well as on an emotional, gut level, and it works equally well on both. On the intellectual level you can’t help but be stunned by Ledig’s meticulous work, most impressively, his use of religion. In the short biographical notes that he sent his first publisher he proclaimed to be a staunch atheist, and the book, including the devastating, sweeping last chapter, can be read like a long theodicy, written by a nonbeliever. There’s however a kind of appreciation of belief as a cultural phenomenon in the book: almost all the good characters are quiet, peaceful Christians, drawing strength from their beliefs. In Ledig’s world, they are still crushed, maimed, and shot, but that’s because in that world God doesn’t exist. It’s a thin line that Ledig walks, between individual beliefs and a denial of God’s existence, but this, too, works reasonably well. Vergeltung depends upon its evocation of (good) individual belief because contrary to general reception, it posits a positive, model society in order to better offset all the things that have become awry in this war. When the American pilot is killed, most of the Germans present try to keep him from harm, it’s just an evil spirit, embodied by a small boy with pimples on his chin, who tries to whip up a lynching mob. The fundamentals are ok, but war, and the bombing have knocked Ledig’s model society over.

And this is what I really take issue with. In a book this artificial, a book which tries to seem documentary but is actually fraught with allusions and references, a book that does not shy away from including explicit references to contexts, literary and historical, a book that tackles more than just the 69 minutes it depicts, if in such a book the attacks are completely de-contextualized, depicted as senseless and “useless”, then there is a problem. Ledig confronts his readers with an unexplained, irrational, sudden explosion of violence, victimizing everyone, mostly white male characters. There is not a smidgen of guilt there, Ledig is loud and clear about his complaints. It may be argued that some images, some plot strands are covert references to the Shoah or Germany’s invasion of its neighboring countries (according to noted historian Frederick Taylor, German air raids on Soviet cities alone accounted for at least as many dead people as were killed in all air raids on German cities), but this is very little. Yes, Sebald was right to complain that German writers glossed over German suffering a lot, but there was a reason why Germans were so uneasy about this. I think that there was an understanding of the danger in talking about German victims: Germany’s actions might be relativized, made less important, seem less of an astonishing, singular, horrific tragedy than they actually were.

And boy were they right. Hacks like German ‘historian’ Jörg Friedrich, and aging writers like former SS member Günter Grass did exactly that, append to every mention of German crimes a “but we also need to consider…”. It’s not a surprise that in this climate, Ledig made a comeback, and it’s not a surprise that it would be his second book that first leaped back into the limelight. It’s not a surprise that this comeback was championed by the likes of Friedrich and Volker Hage. Reading the book made me uneasy and it reminded me of something that Hans Meyer, possibly the best and most important German critic post-WWII wrote in his wonderful, acidic, magisterial history of German post-war literature. He noted that even earnest anti-fascist tracts and texts of the period were suffused by fascist diction and structure. “Man spürt genau, daß hier Neophyten der Demokratie das Wort ergreifen”, he wrote memorably. But this uneasiness is tempered by Ledig’s extraordinary achievement as a writer, and even morally, his denouncement of war and violence is admirable, if dishonest. If we were counting points, Vergeltung would win hands down. But we are not, and I wouldn’t and won’t give or recommend this book to anyone who isn’t reasonably well read on German history. If you are, buy this book. If you are not, stay away from it.

Entitled to nothing

Dani Shapiro writing in the L.A. Times about the predicament of the writer, especially the young writer, in our turbulent age. Here is the direct link, here is an excerpt:

“Writing itself, if not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer’s main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer’s main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger.”

The writer who has experienced this even for a moment becomes hooked on it and is willing to withstand the rest. Insecurity, rejection and disappointment are a price to pay, but those of us who have served our time in the frozen tundra will tell you that we’d do it all over again if we had to. And we do. Each time we sit down to create something, we are risking our whole selves. But when the result is the transformation of anger, disappointment, sorrow, self-pity, guilt, perverseness and wounded innocence into something deep and concrete and abiding — that is a personal and artistic triumph well worth the long and solitary trip.

Welcome To Hell

This is not a joke, I’m afraid. This is an actual cover of Del Rey’s Dante translation (click here to purchase it). Oh please say it’s a joke. Viral whatever. It refers to this video game. I NEED to have this book. Yes, the Longfellow translation is available FOR FREE online (click here). Yes, many other translations are better (I myself am partial to the Mandelbaum translation). But how can you resist this?

“I just tried to write honestly”

Some of the great genii of American literature are famously recluses. There is Pynchon, of course, Don DeLillo (to an extent), the late Mr. Salinger, and, of course, the great Bill Watterson. I am a strong admirer of his work, so I was glad to find this very recent interview (Feb 01, 2010) with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Here is the direct link, and here is an excerpt:

I just tried to write honestly, and I tried to make this little world fun to look at, so people would take the time to read it. That was the full extent of my concern. You mix a bunch of ingredients, and once in a great while, chemistry happens. I can’t explain why the strip caught on the way it did, and I don’t think I could ever duplicate it. A lot of things have to go right all at once.

Right, Right

Eleanor Ross Taylor: Yes?

The dollar mark said
my shoe was long enough
and wide enough and happy
enough which was enough for
me. But it was not enough
for my foot. What did he care
for a happy shoe?
I gave him my left ear.
The right one I kept for
myself and in it I heard

right, right

I’m very excited about discovering this poet. After finding her on the shortlist of some prize I checked her out and loved what I found. I ordered her book tonite, in the meantime, found the above poem in the Blackbird Archives where you can also find this excellent essay on the poet,

Don DeLillo: Point Omega

DeLillo, Don (2010), Point Omega, Scribner
ISBN 978-1-4391-6995-7

DSC_0626I’m not a slow reader, not usually, especially not with regard to fiction, but it took me ages to finish Don DeLillo’s slim new novel Point Omega. It is a short, intense burst of literary fireworks by a living master, a writer, indeed, that some consider to be one of the best (if not the best) prose writer of his generation. Like many other writers of his generation, that praise has not been universally strong, like Pynchon, Barth or Roth, he has always had his detractors (most famously, perhaps, James Wood and the insufferable B.R. Meyers), and in the past decade, they seemed to gain the upper hand in the critical discourse. With no major (and canonical) novels like The Names, White Noise and Libra forthcoming, his output seemed to concentrate on plays and thin novels, with the exception of Underworld, his longest novel so far, and the one that could be said to contain the broadest and most sustained statement of his artistic vision. Mao II (despite winning the PEN/Faulkner award) and The Body Artist both failed to garner the attention, praise and respect that his earlier books won, and his 2003 novel Cosmopolis arguably represents the nadir of his oeuvre. There is a blandness to some of his late work, an indulgence of means and thought that ill befits a writer of DeLillo’s power and that does not really fit in with his ability to draw the utmost tension from a setting or situation. All that is different in Point Omega. There is not much plot, or memorable characters in the book, but then, that’s not the game it engages in.

DSC_0627Point Omega is one of the most concentrated, dense, focused novels I have read in a while. I think one of his problems in his late work, even in books that I enjoyed greatly, like Mao II, is a lack of will to decide upon a mode to write the book in, and nothing in the books mediates, controls or explains this lack. Mao II, for example, is, on the one hand, an explication of crowds and the cultural ties of various ideas about and views of crowds to the American culture and its self-image. As usual, DeLillo’s novel toys with idea, with slogans mentioned only to contradict them on the plot level. On the other hand, it’s an almost classical, traditional ars moriendi. There is no tension between these two elements, no gain that enriches the novel, these two parts just sit uneasily next to each other, sometimes connecting, more often not. I mention this specific novel and its problem, because in Point Omega, DeLillo sets up a similar situation, but this time his craft, his marvelous abilities as a novelist, prevail and mold the two elements into one coherent whole. Sadly for many of his readers, he sacrifices a readable plot, and believable characters in the process. But, the book still works, because DeLillo’s decision to focus on a wholly cerebral structure and narrative, to craft a book that is about speaking, seeing, writing, reading, a book that is, unlike much of his earlier work, about uncertainty, a book that questions authorial control and power, pays off big time in this book which I read carefully but breathlessly, slowly, but compelled to read on by the sheer avalanche of thought.

DSC_0628That thought, it should be added, isn’t DeLillo’s. One of his major strengths in this book is to write micro-pastiches, small set pieces, and set up a maze of reflective and repetitive devices, content to let the reader find his way through this. The static quality of this and other good recent DeLillo books often derives from the fact that DeLillo sets up situations rather than developing them in detail. His work, and especially Point Omega, frequently reads like a carefully constructed stage design, one that leaves the actors little wriggle room, but still one that depends upon the audience to animate it. His earlier work has practiced some healthy skepticism with regard to the long diatribes of the self-important narrators and protagonists populating its pages, but that skepticism was never as strong as in this book, which undercuts all attempts to establish any kind of authority. Unceasingly, the reader is confronted with readings and statements that sound definitive and certain, while becoming more and more certain that what he’s chasing after, what DeLillo denies him, is like the Kantian noumenon, independent from his perception but unknowable. This is not about the conditio humana, it’s not a broad and sweeping statement about human perception. It would be an incredibly dull and useless book if it were. No, what DeLillo does is examine his own art by putting it through the grinder of doubt. Point Omega is utterly self-contained; although it does offer references to culture, politics and science, it uses these as texts, as tools to make sense of itself.

DSC_0631Many of these tools appear in the monologues and brief remarks made both by the narrator, a filmmaker called Jim Finley, and by Richard Elster, an aging intellectual that Finley desperately wants to conduct an interview with. Or rather: whom he wants to be the subject of a documentary that is supposed to feature only Elster in front of a wall. In the most recent of a series of attempts to convince Elster, Finley visits him in his home in the desert (doubtless a fitting setting for a man who helped provide the intellectual framework for the Iraq war). Jesse, Elster’s visiting daughter, completes the set-up. As tensions between the odd trio develop, fissures start to show in the facade of their acts, as behaviors and speech seem to adapt to shifting dynamics. Finally, as the daughter vanishes without a trace, the situation breaks down, establishing a new hierarchy and new priorities for all concerned. What may sound exciting when summed up in a few sentences, isn’t actually exciting in the novel, or, not exciting for the reasons that one would expect. DeLillo takes care not to create a narrative that thrives on speed, on a simplistically coherent narrative thrust. Instead, he selects bits and pieces, small narrative chokepoints which are not structured by the characters and their emotional concerns, but rather through speeches and observations made by one of the three participants in that curious desert session. More often than not, these speeches focus on abstract issues, such as Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the “Omega Point”, on political, and philosophical considerations. The exigencies of film-making come up, as well as personal relationships in general.

DSC_0625In fact, it’s Point Omega’s treatment of the latter topic that best exemplifies not just it’s concerns but more to the point: what it’s not concerned with. In these discussions of marriage, we are offered two bland, cardboard cutout characters who talk about their marriage with less passion than an accountant will discuss his occupation with. Two things are especially remarkable about these passages, both to do with literary references. One is the fact that DeLillo borrows, possibly for the first time in his career, the maudlin tone of Philip Roth’s most self-absorbed and most self-pitying works (The Humbling, for example). It utterly, however, lacks the emotion, the sentimentality that Roth lathers his narratives up with. This is because these are pastiches, recognizable as such by the distance they keep to the reader and to other other sections of the book they are in. As the book draws to a close, these elements become stronger and stronger, but DeLillo keeps delaying the payoff, the gratification that we expect of some of these elements. In what is a very old-fashioned move, he presents us with possibilities, only to never work through their details. Whereas much of his other recent work allowed his old men to be as whiny as they wanted to be, DeLillo’s method here checks what, from the evidence of this other novels published in the past decade, is clearly an artistic instinct of his. This is one of several elements that he offers up for inspection and criticism. That he does it by borrowing the tone of a writer like Roth is not a sign of cowardliness. I think it’s a combination of wanting to exaggerate the tendency in his own work by comparing it with Roth’s vastly more indulgent use of the same device, and of trying to step away from the plate, of trying to set a stage but let the reader hit the ball. The various reviews that made different use of this element of the book are an indication of sorts of the success of that method.

DSC_0630The other thing that is remarkable about this passage (but also about the rest of the book) is how it clearly demonstrates an alienation, of the sort that has been amply expounded upon by fiction writers of all stripes. Two books seem particularly pertinent here. One is Albert Camus’ La Chute, with its protagonist Clamence whose disillusion, whose ‘fall’ provides a blueprint for how Richard Elster’s life develops, not in most of the details, but certainly in the sentiment and general direction. Some aspects are even rather close, as Clamence’s predilection for heights and loneliness which corresponds to Elster’s move to the desert. The other book, which seems more a spiritual forebear than an actual explicit reference, is Peter Handke’s odd little masterpiece Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (translated into English by Michael Roloff as The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). In this book, published in 1970, Peter Handke proposes an idea of alienation that far exceeds a feeling of simple estrangement from people and situations. His protagonist, Joseph Bloch, even finds himself unable at times to hold on to the conventions of language, the relationship between things, words, and himself, which is usually taken for granted. At a particularly chilling moment in the book, even Bloch’s language breaks down, dissolving into small pictorial icons. While such a breakdown isn’t experienced by the narrator, it’s suggested that Elster may suffer from something like that, and the very framework, the novel’s central metaphor, engages a disbelief in the viability of conventional solutions to perceptional coherence.

24hour spychoThat framework is film, more specifically, Douglas Gordon’s installation 24 Hour Psycho, “first screened in 1993” and “installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the summer of 2006”, as the author tells us at the back of the book. And it is in late summer 2006 that the frame narrative of Point Omega is set, in the darkened room where the project is installed. 24 Hour Psycho is a projection of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but slowed down to about 2 frames a second, so that a screening of the whole movie takes up exactly 24 hours. Finch spends days in that room, watching the long version several times, and through his encounter with it, we are offered film as a metaphor for perception. The fact that our stories change when we see them enlarged, slower, faster, or from a different angle. Finch tries very hard to be smart and insightful and peppers his narrative with references to the installation, but his remarks are frequently ridiculous, and clearly serve as a reproduction of Elster’s speech. Elster, as a teacher, and someone who helped shape governmental policies, represents the discourse of power, but the novel weakens the link of that kind of discourse with the character of Elster, extending it to the narrator first, and, implicitly, to the authorial discourse itself. This deliberate weakening of the dominating discourse of the book is at times buttressed by a fuzziness in the writing, small ambiguities, inexact phrasings which destabilize a clear reading of these passages, without offering an alternative. While its true that its cerebral nature distances the reader, giving him everything at a remove, offering him emotions as objects, objects as language and language, in turn, as objects, it also distances the author. When a writer like Auster disavows his characters, it’s a sign of weakness, a difference which is compounded by books like this which are driven by an intense self-awareness that arises not in a disquisition about self-awareness, but in a steady and fine undercutting of the author’s own grasp of the novel’s discourse.

DSC_0629Any payoff that the book offers is in the exhilarating ride that it provides as literature, the plain joy of reading, of becoming, for minutes, hours, part of the book’s enterprise. It declines the opportunity to use characters and a story as an easy in for the reader, it does not reach out to him, it expects him to climb down into it on its own terms, read it, understand it within the limits that it offers. There’s no pretension of openness, of availability, and this is surely a quality that will put a lot of people off who like some comfort with their art, the coziness and warmth, not of ‘real’ human emotion, but of the conventional charade that is verisimilitude. DeLillo makes demands of his readers, and more than any other writer I read these past months, he isn’t open to or accepting of a broader, less interested readership. It wants you to care about its issues. If you don’t, this book won’t work for you. In its harsh look at convention, its rejection of simple solutions, it’s actually, while not open to other kinds of readers, open to other voices. Don DeLillo can seem like a writer who hogs the attention in his books, which can lead critics and readers to falsely equate the opinions of his protagonists with his own opinions. What’s true, however, is that DeLillo’s taut fictional nets do not allow for other voices, they are strict and restrictive in that regard. Point Omega, while possible DeLillo’s most taut book, disowns these narratives and suggests an opening up of new possibilities. We’re not there yet, neither we as readers, nor DeLillo as a writer, but Point Omega is a breaking point, a frontier post, as Stevens put it, “at the end of the mind, / beyond the last thought.” There is space, and as a writer, DeLillo lays no claims on it. He doesn’t even map it out, he only demonstrates the limits of his work, of his reach as writer and artist. That’s why Point Omega, his most claustrophobic, most densely constructed novel, also feels like a liberation, and his bravest book in decades.


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Writers, Thinkers

*sigh* As if we needed any more examples of how some great writers may not be great thinkers…but anyway, here is a recent one. Wole Soyinka, the great Nigerian playwright, has dropped a couple of remarks in a recent interview, but this one took the cake:

“And yet England allows it. Remember, that country was the breeding ground for communism, too. Karl Marx did all his work in libraries there …”

The Lost Booker

Saw this today:

Melvyn Bragg, Len Deighton, J.G. Farrell, Susan Hill, David Lodge, Ruth Rendell and Patrick White are just some of the authors who could win The Lost Man Booker Prize which is unveiled today, Monday 1st February. This is a one-off prize to honour books published in 1970 which missed out on the opportunity to win the Booker Prize.

The reason being that no Booker has ever been awarded for books published in 1970, as that year fell into the gap between when the prize was awarded retrospectively and when they started to award the best novel in the past yet.

This is the longlist, with 22 books. I am ashamed to say (mumble) that I haven’t read any of those. Some writers I know and enjoy, but these books? No-uh.

o Brian Aldiss, The Hand Reared Boy
o H.E.Bates, A Little Of What You Fancy?
o Nina Bawden, The Birds On The Trees
o Melvyn Bragg, A Place In England
o Christy Brown, Down All The Days
o Len Deighton, Bomber
o J.G.Farrell, Troubles
o Elaine Feinstein, The Circle
o Shirley Hazzard, The Bay Of Noon
o Reginald Hill, A Clubbable Woman
o Susan Hill, I’m The King Of The Castle
o Francis King, A Domestic Animal
o Margaret Laurence, The Fire Dwellers
o David Lodge, Out Of The Shelter
o Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat
o Shiva Naipaul, Fireflies
o Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander
o Joe Orton, Head To Toe
o Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven
o Ruth Rendell, A Guilty Thing Surprised
o Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat
o Patrick White, The Vivisector

Click here for the full announcement.