Heirs of the Enlightenment

This is from the astounding book Rorty and his Critics, edited by the wonderful Robert Brandom (Blackwell). The book consists of essays critical of Rorty on the one hand and Rorty’s marvelous replies on the other. Personally, I consider Rorty one of the best 20th century philosophers, and I greatly enjoy his writing. But even if you don’t agree with him, there is a lot to love in that book. The amount of good to great argument, both from Rorty and from his critics, is staggering. A great, great read. The quote below is from an introductory essay by Rorty called “Universality and Truth”.

It seems to me that the regulative idea that we – we wet liberals, we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists – most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of ‘needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions’. This is the concept the victorious Allied armies used when they set about re-educating the citizens of occupied Germany and Japan. It is also the one which was used by American schoolteachers who had read Dewey and were concerned to get students to think ‘scientifically’ and ‘rationally’ about such matters as the origin of the species and sexual behavior. It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.

[…] The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘American liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy. Had they read Habermas, these people would say that they typical communication situation in American college classrooms is no more herrschaftsfrei than that in the Hitler Youth Camps.

The parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students. […] When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank. The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students[…] will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to their charges without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society […]. You have to be educated in order to be … a participant in our conversation … So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

[…] I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.

Miéville wins!

Miéville wins this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award. The price is well deserved, too. His prize.winning novel, The City and the City is a well-nigh perfect achievement. It’s so good that I was too daunted to write a review of it. Read more about his win here

The novel won the British Science Fiction Association prize for best novel earlier this month, when BSFA journal editor Niall Harrison predicted it was set to take a slew of further prizes. Miéville pronounced himself “absolutely gobsmacked” and “incredibly honoured” to win the Arthur C Clarke, an award originally established by Clarke himself to help promote science fiction in Britain. “It’s very different from most of my other books,” said Miéville, who has previously won the Arthur C Clarke with more traditional fantasy novels Perdido Street Station and Iron Council. “It was very much written in an effort to be absolutely faithful to works of crime fiction. Crime readers will denounce a book because it has ‘cheated,’ and I wanted to write a book that didn’t cheat, that was faithful to crime rules and that if you’d never read any fantasy you could pick up.”

Schwörung, Entschwörung & Video

Ich habe vermehrt auf Daniel Kulla, seinen Blog und seine Bücher hingewiesen. Ein paar Jahre alt ist mittlerweile sein sehr lesenwertes, empfehlenswerter Essay Entschwörungstheorie. philipsteffan alias Philip Steffan hat nun einen der Vorträge zur Entschwörungstheorie mit dem Kulla Deutschland bereist. Enjoy! & then go buy the book.


Kakutani on Martel

Kakutani on Yann Martel’s latest sorry effort

When “Pi” won the Man Booker Prize in 2002, there was considerable talk that the novel’s plot echoed that of a novel by the Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar titled “Max and the Cats,” which recounted the story of a youth who leaves Nazi Germany and ends up in a small boat with a jaguar on the way to Brazil. Mr. Martel had indirectly acknowledged his debt in an author’s note, in which he thanked Mr. Scliar for “the spark of life,” but while he seems to have borrowed the Brazilian writer’s premise, he turned that idea into a very different and original work of his own.

This time, his borrowings from — or, at best, homage to — Beckett go well beyond a simple premise, and they serve no persuasive end. Rather they are another awkward element in this disappointing and often perverse novel.

Grant Morrison & Comic Continuity

Grant Morrison on continuity in comics

In terms of endless continuity, there’s always something new coming up. Obviously I want to tell my definitive Batman or X-Men story – which has a beginning, middle, and end – but comics will run for hundreds of years with hundreds of characters. My stories are in a long chain of other writers’ definitive stories. So when it’s time I leave, I’ll try to leave the toys exactly as I found them. So I like to put the characters through changes, but I try to leave a blank slate for the next writer. It’s the nature of the beast. With the big franchises like Batman, Batman always must be Bruce Wayne, in his mid-30s or late 30s, and he always must have a Batmobile and a butler. I can take them to the edge, but it always will come back to the basics. Unlike novel characters, comic book characters last an eternity.

Spare me from my mind

Sidney Keyes: Ulster Soldier

Rain strikes the window. Miles of wire
Are hung with small mad eyes. Night sets its mask
Upon the fissured hill. The soldier waits
For sleep’s deception, praying thus: O land
Of battle and the rough marauders lying
Under this country, spare me from my mind.
This year is blackened: as your faces blackened
Turn to the bedrock, let me not be rotted:
My limbs be never shackled in the roots
Of customary sin, as yours are bound
With oak and hawthorn. Spare me from my mind.
We come of a very old related race –
Drivers of cattle, kings, incendiaries,
SIngers and callous girls; we know the same
Perplexities and terrors – whether to turn back
On the dark road, whether to love
Too much and lose our power, or die of pride:
The fear of steel, or that the dead should mock us –
These trouble our proud race. Protect me now.

The wind cries through the valley. Clouds sprawl over
This exiled soldier, sprawling on his bed.
Sleep takes the bartered carcase, not the brain,
It’s only love could save him from his mind.

Omagh, 13 April 1942.

Sidney Keyes, in my experience overshadowed by the admittedly marvelous work of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, is one of my favorite poets. His work, while limited due to the circumstances of its creation, is burning with an interesting strength, pulsating with recently acquired learning and freshly lived experience. Keyes’ Collected Poems (Carcanet) is a slim volume that contains a fascinating search for the right language, the right forms. There are odd similarities of this poetry to the few excellent passages in Lowell’s precocious Land of Unlikeness, I think. Below, “War Poet”, Keyes’ most famous poem. Seriously. Try and get your hand on his work.

Sydney Keyes: War Poet

I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me;
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.

March 1942.

Toga’d, furred, blear, brittle, grey.

Edwin Morgan: Pilate at Fortingall

A Latin harsh with Aramaicisms
poured from his lips incessantly; it made
no sense, for surely he was mad. The glade
of birches shamed his rags, in paroxysms
he stumbled, toga’d, furred, blear, brittle, grey.
They told us he sat here beneath the yew
even in downpours; ate dog-scraps. Crows flew
from prehistoric stone to stone all day-
‘See him now.’ He crawled to the cattle-trough
at dusk, jumbled the water till it sloshed
and spilled into the hoof-mush in blue strands,
slapped with useless despair each sodden cuff,
and washed his hands, and watched his hands, and washed
his hands, and watched his hands, and washed his hands.

This is possibly the best known living Scottish poet, and this poem is from an overwhelming volume/sequence of poems called “Sonnets from Scotland”, published in 1984. These poems, along with a huge number of others, can be found in Edwin Morgan’s Collected Poems , which you can buy here and which I fully recommend. It collects all of Morgan’s poetry up to 1990 and fills almost 600 pages of brilliant, musical, experimental, tragic, funny poetry. This poem, following up on a legend that would have Pontius Pilate’s birthplace be Fortingall, is serious, funny and devastating at the same time. It’s almost perfectly balanced, I think. I almost swooned woith admiration when I read it the first time. This balance few of Morgan’s poems are, but they are all good, and quite a few are very good. Very, very good.

I have spent a lot of time recently re-reading specifically the Sonnets from Scotland, because these past weeks I have done some more reading and thinking about the whole post-war sonnet issue I briefly mentioned here re: the Tony Harrison poem. Writing and thinking about Lowell’s Notebooks and Berryman’s Dream Songs has led me to all other kinds of poetry, with apparently similar goals, comparable spiritual and artistic visions, but executed in completely different manners. Within the next month I may follow up this babble with something more substantial. By the way, except for criticism on Berryman on Lowell, I have done little secondary reading on this. I welcome any recommendations.

William T. Vollmann: Whores for Gloria

Vollmann, William T. (1994), Whores for Gloria, Penguin
ISBN 0-140-23157-9

William T. Vollmann has acquired a reputation for writing thick, elaborate novels with an broad historical scope. Writing Seven Dreams (starting with The Ice Shirt,1990), a series of 7 novels about American history, and Europe Central (2005), a novel about art and the second World War, focusing on figures such as Dimitri Shostakovich, Roman Kamen and General Paulus, has been a large part of that. In these, as in other books of his, Vollmann’s purview has always been enormous. He’s not content to muse about violence, for example, instead he writes a seven volume dissection of the phenomenon (Rising Up and Rising Down, 2003), the same applies to his reports from the fringes of the world, whether it’s Afghanistan (An Afghanistan Picture Show, 1992), the borderlands between Mexico and California (Imperial, 2009) or the down-and-out life as a hobo (Riding Toward Everywhere, 2008). Vollmann’s work, whether in short stories, novels, nonfiction books or short essays, is remarkably consistent. The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred, mostly, I think, because Vollmann’s interest in nonfiction isn’t analysis or clarity, it’s storytelling and rhetoric. In his fictional work (as in most fiction) we find strong characters, strongly molding the world in accordance with their perception of it. We see things through their eyes, and the same applies to nonfiction where Vollmann, far stronger than journalistic practice usually mandates, sets himself up as a character, a narrator for the world he shares with us, although he never segues into gonzo journalism.

Beyond facts or analysis, Vollmann’s work, through storytelling and rhetoric offers us a feel for a topic, an indelible impression of a landscape or the people in it, and his strong moral concerns further buttress our understanding of them. In those respects and several others, Whores for Gloria, originally published in 1991 as Vollmann’s third novel, is fairly representative of his work. Its length is the only aspect of the book that makes it stand out among his oeuvre, given that it is a remarkably short book. The similarities of Whores for Gloria to Vollmann’s general aesthetic are perhaps most significant where the book’s attitude to fiction and reality is concerned. In the short first chapter, the author informs us that the contents of what follows are “fictitious”. However, he goes on to tell us, “all of the Whore’s-tales” in the book “are real.” This is beyond discussions on the nature of reality and fiction, or on the amount of truth that an invented tale can carry. Discussions like these are well known by now and can frankly be somewhat tiresome. Like many excellent writers, Vollmann manages, in all his books, to hand us a sliver of truth, an impression of it, seen through the vapor of his admirable passions. There is an insight, if not into reality, then into the workings of certain coherent world views. We see how elements of knowledge, and a perception of the hard cobblestone groundings of reality can congeal to a kind of certainty, perceptual and moral. What we as readers learn is how things could be connected, what connections are possible, and how we might arrive at an understanding of them.

Seeing connections, listening to others’ making sense of the world, enriches our own understanding of it, or so I always thought. Learning, to me, means listening, and puzzling, and bumbling our way through the oddities of our environment or of texts, images, sounds. But here, we are not talking about these common elements of reading. Vollmann’s claim here is explicit and must be read as part of the text, it’s hence to be taken with a large grain of salt. There is even an informative appendix to Whores for Gloria, which, while seeming to support the nonfictional elements of the book, the essentially journalistic parts of it, the parts that “are real”, are curiously readable, soft-bellied profiles of “the Tenderloin street prostitute”. Lists of “Street Prices for Hair, Sex and Other Things” are similarly best read as enhancements, elements of style, filling in blanks in the tapestry of his fiction. We know that this is the case because the stories that make up these profiles are scattered throughout the novel, and within the context of the plot, we see how the stories adapt to the circumstances, how they mirror aspects of the narrative as a whole in general and the listener’s situation in particular. Its impossible not to assume the same for the stories told in the appendix, because there is, within the stories themselves, no marker that differentiates one kind of “Whore’s-tale” from the other. This is significant, because it adds an important element to the reading of the narrative, a bracket, so to speak.

The author’s persona, visible already in the first chapter, becomes a visible and meddling presence even in the rest of the novel which seems to be wholly restricted to the protagonist’s point of view. In a novel that charts a search for meaning in a darkly violent world, Vollmann’s persona is staged as another seeker for truth and resolution. This is not to dismiss the protagonist and apparent third person personal narrator. Although the Vollmann persona adds a subjective level to the book’s structure, this is not, while reading Whores for Gloria, the predominant impression, or the world-view that most preoccupies the reader’s imagination. That is the role of the protagonist, Jimmy, a Vietnam veteran, who spends his SSI checks in the dirty streets of the San Francisco quarter called “Tenderloin”, in the company of pimps and prostitutes, moving from bar to bar and from whore to whore. In Jimmy, Vollmann has found a way to talk about veterans from the war without engaging in a long and sentimental discussion of their problems and issues. In what’s a typically meta-fictional hint, Vollmann includes a character called Code Six, who has been so broken by the war and its aftermath, that he now lives on the street, having lost everything else. Code Six is a stereotypical, though marginally moving, character; the likes of him fill shelves full of books and movies. I take his role, in part, to be a suggestion where Jimmy, as a character, might have ended up, in the hands of a different writer. The contrast between Code Six and Jimmy is a kind of bragging about the fictional subtleties Vollmann is able to pull off.

It is not until the very last chapter and its very last sentence that the importance of the Vietnam war background of Jimmy’s biography and the connections he has to Code Six become crystal clear and obvious. Just as with the appendices, we need to wait until the end of the book to be informed about a conceptual structure spanning the whole of Whores for Gloria. While reading it, we’re following just one long conceptual arc, Jimmy’s search for Gloria, who, we are led to believe, is an old lover or girlfriend of his, maybe a whore, maybe not. I think the book is, intentionally, less than clear about this. Jimmy himself doesn’t have a strong concept of who Gloria is. Gloria, to him, is more like a phantom, the ideal girl, and his search doesn’t involve a scouring of his world for a trace of her bodily presence. Instead, he has several prostitutes, some of whom he has sex with and some of whom he hasn’t, tell him stories from their lives, their childhood, their experience on the streets of the Tenderloin, hawking their bodies for small amounts of cash. Listening to these stories, taking them in, and shuffling the different stories and his knowledge of the world as well as his fragmented memories of Gloria, he revives her, to an extent. He creates a vision, a disembodied presence of her, which, for him is enough. He imagines her with him in his rooms, with him in his bed, he is happy imagining her with him, but this is a fleeting illusion, one that needs to be constantly fed by the stories the whores tell him.

Jimmy can be sexually fulfilled without engaging in a sexual act: that’s how strong this illusion is. He will tell others about Gloria, he will share details of his illusion without making it apparent to others that it is actually not true. But then, for him, the illusion is true. He is living a lie, but it makes him, whenever he manages to create it, happy or at least content, for however short a while it lasts. Jimmy, unlike Code Six, is relatively healthy and strong, his body is fit, while his mind is broken. But in many ways, Whores for Gloria is a ballad of broken bodies. Despite the copious amount of sexual intercourse that is described in the book, none of it is enticing, nor is it meant to be enticing. Nights spent with Gloria, presumably sensual encounters, are not described. We don’t know how immersive Jimmy’s illusion is, and whether it manages to fake a sexual act for him, but the fact of the matter is that this, the only potentially positive sexual act, is not described. All the other sexual encounters in the book are harsh, exploitative, brutalized encounters. With a sure eye for the exact detail, Vollmann describes the horrendous conditions of life as a Tenderloin street prostitute, and the unappetizing circumstances of sexual services rendered on those streets. There is a dark loneliness, a deep need that Vollmann suggests to us to be the main motivator to have sex with a hooker on her grimy floor. Granted, Jimmy himself isn’t driven, not explicitly, by lust, but his observations of the prostitutes he consorts with show how unpleasant a sight these whores might offer to a prospective customer.

Their bodies are riddled with needle marks, they are either bone thin or ridiculously fat. This passage exemplifies the tone and visuals of the novel’s descriptions of its prostitutes

There were three pimps or dealers sitting on the steps by the garbage can and Peggy said to them would you mind taking a little walk while I do my business? When they left, Peggy pulled her dress up above her waist and knelt down in the filth of the street and stuck her ass out with her cunt bulging down beneath it as if only its matted and sticky hair kept it from bursting out between her legs; that stinking bush of hers really resembled a black spider lurking there and clinging here, and Peggy’s legs were covered with dark ovals and boils and there were scabby bumps on them as satisfying to the touch as the pleasure-dots on a french tickler, the sorii on a fern-leaf, and Peggy raised her ass high and dry to make it easy for Jimmy to get into her cunt and she buried her face in her crossed arms on the highest step. (…) When he was done, Peggy wiped herself (.)

Sex on the street is a constantly improvised act, the book tells us, and while there is a kind of hostility to matters of the body, as the extended allusions to the Plague show, Jimmy detects and reports a certain attraction to ugly details. The body as an object regulated by society and its invasive and often violent norms is replaced here by another body: the body as a serviceable entity where function is bother over- and under-emphasized. Additionally, there is a strong role that transsexual prostitutes play in the book, who are refereed to both by male and female pronouns, blurring distinctions. Although bodies are there to fuck and be fucked, the book has little in the way of restriction in the form of norms, such as heteronormativity. When Jimmy rejects the advances of a transsexual, whose erection is visible and obvious, he does so by invoking taste, not his putative heterosexuality. Although the idealized relationship at the book’s center is (presumably) a heterosexual one, it’s also an illusion and ultimately doomed. This profound ambiguity on matters of normativity and sexuality reflects one of Vollmann’s biggest strength, which his best work displays: to use observations, stories and literary tools to create ambiguous scenarios, dissolving easy oppositions. In his weakest works, like Europe Central, he opts instead for moral simplicity and narrative clarity, simply reproducing traditional oppositions and narrative trajectories.

That clarity in Europe Central is achieved in part through his use of short chapters, shuffled and arranged like stories. These short chapters are a kind of trademark in Vollmann’s work which he also makes use of in Whores for Gloria, but they do not always serve the same narrative goals. In the book under review, instead of enabling clarity, the short chapters emphasize the fragmented nature of the story offered to us. They also underline the heavy debt owed to the work of Lautréamont. What we find in these chapters is a smattering of stories, not arranged hierarchically. While the strict arrangement in books like Europe Central puts an emphasis on order, Whores for Gloria opts for careful disorder. Jimmy’s story is told chronologically, but his fantasies, things he may really have experienced, and the whores’ stories are mostly given their own chapters, taking away, to an extent, the reader’s ability to tell fact from fantasy. There isn’t a privileged narrative. The white male Jimmy comes to listen to the stories. Although he takes notes, we don’t get to see them as written documents, they are integrated as voices into Jimmy’s story, itself a voice. Jimmy doesn’t put a spin on the stories, and they, not he, begin to shape the image of Gloria. Although earlier, Jimmy insists that a particular story can’t be Gloria’s “because he wasn’t in it”, this presumptuous attitude leaves him as his quest continues. Truth, for Jimmy, isn’t up to him, but up to the whores and the extent to which they cooperate with the narrative frame he would like them to adopt.

From this precarious balance of narrative power, various complex implications arise, complexities that are exacerbated by the persona of the author, which reflects this discussion on the novel as a whole. The status of this novel as an artifact worth creating or reading is questioned, as is the integrity of Vollmann’s voice and the accuracy of his reports and facts. Indeed this cuts both ways, creating an ambiguous situation, balanced between doubting journalistic accuracy and pointing out inequalities in narrative voices. The book is, I think, not providing us with a suggested solution for the non/fiction truth quandary, but it does put a great emphasis on individual voices and stories. Hence I think, as mentioned earlier, that listening, hearing the gospel truth, that this is what Vollmann projects as an ideal (an odd ideal for a writer maybe). This ideal is, however, affirmed by the epitaph for the book, drawn from Loyola, which, from the start, asks us to read Whores for Gloria as a perverted kind of doxology. Gloria as a character thus becomes an angelic presence of sorts and the book as a whole comes to tell us not just Jimmy’s quest for the vanished whore, but, at the same time, the author’s quest for epistemological certainty. As Roland Barthes points out in the marvelously readable Sade, Fourier, Loyola, it isn’t until the advent of modernity that seeing was privileged over hearing, and modernity brought more ambiguities, more insecurities to accompany that change. The firm, unwavering clarity of pre—modern beliefs, the strength of religious, philosophical and scientific faith, this is what the author’s persona in Whores for Gloria pines after. The result, however, is a small masterpiece, a brilliantly executed, searching novel, often strikingly beautiful and sad. It’s regrettable that the mind behind the book has spent the following decade accruing more certainty and abandoning doubt in favor of a secular, moral faith.


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

John Wray John Wray John Wray

Here I sit, fumbling with Skype, waiting for John Wray to come on. Today he will visit us chez bookbabble. In the meantime I found more stuff of his. Here and here are my reviews of his books and below is the first part of an unusual reading of his new novel, i.e. in the subway.

Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here.

Below is a Q&Asession with Wray. I make a point not to watch or read interviews before conducting one myself, so I haven’t seen this one, I think, but it looks good. Its from an reading at The Raconteur.

Part 2 here , Part 3 here.

Below is a discussion of John Wray and Adrian Tomine. Sound is a bit off but its worth persevering.

Really, buy/read his books.

John, we used the language as if we made it

Robert Lowell: For John Berryman

I feel I know what you have worked through, you
know what I have worked through – these are words…
John, we used the language as if we made it.
Luck threw up the coin, and the plot swallowed,
monster yawning for its mess of pottage.
Ah privacy, as if you wished to mount
some rock by a mossy stream, and count the sheep –
fame that renews the soul, but not the heart.
The ebb tide flings up wonders: rivers, beer-cans,
linguini, bloodstreams; how merrily they gallop
to catch the ocean – Hopkins, Herbert, Thoreau,
born to die like the athletes at early forty –
Abraham lived with less expectancy,
heaven his friend, the earth his follower.

This is from Lowell’s enormous and perennially underrated long poem Notebook, more precisely, from the first permutation, Notebook 1967-68, which would morph into the 1970’s Notebook first and then split up into History and For Lizzie and Harriet. In the Collected Poems you’ll only find the latter two volumes. FSG has, however, just put out a new edition of Notebook 1967-68, with an introduction by Jonathan Galassi. Highly, highly recommended.

David Shield’s Critical Legerdemain

In my so-so review of Lydia Davis’ collection Varieties of Disturbance, I mentioned the claim of innovation levered at the book.

So how does the mistaken idea of innovation enter the picture? The publisher or the author printed the word “stories” on the cover of this book of short prose. As short prose, this is nothing new, as stories, this book does indeed break new ground. Distinguishing modes of reading from kinds of texts is not the worst idea, sometimes.

This is profoundly about intellectual laziness, about the wish to write innovation into material that is derivative and second-rate without bothering to really engage the written work that actually exists. If we proclaim something innovative or new, we absolve ourselves from the responsibility of trying to understand what is, and has been writing so far, the shapes, traditions and context of past and present writing. This is such a transparent, such a cheap enterprise that it takes a nimble pen, a writer quick and flashy in his rhetoric, to pull it off. The most prominent and successful practioner of this is David Shields, who tends to sound perfectly dim in interviews. I will, within the next month, comment on his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, but you can see his method of critical legerdemain at work in this new review of Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (my so-so review of an older book by Monson is here). His declaration therein

Memoir is dead. Long live the anti-memoir, built from scraps.

is a perfect example of the impoverished understanding of literature and genres inherent in his method.


“No, my friend! The Enlightenment is not for us.”

He clucked his tongue and nodded. “That doesn’t surprise me. The teachings of Descartes are well and good for the old country -; but here they just don’t churn the butter. This nation was founded on belief – credulity pure and simple – just as the great French Republic was founded on skepticism. Faith, whatever clothes you put it in, is the corner-stone of our Union. You’re an American, sirrah -; not an Egyptian or a Swede. Without an understanding of belief – without a sympathy for it, a talent for it – you will never make your penny.” He shook his head. “No, my friend! The Enlightenment is not for us.”

from John Wray’s amazing novel Canaan’s Tongue. My reviews of Wray’s novels here and here.

It’s always what we don’t fear that happens (Rita Dove 1)

Rita Dove is a staggering poet. The poem she’s reading in the clip above is from her 2000 collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks. Her most recent publication is the long poem Sonata Mulattica, a stunning performance, a historical drama about a black performer stricken from the records of history. It’s written in short, effective poems written with an eerie eye for detail, sound and nuance. The book as a whole is highly recommended, as is every book by this excellent poet. However, the best place to start is probably still the epochal, and Pulitzer-winning Thomas and Beulah. You can get it here. Trust me. Below is the full text of the poem she reads out aloud above:

Rita Dove: Black on a Saturday Night

This is no place for lilac
or somebody on a trip
to themselves. Hips
are an asset here, and color
calculated to flash
lemon bronze cerise
in the course of a dip and turn.
Beauty’s been caught lying
and the truth’s rubbed raw:
Here, you get your remorse
as a constitutional right.

It’s always what we don’t
fear that happens, always
not now and why are
you people acting this way
(meaning we put in petunias
instead of hydrangeas and reject
ecru as a fashion statement).

But we can’t do it – naw because
the wages of living are sin
and the wages of sin are love
and the wages of love are pain
and the wages of pain are philosophy
and that leads definitely to an attitude
and an attitude will get you
nowhere fast so you might as well
keep dancing dancing till
tomorrow gives up with a shout,
’cause there is only
Saturday night, and we are in it –
black as black can,
black as black does,
not a concept
nor a percentage
but a natural law.

“Is the pope saying this shit for a bet?” (edited)

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, second only to Pope Benedict, has *found* the reason for the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests:

“Many psychologists, many psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relationship between celibacy and paedophilia but many others have demonstrated, I was told recently, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia. That is true. I have the documents of the psychologists. That is the problem.”

While this may just sound incredibly stupid, that kind of thinking (yes, the sad thing is that I think they do believe this nonsense) may lead to more problematic policies by the Church:

He added that some “surprising” initiatives regarding the sex abuse scandal would soon be revealed but did not elaborate.

Come to think of it, it may also just be another brazen assertion, such as other claims lanced by other Catholic officials during the past month. As one twitter said:

Vatican forgets that when you’re in a hole, you should stop digging

Or, another one

Is the pope saying this shit for a bet?

edit. We might be glad that none of the officials have so far succumbed to the typical Catholic theological (historically documented and recently revived by, oh, what a coincidence, the current pope) urges w/ respect to Jews, as this sickening example by a retired Italian bishop shows

We’re living in the Age of Globalization, and it seems that chutzpah, like latkes, isn’t just for Jews any longer. Last week, retired Bishop Giacomo Babini of the Italian town of Grosseto told the Catholic Pontifex website that the Catholic pedophile scandal is being orchestrated by the “eternal enemies of Catholicism, namely the freemasons and the Jews, whose mutual entanglements are not always easy to see through… I think that it is primarily a Zionist attack, in view of its power and refinement. They do not want the church, they are its natural enemies. Deep down, historically speaking, the Jews are God-killers.”

You might think that the 81-year-old Babini had already said more than enough for one day, but once some people “pop,” they just can’t stop. “The Holocaust was a shame for all of humanity,” the good bishop told the world, “but now we have to look at it without rhetoric and with open eyes. Don’t believe that Hitler was merely crazy. The truth is that the Nazis’ criminal fury was provoked by the Jews’ economic embezzlement, by which they choked the German economy.” He concluded that the Jews’ “guilt is graver than what Christ predicted would happen to them, saying ‘do not cry for me, but for your own children.'”

John Wray: The Right Hand of Sleep

Wray, John (2001), The Right Hand of Sleep, Knopf
ISBN 0-375-40651-4

There are so many books around that most of the time we barely manage to read what we really feel we should read or have to read, and reading a book for a second or third time is often just too much. At least that is my stance, and the reason why I rarely re-read books. In some rare cases, a second reason enters the picture: if I’m afraid a book won’t hold up, won’t be as good or interesting the second time around. This was the fear that I had upon re-reading John Wray’s debut novel The Right Hand of Sleep after reading and reviewing his excellent most recent book, Lowboy (my review here). Now, I was right about one thing at least. It really is not as good a novel as Lowboy, but I was wrong about everything else: it’s a very good book, a very smart and clever one, too, and a moving work of art. The Right Hand of Sleep is a very, very good novel and an astonishing debut. It radiates assurance, and displays a rare comfort and agility with the tools of fiction, but even this description feels inadequate. In his debut, Wray introduces here many topics that will resurface in later books, but they have a disturbing, haunting quality here that they don’t have elsewhere. Haunting is maybe the best word to describe this book, which occupies an odd place between memory and history, between an emotionally wrought tale of a village in decline, and a clever play with history and narrative. Its chief fault is a certain lack of decisiveness. In his debut, Wray is too often content with sketching something, hinting at it, instead of developing it in a more satisfactory fashion.

This is in part, certainly, because the topic and the setting is infinitely rich; in The Right Hand of Sleep, Wray is basically trying to tell us three to five stories at once, but at the same time he’s writing a very tight, controlled, technically impressive novel. These two aspects of it, the sprawling, wide, sumptuous fabric on the one hand, and the well-ordered, scintillating strictness of literary craftsmanship on the other, clash and struggle to cohere. Ultimately, craftsmanship wins the day in The Right Hand of Sleep, but the final result is too magnificent, too well made a novel to complain. I understand why some readers have criticized the book for being boring, too conventional, uninteresting, even, because it is really a very conservative book, written under the banner of traditional narrative. In those parts of the story that are set in a nostalgic, sentimental version of a rural Austrian valley, there is no parody, no irony or other postmodern devices to break up or challenge traditional notions. But Wray is a subtle writer and adds other kinds of layers that move beneath the surface of the narrative, tectonic plates beneath a seemingly placid ocean. The Right Hand of Sleep is a book that only seems easy to categorize, easy to assign and confine to a place on the shelves of genre. I am under the impression that the book withdraws as soon as you scrutinize it, that in place of clear and unambiguous stories, it leaves our hands full of paradoxes and tricky situations.

However, it’s hard to imagine any novel written by a competent writer that would be set in the period and place Wray chose and not be full of tricky situations. This comes with the topic. The Right Hand of Sleep is the story of a man called Oskar Voxlauer, who returns home to his village in Austria after decades of exile. The year of his return, 1938, is a year of changes for Austria: its fascist leader, Dollfuss, had been murdered four years earlier and the current dictatorial chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, under threat of violence, basically agreed to a takeover of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 11th . The next day, when German troops marched into Austria, they were greeted by joyous Austrians, who, the day before, had celebrated the announcement of the takeover in a tumultuous fashion, which led Carl Zuckmayer, a major German playwright, to refer to the public displays of national socialist hate and rage as a veritable “Witches’ Sabbath of the mob.” On March 15th, tens of thousands cheered Hitler as he gave a speech on the Heldenplatz in Vienna. That day and the horrendous public reaction to what happened have been re-told and recounted multiple times, most famously by Thomas Bernhard in his play Heldenplatz. Its a curious fact about Austrian post-war history that Austria, a fascist state long before Hitler´s takeover, has always seen itself as an innocent victim of German aggression, on a par with France and Poland. It took writers like Bernhard or Innerhofer in the 1970s to destabilize that national narrative.

Both Bernhard and Innerhofer are important references here because, even though occurrences such as the one described by Zuckmayer and the Heldenplatz speech took place in Vienna and other large cities, these two writers were fascinated by and obsessed with the rural life, the ugliness in would-be bucolic landscapes. Bernhard’s first published novel and many shorter pieces that followed examine the cold, the heartlessness, the violence and mob-mentality of the rural population. Innerhofer’s disturbing debut, Beautiful Days (1974), does something similar. A book about a boy raised on a brutal farm it coined the expression “Bauern-KZ” (~ Peasant Concentration Camp). There is opportunistic behavior, emotional apathy and unthinking and vicious brutality and neglect and this is just a small sample of the issues with which Innerhofer confronts the myth of a bucolic rural Austria. In Wray’s invented village, Niessen (possibly modeled on Friesach, where his mother is from), we find a similar mob mentality and similarly ugly thing happen or are hinted at, but Wray doesn’t develop any of these in detail. However, he clearly relies on our reading of Niessen as a hateful small backwater village, where a crowd of citizens stands by or takes part, as enraged Nazis demolish a restaurant owned by a Jew, but he also mentions and makes use of other, more interesting nuances. Voxlauer is returning home, but he isn’t the only one to do so. Nazis are returning, too, and I’m not talking about the German troops.

In his brief dictatorial reign, Engelbert Dollfuss (and his successor Schuschnigg) strove to destroy any left-wing opposition by means of raids, incarcerations and murder, they encouraged and tacitly supported Antisemitic violence, but they also tried to eradicate any National Socialist movements in Austria. Austrian fascism was modeled on Francoist Spain more than anything, and a revulsion of Hitler’s mobs fueled not just Dollfuss’ opposition to the Nazis, but also that of other famous antisemitic fascists like Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. With some justification, the Dollfuss regime saw the Austrian Nazis as subversive and dangerous elements in their state, a danger that needed to be curbed as quickly and thoroughly as possible. When a group of Austrian Nazis tried to overthrow the government in the so-called “Juliputsch” in 1934, this fear was vindicated, but too late for Dollfuss, who was murdered. Many Nazis were banished or had to flee in these years of upheaval only to return triumphantly after March 11th,, 1938. In The Right Hand of Sleep Wray makes use of the fact that these individuals are a mixture between being victims and being perpetrators, of being persecuted by a dictator, but originators of a different, worse dictatorship. As we see them return to the village and its environs, we see how estranged they are to what used to be their home, as well. Simple inside/outside dichotomies, useful to describe the narrative behind antisemitic rallies and hate in Germany, don’t work here.

The Jewish inn-keeper, at the receiving end of discrimination and violence, is a native, he is from the village and part of the village in a way that neither Voxlauer, nor the Nazi who develops into a kind of antagonist of Voxlauer’s, Kurt Bauer, are. Questions of blood and heredity, so central to the National Socialist narrative, are subtly subverted by an association with inbreeding on Bauer’s part, and a sterile sexuality on Voxlauer’s, just as social hierarchies, “the architecture of things” are upset by similar associations. And in the midst of this, Wray places the local landscapes. His powerful evocations of nature, the use of amazingly precise metaphors, they establish nature as something independent from humans and their stories. Voxlauer, who., upon returning, is offered the job as a gamekeeper, never really does what he is paid for. He’s an awful hunter and a perennial drunk, stumbling through the wildness like a harmless, vaguely vegetarian animal. Fittingly, the only thing he does shoot is himself, by accident, halfway through the book. And when some riled up villagers rough him up, break his ribs and try to kick his head in, he’s as helpless as the animals he’s paid to hunt. This helplessness, though, isn’t new to him. As a young soldier in the Kaiser’s army in WWI, he was just as help- and hapless and when he, almost accidentally, deserts after being forced to murder another deserter, he drifts through Eastern Europe like a leaf in the wind, or a lost animal. This we learn in the frequent flashbacks.

Structurally, the book consists of the main story, which follows Voxlauer’s experiences in Neißen between March, 4th, 1938 and October the same year, with flashbacks added. First flashbacks of Voxlauer’s own experiences as a deserter, and then flashbacks of Kurt Bauer’s past. These back stories are not written like historical accounts; they read like feverish visions of two person’s troubled past. Both are guilty of something and both feel the guilt weigh heavily upon them, I’d say, although Bauer appears to be somewhat sociopathic. What’s more, these visions or accounts are shot through with dreams and hallucinations. Not all of them visible and clear as such, but historical truth or accuracy is certainly not the aim of these sections. What they are meant to accomplish is twofold. On the one hand, they need to place the story of Voxlauer and Bauer in a broader historical context, and on the other hand they do the same for Neißen as landscape and lieu de mémoire. Taking a different tactic than Nora, Wray focuses less upon buildings and other man-made monuments to shared memories. Instead, he has Voxlauer stumble through a European wildness, over fields, through woods and end up at a Ukrainian farm. Subsequently, he falls in love with the farmer’s widow, is denounced as a kulak and lands himself in a Soviet camp. At this point he is a Communist or shares at least the basic emancipatory ideals with them. Fear, disappointments and the harsh daily life leads him to drop his “belief in things”.

The Voxlauer who returns to Neißen is an empty shell of a man, hollowed out by guilt, loss and sadness. The landscape is the only (or last) reliable thing for him, it doesn’t require his belief, it is content with the fact of his body. In Neißen, an odd love story develops, but it draws heavily upon clichés and seems, within the fabric of the book, less important than Voxlauer’s education. Yes, education, because Voxlauer, returning, re-learns the world. Lowboy‘s protagonist is haunted by his body and his problems with reading the world, which makes the most sense to him when he’s confined in the well-ordered world of the underground tunnels of the subway. Voxlauer’s predicament is similar, not just in this respect. Like Lowboy‘s Will, Voxlauer isn’t mentally completely sound, and as in Will’s case, this runs in the family. The oddities of memory, and the vicissitudes of violence create, here and there, an interesting discourse about the limitations of the body and of the mind. Voxlauer’s body and mind don’t work as he wants them to, they work in starts and fits, and they capitulate not only before the onslaught of fascism and nature, they are also inferior to the limbs and brains of people of comparable strength. Voxlauer’s main limitation is his unwillingness to take action, not even to run away. He bides his time, while the world as he knew it, crumbles around him. His last action was the murder of an innocent man, as sick of the war as himself, and this crime he cannot forgive himself, and it blinds him to the ethical and political necessities of the present.

The development of Wray’s protagonists, from the apathetic and guilt-ridden drunk Voxlauer to the idealistic, driven, resourceful Will is fascinating, especially in light of the fact that Voxlauer’s crime (desertion) has consigned him to the margins, while he was actually born in privilege. Will’s situation, of course, couldn’t be more different. Kurt Bauer’s memories, meanwhile, place him at the center of world history. I’m loath to divulge more but Wray has used one of the less well known parts of history, and adapted it to his purpose, exchanging names and characters, swamping the scene with references en masse. For a book set where it is, many of these references, in this scene or in others, intended or not, are pretty obvious, like Joseph Roth or Thomas Bernhard. Others are more sly but important ones, such as Camus’ famous novel L’Étranger. The connection of Voxlauer’s inaction with that bible of secular existentialism adds one more layer to an already rather complex book. If anything, this is its main fault. The book, while technically taut and controlled, is philosophically indulgent, it’s filled with ideas and it points in many directions at once, without allowing the plot to reciprocate. That we don’t feel this failing as readers, that we still enjoy this book, is due, most of all, to Wray’s fantastic writing. More elaborate than in Lowboy, Wray completely dazzles his reader.

In an almost arrogant display of skill, Wray shows us that he can do anything. He slips into German and out again, slows down and speeds up his syntax at will, makes it bulky in one place and sleekly efficient in others. The way he can retard meaning in a paragraph by using a sluggish, slow syntax, mirroring German constructions, is extraordinary. There’s nothing in here that doesn’t work, and so the evocation of a country at the abyss, of a continent about to plunge into one of its darkest periods, is pitch-perfect. The plot and the characters are not yet as fleshed-out, believable and palpable as in his two other books, but The Right Hand of Sleep gets so much right, that it’s hard to dwell on the things it doesn’t. Highly recommended.


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 mytwitter.)

Longfellow’s Community

Longfellow invites us to question the assumptions that still underlie most accounts of how literature develops and changes. In 1846, he happened to be reading somewhere that the age was „still looking for its Poet,“ apparently someone who “should be hailed by acclamation as the Seer of this nineteenth century” (February 11, 1846). What did people want? he wondered. That the advent of such a genius be “heralded by signs and wonder”? For Longfellow, literature was nothing “major” or “minor,” nothing “old” or “new.” In the course of his long career, he began to see himself less and less as an “original” creator than as the competent redistributor of common cultural goods, whose relationship with his audience was based on a system of exchange, both monetary and emotional, governed by civility and respect. (…) Longfellow’s relentlessly accessible texts dispute the notion that aesthetic experience is limited to “high cultural” works. In their own time, they empowered his readers to think of themselves as poets too[.] “Every province” has a poet, declared Longfellow in “Vox populi” (3:77), but the community that his poetry built was neither local nor global. Each of its members was allowed a separate identity and privacy, just as the poet was allowed to hold on to his innermost thoughts.

from Christoph Irmscher’s marvelous study of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Longfellow Redux, which I highly, highly recommend if you’ve got an interest in American poetry. I will review it within the next weeks, but I’ll say this: it’s readable, brilliant, original and highly insightful. Irmscher is that wonderful species of critics: he is a philologist and an archivar, living offf words and documents and at the same time, he is a wonderful writer.

Real Poetry

A dream, a trick, a savage or imbecile attack: any account of his work which hopes for assent will have to try to reconcile these views with each other, and with still other views. All we need agree yet is that it seems to display an essential, obvious coherence, originality and authority, such as will justify any care we may take to appreciate it. (…) The poems have an enigmatic air and yet they are desperately personal. The absence of the panoply of the Poet is striking. We remember that their author did not like to be called a poet nor did he call them poetry himself. How unusual is this, my readers will recognize: most writers of verse are merely dying to be called poets, tremblingly hopeful that what they write is real “poetry.” There was no pose here in Crane. His reluctance was an inarticulate recognition of something strange in the pieces. They are not like literary compositions. They are like things just seen and said, said for use. (…) Crane was not only a man with truths to tell, but an interested listener to this man. His poetry has the inimitable sincerity of a frightened savage anxious to learn what his dream means.

This is from the revised edition of John Berryman’s stunning study of Stephen Crane. Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography (1950, revised edition 1962) is one of the best studies of that odd writer and as for Berryman, it’s quite surprising how little critical attention is paid to that aspect of his work.

To remind you of ‘ow us gaffers used to talk

Tony Harrison: The Queen’s English

Last meal together, Leeds, the Queen’s Hotel
that grandish pile of swank in City Square
Too posh for me, he said (even though he dressed well)
if you wern’t wi’ me ah’d nivver dare!

I knew that he’d decided to die
not by the way he lingered at the bar
not by the look he’d give me with one good-eye
nor by the firmer handshake and the gruff ta-ra
But when he browsed the station bookstall sales
he picked up ‘Poems from the Yorkshire Dales’

‘ere tek this un wi’ yer to New York
to remind you of ‘ow us gaffers used to talk.
It’s up your street in’t it? ‘ahh buy yer that!

The broken lines go through me speeding South –

As t’doctor stopped to oppen woodland yet…
wi’ skill they puttin wuds reet i’ his mouth

This poem is by a poet I’m just trying to discover and sort out in my head. It’s quoted from the Selected Poems (Penguin), and is from the sequence School of Eloquence. (Addendum: I’ve no idea how to do it with the wordpress interface, but the last line should be slightly indented!)

Harrison in general is fascinating, but the poems in School of Eloquence are nothing short of stunning. In them, Harrison shows himself to be one of the select groups of extraordinary poets who have written a sequence of sonnet or sonnet-like poems, which is grafted to the poet’s own unique voice. John Berryman’s Dreamsongs or Robert Lowell’s Notebook (including the stunning revisions in History and For Lizzie and Harriet),Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland, Ted Berrigan’s melodious Sonnets or even Geoffrey Hill’s incredible Mercian Hymns (though these are different in significant ways). I think that McHale’s project of discovering the postmodern long poem failed because he didn’t see or care about this pattern of songs that arose at roughly the same time. These are all flabbergasting achievements, although I haven’t read enough of Tony Harrison’s work to properly read and assess his work. But even from the little I have read, I can’t but recommend this excellent poet.

Pyrite: Why you shouldn’t read Ingo Schulze

Anybody reading this blog will know that I have little love for Ingo Schulze, whom I tend to refer to as the “curly haired hack”. During the past months I have received a couple of emails (~ 10, which is half my readership) inquiring about my frequently communicated dislike for a writer they keep hearing good stuff about. I answered two of these emails personally, but am too lazy to keep it up. Well, here are the goods:

Ingo Schulze must be one of the more famous living German writers. He sells well domestically, has won a wide variety of prizes and every new book is sure to receive broad attention and a nomination for one of the major German literary prizes. Additionally, he’s also widely translated into different languages, and has received positive write-ups in Anglophone and Francophone newspapers. In a climate where many readers and critics are concerned about the lack of attention accorded to translations and translators by major journals and publishers, writers like Schulze are a success story. And he’s the best examples that they shouldn’t always be, because Schulze is a deeply mediocre writer, and the attention he receives arguably takes away time and space from better contemporary writers in German, whose voices should be heard, like Thomas Stangl, or Clemens J. Setz, or Reinhard Jirgl.

While its true, and quite sufficient to point out, that Schulze is quite simply a pretty bad writer, on many levels, it should nevertheless be mentioned that, first and foremost, he fails on the level of the actual writing, his style. This is a failure that isn’t just due to a lack of talent, but part of a broader malaise in Ingo Schulze’s writing. It’s actually quite often true that style cannot be divested from content. Brilliant writers with a careless style like Philip K. Dick (my apologies to fans of Dick’s writing) are the exception. More often, a lack of care, attention or sensibility to the rhythm, music and depth of language is revealing of other defects as far as the structure, thinking or characters of the particular piece of prose are concerned. True, great writers are born with a certain modicum of talent, but I am convinced that everybody, with enough care and effort, can be good. Reading is about encountering minds, good writing isn’t tethered to a specific level of intelligence. Every writer can be decent.

Why bad writing is often so frustrating is that bad writers, I think, in order to be bad writers, need to be less than attentive or careful about their writing, something that you can see in all or most aspects of their work. With a good enough plot, interesting enough characters, sentiment and a subject matter that is either politically pleasing or controversial, one can hide mediocrity well enough. Paolo Giordano’s problematic, but oddly well-received bestseller The Solitude of Prime Numbers (my review) is a case in point. This lack is least easy to hide in the actual writing, the style. This is why I stress Ingo Schulze’s execrable writing so much. This defect may not be as perceptible to Americans, who get to see him through a distorting lens (though after having spent some time with Helen Lowe-Porter’s crude manhandling of Thomas Mann, I can’t muster the energy to criticize any competent translator, whose work is difficult enough), after all, Portuguese friends assure me that even Coelho is much, much worse in the Brazilian original, and is saved by his translators in other languages.

To best describe Schulze’s stylistic deficiencies, it’s appropriate to say, I think, that there’s a kind of linguistic complacency in his style, it’s more than just bad writing, and what’s more, it had not always been as bad and complacent. Schulze’s best work of fiction, for several reasons, is his 1995 debut, 33 Augenblicke des Glücks, indebted as it is to E.T.A. Hoffmann and even more, I think, to Leo Perutz. In this book, Schulze delights in his writing, like these two role models, he delights in the mechanics of literature, delights in using his own voice. But in his first book, Perutz is the stronger influence, I think. Unlike Hoffmann he is very reluctant to be overtly political; his work is also more open to violent images, and stark contrasts and conflicts than Hoffmann’s subtle prose. There is a youthful power in this book, Schulze constantly playing to his strengths. In an ill-advised move, Schulze will, in the further trajectory of his career, move away from Perutz and toward the Hoffmann of Meister Floh or his masterpiece The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (my review), without offering as much thought, brilliance or generosity as the Prussian genius.

33 Augenblicke des Glücks, translated by John E. Woods into English as 33 Moments of Happiness, is not great literature, but it’s quite entertaining and not embarrassing, something that is increasingly less true as his work develops. Schulze is and remains competent, but has quickly become complacent and weak. His first book won the Döblin Förderpreis, and if you didn’t know that, I’ll tell you that the Döblin Prize and the Büchner Prize are the two German literary awards most worth monitoring. When he published the book, Schulze was primarily a journalist, writing for and founding several newspapers. There is an energy in that part of his life, and an intelligence that stayed, diluted, with him. After his debut, Schulze was accepted more fully into a literary mainstream, publishing, to date, 5 books, among them two novels, Neue Leben (2005) and Adam und Evelyn (2008). His past, however, never quite left him.

On the plus side, the Döblin prize was, as he himself kept stressing, strangely apt for Schulze’s burgeoning poetic sensibilities. Schulze’s best book in any genre, is his 2009 collection of essays, Was Wollen Wir? (~ What Do We Want?), collecting essays written over the course of several years. It’s not good literary criticism, not good political journalism, Lord knows. What it is is a wonderful memoir in fragments, and Döblin and his work is front and center in it. There is no influence of Döblin on Schulze’s writing or his commitments or the quality of his thinking, but as Schulze continued writing, moving from stories to speeches and novels, it’s clearly Döblin’s specter who was behind the changes, whether it’s Schulze’s increasingly odd characters, the influx of political pathos or the grandiose literary gestures, complete with gargantuan 18th century narratives (Neue Leben), vague mythical underpinnings (Adam und Evelyn) and Hoffmannian satire (Handy, Neue Leben)

The obsession with Döblin, plastered all over Was Wollen Wir?, isn’t flattering for Schulze’s work, since the reference invites comparisons, and apart from his debut book, his work just doesn’t even remotely measure up. So while Döblin has expedited Schulze’s artistic development, this development has actually moved Schulze away from him who was arguably, with Jahnn, the best German novelist of the 20th century. Responsible for this discrepancy is the other remnant from his past, his training as a journalist. A few paragraphs ago, I started into this disparagement of Schulze by citing his stylistic awfulness, calling it ‘complacency’. To be more exact, his style’s weaknesses correspond to a kind of writing that has taken over German journalistic writing sometime in the 1990s, with the advent of women’s and men’s magazines (titles like Amica or the German Men’s Health come to mind), characterized by a curiously assertive use of language, an intense quirkiness, so to say. The point seemed to be to convey an insouciant, slightly erudite, individualism. This kind of writing was instantly recognizable, and eminently mockable.

It developed so quickly and completely, sprung upon German readers like a tasteless Athena, in full, talentless armor. What is annoying, but also entertaining in journalist writing, seems little else but sloppy in fiction and it was there where it stuck and developed into full bloom and convention. In the late 1990s it stopped being ‘journalese’ and started to be a hallmark of mediocre, careless prose. There are certain turns of phrases, narrative structures, stereotypical characters which can be directly traced back to the peculiarities of this journalistic style. In my reading experience with regard to contemporary German fiction, this kind of writing almost never turns up in bits here and there. It’s usually an infestation with it, an either/or situation. This writing is an easy way out, recognizable, and relying on a certain consensus among the reading public. To use this style is to appeal to the lowest common denominator among a vaguely educated readership, and it’s indicative of other sub-par literary decisions. The work of many writers who decided to go down that path bears witness to the inextricably joined level of content and style.

Thankfully, many writers remain who refrain from writing this way. Ilija Trojanow would be one of them. Even in his weaker books, such as his dystopic SF novel Autopol (my review), he stays clear of it, but many others can’t. There is this year’s winner of the Leipzig book fair prize, Georg Klein (although his prize-winning book, Roman unserer Kindheit (~Novel of our childhood) is a departure of sorts), or the author of last year’s sensational surprise hit Paradiso, Thomas Klupp. Schulze, however, is worse, because in his case the stylistic complacency corresponds to an intellectual one. Like Paul Auster, Schulze uses complex narratives without any stylistic or intellectual backbone, but while Auster’s work is like a reader’s digest of postmodern theory, amusing and quite harmless, and mostly not particularly political, Schulze’s purview is larger- he aim for both the political and the historical, which makes him much more insufferable than his competent and incompetent co-hacks. His major topics are the German reunification and its fallout in the private and public lives of Germans.

Schulze writes about these topics as if he were pressed for time, under pressure to produce an anniversary op-ed. The complexities and problems of the situation, raised time and again in countless excellent German novels and novellas, barely make a dent in his lukewarm sentimental hodge-podge of platitudes and truisms. Open any popular news magazine at random, find a story about the particular topic at hand, and there you’ll find Schulze. I’ve talked to young journalists, some of whom have spent time at university with me, and they tell me that you can’t afford to alienate your readers, that you need to write for them. If you challenge them, you also need to flatter them in return. They need to be motivated to buy your paper once a day or once a week and spend a considerable time reading it, so you need to give them a narrative for political events that they can accept. A novelist has more liberties. But Ingo Schulze seems to have decided, at one point in his career, to not use these liberties.

So his work reads tediously unsurprising, like the gloss of a pamphlet. It’s really dull in its own right, as all the magazines and newspapers who perpetuate the same thin narratives, are. But it’s when I remember that he’s a writer of fiction, one who sees himself in the line of Döblin and Hoffmann, that I have least patience with his childishness. His work suffers most when compared to books like Günter Grass’ Far Afield, a novel that draws both on Grass’ heavy polemic streak, on Hans Joachim Schädlich’s acidic and powerful novel Tallhover and on the continuity of the Grotesque in bourgeois realist fiction in Germany. Its politics are odd, but gloriously so, it delights in its literariness and doesn’t shy away from taking risks. Grass, by the way, is one of the most vocal and most able heirs of Döblin in post-war German fiction. An heir of Brecht, and writer of several books that make Schulze look bad by comparison is Volker Braun, especially, with regard to the topic of the German reunification, his collection of stories/novellas Trotzdestonichts (my review). A third book that provides a unique (and masterfully written) account of the complexities of these turbulent years in Germany is Marcel Beyer’s 2008 novel Kaltenburg (my review), which shows that even contemporaries of Schulze can and do rise far above him and that’s just the parts of it that deal with the upheavals and the changes.

There is another aspect to his work, the east/west relationship, i.e. the relationship between the two Germanies. Again, Schulze comes up short, again, he fails to rise to the possibilities, well established by writers such as the great Uwe Johnson, whose books like Das Dritte Buch über Achim (~ The Third Book about Achim, 1962) or Zwei Ansichten (~ Two Points of View, 1965), helped create an interesting and complex discourse about this topic, one further developed by writers such as Reiner Kunze or Günter Kunert. I realize that it might be unfair to compare Schulze to great writers, but the sad truth is that neither Kunze nor Kunert are, in fact, great writers. But both have put a lot of thought into their works and both developed a distinct idea of how these issues work. Schulze hasn’t really. He riffs on sentimentality. His satiric streak took over during the early 00s, and his writing, modeled on Döblin but influenced mainly by Hoffmann, at this stage in his work, never achieves the level of insight, and acidic analysis that most great satire manages. There is a seriousness even to the light late works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a seriousness of purpose that drove him to write satires that endangered his livelihood and even, arguably, his life, in a repressive climate. In a far less repressive climate, meanwhile, Schulze, the former NVA (the army of the GDR) soldier, takes no such risks, politically.

He does, however, feign literary risks by writing Neue Leben (translated by John E. Woods into English as New Lives) an enormous slab of a novel, mimicking in style (partly) and structure the great epistolary novels of the 18th century. I said that good writing is about care and attention. Great writing, however, is about risks. Attacking great writers for diverging from grammatical conventions, for using a style that departs from the norm that we would teach in creative writing workshops or encourage as editors, is utterly beside the point and borderline moronic. This Schulze understands completely and every page of Neue Leben screams out: yes, I indulge, but I am an artiste, I am a great writer. I am Döblin, Hoffmann and Thomas Mann rolled up in one. Only, he isn’t, of course. The followup novel (with a forgettable collection of stories sandwiched in between the two) Adam und Evelyn is dominated by dialogue, and half-hearted references to myth and religion. As a reader, there’s a certain morbid interest in following Schulze’s career, which has turned into a wild romp, drunk on Romanticism and Modernism, without a thought to spare for the history nor the language he is abusing here. His writing has, by now, reached an all-time low; a level that, however, he was effortlessly able to sustain for his last two books. Neither of these are Schulze’s main failings, though. It’s rather the fact that the books bank so much on being perceptive and insightful that the revelation that they aren’t, almost completely destroys them.

The book needs a reader who is comfortable with reading the watered-down, palatable version of his own history, a reader who doesn’t care about style and who is thrilled that he’s reading a writer who writes ‘daringly’ elaborate and cerebral books that suggest Thomas Mann-ian literariness without actually having to read Thomas Mann. He needs a reader who will proudly produce an unread, but creased copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but has a lot to ‘say’ about the book, because he is so educated. This, in a nutshell, is Schulze’s audience, and he’s lucky that German critics (see my rant here) are happy to provide just that for him. He’s the prince of mediocre literary writing. Understand this: Ingo Schulze isn’t really a terrible writer, just a terribly mediocre one. However, there are so many great writers writing in this language (I have mentioned 8 writers in dire need of translation here and here) that it’s quite a shame that his work gets a spot in the limelight (and I’m not happy about Andreas Maier’s being translated, either), especially since his main job is to gently caress the egos of vaguely educated Germans who don’t like their writers or their thinkers to drag them out of their comfort zone, so a weak, derivative and complacent writer like Schulze has snatched a spot near the top of contemporary writers, one he doesn’t deserve, while even we forget writers like Thomas Strittmatter (who’s also been translated into English, see my review), and many others, like Dietmar Dath (excellent thinker, bad stylist) or the great, great Reinhard Jirgl (my review) never get translated.

But the worst thing, by far, about Schulze is that he was able to convince an Anglophone readership, who are naturally less well informed than natives as regards German history, that he is, in fact, the real thing, that there is something to learn or an insight to be gleaned from it, when that isn’t actually the case. Schulze in English borders on misinformation. He has, most recently, started to place himself and his writing at the crossroads between tradition and a new writing. He subtitled Handy, his hardly bearable collection of stories “Dreizehn Geschichten in alter Manier”, an explicit reference to 18th century fiction as well as to Jahnn, his protagonist in Neue Leben is called “Türmer”, an undisguised reference to the tradition of the Bildungsroman in general, specifically to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels. This suggests more substance to his work and thought than there is. History and culture is important, and buffoons like Schulze shouldn’t be relied upon to spread knowledge of it. There is so much unmined gold in German literary fiction. Don’t waste your time with Schulze’s pyrite. (ISBN)

Sword, Sorcery and Business Meetings

Donny at his excellent new blog, reviewed Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn here:

I must admit I was compelled to stop reading several times early on in the novel. It wasn’t so much that the novel was incredibly badly written, it’s just the initial tedium of the prose and the clumsy scenes. There was one near the start where the thieving crew leader has a honest-to-goodness meeting that features perhaps the only medieval brainstorm session in literature (complete with a meeting secretary to take minutes!) to discuss ways to take down a ruling regime in place for thousands of years. The action items from this meeting was so open-ended and, in corporate parlance, ‘high-level’ that I literally laughed out loud. I have been party to many a corporate meeting, and having to read about one in a fantasy world is just wrong.

For my own review click here.

Sinuous mind of love

Jennifer Moxley: Into the Bedroom

Certainly deluded wisdom and all

those strewn packages from Christmas,

“scholar’s disorder” keeps me covered

under this comforter thinking of us.

There there Erasmus, sinuous mind of love

in all its fibres off to Paris to see

what’s become of an antique world.

Cut me a bolt of satin Vermeer

sing deep your told conviction,

lace up trussed up laughing feet

then turn your head and listen:

the parakeet doth chirp, the Moon

remarks my memory

and I am bending draped to brass

in pain and folly trembling.

There are so many so-so poets around, highly praised, selling well. In this context it is refreshing to discover a poet like Jennifer Moxley, one of the five best poets of her generation, who is an interesting thinker as well as a brilliant and moving wordsmith. The poem above is from her 1996 debut collection Imagination Verses, where you can see her trying out words, subjects and her place in a complex world. As a poet, she is constantly getting better. You can buy the 2006 reissue of Imagination Verses here, or her best book so far, the 2007 collection The Line here. If you are interested in contemporary poetry at all, you can’t possibly bypass Moxley’s extraordinary work