Writing. Speaking. Feck.

It is one of the most frustrating elements in my life: when I write of books, I can pull off quite a decent job. Sometimes, anyway. I have an idea where I’m going, I may contradict myself, I may be getting overly mad or enthusiastic, I may waffle poetic, but it works, doesn’t it? Why, then, when I talk, do I sound like an angry hairy confused half-wit. Just this past Monday, the Bookbabblers and I interviewed the great young writer Joshua Cohen. I asked him to come, prepared not one, two or three, but five pages of questions and remarks and sounded like a vaguely drunk confused old man, not quite there, but too hopped up on drink not to talk now and then. Or in a discussion about Auster on Bookbabble, where I let fellow debaters get away with amazingly nonsensical arguments. Or when I explain poetry to fellow students. Next Monday, I might have an opportunity to speak to Mr. Charles Altieri. I will prepare, think about it, and when I’m there next week, I’ll look and sound like a confused homeless person expounding on UFOs and government conspiracies. Feck. Gobshite. Anyway. Back to my writing.

Judith Butler: I distance myself from this complicity with racism

Butler refused to accept a prize for civic courage at this year’s CSD in Berlin, pointing out outright racism and racist assumptions in what seems a very progressive event. She goes on to enumerate organizations that would have merited the award. For a more thorough discussion, go here.

Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann: Correspondence

Bachmann, Ingeborg; Paul Celan (2008), Herzzeit: Der Briefwechsel, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42033-1

[English translation: Bachmann, Ingeborg; Paul Celan (2010), Correspondence, Seagull Books
Translated by Wieland Hoban
ISBN 9781906497446]

2023. That’s the year until which the legendary correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann was supposed to be blocked not just for publication but even for scholars. In biographies, the relationship of the two most important German post-war poets used to be a mysterious affair. Everybody knew about it, people knew when it started and when it ended, but the details, how and why it broke off, for example, were shrouded in mystery. Everybody waited for 2023, including yours truly. Thus, when the heirs decided to publish the exchange of letters in 2008, it was nothing less than a literary sensation, one of the most exciting publications of the decade, and probably one of the bestselling volumes of letters published in recent German literary history. The book Herzzeit: Ingeborg Bachmann-Paul Celan. Der Briefwechsel. consists of every extant letter between the two, plus all the letters that Bachmann and Celan’s wife Gisèle Celan-Lestrange exchanged and the handful of letters between Celan and Bachmann’s lover of four years, Max Frisch. Together, all these letters paint a vivid and devastating picture of two writers, who were both perfect for one another, and utterly wrong. Toward the end of their lives, both suffered from depressions, both were institutionalized for one reason or another, and when they died, they died alone. Celan chose to kill himself in 1970, and Bachmann burned in her apartment in 1973, numbed by her addiction to pills and booze. Neither death is part of the Bachmann/Celan letters, although the decomposing breath of despair is audible behind quite a few of the passionate, dark, extraordinary words between these two masters of literature.

Instead, we witness two great writers rising to fame, neither able to escape public detractors and critical backlashes in a German and Austrian culture that Bachmann, in the title of one of her best known stories, described as “between murderers and madmen”. Bachmann’s travails as a woman in a male-dominated society and Celan’s as a Jew writing in the language of those who murdered his parents were forcibly different, however, as was their pain. The letters chart two lonely lives and a relationship destroyed by misunderstandings, suspicions and a deep-seated bitterness. There is no word to describe what a moving and utterly engrossing reading experience this book provides, especially if you are partial to Bachmann’s or Celan’s work. Lucky for those who can’t read German, this searing, magnificent book has now been translated into English as Correspondence by Wieland Hoban, and contains, like the German edition, the Bachmann/Celan letters as well as the Celan-Lestrange/Bachmann letters and the letters between Max Frisch and Celan (though, hopefully, the commentary and endnotes are better than those in the German edition). This book is highly recommended. You cannot possibly be disappointed by it, especially if you are familiar with these writers’ literary output, each of which left the world a completely original, masterful, and highly influential body of work. The letters move from youthful heartbreak and poetical exuberance to the destructive later exchanges between two people who cannot trust one another although they are, until the end, drawn to each other. It’s not a book you read and shelve. It’s a book to read and reread, a book to treasure.

Paul Celan, primarily a poet, published more than seven collections of poetry that are unequaled among German 20th century poetry. He also translated poetry, from French poets like Rene Char or Rimbaud to Russian ones like Yesenin and Mandelstam. In the collected works, his translations add up to two thick volumes, and are consistently amazing, almost overpowering, every bit as strong as his poetry. The third kind of work that Celan is known for is poetological prose, especially his Meridian speech which he held upon receiving the prestigious Büchnerpreis. Celan was a poet through and through. Incapable of doing much other work, he threw himself into writing (and late in his life, teaching), publishing his first book in 1948. Celan was a survivor of the Shoah, originally from the Romanian province of Bukovina, a region where, due to the fact that until 1918 it had been part of the Austrian Empire, German-speaking immigrants lived. Shortly after the Germans invaded, the Jews in the province were rounded up and shipped to internment camps and labor camps. Celan’s parents died in the camps while Celan survived and eventually moved to Vienna. In Vienna he met the 21-year old Ingeborg Bachmann, at the time studying philosophy, psychology and German literature (in 1949, at 23, she published her dissertation on Martin Heidegger) and the two hit it off almost immediately. The first letter in the book is a poem by Celan dedicated to Bachmann on her 22nd birthday, called In Ägypten, one of his most beautiful early poems.

Their love affair didn’t last, it ended in 1951, for reasons that none of the two spelled out in the letters, but reading closely, one finds, in these letters and the heartbroken, bitter ones that followed, the same net of accusations and suspicions that would continue to haunt their relationship. When, in 1957, Celan (who was by that time married to Gisèle Lestrange) and Bachmann resumed their affair, it ended for very similar reasons and was followed by the same incriminations, the same bitterness, although this time, it was laced with a despair that was to be deadly to both. From the start, Bachmann and Celan were wildly attracted to one another, but wary of the passion and the darkness they sensed in the other and in themselves. Meetings were postponed, letters were not sent for fear of creating misunderstandings, for fear of crowding or overwhelming the other. Hot intimate letters were often answered by cold, distant, careful letters, regardless who wrote which. We as readers find, in the thicket of letters, two people who see each other’s hurt and pain, and want to help one another, but neither knows the best means to go about it. One aspect is especially remarkable: from the start, these letters are all about Celan. With a few, very moving exceptions, most of the letters discuss Paul Celan and his mental problems or public issues. As early as November 1949, Bachmann writes of the “lostness” of Celan who “drifts out into a great ocean”. This is the ocean of a traumatized survivor who uses his murderers’ language to construct a new life in poetry, and who uses poetry as a place to encounter other people, a lostness that never left him, and that led to the end of not only both of their affairs but also of their friendship. Loneliness was Celan’s fate, despite his insistence, as a poet, on the power of poetry to connect people.

Poems, for Celan, are places where people meet, and his use of language in the poetry is less a matter of stylistics than a reconstruction of reality in language. Celan’s writing is incredibly direct, and possessed of an almost obsessive honesty and concreteness. This is the reason why it hurt him so much when, in the course of the so-called Goll-Affair, he was eventually publicly attacked not as a person, but as a poet, and his work derided as cheap second-rate imitations. Published in Germany, a country that was governed by a former member of the Nazi party, his poetry, starting in the mid-1950s, became a target for bigots and antisemites of all stripes, and the angrier and more desperate Celan became, the more he rejected friends and acquaintances unless they shared his anger to the letter. The climate at the time didn’t just affect him: bigotry and philistinism was on the move and a great many brilliant, sensitive people suffered. A year after Celan’s suicide, fellow survivor, friend and brilliant critic Péter Szondi, for example, chose to kill himself as well. In Celan’s post-war life, as his professional career and fame as a poet started to gain traction, winning him some of the most prestigious prizes of German literature, selling well, his personal life started to deteriorate; more exposure came to mean more attacks, until he finally, as his wife wrote in a letter to Bachmann, chose “the loneliest death”.

Celan, though often wrongly thought to be obscure and unreadable, combined Jewish and German literary traditions, restacked the stock of German vocabulary, reached for archaic words as well as combined words into a new creation. He was sincerely interested in language and its power to convey an image of a world gone awry, a world standing on its head, feet into the air (this image, from his Meridian speech, is borrowed from Büchner’s Lenz). But Celan’s humanity doesn’t ‘walk on air’. The air beneath our feet is threatening, destabilizing. Pascal wrote “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie”, and this is the kind of air he refers to. In the 1960s, he couldn’t be further from contemporary phenomena like postmodern irony. He wrote with a straight face, recognizing the urgency of poetry and the need for a common language between people in a disintegrating world. His work, highly dependent on the work of such thinkers as Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem, and integrating rather than excising the influence even of writers like Martin Heidegger, didn’t shy away from mysticism, but religion and spiritual content didn’t lead Celan’s poetry away from the real world. Instead, as his work became denser with mystical and linguistic difficulties, it also became more precise. He shed the rhetorical flourishes of his romantic early poetry and aimed straight for truth, refining his language and his poems into small, concentrated doses of signification. Poetry, for Celan, was not about saying things in a beautiful way, but about saying things, as good and precise as possible, and colloquial language just wasn’t precise enough. As his work moved toward denseness and a difficult clarity, it also moved from the melancholy of his first book into the despair and bitterness of his last books.

In his Meridian speech, Paul Celan references Büchner’s Lenz, the eponymous character of Büchner’s astonishing novella. Lenz’ story is one of constant decline, he’s shown to be a man at odds with reality and yet obsessed by it, a man with a murderous fantasy who tries to kill himself repeatedly. Lenz ends with a statement of resignation that is among the most searing and affecting in literary history. Lenz lives on, empty, seemingly rational and social, but really hollowed out and finished, living on because he can’t die, finishing the business of life, completely and utterly resigned. It is his search for truth, his passionate madness that precedes this resignation, however, that has entranced and inspired writers for decades. The Lenz figure also unites Celan and Bachmann. Bachmann, in her own acceptance speech for the Büchnerpreis made use of Büchner’s novella, as well, and also used the image of walking on one’s head. This is not even remotely the only connection of Bachmann’s and Celan’s writing, but it is the only aspect where the two meet as equals, equal thinkers and writers. References, as with the whole exchange of letters in Correspondence, are mostly slanted towards Celan. Celan’s weight as a genius poet is obvious everywhere. His metaphors surface time and again in Bachmann’s work, especially in her only finished novel Malina and her early poem Dunkles zu sagen. The latter is most significant as far as these letters in Correspondence are concerned. It is a poem dealing with the Orpheus and Eurydike myth. But while in the myth, the man comes to retrieve the woman from death’s grasp and loses her when he looks back to ensure she follows him out of the underworld, Bachmann reverses the roles. The poem begins with the words “Like Orpheus, I…” And indeed, in their relationship, it is, time and again, Bachmann, who reaches back to drag Celan into the light.

We know how the darkness encroached upon Bachmann in the 1960s, how she had to deal with attacks and depression, but in Celan’s letters, there’s not a trace of this. He is the demure, sensitive part while Bachmann organizes meetings, fights for his reputation, calls publishers and, letter after letter, tries to assuage his worries and anxieties. Her own poetry, far more than his, often has a skewered hymnal bent to it. It seems like public poetry, poetry that asks to be declaimed, small, volatile declarations from a vanished world. The poems themselves are sometimes rhymed, sometimes not, but are all deeply and explicitly rooted in a German literary tradition that contains both Romantic poets such as Klopstock and Eduard Mörike, and such modern poets as Wilhelm Müller, Georg Trakl and Stefan George. All these poets are highly important for her work, but she’s more elusive. Her poetry (as Celan’s) is often called “hermetic”, by which critics mean to say that you need a ‘clue’ to ‘unlock’ the meaning. Alas, that is not the case, but one can see the difficulty of her work in the fact that her poems seem supple and beautiful and clear on the surface, but are actually composed of layered, almost imaginistic, metaphors, which, like small explosive devices, detonate the more often one rereads her work. Between her first and second volume, this denseness of metaphor increased, and that second volume is a complex, shifting, thorny, but completely alluring piece of poetry. And it is, like Celan’s fully committed, as art, but also as a personal statement. In one of the few post-1961 poems, she writes

This sentence is not written by someone
who doesn’t underwrite

(note that the last word in German is unterschreibt and is actually closer to the word “(to) sign”). Young as she is (she published the second (and last) volume when she was only 30 years old), she created, in her 70-odd poems, an influential, original, extraordinary body of work.

In Celan’s letters, there’s nothing of this. Bachmann frequently alludes to or talks about his work, but he does nothing like that. When Celan talks about Bachmann’s poetry, he treats it as an extension of her person, its beauty an aspect of Bachmann’s, like her hair. He isn’t the only man in her life to do this, in fact. As we read her letters, and Max Frisch’s and see the facsimile of a broadsheet that Hans Weigel, a former friend and lover put out with the intent of attacking her, we gain the impression of her as an embattled but strong woman, looking, like Celan, for a true language, but despairing of finding it. Nowhere in the whole book does Celan reflect this problem, her troubles; he never speaks to her as an equal, never helps her, consoles her, attempts to drag her into daylight. Instead, he finds something to reproach her with whatever she does, especially after they break up for the second time, and the public detractors of his work become more vocal. Without debate, without an attempt to make it up to her, he just expects her to support him, and he expects her to do it in the exact way he tells her to. The public attacks on Celan’s work really take off with a review of his 1959 volume Sprachgitter by a critic called Böcker, a review that Celan, his wife and many other readers (including yours truly) considered implicitly antisemitic and explicitly bigoted. It referred to as well-worn antisemitic clichés as the homeless Jew. Böcker explicitly denied that poems like Todesfuge have any relationship to reality beyond the author’s (Jewish) cleverness. It’s a short review, crammed with resentment and idiocy, by a critic who shouldn’t have written about literature in the first place. But stupid critics abound, as do hateful ones, and a few kind words by his friends might have floated Celan’s boat here, so Celan, hurt and anguished, sent a copy of the review to his friends in the hope of obtaining support and succor. The answers of his friends were not as expected, however.

When he did not receive an immediate reply from Bachmann, who was busy and en route from one engagement to the next, he wrote to Max Frisch, with whom Bachmann had entered a relationship shortly before. Max Frisch is arguably the most important Swiss post-war writer, whose vast work includes journals, novels and plays, but he’s in many ways the antithesis to Celan. Although he’s certainly interested in politics, he’s far more of a postmodern trickster and ironist, his best work discussing the vicissitudes of modern identities (the title of one of his best novels (Mein Name sei Gantenbein) could be translated as “Let’s assume my name is Gantenbein”, etc.). He’d published plays with a facile moral fiber and two layered, well-composed journals discussing art, writing and the issues of the day. Just this year (March 2010) drafts for a third volume of journals has been published posthumously (called Entwürfe zu einem Dritten Tagebuch). I mention this new journal, because a surprisingly large portion of it is devoted to his ambiguous feelings towards Jews and Israel, and he spends many pages justifying his latent antisemitism; Celan would not have been surprised by these ambiguities: Frisch’s peculiar answer to Celan’s questing, anxious letter for help against Blöcker and his antisemitic cohorts caused Celan to call his attitudes towards Jews “dubious”. This answer of Frisch’s, of which Correspondence offers two earlier drafts, too, is a well-written, eloquent exercise in noncommittal sophistry, a reply that stunningly turns the tables in the matter and puts Celan on the defense. Instead of discussing Blöcker’s malfeasance, Frisch interrogates Celan’s reaction.

I treat this matter at length because this short exchange has subsequently caused all ties between Bachmann and Celan to be severed beyond repair, and Frisch, who keeps referring to Bachmann in a condescending way and would leave her devastated a few years later, is an important part of the whole downward spiral that ensues. Mind you, there are letters that follow this exchange, but Celan would never forgive Bachmann’s mild attitude towards Frisch (and, by implication, towards Böcker’s review) and as the second, far more harmful and aggressive wave of attacks washed over Celan, he regarded any silence, any hesitation on Bachmann’s part as proof of her enmity, of her tacit support of the generally hostile critical air. This second wave is the so-called Goll-Affair, engineered by the widow of the poet Yvan Goll. The widow, the infamous Claire Goll, had started, in the early 1950s, a thorough attempt to smear Celan as would-be plagiarist of Goll’s work. To achieve this she undertook a series of crude forgeries, serving up transparent lies and frighteningly effective appeals to the base instincts of German reviewers. Her lies, obvious though they were and badly though they were argued, managed to sway legions of critics who kept publishing articles about Celan the “shyster” and “crook”. Celan, shy survivor, felt persecuted again, and with some justification, blamed the residual antisemitism that regained strength at the time. He was, to take up Bachmann’s early letter, no longer just adrift on the ocean, but drowning in it. Although, by 1967-9, the ire and the lies had abated somewhat, Celan’s integrity and his will to write, live and create were damaged beyond repair. This poet whose poetics were primarily social, about encounters and other people, this poet felt deserted by his publisher, by friends and, yes, by Bachmann, his other, his love, whom he appeared to never cease loving even when they were apart, and just friends. It might have been just this feeling of desolation that led to his death in the hungry waters of the Seine in April 1970.

On the other hand, his deep sorrow and his obsessions threatened to engulf Bachmann, drag her down with him. Notwithstanding her own problems, she never stopped trying to save him, trying to keep him from being overwhelmed by his darkness. A draft for a letter, written late in 1961, shows how much his coldness, his suspicions and his deep despair affected her, as well. 1961 was a time where she tried to find a new way of writing. This was a time when she ceased, almost, to write poetry, and turned to prose almost exclusively. Before her death, she went on to publish two volumes of stories and a dark, haunted novel, Malina. Contrary to the suggestions of critics such as Marjorie Perloff, she didn’t quit poetry because it was dominated by a “male voice”. German Lyrik is a genre that provided a safe space for female writers, from Annette von Droste-Hülshoff to Marie Luise Kaschnitz, it was an allowed mode of writing that enabled male critics to read these female poets’ work as artfully crafted precious pieces. Celan’s reaction that read Bachmann’s poetry as an extension of his loved mistress wasn’t surprising, he reacted like many other writers and critics. And Bachmann was a runaway success as a poet. She sold extremely well, won many prizes and became almost a household name. Ingeborg Bachmann was a poet. Everyone knew that. But behind that facade, something else grew. Bachmann grew tired of the roles she was assigned, tired of condescension and allowed ways of expression and so she launched into writing prose. In 2000, a stunning collection of Bachmann’s unpublished poems and fragments was published, called Ich weiß keine bessere Welt (~ I don’t know a better world), where we can see the poet fighting to regain control over her means of expression. She twists and turns small phrases and images and castigates herself for not finding the right metaphor, the fitting phrase. These fragments show us a poet wrestling with her art, a poet ceasing to be a poet, a writer discovering prose.

In the 1961 letter, which she never sent, she demands of Celan the courage to believe in his own strength, to disregard the feeble public opinion. “The world can’t and won’t change, but you can”, she writes and admits “you might say I demand too much of you for your own sake. You’re right, I do” and adds the observation “but I demand [the same] of me, for my own sake, which lends me the courage to tell you this.” The edition contains a facsimile of this letter, which is typed in a feverish manner, letters tumbling against one another, words bumping into others, testament of her inner turmoil. Bachmann, readers of her work know, fought to change, fought against a tide of negative criticism: between 1961 and her death in 1973, she was almost constantly assailed for her deviation from the public image critics had cherished so much. Her work was attacked for being a “fall from grace” and “verging on trivial”, befuddling assessments for today’s readers. But between 1961 and his death, Celan wrote all of two letters to Bachmann, the last one a distanced note of thanks for her role in securing him a translation assignment. On the other hand, there are no letters of Bachmann, either. Contact with Celan, however much she had loved him, was harmful to her, he demanded too much of her and as her own psyche started to give way, it’s likely she didn’t have the surplus energy to buoy Celan again. In all the preceding letters there’s nothing to indicate that Celan would have been a help in any way. In 1962 she was left by Max Frisch and later that year she was briefly institutionalized. Her last ten years, from all we know, were a constant struggle, but the book is silent about it, as it is about Celan’s troubles.

In 1963 he writes enigmatically “I have a few not quite pleasant years behind me”, and the next thing we learn is in Gisèle Celan-Lestrange’s letter to Bachmann, telling her “la terrible nouvelle”, the horrible news about Celan’s death. Her regretful conclusion “Je n’ai pas su l’aider come je l’aurais voulu” holds true for both women. The silences towards the end of the book are terrible, and one can’t help but think of Bachmann’s poem Reklame, a satire of modern advertising upbeat hopefulness, and its final lines

but what happens […]
when a dead silence


Correspondence is highly recommended; it’s a no-brainer for fans of either of these two genius writers’ work, but moreover I urge everyone who isn’t a reader of Bachmann’s and Celan’s work, to become one. Take the opportunity to read Celan’s or Bachmann’s poetry, read Bachmann’s novel or stories. Both writers have been widely translated into English and French, there is no conceivable reason not to have read them. Essential as their work is for German post-war literature, their greatness makes these books required reading for every reader of poetry or literary prose. One is tempted to call this collection of letters just as essential. It’s not. But it’s a great read, a moving, inspiring book that I have been reading and rereading constantly ever since I acquired it, a book that you will love even if you have read nothing of either writer’s excellent work. I cannot overpraise this book. It’s that good.


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The Anti-McCann

François Monti on Denis Decourchelle’s debut novel La persistance du froid

On aurait envie de voir en La persistance du froid l’anti Let the great world spin : Decourchelle ne se livre pas à un chantage émotionnel, ne tente pas d’ajouter une relevance politique forcée, ne joue pas à prétendre qu’il est à l’aise dans tous les styles et toutes les voix. C’est un peu comme si McCann était le débutant qui veut trop faire et n’y parvient pas et Decourchelle le romancier expérimenté qui sait exactement ce qu’il veut faire et comment. Il confesse ne pas avoir d’imagination. On s’en fout. Et si McCann a obtenu un National Book Award sans qu’on comprenne pourquoi, on aimerait bien que La persistance du froid ait un peu plus d’écho et de lecteur. On saura pourquoi.

Jeff Smith: Rasl: The Fire of St. George

Smith, Jeff (2010), Rasl: The Fire of St. George, Cartoon Books
ISBN 978-188896322-9

Jeff Smith is an extraordinary writer and artist. Ever since he started publishing the Bone comics on his own imprint Cartoon Books, he has been consistently brilliant and fun. The whole of Bone, now available in one indispensable, addictively readable volume is one of the best graphic novels of the past decade. Since the completion of that series, he has undertaken a few smaller projects, all of which are highly recommendable, but many readers have been waiting for another epic work to approach the narrative scope and power of Bone. Two years ago, Smith did just that when he published the first volume of his new project, Rasl (pronounced like dazzle). I reviewed that first volume, which collected Rasl issues #1-3, on this blog (click here), and recommended it unreservedly. Rasl: The Drift is a fascinating work, a take on an ensemble of topics and literary traditions, from the noir to time travel books; it showed us a rough, unshaven young man, the eponymous Rasl, who travels through different dimensions, to find out he’s being hunted by a lizard-faced villain in a trench-coat who can travel the dimensions with as much ease as Rasl himself, and threatens his girlfriends in several dimensions. Does this recap confuse you? Well, it is confusing, as is the book. Rasl: The Drift is a dense introduction to what promises to be one of the best contained graphic novel series of our time. Jeff Smith introduces us to a plethora of plot strands, ideas, and lots of other suggestions. The Drift is a dazzling display of the range of Jeff Smith’s mind, and at the same time, it raises very high expectations for the rest of the series. When I picked up the followup volume, Rasl: The Fire of St. George, which collects Rasl issues #4-7, it wasn’t without hesitations. The expectations that The Drift raises are almost impossible to fulfill. And yet, The Fire of St. George is a deeply satisfying read, both following up on ideas and suggestions of the first volume, as well as further raising expectations for the next volumes.

Rasl: The Drift told us little about the protagonist. We learned that Rasl has a lover, and that there’s a version of her in every dimension he travels to, which is true for other people, as well. We find out that Rasl is a nickname of sorts or a pseudonym. His real name is Dr. Robert Johnson and he used to be a physicist, working with a friend, Dr. Miles, and a female co-worker (who eventually became a lover) on an exiting but obscurely dangerous new project. We infer that their professional relationship has gone sour and that this demise is connected to his current existence as a dimension-hopping art thief. This aspect comes somewhat late in the book and the overall topic of (serious) science was but one of a multitude of tangents that The Drift proposed to us readers. Instead, while we were busy trying to make sense of all this, Smith offered us several other kinds of explanations. Masks and symbols suggested myth and religion to us, while the lizard-faced man, the variations between the different worlds and the rough-and-tumble manner of traveling between dimensions had a strong whiff of the paranormal, with its implications of X-Files-like intrigue. All this appeared to be part of the tangle of Rasl. I say ‘tangle’ because The Drift makes no serious attempt to explain anything, it just piles reference on reference and plot on plot and character on character, stringing its readers along, offering but small clues here and there. This is is stark contrast to the new volume, which at times almost seems earnest, as it slowly, carefully and patiently explains a few of the allusions and suggestions of The Drift. The aspect Smith decided to shed light on first is the science bit, but he doesn’t explain what exactly is happening, scientifically speaking. Instead he has Rasl tell us the story of how he and his friend came to make a momentous discovery; at the same time, he tells us about Nicola Tesla’s life and his discoveries, his scientific genius and his eventual downfall.

Tesla has become a touchstone of geek-culture these past years, especially since the advent of steampunk fiction. On TV, Tesla has featured prominently in shows like Sanctuary, and the steampunk-fest Warehouse 13. In literature, apart from the use Alan Moore makes of him in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the perhaps most prominent appearance of Tesla is in Thomas Pynchon’s masterful Against The Day. Tesla appeals to a certain demographic because he’s just the right amount of anti-establishment, mixed with a dash of unorthodox genius. His attraction for writers is also due to the fact that for every invention that was eventually realized and used, there is an obscure, unfinished, rumored invention. And because we don’t really know, writers are free to imagine anything, and so Nicola Tesla, whatever the facts about the historical Tesla, has become some kind of real-life Jules Verne character, just as outrageous and mysterious as Captain Nemo. In The Fire of St. George, Smith even proposes that Tesla was the inspiration behind the Frankenstein in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein movie that deviated quite strongly from Mary Shelley’s novel. This idea is then followed up by a short re-telling of Tesla’s life as a scientist. For anyone even remotely familiar with the man, these sections of the book will seem a bit tedious, a reiteration of what seems to be common knowledge. Telling one’s readers about some relatively well know historical fact is something that many lesser writers do in order to manufacture some fact-related credibility for their far-fetched plots. The most annoying example of this is probably Dan Brown, but these days, that’s all the rage, from Kostova’s Historian to Mosse’s Labyrinth and the books by Preston/Child, bookshelves groan under the weight of annoying, simplified knowledge. Smith, however, isn’t a lesser writer, and his use of these historical sections may seem similar, but they are in fact far more complex and intriguing than that, but they don’t wear this difficulty on their sleeve.

In The Drift, readers knew they needed to look for clues to find their way around the bewildering events of the book, and so most will have read the book with care, parsing the panels for hints and subtleties. The tone in The Fire of St. George appears to be very different, the narrative far more clear and conventional. The X-Files reference has become stronger, with a mixture of unexplained phenomena (in the 1940s, a ship vanishes in the middle of the ocean), sober scientific explanations and the beginnings of a governmental conspiracy or cover-up operation. Jeff Smith, however, is a talented and insightful writer, and so even simple-seeming stories have unexpected depths. There is, for example, the absence of mysticism or religion from this volume (with a few eerie exceptions) although the first volume strongly hinted at these issues. But in the retelling and the images thereof, there are ellipses, and smaller nudges that one could almost have overlooked, from the fact that Rasl tells us about the creation scene of the Frankenstein movie, but omits the line “In the name of God! Now I know what it’s like to be God” that is one of the central lines of the movie and is, I think, one of the underlying themes of the whole Rasl story, that will be talking about issues like the creation of dimensions and the question of the humanity of people in other dimensions. Smith’s art contributes to this, by abandoning what feels like a dark, hollow black-and-white style for an almost flat iconicity in his biography of Tesla (except for a few panels where the Tesla bio bleeds into Rasl’s disturbed own life. This is but one example of countless others. Smith has abandoned the nested detail of Bone for a style, both in the writing and in the art, that seems more simple, dominated by large swathes of black and white, with sweaty, scared, hunted Rasl aka Dr. Johnson trying to make sense of the trench-coated man who follows him everywhere, making ominous threats. For all the explanations, we are doing the same, because every answered question opens up another pack of questions.

To the mysterious symbols introduced in the first volume, a mysterious silent child is added. The symbol tied into a whole discussion about native American myths, and its speculative connections to mysticism and extraterrestrial life. Since the symbols only appear in the ‘new’ dimensions, i.e. dimensions different from Rasl’s original one, questions about the nature of chronology and the laws of cause and effect are raised. Also, skeptic doubts about the validity of referring to any world as the ‘original’ one. The child, as well as Rasl’s multiple lovers add to this questions of the body, and of its connection to intra-dimensional energies. If this makes it sound as if Smith were engaging in weird esoteric speculation, he isn’t. Instead he is using common scientific knowledge (there’s a very short bibliography appended if you happen to not know some popular books on the subject (I’m betting all of you know at least 80% of them, so common is this knowledge)) and his own inspiration as writer and artist to launch questions and suggestions at his readers, nudging them, egging them on, raising expectations again and again. To be honest, there’s so much build-up even in this second volume, that it’s hard to see how on earth Jeff Smith’s going to make good on his promises, but experience tells us that he might manage. After all, if we remember all the things that happened between the first Bone volume and the last, we might almost be confident that it works out to the best. If it does, the Rasl narrative might turn out to be one of the best graphic novels of our time, similar to writers like Grant Morrison or Thomas Pynchon, but more grounded than the former and just plain different than the latter. Already, an announcement of a new Rasl volume is a great bit of news, but so far, all we have are teasers. If Smith follows up on them, we are bearing witness to a great work in progress. Already, Rasl: The Drift and Rasl: The Fire of St. George are excellent reads, intriguing, well written, fantastically penciled and inked. I recommended the first volume in my review of it, and I do so again. Read Jeff Smith, and read Rasl. The next volume will be called Romance at the Speed of Light.

Say no to yourself.

Richard Hugo: Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs–
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

If you don’t know Richard Hugo, you have no idea how much you are missing out on. This poem, originally published in The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973), is reprinted in one of my favorite single volumes of poetry, Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo, which I urge you to acquire. Richard Hugo is an amazing, important, great poet. Read him. Please.

Ryotaro Shiba: The Last Shogun

Shiba, Ryotaro (2004), The Last Shogun, Kodansha International
[translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter]
ISBN 978-1-56836-356-1

When Commodore Matthew Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay (then Edo Bay) in in July 1853, and demanded that Japan open its ports to European tradesmen, he set in motion a process of revolution that completely transformed Japanese society and politics. Japan at that time was ruled by a military administration, the Shogunate, the rule of which was a complex interaction of bureaucratic mechanisms and a wielding of dictatorial power, a post held by one family (and its collateral family branches), the Tokugawa. The Tokugawa Shogunate’s dominion had been established by military successes, and it rested on a balance of power between the different Japanese nobles and warlords. The Japanese emperor was head of state in name only, having no military or financial power, whereas the Tokugawa were one of the country’s richest clans; its fabulous financial assets one of the main sources of the Tokugawa strength. The changes that European pressure effected led to the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and to a restoration of the Emperor’s standing, albeit within a constitutional monarchy, with limits to his powers. Although Western-style democracy had not been introduced until after 1945, the so-called Meiji Restoration was significant in moving Japanese politics into modernity, abolishing an intricate feudal society for a more open, enlightened one. The period between the day Perry and his threatening ships appeared, and the day the Shogun stepped down and a new constitution was introduced, is an endlessly fascinating one; in historical studies like Conrad Totman’s eminently readable The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, for example, it proves to be an incredibly engrossing subject of modern historiography. Books like Totman’s, however, also show how obscure many aspects of the period are, how elusive certain details and motivations.

This is one of the reasons why The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, a good historical novel by Ryotaro Shiba (or Shiba Ryotaro), is such an eminently interesting read. There are a plethora of flaws in this relatively slim book, but despite all them, The Last Shogun is highly recommended if you like either historical novels or have an interest in the period. It’s author, from the evidence of this novel, would not be amiss in the company of historical novelists more common on Western bookshelves like Stefan Zweig or Hilary Mantel. Beneath the ebb and flow of its history, there’s also a mind at work with insights into his culture and past not unlike that of major thinkers as Masao Maruyama. The Last Shogun, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, was a runaway bestseller upon publication in Japan in 1967, and its author one of the most popular novelists of his day. Unlike Yasunari Kawabata, Kobo Abe or Yukio Mishima, Ryotaro Shiba is relatively little known outside of Japan, with only a handful of books translated into English. Before Carpenter’s translation in 1998, no other books have found their way onto American or British shelves, as far as I know. Since then, notable translations have included The Tatar Whirlwind, translated by Joshua Fogel and Drunk as a Lord, translated by Eileen Kato. The Last Shogun is a completely bewitching book, and an odd fiction, as well. In about 250 pages, Shiba manages to tell the story of a life spent in the heart of power, and a tragic, very brief reign, as well as the story of a country changing irreversibly, shedding its feudal skin, opening up to enlightened ideas and politics. Shiba throws names and events at us, without blinking, without long sentimental introductions.

The shifts between certain events can be brutal, as he makes no attempt to fatten up his story with unnecessary décor and small exotic subplots. If you have any experience reading low-quality books in the genre, you can almost see where writers like James A. Michener would insert flowery prose and emotive stories, but he goes beyond merely evading trashy filler in his elliptic history. At times, this spareness is tantalizing, especially since The Last Shogun is not, in fact, told without any digressions, but the small detours that do occur are precise and dense with significance and symbolism, more often than not consisting of one or two pages at most detailing a particular observation or event, and it’s almost never repeated. There is a pause, for example, when he offhandedly asks of his mistress to be ready to commit suicide when he embarks on a dangerous mission. Or gruesome moments, as when a close adviser is killed and the narrator observes that “every time a sword had penetrated the flesh, there had been a soft sound, like the sound made by hitting a rubber ball.” These moments are rare, though, especially compared to the enormous amount of history, replete with names and dates. This wealth of names and details, however, is never overwhelming for the reader, which, one assumes, is due in part both to the translator and the particular edition here. The edition helpfully contains maps, a glossary, a list of characters and a genealogy of the Tokugawa family, as well as a highly informative introduction by Frank Gibney, journalist and vice chairman of the Board of Editors at Encyclopædia Britannica, to make sure we do not get lost in the sea of the history of a country and culture that is not ours.

It must have been slightly different for Japanese readers. The Last Shogun, originally serialized in a newspaper, was one of many successful books by the author about the period, and his long and prolific work has created a sense of trust and respect in the Japanese reading public. Indeed, his gluttonous reading habits and his endless curiosity had helped unearth and popularize historical figures not well known before they became a subject of one of Ryotaro Shiba’s novels. This respect explains the utter lack of references, footnotes or historiographical defensiveness. Shiba spins his tale, assailing his readers with what he proposes to be facts and is done with it. It’s not a romance, it’s pretty serious about is history and yet Shiba is so confident he refrains from all explanation and commentary, giving us sometimes little more than the bare details. However, as readers of the translation, we don’t really know exactly how bare the details were in the original, since Carpenter is pretty cavalier about staying close to the text and prides herself in her “Translator’s Note” on having “slipped in a bit of explanation” “here and there”, or, indeed, on “having done a bit of trimming as seemed necessary”. This is, I shit you not, the full extent of her explanations of the changes she made to the text. There are no footnotes by her, either, pointing out changes, or explaining what would have made the “trimming” seem “necessary”, or how much “here and there” or “a bit” really is. It’s the sort of thing that usually makes me put away a book unread, and as a reader, I can’t help wondering how much editoring Carpenter has done. How much does this book still resemble the book Shiba wrote? Is this book better or worse than the original? The fact that the language is the single worst aspect about the book, musically wooden and lexically uninventive, does not bode well for Carpenter’s competence in making these cuts and additions. But in cases like this, we have to take the good with the bad, and state the obvious: we can complain all we want about Carpenter’s meddling and her cavalier explanations (or lack thereof), but the fact is, without Carpenter’s efforts, I wouldn’t have been able to read this book at all. To be honest: I wouldn’t even know its author had ever existed, and my life and my shelves would be poorer for it. There is an invaluable service that translators provide, yet one hopes that some of them would be more careful and considered about it.

The Last Shogun, readable despite or because of Carpenter’s meddling (either could be true) spends less time with momentous events like the devastating battles that marked the death of the Shogunate’s and forced the Shogun to leave Japanese politics altogether, than it spends with his youth, and the turning points in his life. The Yoshinobu that Shiba describes to us is a true polymath, incredibly gifted at intellectual tasks as well as at sports and artisanry and craft. Shiba largely skips battles and fights and focuses instead on rhetorical battles, showing us a man who will forgo a fight and try and engage his enemies in a discussion instead. Yoshinobu, whose office represented the height of Japanese feudalism, is painted by Shiba as an enlightened ruler, for all intents and purposes a precursor of the Meiji era. The word meiji appears to mean something like “enlightened government” and Shiba’s Yoshinobu is the epitome of the enlightened ruler as so many philosophers envisioned him. Few studies of the period focus as intensely upon Yoshinobu as Shiba does in his novel, and so the depiction of Yoshinobu seems a bit fanciful, less a realistic portrait of a historical character, as Shiba’s idealized version of him. In the characterization of Yoshinobu we find a powerful cocktail of positive and negative traits that perfectly explain some of the obscure points I mention earlier. Yoshinobu’s fear of being branded a traitor and his obsession with the reading and writing of history serves, for example, as an explanation for the lack of military resolve that the administration showed at the time, the lack of military forcefulness, which Totman is a bit puzzled about. However, these ‘explanations’ are not, strictly speaking, about historical accuracy. Instead, Shiba took pains to create a narrative for modern Japanese history that established a continuity from the Tokugawa Shogunate to post-WWII Japan. History, for Shiba, is not just an accumulation of facts and factoids, it’s about understanding the foundations of contemporary society in the dark recesses of the past, as any good historical novel does, really.

Sometimes, reading a book like The Last Shogun makes one worry about knowing too little about Asian and especially Japanese literary traditions, because one feels that Shiba makes use of a mixture of traditional phrasings or descriptions, and individual ones. This feeling stems from the fact that Shiba’s ideal, pacifist, pro-Enlightenment narrative reads very different from other descriptions of Yoshinobu that keep praising him effusively in an almost unmediated fashion. Part of the book read less like a novel and more like formulaic praise for an Emperor, dictator etc. by a loyal subject, the kind of rote praise that we have, most recently, heard from the coach of the North Korean side at this year’s World Cup. It doesn’t really add content, but what it does is add texture. Whatever the tradition or Shiba’s reasons for including it, one of the effects is that the stiff, ritual nature of Yoshinobu’s time feels real and palpable for the reader. This is a period, after all, that is very far from ours, its customs often strange and alien. We don’t immediately understand the extent of the breach of protocol that allowing a council of advisers to smoke and eat sweets in the presence of the Shogun, for example, entails. The book (and Carpenter) refrain from explaining or telling us; neither do they offer us human interest stories to make the culture and its strictures more relatable to the modern reader. Shiba expects us to go with it, to understand it, if not the exact reason for the ritual, then the bare fact of it, the restricted and tightly woven nature of political and private acts. The frequent, odd praise is an excellent stylistic tool to achieve this. We don’t feel the restrictiveness as an alien, invasive force on our sense of privacy, this is not Arthur Golden nor James Clavell, after all, but we have a vivid sense of it, a sense that helps us understand, but that doesn’t evoke negative feelings or exoticist sentiments. It’s hard to describe, but the effect is interesting and helps balance the incredibly wooden writing which is the main problem of the book.

Not reading Japanese, it’s impossible to say whose fault it is, but the writing reads very translated, stiff, sometimes extremely awkward. Given the fact that Shiba was a popular novelist, one is tempted to assume that the fault is with the translator and her lack of writing skills in English, but it’s really too close to call. The result, however, hampers the reading of The Last Shogun, making it less evocative and sumptuous than it could be. This is a problem, because the book clearly banks on being a popular novel more than a literary masterpiece. The structure of the book is conventional and simple, completely chronological. The narrator is an omniscient third person narrator, moving the story along, contextualizing events and explaining Yoshinobu’s motivations. This is so simple, it feels almost rote, and depends for success in part on the language. The writing is never quite really terrible, and might not even have been as remarkable for its problems in an aesthetically more ambitious book. But in as simply structured a novel as this, the stiff style sticks out like a sore thumb. The complexities of the book are not aesthetic, they are political. As mentioned, Ryotaro Shiba writes in the tradition of such luminaries as Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer who specialized in fictional biographies. Zweig was a highly political, strongly engaged writer who viewed the encroaching political darkness in Europe with great concern. An unwavering pacifist, he stood for the idea of an enlightened Europe, a Europe of thinkers, writers and artists, and took his own life when the horrors of WWII appeared to swallow the whole world. Shiba is just that kind of writer, and his depiction of Yoshinobu as a ruler with the heart in the right place (but the head firmly caught in feudal ideals), a pivotal figure who overcame his own inhibitions, his own flawed perceptions to sacrifice his political career and even his family fortune in order to allow modern Japan to rise from the war-torn feudal kingdom that was rife with intrigue and strife.

There is much to admire in the novel, despite its faults. There is the precision and spareness of its telling, the clear eye for salient detail, and, paradoxically, it helps us understand modern day Japan more than it helps us understand Meiji-era Japan. Like Zweig or fellow historians like Theodor Mommsen, the titan of German Wilhelminian historians, Shiba is concerned with the tensions in his own society just as much or more than with the subject he describes. The conflicts between pro-Western and nationalist warlords, between proponents of monarchical, military or democratic rule, between different religious sects and directions, all this were just as prominent concerns in Shiba’s time as in Yoshinobu’s. Reading The Last Shogun, I had to think of the fascinating books of Masao Maruyama, who was also concerned with the transformation of Japan into its present state. Yoshinobu, as Shiba depicts him, was not afraid to seem weak, to go against consensus and to change his opinion if history changed around him. In many ways, he is the ideal man (and Shiba, in this book at least, is extremely androcentric, another flaw of the book). His weaknesses, as his blind elitism, are pointed out by the narrator in order to show us how far Japan has progressed. The result is admirable, sweeping and very much worth reading. This book is not a masterpiece, but one is glad to have read it. I think we all have white spots in our reading of history and its narratives. I know I do. Empathy and grievously exotic narratives just don’t cut it, often enough, but writers like Ryotaro Shiba, and books like this one can help us fill them, not with knowledge but with a deeply felt, and brilliantly conveyed understanding about the fundamental soundness of human beings and our innate capacity to change the world into a better place. It’s a tragic book about a Shogun who reigned only two years and then resigned and disappeared from the public eye until he died in self-chosen seclusion. While The Last Shogun seems in part a defense of modern Japan against monarchist loyalists and nationalists, it is also a call not to ignore historical change, but to be a part of it. That it does this without declaiming its message from the rooftops, without turning into a cheap political pamphlet is yet another reason that The Last Shogun is such a readable and recommendable book. Yes, it’s a bit slight, yes it’s an easy and conventional read, but see if I care.

R.I.P. José Saramago

One of the foremost novelists of our time, José Saramago dies at 87. This shapes up to be a very bad year. Here is an interview from 2006.

I think the novel is not so much a literary genre, but a literary space, like a sea that is filled by many rivers. The novel receives streams of science, philosophy, poetry and contains all of these; it’s not simply telling a story.

John Wray on Bookbabble

FINALLY: the two-hour interview with Mr. John Wray that we did on bookbabble is online! I reviewed his novel The Right Hand of Sleep here and his novel Lowboy here. I was also responsible for arranging and moderatingthe whole interview thing which is why it’s all a bit confusing and muddled. I’m sorry. It was saved though by the brilliant Björn and luminous Lorne who are the other Bookbabble regulars taking part here. Donny posted the interview in two parts. You can access part 1 here and part 2 here. John Wray was a lot of fun to talk to, and is an overall great guy. Enjoy. (Part 1, Part 2)

L’équilibre entre la force et l’espace

Last week, I’ve reviewed Frank Smith’s excellent Guantanamo. Here is a new interview with the author on the remarkable blog De seuil en seuil. Extract below, for the full interview click here. For a De seuil en seuil – review of the same book that is way better than mine, click here.

Sans doute l’émotion soulève-t-elle parce que les textes sont portés par des voix. Le travail d’écriture, entamé après la réalisation radiophonique, avait, lui, pour but de présenter l’objet de la parole, de donner (et non faire) sensation en restant réticent vis à vis de l’émotion. Je voulais me méfier des effets encore plus. Paradoxalement, par le passage à l’écrit je pensais pouvoir gagner aussi en force. Ce qui est compliqué dans toute activité, c’est l’équilibre entre la force et l’espace dans lequel on intervient. Comme le dit le général Giap, connu pour être le vainqueur de la bataille de Dien Bien Phu qui a sonné la défaite et le départ des Français d’Indochine : plus on prend de l’espace, plus on perd sa force.

Paul Harding: Tinkers

Harding, Paul (2009), Tinkers, Bellevue Literary Press
ISBN 978-1-934137-12-3

Published in 2009 by the tiny Bellevue Literary Press, a press run by the NY School of medicine, Paul Harding’s debut novel Tinkers was undoubtedly the major surprise of this year’s literary awards when it first won the 2010 Pulitzer, out of the blue, one might say, and garnered its author a Guggenheim fellowship later on. Harding, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, and a creative writing teacher at Harvard, has been inundated with praise ever since. After reading Tinkers, one can’t help but feel that part of that praise is not caused by the book’s brilliance but by professional critics’ guilt at overlooking this book, and at their delight at the narrative that its author’s rags-to-riches story lends to their pages and reviews. It seems fashionable to praise Harding, and the excessive praise seems a bit undeserved, which is regrettable inasmuch as Tinkers is a truly remarkable book, and its quiet qualities have been swamped a bit in the shouty acclaims of brilliance. To be honest, I felt a stab of disappointment a few pages in: I hoped that ‘small press’ and ‘lots of rejections’ pointed to an original, unusual, maybe even difficult book, but it’s none of these. What it is is a very competently written, very sentimental, very moving little book about a family history, a book about father-son relationships, about the mechanics of modernity and about the shock of spiritual enlightenment. It is a book that seems to appeal to everyone, from pensive teenagers to mellow grandparents. There is just the right note of formal rigorousness and theological thoughtfulness to keep it from becoming completely trite and banal. Tinkers, it must be said, is just an enormously likeable little book, tinged with melancholy and its heart in the right place. That’s all it is, but isn’t that enough, sometimes?

Harding’s novel is, one might say, nicely old-fashioned. With much skill and effort, he created an ars moriendi that could well have been written a few decades ago. There isn’t even a hint of self-conscious deliberation, of careful irony, and maybe that is one of the reasons for its broad appeal. Tinkers tells us of a family history with a melancholy seriousness, with Harding never once wavering from his project, never attempting to include the unsavory or the difficult. This is not to say that Harding’s literary skills are lacking. In fact, structurally and stylistically, there is much that is remarkable here, and much to suggest that he may be a better writer than Tinkers makes him out to be. The book may be sentimentally and morally straightforward, but Harding’s accomplished writing has led him to tell his story in a more fractured way, skillfully weaving three generations’ memories into a tapestry of personal histories. It’s very rare that you find books like this one, books that manage to employ the tools of modernist and postmodernist fiction with great expertise, but that are at the same time very easy to read and understand. In this you can see Harding’s profession and his educational history. Tinkers is always, above all, deliberate and effective, a realization which can cool down considerably the soft emotional warmth that Harding tries to evoke. One would think that a book which its author had spend years working on in his spare time, which he had been defending against a spate of rejections, that such a book would feel more necessary, more incisive, more interesting, but it merely feels cute and cozy and comfortable. So, yes, Tinkers is a sad feel-good book, the likes of which regularly make the reading group circuit (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a recent example). But on the other hand, potentially, Paul Harding is a better writer than that, and a more educated reader.

This is important: Paul Harding is less of a storyteller, less of an observer or thinker, and more of a reader. Tinkers is a novel that exudes the aroma of centuries of literary history, but it’s written by an author who spared little time to make creative use of that. Instead, Harding appears to have picked a couple of serviceable tropes and images and funneled the family history through them. Additionally, there’s an ill-advised attempt to write a pastiche or parody of 18th century tracts (as in excerpts from a book called “The Reasonable Horologist”), which isn’t creative, just inept. Actually, these pastiches are more than that: they are indicators that Harding’s reading of 18th and 19th century fiction is lacking a certain amount of insightful thinking. What thinking he does is almost exclusively focused on prose craftsmanship, whether his own or other people’s materials are concerned, which is why Tinkers is so good in that department yet so poor in others. The most obvious example of all this is his use of the clock as a central metaphor in the book, which is easily one of the most tired metaphors in all of literary history, having been used constantly throughout the centuries, in different cultures and different languages; and he’s really having at it: clocks are the obsession of George Washington Crosby, one of Tinkers‘ protagonists; they are also used in the traditional sense, with clockwork as a stand-in for the complexity of life. Lastly, the book’s preoccupation with the mechanics of clocks is additionally reflected in its complex (but not complicated) structure, where different periods, and different protagonists are taking turns etc. The book’s three protagonists are not all of them obsessed with or interested in clocks, but they are all tinkers, and Crosby’s clock-affinity is ultimately suggested to be a legacy of this odd family.

Tinkers is a novel about three generations of New Englanders. The book opens with an image of George on his deathbed, thinking about his life and remembering his father. His whole family, members of which are scattered all over the US, has gathered to accompany him on his final journey. The house is crawling with clocks but they have been silenced, to George’s chagrin. Harding doesn’t just latch on to a narrative method like Proust’s (which would result in too complicated a book for Harding’s liking anyway, one suspects, given how much priority he accords to cheap palatability), diving in and out of memory. Instead, the whole book is neatly cut up and compartmentalized. It consists of four chapters each of which tells one person’s story and intertwines it with another’s. This is quite significant: the memories that we learn about are not only or even predominantly those of the dominant narrator. Instead they often appear to be independently told pieces. In the first section, where George ‘remembers’ his father, Howard, for example, Howard’s pieces sometimes retell events that George cannot have witnessed. Other pieces are more straightforwardly connected to George’s memories. That first chapter is George’s, and sketches his comfortable situation, his friendly family, their patience with his illness, their loving care and attention. He lives in a house he built with his own hands, he had a good education, and worked as a teacher, teaching maths and mechanical drawing. His chapter tells us a lot about his life, although in bits and pieces, in small lists of information. It also introduces his father, Howard. Howard’s life is in direct contrast to George’s. Howard was a salesman, traveling the Maine countryside to sell and fix pots and pans, accessories and soap. With a wagon drawn by a mule (called Prince Edward), he spent all day in the open, often helping with a plethora of other tasks. Finally, the first chapter also introduces us to the problem of remembering and writing down one’s own life in a worthwhile manner.

In an early scene, George attempts to record his life onto tape, but he is put off by the way he sounds, “not very well educated”, appearing like “a bumpkin” who is asked “to testify about holy things”, but asked in mockery because “not the testimony but the fumbling through it” are the reason for his appearance. George’s disgust with this has him break off the attempt. In an ironic turn of events, Paul Harding’s novel itself sounds as if it were the product of a similar resentment, over-correcting the flaw and focusing on the sleek delivery and caring very little about the ‘testimony’, i.e. the content of the book. There is more to that scene than that, however. The failed attempt at autobiography I described leads consequently to George lying in his bed, wanting to remember, but not being able to do so in a controlled manner. Many of Howard’s pieces appear to be editorial insertions to provide a context and history for George’s impressions of Howard. The narrator appears to be a kind of literary executor of George, trying to make as much sense of George’s life and memories as possible, ‘tinkering’ with them, fixing them. This is the source of the aforementioned seriousness: for the narrator, George is Important, and his life deserves this monument. The book’s mechanics and narrative are then shown to be the means with which that task is undertaken. This is admirable, but it makes for very unsurprising and uninteresting reading. None of Tinkers‘ readers will have been surprised when they realized that George’s fixing of clocks and tinkering, building, repairing things is a reaction to his childhood, when he grew up with a ‘broken’ father, and, ultimately, a ‘broken’ family. The second chapter talks at length about Howard, who is suffering from violent epileptic fits, and whose lack of professional success appears to exacerbate this condition. He hides this illness from his children, but by and by, family life disintegrates.

The third chapter is narrated by Howard, and it is the only part of the book that is delivered by a first person narrator. There are well-wrought changes in the various third person narrators before and after that chapter, some personal, some not so much, but this chapter is the first first person one. This is significant in several ways. In this chapter, which tells us about Howard’s youth, and his own father, we never learn the father’s name. To young Howard, he is only ever “father” or Dad”. Howard’s father was a Methodist minister, that much we’re told, a profession which in the book serves to contextualize the errant wanderings and thoughts of both Howard and George. Young Howard’s family life, too, falls apart, and it, too, fails due to the family illness, one imagines. Although the fathers in Tinkers ultimately seem to leave their sons, the book has an almost foundational nature, telling its readers about an American family, with an American faith, living in New England. Accordingly, the countryside plays an important role. It is a rough rural landscape that seems to have strolled straight over from Thoreau’s rustic meditations. Harding does an excellent job describing the nature that surrounds his characters, the trees, lakes, the grass. Almost immediately, we have a feeling for the landscape, and just as quickly, we see how Harding’s descriptions of his characters tie in with that landscape. It’s a testament to his skills that he is able to conjure a whole world, complete with curious objects and a very peculiar atmosphere, in just a handful of pages. But these skills are not that of an attentive observer. Instead, Harding constructs his nature from the rich reservoir of American literature. His New England might be inspired by memories or observation of actual natural vistas, but the result is clearly not connected to reality as much as to descriptions found in the work of writers such as Robert Frost, Emerson and the aforementioned Thoreau, charged with an almost clerical faith.

Fevered visions of heads looking out of a lake, catching fish with their mouths alone, of teeth in trees and other oddities carry more than a whiff of a Christian literary tradition, with traces of Dante, Augustine and Milton disseminated over the small pages of Tinkers. But while these writers invested their work with some heavy-duty thinking and an enormous intelligence, Paul Harding, and this is the book’s major shortcoming, is merely a highly skilled version of Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt or Paolo Coelho, inasmuch as their opinions on life and death are concerned. This reader needed a break from the book whenever the author decided to wax lyrical in what seemed to be the most banal way possible, as far as the content was concerned; what’s worse, it gets more and more obtrusive and annoying as the book comes to a close, although the writing is excellent throughout Tinkers. Even as the neatness of the book’s layered structure, the power of its emotions, as these start to really impress the reader, Harding spoils it all by keeping to try and ‘meaningfully’ discussing the “unknowable” and describing preparations for the end while having his protagonist clean one of the damn clocks. I’m not saying it’s something he can’t do, because Tinkers gives off the impression of him not even having tried to invest his extraordinary writing with a modicum of intelligence.

Hidden in this book is a spare meditation about the burdens we inherit, about the power we have to start anew, hidden also is a fine, considered, traditional ars moriendi, with a dying man’s last thoughts, breathing a last, dignified breath. Hidden, too, is a book about the changes that Americans underwent these past years, about the role that acceptance and commitments play in the treatment of illnesses, and a book about the epiphanies of adolescence. All this is in there, but hidden behind a large smoke screen of likeable effects and cheap sentimentalities. It is downright depressing. Thoreau, in a letter to Emerson (July 8, 1843, if you must know), wrote

It is the height of art that, on the first perusal, plain common sense should appear; on the second, severe truth; and on a third, beauty; and, having these warrants for its depth and reality, we may then enjoy the beauty for evermore.

Harding took a shortcut. Instead of “severe truth” he opted for sentimentalities and instead of severe beauty he chose a hokum cuteness. I assure you, there is an excellent book hidden here behind the complacent, brainless tear-jerker that Tinkers turned out to be. Whatever its flaws, it is a nice read, and Harding, as a writer, is highly skilled, and his instincts are frequently excellent. This is not a very good book, yet it’s also not a bad one. It’s a disposable, but ultimately a moving book. It’s short, and a quick read, and imbued with the elegant serenity of Christian traditions. It doesn’t approach Aquinas’ claritas pulchri, but why should it have to. A very decent book, and miles above the tripe that Moore, Auster et al. keep publishing. You might point out that I read and enjoy a lot of tripe (watch out for a review of Twilight at this blog sometime soon), why am I so hard on a book that is clearly so accomplished? Because it could have been much better. Stephenie Meyer can’t write good prose to save her life. Tinkers is held back by a measured complacency, its author has actually remarkable skills and good instincts. This book, it bears repeating, could have been much better.  The result is artistically mediocre and politically problematic. However, the prizes awarded to this book are not a shock, as they appear to express a longing for the 19th century qualities Harding emulates, and his very modern, taut writing and structure, well-schooled and effective may just have clinched the deal. Why his mass-market-ready book was repeatedly rejected by publishers does puzzle me. The bottom line is: I wanted to like this book, I didn’t. Is is worth reading? Given the amount of extraordinary books out there, I have to say no. But if you look for a quick, competently executed, cute read, by all means, go ahead.

God’s querulous calling

Ted Hughes: Theology

“No, the serpent did not
Seduce Eve to the apple.
All that’s simply
Corruption of the facts.

Adam ate the apple.
Eve ate Adam.
The serpent ate Eve.
This is the dark intestine.

The serpent, meanwhile,
Sleeps his meal off in Paradise –
Smiling to hear
God’s querulous calling.”

By the way: in his Letters (Faber & Faber, ed. Christopher Reid), which I am currently delighting in, Hughes says he’s written this poem “under a […] invocation of power” and he “could never have written [this poem] normally.”

Brand New Babble

We’ve been recording bookbabble episodes on an almost weekly basis all year, but the last episode that Donny actually posted on-line, is the infamous nipplebabble, on Feb 26th. Today, however, he’s posted another one. Click here for the direct link and look below for Donny’s summary

This week we’re introduced to the seemingly new form of storytelling called ‘sound novels’. We find out a little more about this supposedly new medium, guided by a resident expert, Renee’s daughter, the Wilde Childe herself, Rosemary. Along the way, Marcel treats us to a story of Amazon reviews abuse by the author himself. Oh, and Stephenie Meyer.

Frank Smith: Guantanamo

Smith, Frank (2010), Guantanamo, Seuil
ISBN 978-2-02-102095-3

Frank Smith’s 2010 novel Guantanamo is an odd little creature. It is a fiction based on 380 released formal interrogation protocols from the detainment facility in the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. Guantanamo mirrors, reflects and projects some of those interrogations without every really assuming the character of a play or a drama. Formally, it consists of 29 short chapters of unequal length, each containing an interrogation, or rather, an excerpt from an interrogation; no chapter exceeds 6 pages, some take up only 2 or 3. Reading the book feels like perusing a portfolio of delicately wrought small dialogues (with the odd monologue now and then), although it is in fact composed of pieces or fragments: every reader knows a formal interrogation is a ritually rigid situation, with clearly marked beginnings and ends, the protocols of which, after all, are meant to convey to their readers (judges, intelligence officers, military officers etc.) a fully informed opinion of the particular interrogation in question, an impression that those readers can then base further investigations on. We, as readers of Guantanamo know that, although the book doesn’t tell us. It hides the official, rigid nature of many of these dialogues. In fact, the excerpts, as a rule, offer us no indication whatsoever where in a full interrogation a particular piece is supposed to be placed. These are, for all intents and purposes, fragments, but only implicitly, they are not marked as such. For the reader they feel like very concentrated doses of story. There is a certain disconnect, a lack of introduction, say; now and then changing voices can even cause a jolt to the reader, but the readers have to infer the fragmented nature from their own knowledge. After all, some familiarity with the general process of formal interrogations can be expected. In this sense, there’s a certain schizophrenic feel to the whole enterprise of Guantanamo, which vacillates between old fashioned storytelling and écriture engagée in the form of documentary drama à la Heinar Kipphardt. Come to think of it: ‘vacillates’ might be the wrong word: it marvelously succeeds in doing both.

The book relies so much upon shared knowledge between the writer and his audience, there is so much implicit, unsaid, blacked out, that the book, for the uninitiated, for the reader out of touch with current events and the broader implications of names, dates and events in the book, can seem a modern cousin of turn-of-the century short prose, in particular of books like Sherwood Anderson’s momentous Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short, interconnected prose, less concerned with playing narrative games and more with exploring storytelling and the connections between the long and the short form. A similar effect is achieved by Edgar Lee Masters’ canonical collection of poems, Spoon River Anthology, which, despite the difference in genre, is perhaps even closer to Guantanamo. Books like these (and traces even of texts like Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood) come to mind, because the book’s basic impulse is to tell stories, in a simple but effective language. We as readers get to know an array of prisoners, and we learn of the way that they came to be arrested and incarcerated by the United States in the infamous detention facility on Cuba. With a story per (small) chapter, it could become repetitive due to the form of the interrogation, but the book as a whole has my rhythmic, musical feel to it; Smith plays with the ways to present dialogue. Some chapters are simple question/answer dialogues, written down like scenes in a play. Others keep the alternating rhythm of the interrogatory, but embed it in prose, adding words like “asked” and “replied”. This is the most common solution, as well as the most fascinating, fascinating because the subject of these sentences is invariably “on”, a French subject pronoun hard to translate into English. The best equivalent in English would maybe be “one” used as pronoun, in order to be a substitute for the pronouns ‘I’ / ‘you’ / ‘they’ / ‘we’. depending on the context. On seems to the speaker of French, like its German equivalent man, a simple, extremely common word, but its usage (cf. Le Bon Usage) is actually rather complex and the implications for Guantanamo infinite.

Without unpacking French grammar at this point, suffice to say that the word tends to mean something rather global. It is often used to subsume a group of persons under an umbrella pronoun, in the sense of ‘In Louisiana we like to dance’, or ‘In Louisiana, they like to dance.’ The use of it as an equivalent of ‘we’ is particularly common in colloquial language. This, like many other uses of the pronoun, ally the speaker with the action of the sentence or even with a group of people engaged in the action, but intuitively, one would expect that a pronoun supplanting the “interrogator” in the sense of “the interrogator asked…” would be equivalent to the English ‘he’ or ‘she’, for example. In a very strange way, this method achieves two objectives, it quietly dissolves boundaries between the two actors, and it makes us as readers complicit in the act of questioning, as well as in the process of being questioned. At the same time, it is a remarkably common word to use; no-one who regularly reads French would stumble over it. It’s not jarring, not difficult, not even particularly odd. It is quite astonishing how Smith manages to wring effect from simple means without having to highlight the effect, without forcing it on the reader. It is only when considering a translation that you start to weigh pronouns, that you notice how important and effective Smith’s use of language is. The ‘on’, arguably, is meant not just to provide a he said/she said structure. Instead it contains a suggestion as to who is speaking and who is spoken about, who is only relayed, read and perceived second-hand, and who is providing the first hand account. Guantanamo is quite obviously interested in providing not just stories, but it impresses on its readers how people come to be in such a prison, and what happens to their language within. The brackets, the constraints, the limits to the stories that detainees can tell, this is as important in Guantanamo as the stories they do tell. The short prefatory note already announces the distance of the detainees to open speech:

Nous allons vous poser quelques questions
afin de mieux comprendre votre histoire

Cut into two lines, it is three things at once: it announces the thematic focus of the dialogues to come, it suggests, through its almost epigrammatic nature, a certain amount of heightened artifice, and lastly, it introduces the dominating voice and interest, the “we”. We will ask you questions, because we are interested in your history.

This focus, and the lack of explicit condemnation, the matter of fact description, this allies Guantanamo with a select group of (mostly) mid-century documentary plays. At the same time, Frank Smith declines to arrange his small chapters into a strong narrative, one that is implicitly condemning at least, he does not do what so many other writers did: write a novel composed of voices but roughly following a plot or an ideologically motivated narrative. Reading an isolated chapter near the end seems as much of a reading experience as reading one from the beginning. It is, however, Smith’s achievement that the book, as a sequence, and as a poetical artifact, makes sense, without coherence being forced upon the reader by an overarching storyline. In this, Guantanamo differs strongly from those other documentary plays. Three particularly important and excellent instances of the documentary fictions I mentioned are Peter Weiss’ The Investigation, Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of Robert J. Oppenheimer or Karl Kraus’ massive, violently apocalyptic masterpiece Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit (not translated into English, but available in French as Les Derniers Jours de L’humanité, translated by Jean-Louis Bresson and Henri Christophe). All three of them have one thing in common: their fragmented nature, their use of widely available sources as basic material, and their emphasis on human dignity and on the forces that endanger or destroy it. There is Kipphardt’s Oppenheimer, nuclear physicist, his voice borrowed from the tapes of McCarthy’s quizzical henchmen, who warned about the dangers of modern warfare. There is Karl Kraus’ Viennese public, vibrating with apocalypse as the first World War approached, and finally soldiers, journalists and others during the horrific darkness of that war, their voices and publicly recorded statements creating a smattering of tones and registers in one of the 20th century’s most epochal plays. Finally, there are the voices of witnesses, judges and defendants in Weiss’ play about the Frankfurt Nazi trials, where those responsible for Auschwitz were dragged into court. Weiss’ play is arranged in a way that has us follow him into a genocidal cascade, ending with the burning of the murdered Jews in Auschwitz’ ovens.

All three of these writers rely almost exclusively on public documents, but in each case the result is an almost symphonic indictment of outrages committed against humanity. War, genocide, cruelty. Their authors formed part of the public consciousness, and their books were as much an expression of a particular political rhetoric as they were well-turned works of art. Plays like The Investigation were meant to be performed in a way that highlighted the speech onstage, with few details, just a courtroom and the stark words of witness. The implication was that honest words were enough evidence, that they are convincing and powerful enough on their own, although in each case the authors clearly assumed that their audience needed a nudge or a shove to read the plays the right way, hence the narrative closure and structure of the plays. Since their time, however, witnesses, and the reliability and validity of their words have been called into question, most famously perhaps by Shoshana Felman’s and Dori Laub’s amazing work. The problems of trauma, and of the knotted issue of representation have made works like Weiss’ very rare today. Reality has retreated from the battlefield of mainstream literature, as we started to understand how much our perception of reality is filtered and processed, as we started to question the relationships between our convictions and our flawed, second-hand perceptions. Fictions started to engage with culture, literature and other constructs that influence perceptions and form and funnel our representations. At the same time, as Felman and Laub have made abundantly clear, despite what they famously called “a crisis in witnessing”, witnesses exist and are important and oftentimes our only link to historical truth. Many theoretical efforts have been made to interrogate our understanding of the process of witnessing, efforts that have been reflected in poetry and the visual arts. Fictional prose, however, often steps clear of these issues, rarely attempting to deal with them, and even more rarely succeeding at that task. Documentary fiction, as part of other genres, postmodern, historical or cut-up prose, has persisted, with great success, but the likes of Weiss, Kraus or Kipphardt have been few and far between. Guantanamo is an outstanding example of that kind of writing.

The very title of the book is the first indication for us readers as to what game Frank Smith has decided to join. The prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has become a byword for inhumane and unjust treatment. Interrogation practices in Guantanamo have become the focus of tempestuous legal, political and philosophical debates, practices, that is, that have relied occasionally even on torture, something that most first world countries had thought to have banned and banished decades ago. The detainees have, until recently, not had the possibility of challenging their incarceration in civilian courts, and even military tribunals have only been instated upon intense public and political pressure. Criminals, soldiers and innocents alike have been herded into cages and had to submit to often degrading treatment. This is the background of Smith’s book, but only very rarely do the dialogues that we are offered touch upon these issues, not explicitly, anyway. I think it’s fair to assume that Smith presumes all of this as part of the shared knowledge of his audience, and so he does not need to engineer outrage: he can safely expect his audience to be informed about the topic and suitably mad at that abuse of military and political power. The major difference to, for example, Weiss’ play, is that Weiss wanted to teach his audience about the atrocities that happened. Germany at the time was trying to cope with a massive case of collective self-induced amnesia. He used witnesses to create new knowledge and outrage in his German audience that was governed, at the time, by a former NSDAP member, Kurt Georg Kiesinger. Similar motivations powered Kipphardt’s and Kraus’ plays. Their plays would have lost their evocative power had they considered the difficulties of witnessing, the aporias of historical knowledge, to paraphrase Giorgio Agamben. History was there to be uncovered, written down and declaimed on the stage. Frank Smith, composing the poetical artifact that is Guantanamo, didn’t have that freedom. He was restrained by the awareness, the doubt and other difficulties that have beset historiography between the 1960s and today. From these restraints, however, he fashioned a fascinating literary jewel.

So these are the two polar opposites between which Frank Smith’s book is arranged. Anderson’s fiction and Master’s poetry on the one hand, and Kipphard’s harsh plays on the other, but it’s more rigid, more strict and disillusioned than either. Work like Giorgio Agamben’s might explain many of the tensions, but this is not the place to elaborate upon Agamben’s Homo Sacer trilogy. It’s worth noting, however, that Agamben’s very focused upon the processes that one’s state in a legal system plays for one’s ability to form truthful statements. He is probably most famous for his declaration of a “state of exception” that people in extra-legal camps like Guantanamo and in Nazi concentration camps occupy. They are an exception because the law of the respective countries has a gap where these camps are concerned. It doesn’t really discuss them and their odd status. The Bush administration has created that “state of exception” by inventing a special status for the detainees of Guantanamo Bay: unlawful combatants, which put them out of reach both of US domestic law and international laws like the Geneva Conventions. Agamben’s careful discussion of what this means for people speaking of and about their experience in camps like these are interesting and very relevant for Guantanamo, which appears to have been written with the care of someone highly aware of the difficulties in writing about these topics.

His approach, which consists of formally innovative, but not intrusively difficult small chapters, is likely to be inspired by the work of William Carlos Williams, whom he quotes in an epigraph at the beginning of the book:

No ideas but in things

This very famous phrase is from a 1944 poem called “A Sort of a Song”, which was published in the collection The Wedge (you can find it in WCW’s Collected Poems (Volume. II)). In Williams’ “Author’s introduction”, he lays out his concept of poetry. He claims that formal invention creates meaning and illumination, “a revelation in the speech that [the writer] uses”. The greatness of Weiss’ work in his time, and Anderson’s, Masters’ and Thomas’ in theirs, derives not from the stories they tell, per se, but from the unique means they have employed to tell the story, to make their work of art. And in his own time, Frank Smith attempts to do the same. For such a small book, there is an enormous amount of thinking contained in here. We could talk at length about how he uses the reader’s entrenched suspicions, how he handles places in the small stories of peregrinations that the detainees tell us, how he makes us complicit in the public acts of mistrust that Muslims are so often subjected to, how he uses translation and language as vectors of speech. All this is in there and much more, but on the surface the book seems so humble. Part of that, again, may be Williams and his admonition that a poet should take “words as he finds them interrelated about him”. Smith uses simple words, imbued with a complex understanding of the ‘interrelations’ in them. On the other hand, how humble is a book that bears the title Guantanamo, thus announcing to the world that it discusses a timely and important topic? One can’t help but feel that the book is carried by a certain sense of importance. Well, that’s as it should be. It is an important topic and it seems to me that Guantanamo is an important book.


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On Andrei Voznesensky

Andrei Voznesensky is a difficult writer (…) yet he is particularly easy for us to like and admire. He comes to us with the careless gaiety of the twenties and Apollinaire, with a flippant magic, effervescent intensity, and imagination so boisterous and high-spirited that only a Russian could survive it. He says, “We do not burn to survive, but to step on the gas.” Voznesensky us not likely to burn out (…). When he looks at himself, I think he’s glad he is only life-size, or a bit smaller. Everywhere in his poetry is something fine-boned, fragile and sensible. With humor, with shrewd amazement, with rushes of defiance, he is able to be himself, a gift no one is born with, and which is only acquired by the most heroic patience and ingenuity. (…)

This is a hard time to be a poet, and in each country it is hard in different ways. It is almost impossible, even where this is permitted, to be directly political and remain inspired. Still the world presses in as never before, prodding, benumbing. We stand in a sort of international lull. Like a cat up a tree, we want to climb down without falling. It’s too much, we’ve lost our foothold. The other night, I found myself shaving. An impatient, just-lit cigarette was sighting me down from the soap-dish, and the bathroom door was ajar to catch messages from the world news roundup. It’s too much, it’s too tense. We want another human being. We want Andrei Voznesensky (…) to juggle us back to the real world for a moment.

I was reminded last night that Andrei Voznesensky had died last week (a horrible month so far; we lost Voznesensky and David Markson, as well), and I found this brilliant essay by Robert Lowell, a speech to introduce a reading by Andrei Voznesensky, written in the early 1960s. It is from Lowell’s Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux)

David Markson R.I.P

Apparently, the amazing David Markson passed away today. Instead of long self-important accounts of his importance, the web is slowly filling with small, excellent, deeply personal obits that demonstrate the weight he had in the life of fellow readers and writers. Here is a beautiful obituary note by Sarah Weinman, a very moving one by Kimberly Ann Josephine, an equally moving one by A. D. Jameson, and another great one by Edward Champion. Below is an excerpt from a very good “Conjuctions”-interview with Markson. Click here for the interview and read below for the excerpt:

I use index cards. I store them in the tops of a couple of shoes boxes. If I made a stack of them, they’d probably be about two feet tall. I’m constantly shuffling. This goes on for a couple of years. I might have a few quotations about Joyce, and I figure out which one goes where. I try to make sure I don’t overbalance. I know in the end that there’s going to be more literature, but I try to make sure I have as much about art and music, too. There’s always a certain amount of the classics and philosophy. With the historical stuff, it just depends upon its significance or irony. Then, somewhere along the line, I make notes about Author or whoever it is and figure out where they go. (…) When Reader’s Block came out, Kurt Vonnegut called me, two-thirds of the way through, and said, “David, what kind of computer did you use to juggle this stuff?” I told him what I’d done, and he called me when he finished it and said, “David, I’m worried about your mental condition.”

Charles Reznikoff reading

I have neither the time nor the weaving skill, perhaps,
for the intricate medallions the Persians know;
my rugs are the barbaric fire-worshipper’s:
how blue the waters flow,
how red the fiery sun,
how brilliant a green the grass is,
how blinding white the snow.

This is section/poem seven from a sequence of poems by the masterful Charles Reznikoff. It, and countless other poems, including selections from Holocaust, can be heard at PennSound, a vast collection of recordings of the man’s voice. If you know Reznikoff, enjoy! If you don’t, take this opportunity to get to know a magnificent voice in 20th century American poetry. Click here to access the recordings.

China Miéville: The City & The City

Miéville, China (2009), The City & The City, Macmillan
ISBN 978-0-230-74191-1

The City & The City, China Miéville’s seventh novel, is a well-nigh perfect work of literature. We all know Jarrell’s adage that a novel “is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”; true to form, there are problems with Miéville’s book, as well, but the overwhelming success of the books as whole, the staggering originality of its ideas and the success in pulling the whole thing off, this lifts the novel far beyond many of its contemporaries. Like much of Miéville’s work, it displays a firm commitment to genre, but it’s hazy about the kind of genre that is foregrounded here. At the same time it’s a police procedural, a hard-boiled thriller and a fantasy novel, with links and allusions to science fiction (without every really becoming a SF novel), and it uses the advantages of each of these elements to their fullest, to create an insightful work of art that is too complicated, ultimately, to be reducible to a message or a simple resolution; the latter being its main flaw, by the way, but we’ll return to this. Suffice to say that I urge you to read The City & The City, even if (maybe especially if) you have not been able to take to Miéville’s work before despite the prodding by friends or literary critics. China Miéville, the only three-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award so far, shapes up to be the most dominant writer in the field of speculative fiction, and despite the fact that The City & The City is smaller in scale than most of his other novels, it is a great example why he is so important, so well-praised and so extraordinarily successful. He proves himself to be as adept a creator of original concepts, as he is an insightful reader of other texts. His texts, and The City & The City maybe more than the others, appear to be the result of what Emerson called “creative reading”, on the one hand, and a careful, aware and thoroughly critical reading on the other. The City & The City is not Miéville’s best book, but it is a masterpiece, and not a minor one, and China Miéville is a masterful writer.

Personally, in fact, I consider China Miéville to be one of the best living British prose writers. If you haven’t heard of him in these terms yet, it’s maybe because he’s primarily a writer of what we refer to as genre fiction. His work does not have the explicit and heavily theoretical slant of Samuel R. Delany’s 70’s and 80’s fiction, but Delany’s work is certainly part of the tradition Miéville built on; but Miéville is indicative of a larger phenomenon: I think we are currently witnessing among younger writers a renaissance of the kind of genre fiction Delany represents. I think these young writers are part of a resurgence of the energies and inspirations that fueled the New Wave writers in the 1970s and after, as recent high profile publications by Gwyneth Jones (Spirit: or The Princess of Bois Dormant, 2008) and Geoff Ryman (Air: Or, Have Not Have, 2005) amply demonstrate; Jeff VanderMeer notably suggested that some of them, Miéville and himself included, might be labeled as “New Weird”, combining “New Wave with other elements. Miéville’s kinship with Delany rests on more than just a similar critical awareness, care and concerns. From Delany’s wooden beginnings in Fall of the Towers (1963-65) to the sleek efficiency of Triton (1976) and the mysteries of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), he has always focused on language as an object in his genre fiction. For him, the writing itself is subject to the same care, deliberation and charged with the same intellectual energies, as is the story, the characters and the broader ideas. In fact, for Delany, writing is more than making use of words to tell a story; I’d say that writing for him means having ideas about language, that can tie into the broader concerns of the rest of the book (as they do in Babel-17 (1966)) but don’t have to. By and large, Miéville does the same thing, to an extent that is actually rather rare, even in these post-post-modern times. His work evinces both a meticulous attention to details and a knack for creating a cohesive, fluid fiction that does not, as Delany’s does, burden the reader with its philosophical preoccupations.

The City & The City starts with a murder and contradictory hints as to the identity of the perpetrator of the crime and his or her motives. Detective Tyador Borlú, police officer in the old city of Besźel, is called upon to solve the crime but as it turns out, the deeper he gets involved in the inquiries, the deeper he and his role, and his conventional ideas about how to handle the everyday playacting of being a citizen, are called into question. A similar impulse propels the narrative of Miéville’s latest masterful novel Kraken (2010) but unlike that novel’s protagonist, Borlú’s understanding of the world is not so much unmoored, confused and obscured, as sharpened, and brightened. For Borlú, the world doesn’t need to be explained, it hasn’t changed, his basic assumptions of agency, cause and effect remain intact throughout the book. What does change is his vision of it. His journey is not one of learning new things, of acquiring knowledge, nothing of the sort. Instead, it’s about learning to see, to evaluate. Borlú’s education in The City & The City hews close to Kant’s famous definition of Enlightenment: sapere aude! Dare to know! Kant’s exhortation to his fellow citizens to use their brains and the knowledge already in them is relevant in other ways, as well. Often overlooked are his contextual restrictions: while one should always think, it does not necessarily follow that one should always tell people about the results of said thinking. Some order is worth being preserved, even at the expense of freely speaking one’s mind. If your thought flies in the face of conventional order, and by speaking out, you violate your duties to that order, you had better keep quiet. There is a difficult tension between these two assertions, the one to think and the other to preserve order, and in The City & The City, Miéville recreates just that kind of tension: his novel vacillates between stasis and progress, between seeing freely and living in the bounds of established order.

Now, it’s quite impossible to explain in any detail how the concept of the two cities works without creating problems for the prospective reader. The blurb on my copy tells us that Borlú has to travel “across a border like no other” and that is both fitting as well as the full extent of information that you can impart upon an unaware reader without spoiling the book for him. Reading the book is like unwrapping a present: with an impressive deftness, Miéville manages to peel off the layers of Besźel order one by one, chapter by chapter without ever boring us. The concept itself is strange and adventurous but only slowly do we realize how thoroughly, really, it’s planned and executed. Details of how the world of the The City & The City is constructed keep coming up, and this stream of revelations (that get ever smaller, with the largest ones naturally in the very beginning) is one of the reasons for The City & The City‘s enormous readability. If you know how the two cities, Besźel and its neighboring city of Ul Quoma, work, the book will no longer be as enjoyable. It is no spoiler, however, if I tell you that both cities are modeled after a surrealistically heightened image of an old, large East European city. Many descriptions, names, places and even the odd phrase now and then, contain a mixture of languages and cultures such as Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Croatian and others. There is a constant sense of decay, especially in Besźel, which is the poorer of the two cities. The precariousness I mentioned earlier is not only due to the unique situation of Besźel, but also to the morbidity that oozes from the old battered walls of the city. Besźel feels almost claustrophobically small, and its citizens’ purview seems small and provincial as well. Miéville’s language is instrumental in creating this impression.

Unusually for Miéville’s work, the language in The City & The City is largely lean and spare, but the unmarked, quiet nature of the narrative voice is the perfect backdrop for the names and terms used. Instead of creating a slightly fantastical oddness, this method hammers home the East European setting, creating a very believable sense of place, and an authentic voice for Borlú, who is the protagonist. There is enough exoticism in the names and the concepts, so Miéville opted for a voice that is sober, elegant yet conversational. He doesn’t speak like someone translated, or with an unbelievable eloquence, he speaks like ‘one of us’, in a register and vocabulary that is carefully tailored to reflect a whole tradition of hard-boiled writing without lapsing into straight pastiche. The balance between the cities is thus reflected in the language of the novel, and vice versa, in its balance between exotic names and plain vocabulary, between sharp thinking and a fluid conversational quality in the writing. Additionally, the way that names and writing clash, this transports a strangeness, which is in line with the strangeness that exudes the two cities. Miéville knows very well how central language is to early 20th century pulp, how in novels by Hammett or Marlowe, the language is simple and visceral enough to keep readers hanging on, keep them reading, while injecting a certain, palatable amount of oddness into the work, thus creating yet another balance, hiding the complexities behind the dirt and the grime. It’s a tradition that has continued in excellent hard-boiled novels. But The City & The City is not, in fact straightforward hard-boiled pulp. Beside borrowing from the police procedural, bestselling thrillers and SF, it’s quite clearly a fantasy, and fantasy novels quite regularly strain for effect, for writing ‘high register’ prose. In cases like David Anthony Durham’s Acacia novels (2007 – ), it’s almost painfully inept, while for writers like George R. R. Martin it works like a charm. The pretension to offer something else to readers, a different world, yes, but also a different feeling for that world. Even Martin’s brutal, blood-soaked, disillusioned knights feel medieval, and his language is the main reason why.

In The City & The City, Miéville’s language supports no such pretensions (it’s different in his other prose) and in its precise rendering of incredible events and places, it’s close to Czech writer Franz Kafka. Kafka is one of a long list of writers mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments, and the way that Kafka keeps his language clean, organized and careful, even while telling us brutal stories about cats and insects is indeed an important reference here. However, Miéville’s accomplishment becomes more evident if we consider another writer mentioned as well in the acknowledgments, Alfred Kubin. Alfred Kubin’s opus magnum is the 1909 novel Die Andere Seite (translated into English by Mike Mitchell as The Other Side, published by Dedalus Press (highly recommended)), a towering achievement of early expressionism, endlessly influential. Kubin’s novel tells of a married couple’s journey into a dream country somewhere between Europe and Asia, which promises to free the traveler from the turpitude of modern progress. It’s a land of uncertainty, but doesn’t at first seem anything except dreamy to the husband while the wife succumbs to fear and eventually dies. At this point a crazy war between an invasive American industrial tycoon and the lord of the dream country sets in that leads to the total destruction of the realm of dreams. The “other side” is a place where good dreams and fears coexist, a place that can be both dangerous and soothing, but a hazy, imperiled place, unable to withstand an outsider’s violent pressure. Kubin’s language is fanciful. It retells a feverish dream in an exceptionally wild language that carries the seeds of Alfred Döblin’s mad epics published ten years later. As the story gradually disintegrates into comic madness, the reader is afloat in the midst of it, because Kubin’s language is part of that whole stampede of crazy. Miéville has taken up this idea of the other side, and turned it into a Chinese box of otherness, tempered by a clean, yet popular language.

Kubin takes an outsider and has him witness the story in our stead, a narrator with our values and traditions, who can convey an impression of the place that would mirror ours. There is no such normative stance in The City & the City, where the meaning of being on ‘the other side’ keeps changing dramatically, without blurring the issues for the reader. The simple juxtaposition of dream as a place of ancient truths and submerged knowledge with reality as a harsh, violent voice, and modernity as a place of decay and sheer concrete both, it doesn’t quite work like that in Miéville’s book. Miéville’s focus is on the power of fear, of the “obedience reflex”, to shape people’s behavior and even their perception. The language is his tool to let us, his readers, see it too, shorn of the illusions of pretty writing. The formal clarity of a police procedural, which structures the whole novel, conforms to the writing and has us not only descover the murderer, the political reality in Beszel but also the import of the events for our world. At the same time, it’s all greased with dirt and ambiguity. One startling fact is that Borlú, contrary to expectations is shown to be consistently conservative and protective of the Besźel status quo. In Kubin’s book, dream and reality merge in a final showdown, as Kubin questions our daily priorities. Miéville also looks at daily life, but his novel suggests a precariousness to the roles we play. Ultimately, The City & The City seems like a plea for more awareness, not for rejecting our roles, but looking at them honestly, and assuming them, if at all, with full, honest acceptance. The illusions of pseudo-scientific hogwash to explain prejudice, or of necessity to explain violence and callousness, these, to Tyador Borlú, Miéville’s protagonist and narrator, are not acceptable. That the book manages to suggest all this without ever becoming preachy, without forgoing ambiguity, indirectness and uncertainty is no mean feat. He has used the destabilizing force of fantasy writing before, but in The City & The City precariousness co-exists with balance and order. He uses fantasy to tear his readers from their own conventions, and as their eye adjusts to the new world, they are made to see similarities. At the same time, it’s also a crime novel, as I mentioned befor, and much of its power (and its flaws) derive from this fact.

Reading Miéville often means reading a writer who displays an invigorating joy in the act of thinking. He doesn’t supervise or admonish his readers as much as involve them in his own mental peregrinations. The writing is by no means undisciplined, but his interests clearly diverge from the demands of straightforwardness and effectiveness now and then. The tools of plot and suspense can sometimes can slip from his grasp and create an odd disharmony. This, incidentally, is also the one major flaw of The City & The City: the ending is extraordinarily dissatisfying, so that we as readers feel almost robbed. However. the ending of a novel of suspense and mystery is, I’d argue, always a delicate affair, an extremely difficult task and most writers do tend to bungle it. Like them, Miéville also fails to deliver: in one single cataclysmic scene he attempts to wrap up and explain and contextualize a whole novel’s build-up of mystery, intrigue, of sabotage and murder. Almost predictably, he fails. The rest of the book does work well. Indeed, for the most part, The City & The City is genre fiction at its best: effective, well-structured, insightful, and utterly readable. The overall style is taut and concentrated on fully conveying the necessary details of plot and place, both of which are a bit complicated and not all that easy to understand. If you have read other reviews at this site, you’ll know that I consider it a great achievement to write and succeed in writing a literary novel that is a success as a genre novel and despite Miéville’s problems with the climax and ending of the novel, The City & The City is just that: a successfully executed crime novel.

The crime novel, whether police procedural, hard-boiled novel or something else, generally works predominantly with revelations, some of which are gradually imparted to the reader an/or the protagonist through their encounter with the place the book is set in, and the inhabitants of the place in question. There is a sense of epistemological closure to, especially, the ‘clean’ crime novel (like a regular detective novel or a police procedural), which, unlike many others, seizes places as objects, and looks inside, closing them off to the outside, like small criminal biotopes, squeezing them for information. There is a certainty in this kind of search, because chaos is always contained within the confines of time and place. The hard-boiled novel, on the other hand, is much less concerned with this kind of certainty. In fact, much of the violence and depravity often ascribed to hard-boiled novels is due to the fear of the unknown. These novels often have their protagonists work through their fears to achieve a result, often gyrating through an unfathomable world with obscure rules. Fear, anger, violence, sarcasm, and a hard-won common sense supplant clear knowledge and sober decision-making. This process, this journey through obscurity and confusion, paradoxically, often leads to a much clearer depiction of the actual forces at work (as opposed to the consensual, polite rules, the agreed-upon roles). In the regular, ‘clean’ crime novel, consensual order is often briefly knocked off balance by the fierce, destabilizing force of violence, with the authorities called upon to rectify this unacceptable change. In the hard-boiled novel, order is (or seems to be) perpetually off balance and no amount of gumshoeing will change that. Given this juxtaposition, it’s fitting that in The City & The City, Miéville has constructed a wholly new world, one that is not only normally balanced, but whose very existence is a realization of the idea of balance, which aligns his novel with crime writing and true to the hard-boiled elements in it, all spaces in the novel, the different balances, they are all constantly endangered. The novel is swamped with a dark precariousness, with uncertainties, but we as readers only learn this bit by bit, as Miéville, like a master showman, reveals his world to us, selling us his idea chapter by chapter.

The concept of the two neighboring cities reflects the closing off of a clean police procedural, and Borlú’s way of dismantling the cities in search of the culprit or culprits shows that he reads his own world as finite, as a closed system where all signs can only point inward, to places and people within, acting strictly according to the rules of the place. But Miéville does not lend him a hand in his endeavor, instead he continually undermines basic assumptions, ultimately creating a perennially open world which is in constant danger of slipping away into historical and cultural oblivion. The weak ending, too, seems to provide closure, but here, once again, we are led to believe that it is delusional. The last, ridiculously conciliatory paragraph of the novel reads, in the larger context of the book, like soothing words whispered into an oncoming storm of arbitrariness and violence. Thus, in a way, The City & The City seems like a black hard-boiled wolf stitched into the sheep’s skin of the clean procedural. Borlú never sheds his basic assumptions, the world doesn’t force him. But in the focus upon sight and the use of one’s own brains, it gave him a choice. In a way, Miéville’s decision not to commit to a clear position is the final validation of the book. I disapprove of readings of books that raise weak writing onto a pedestal if it potentially reflects weaknesses in the characters. I have had a few discussions with Auster fans who, desperately trying to defend the smoky-eyed Brooklynite, keep bring up this kind of hogwash. I think it’s lazy, but in the case of The City & The City, it’s tempting. However, even agreeing that the ending is weak, and seems forced upon the author by his commitment to genre and his wish to tie off the book without breaking that mode of writing, the noncommittal end has interesting implications for the rest of the book. A novel that seems so like fantasy, with an improbable scenario, it turns out to be a kind of realism. In fact, by handing its readers a concept that seems like an allegory of sociological ideas, it seems to capture reality far better than novels that use the conventions of what we call realism. The book, as a whole, is a kind of tantalizing hyper-realism, complex in its implications and references, a book that no other writer could have pulled off and that even Miéville may have trouble topping in the nearer future. As a reviewer, I must admit that it challenged me like no other book I have ever attempted to review, and the innumerable flaws of this review are in part witness to the difficulties I had to even attempt to do justice to a book like this. Do not let the review dissuade you from reading the book. Unless you have a strong aversion to the genres I mentioned, you cannot not read The City & The City.


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Critically sanctioned masculine political incorrectness

Manohla Dargis closes an insightful, spirited and very correct review of Sex and the City 2 with this fitting observation:

Too bad the women weren’t guys and went to Las Vegas, where they could have indulged in the kind of critically sanctioned masculine political incorrectness that made “The Hangover” such a darling.

Empty Dreams: A Story by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

On the first night, I had to sleep half-sitting, my head resting on my knees and my arms wrapped around my legs to avoid rolling onto something that stank terribly and felt disgustingly warm and wet. As my head cleared, I realized it was my own vomit.

Thus starts Jayaprakash Satyamurthy’s excellent story Empty Dreams, which you can read, in full, if you click on this link. It’s highly recommended. I was blessed enough to read it in an earlier draft, and I’m stunned at how much better even it turned out to be. Read it.



Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, speaking by telephone from Cyprus, rejected the military’s version.

“That is a lie,” she said, adding that it was inconceivable that the civilian passengers on board would have been “waiting up to fire on the Israeli military, with all its might.”