Janet Hobhouse: The Furies

Hobhouse, Janet (1993, 2004), The Furies, NYRB Classics
ISBN 1-59017-085-7

DSC_1914I’ve been reading two books on mothers and daughters this year and this is the one I finished first. And what an excellent book it is. A posthumous autobiographical novel about Janet Hobhouse’s life. It ends badly, and doesn’t tell a joyous story, but Hobhouse’s luminous writing, elegant, well paced, always balanced -if barely- above the abyss of despair, makes for a deeply satisfying reading experience. Janet Hobhouse died in 1991, at the age of 40. She died having published multiple novels, and having lived quite the life on different continents. I have not – let me admit this in advance- read any of her other novels, so I cannot say how this unfinished book compares to her more polished published work, but, apart from the odd lapse in style, and the occasional gaps in the narrative, this novel reads fairly polished, the product of a finely tuned literary mind. I assume that people might enjoy unraveling all the allusions and hidden names (Philip Roth is one celebrity among several that makes an incognito appearance in the book), but the joy of reading The Furies goes far beyond the typical appeals of romans à clef. In a way it is a (post)modern take on Portrait of a Lady, or, in many places, a dark revision of The Dud Avocado. It’s a book about being a woman and a daughter in the 20th century, and not quite fitting in with any of its fashions and movements. A book about being beautiful but desperate, brilliant but lost, a novel about secrets, about private and public lives. What an extraordinary novel Janet Hobhouse wrote, in a style that may seem conventional, but it’s a style that’s exceptionally malleable and convincing at the hands of Hobhouse. It’s an honest book – and by honest I do not refer to its autobiographical moorings. It doesn’t aim to manipulate or deceive, it stacks life’s events according to its own inescapable logic and not according to some narrative. Despite Hobhouse’s old fashioned, 19th-century pen, the novel is fantastically precise. It doesn’t ask us for pity. “I have survived,” she says near the end. The book asks us to respect her, that is all. Honestly. Just go and read the damn thing.

That the project at hand is one about 20th century feminity becomes clear as we are charmed and transported by the first parts of the book, which read like a condensed, melodious family saga, as we follow the narrator Helen’s ancestors from 19th century Germany to New York. This history is primarily a history of difficult and complicated women. Of ugly women, beautiful women, of headstrong women and women more happy to be part of larger family narratives. This early section (“Prologue”) doesn’t span a large amount of pages, and it certainly deviates from the rest of the book as far as style and pacing is concerned, but it establishes the parameters of what is to come. Being a headstrong, intelligent woman is a difficulty in a society that primarily follows the narratives of men. Families are units united by the husbands, the fathers, and continued by the sons. Mothers and daughters are cogs in a system, made to conform to expectations. Some, like the narrator’s grandmother, run away for a time, but families always catch up. Emma, the runaway grandmother, eventually “succumbed,” as her mother had done, settled down, married, and soon became mother to (eventually) three daughters. That particular household is remembered by Bett, Helen’s mother as profoundly unhappy. “I remember nothing but fear in that house. […] I was afraid of my father’s hitting me.” Being made to fit in the patriarchal mold is not a kind process, and not all the women in Helen’s family took well to it. As the years passed, the men died or were divorced so that, ultimately, the family became “its complete, exclusively female, self.” Soon after, the family’s matriarch died and the daughters and granddaughters spilled into the world. We barely need all this history, because few of the characters return in the rest of the book. But it serves as a foil for Bett’s and, later, Helen’s life. The connection to a larger family whole, which the matriarch had provided through her acts of “angelic” servitude to the larger concerns of everyone else, is severed by her death, and none of the daughters and granddaughters is pliable enough to knot these ties again. Willfulness, non-conformity and independence are behind many of the problems besetting Brett and Helen – struggling through lives not due to any personal faults but due to the hostility of the narratives that are expected of them.

Mutlu Blasing has pointed, in a discussion of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, to a line in Moore’s work: “Turn to the letter M […] / and you will find / that ‘a wife is a coffin’” Blasing later adds that “[t]he “letter M” links matter, mother, and mortality” – neither Bett nor the narrator, Helen, are comfortable being in that kind of coffin but the outside pressures do not make that life easy for them. That said, there’s also no comfort in each other – Bett is an awful mother, captivated by her own misery, her bad luck with men and money. In some ways, Bett lives a Holly Golightly life, only with child and the diminishing charms of middle- and then old age. She cannot provide sustenance to her daughter, whom she initially sends to a boarding school, described by Helen as “a kind of depository for the strays and the detritus of misfired adult lives.” Eventually, Helen gets to leave boarding school to live with her mother full time in New York. I say “gets to” because young Helen practically swoons with love for her mother, whose distance and neglect hurt her like mortal wounds. As readers, we find that distance, and the hurt contained therein, masterfully rendered in Hobhouse’s frequently long sentences, her offhand observations and her way of putting devastating revelations at the beginning of unassuming paragraphs. When eventually, her mother dies of suicide, the inattentive reader is apt to mis-read, to miss that moment. Her reaction to it is also telling: “The very first, clearest sensation is of weight lifting off my head and shoulders.” She is relieved, first, and then crumbles. Immediately before that scene, we are shown the last conversation between the two, a conversation that ends in a minor act of violence. This is the end point of a long and arduous mother-daughter relationship that shapes much of the book. Maybe my Holly Golightly association was unfair. In fact, Bett is a complex character. He distance is a sign of untreated depression. During her early years with her daughter, Bett retreated to the bathroom to deal with her incipient panic attacks, turning the radio up loud enough to drown out her sobs and sadness. What’s more, Bett is a talented, possibly brilliant woman who worked in jobs “below or outside her capacities” and “[n]ever once ask[ed] for a raise.” She even taught herself economics, wrote a 400 page book on privatization “which one NYU professor to whom she sent it pronounced ‘a work of genius’.”

DSC_1913Bett was abandoned by her own mother, and this loss, this alienation, she hands down to her daughter. Decades later, mourning the death of her mother, Helen would destroy her clothes, swear off sex, because “[m]en were hers, and if she couldn’t have them any longer, then nor could I.” The late, great Barbara Johnson once wrote that poetry is “an attempt not to address the mother but to hear her voice” and suggested that the loss of the mother is the “primal scene” at the heart of much literature. This primal scene is repeated several times in the book, through abandonment and death, as well as small forms of abandonment, as when Helen waits for Bett to come visit her in boarding school. The book, consequently, is an attempt to find Bett in her life. We don’t hear Bett’s voice a lot, but we are walked through a lot of rooms, straining our ears for traces of Bett. The loss of her mother to suicide and the more general, at this point practically genetic, feeling of alienation pervades Helen’s attempt to make sense of her life. She constructs her past in long, flowing sentences, searching for memory, for help, for support. For, at least, some form of explanation. The first half of the book is called “Women” and it contains most of Helen’s time in schools, and her life with her mother, moving from apartment to (smaller) apartment. It ends with a family reunion of sorts, with all the surving women of the family meeting at Helen’s graduation. It’s important to note, if I haven’t made that clear so far, that The Furies is no fashionable ode to sisterhood, no belligerent attack of the patriarchy with a feminine model of solidarity. And support, any gesture of love is hard won, and a Pyrrhic victory more than anything else, considering the investment of emotional capital. At the same time, the book doesn’t contrast the cohesive big family with the fractured modern assemblage of single women. Hobhouse is extremely clear that the so-called unity not only produced its own share of depression and alienation, but was also only possible because one woman gave herself up to become the family’s Angel. Bett, while a bad mother due to situations and losses, is not a bad, lazy or stupid person. She fails, when she fails, because of a society that will not recognize her gifts and strengths and skills for what they are. Living a life considerably below one’s considerable talents would drive many people to depression.

The second part of the book is called “Men” and mostly follows Helen’s sexual adventures, starting during her time at Oxford. It’s called men in part because she moves away from her mother to live with her father, a similarly distant man in England. Hobhouse’s observations of England, of Helen’s place in it, and the way her presence manipulates and changes the places around her are absolutely astonishing. In a way it is as if we were privy to Isabel Archer’s voice instead of the narrator’s condescending drone. Helen’s way of dealing with men is, on its face, not unlike her mother’s ill-fated procession of dates. But in this case, we are hearing the story from Helen herself, and it is one of learning to deal with men while attempting to keep a sense of independence and self-respect. Helen, subjected to a cold kind of love from both her parents, needs amorous attention, and not just the romantic kind. And she passes it on. A lonely boy, Edward, who has so far only known “the expensively procured abuses of public school, the brute assault of the elders,” is taught a gift, “sex undivorced from love,” thus becoming part of “the lover’s ecosystem.” Helen’s heart does not get broken, instead she breaks a few, moves back to the US, marries, gets divorced, etc. I am loath to offer too many details, because while the main tension of the first half is in the dark mother-daughter relationship, the second half is more eventful. As readers, we can breathe more easily, although the end of the book constricts our hearts again. Given that the novel is openly and famously autobiographical we know what’s coming. The cancer diagnosis and the fight through it. At some point, she has dinner with one of the women from her family, her mother long dead at this point, and, asked for details regarding her health, declares herself to be well, noting: “Oh yes, this is exactly how it’s going to be. You cannot reach out. People will be frightened. This is something you have to go through entirely alone.” A bleak statement in a book with few joys.

There are many parts of the book where a reader would be reminded of the harsh and punishingly glittering work of Jean Rhys, but none as much as the last chapters. It is in these parts, the presumably least revised ones, that we find fewer and fewer of the beautiful, sloping sentences, just attempts at song, abandoned. Statements, and a queer hope, towards the very end. The Furies is one of the most beautiful books I have read all year and a book I can recommend to anyone. I have, unusually for my reviews, quoted quite liberally from the book because I can’t stop typing up lines and remarks. What a remarkable achievement this book has turned out to be: intelligent, harsh and sumptuously beautiful.


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Andy Weir: The Martian

Weir, Andy (2013), The Martian, Gollancz
ISBN 9781101905005

DSC_1911So I have become a bit of a science fiction fan in the past decade. I mean, I’ve always liked it, but it’s only fairly recently that I started reading more of it. My awakening, if we want to call it that, came when I first encountered the work of Samuel Delany, and so my early reading was more in the New Wave vein, plus contemporary weird science fiction. It took a while to read more broadly, but if you look at my reviews, it’s books by China Miéville, Adam Roberts plus that smelly thing you found behind your couch. It’s no accident that I haven’t read John Scalzi (who is fantastic) until this year. All this is to say that I’m a bit worried I might be a bit of a snob when it comes to science fiction. Not that I’m not willing to call trash what it is, but some books just make me apprehensive. The Martian is one such book. It was recommended on the internet as a ‘scientifically accurate’ book that would ‘make a great movie.’ All the comments on it stressed the accurate nature of its descriptions and the technical obsessiveness of its tale of a Martian Robinsonade. I evaded getting the book for months until I found it among my birthday presents. And as it turns out, I was both wrong and right. The Martian is damn, damn good. A book that I assumed to be movie fodder, it’s surprisingly clever in its structure, deft in its characterization and written in surprisingly effective prose. At the same time, for an exhaustively researched book that makes living on Mars, even just a few hundred days, believable and plausible in a way that even Kim Stanley Robinson hasn’t managed, I was profoundly struck by the novel’s utter lack of imagination and vision. The effectiveness of the prose style is achieved through a kind of sleight of hand – Weir has his protagonist write a diary, in the style that’s current among Internet denizens today. The voice of his protagonist is clear and recognizable – because we know that person. Many of his early readers are, in fact, that kind of person, a white male narcissist. Which, to be fair, is the central character in many Robinsonades. Weir, however, stops there. He makes no use of the form, displays no real sense of the traditions he works in and squanders the potential of both genres he works in, science fiction and the Robinsonade. And yet, despite all this, do I recommend the book? Of course I do. Ultimately, it’s a big bag of fun and you’ll remember all its good parts for a long time. A vivid, exciting read. And smart.

DSC_1914It’s more clever than it is actually intelligent, though. We don’t get the sense that Weir has thought about his form beyond coming up with a fun idea and working out the practical details. A comparison with a similar science fiction novel, Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust shows us both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. The Martian is much more immediate, and its world unfolds in a much more palpable and believable fashion for the reader. At the same time, Weir’s secondary characters are all cardboard cutout caricatures. Not having seen the movie, I assume that losing the voice of the man stranded on Mars, Mark Watney, and getting more (quite literally) fleshed out versions of the other characters, the overall depth and verisimilitude of the story’s characters is more balanced. Weir’s big sticking point is the science, and he applies it well to create -and sustain- excitement. He is quite excellent at adding new elements to his world, new bits of knowledge, just at the right time to catch falling arcs of suspense and create new ones. Much like classic 19th century works of fiction, this book was written in small installments and you can tell by its structure. A Fall of Moondust is just as technical (although probably not as plausible today as it was then), and just as exciting, but instead of consisting mainly of one character’s ramblings, it’s an ensemble piece, with a large section of moon-inhabiting humanity involved in the accident and the eventual rescue. I’m not totally spoiling the book because, much like The Martian, it’s a story that is predicated on the excitement of following along. There is no abyss of unknowability, no postmodern darkness here. In my Scalzi review I mentioned the push by reactionaries for a more obviously and directly enjoyable science fiction and The Martian is really it. It might seem that Clarke’s book is an obvious predecessor – but that’s only superficially true. If you read Clarke’s work you know he doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions – so why is this such a straightforward book? I always assumed that Clarke was aware of the genre he was working in and its traditions, the Robinson Crusoe line of writing, and instead of making the easy choice of just transposing the situation onto a different, more spherical, kind of island, he leaned on something that was actually rather common in old fashioned science fiction, contra Puppies, the idea of looking at a future society.

DSC_1918Make no mistake, Clarke doesn’t offer us any kind of grand vision of the future either, but there is a broader sense of community, of where he thought society might go in the time allotted between his time and the time he assumed we’d be living in lunar colonies. Unless I missed a major element (in which place, please comment), there’s really no obvious reason -apart from the actual technology- that The Martian couldn’t happen next year. Drop us the necessary technology under the Christmas tree (please?) and this story could happen in January. There’s no inherent reason why this has to be on Mars or in the future. My complaint here is similar to what bothered me about Charles Stross’ mediocre look at the near future, except it’s a bit more frustrating and that’s because while Stross draws on contemporary traditions that have limited potential as is, and he lacks the punch/interest to push them beyond what they are, Andy Weir is working in a line of writing that has, almost from the moment of its inception, produced interesting and exciting literature. Having man isolated from others, or a selection of humanity separated from the rest, this motif has led to some of the most memorable and powerful books. The ur-text of the genre, Daniel Defoe’s novel, is already much more complicated than you’d think. Defoe already has his stranded man tied into some important questions of his day. The question of owning another human being, selling them, how it ties into wealth and colonial narratives are, unexpectedly for anyone who hasn’t read the book, raised. Crusoe is sold himself into slavery, escapes with the help of a black boy, and then, deliberately declines selling the boy into slavery (but gives in and hands him over for a three year period of enforced labor) because “he had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own [liberty].” Just a short time later, he is convinced to embark on an expedition to buy and trade “negroes” for rich plantation owners. It is this trip that puts Crusoe on that island. After his escape, he returns to his “colony” which in his absence has become plentiful and Crusoe, almost by accident, has become a rich man. Intentionally or not, Defoe offers us a discourse on freedom, and on the way colonialism was built on the self-interest of the English despite knowing full well its harmful effects. Books afterwards kept adding to the debate. Frequently, they used the situation between Crusoe and Friday to illuminate power dynamics. Michel Tournier’s book is probably the most accomplished take on that. The Martian completely rejects this tradition, and declines absolutely to offer any sort of commentary or context. We even get odd, borderline racist, but definitely contemporary (for us) pieces of slang. Multiple times, a rough construction is described as “ghetto” by the white, definitely not “ghetto” protagonist of the book. If any thinking has gone into his book concerning contexts and futurism, it’s that the near future is just as terrible in terms of racial construction as the present. Harsh pessimism, if so, Mr. Weir.

DSC_1913But there’s more. The central conceit of Defoe’s book is (along the line of many books of his time) that the story is the journal of a real person and the book merely “a just history of facts.” The diary/journal has been enduring as one of the most interesting literary genres. Some takes on Crusoe’s story, like Coetzee’s masterful novel Foe, have examined the epistemological situation. What’s truth in narrative? The diary as a whole is interesting, as it is splayed wide between authenticity and artificiality. A few decades ago, in an essay that still holds up marvelously, Felicity Nussbaum painted a picture of the diary as a pre-modern attempt at constructing a public self. That explains why women, whose writing had been relegated to the margins for a long time, used the diaries to gain purchase for autobiographical narratives. One of the interesting aspects of the way The Martian uses journals as the primary way to record the story is that these diaries are half way between journals and letters. They are written with the express purpose of being preserved for people to find in case Mark Watney’s goose is cooked and his life on Mars ends ignominiously. This method would explain why so much of this diary is a performance. Stranded alone – one thinks of William Golding’s Pincher Martin as a particularly brutal variety – does not bring out the sadness, isolation, alienation of brutality one might expect or fear. In fact, Watney, isolated for hundreds of days, is as upbeat on his last day as he is on his first. This could be due to the performance aspect of the journals-turned-letters, a way, say, of putting up a facade for those coming after him. But there’s no undercutting of this attitude in the later scenes of the book where we see him interact with other people and we are privy to their points of view. In all the research that Andy Weir has undertaken to make his book realistic and interesting – one wonders how much of it was spent looking at anthropology, sociology and psychology. I do agree, as I said elsewhere, that bleak writing has become a tired and tiring cliché in and of itself, but the buzzing happiness in the pages of The Martian can be a bit grating.

This is a book that, carefully, intentionally, thoroughly, has NOTHING to say about people, the future, emotions, society – anything, really, that doesn’t involve the growing of potatoes on a wasteland planet. What it does express is a sense of social isolation of a certain class of citizen and writer today that exceeds the blindness of slave trader Crusoe. Crusoe was aware of how terrible it is to lose one’s freedom when he embarked on his slave trading mission. Defoe wrote this into Robinson Crusoe. Like many Europeans during colonialism, he just didn’t consider the treatment of black people a moral imperative that was more important than developing and growing wealth. Mark Watney – and by extension, Andy Weir – don’t even have that level of reflection. And yet – it’s such an expertly written book. The prose is never great, but always at least serviceable. The book is captivating and fun, and for a week after finishing it, I walked about town, partly living on Mars in my head. The Martian could have been more – but it’s a sign of the times that it is not. And what it is, is quite a lot.


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

Young-Ha Kim: I have the right to destroy myself

Young-Ha Kim (2007), I have the right to destroy myself, Harcourt
[Translated by Chi-Young Kim]
ISBN 978-0-15-603080-9

DSC_1910So, as you’ll notice in this review, I am so extremely under-read in Korean literature that all my frames of reference for this book are non-Korean. I have read a paltry handful books by Korean writers, but not enough to notice resemblances or traditions. Certainly none of the Korean books I have read resembles this one in any way. This does not, however, lead me to suppose that Young-Ha Kim’s novel I have the right to destroy myself is unique among Korean books. My reading is just shamefully, miserably lacking. That said, I do think that the novel works well even for a reader who is not acquainted with the larger cultural and literary contexts. One reason for this is that many of the literary allusions and references are actually European and American ones. For a European reader, it’s interesting to see Europe treated as a geographical other, which allows the book’s narrator to take a break from his life, and implicitly compare & contrast with his life back in South Korea. There’s an almost Irvingian whimsy to the role that Vienna plays in the novel’s structure. As a whole, the book is certainly worth reading. It’s a dense narrative about a love triangle and suicide, about ekphrasy and life, and it’s also a -possibly unintentional- meditation on the misogyny that underwrites our narratives on each of these things. There is an air of immature disaffection throughout the book, but apart from the occasional banal meditations on life, much of Kim’s novel is fairly exact, all of its parts serving a purpose. If anything, it’s too overdetermined, too focused. It lacks a certain levity, a certain creative freedom. For a short book that I ended up enjoying quite a bit, all told, I came remarkably close to abandoning it mid-way. It can appear to be nothing more than a smug intellectual exercise, a kind of book that I’ve only ever seen men write. I recommend sticking it out. The final discussions of suicide ring remarkably true to me and I feel that the book does an exceptional job of tying together its various threads without actually offering a resolution to most of its characters.

So as I said on the outset, I have not read a ton of Asian literature, in part because I am wary of translation, in part because of availability issues, in part because I dislike some of the popular writers. So when I read a book like this, there’s a temptation to read it in some vague pan-Asian context. The harshness – is this like Murakami and his use of American noir? Clearly, Western literature is an influence, but my mind, instead of reading is broader, considering Handke, maybe, or French existentialism or the roman nouveau, immediately went to American crime fiction, one of the few cultural touchstones that’s not actually dealt with in the book. So why? The only reason coming to mind is some dim connection to one of the few other Asian novelists I’ve read, Murakami. Similarly, the desolation and bleakness of the book made me think not of other Korean writers, or of one of the many explicit literary references, or, again, the Austro-French cohort of darkness. It made me think of Osamu Dazai, whose novel No Longer Human has been a touchstone to me for many years. There is, to my reading, no obvious textual element in the book that would make me connect it to Dazai and not to some other writer of despair and suicide. The only connection, again, is the shared ‘Asian’ heritage of their authors. If I were to review Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s recently finished trilogy, and I was discussing the parts set in Asia, my mind wouldn’t associate the spareness of the book with Japanese writers, at least not primarily. Toussaint’s roots are elsewhere, in a tradition that includes Robbe-Grillet. But for French literature, I can access -correctly or not- a context. For Asian books – especially Korean – I cannot.

That’s actually what makes this book -for me- so rereadable. It’s like the first read, for me, helped to wash off my first wave of associations and then try to look at the text again in a second or third reading. And despite its spare writing and the sometimes flat pop-cultural discussions and quasi-philosophic statements, the novel is intricate enough to warrant and reward rereads. As I said earlier, it’s a bit lacking in energy and inspiration, but its construction is frequently remarkable. Take this example: the novel tells us two stories. One is of two brothers who fall in love with the same woman, Se-yeon, who is also called Judith for her resemblance to Adèle Bloch-Bauer in Klimt’s painting of Judith and Holofernes. The other strand of narrative is about an unnamed narrator who sidles up to sad, lost-looking people, primarily women, and offers them a way out, for a fee. A curated suicide, if you will. He listens to their stories and gives them advice regarding methods, means and timing. Once his task is completed, he takes a trip abroad and writes a book telling the women’s stories. So it’s basically two novels in one, but they are connected through the women, as the two brothers, and the narrator both encounter Judith/Se-yeon. So the struggle, silent, unspoken, between the two brothers is mirrored in a struggle between the brothers and the narrator, a struggle that serves as a larger conflict between life and death. A second woman, later in the book, even goes back and forth between one of the brothers and the nameless narrator, similar to how Judith slept with both brothers. In this literary game, women have very little agency. When Mimi picks death, she says about one of the brothers “He couldn’t save me.” The narrator does answer “Nobody can save anyone,” but the novel never makes the alternative explicit: that we have to save ourselves. That it is this passivity that allow death to enter the lives of all the people in the book, even, if only in the form of a death wish and a contemplation of suicide, the lives of the two brothers.

DSC_1911The narrator is the only one completely untouched by this. That is certainly in part due to the fact that he is the only truly active person. He literally writes the story of the lives he touched. They blink out, and he puts out a book. This is an unsubtle, but nifty allusion to the way society generally structures narratives between the powerful and the powerless. It is no accident that the novel starts with a contemplation of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat.” That picture was meant to stir up revolutionary fervor, and it draws heavily on Christian iconography. Marat was murdered by a woman, Charlotte Corday, but she’s not in the picture. She’s not really important. A letter in his hand records her anger, but the final word, unwritten, belongs to Marat, who is shown to have died pen in hand, asking the revolutionaries implicitly to finish that reply for him. Corday is really unimportant to the larger picture which is about a great man dying in the manner of a saint. Even the knife she stuck in Marat has been removed by the artist. Similarly, I have the right to destroy myself is about the actions and passions of men. Women may appear, but of the three women featured prominently, only the last one’s emotions and passions are actively discussed in even minor detail, and that only serves to illuminate the ineffectiveness of one of the brothers’ efforts and entreaties. I have no idea whether the title (titles are often not even picked by translators but by the publisher) is accurately translated, but if so, it’s the oddest inversion, given that the only person consistently speaking in first person singular is the unnamed angel of death, who is, by far, the person least likely to destroy themselves in the whole book. I have difficulties deciding whether what I see as a more or less explicit spin on gender and misogyny is intentional or accidental. The title’s interesting spin on the book makes me think intentional. Other elements of the book are more ambiguous.

The reason for this is the general air of comfy laddish existentialism. You know the kind. It’s not atypical of debut novels written by men. It starts with all these inane, flat, faux-insightful phrases like “An artist’s supreme virtue is to be detached and cold.” or “There are two kinds of people. Those who can kill and those who can’t. The second kind is worse.” Most of these are spoken by the nameless narrator, but some, like that second quote, are given to the other characters – that suggests a lack of control. Or rather: a lack of awareness of the flat properties in these statements. Another element typical of the laddish ‘bleak’, detached style is an almost dismissive, derisive treatment of female sexuality. Now, it’s true that none of the book’s characters are bundles of joys between the sheets, as far as I can tell, but quotes like the following have a certain haut goût that’s a bit brazing, especially because it’s reserved for the female characters:

I thought of something fun to do,” she says, packing the snow into a small ball, the size of a golf ball. She parts her legs, giggling. The snowball slides up inside of her. She still has a lollipop in her mouth. She shivers. Her brow is furrowed for a long time, as if she can still feel the snow on her skin.

Nothing slides up in any of the male characters. Other female characters are given water that makes them vomited, filmed intimately etc. Female bodies are used as symbols, as objects, as means to a narrative end. Finally, it’s the language itself that feeds into this perception of laddish misogyny. That quote represents the book overall fairly well. Short sentences without the depth that we find, say, in Hemingway’s early work, and a disaffection without the stylistic control that Bret Easton Ellis’ good books exhibit. I have not mentioned the translator so far, because I have no idea how good Chi-Young Kim’s work is. I’m inclined to believe it’s good, because in this book, style and content complement each other. It’s plausible that this book would be written in this style and the book overall is short enough for this writing not to become grating. What’s more, the style is similar to the sparse writing that the poems of Ko Un exhibit, in a collection that was translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach.

51xSM1bBv4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_That previous paragraph offers some evidence, I think, for the book’s faults to be the author’s and not elements that Kim was aware of and critiqued. At the same time, I was never able to shake the feeling that the book as a whole was a kind of performance. The final chapter is the only one where we really see the narrator accompany a woman to her death, and in it, the narrator offers us a third painting and his description of it. That painting is The Death of Sardanapale by Delacroix and in his enthusiastic description, the narrator ends with this dubious but interesting statement: “Delacroix understood the inner thoughts of a person presiding over death.” That is it – but that sentence is so absurd, so self centered and unaware that it’s impossible not to read this description as really being an unflattering description of the narrator’s state of mind – after all, this is a common function of ekphrasis. What’s more, his books, the ones we are told are being written and published, the books that contain the lives of the women whose death he has supported – I find it interesting to consider those books, to their audience, to be part of a canon with a particularly enduring tradition, starting in the 19th century: of men writing books on the desperate lives of women, frequently ending in suicide. The most famous, at least for this German reader is Arthur Schnitzler’s masterful novella Fräulein Else (collected in English in Desire and Delusion: Three Novellas, translated by Margret Schaefer), a book generally praised for its intense yet nuanced psychological portrait of a woman driven to suicide. Kim shows us the commonalities among those books and what they share with that more modern or postmodern laddish literature of disaffection. It is, finally, the title, after all, that, for me, unlocks the book. The odd inversion that I mentioned carries all the weight of balancing so many ambiguities. Jean Améry, still the author of the best book on suicide, despite the awful, harmful pap recently published by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Stay) and Matt Haig (Reasons to stay alive). In contrast to these writers, Améry points to the validity of making such a decision for yourself. In making the title the one space where the suicidal women of his book get to really express an active wish, Kim exposes the gap at the root of so many books on suicide, men or ‘modern society.’

And yet – is this enough? An intelligently structured and clearly written book does not great literature make and the flatness of the style, while fitting the structure of the book, does not transform into an aesthetically pleasing object for all that it is well considered. I liked reading this book, and rereads enhanced my pleasure, which is a good sign. But I, as a reader, am biased. I have been in the headspace of women like that, and I’ve had a friend who took the role of that nameless narrator – and despite squandering that opportunity, the few things we learn about the women, the few words they get to speak about their death, they ring true to me. So take what I said with a grain of salt. But if you want even less ambivalently positive takes on the book, you could read this one from Tony and this one, by MAO himself.


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

Talking Trash: Religion + Scholarship

Me, as I am typing this nonsense straight into wordpress at this very moment.

Me, as I am typing this nonsense straight into wordpress at this very moment.

So as you can maybe tell, looking at my reviews this year I decided to just review a ton of things, just to write some non-academic things here and there, and sometimes I have no poems to write, nothing to add to the novel, and these days, I also run out of books, sometimes. I will still answer emails, so you are welcome to do that. That said, I decided I will now and then sit down to write a few hundred words on *something* – almost certainly connected to my PhD work. Who knows. Also, I am typing this straight into wordpress so Lord have Mercy on us all.

So the topic now is religion. My PhD topic concerns the role of religion in the work of three American poets. Part of the reason my work has taken so long is that I noticed early on, that this is an odd topic. For me, it seemed instantly interesting. All three poets, John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, make heavy, informed, ind-depth use of the traditions of Christian writing. Not just poets (like all poets who grew of writerly age during the age of New Criticism, they appropriately revere George Herbert and GM Hopkins), but prose, theology even. This is not connected to faith. Central writers on Berryman have convincingly connected his faith to his mental issues, and at any point, it is hard to pin down Robert Lowell’s faith once he started writing poetry. Even his brief period of ardent Catholicism displays, as was most recently shown by Gelpi, strong strains of Puritan theology and thought. Elizabeth Bishop, meanwhile, was just an regular atheist. And yet, she was widely read in Christian theology, reading writers as diverse as Kierkegaard, St. Augustine and Henri-Frédéric Amiel. That last one is, if you don’t know him, a Swiss writer, poet and philosopher who’s mainly known today for writing long winded, very religious, very self-pitying journals. Journals that are frequently brilliant, but still. She carried around books by Teresa of Avila (I slightly overemphasize that in my thesis) and has read St. Ignatious of Loyola, who most of you mainly know through the Barthes book, I suppose.

Yet books on the three writers, especially on Bishop and Berryman were oddly silent on the issue. These writers were clearly, obviously influential on these poets and yet – nothing. For me, that was a great topic. Obvious + under-researched? Ripe for plucking, is what I say. Well, once my supervisor convinced me to not write on Sylvia Plath. That was Plan A, I’ll admit. So I did, and I presented my topic in conversations and seminars and at conferences – and something weird happened. People always assumed that I myself was religious. I’m not. I am an atheist, although the annoying people on the internet have so many distinctions on that that I should more properly refer to myself as a “atheist agnostic.” Let’s just go with atheist. I do use mysticism and religious references in my poetry (click here, you know you want to), but that’s it. For me, texts are texts, and I’m writing about one text influencing another text. That is not, however, how audiences and people I talk to felt about it. This is how I discovered why the topic is so under-researched. The few people who do work on it tend to be religious themselves. A handful of years ago (after I started work on my thesis), Tom Rogers wrote the *only* book on the topic (God of Rescue, Peter Lang, 2013). I wrote a review of it for a literary journal but I think it’s print only. It’s flawed but thorough and well argued. Tom Rogers, meanwhile, is pretty religious from what I know. And of the two (TWO) books on Bishop and religion, one sort of dismisses Bishop’s use of theology as always critical and satirical, and the other, by Cheryl Walker, which, again, draws on a rich background of research, is written by a religious writer.

The simple reason why people assume that I am religious is because those are the only people who work in my field and zero in on this topic. It absolutely confused me at the time, and I still have difficulties understanding why non-religious critics today don’t really engage with religious texts that influence literature. Bonnie Costello, who is a brilliant, brilliant critic, mentions a lot of the theological writers in throwaway remarks in her writings on Bishop; she would rankle at seeing anyone treat Hopkins or Moore or Stevens or any of the other ‘normal’ influences on Bishop with such brief remarks. Or, indeed, if someone had been this quick to dismiss an important theological text in analyzing Donne, Herbert or Hopkins. Yet, religious writers are different, somehow, as an influence on non-religious writing. It’s maddening. Just you go and find me cogent recent-ish essays on the influence of Catholicism and the Bible on Baudelaire. I found a bunch of things, but the only in-depth, excellent analyses are turn-of-the-century (last century, that is) French books. It’s not just Bishop and Berryman (Lowell is relatively well served, in part because of how explicit his early critics, from Tate to Ransom and Jarrell, made those influences. In my thesis, he serves to complete a picture, but the weight of the argument is in the chapters on Bishop and Berryman (and Schwartz)), it’s plenty of other writers, as well. Baudelaire, for one. And you know what makes it worse? That religious writers are frequently a bit nutty about it. Not Rogers, but Cheryl Walker, for example, has whole chapters where she tries to convince us that Bishop wasn’t really an atheist. That Bishop was really at least a tiny bit religious. This helps no one. It doesn’t help Bishop scholarship, it doesn’t help Walker’s argument, and it doesn’t help other scholars (ME) who try to write on the topic. We all get lumped in with the nutty kind of writer. Just yesterday I was reading a chapter on Anne Bradstreet, in a mid-1980s book on the Puritans. And it was full of “Our Lord”s and egregious amounts of judgments on faith in a book that was supposed to be all about textual analysis (and wasn’t actually bad at it!). Bill Barnwell, before the demise of Grantland, had a NFL column called “thank you for not coaching” – there should be something like this for religious scholars. Rogers does this well. Another great example is Alfred Corn’s big essay on Bishop which is informed by a religious background, incredibly insightful, and yet does not proselytize or assume its readers are (or should become) Christians themselves. For all the others: compartmentalize, please. You’re making all of us look bad.

It frustrates me endlessly. So in my thesis, when I started it many moons, 4 breakdowns and a hospital stay ago, I planned at first to just *show* the influence and explicating it. I had chapters outlined, say, on the structure of the Psalms and how the structure of Berryman’s late poetry corresponds to that. But I recognized that, if I don’t want this to read as exibit XVI in the ‘religious’ tradition of poetry scholarship, I had to sharpen the focus on what it is that this influence brought into view. And that’s, i found, (auto)biography. All three writers have struggled with personas, with writing about the/a self. And for all three writers, religious influences have helped them achieve it. Bishop has letters making that connection between autobiography and her reading of theology clear, with Berryman it’s implicit, and as I said, with Lowell, critics have pointed the way. This change meant I had to shift my research and change chapters and outlooks. I read a ton of books on auto/biography. I think my thesis is better this way, but the frustration remains. Also, I broadened my research so much that I now have unused outlines of papers on “Bishop and Brazil,” “Bishop and Gertrude Stein” etc etc. that do not intersect with my thesis at all.

Thank you for listening. There will be a review tomorrow-ish, maybe. If you want to support me, click here. My computer is dying a swift death, so any help is appreciated. If you want me to read poetry somewhere, write me. I’m probably free. 🙂

193, avenue Louise

193 yourcenar I was in Brussels last weekend, spending time and money on relaxation that I don’t really have (you can contribute to my relaxation fund, you know. The lack of time, well, that will sort itself out eventually). Of course, I undertook a pilgrimage to this address:

L’être que j’appelle moi vint au monde un certain lundi 8 juin 1903, vers 8 heures du matin, à Bruxelles (…) La maison où se passait cet événement (…) se trouvait située au numéro 193 de l’avenue Louise, et a disparu il y a une quinzaine d’années, dévorée par un building.

This is from Marguerite Yourcenar’s autobiography. Sadly, not even a plaque reminds visitors that one of the Great Greats was born here. I have since started to reread my copies of her work and might write something on her great Flemish novel soon.

Three Letters from Germany – Opinions?

So I wrote three short pieces for the Battersea Review and would be interested to hear your opinion. You can read them here. Here is the conclusion of Letter 1, maybe it convinces you to click on the above link

If we accept—and we should not—the argument put forth by Lehman and others, that Paul de Man was attracted to theories that exculpated him of the fine grained details of his own history, then the contrast to Jauss could not be greater, since he wrote criticism profoundly committed to history and the repeated connection and re-assessment of historical texts. While it changes nothing about the dreadful details of his wartime actions, it provides us as readers and citizens born in more fortunate times with the tools to better understand the texts of our past, even the most awful ones. With Gadamer, Jauss echoes Faulkner when he postulates that we can only understand texts of the past when we connect them to the present, when we merge our expectations as readers with those of readers contemporary to the texts. The present and the past are not isolated, they are inseparable. For all the outcries of Jauss defenders last year, as a reader of his work one suspects that Jauss would not have protested quite as vocally. He knew the score. In Germany, the past is never dead. It is not even past.