Kind people have given me presents for Christmas, several of which have made me quite happy. Have you had good holidays?
A chain of fortunate circumstances has led to a very brief essay of mine being published in a new guide to the work of Theodore Roethke, among august company like Jay Parini, Frank Kearful and Camille Paglia. You can find the book here, and, one assumes, at your favorite online retailer.
Merry Christmas everyone. I hope you are having a nice holiday. I’m spending Christmas Eve entirely without my family, who is pandemically spread around their own little hearths all over Germany, but it is what it is. This too shall pass. Take care of yourselves.
I’m aware of how fortunate I am – I’m in good health as always, I have a home and people who love me, and a family similarly untouched by Covid. I’m very worried about some of my friends, including a couple in London, who are very close to my heart and have been on my mind throughout this whole horrible time.
Since Twitter is about to embark on a big group read of William Gaddis’ two first novels, what with NYRB reprinting them, I wanted to share my favorite quote from The Recognitions, which, together with JR, ranks among my favorite novels – though I do think A Frolic of His Own is Gaddis’s most underrated book. Not as easy to read as Carpenter’s Gothic, not as Bernhardian as Agape, Agape, and not as spectacular as the first two. And yet, it is very good. That said, below, three quotes from The Recognitions, a masterpiece. If you feel intimidated by its heft and erudition – Gaddis worked as a researcher before he published this book – Steven Moore’s excellent and extensive “Reader’s Guide” is worth bookmarking. In fact, I recommend it. I’m sure there isn’t a greater expert on William Gaddis on earth. I’m not a huge fan of these “group reads” – but if that is what gets you into these two novels, then so be it. The Recognitions was an absolutely eye-opening reading experience, which was among the small handful of books that set me on the path of reading that I am on to this day, hurtling after books, trying not to drown.
“Something like writing is very private, isn’t it? How…how fragile situations are. […] Delicate, that’s why they keep breaking, they must break and you must get the pieces together and show it before it breaks again […]. That’s why most writing now, if you read it they go on one two three four and tell you what happened like newspaper accounts, no adjectives, no long sentences, no tricks they pretend, and they finally believe that they really believe that the way they saw it is the way it is, when really…why, what happened when they opened Mary Stuart’s coffin? They found she’s taken two strokes of the blade, one slashed the nape of her neck and the second one took the head. But did any of the eye-witness accounts mention two strokes? No. […] They write for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them. […] Why, all this around us is for people who can keep their balance only in the light, where they move as though nothing were fragile, nothing tempered by possibility and all of a sudden bang! something breaks. Then you have to stop and put the pieces together again. But you never can put them back together quite the same way. You stop when you can and expose things, and leave them within reach, and others come on by themselves, and they break, and even then you may put the pieces aside just out of reach until you can bring them back and show them, put together slightly different, maybe a little more enduring, until you’ve broken it and picked up the pieces enough times, and you have the whole thing in all it’s dimensions. But the discipline, the detail, it’s just…sometimes the accumulation is too much to bear.”
“Do you know what it was? That everything was so afraid, so uncertain God saw it, that it insisted on vanity in His eyes? Fear, fear, pessimism and fear and depression everywhere, the way it is today, that’s why your [Flemish Master’s] paintings are so cluttered with detail, this terror of emptiness, this absolute terror of space. Because God isn’t watching. Maybe he doesn’t see. Oh, this pious cult of the Middle Ages!”
“What did you want from [this poet] that you didn’t get from his work? […] This passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour…what is it? What is it they want from a man that they did´n’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist but the dregs of his work? […] What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.”
This blog has been semi-dormant in the past year. So I’ll start by uploading, in vaguely reverse chronological order, some of the things I have been doing in the past months (not a lot, no worries, I didn’t suddenly succeed at something). In December I published three poems in Ben Mazer’s Art & Letters journal.
So one year ago, not exactly one year, but more or less, God don’t start counting the days, ok it was early May 2018, 9th, or 10th, I don’t know – anyway, Scottish musician Scott Hutchison died a year ago by his own hand, or by his own volition anyway, he was found, after people looked for him for a while, floating in the River Forth, the latter being a river near/in Stirling, Scotland, and he was found there, dead, after a well documented struggle with depression, his band’s fifth album having come out recently, anyway, so they were doing a tenth anniversary tour of their album The Midnight Organ, and song #13 on that album is called Floating in the Forth, and is about suicide, let me quote it: “And fully clothed, I float away / (I’ll float away) / Down the Forth, into the sea / I think I’ll save suicide for another day” (oh yeah that worked out a-ok), I mean, if you’re thinking I used the word “floating” in describing his suicide because of the song, you’re not wrong, you know, but what else was I going to say: he was found drowned, puffed up, buoyant, drifting, bobbing, I mean of course I am going to say “floating” – it is the most fitting word here given the musical antecedent and this is always creepy, right, like an announcement, then again, ten years is a long time for an announcement, so maybe the anniversary tour was a reminder, sometimes we really don’t need reminders of our worst instincts, and anyway so I was looking at my first collection of poetry, because, you know, I don’t write poems like that any more really, I’m working on distance and structure more, but there is a lot of very direct unvarnished depression in my first book and I was looking at it and wondering whether if something happens to me and I am the miscreant who had done the happening, whether someone could look at the book and think, huh, lookit this poem this sounds a lot like what happened and what would it mean I mean I don’t think i am that person any more, but maybe at the end of the day that person is like Schwartz’s heavy bear who walks with me and I will never get rid of them and then some day, someone will look at the book and say, huh, will you look at this, he predicted it, I mean what if I suicide Nostradamus, you know.
Here is a picture of me reading in late May on my trip to Boston. This is Cambridge at the “Poetry Readings at Outpost 186” series of readings with Andrew Singer’s art all around me. Picture by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright. Among the texts I read was a brand new poem about my grandfather who has died in June.
I had some collection by Frank Bidart on my shelf for what felt like almost a decade before I even looked at it. It was In the Western Night. I do not remember why or when I bought it. One night, desperate to find words to tide me over to the next day, I took it off the shelf. I was 23 and alone, marooned in a life I had not chosen and a body that had just appeared around me. Frank Bidart spoke of bodies, of fathers, of the unreality of one’s own face in the mirrors. In a new poem, Bidart speaks of learning American history from a Lowell poem. In these earlier Bidart poems that I found on my shelf, the Bostonian stateliness of Lowell is made to up a life that has more doubts, an a fuller body to deal with. There is no scaffolding in Bidart’s poems – it is Bidart’s breath, his rhythmic heart that pushes everything into its place. 25 years old, living in the ruins of an old, collapsed country, I touched these words and marveled. I found Bidart. And with every new book I found him again. In the more recent poems, even more of the scaffolding falls away, lines survive on the strength of Bidart’s invocation of an unsentimental sentimentality, an exploration of the body around one’s body, of the words in plain, exalted speech. Many years later, I sit in a crumbling apartment, in Germany’s former capital, touching the ruins of my lives with the words I have, exalted, plain. And still, when I am desperate to find words, I reach for Bidart on my shelf.
In what I am currently writing I have become quite interested in the way autobiographies and autobiographical work constructs an imagined community, obviously Benedict Anderson doesn’t quite apply here, but he also doesn’t NOT apply, you know? Instead of looking at the way autobiography explores the self, and applying various ideas of selfhood and truth etc. to it, I have become more interested in how reception theories shape what we understand of autobiography – if we shouldn’t read them in relationship to the self and ideas of the self, Freudian self-analysis and whatnot, and instead read them as texts written to be read by an audience. Written to interact with a specific literary field. Autobiography is a public act, and I think some interactions between writer and audience can be described by using Marcel Mauss and the gift. And now I have been thinking – and I’m sure this is not true for every autobiography. Say, Robert Lowell, a tall, white, straight man. But, say, you look at Mary McCarthy (because that’s my topic) and the situation turns. Or the tradition of Jewish autobiography. This is two steps. One, looking at the outside effect of autobiography and entirely excluding the self-exploratory aspect of it. Two, see in what way this works to construct a sense of (a) community, or a pole within a literary field. So that’s where I am. Any comments?
I have been working on fiction/memoir relating to my family – there are a lot of stories to be told, a lot of paths to followed. Most of my immediate family, two generations, one generation back, are some form of immigrant. But my grandfather is currently dying as I type this and everything is stopping in its tracks. I cannot properly explain what a loss this loss of my grandfather would be – would, mind you. He’s had an incredible life so far, and I’m visiting him across the country tomorrow, today, that is, later today, I suppose.
Death is strange. As a weird man who has been obsessed with death, largely my own death, but also that of others since childhood, a man who visits cemeteries, and is largely alone in this – it is not accompanied by a real fascination, or a gothic habit. It’s just – death.
But this is different. Today – yesterday, I suppose, I mean, dates get blurry when you write at night – my father, who lives far away from me, apparently locked himself in a room to cry after he had a phone conversation with my grandfather. I myself was stuck in a different room for an hour, similarly struggling. The image of my father in his bedroom, not able or willing to communicate with his family, bereft, even though nobody has died yet, feels like the fingers of death on our lives, a moment that we will all remember, even those, like me, who have not been there. Something has broken in him, in us, and there’s a feeling that it has also infected our memories.
How far back does death reach? Already, I find it difficult to call upon memories of my grandfather that are not touched by death, memories of my own life. At every important turn in my life, he was there, usually quiet, grumbling. A broad man of small stature who worked hard for everything in his life, who worked hard to survive. And my father, a much taller man, in his room, this moment which I have not witnessed myself, it pulsates in my imagination. I have not been able to shake it.
The first and last time I remember seeing my father cry was when his grandfather died. We all stood at his grave, my father cried, I couldn’t cry. I pinched myself – there must be a way to cry, but nothing happened. My father cried, standing in the cold on the slighly hilly cemetery in the little East German village. I stood there, pretending to cry, ashamed of failing some protocol. This time is different. i have been intermittently crying for two weeks. Maybe I am becoming a warped version of my father. Maybe that is what death does.
I don’t do it. Not on this blog anyway – though I would obviously take a commission to do it. And I published one of Ben Mazer’s book two? years ago. But overall – I don’t do it. I find it exceedingly difficult. And I write so much academically about poetry, and I write poetry myself and love to discuss poems, with poets and readers. But writing reviews of poetry – somehow my brain or pen doesn’t quite bend to the task. When I review a book like Herta Müller’s poems, if you look closely, I did not in fact review the poems as much as I reviewed context and translation. I have, I think, I flatter myself, a good, solid sense of what makes a good poem, of what good poetry is, and I hope that this sense transcends, at least somewhat, my own very narrow taste, I mean who knows, but I don’t review poetry, I can’t sit down and line by line offer my take and how do I end it with “you should read this book, if…” – of course you should read it, you idiot, it’s poetry. Even bad poetry is worth your while. So, I don’t really review poetry. Poetry reviews me.
So I’m starting work on a Mary McCarthy paper due in May and this amazing interview seems like a good start:
At least in my corner of Twitter, the new Marie Kondo netflix show has caused ripples of upset – less about the suggestions regarding cleaning your apartment she makes, and more about how those suggestions apply to books. To a bookish person, the basic mantra – hold up something and see if it sparks joy, if not, chuck it out – can apply to pillows or knick-knacks (though even there there is resistance), but surely not to books. As Ron Charles notes in his exasperated complaint about Marie Kondo’s show and book(s), she says holding it up does not include reading from that book, because that might muddle your opinion. I mean, God forbid that reading a few sentences might spark joy that seeing a cover might not. Strictly speaking, I share that upset opinion, and my apartment, with all of its walls lined with books, bears witness to that. Similarly, I also understand the other side of this, given that I know that romantic partners may have had a hard time accepting the vast sea of books. Certainly, my decision to hold on to a lot of books is indulging a personal sense of memory, loss, words, a very personal sense of comfort and a quiet sense of pleasure. It ties into other personal habits that are difficult to square with partners, like my penchant for nighttime writing and constant reading.
That said, everything changes eventually. This past year, due to space issues, I had to cull some books. This week, among many others, I got rid of a book I have owned for almost exactly two decades – for some reason, I bought Thomas Lehr’s bildungsroman Nabokovs Katze when it came out in 1999 and have kept it around until today. I carried it from apartment to apartment, from one corner of Germany to another one and finally to Bonn, where I have lived too long already. So this week, I took the book from where it was on my shelf, I looked at it, and considered why I own the book – the answer is: because I own it. Back when I read it for the first time, I disliked the book, and the one time I reread it since, I liked it even less. As a reader, I never had a ton of patience for these flat autofictional titles where some masculine erotic fantasy is offered as a lazy masturbatory replacement for introspection. And I have less patience for this nonsense today. There’s a well regarded Spanish writer that an acquaintance of mine translated into French that I tried real hard to appreciate, but this writing, particularly with a connection to cinematic knowledge or background, is so common, and boring and dull, and I don’t need that kind of thing in my life. What makes it worse, Lehr is stylistically dull dull dull despite inexplicable critical praise for his style. So out it goes.
This is my Marie Kondo rule adaptation:
- Did I like it?
- If not, is it interesting?
- If not, is the book as an object worth keeping (rare/beautiful book?)?
- If not, is the book worth keeping as a memory support?
- Is it part of some collection?
In the case of Thomas Lehr’s voluminous meditation on a masturbatory boyhood and lazy cinema references, the answer to all of these is no. The only reason I own this specific book is because I have owned it for two decades. Which is no longer acceptable given the danger of being crushed by my own books. I own too many books to keep one on the shelves that fits none of these categories. Bye bye.
Last time I was in Paris I went to (and recommended on the blog) a bunch of bookshops. This time I wasn’t there for a conference so I had time to visit more, but I would only recommend three of them. They are from left to right (click to enlarge): the Librairie Vendredi at the top of rue des Martyrs, Le Monte-en-l’air, nestled between a church and the busy rue Ménilmontant, as well as the queer-themed Les Mots à la Buche, just around the corner from tourism hotspot rue des Rosiers. At the bottom, all the books I bought, minus one that I cannot currently locate.
The past year was not ideal, at least for me, but let’s hope for a better new year. It began at the riverbank of the Seine, in Quai d’Orléans, fitting, since I’ve been writing about Bishop for about seven years now. In the weeks and months to come I need to work on getting more of my writing and reading published somehow, I mean for what it’s worth I do a lot of it. Thank you readers who have stuck around for indeed sticking around.
So I’m in Paris for a few days around New Year’s – though I haven’t actually figured out what to do ON New Years – and I arrived today. I’m a bit under the weather, a burgeoning cold, exhaustion, depression, everything somehow caused me to stay inside for much of the day – the first thing I did once I did leave the apartment was to go to a bookshop. I have a list of bookshops in Paris I find intriguing (and last time I visited, I went to a bunch), and I somehow can’t stay away. I can’t stop buying, sorting, reading books – and bookshops are more than just a conduit for this addiction. They are powerfully rich places – when I visited Poland and Finland this year, I went into several well reviewed bookshops, although they did not stock books in languages I can readily read or even understand. I’ve expressed my admiration for booksellers before, but it bears repeating: I love bookshops and I cannot stay away.
I don’t usually make this list, but last year I made one, and somehow as i was taking notes I decided to make another one this year. This year saw me go to more concerts – seeing The Breeders and Mitski in concert was a delight, and their albums some of the best of the year. Below my favorite albums of the past year (“Freedom Summer” is an EP, but I enjoyed it so much, it made the list. There’s nothing really surprising on this list. What are your favorite albums?
Mitski – Be the Cowboy
Pusha-T – Daytona
Nipsey Hussle – Victory Lap
Robyn – Honey
Kali Uchis – Isolation
SOB X RBE – Gangin
The Breeders – All Nerve
John Prine – Tree of Forgiveness
Mount Eerie – Now Only
Haiyti – Montenegro Zero
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Years
Danger Dan – Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben
Travis Scott – Astroworld
Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Vince Staples – FM!
Rosalía – El Mal Querer
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Sleep – The Sciences
A.A.L (Against All Logic)- 2012 – 2017
Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy
Translee – Freedom Summer
Saba – Care For Me
Ezra Furman – Transangelic Exodus
Neko Case – Hell On
Anderson .Paak – Oxnard
Uwe Johnson. Man. In a turn of luck for anglophone readers, the complete Jahrestage is now available in English, in a brand new translation. I have few words for how much I admire Johnson as a writer. There are no reviews of his work here (apart from these letters) because I find it difficult to explain exactly why I admire his work so much and how exactly it’s made. The book I make people read to explain my admiration isn’t, by the way, Jahrestage. It’s Mutmassungen über Jakob, his debut novel.
Mutmassungen has been recently published in a scholarly edition that I of course own though I haven’t read it yet. Mutmaßungen is a book about East and West Germany, about heritage, about family, about the epistemological limits in dictatorships. It’s a masterpiece, and one of the best German-language novels of its time, and yet and still it is far from Johnson’s best novel, which mainly speaks to Johnson’s unbelievable skill. And while you can describe the book in this language that describes what this book is about, for me, the real kicker is the writing. I just took the book from my shelf and started reading.
It starts with a simple declarative sentence – with an implied question. “Aber Jakob ist immer quer über die Gleise gegangen.” – ‘But Jakob always crossed the rail tracks.’ The language is simple and unmarked. The next three sentences are pieces from a dialogue, first restating then interrogating that initial statement. They are written in colloquial language – but halt! It is not merely colloquial. The syntax is glittery, moving with uncommon elegance, managing the colloquial and the tentative dialect with a powerful sense of stylistic sureness and exactitude. Johnson’s use of colloquialisms, his absolute dedictation to the way language and places intersect, interact and identify each other is almost Faulknerian – as is Johnson’s sheer linguistic prowess.
Next Johnson includes a description of someone crossing the rail tracks at night. Is it maybe Jakob? “…war vielleicht Jakob zu erkennen.” This small phrase in the middle of a description that’s otherwise precise and clear as early morning air in Mid-winter, undermines what we know that we CAN know here. It introduces us to the fundamental sense of insecurity over what we can know. In the next paragraphs we return to the dialoge – between who, we don’t (yet?) know.
And then we have a small passage in cursive, the interior voice of Gesine Cresspahl, who is also the protagonist of Jahrestage, reflecting on her father and, following that, a straightforward paragraph about her father, Heinrich Cresspahl. While the beginning of the novel, with its dialogue, its questions, its insecurities about what we can know or say – is most characteristic of what kind of novel Mutmaßungen is, it is those two paragraphs, the half-sentence in cursive, and the half-page introduction to Heinrich Cresspahl that give us Johnson most fully.
In them, Johnson uses a style that is both traditional and old-fashioned, as well as modernist and clever. Johnson is fond of inversions and slightly outdated, even archaic words and constructions. “…er entbehrte seine Tochter” isn’t quite right for the time. There’s a sense of mild stiltedness to much of this – but it’s never accidental. Johnson, a young man, just graduated, his teacher the underrated Ernst Bloch, has, from the first book, an uncanny sense of style. The stiltedness and occasional archaic turn contrast with Johnson’s skill at making syntax glide, of moving in between places and topics with a well placed comma and an unexpected inversion.
And then, man, then we’re off to the races. what I described, these first two and a half pages of the novel, they tell you what’s to come – fragments, a mystery, and a unique stylistic voice. I have never really reviewed Johnson (I once submitted/gave a conference paper just for the opportunity to write SOMEthing about Johnson), on this blog or elsewhere and that’s because I find it so hard to explain how unique and enormous this writer is, was.
Everything in Johnson’s work follows from this book. Stylistically, thematically, morally. There’s a beating moral heart to this book that finds its conclusion in the towering achievement of Jahrestage, but we meet it for the first time here. Writing, speaking, understanding, these are moral endeavors, these are things asked of us as writers and artists – and Johnson always persevered.
Johnson wrote with obsessive attention to detail, he typed and revised his letters, he didn’t try ti drown out other voices, even in the strange moral missteps such as the paranoid-but-brilliant Skizze eines Verunglückten, he’s still present and what’s present until the last page is his unique style and voice. Even in the sloppier third installment of Jahrestage, it never entirely abandons him. He’s always Uwe Johnson, to the last.
And if I want to remember why I can’t write about him, I just open Mutmassungen über Jakob to the first page, read the first pages until I am speechless, breathless and moved. Uwe Johnson. He’s the real deal. One of the titans of literature, even if other, vastly worse writers in the German language have garnered more praise and attention. It’s good that Jahrestage get all this attention now. They deserve it.
From David Plante’s Three Difficult Women
For the first time in what feels like forever, I will be having a holiday-holiday, and not just a handful of days wrapped around a conference. I will be spending a few days in Tallinn next week – and afterwards a few days in Helsinki. Anything you can recommend me in the way of spending my time in Tallinn? Or things to read? I am currently reading Sofi Oksanan in preparation for the trip. Tipps? Suggestions? What is essential to eat?
I sent a couple of poems away to a competition two days ago and it makes you wonder as you look at the pile of poems that you’ve amassed since your last book: is this really you? Can’t you do this better? Didn’t you write something last week that you liked better that you think works better that is smarter more lyrical more worth pouring into poetry but then you look at that and it already congealed into strangeness and it feels like a selfie you took last week where you have too many chins and awkward hair and didn’t your face look better – I mean I take a load of selfies for various reasons and you know those jokes and sketches where a guy in the mirror mirrors all your movement, tricking you into believing they are real and meanwhile you look at the screen saying: oh, that guy looks nothing like the guy in the mirror, nothing! but you look at your selfie and you scream that guy looks nothing like me and for fuck’s sake this isn’t even Heraclitus, this is just embarrassing to be honest and you know what’s embarrassing? These poems, and you don’t know who to show them to for triage because you don’t want to be embarrassed in front of people you genuinely respect so you sit on the floor in a pile of poems and your weird face looks up at you from every angle, bald spot here, strange torso here and so on and on until you go blind and dissipate nec corpus remanet
So I saw the Breeders in concert recently, which was quite exhilarating as an experience for a lifelong fan of the band who has never seen them on stage.
So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, they are sprouting like a malignant plant and God knows there are many, many unread one – it’s not just a museum of The Things I Have Read, I keep buying books like a meth addict. And sometimes there are whole writers whose work I have surreptitiously acquired in bits and pieces but never gotten around to read. I don’t know how long I will have to wait to shuffle off my mortal coil but while I am forced to stick around, I keep digging into these shelves, adding things, replacing things, reading, reading, reading. I have no real prejudice when it comes to genre, though I obviously have strong opinions when it comes to quality. My books are in three languages, the three I read most easily, German, English and French, though I have a small brace of Russian books here. As I type that last sentence, I am left to wonder whether I have written this prose piece before, whether I have forgotten that I wrote it, whether my life or my memory of it which, ultimately, is the same thing, have folded in on each other again. My memory is notoriously bad. I write about books here so as not to forget. Between the ages of 14 and 25 I had read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” more than 6 times, as somehow, the previous readings had left no permanent imprint in my brain – and I was delighted again, every time. Sometimes I have a memory of some text or voice and it sits in some recess of my brain like an angry, cornered rat, attacking my present thinking. That is another reason to keep all these books around; I can get up and pick books off the shelves until I find the text whose ghostly memory haunted whatever I was presently reading. But primarily, these books are not about the present or the past – they are about the folds of future possibilities. These malignant plants that have taken over all the walls in this apartment and some of the floors and night stands and window sills they are the texts and books that I might read in whatever time I have left remaining. So I write and write and write, a poem or an essay per day and I read from these books, these walls of paper and how could I ever switch to ebooks: my life is here, printed and bound and sorted onto shelves. It cannot be deleted with a push of a button and neither can I. Like a cockroach, i stick around.
So I went to San Francisco and bought a bunch of books, God knows why. A lot of it is genre diversions.
About to give a conference paper on William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and the Puritans. Wish me luck? I have some free time. if you happen to be in town, I would love to meet you. I’m flying to SF tomorrow.
When what you do has to do with writing and thinking and translating and writing, having a temporary mental breakdown means all your work comes to a stop. I am writing again this month, but I have no idea how to reply to a lot of emails from people I solicited last year, or friends who gave me opportunities or look at my list of places to send abstracts or poems or short stories, God knows I write a little of everything somehow.
This is not to complain although it may read like it. But as I am sitting here at my computer, looking at drafts and notebooks, the devastation of two fallow months is enormous, and translates into setbacks, and possibly other fallow months down the line. And I have lived with this for so many years, losing a week here, a month there, and it has cut deep gashes into my CV and you can’t explain this to people. If I can’t write I can’t write. I can push myself here and there, but there’s a limit.
And then I sit here, balding, tired, on a cold March night, with a cat on my lap, a weird writer-translator version of Dr. No, I guess, picking up the pieces, writing a new draft here, a new poem there. And this is how it goes. And this is why I have this blog. I don’t put a lot of work into these reviews but they help clear the mud from my brain sometimes. It is very helpful and I am grateful for every single person who reads this blog, making me feel slightly less alone in this cave of books and manuscripts and cat toys and empty coffee cups.
Last Christmas I visited Vienna for the first time in my life – an overwhelming experience. And a brief one. I visited for slightly less than 24 hours, a flu-stained night in the Weißgerber district inclusive. I went through a long checklist of places, cramming them all into my tight schedule, including multiple bookshops and food places. Through all this, however, I evaded one specific place, despite being rather close to it at numerous times: I did not visit the Ungargasse, the street immortalized in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina. That novel’s protagonist lived in Ungargasse 6, while Ivan, her lover, lived in Ungargasse 9, across the street. Bachmann herself never actually lived there, but she did live in the immediately adjacent Beatrixgasse.
I feel it’s hard to explain how important that novel is for me as a person. I mean, I have strong emotional attachments to a number of Austrian writers, like Josef Winkler, Hertha Kräftner, and I adore and admire the complete work of Ingeborg Bachmann, of which I own pretty much everything that’s ever been published, plus letters and the occasional secondary work. But for some reason, since high school, Malina has exerted a special kind of pull on me (I think the only German-language prose writer who has close to the same effect on me is Uwe Johnson). I considered at some point writing a review or essay about the novel, but I think it’s entirely impossible for me.
Malina is a difficult book, and critics like to point to supposed weaknesses, to strangenesses of structure and plot, to odd remarks; it’s a complex book that eludes easy classification. It’s also a book that readers have tried to simplify by reading it for autobiographical notes and import.
I have been rereading a new book on Bachmann by Ina Hartwig this past week, called Wer war Ingeborg Bachmann? Its publication right on the heels of the first two volumes of the new collected edition of Bachmann’s work, edited by Hans Höller, underlines a currently resurgent interest in Bachmann’s life. This new edition of Bachmann’s work is radically focused on Bachmann’s personal life – last year also saw the first volume of Uwe Johnson’s collected works being published. The editors of that edition started with Johnson’s first published novel (Johnson’s first written novel, Ingrid Babendererde, a complicated manuscript, isn’t slated for publication until much later). Höller does not begin with Bachmann’s first published poetry, or her early radio plays, or her earliest published prose. It starts with her last unpublished and unfinished novel, and a collection of her notes she took in/for therapy. There’s nothing that’s more personal than the latter, and her unpublished, and unfinished prose often reads like an open wound, dealing with loss, violence, sexuality and patriarchy. Höller makes his interest and focus known. He also specifically mentions, teasingly, that he will be publishing the Bachmann/Frisch letters, an almost mythical set of texts about a failed relationship which is detailed in only one longer text, Max Frisch’s novel Montauk.
There’s an unpleasant whiff to Höller’s project. It’s not new, this prurient interest in Bachmann. In a fantastic 1997 book-length essay, Ingeborg Bachmann und die literarische öffentlichkeit, Klaus Amann already details the distasteful nature of this interest, and how it harms Bachmann’s work. And to be clear – I am not innocent in this: I have read all her published letters cover to cover. I have read Höller’s two Bachmann books cover to cover and assembled a wealth of notes on them. I will read everything i can get my hands on.
But reading Ina Hartwig’s book, I found striking how it keeps circling back to the three late novels, the published Malina, and the unpublished Buch Franza and Fanny Goldmann. How it tries to read her life from these clues, and takes details of her life to “elucidate” details from the novel. Hartwig’s book has other oddities (the book is completely permeated by a bizarre obsession with Bachmann’s looks, to the point that she asked multiple interviewees whether they thought Bachmann colored her hair), but as a reader of Malina for all my adult, and most of my teenage life, Hartwig’s fleecing of Malina for clues was…unpleasant, I guess. And not from an ethical point of view. But it seemed to be based on a profound misreading of Bachmann’s text, which is vibrant with ambiguity and significance. It’s a strange spectacle to watch a book one cares so much about be so shallowly treated.
And maybe it’s just me. I cannot explain why I was so terrified to go to Ungargasse. Maybe because I am not convinced that the street I know from the book is there. That it’s visitable. It’s a strange book. And clearly I cannot write cogently about it.
…here is Deborah Smith in her own words in the LARB, published yesterday. Look, I started to annotate the thing in my head (because, I mean, oh man), but ultimately, I found I’ve spent too much energy on this already, particularly with this improvised rant. Smith’s essay speaks for itself. I’m tired.
This is a short note regarding, once again, after this post, the Han Kang / Deborah Smith debate. I’m writing this directly into the CMS so excuse any infelicities or oddities beyond the usual.
I do not necessarily wish to re-open the discussion about translation. I’ve had many frustrating, mind-numbing discussions with people on the topic. I’ve heard all kinds of terrible arguments. The most recent text about it, a poetically written article in le New Yorker, is interesting in that it doesn’t really try to defend the indefensible, despite praising, overall, the way Smith and Han Kang deal with translation.
The author in the New Yorker, Jiayang Fan, says at some point, “This isn’t what’s normally meant by translation.” – and she’s right. And for all I care the debate can end here. That is not what we mean when we say translation. And Han Kang’s English books, seeing as they can indeed best be described as a “collaborative work,” should have Deborah Smith’s name on the cover. I have no problems with invasive translations if they are marked as such. Look. I have two volumes of translations by Paul Celan on the shelf. They are some of my most cherished books. Celan was a linguistic marvel. BUT all of the poems read as if they had been written or edited by Celan. They are, to a very large extent, Celan poems, not poems by Mandelstam. It’s not subtle: I have two slim German volumes of Ungaretti’s poems here, one with Celan’s renditions, one with Bachmann’s. You can immediately point out which are Celan’s. It’s incredibly clear and obvious.
Look, for someone of little talent and skill like me who speaks too few languages, who travels little, lives in the country he grew up in etc., translations are necessary and at the same time a matter of trust. I trust you, translator, to render for me the work of a writer who I cannot read in his own words. And sometimes this involves overlooking some obvious issues. I adore Megan McDowell’s translations. And not because she’s such a transcendent translator: most of my adoration stems from the fact that the books she picked for translation are so good. I can see the original shine through in weird spots, but that’s fine. I trust Megan McDowell to give me the book as best she can. That’s “what’s normally meant by translation.”
Jiayan Fan, in her New Yorker article, also says “the latitude of Robert Lowell’s poetic “imitations” comes to mind.” – and that’s entirely accurate. I have written about that book of Lowell’s, and smarter people than me have pointed to its many many issues. Among the problems is that sometimes, Lowell was just re-mixing older translations. Sometimes he would translate texts from languages he didn’t speak in the first place. That is, indeed, not “what’s normally meant by translation.” And I admire Lowell’s Imitations. I think it’s one of his best books. However, none of these translations should be given to someone interested in, Say, Osip Mandelstam.
Earlier in the same article, the author dismisses Charse Yun’s careful criticism by saying that the things he notes are peripheral. They are not “the questions at the heart of Han’s work.” – Indeed, the debate about Deborah Smith’s translations goes to the heart of what we believe literature is. If we think literature is a message, some deeper content that can be paraphrased any which way, where the actual shape and color of the prose is merely incidental, then yes, maybe these are good translations. But if we think literature is made of words and words matter, then, fuck no. All translations are imperfect in some way, and to be honest, I don’t entirely believe in the translatability of poetry in the strict sense at all. But translators – we, or let’s say, I, trust them with doing their best to do this.
The article by Jiayan Fan suggests that, eh, the actual words on the page – not so important. What counts are the deeper questions and issues. The “greater fidelity” to what Han Kang has to say, not the measly detail of how she says it. It’s not an uncommon attitude. I have seen very popular short stories praised recently that were horrifically written as prose, but praised as “well written” – a statement that, upon reflection, referred to structure and the verisimilitude of the events depicted. But I, personally, don’t share that attitude. I don’t understand how anyone interested in literature can share that attitude, but I accept that I may be in the minority here. That is, I think, the basic difference and the bottom line here. That is why discussions on the topic have been so frustrating for me. I can accept that many people disagree.
And that would be all I have to say about the New Yorker article and the situation overall, but I have two remarks to add. Bug-bears if you will. One is every single review that discusses Han Kang’s “style” in English. I don’t care whether you believe the words matter (and thus we get Deborah Smith’s intense distortion of Kang) or whether you think the “deeper questions” matter (and thus we get “a greater fidelity” (to quote Smith)). Let’s be clear: under no circumstances are you getting Han Kang’s style or an approximation of it. The difference between the two positions doesn’t touch this question. The facts as raised by Charse Yun are clear. The difference between me and the millions of fans and defenders of the Kang/Smith collaborations is that they think it’s irrelevant. If you claim you’re getting Han Kang’s style you’re wrong.
The same goes for the idea that maybe Deborah Smith is a better translator in her newer books, less invasive, producing more of “what’s usually meant by translation.” This should be incredibly easy to test. Charse Yun makes clear claims: “Han’s sentences are spare and quiet, sometimes ending in fragments. In contrast, Smith uses a high, formal style with lyrical flourishes. As one critic noted, the translation has a “nineteenth-century ring” to it, reminiscent of Chekhov.” Look at the new translations. Has the style of the books changed? Is it more sparse now? Are the lyrical flourishes gone? I looked at the more recent translations and the answer is: no. And that should be immediately clear to any reader. I am honestly baffled by this suggestion of her maybe having changed her ways. It’s testable. There’s no need to throw up your hands and say “maybe!” GOOD LORD.
I’m sorry if this ran a bit long. Forgive me. This is not a theoretical essay, though I may have a draft of one lying around somewhere (focusing more on this aspect). This is just me sitting here being a bit upset. The best book on translation I have personally read, by the way, makes a case for translation as inspired deviance. I am not per se critical of that position. I guess I am writing as someone depending on that trust, that unspoken contract between me and the translator.
I don’t usually make this list, but last year I was listening to a much more diverse list of albums than in previous years, and apart from discovering the work of artists like Lisa LeBlanc, Oxmo Pucchino and Alain Bashung, and listening to an indecent amount of Sondheim musicals, I was also listening to a fair variety of music that came out in the same year. The list below isn’t of course some kind of firm canon. Xiu Xiu’s new album could have been on the list, John Moreland, Colter Wall and the Secret Sisters all published excellent country albums last year. Big Thief’s Masterpiece was, indeed, a masterpiece. Neil Young’s latest archival release Hitchhiker was pleasant and enjoyable. There’s a new German band called Faber, whose album Sei ein Faber im Wind scratches an itch I have. I mean, this list could have looked different. I have not listened to the new Björk album; it should probably be on here. So there’s something transient to this list. Nevertheless, I kept fiddling with it over the past hour and have now settled on its current shape. I like this. This is what I liked last year.
- Perfume Genius – No Shape
- Arca – s/t
- Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
- Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
- Priests – Nothing Feels Natural
- Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
- Lorde – Melodrama
- Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
- Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
- Sampha – Process
- Zugezogen Maskulin – Alle gegen Alle
- Migos – Culture
- Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
- CupcakKe – Queen Elizabitch
- Moses Sumney- Aromanticism
- The Mountain Goats – Goths
- Bedwetter – Volume 1
- Mark Eitzel – Hey, Mr. Ferryman
- Wiley – Godfather
- J. Hus – Common Sense
- Glassjaw – Material Control
- Playboi Carti – s/t
- Khalid – American Teen
So after blogging 26 reviews in 2016 and 2015 each, I happened to post 33 reviews this year, despite some quiet months without any reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with very brief commentary.
Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon: A Swiss novel about a not entirely common immigrant experience. Solid writing, sometimes very good. Compelling discussion about how wars in their home country can affect immigrants, and how that might change our view of them.
Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky: Regrettably reactionary/conservative book that is wildly imaginative and entertaining otherwise.
Nina Allan: The Rift: Nina Allan is one of the brightest stars in contemporary science fiction, although it’s maybe questionable to what extent her books are science fiction. The contrast with Anders’s novel highlights the missed opportunities in the latter.
Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life: Oh God no. I regret reading this. The only book I read in 2017 that rivals this level of awfulness is Robert Waller’s bizarrely bad Bridges of Madison County, which I didn’t review on the blog.
Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes: I admire Campbell’s art so much. She is one of my three favorite artists in comics. I bought a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trade paperback last month just because of her art. And somehow, improbably, Campbell’s writing is almost as good. This book is also beautifully produced.
Jacques Chessex: A Jew Must Die: Chessex is a great novelist and this is just a masterpiece of prose, control, tone.
Martina Clavadetscher: Knochenlieder: Imaginative, passionate, interesting Swiss novel about the near future, about communities, biology, inheritance, ecology. It’s not perfect, and it’s weaker in the second than the first half, but it’s darn good as is.
Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford: Of all the books I read in this novella-sized TOR imprint, this one feels most like a genre exercise. I mean, it didn’t have to be a masterpiece like Kai Ashante Wilson’s book or Brian Evenson’s, but this is a bit thin, if very well executed. It could have been better: for example, Kij Johnson’s book in the same imprint, which I read but didn’t review this year, is a novella-length riff on Lovecraft that feels more relevant, necessary, interesting. Plus, there’s a bit of an ideological haut goût in Cornell’s book that didn’t sit well with me.
Wioletta Greg: Swallowing Mercury: Oh man. This is flat, and not great, and the translation feels dubious. Moreover, since writing the review, I read more books by and about Polish writer-immigrants in the UK which made me be simultaneously more interested in the topic and less interested in this particular book.
Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart. A young Swiss writer. Excellent, excellent novel. Dense, postmodern, but emotionally captivating.
Nathan Englander: Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Man, I love Englander. I don’t know that I can be in any way neutral about his work. Really enjoyed this novel. Really fascinated by the way it embedded borderline nonfiction elements like a biography of Ariel Sharon. A messy book about a messy conflict. Much better executed than his first novel.
Manuele Fior: 5,000 km per second. Fantastic, moving graphic novel. Written in Italian, translated into English. Everybody raved about it in 2016. Everybody was right.
Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand. No. One of four novels I read this year by a Bachmannpreis participant, and -hands down- the worst. His story that he read there was a bit worse still. The politics of who gets invited there puzzle me.
Nora Gomringer: Moden. Speaking of the Bachmannpreis: Nora Gomringer won it, she is fantastic, and she will be on next year’s jury. Here’s to hoping she’ll have better luck picking than 75% of her colleagues this year. Oh, also, someone go and translate her books already.
Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman. 2017 is also the year where I became a fan of Shirley Jackson. This is fantastic. Unbelievable. She is fantastic. Saving up to get the LoA edition of her short stories next year. There’s also a recent biography of her that I need to read. Man.
Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept. Another one of the TOR novellas. This one is among the very best I have read. I have admired Jones for years. So should you.
Theodor Kallifatidis: Masters and Peasants: Greek immigrant, living in Sweden. Today, people read mostly his crime novels because of the whole Nordic Noir thing. This is a very very interesting sorta-kinda autobiographical novel. Funny, devastating, strange.
Meral Kureyshi: Elefanten im Garten. Recommended to me by Adrian Nathan West, whose excellent novel I have read this year but not reviewed. This book is another Swiss immigrant tale. Not as strong as others I have read, and it often echoes other writers in the tradition, but still good, and certainly better than many books that have been winning awards for German-language literature these days.
Manu Larcenet: Ordinary Victories. This is unbelievably good. I was recommended this, and boy is this good. I have since read two more books by Larcenet, both of them excellent. One is the funny Bill Baroud, about a portly secret agent, and the other one the dark Blast, about, man. Things. Go and read Ordinary Victories. You will not regret it. I promise.
Barbi Marković: Superheldinnen. Another Bachmannbook. This one much stronger than her story. I adore this writer. Someone should translate this book into English.
Ben Mazer: February Poems. I greatly admire Ben Mazer’s poetry, and this is his best book. This year, Mad Hat Press published his Selected Poems which everybody should read.
Denise Mina: Still Midnight. Denise Mina’s novels are a masterclass in how to write mystery fiction with meaning and a backbone.
Jerry Pinto: Em and the Big Hoom. Mediocre book about a shitty son. It has been reviewed extremely positively, so who knows. Maybe it’s me. (it’s not).
Sasha Marianna Salzmann: Ausser Sich. One of the best books I read all year, and almost certainly one of the three best German-language novels of the year. The other two are Michael Roes’s Zeithain, and Peter Handke’s elegiac Die Obstdiebin, neither of which I reviewed here.
Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream. One of two fantastic Argentinian books I read this year. The other one is Mariana Enriquez’s story collection Things we lost in the fire, which I didn’t review but still might. Both books were translated by Megan McDowell, and while the translations seem a bit off here and there, the books themselves are extremely strong.
Luan Starova: My Father’s Books. A Macedonian memoir-novel. Lovely. Read it.
Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton. A book with many plaudits. Didn’t particularly like it. Strong execution. Hollow core.
Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth. Fantastic science fiction classic about alienation, loneliness, hope and loss. Essential.
Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson. French graphic novel about a female private detective-in-training. Writing and art are lovely. Cannot wait to read more.
Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole. Really good Mexican novel about the drug trade from a child’s eye. This tired trope is invested with some interesting new energy in this book. Good not great. If you look for something to fill that Yuri Herrera shaped hole in your life, this ain’t it.
Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie. Interesting story. Terrible, boring, blasé execution. Someone, please, someone write a novel about the same person, but with some proper literary skill.
So that’s that. I’m incredibly grateful for every reader and commenter on this blog. Thank you.
I wish you all, those few who read this blog and those many who don’t, a merry Christmas. I hope you spend time with your loved ones, however you define that group for yourselves: family, friends, lovers or a combination thereof. This has been a very very difficult year for me, and I’m sure for some of you it hasn’t been easy either. I salute those of you who have had a lovely year and commiserate with those who have had a different one. I’ll probably be writing more about my year, and I will be offering an overview of this year’s reviews as well, but I am not necessarily in the mood to draw up lists and results and proclaim on The State Of The Marcel tonight. Instead I’m sitting here, in Bucharest, near the Dâmbovița river, in a cozy apartment, slightly lubricated by some gentle alcohol and some lovely food. I’m a bit more sentimental than I usually am, so this little paragraph is what you get. Like Blanche, I oftentimes rely on the kindness of strangers and I have had a lot of strangers who have been exceptionally kind to me. There’s Joe, whose work I greatly admire, who read and advised me about the most personal piece of writing I have ever published, a short piece that is part of a much longer manuscript of autobiographical fragments, lamentations and musings. There’s Nate, a magnificent writer, who has given me advice, help and more on publishing things, on making a little bit of money on the side with my skills that feel fundamentally unmonetizable. There’s Tristan who very kindly published my first piece of work this year. There are all the kind bloggers and Twitter users who have commented on or retweeted my work. And then there’s all the friends in my life, of whom I have more than I deserve or genuinely expected to have at this point in my life, not to mention my family or families. I had an emotionally absolutely miserable December, I didn’t send out any of the things I wrote, I read very little, and it wasn’t a great time overall, but today is a good opportunity to consider the gifts I have been given by all of you, strangers, friends and family alike. Thank you. Thank you everyone and Happy Holidays to you all.
If you don’t know, I have an Instagram account (@trollsandogres) and you’re invited to follow. These are apparently my nine most popular posts of the past year.
This year I participated in Lizzy Siddal‘s #GermanLitMonth
Somehow I mostly ended up reviewing untranslated books. Here they are:
- Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon
- Martina Clavadetscher: Knochenlieder
- Nora Gomringer: Moden
- Barbi Marković: Superheldinnen
- Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie
There’s everything in there: positive reviews, negative reviews, science fiction, poetry and autobiographically inspired novels.
I don’t do this a lot, so you know this has weight. One of my favorite people in the world, poet and writer Steven Rineer, has a new blog. He has had difficulties publishing his poetry, but he’s one of two largely unpublished poets I have admired for years. And not because we are friends, but because I find his work extraordinary and it pushes me to get better at my own writing. So now he has a blog. You can find it under http://stevenrineer.com. Don’t mind the large banner. I have had the pleasure of visiting California 6 or 7 years ago and Steven hosted me. He is a brilliant reader, and a brilliant writer. TRUST ME ON THIS. On some level, I owe my life to that man. Go follow the dang blog. His first post is up, it’s called “On Being Sick, Astral Weeks, and Sometimes Getting Through.” Click on the link! Do you like it? Tell me! Tell him. He’s a light in this world, a weird, gentle, awesome light.
ein flirren im hinterkopf und ein gefühl des ertrinkens unter der schädeldecke. irgendwas jährt sich immer und man geht klirrend zu bett. ich habe in den letzten zwölf jahren neben einem klumpen uranglas geschlafen und vielleich wächst mir deshalb ein zweites leben. man sitzt im november neben einem kaffee, einem knäckebrot und zwölf ungelesenen manuskripten. ich zähle: eins zwei drei usw. ich zähle auf deutsch sonst denke ich überraschend wenig auf deutsch oft denke ich auf english ich denke in sätzen, in satz- und gedichtanfängen vielmehr. manchmal rede ich auf russisch mit mir. ich kann keine filme über seeunglücke sehen. vor nichts habe ich soviel angst wie vor dem ertrinken und dann sitzt man im november hier und fühlt wie sich der schädel füllt und alles wegschwemmt alle sätze mit punkt komma usw. es bleibt nur ein flirren. ich sitze im ungefähr, und denke in keiner sprache. überhaupt, was denken. ich have angst vor dem tod. so weit ist es schon gekommen.
when I remember there’s no point and the creases in my legs and my effluvious clothes and the years of carrying around this heavy body with me and thousands of poems I’ve written so fucking much can you believe that and I carry all of it with me and on me and at my age eventually I’ll get trouble with my knees that’s what my mother says and she should know. My grandmother visits the cemetery once a week, even though they removed my great grandfather’s grave, there’s a gap now, with freshly sown grass, though it is brown now, nothing grows in autumn except death. That isn’t a good phrase, I should strike it, but I carry that with me, with my body and my hair and the half-dozen fragmented languages in my head. Sometimes I don’t write and I step out of the house and walk until my knees hurt I live in a small city surrounded by wood and thousands of poems that I wrote at some point not to mention all the fucking short stories. Sometimes I stand in a park God knows there’s enough parks here and there’s a conspicuous gap between trees, you count them, one, two, three, four, and then nothing for a bit, and then you sort of have to start at one again. I didn’t use to think much of that, but my grandmother looks at a rectangle of grass once a week, and in that gap she sees her family buried, they have all been buried there for generations and she is the last to live in that village, she won’t be buried in the family crypt and I am sitting here with a black notebook like the fucking hipster I am and want to write, but sometimes I just don’t write because there’s no point. There are things to do, there must be things to do with my hands or my feet or some other part of this enormous odorous physical burden, but I don’t know what, so I write something, and often that is a poem and it adds to what I carry around with me even though there’s no point and really I shouldn’t write but then I settle into my folds and there’s a faint smell of soft rotting oranges even when it’s cold or when the rain swallows all odors, and I just write and revise and rewrite and eventually, I mean, can you fucking believe it?
My sister just asked me whether I believed in fate. She is afraid of flying and about to fly to Asia, her heart in her pocket and her fears in her throat. It is an odd question. She asked whether I believed in all choices leading to the same result and I said I believe in nothing. I barely believe in the floor bearing my weight as I get out of bed. I am never more cartesian as when I find myself under the blankets in the morning with a whole day, or whatever is left of it spreading out ahead of me, fanned out like carpet samples. These past weeks I have found myself tortured by the question of who I am. So now I am asked about fate. It is the wrong day to ask me. I am tempted to make some joke. I cycle through possible puns. Schicksal. Schocksal. Schmocksal. Scheusal. I improvise a poem. My sister gets impatient. Do you believe in fate? Would I have met the man of my dreams, she asks, had I not taken this class or that, had I remained friends with this friend or that? Would I now stare down the barrel of this flight, or this sickness or the implacable drumbeat of loneliness at this stage of my life, she prods me, unhappy with my silence on the other end of the line. Would I have always become who i am? I cannot answer this question. We are who we are. Beloved sister, I am who I am, and contemplating other paths will not help me continue breathing, will not help me look at daylight with a welcoming frown. I have nothing, I am barely anything, but this is who, where, how I am. Could my life have taken a different turn? I have to look at all the turns and choices in my life and for everything that went wrong, other things went well. Going down a different path, I would not be me – and more importantly, you would not be you, I told my sister, as we both slowly slipped into a tub of pathos and obviousness. Pathos is thick like molasses, but it smells like that milk in the fridge that could be off, but you’re not entirely sure, so you’re sitting on the kitchen floor, smelling the milk, contemplating trying it, but what if it is truly, terribly spoiled and nobody wants to start their day drinking spoiled milk on the kitchen floor especially if you’re busy pretending the afternoon sun is really the morning sun, I mean unless I look at the clock nobody knows, that’s how that Heisenberg theory goes, right, and so you put the milk back in the fridge because you’re not that thirsty anyway and life is full of choices and that should answer your question. What was it again?
It’s two or so days until the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded. I have not made a list myself yet, and after especially Dylan, I am not especially optimistic about the outcome this year. However, since last year the award did not go to a writer, and generally speaking, the award has been bypassing the global heavyweights, in favor of the Modianos and the Munros of the writing world, my picks from 2016 are still valid.
As far as I can tell, most of the writers I picked are still alive despite the horrible loss of John Ashbery this year. So please read this blog post if you are interested in who I think would merit a win this year. I have also, as a slightly puerile reaction to last year’s award, drawn up an alternative set of candidates. Now, this list may look silly, but it is at least half-serious, in a world where the literature award is no longer awarded to literature. Read the blog here.
But while you hopefully click these links I wanted to add one more thing. I am aware, following Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, Simone Winko, Bourdieu and others, that awards are not a sign of “true excellence,” with the idea of an objectively best set of books or writers already being a problem. And yet I am still following book awards, and can get a bit cranky about, say, the ridiculous longlist of this year’s German Book Award, not to speak of my upset at last year’s Nobel award.
Look, whatever weaknesses awards have, I feel that some of the dismissive reactions to prizes come from people who are already well read. I mean I don’t have time scouring the lists of current novels in the languages I read, but I have ways of getting at recommendatios, but let me tell you, as a German/Russian teenager, the Booker longlist and the list of Nobel winners was a very helpful shortcut to learning about writers outside of the narrow borders of my reading. I was not surrounded by a circle of readers or writers, I wrote poetry alone and secretly, and similarly, much of my reading happened in shadows, on attics, in the quiet spaces where words from all over the world came to life.
Without awards and longlists my reading would have been restricted to that of my circle of friends, or of newspaper reviews. Germany, by the way, if you want some insight on the latter, is a country where Jonathan Franzen is taken seriously as a Nobel Prize candidate.
I found some of my favorite books and writers on the lists created by awards, award discussions and longlists, most at a time when I wouldn’t have been able to find these books. There were three distinct sources for me as a teenager, discovering literature, two of them being two bookshops in Heidelberg, both long defunct, and one my trawling through lists and awards.
Scoffing at awards is well and good for those who already know about books, or meet people they can ask. In my opinion, awards have a powerful function in the literary discourse, beyond what they say about how the field of literature works, and how value hierarchies are constructed etc. etc. They are also just lists of books that we can easily access, look up, read.
And that’s why last year’s stupid award made me angrier than a misplaced award like the Munro did. Books. They matter. And I’ll wait for the announcement this year again. I won’t be as excited as in previous years because to an extent, they broke the award last year. But I’ll be waiting. And hoping. And please, dear GOD, don’t give it to Murakami or Marias.
A great deal of effort is invested in the act of not writing poetry. You write a line, and another one, and a third, slower one and you are alarmed by the sour unmusicality of the stanza, and the overall lack of skill. So you strike them all out, get up, and take a walk down the street. After five minutes you reach the local bakery that has closed three times in the past year but appear to still serve customers. The person at the counter wears a paisley skirt and a look of defeat. I start writing a poem in my head as I am waiting for my loaf of rye bread. This is a bad sign so I leave without my bread, running down the street, and back up the stairs to my apartment. I do the dishes, breaking one out of every five plates into exactly twelve pieces. I sit down and stare at the wall, carefully not writing poetry. The act of not writing poetry, when you have no talent for it, costs a great deal of effort.
This is to add a short note. In my review of Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream, I wrote, ignorant buffoon that I am:
It’s a sense of evil lurking in the very ground – and Schweblin makes it an ecology issue, by connecting it to some unnamed barrels with some unnamed fluids. Some of the symptoms line up with radiation poisoning. […] But with all the lovely possibilities we have of storing poison underground, God knows what it is.
So I asked Argentinian academic Magdalena López and apparently it’s about a pesticide illness connected to the recent flood of transgenic crops, specifically transgenic soy, in Argentina. Here is an overview by Walter Alberto Pengue of the problematic trend of Argentina’s transgenic crops. Deutsche Welle has an article about protests related to the poisons, called “Pesticide illness triggers anti-Monsanto protest in Argentina.” Notably, the symptoms described in the article fit the ones in Schweblin’s novel pretty well.
“When he was four years old, he came down with the illness that left him temporarily paralyzed,” she recalls. “He was admitted to the hospital. They told me that they didn’t know what was wrong with him.”
And finally, to round things out, here is a 2015 article by Vice, titled “Argentina’s Soybeans Help Feed the World But Might Be Making Locals Sick.” I hope these suggestions make up for my initial mis-/ill informed blunder in the review. If you haven’t read the novel yet, you should!
In a classic essay, Samuel R. Delany wrote that “without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped in blind history” and in other places, he offers up science fiction as a genre with a unique language – not just the grammar of story, but the language and structure itself. Pierre Christin, author and co-creator of the French comic series Valérian et Laureline, suggested something similar when he said of his own creation that science fiction is a great tool to “overheat” the real. It’s too bad that Luc Besson, when he made a movie out of Christin’s creation, decided not to challenge the real.
This is a brief essay about three to four years in my life that I have managed to put behind me, but will carry around with me at all times. I am haunted by a death I didn’t achieve and a future that slipped away in the meantime.
I live with a black Box of terror.
The full text is at ric journal: The Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression
In July, for some reason, I ran a little experiment and posted something every day, sometimes twice a day. There are four distinct clumps of posts: reviews, #tddl posts, photos and brief personal essays, and then some additional stuff, plus one poem. If you missed the posts, here they are below, sorted by category:
1) Reviews (in alphabetical order)
Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes
Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart
Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand
Graham Greene: A Gun for Sale
Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept
Ben Mazer: February Poems
Denise Mina: Still Midnight
Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream
Luan Starova: My Father’s Books
Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth
Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole
3) Brief Essays
3b) Less personal, mostly complainy posts
Walter Kaufmann and American readers of Nietzsche
#Translation and Heartbreak
Male violence, God and the G20: Abraumhalde by Elfriede Jelinek
6) Additional Posts
I comment a lot about translation here and I have many complaints. Maybe it’s fair to point out that the times someone paid me to do a translation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left over. That doesn’t mean I don’t translate, it just means I am incredibly unfamiliar with the pressures of translation from a practical point of view.
But, as I said, I do translate, almost every day, and in various genres, like I am currently doing small translations of Marcel Schwob’s prose pieces. I like to call what I do “translating for writing” and it’s the same thing, though on a less competent level, what writers like Robert Lowell did. Lowell translated the poetry in Imitations in order to break through a block in his own writing. Now, I don’t have writing blocks per se, but I do translate in order to play with my words and to defamiliarize my syntax and metaphor routines.
Recently, I was thinking about this and I think the term “translating for writing” fits it very well. I borrowed the term from the very brilliant linguist Dan Slobin, who, a few years back, offered a weak version of Sapir-Whorf that he called “thinking for speaking” – meaning, our language does not influence our thinking maybe, but when we think in order to speak, the kind of language we speak does influence and shape our thought. I think my translations that result from the process are not “good” translations – they are shaped by my ideas about writing and not by the author’s ideas about writing, beyond what’s on the page.
As a teenager, like many well read obnoxious male teenage poets, my poetry writing became increasingly Celan-y, to the point where I mastered a certain epigonal idiom fairly well. It was then that I decided to interrupt my routines by translating dozens of poems by Creeley, an objectivist American poet. And I think it helped me develop a certain personal idiom. I have since gone back to this well again and again – not Creeley specifically, but the process of translation.
I write every day, but I also translate almost every day, and in a way, it helps me stay sane sometimes. But since I do so much “translating for writing” sometimes I worry it skews my judgment of professional translators who provide the books in all the languages I cannot read (and they are many because I am terrible). But in some sense, translating other people’s writing is, for me, not just the best way to understand their writing, but also my own.
On August 4, Amazon will drop a TV show that fits my personal sensibilities so exactly, it’s like it was made *specifically* with the intent to please me. I genuinely teared up in happiness as I watched it. There’s no shame in my game. This looks so amazing.
My little shelf of books in my apartment is not full of all kinds of weird editions – I prefer to collect books in larger volumes and will replace many individual copies with Library of America editions, say, or in the case of comics, with one of those trade omnibus editions or with poetry with a poet’s collected works. Sometimes as I stare at the shelf, I wonder how much I am losing. Is my reading of comic books in any way accurate, reading them in trades first, and then in a thick omnibus edition? How much does the understanding of comics depend on reading it issue by issue?
Armand Schwerner is an interesting exacmple. As readers of Schwerner’s enormous The Tablets we are naturally aware of the multi-level fiction, and Schwerner has found interesting ways to engage us. As McHale has pointed out, unlike other postmodern ‘archeological’ poems like Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Schwerner’s unreliable scholar/translator shoulders all the blame for anachronisms, jokes and other breaks with the solemnity of imitating the poetry of a (much) earlier age. And unlike books with similar narrators, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the doubtful material nature of the poetry under examination undercuts too glib a reading of that narrator.
The Tablets is a book about translating fragments that is itself made up of fragments, in more than one way. As we near the end of the book, the commentary and annotations become longer and more revealing, and eventually allow us to have a much fuller view of the character of the scholar/translator – but for all of Schwerner’s life, The Tablets weren’t available in book form at all. The first eight tablets were published in 1968 – and the collected posthumous edition wasn’t available until 1999, 31 years later. For us, who have access to the full book, it’s hard to imagine the interpretative process of earlier readers. Acquiring all the segments of the poem must have been a task similar to the one undertaken by the scholar/translator. Thus, the book itself is an object lesson in the sometimes arduous task of reading and understanding a text as a whole, in order to be able to contextualize and read smaller portions of it.
I know there’s quite a bit of literature about what constitutes a “text,” but the material aspect of it, of readers being also collectors by necessity, I find extremely fascinating. I have an unpublished longer academic essay on Schwerner in my desk somewhere, and recently I keep taking notes in it on materiality, seriality and the way materiality impacts reader reception theories.
A few weeks ago I was at the lovely Balenciaga exhibition at the Victoria and Albert in London. It was lovely. Here are some pictures.
If you’ve read Thomas Bernhard’s letters you’ll know he was frequently upset about the way his plays were staged. Not so his fellow Austrian, writer Elfriede Jelinek. What she hands over to theatres is, on the page, a block of text. Fiery, complicated, no paragraphs or speakers, just one long monologue on topics like power, violence and sex. Theatres are free to use her texts as they like. And German theatres, notorious for taking enormous liberties on the stage, have taken this freedom and run with it. Recently, a Jelinek play had its premiere in Germany’s former capital, the sleepy city of Bonn. The play, titled Abraumhalde (written and first staged in 2009), takes current discussions about masculinity, violence and religion, and reads them in connection with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s enlightenment classic Nathan the Wise and Austrian rapist Josef Fritzl.
I was sitting at a booth at a book fair a few weeks ago, waiting for my reading slot to open up and a woman sidled up to me, looked at my pile of books, then at me, then thrust a finger at my face: what’s this then? What’s your poetry about? I don’t fucking know. Look, lady, I just wrote it. I can’t even tell you if it’s good, but i do know it’s a thing i do and I have competence at this thing. What’s this then? well it’s a lot of words, for one thing. Words I noted down, words I collected, some words I got from a dictionary, some words I got because I misread my handwriting and I liked the misread word better than the one I wrote. What’s this then? Well, I don’t know. My body is in there and the horror and squeamishness I have with it, the heavy bear that walks with me. In it there’s me as a man, me as a woman, me as a word, maybe there’s not me at all. My grandmother was supposed to be in there but maybe this book has tiny holes in it and things that I put in slipped out. I don’t think i can tell you what this poetry is about. Is it about the terror of losing my mother tongue, or about the time I almost died or the other time I almost died or that other time. Maybe there’s love in it, I don’t know, I read it aloud and it doesn’t look like any love I know. So what’s your poetry about? Is it about drugs or alcohol or loneliness, surely it’s about loneliness, because how can it not be, on the other hand look at all the words and they are right here with me and with you too, just look at the book, you can have it, for free, if you want, Miss, take it with you it needs a reader and a better one than me. Someone who knows what to answer when asked So, what’s this poetry about?
I don’t, as a rule, like short novels, but since I started to add a few short novels into my reading diet in recent years I have become strangely appreciative of these books. I, generally, prefer think, juicy slabs of books, whether it’s the literary mammoth by William Gaddis, or the somewhat dull bricks Robert Jordan used to write. I still can’t really read short stories. I take a while to find my way in a book and the whole reading process of short stories baffles me. Short novels I never took to before for similar reasons. There are exceptions – Jean Rhys is one of my favorite writers, and all her novels are short. Similarly, I’ve admired Paula Fox for a long time. But overall, seeing a low page count always discouraged me from reading a given book. And I think that’s changed. And as I grew to like them I noticed that they are darn hard to write.
I have always considered a more baroque, expansive style easier to maintain with middling skills than a bare-bones simple style of writing. You can hide infelicities, and inaccuracies in the thicket of prose, whereas Hemingway inspired an awful mass of books written in a style that is called “bleak” or “sparse” or “dry” – but is mostly sloppy and bad. Hemingway’s own early stories, which inspired this writing, sing with potential, allusion and complexity. They are dense and their words are extremely well chosen. This is, in my opinion, enormously hard to maintain at a high quality. Even writers who have managed to excel at this, never do it for a long time – remember Richard Ford when he wrote Rock Springs? Take a look at the bloated excess of Lay of the Land. Or take a look at Hemingway’s final two novels (I like late Hemingway, but not for the prose).
The same, it occurred to me this morning, is true for short fiction. Well executed short fiction is exceptionally rare. We can’t all be Hemingway and, indeed, we can’t all be Kafka. Short fiction in my opinion needs to deliver on the same things as long fiction: characters, plot, emotion, i.e., the meat and potatoes of all fiction. But while you can get a bit lost in longer books, and see structure as a rough scheme, every structural inadequacy comes to the fore in short fiction. And writers seem to be aware: there is an odd tendency to over-structure short novels, to really make use of the increased attention. It leads to dull, overly intellectual books that read more like a pitch for a possible novel, rather than the novel itself. And I’m not against intellectual novels, I am a card-carrying fan of David Markson, after all, but that, too works better when greased with the buttery softness of excess words. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, boiled down to a hundred pages would be much less exciting. And the worst thing is that there is an ungodly amount of talented, but not great writers who offer short novels in a minimalist style, setting themselves up for failure not once but twice.
Having such strong opinions about bad short novels has however led to a real, true appreciation for short novels that use their limited canvas very well. I have been wondering whether I have overpraised novels like Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Warren or Point Omega, just because they are so extraordinarily good, on what I consider exceptionally challenging terrain. I think I may just develop a particular love for short novels. I would still always pick the monumental, backbreaking novel over the middling 200-300 page version, but now I also glance at their slimmer siblings at around 100 pages with a kind of terrified interest. Chances are, they turn out bad, but OH how great they are when they are good.
When Werner Hamacher died this year, there was an outpouring of grief that surprised many: Hamacher’s name is not as widely known as that of many of his peers, although he had a significant impact on philosophy and literary criticism. As an editor Stanford’s Millennium Crossing: Aesthetics series of translations, which introduced anglophone readers to Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy and others, his influence went beyond his own work and teaching. Despite knowing multiple students of his, it had taken me years to pick up and seriously engage with Hamacher’s work.
My interest in Hamacher is, in part, due to a personal preoccupation with a specific kind of thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by – and working on – the connection between the various ideas about close reading coming from the German tradition (Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Szondi) and the French deconstruction, so often maligned by critics, with Derrida and De Man as their most notable examples. Schleiermacher, one of the inventors of modern hermeneutics, laid the groundwork for a tradition, in which simple assumptions about the author, the text and its reader are destabilized. There is no sense of dogmatism as to what a text is and how it should be read.
In his description of the vagaries of literary criticism, Szondi’s declarations share a frame of mind with Derrida and especially Paul De Man, whose literary criticism often considers reading a text for its faultlines. There are other similarities, as well. Take autobiography: Dilthey posited a relational understanding of autobiography and suggested that plain autobiographical declarations are part of the textual situation. At the same time, there is a complex discourse about the subject of the text (das Innewerden) between the author and the reader. Dilthey’s comments are similar to Derrida’s conception of autobiography as well as De Man’s declaration that “the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life.” And yet, despite all the similarities, critics often associate one school of thinking with an inherent seriousness and the other with textual frivolity. I have always felt there to be an unacknowledged link between these traditions. Only last year have I encountered the work of Werner Hamacher, who worked exactly in the area that I am so interested in. Hamacher focused both on Szondi’s concept that literary criticism means perpetual work on the text, as well as on Dilthey’s complex ideas about the subject and how it is both alienated from and still connected to the symbolic forms. There is an almost Levinasian sense of ethics in the way Hamacher writes about how people relate to each other through and despite language. In his opus magnum, he refers to language as a long goodbye to sense and the subject, but in other places he’s written about the consequences of language for human rights, for example.
I keep mentioning his work, but as it turns out, Werner Hamacher has written a sizeable number of articles, but not much in the way of books A forthcoming publication next year will be only the third major monograph to appear in German. The previous one was Premises. Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan, which appeared in English in 1996 and in German in 1998. The sequence of publication reflects the fact that he taught at American universities for years. Unlike Hannah Arendt, who also published in English first, he didn’t write the English version himself, but instead was translated (very well, incidentally). Indeed, Hamacher wasn’t, first and foremost, a writer, but primarily a passionate thinker and speaker who developed his ideas in the lectures themselves. He would come to the lectern with rough outlines and then talk and think his way through the material.
As Alexandru Bulucz, poet, scholar and translator, wrote in his own personal appreciation, Hamacher was a teacher who allowed students to see them think through a text or a problem rather than a teacher who turned up with a finished product that merely needed to be presented. He challenged students in class, maintaining a personal distance, but asked for his thinking to be critiqued as he critiqued others. Thinking was his prime objective. Then again, this reflects Werner Hamacher’s attitude to the institution of the university. In a flaming appeal, published in 2010 as “Freistätte,” Hamacher discusses universities as a place of absolute intellectual freedom, or at least that’s the way he thought they should be. Free of not just economic pressures, but also free of expectations and the tyranny of tradition. In a true place of free science, scientific pursuit has to be free of everything that is not itself and that includes its own traditional forms (Formtradition). For Hamacher, the pursuit of science is sacred, and that includes teaching.What must be clarified here is that the German tradition Hamacher works in sees the humanities as a science. This is more than just a question of terms. Yes, it is true that the German term for humanities is Geisteswissenschaften – and what the anglophone world calls science, we call Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences. But Hamacher works from a specific tradition that stresses the scientific aspect of the humanities way beyond the bare bones meaning of the term itself. There is a line leading from Wilhelm Dilthey, 19th century hermeneutics scholar, to Peter Szondi, teacher, holocaust survivor and academic literary critic and finally to Werner Hamacher. They all shared an absolute seriousness about the task of teaching and writing about language and literature.
Never having heard Werner Hamacher teach myself, never having known him in a university context, I can only resort his book, which shows him to be a refulgent thinker and writer. His work on Kant, Kleist, Celan and others is insightful and is carried, at the same time, by an exceptional talent for synthesis. In Hamacher’s thinking, several traditions connect in sometimes startling and surprising ways. He opened clear, new paths to already well-known texts. Hamacher’s is that rare and lovely brilliance – the kind you admire even as you may occasionally disagree – and he brought to bear his immense mind on building a theory of how to understand not just the world – but the structure of understanding itself. At a time when the subject has slowly crept back into serious criticism, Hamacher’s careful work on the way language and understanding interact with each other, and dispossess the subject of its assumed powers, seems particularly timely.
Hamacher was important in other ways as well. His international stature rests not just on English translations of his work or his teaching at Stanford, NYU, and other American universities. He has had a significant impact even on people who have not read him or his students, as the force behind (and series editor of) Stanford UP’s Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, which is maybe best known for being the main English-language publisher of Giorgio Agamben, another thinker whose work synthesizes different traditions. Hamacher also translated poetry and criticism into German, most notably, Paul De Man’s Allegories of Reading.
For many, he was the kind of philosopher whose name is not as well-known as it could be, but whose impact has been felt for a while. That’s certainly true for me –I hadn’t seriously considered Hamacher’s work until last year and hadn’t directly engaged with it until this year – so his death represents the sudden loss of a great writer I was looking forward to discovering in-depth in the months and years to come. I did not know him personally, but from his former students on Facebook, a clear picture of another Hamacher emerges: a teacher, kind mentor and friend. His bridge-building exceeded his work as editor and translator, and reading personal tributes to him this past week has been lovely and moving. I’m sure we – not just those who know him, but we as readers and intellectuals – will grapple with his death for years. For now, all we have is the texts, and his greatest legacy, his thinking and his teaching. At any rate, I urge you to read Premises, which I have been carrying around in my bag for months now. It is an enormous achievement by an enormous mind. He will be sorely missed.
A church burns, someone dies.
Sentient poop takes over, no lies.
A man with a prehensile tail
In love with a whale
becomes a refugee and then cries.
A flower blooms, a woman is sad.
A trip to Macedonia, a woman is mad.
A science fiction story
about poets and glory
someone dies, someone cries, and someone is glad.
I also have some drafts about suicide,
those stories never turn out quite right.
They live on
on this laptop, offline. Good night.
(I am not sorry)
So I had notes for two more “Notes” but somewhere at the conference venue I lost my notebook full of drafts, notes and poems, which isn’t great, but there you go. I lost some of my notes on theory and things, and so, sitting here in Bonn, note-less, very, very exhausted and in a bit of stress, my Boston trip mildly merges with the day I spent in Amsterdam during my layover on the way home, and I have to type this very quickly straight into WordPress so I hope it makes sense. (Notes from Boston Part One and Part Two)
But here you go: I have personal interest in, and written about, memory. Boston is an interesting town that way. Much like Amsterdam’s central parts, Boston’s central parts are basically a celebration of its past, with extraordinarily old buildings, rich in history and memory. Some of that memory is difficult, but Boston doesn’t insist in discussing the issue with you. Take Boston Common. Across the street from it is the Mass. House of representatives, or rather the Massachusetts State House, as the building is called. Right there where Boston Common and the State House meet, separated by a street, is the Robert Gould Shaw memorial. Lowell describes this permanent encounter like this in “For the Union Dead,” a poem everyone’s probably read: “A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders / braces the tingling Statehouse, / shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw / and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry / on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief.” Shaw’s regiment, as you can glean from Lowell’s lines, was the first African-American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War. They weren’t paid the same and, of course, not treated the same afterwards. The monument is a reminder of the sacrifices paid in war by people the country treats badly before, during and after the war. This of course continues in the US. Did you know that Mexican immigrants are “allowed” to serve in the US Army and are then often nevertheless deported? For a country that prides itself on its hollow war machine and guns and all the obscene patriotism, this treatment of actual US veterans is bizarre. And the Shaw monument shows how far back this goes. And yet, as I suggested in my first note, I am not sure it has a real impact on the city. Lowell writes “Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat,” but walking through Boston for many hours, it doesn’t seem like it does.
It is a strange assemblage of power and memory in that city, driven by the need to venerate the powerful, and the problem with having a history partly built on revolution and fights for civil rights. There’s not much “sticking” in people’s throats if you remember ROAR and other violent protests against desegregation in Boston. “The Soiling of Old Glory” is a particularly powerful image of, well, Boston, really. This happened all over the US, but the combination of elements seems typical of Boston. Boston has given up on busing today, but even when desegregation was declared a success, some schools remained segregated, but that was fine, Boston’s courts declared, because “the racial imbalance is rooted not in discrimination but in more intractable demographic obstacles.” – Which, I mean. I can’t currently locate my copies of Mike Davis books, but I wonder whether there’s an equivalent story of Boston to Davis’ narrative of Los Angeles and its shifting interests of power that moved poverty through the city. Much, also, in the area of Boston that I lived, reminded me of Davis’ discussion of an “informal proletariat.” Without wanting to misuse both of these writers, I think one interesting aspect of Boston is that it has not become one of Deleuze’s fields of becoming, of possibilities. Boston’s racially segregated areas are more like Geertz’s “splinters.” Maybe it’s not a huge surprise that some of the theories of global assemblages that came out of the current re-evaluation of Deleuze’s work, particularly his seductive, but vaguely defined term of “becoming,” are often connected to personal or academic privilege; I mean there’s a lot of criticism of class and race that seems quite oblivious to the writer’s own position in these issues. I think writers like Davis have a much more accurate and unromantic view of the structural strictures of power. Agamben doesn’t necessarily apply here, because black life is clearly circumscribed by power. But then, there’s Shaw’s regiment. Or, in central Amsterdam, the prostitution. Prostitution there, as in many places, is often /though not always) based on an exploitative model, and has always had an odd place regarding legality. As a tool of patriarchy, the industry has always come close to what Agamben describes as “bare life” (incidentally – I wonder whether there are studies on how to apply the first three books of the “Homo Sacer” project to prostitution). In Netherlands, prostitution is legal, but there are around 7,000 trafficked women there, including many in the so-called “window prostitution.” The popular red light district in Amsterdam, 5 minutes by foot from Amsterdam Centraal, is dotted with brothels, and women who present themselves to an international male audience. This physical transparency doesn’t lead to more safety necessarily. And there’s an odd phenomenon that I haven’t noticed last time I was there. There was always the odd encounter of the brothels surrounding Oude Kerk, the big old church in the middle of the red light district. Now there are a few bars that are advertised on being in the rooms of old brothels, and a “prostitution museum” right next door to sketchy looking brothels. The ideological structure of museums is replicated by the streets surrounding that specific museum, in a strange assemblage of power, ideology and patriarchy. Amsterdam’s old houses represent the country’s connection to (and profits from) colonialism, and the foreign prostitutes, 7,000 of which (it bears repeating) are trafficked, mirror the same thing on a smaller level.
Lowell’s comment about the Shaw memorial representing a “fishbone in the city’s throat” contrasts to Berryman’s much longer poem about “Boston Commons.” At that period, Berryman lacked the sharpness and instinct of his later poetry and the poem, in all its meandering length, lacks Lowell’s view of history. It’s difficult to write the poem Lowell wrote any better than he did. But Berryman’s poem achieves something else. Into the faux-heroic platitudes, and the silliness of lines like “(q)uestion / Your official heroes in a magazine,” Berryman mixes, in small doses the questioning, confused mind of a middle aged man trying to grapple with everything. The poem is bracketed by “the impressive genitals / Of the bronze charger” and a slumped, lifeless body. The tension between Shaw’s memorial on one side of the street and the State House on the other is resolved by the two poets in different ways. Lowell offers a broad historical view and a criticism of the city and its history. Berryman doesn’t have that in him. But his confusion is more true, I feel to the reality of Boston I saw, and this applies to Amsterdam too. Somehow, both cities have inoculated themselves against the bug of criticism as visible in the way the cities support these intense tensions within less than a minute of walking distance. But they have not moved on to a clear, clean space. They are suspended where Berryman’s poem is, in the darkness of ideology, and the pushing forces of ideology. Erik Wolf writes about how ideology transmutes class difference and how it asks for minor histories to be folded into the larger history of a people or a country. In an interesting way, Boston, by resisting the global assemblages, by refusing to turn into a Deleuzian Body without Organs, does an enormous job of retaining the structure of power. An open air museum, repressive, but beautiful.
I find Boston an odd city, beyond the way that the center of it is intensely European. I have difficulties “letting go,” i.e. not working on some project or another, doing research, writing, something like that. I came here to present a paper and as I am wont, I spent much of the previous days rereading sources, cutting and adding some 1000 words. I don’t know how it turned out but what I do know is that now I have “nothing to do” – and I am bad at just relaxing. And I dislike densely planned touristing. What I instead prefer is a kind of dérive. I like feeling out cities by walking in – not a random motion, but one mostly inspired by quick decisions, attractions and angles. People around me don’t like it, but it is my preferred mode of discovering cities. Boston, however, is strangely resistant to it. There is the area where I am staying, an area of large grids, but interesting situations. But “downtown,” between Copley and Harvard Square, and between Packard’s Corner and Boston Harbor seems strangely resistant to that and I am not entirely sure why. Here is the oddest thing about this – sometimes this city makes me think of London. I mean, London is my favorite or second favorite city, and sometimes, when my mind is wandering, my brain prompts me to expect a London landmark. However, I love drifting through London, even with suitcases or tired, or when stressed. London, to me, opens up that way, almost as beautifully as Moscow does, my favorite city to drift through. And yet, despite the similarities, I do not get the same feeling from Boston. None of this is real or objective, but there you go.
I suppose this is true for many cities, but it is remarkable nonetheless: I am staying in a part of Boston that is roughly 30 minutes by bus away from downtown Boston. The area I live in is majority black. I say “majority” but I’ve looked at the clock: it usually takes ~25 minutes until I see the first white person on the bus or on the street, the first person, that is, that isn’t me. The difference to not just downtown but even just the parts that are more equally split is stunning. Just the way healthcare is delivered alone – and the astonishing frequency of churches, many of which are just inside regular houses. On the bus route I am taking there is on average one church per block. But also the poverty. Many of the bus stops are near clinics or “health centers,” and I see people entering and leaving. A disquieting visual, certainly, and it reminds me of how rarely truly open questions about economics are raised here. Someone once said that debates about racial justice, and policing are supplanting debates about economic equity in the US and sometimes, in Boston, it seems like those people are right. In the most affluent part of the center, just off Commonwealth Avenue and Boston Commons, on and around Newbury Street, there are a handful of churches, all of which have banners proclaiming (sometimes in arabic script) that refugees and Muslims are welcome. Two unitarian (I think?) churches even hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner in their window. And yet I wonder how concerned these same churches are about the lack of economic opportunities for the black people whose lives supposedly matter, how concerned they are with the fact that Boston is among the most segregated cities in the country. In an hour, I will get on that bus again, and will take a trip through a part of Boston that many Bostonians I talked to said they wouldn’t set foot in. They say it’s because it’s dangerous. What they mean is, it’s because it’s black.
I feel like I should tell you this but you are not someone who likes this kind of soppy sentimentality, so I am saying it here in a language you do not understand.
Today I talked to you on Mother’s Day and you expressed your feeling of maybe not having been a particularly great mother. I cannot possibly stress enough how wrong you are.
I have always had difficult emotions, have had emotional and personal conflicts that have led me all the way to a mental hospital. Through all this time I have been able to rely on your love. We all have in our family. For the longest time, my idea of love and family was a group of people that stick together even through the worst trouble, who may argue and fight, but who, ultimately, stick it out. That I lost it isn’t your fault. And these days, as I am slowly regaining it, I lean on your love, even at my advanced age.
I have never quite fit the categories and expectations placed upon me. Uncomfortable with professional, religious and gender categories, I have never felt pressure at home to conform to any particular role. The only thing you always wanted from me was my happiness. I cannot tell you how important that was to a strange teenager who read books on trees, secretly used nail polish sometimes and is erratically agnostic in his religious beliefs.
I have needed protection from my father in various ways throughout most of my life – and I have always been able to rely on you to provide it; even when I should have been able to protect myself, at least emotionally, you had my back, literally. In our small family, our almost claustrophobic family life, you created room for me to be safe, to be myself, to simply be.
You don’t know that I am a poet today, but I wouldn’t have been a poet without you, without your example of being willful and creative. I couldn’t have pushed past reasonable limits into trying to still work academically and poetically without having you in my life whether you know it or not. I have always tried to make you proud, even if you don’t know.
From you I learned how to love, how to be myself, how to persevere even in the most difficult situations. I am currently tangled in the manifold webs of your native language which isn’t mine. I don’t know whether I can ever truly communicate as clearly with you as I wish I could. As I appear to be the most healthy member of my family, despite all my unhealthy habits, I am terrified by the idea of losing you. I cannot possibly express my gratitude for the enormity of your influence on my life.
Thank you, mom.
Anthony (on Twitter as @timesflow) asked people on Twitter to talk about their personal canon – and since I am emotionally unwell today and can’t get anything done I decided to give this a stab. It’s hard, I love making lists as much as anyone and I admire a great many writers and novels, but I’m going to list the writers and books that 1) I would take with me if I had to move and get rid of 99% of my personal library or that I would immediately rebuy if my apartment burns to the ground and 2) had the biggest impact on me as a writer and reader. As a result this list skews more German and more towards older books, despite so many excellent books coming out recently. I’m also limiting myself to 20 fiction books, 20 nonfiction books and 20 poets because, I mean, you know. I’m also writing this in one sitting. I mean the list would probably look different tomorrow. Who knows. Finally, only one book per writer.
I have one exception: the following 15 writers I cannot possibly pick one book and skip all others. Their whole oeuvre is important to me, in different genres and across many volumes (paradigmatic here is probably Thomas Bernhard who is one of my favorite poets, playwrights and novelists and whose books in all three genres I’ve been reading since I was a teenager). Not on this particular list, but on lists lower, writers where I do place importance on their complete work, but whose complete work basically fits into one book (i.e. Emily Dickinson, Hertha Kräftner).
- Ingeborg Bachmann (Malina is the single novel by anyone. living or dead, that is most important to me)
- Herman Melville
- Uwe Johnson
- Paul Celan
- Iris Murdoch
- Sarah Kane
- Sam Beckett
- Thomas Bernhard
- Alfred Döblin
- Christa Wolf
- Heinrich v. Kleist
- Elfriede Jelinek
- Jean Rhys
- Heiner Müller
- Gustave Flaubert
- Gerald Murnane
- John Berryman
- Emily Dickinson
- Boris Pasternak
- Hilde Domin
- James Merrill
- Delmore Schwartz
- Hart Crane
- Sylvia Plath
- Peter Huchel
- Rose Ausländer
- Ted Hughes
- Elizabeth Bishop
- Philip Larkin
- Ezra Pound
- Christine Lavant
- Thomas Brasch
- John Ashbery
- James Wright
- Hans-Magnus Enzensberger
- Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
- William Gaddis, Recognitions
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (narrowly didn’t make the list of 15 writers, because I dislike The Idiot)
- Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks
- Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (really, would be on 15 writers list above, if not for my dislike of early prose and Lot 49)
- Don DeLillo, Libra
- Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans
- Proust, the whole Récherche, but particularly Le côté de Guermantes
- Irmtraud Morgner, Trobadora Beatriz
- Samuel R. Delany, Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand (should probably be on the 15 writers list above)
- Hans Henny Jahnn, Fluß ohne Ufer
- A.L. Kennedy, Everything You Need
- Henry James, Wings of the Dove
- Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
- Lawrence Norfolk, The Pope’s Rhinoceros
- Josef Winkler, Das wilde Kärnten
- Harold Brodkey, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
- Patrick White, The Vivisector
- Robert Walser, Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet
- Hemingway, The Sun Als0 Rises
- Yukio Mishima, The Sea of Fertility
- E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
- Wilhelm Reich, Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus
- Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen
- Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic
- Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa
- Thomas Browne, The Major Works
- Adorno/Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung
- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity
- Louis Althusser et al., Lire Le Capital
- James Clifford, Routes
- Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man
- Wilhelm Dilthey, Der Aufbau der Geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften
- Emmanuel Lévinas, Totalité et Infini
- Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
- Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Soziologische Theorie der Erkenntnis
- Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History
- Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode
- Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse
Yes, it is I. In case you want to support my current reading/writing projects, you know what to do 😉
Have a great 2017 everyone. I’m listening to an Otis live records right now, drinking a lovely gin. Who knows how long I will be around, any of us really. Have a drink on me, on you and the new year.
Read poetry, write poetry, read books, punch a fascist, you know, you do you next year.
So after posting 26 reviews last year, I happened to post the exact same number this year, despite some quiet months without reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with short commentary. I wrote about three very notable books that I didn’t get around to reviewing (but will probably review next year) here. If you feel like supporting this blog, why not click here. If you want to buy my book, why not click here? Incidentally, I have review copies of my book in pdf and (possibly) epub, if you feel like reviewing German poetry. Email me! Now, here’s the list of reviews.
Margaret Atwood et al.: Angel Catbird. Margaret Atwood is a genius novelist. Not a genius writer of comic books. Two more volumes coming early next year.
Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown. The less talented Dillon brother. The art is good. The overall impression is meh. His brother died this year. A genuine loss.
David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl. Terrible book. One of the top 3 worst books I read last year, overall. Dubious America-centric revisions to history that, given recent elections, seems somehow symptomatic
Brian Evenson: The Warren. Science fiction, I suppose? One of my three favorite books of the year.
Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me. Writing about depression while fetishizing the psychopharma industry.
Tomer Gardi: Broken German. One of the best German novels of the year, written by an Israeli citizen in his German language debut. Hilarious, sharp, brilliant.
Claire Gibson, Sloane Leong and Marian Churchland: From Under Mountains, Vol. 1 One of my favorite comics of the year. Art and writing perfectly complement each other.
Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night. Quiet little book. Not as good as I hoped, not as bad as I feared. Won’t be reading more of his stuff, I don’t think.
Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat. Excellently crafted little story/novel/novella about a cat, Japanese modernity and a marriage.
Line Hoven: Love Looks Away. I’ve read a couple of German comics this year and this is easily my favorite. Will post a review of the thoroughly mediocre Kinderland by Mawil next year. Hoven’s book is smart, poetic and the art is spectacular.
Paulette Jiles: News of the World. Award-winning piece of Americana drivel. Good for a present for your badly read relative. Solidly done, enough to dazzle some. One of the worst books I’ve reviewed (if not read) this year.
Han Kang: The Vegetarian. Genuine, absolute masterpiece. There’s an odd connection between Kang and Evenson in how they approach physicality.
Kolbeinn Karlsson: The Troll King. Swedish comic. Interesting, well made, a bit racist. Overall a recommendation.
Phil LaMarche: American Youth. Eh. So it’s MFA Americana fare with good ideas, but dull execution.
Fouad Laroui: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers. Laroui is a profoundly interesting writer. In this I introduce you a bit to his work. Not a very popular review with editors (sigh) but in a reduced form, it’s done well on this blog this year.
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda: Monstress. Very good comic book. Among my favorites this year. Doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Tom King’s Vision or Lemire’s Descender, but very good nonetheless.
Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd. Overrated book. Overdetermined, too disinterested in the idea of making a story cohere.
Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity. Otoo won one of the most prestigious German awards this year and she’s one of the most interesting German writers (she’s not German).
Iain Reid: I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Overrated piece of crap. Genre fiction by the book. No surprise. Nothing interesting.
Fran Ross: Oreo. A forgotten American masterpiece. Read it. Now.
Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan. Excellent, slyly complex piece of horror fiction. Deservedly considered a classic.
Cecilia Ștefănescu: Sun Alley. Bad novel, translated badly. No point in mincing words. Shame on the publisher who did a disservice to the cause of translated literature in English. Shame.
Akimitsu Takagi: The Informer. Crime novel from Japan. Exceptionally well excecuted, but appeals strictly only to people interested in genre, I’d say.
lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for. A novel written in shorter segments about growing up foreign in the US. This is very good.
Yuko Tsushima: Child of Fortune. A masterpiece of Japanese fiction. Truly astounding.
Yvonne Vera: Butterfly Burning. African novelist of genius, sadly deceased. Novel is very good.
Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. This has languished on the occasional fantasy discussion list, while it, and its sequel/prequel A Taste of Honey are really among the best books published this year. Tor inexplicably marketed this to fantasy fans; this should be read by all fiction fans, period. I’ve never wished more that a book had landed with a different publisher. FSG Originals, for example. They’ve been doing amazing work. I’ve read Kristin Dombek on Narcissism this year, weird fiction by Amelia Gray, and science fiction by Jeff Vandermeer, all published by FSG Originals. Well designed, well pitched. Wilson should be on many of the lists summarizing this year’s best fiction, yet he’s not. It’s hard not to feel Tor is a bit at fault for that.
Is this a blog about books or about my adorable cat? I haven’t quite decided. Here’s the cat:
Now and then I upload more recent pictures of my desk. This is from March(?) last time it was really orderly. 🙂 If you read one of my reviews, this is where the *magic* happens.
Bear with me. It’s 3:55 am where I live. [Edited: here it is]
So after posting 10 reviews in 2014 I exceeded that number by quite a bit this year and ended up with 26 reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with short commentary (a chronological list is here). If you feel like supporting this blog, why not click here. I have also published three short essays with the Battersea Review. If you want to buy my book, why not click here? Incidentally, I have review copies of my book in pdf and (possibly) epub, if you feel like reviewing German poetry. Email me! Now, here’s the list of reviews.
Katherine Addison: The Goblin Emperor – a good fantasy novel that almost won the Hugo. Entertaining though slightly odd politics.
W. Paul Anderson: Hunger’s Brides – a great Canadian masterpiece. Flawed, in multiple ways, but great.
Pénélope Bagieu – Cadavre Exquis – a cute little graphic novel. Fun.
Kyril Bonfiglioli: Don’t Point That Thing At Me – absolutely lovely little noir book that was very badly served by the movie made from it.
Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Required at Suvanto – terrible book. I regret reading it.
Maryse Condé: En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux – this is half review, half comment on Condé’s work. She’s both good and a bit dull. Widely translated into English, but this one has not been translated yet.
John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van – unexpectedly moving novel by one of my favorite singers.
Kelly Sue Deconnick et al.: Bitch Planet – brilliant comic book by one of my favorite people currently working at the Big Three.
David Duchovny: Holy Cow – not as awful as you’d think. Great fun, I say.
C.S. Forester: The African Queen – interesting book, great movie. win-win.
Dana Grigorcea: Baba Rada – Young Swiss/Romanian novelist. This, her debut, is exciting and unique.
Olga Grjasnowa: All Russians Love Birch Trees – young German/Russian novelist. Novel is excellent, and I am excited about new work by the author.
Yuri Herrera: Signs Preceding The End of The World – one of my favorite books I read all year. A masterpiece.
Janet Hobhouse: The Furies – brilliant, moving novel on a mother/daughter relationship.
Kerascoët & Vehlmann: Beautiful Darkness – A graphic novel masterpiece. One of the best comic books I own.
Young-Ha Kim: I have the right to destroy myself – interesting book, but flawed. The author’s storytelling skills have not caught up with his conceptual ambitions yet.
Erri de Luca: God’s Mountain – Bestselling Italian novelist. Good book, not exceptional.
Gila Lustiger: Die Schuld der Anderen – very disappointing novel on a workspace safety scandal. Muddled politics, flat style.
Ed McBain – Cop Hater – classic crime novel. It’s like watching a genre take its first steps.
Emily Perkins: Novel about my Wife – Truly fascinating, intricate novel about a wife’s breakdown and a husband’s questionable role in it.
Max Porter: Grief is the Thing with Feathers – another one of my favorite books. Extremely well written and constructed.
John Scalzi: Lock In – favorite Science Fiction book I read all year. Not shortlisted for the Hugo – would have deserved winning it.
Akhil Sharma: Family Life – Interesting novel about immigrant experience. Maybe too carefully crafted to be truly impactful.
Leonardo Sciascia: To Each His Own – Excellent Mafia noir. Classic, deservedly.
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread – Reportedly her final novel, and it frequently reads like a riff on her own work. Not her best work.
Andy Weir: The Martian – profoundly disappointing Science Fiction.
For all that I complain about translators. If you want to see how godawful my own translations are, I have an example. Over the past months I have translated bits and pieces from Alfred Corn’s excellent work here and there.
Here is my awful attempt to render one of his excellent recent poems in German. The poem is “All It Is” and you can compare my ridiculous version with the elegant original here. It’s a complex, lilting, subtle, masterful poem, and now read what I wrought. Two caveats, apart from the peasanty phrasing: 1) yes, I slightly changed the meaning in some places 2) yes, I am too in love with a consistent sound/tropescape, which leads to 1) and 3) no, that is maybe likely the best I can do. Poopyhead. Do I have a draft on my wordpress where I *literally* complain about someone else’s too loose translation of Goethe? Maybe. Will I post it? NOT LIKELY. So. Here it is. Laugh, be merry, and have pity on me.
Was es ist
Der biegsame Bogen
den die Baumwipfel beschreiben,
ungefähr bewegt vom durchströmenden Atem,
ein Ast zur linken,
einer zur rechten Seite schwankend.
Oder das geradlinige Anschwellen,
das einem Windstoß über die Auen folgt,
Heimat hunderttausender Schilfe.
Die Flur erwächst aus allem,
das uns zuvörderst war: aufeinander folgende
Ereignishorizonte vergangener Zeitalter,
ausgebracht durch unseren bedachten
Drang, ihr Äußeres zu heben,
leicht und frei,
zu dem, was unserer Anwesenheit gewahr wird –
zur Vollkommnung geatmet, eine Sphäre,
zu allem, das es ist.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
So 1) I’m still available for readings (contact me?), but also, and more importantly, 2) there’s a recording of me reading some of my poems, both published (in my book) and unpublished ones, here. Click, listen and enjoy (or not). If you’re still interested in my book, click here for a peek at some poems. Here is a review (pdf) of the collection by Wolfgang Ratz. Here is the publisher’s page where you can order the book, if you want. Or email the publisher directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Order it for a Uni library if you can do that. That last point is in bold because it’s really important to me. I have one last copy that I have not given away and I can mail it to you for that purpose. If you like the poems and want to review them I can email you an electronic copy? I will say, however, that the work Inés Mantel and Jessica Mantel did in designing and printing this book is unbelievable. As a book, it’s so gorgeous that I’m almost embarrassed that all that’s printed within is my poetry,
Have a lovely sunday.
Svetlana Alexievich wins the 2015 Literature Nobel Prize! Guys, let me have this one. This is the closest I ever came to getting it right. Did I wake up with a feeling Oates might win? Sure. Did none of my actual picks make it? Yeah. BUT LOOK AT THIS. I think we can agree I practically got it right. Also, I picked up 4 of her books from the library last weekend. HOW’s THAT FOR PRESCIENT. Meanwhile, if you want more than my desperate/sad gloating here’s a piece on Alexievich from last year’s New Yorker called “Nonfiction deserves a Nobel“, by Philip Gourevitch. Meanwhile, much as I was very happy about the award, the aftermath is starting to feel a bit like the aftermath of last year’s Nobel award. While last year, book journos were quick to proclaim the greatness of Modiano (I don’t agree), this year, they are wringing a kind of significance out of this award that I just don’t see. Gourevich and other reporters are understandably happy. But articles like Why Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize Is Good for Literature by Jonathon Sturgeon are unconvincing and bad. And I can see more of that to come.
When I went to Switzerland for a reading (see here and here) I found out that the city my publisher is based in is not only the city that Der Gehülfe is based in but the Villa Abendstern, centrally featured in the novel, is still there and reasonably well preserved. Imagine my excitement. The two people on one of the pictures feature me and my publisher, not a bear mauling an innocent woman.
Das Toblersche Haus war überdies noch zweiteilig, es bestund aus einem Wohnhaus sowohl wie einem Geschäftshaus, und Josephs Pflicht und Schuldigkeit war, beide Sorten Hauser ergründen zu lernen.
Due to smoke rising from my laptop – and a personal reluctance to set my apartment on fire – I cannot at this point properly use my laptop – or access the files on it. So if you are waiting for an article or manuscript or something, please be patient. I cannot afford to replace it. I have a very old backup computer which I can use to go online, so that’s not awful.