Nobel Prize 2015: My picks.

So originally I planned on mostly just reposting my old 2014 picks (because I, uh, picked wrong, as always), but I did end up modifying them. I mean, look, I have become very impatient with the insistence of the Academy to elect good-but-not-great white or European writers. I always found that the best attitude is not “who should win it instead” – but “has the winner deserved it?” Because the pool of excellent & important writers who cannot all win it, is just too large. And opinions vary. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. The best writer of the bunch is probably Claude Simon, with Jorge Semprún a close second, and writers like Jean Rouaud and Patrick Modiano following behind that. Simon is an undeniably great writer (a very deserving Nobel winner), and while Modiano is not following in his footsteps, following a different literary lineage, I would argue he’s not appreciably different enough to warrant a Nobel Prize while other writers languish. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or 91 year old Michel Tournier, whose best work far outstrips Modiano’s best? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? She passed away this year and it’s a shame she never won Literature’s most prestigious award.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 94 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed, especially since it felt a few years ago as if the academy was doing a tour of all the important writers that were on the brink of dying, giving the prize to deserving and old writers like Pinter, Lessing and Tranströmer. They are the kind of significant, excellent writers that we sometimes think must already have won it. In general, as I pointed out last year, the award appeared to settle into a “sure why not” pattern of boring but unobjectionable writers.

And yet, much as I liked my ‘observed’ pattern, Modiano does not fit it. If he died unrecognized there would have been no outcry about it, nor was there a general clamoring for his election, as there was for writers like Vargas Llosa. In fact, a different pattern, less acceptable, emerges now. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog. So let’s go on to my picks.

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, however, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Ko Un. I have read his work in English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss him. I find him intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss him. Selfishly, I would root for him winning just to read more essays on his work.

TWO Like poetry, nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So as in the previous case, I will mention more than one here. #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.

Four So the fourth pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. So who? Let me pick 2. There’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now. But the death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France. (ISBN)

Günter Grass (1927-2015)

grass buttThere are very few writers in recent decades that have had such a rapid decline in reputation as German titan of letters Günter Grass who died Monday morning. After his death became public earlier this morning, many of my friends, well read students, writers and academics, didn’t manage more than a shrug in reaction to the news of Grass’ death. Grass’ career, since winning the Nobel Prize in 1999, has been marked by a shift in politics, and significantly worse writing. The first volume of his memoirs, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel is, in my opinion, the only truly excellent piece of writing he had published between 1995 and his death this weekend. The rest of it – subpar poetry, atrocious novels and negligible prose – was often popular, but lagged behind even the worst of his earlier efforts. Yet literary decline alone is not enough of an explanation: for most of his literary career, Grass had also been politically active, including active campaigning for the center-left party SPD and its chancellor Willy Brandt. Many of his books bear the marks of a politically active mind. He wasn’t able to keep the politics of his day out of his books, leading to excellent novels like Kopfgeburten or Der Butt, which directly discussed and reflected on elections and policies. However, after winning the Nobel Prize, Grass, never one to eschew populism, increasingly sensed that a certain nationalistic brand of right wing rhetoric had crept into mainstream discussions and had become acceptable in polite company. Like his fellow traveler Martin Walser (not to be confused with Robert Walser, the Swiss genius), Grass played with tropes of nostalgia, nationalism and antisemitism, to an ultimately alarming degree. When he died, the crooked noises of his blaring populist trumpets had drowned out the memory of his much more sublime earlier work, in part because in the minds of many readers, late career Grass reminded them of the populist portions of his earlier work that had always been present. That’s why a shrug and an imprecise sadness was the main reaction among many of my friends and colleagues, despite the death of an enormous writer who was influential not just for German but world literature. Writers like John Irving and Salman Rushdie have acknowledged their debt to Grass’ voluminous oeuvre and among the highly praised writers of today in this country, few are untouched by his influence.

grass gesammeltFor most of my reading life, Günter Grass had been one of my favorite writers. Yet even I had conflicting emotions when I heard the news. despite Grass’ presence in my reading and writing life. Not just Grass the novelist, but also Grass the playwright, and, most importantly, Grass the poet. It’s not as well known or remembered today, but Grass’ first publication in 1956 was a collection of poetry and art, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner. His status as an broadly talented artist came from the place he was in after the ravages of the war. Born in Gdansk, he voluntary enlisted in the army in WWII and later was a member of the Waffen-SS. Contrary to many former soldiers or SS members, Grass (admittedly late, in 2008), was clear about the fact that he was not seduced, that he was a willing, even fanatic participant, but it was an experience that, he also claimed, cured him of all authoritarian impulses for the rest of his life. After the war, he became a stone mason apprentice and more generally an artist. Throughout his life, he had never really stopped being a well rounded artist. He was a painter, sculptor, a poet, a novelist, an essayist and an editor. If you’ve ever seen one of his books on the shelf, whether in German or in translation, the cover picture is one drawn or painted by Grass himself. I keep repeating these things because with Grass, they are not minor details. Grass was an unbelievably talented artist. He was not a novelist who dabbled in other genres or areas. I can’t properly judge his art (not my field of expertise) but I can certainly vouch for his poetry. Throughout his career Grass wrote poems and while his later poetry was never quite as good as his early work (true for many poets), he had kept his gift until the mid-1990s, when it, with his other gifts, slowly left him. I would not be who I am as a poet and writer today without Grass’ early poetry, and its influence was fairly wide spread in German literature generally. His gifts were so lavish that he started to write almost occasional poetry, poetry with lewd or odd subjects, poetry that was incorporated into novels, most notably Der Butt (The Flounder, 1977), which contains poems extolling the practice of going to the toilet as a group activity, among other subjects. I insist on this because writers so profoundly gifted in so many areas are very rare and for many decades, there was good reason to count him among the world’s foremost purveyors of literature.

tin drumIt was Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959), his very first novel that indelibly established his importance and skill. It’s part of the misleadingly called Danzig trilogy as all three of the books are set in Danzig/Gdansk. The term is misleading because, with a few exceptions, most of Grass work is either set in or refers back to Danzig, which is Grass’ Yoknapatawpha County. In her essential study of Grass’ work, Irene Leonard pointed out that “Danzig was a German microcosm. In Danzig, events in the Reich were repeated in slow motion.” Additionally, Grass makes all his characters into members of the petit bourgeois class, Kleinbürger in German, this being the class with the highest density of Nazi supporters. This obsession makes him give background characters, when they reappear in his later works, more petit bourgeous professions than they were said to have when they first appeared. It’s important to know that this shifting of truths is not an exception, it’s the rule in Grass’ work, starting with his debut novel. Grass is almost obnoxious in his insistence that not only are his narrators unreliable, he himself is not a reliable source regarding his own books and he crafted a prose intended to have a life of its own. I can’t speak for translations, but in German, Grass writes exactly the kind of prose that you’d expect from a masterful poet – he is highly attentive to even the most minute elements of his writing. A Grass sentence is instantly recognizable: Grass has a specific way of using objects and adjectives in his sentences, by omitting pronouns, stacking and shifting adjectives. He paraphrases and dismembers official jargon, figures of speech, commonplaces and sources such as Heidegger or Weininger. His fiction was first written by hand, then typed into a typewriter, then typeset by the publisher. In all these stages, it was continuously edited and refined. In Grass’ work, especially in the latter two novels of the Danzig trilogy, we are made to witness a writing that is highly cerebral and attentive, and yet also compulsively readable. It’s a visceral joy to read Grass, and that’s not just connected to his obsession with physicality, whether that’s young Tulla Pokriefke’s thin body or the rich physical multitudes of cooking, eating and crapping in The Flounder.

nuveau roimanGrass’ influences are complex and varied. The most immediate influences are the nouveau roman for their use of surfaces and objects, the great poet Arno Holz (who almost won the 1929 Nobel prize) for his use of adjectives and Alfred Döblin for almost everything else. Döblin combined for Grass (and many other German writers) the influences of European avantgarde like dada or absurdist literature with the impact of Joyce and Dos Passos, all of which is wrapped in a strong dedication to narrative and readability. Other influences on Grass are Swiss classic Gottfried Keller (especially Der Grüne Heinrich), Goethe and a whole array of novelists ranging from Laurence Sterne to Grimmelshausen. From all these influences, Grass learned how to deal with narrators and reliability, how to use objects in order to fragment narratives of reality into episodes or scenes that are then co-determined by the presence of the objects arranged in the scene. Public language, molded into Grass’ syntax, becomes one more objects among many, all of which often ends up overwhelming the stories’ subjects. Grass as the author is intentionally elusive, pushing the text away even from himself. His is a writing heavy with symbols but on close reading, these symbols tend to shift, displace, elude. To an incredulous American interviewer he once said “Symbols are nonsense – when I write about potatoes, I mean potatoes.” At the same time, he was aware and adamant that as the author, he did not have final authority over the text, especially once the book was written and he got rid of his notes. The author as a dubious witness – it’s more than an application of Tristram Shandy to the shambles of post WWII Europe. In the light of his autobiography, it also reflects a profound mistrust of grand narratives. A writer with a social and humanist conscience who is aware that in his youth and young adulthood, he unquestioningly and voluntarily followed and fought for the Nazi regime in general and Hitler more specifically, this kind of writer can end up with a poetics as Grass’: distrustful of narratives and distrustful of himself. Even in Beim Häuten der Zwiebel, doubt creeps in. Characters from the novels are given a voice, sowing doubt in the memoirist’s mind.

grass krebsAll of these things are already present in his first books. Die Blechtrommel is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, a person of stunted growth, who writes down the book from within a sanatorium, a “Heil- und Pflegeanstalt”, the “cloisters of modernity” as Elias Canetti referred to them. According to its internal logic, Oskar wrote the book between 1952 and 1954, the book ending on the eve of his 30th birthday. There are two levels of story, one, Oskar’s life from conception uo to his 28th birthday, the other, the two years in the sanatorium during which Oskar writes down the book. There is no external authority verifying the truth of the events presented – in fact, it’s Grass’ own oeuvre that ends up factchecking his early books, confirming and denying various ostensible facts told us by Oskar. Oskar’s honesty is not the most importanr part. It’s his insistence, his obsession in marshaling the past to come back and give a record of the small and large crimes and sins that happened. The word “sin” is not randomly chosen here: Die Blechtrommel, is a book suffused with a sense of religion, reflecting Grass’s Catholic upbringing. Even more openly religiously influenced is the second book in the trilogy, the novella Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse, 1961). Numerous studies have shown that Grass carefully crafted the book to fit quite a few German theories of the form (ours is a nation obsessed with the genre of the novella, cf. Hartmut Lange for the probably best living practitioner of the form). For a writer enamored with excess and the fullness of story, this novella is remarkably strict and lean. It’s probably Grass’ most ‘perfect’ book, the one least flawed (we all remember Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel). It’s an exceptional achievement, and an unbelievable example of an already fantastically good writer rapidly developing and maturing. Katz und Maus tells a story of characters that we’ve already met. One has to imagine the Blechtrommel as opening a fount of stories that are all interconnected and that correct and discuss each other. The crowning achievement of this early work is Hundejahre (Dog Years, 1963), which examines and interrogates guilt and complicity by putting on a virtuoso display of how to employ and undercut various forms of narration. It’s separated into three parts, using multiple kinds of voices, genres and perspectives, hiding and revealing identities, zooming in and out of smaller stories in order to discuss and illuminate the greater stories at length.

grass tänzeI discussed the Danzig trilogy at length for two reasons. One is the importance of its ideas, characters and methods for Grass’s later work that would continue to go back to this well until Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk, 2002), which is almost indistinguishable from parody. The other reason is that these 3 books, as well as the unexpected but excellent Das Treffen in Telgte (The Meeting at Telgte, 1979) are the most likely to endure. They are least shackled to the political events of the day. I don’t mean to say that those four books are Grass’ best work, but they are Grass’ most accessible work for an audience living at least a decade after the books were published. His very next novel after the trilogy, örtlich betäubt (Local Anaesthetic, 1969), published at the height of student protests, questions ideas of revolution and change, using history as a way to make sense of the present, not as a way to look at and interrogate the past. It’s also the first book not to include the writing situation as part of the story, even though its narrative setup is not dissimilar to Katz und Maus. While that one was constructed as an Augustinian confession in a very narrow sense, örtlich betäubt is basically a confession/rant delivered by a patient to his dentist (one is reminded of Peter Brooks’ precise analysis of the culture of confession). The present in question that’s being examined was the tail end of the Kiesinger administration. Long before Merkel, Germany was once, for three years, governed by a coalition of its two largest parties. The chancellor of that coalition was Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi party member (who, like Grass, joined with enthusiasm). Other former members of the Nazi party included the foreign minister as well as the economics minister. This may explain the novel’s sense of gloom and doom, especially since Grass, a typical social democrat, did not believe in radical change either (Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten!). The next novel, similar in intent, if differently structured, picks up at this point and ends in the election of Willy Brandt, the great hope of Germans center-left intellectuals.

grass brandWith those two novels a new era of Grass novels begins that use not just the past, but also myth and fairy tales in order to examine a political issue of the day, whether that’s feminism (Der Butt / The Flounder), demographics (Kopfgeburten / Headbirths), environmental concerns (Die Rättin / The Rat) or the German reunification (Ein weites Feld / Too Far Afield). They all have their specific strengths and are often powerfully written and elaborately (and cleverly) constructed. They were not, however, as well received by critics, in part because their political content offered critics an easy way to dismiss the books without engaging with their extraordinary literary power. It’s not until 2002 that Grass scored another major success with both critics and audience. That book was Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk). Now, by 2002, Grass work did not have the same potency as it had even 1995. His collection of short prose, Mein Jahrhundert (My Century, 1999) was uncharacteristically flat, by then, he hadn’t published a new book of poetry since 1993. Im Krebsgang was short, hurried and flat – it turned out that Grass’ high octane style didn’t work when it wasn’t powered by a writer working at the top of his game. It seemed -as I mentioned- like a lazy parody. It’s success -somewhat analogous to the lack of success of the earlier books – was due to politics. In 2002 another important and popular, if deplorable, book was published: Der Brand by actor and historian Jörg Friedrich. In it, Friedrich goes on at length about the hardships of the German populace during the Allied bombing, producing a heated amalgam of facts, fiction and some terrible turns of phrases (like “the bomb holocaust”). Grass’ novel about a German civilian ship, sunk by a Soviet submarine in the last weeks of the war perfectly fit the sudden craving in Germany of narratives of German victims. Starting roughly in 1999, a subtle (though increasingly less so) historical revisionism had created this need for counter narratives that emphasized German victims. Apart from the very good first volume of his autobiography Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion, 2006), the rest of his work published in the oughts was similarly bad. His collection of poetry Letzte Tänze wasn’t even a parody any more. It’s just a mostly inconsequential book of newfound righteousness and old man horniness. The nadir, finally, of Grass’ literary production was his poem “Was Gesagt Werden Muss” (“What has to be said”), a poem about Israel that is full of modern antisemitic rhetoric.

grass grimmThe young Grass used to take these phrases and twist them into art and truth. Old Grass just regurgitates right wing rhetoric. In the years between Im Krebsgang and the new “poem”, he had given numerous ill informed interviews. Famously, he invented the fact that 6 millions of German soldiers had died in soviet camps, a number clearly intended to balance the 6 million Jews Germans had murdered. His use of German myth and tradition in connection with present day concerns in his last volume of autobiography Grimms Wörter (no translation yet, 2010) suddenly didn’t seem smart and literate any more as it was in the 70s and 80s and more reminiscent of right wing nationalist nostalgia. As his work and reputations slowly disintegrated Grass pressed on, gave interviews, published more individual poems. More, more. Despite his misguided politics in the last decade of his life and his waning literary skills, he was still animated by an urge to say something, to contribute something, to do something. For me, there’s nothing worse than a writer without obsessions and urges. Günter Grass had both in spades and the best of his work ranks with some of the best literature published in the last century. It’s tempting to judge him in the light of his poor last decade. As someone who has been reading Grass for 20 years, who has read all of his books, most of them multiple times, I don’t want to do that. Today we mourn the passing of a Great Writer. Mourn with me. They don’t come along very often.

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Patrick Modiano: La place de l’étoile

Modiano, Patrick (1968, édition revue et corrigée 1995), La place de l’étoile, Gallimard.
ISBN 978-2-07-036698-9

DSC_1552After Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, French friends of mine expressed their satisfaction on Facebook. Finally! A readable and popular writer winning a prize infamous for rewarding the difficult and thorny. In my opinion, they couldn’t have meant the recent history of the prize (cf. my rant here), but then, writers from other literatures are often regarded as difficult by that fact alone, regardless of how well their books read. And over the past 4 or 5 decades, few literary writers have been as consistently and convincingly French as Modiano, whose vast and somewhat repetitive oeuvre offers small treasures of memory, walking down French memory lane. Small episodes, misremembered, identities hidden and revealed, the past inescapable but sometimes difficult to retrieve. Drawing on such sources as Maurice Halbwachs and Henri Bergson and incessantly commenting upon French literature and culture, he has become more than a mainstay of French literature. There is practically no newspaper that has not run an interview with him, including such venerable literary magazines as Paris-Match. Documentaries follow him through small French streets as he rediscovers places of French memory. He is that rare creature: the literary writer who sells well, gets great reviews and all this without the sophomoric need to shock his audience like Amis fils or Philip Roth do. A comfortable, popular writer, comforting the French audience. Can you feel me slowly dying of boredom?

DSC_0242However, none of these descriptions, apart from those dealing with memory, apply to Modiano’s debut trilogy, and especially to his explosive debut La place de l’étoile, an unbelievable fever dream of history and literature, of memory and invention, of being Jewish and being French, “JUIF français,” as its narrator exclaims near the end of this novel. I have never read a novel like this one, a novel dealing with the aftermath of the Shoah, and with the resulting challenges to identities. The two books that come close in some small way are Modiano’s own follow-up efforts La Ronde de Nuit and Les Boulevards de Ceinture, both of which are less heated and angry, less over the top playful and insistent, but they can be seen as continuations on themes brought forth by La place de l’étoile. Modiano’s debut is not just a postmodern novel that combines parody and pastiche and piles reference on reference, it’s also clearly powered by the pain and the difficulties of Jewish identity after the second world war. Playful novels taking on the Shoah abound, but books both deeply steeped in a knowledge of literature and history, and fueled by a need to belong and to find an identity in a country that participated and supported the murder of Jews. I was not happy with an overall bland writer like Modiano being deemed nobélisable, but his debut novel is truly singular and masterful. It’s so harsh and poisonous that it was not translated into German until 2010. A great book. Read it.

DSC_0225The plot of Modiano’s novel is difficult to summarize, not just because so much action is crammed into ~200 pages, but because much of it is contradictory and strange. As Charles O’Keefe pointed out in his slightly odd study of Modiano, there are “problems of understanding at the mimetic level” – Modiano’s main concern is intellectual, not narratological. There are whole sections whose main purpose is to provide a pastiche of this or that writer, or to summarize this or that cultural phenomenon, sections that pretend to provide a part of the story. The narrator is Raphael Schlemilovich who may or may not have lived during the Occupation of France, who may or may not have worked with famous collaborators and antisemites, and who may or may not have been the lover of Eva Braun. The postwar history of Schlemilovich is more firm. In it, Modiano’s protagonist makes a big inheritance, travels France and Europe with his father, a Jewish-American businessman, opens at least one brothel and traffics white, pure-bred French women to become prostitutes in others. He becomes a student and a teacher, a writer and a collector of books. There’s a lot of life to be lived and in a dramatic turns of events, eventually, he ends up in Israel. Explaining any of the plot or telling you how one thing leads to the other would be to spoil your fun. Trust me, it’s a wild ride – and one not entirely interested in consistency. As Ora Avni has said, “literature, like dreams, is not subject to the same logical imperative to choose from among several contradictory alternatives.” Modiano offers us multiple realities at the same time. Places become mutable, servants to narrative and memory. This is not to say that Modiano’s novel gives us empty intellectual blather that is as unreadable as it is hard to summarize. I may be partial to that kind of book, but La place de l’étoile is not it. The story is gripping, the prose intentionally dips into melodrama and eroticism, as well as into slapstick and more elaborate humor. Reading Modiano’s later work is a sophisticated enjoyment, the dry fun of measured intellect. His debut is more riotous fun, but like the bar in From Dusk till Dawn, it’s fun constructed on an abyss of darkness.

chamissoThere are many literary and historical references, too many to recount. The three main intertexts, however, are Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (there’s a translation into English by Leopold von Loewenstein-Wertheim, published by Oneworld Classics, maybe you should seek it out?), Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s work, particularly the infamous Bagatelle and the more widely accepted and praised Voyage au bout de la nuit. Chamisso’s influence is underappreciated in commentary on the book. While it’s true that Modiano’s spelling puts his protagonist closer to the yiddish word “schlemil”, meaning idiot or fool, Chamisso’s book provides and interesting angle. Chamisso, while publishing his novella in German and exerting a certain influence on German literature (he was friends with E.T.A. Hoffmann, of “Sandman” fame; and the main German award for foreign-born writers is named after Chamisso), was French by birth and kept returning to France. A nobleman, he fled revolutionary France for the more accommodating arms of Prussia, where he worked in literature and botany. His only novella recounts the story of a man who sells his shadow to the devil, manages to keep his soul, however, in a mixed bag of bargains with Satan. It was written to provide a metaphor for Chamisso’s pain of losing his home and living in exile. His character, the eponymous Peter Schlemihl, roams the earth, infinitely rich (the bargain won him a bag of infinite gold), but rejected everywhere he went. For a book that trades as heavily in antisemitic stereotypes as La place de l’étoile, this wandering character offers an appealing mixture of pure-bred French nobility and a character who is close to the antisemitic stereotype of the rich wandering Jew. Not to mention the fact that for parts of his novel, Modiano’s Schlemi(h)lovich constructs himself as being in a sort of permanent exile from France, and being, quite literally, a rich, wandering Jew. Modiano’s novel appropriates and discusses the rich history of French antisemitism, from the middle ages to the French complicity in the Shoah. A character that both fits the stereotype and was conceived of, written and identified with by a French nobleman is such a great fit for this book as to appear an invention of Modiano. Except for the fact that, delirious narrative aside, there’s little that’s actually invented out of whole cloth by Modiano. His method is one that fuses reality and literary history, that uses literature in the same way a historian would employ his sources. And those sources don’t end with Chamisso.

DSC_0221Another source, perhaps the major source, is Proust. This one keeps turning up in the book, as a major Jewish intertext of whose influence the narrator has to be purged. Some parts of the influence are pastiche or parody. Proust’s novel begins with “Longtemps,…” and Modiano begins with “C’était le temps….”. He revises the George Sand scene from Combray by explaining that “Maman me délaisse pour des joureurs de polo. Elle vient m’embrasser le soir dans mon lit, mais quelquefois elle ne s’en donne pas la peine” and in one of the most erotically charged parts of the book, his admiration of a French nobelwoman is a whole glorious pastiche of Proust’s descriptions of the Guermantes in his book, until he breaks off the scene by having the heiress accost him with bare breasts and a hunger for a Jewish lover. This juxtaposition of elegance and description with racist, antisemitic or misogynist crudeness serves to keep the novel organized. Its chaos is anything but. Modiano doesn’t sneak pastiches into the book. He announces them by a change in style and mood, and announces similarly when they have passed. I’m sure there are parodies or pastiches that I’ve missed, but most are rather forward and open, like the parody of Celine’s style in the opening pages. These breaks additionally keep us on our toes. The use of Proust is more than decoration, it’s an active agent. The constant use of Proust is nagging us to read Modiano’s novel in terms of memory, of self creation and décreation, to borrow a term from Simone Weil. Modiano dissolves all involuntary memory in a present that basically co-exists with the past, an effect that transposes an interior mechanism of Proust’s into exterior action and narrative. With Bergson, Proust saw memory as fusing with the present in a creative, if involuntary act. Modiano goes ahead and just fuses everything in a more or less co-temporary plane. For the question of WHY Modiano would do such a thing we could offer different answers.

DSC_0220Some would touch on the basic concept of memory being important in literature after the Shoah. The Shoah, with its wholesale destruction of culture and living witnesses is a hazard to the production of memory as outlined by Halbwachs and others. This is why writers like Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub spoke of a “crisis of witnessing”. Personal, individual memory is not enough. It needs to be infused into culture, into cultural memory. In one of the more ‘outrageous’ moments of the book, a friend of Schlemilovich’s explains that, “[n]on content de débaucher les femmes de ce pays, j’ai voulu aussi prostitué toute la littérature française [et la] [t]ransformer.” This transformation, on the face of it, is an act of vandalism, of “vengeance”, as his friend says. But on a broader level, it also describes what needs to be done for the memory of the Shoah to survive and for the horrors of it to be contextualized. It didn’t come out of nowhere and tirelessly, Modiano drags out ancient and modern instances of French antisemitism. Another use of Proust could be suggested if we read Beckett’s famous and masterful study of Proust. In a summary of a particular episode, Beckett tells us

But this resumption of a past life is poisoned by a cruel anachronism: [Marcel’s] grandmother is dead. For the first time since her death […] he has recovered her living and complete, […]. For the first time since her death he knows that she is dead, he knows who is dead. […] This contradiction between presence and irremediable obliteration is intolerable.

Modiano’s book, with its turns and quirks, its changes and challenges, can be seen as a recovery of a presence, that of Jewish life in France, of French Jews, “un JUIF français,” as Schlemilovich throws out defiantly towards the end of the book. This reading is supported by the fact that the further we burrow into the book’s madness and the closer we get to its end, the more loudly Modiano speaks of the Shoah. In a scene towards the end, a drunkard on Vienna’s streets yells loudly “6 Millionen Juden! 6 Millionen Juden!”

DSC_1554There is also a movement towards a more precise sense of place. In its early goings, Modiano’s book mixes real and fictional places. A womanizer early on tells him stories of women he’s been with, and that list contains famous prostitutes, as well as “Odette de Crecy”, the courtesan from Proust’s novel. Modiano makes Bardamu, the WWI veteran and doctor of Celine’s novel Voyage au bout de la nuit, into a real person, who Schlemilovich interacts with, just as he interacts with Freud, Himmler, Eva Braun and a veritable who-is-who of the French collaborator scene, including complicated figures like the Jewish collaborator (and Catholic convert) Maurice Sachs. At the end of the book, however, we get a genuine sense of place, as the Gestapo sites in Paris are named one by one:

31 bis et 72 avenue Foch. 57 boulevard Lannes. 48 rue de Villejust. 101 avenue Henri-Martin. 3 et 5 rue Mallet-Stevens. 21 et 23 square de Bois-de-Boulogne. 25 rue d’Astorg. 6 rue Adolphe-Yvon. 64 boulevard Suchet. 49 rue de la Faisanderie. 180 rue de la Pompe.

This is a sudden return to reality, to what Pierre Nora called “Lieux de Mémoire”, places of memory. If you want to get a brief but succinct summary of Nora’s role in creating a postwar political and historical memory in France, I recommend Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s essay “Remembered Realms: Pierre Nora and French National Memory” – overall, suffice it to say that France has been particularly enganged in gauging the workings of cultural and public memory and that places, be they monuments or remembered, enshrined or described places, play a central role in this. But to get back to Chamisso and Proust: Modiano’s project is private as well as public (and I don’t mean odd ideas like O’Keefe’s theory of fratricide). It’s about the identity of being a French Jew. A Jew in a France that, as reactionary intellectuals like Maurras have said, can only be understood by those whose roots are deep in French history, excluding the “wandering Jews” – Jewishness can be an involuntary identity, as many German and French Jews learned during the Third Reich, when it was declared that everybody’s a Jew who has Jewish ancestry – not only those who openly identified as Jews. There’s a sense in which Jewishness is circumscribed by writers about Jewishness, that’s it’s defined by others – and Modiano’s Schlemilovich takes on the role of those who do the defining for parts of the novel. This leery attitude towards history writing is also one of the ways in which Modiano sets himself apart from later, lesser works. The bloody, overly sexualized reality of Jonathan Littell’s barnburner is anchored to an idea of reality that equals or exceeds historiography (see my review of HHhH). No such pretense makes it into Modiano’s pages.

DSC_0219The book’s furor and inventiveness – as well as the age of its 23 year old author – preclude it from tying up its issues in a neat knot. Echoing many readers, its last lines are a declaration by Schlemilovich: “Je suis bien fatigué”. The followup novel, published only one year later, La Ronde de Nuit, doesn’t neatly continue the book’s trajectory, but does elaborate on its themes in a language not far removed from the debut. It’s about a double agent in Vichy France, but it does not name and use places as heavily as the latter third of La place de l’étoile. Les Boulevards de Ceintures, the third novel, is more explicit in naming places and dealing with the occupation. Like the debut, it delves deeply into issues of Jewish identity, of guilt and collaboration. At its center is a father/son relationship, which doubles as an analogue to the French/Jewish identity conflict. How, as a writer in a France that persecuted its Jews, do you construct a Jewish identity that is also a French one? The conflict is overwhelming, and the dark and involved language of Modiano’s first three books, especially of his debut, is testament to those difficulties. Boulevards de Ceintures ends with the exhortation by a barman lecturing the young Jewish son, researching his past (and by implication, France’s Vichy past) that, in the protagonist’s words, “je ferais mieux de penser à l’avenir”. If we look at the rest of Modiano’s work, it’s as if Modiano’s passion and the pain powering those books burned itself out. There are book that work as reprises of smaller themes, such as the research at the heart of Dora Bruder that recalls the search in Boulevards de Ceintures, but the pervasive search for memory and identity is more anodyne in the later books, more personal, less political. Mind you, it still puts Modiano heads and shoulders above writers like Paul Auster, who was inspired by books like the 1978 novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures to create his New York Trilogy, but doesn’t invest it with any of the historical urgency that Modiano still drags through his books, even if it’s in a reduced, backgrounded way. It’s a disappointment if you come to later Modiano after being introduced to him through his amazing debut, but at the same time, knowing how Modiano framed and discussed the cultural and personal stakes of postwar identity helps read his books in a deeper context.

lacombe_lucienPart of my reading of Modiano’s work as one of diminishing returns includes the fact that all his best work happened within his first ten years as a writer, with La Place de l’Étoile and Rue des Boutiques obscures as standout milestones at each end of it. I have already explained that I consider his debut to be his best work, but there is another text that comes close, and it, too, was written in that early period. This work is the script for Lacombe Lucien (1974), which he co-wrote with Louis Malle. Now, while I am hesitant to proclaim the greatness of Modiano, I would suggest it’s fairly agreed upon that Louis Malle is among last century’s greatest directors. Lacombe Lucien is a transcendent movie, excellent from start to finish. From casting to script and cinematography, there are few faults to find with this movie. The story is centered around the eponymous Lucien, a strange boy living in a French village during WWII, who wants to join the Résistance to indulge his taste for violence, but is rebuffed. Instead, he ends up joining the “German police” or rather a French militia that resides in a villa and hunts down members of the Résistance. Immediately, he informs on his old school teacher, of whom he knows the role in the Résistance. Many of Modiano’s topics recur in the movie: the guilt during wartime France, the historical burden of French antisemitism, the lies and secrets. And as in much of his work, the focal character is a boy. And while in most of Modiano’s work after the debut, stories of wartime France are cushioned in a framework of memory and remembrance, sometimes aiming, but obviously missing, for the poise, elegance and urgency of Proust, Lacombe Lucien‘s effect is immediate and stark. Much of the movie’s tension comes from its viewers (and secondary characters) never really knowing where this story would take them. Lucien is an unpredictable character, cold, cruel, yet at the same time possessed of a queer innocence. The movie reclaims much of the strangeness and oddity of Modiano’s debut. The characters in the villa are not meant to be realistic – there’s a famous bicycle champion, an actress, a small, angry antisemite, a horny, mildly disloyal servant with a lazy eye, a smooth black gunman, dressed like a Chicago mobster and the head of the operation, who employs his mother as a secretary. They might look like a joke, but they proceed with violence and efficiency, terrorizing the whole countryside.

220px-LacombeLucienThe slightly surreal quality that much of the movie has, the sometimes dreamlike sense of unreality is something that Modiano already perfected in his debut, together with the sexual politics of wartime antisemitism. There’s a blonde Jewish woman, who Lucien falls for immediately; she tells Lucien, in an intoxicated moment that she’s tired of being jewish. There are German Nazis in the movie but the only actual German we hear, apart from one phone call, is from the dialogue of a Jewish tailor who hides in the area. I feel like I’m doing a terrible job explaining the excellence of how the scenes and characters are constructed. The movie has an odd way of dealing with realism. It’s not just the strangeness of scenes and characters, sometimes Malle will keep the camera on a scene for long enough, that a sense of alienation creeps into the scene despite nothing odd having been added. One great example of this is an early scene, where a horse dies, and the villagers drag it onto a cart. This, already, takes quite some time, but then, Lucien is left behind with the horse, and he looks at it quizzically, caressing its face. It’s a frightening scene, it’s an encounter with animal physicality and death that shows us a clearer and deeper look into the desolation of Lucien’s soul than any other scene. To be clear, the movie is strange, surreal, but also highly realistic. Like Modiano’s other work, it becomes part of a process of collective memory, a contribution to critical debates about history, about the French role in WWII and so on. Yet, much as I might like to talk about this movie in terms of Modiano’s work, I don’t actually know how involved Malle was in the script. After all, Modiano, who was born in 1945, never lived through this period that was so important for his work. Modiano’s commitment is to cultural memory and its workings, not personal memory. Louis Malle, in contrast, was born in 1932, and has memories of being a boy in wartime France. I’m obviously more focused on Modiano here, but as a whole, it feels as if it’s more of a piece with Modiano’s work than Malle’s and yet given his novels, Modiano was no longer able to produce this kind of work. Maybe he needed Malle to return to the heights of his debut. Lacombe Lucien is truly extraordinary.

DSC_0228I keep saying this about books I admire, but my reading has barely touched on the complexities of La place de l’étoile. It’s a truly great book, and it rewards reading, rereading and analysis. I might even be wrong about it, and I suspect had my reading of Deleuze’s Proust book and Halbwachs’ work on memory been more recent (or if I had more time to reread them, as well as Proust and Céline) I could have made a better case in my arguments on memory. There is a whole line in French collaboration history that’s connected to homosexuality that, in the novel, can be read to tie into its discussions of Jewish sexuality (Otto Weininger might be apropos), as well as Proust and Céline, but I don’t have the room here for that nor do I have time to go back into research on this. I encourage everyone who made it to this part of the review to not only read the novel but to also use it to research at least all the names and places of it, reread their Proust and Céline, maybe some famous antisemites like Weininger. I know that it made me personally want to reread Gilles by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which, given the appropriate amount of leisure, I will do. If you want to support me in buying/reading books, there are ways to do so, too 😉

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Nobel Prize 2014: my picks

Since I have never correctly picked (well, Tranströmer, kind of) the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, my picks should not be given much attention. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to offer my suggestions. So here are five of them. With a few exceptions, I am not trying to second guess the academy. They are not unlikely to offer it to another boring candidate. It is my belief that, starting with Vargas Llosa, they started giving the prize to candidates that won’t be likely to upset the white male dominant culture of criticism. Tranströmer was the one poet whose name was touted every year, as well as perennial nobel contender Mo Yan. The pattern of the new “sure that makes sense”-prize became most obvious last year when Alice Munro won. If they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than the already excellent Munro. Before 2010, I have no doubt this would have been given to Gallant. But maybe the double whammy of Le Clèzio and Müller intimidated the academy into its present, boring, if not objectionable course.  I sincerely don’t want to think what the “sure, why not” option for 2014 could be. Philip Roth? Murakami? My heart weeps. Let’s just go on to my picks. 🙂

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. But factually, it’s probably not (was Churchill the last nonfiction winner?). So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most excellent/deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. So my list of poets is headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Additionally, his work in translating French poetry and writing on art is both accomplished, but also draws him out of what the academy perceives as American insularity. His work is personal and generous, smart and emotional, international and profoundly American. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis, whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. The third poet is Yves Bonnefoy, the most significant and important living French poet. Since I have only read his poetry (with great pleasure) and not studied it or his broader work, here is someone else’s excellent discussion of Bonnefoy. Moreover, Bonnefoy, like Ashbery, has been writing about art and produced fantastic translations (from English). So as we see, my first pick is actually three and could be longer (Jaccottet, the Swiss French genius would come to mind, maybe Zagajewsky). But I feel like there’s only room for one poet on a shortlist, for reasons that don’t apply to writers of novels who are often only perceived as “writers”.

TWO The same applies to nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So I will mention more than one here, #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE The novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gikuyu and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions.

FOUR Now. I think Thomas Pynchon, together with William H. Gass and Joyce Carol Oates, is the best and most important and accomplished living American novelist. I think his work is unbelievably well written, brilliantly conceived and incredibly influential. His thinking is generous and humane, his work being engaged against epistemological and political violence. He has tackled and succeeded in writing a multitude of different kinds of books. There are very few significant contemporary writers whose work is not marked in one way or another by Pynchon. Now, at the same time, he said he wouldn’t accept the prize and I completely understand why this would keep the academy from giving him the prize. Nobody needs a Marlon Brando moment at the ceremony. That said, my pick for #4 is not Pynchon. I advocate a joint award for Pynchon and John Barth or even Pynchon, Barth and Robert Coover. It’s been a while since we had joint Nobel Prizes in Literature but it’s not unheard-of. John Barth, even more than Pynchon, is a profound and enduring influence not just on American literature post-1960, but on world literature. Young postmodern novelist, say, Austrian firebrand Clemens J. Setz, are unthinkable without Barth’s work that continued into the 1980s. While his work since then has been of much lesser impact, the academy has shown itself willing to award writers whose best work had been behind them for quite a while. The two mid-oughts awards for Lessing and Pinter are pretty clear evidence of that fact. Giving an award to Pynchon and Barth would be an overdue recognition of the excellence and importance of American early postmodernism. Well deserved.

FIVE So the fifth pick I am least sure. There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. A writer I did read, Pierre Guyotat, is a much older writer I would not mind being recognized for his excellence and significance. But the recent death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France. Maybe it’s time.

RIP Siegfried Lenz

Siegfried Lenz has just died. The best living German writer of short stories and one of the best novelists has never, regrettably, consistently received the attention abroad that his contemporaries have. Grass and Böll have not only won a Nobel Prize each, their translations are also in print in English and keep being reprinted, the same is not true for Lenz. Maybe the Nobel Prize is the main reason for this success in translation, maybe overt political engagement is more attractive to English readers. I wish I could offer a thorough discussion of Lenz here, but right now I can’t. I just felt the acute need to note this loss not just to German literature, but to world literature. I wish I could link to a wealth of reviews of his work by me, but while I can link to a dozen reviews of fantasy books, there is only one review of a Lenz novel. If you’re interested, here’s where you should click. In it I make some general comments on his work. As it is, all I can do is recommend you read his books, as far as they’ve been translated. One hopes that in the future, presses like NYRB Books will find a translator to take on Lenz’ challenging but readable work. He was a unique writer, and of the great triad of German post war literature, he was just as good as Grass and miles better than Böll.

Philip Roth: The Humbling

Roth, Philip (2009), The Humbling, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224087933

The Humbling is Philip Roth’s 30th novel, an impressive number of works for any writer, but for a writer like Roth, who has been putting out masterpieces at a surprising rate, it’s even more impressive. Philip Roth, who, currently, is probably the preeminent American novelist, has written so many books and won so many prizes that for many, he has been the forerunner for the Nobel Prize in Literature (which is awarded this Thursday) for the past ten years, and each winner during that period has been greeted with whines of regret of the literary critics who have been rooting for Roth, a reaction that tended to be especially vitriolic whenever women won it. Roth himself is said to be campaigning heavily for the Nobel, and I would argue that his recent publications are part of these campaigns. It’s not just that, after Sabbath’s Theater, he’s predominantly written ‘important’ novels or career-summarizing ones, like Everyman (which reads at times like a pastiche of Roth) or Exit Ghost. It’s also the fact that he, who’s published four novels during the 1980s and five during the 1990s, has published a whopping seven during the ‘noughts’, the last four of which have been appearing at an annual rate, with a fifth (Nemesis) scheduled for 2010. It’s hard not to read this almost frantic productivity as a transparent attempt to prod the Swedish Academy to recognize him.

This frenzy is also accompanied with a slight decline in quality. Whereas the 6 novels published from 1995 (Sabbath’s Theater) to 2004 (The Plot against America) are arguably among the strongest ever published by Roth and constitute an astonishing run of masterpieces, the same cannot be said of his output since then. I realize that not everyone will agree with me on my low assessment of Everyman but both Exit Ghost as well as Indignation have at best met with a lukewarm critical reception. They are also all rather short, which I assume is due to the schedule Roth has enforced upon himself. At 140 pages, The Humbling is even shorter than the last three novels, but as far as quality is concerned, I would rate it slightly higher than those although it’s still well below that which Roth has shown himself capable of. It is an interesting book and certainly worth reading. Whatever weaknesses his late books may possess, Roth never lost the magic of his writing. As a stylist, Roth is still a master. The Humbling is written with a deft pen; Roth dazzles his readers with the elegance and the consummate control he exhibits over his creations. There isn’t one misplaced word or phrase. It’s impossible to read this book and not be profoundly impressed by Roth’s writing, if not, sadly, moved.

The writing’s main job is to make The Humbling‘s protagonist, Simon Axler, a failed actor, plausible and this it does well, so well indeed that, personally, I was gripped with a fundamental dislike for Axler who is a grandiose egomaniac, with strong misogynistic tendencies and a strong elitist bent. As the novel sets in, Axler recalls the end of his acting career. Throughout his professional life, he was an talented actor, slipping into his roles instinctively; acting was never, if we are to believe him, work, it was never difficult. But suddenly he lost his instinct for acting, his “magic”, he immediately stopped being a brilliant thespian and became mediocre, that’s how dependent he was upon his gifts. For a while he tried to work at being a better actor, to try to achieve through toil what no longer came to him naturally, but nothing worked. This disaster seem especially catastrophic to him because “[h]e’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful”. He falls apart completely which is where we meet him. His wife then leaves him and, afraid to commit suicide, Axler commits himself to a psychiatric hospital where he stays for all of twenty-six days. He then retires to his home in the country, rejecting all offers at re-starting his career as an actor. It is in this state that Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of old friends of his comes visiting and ends up being his lover.

She is 40 years old, 25 years younger than Axler and has “lived as a lesbian since she was twenty-three.” She was named after Pegeen Mike Flaherty, the protagonist of John Synge’s 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World. Any thorough analysis of the book would need to dwell on the multiple connections Roth’s novel shares with that play. This isn’t just true for this play, it’s a characteristic of The Humbling: almost obsessively, Roth has his protagonist recall plays and roles, thus creating a rich cultural context for this slim novel. Interestingly, just as Axler is a grandiose egomaniac, who needs everything to be about him, the book, too, doesn’t use these explicit references as a means to broaden its perspective. Instead, it is almost gluttonous in the way that it appropriates these references, using them as hermeneutic tools to deepen the reader’s perception and understanding of Axler and his relationship with Pegeen and himself. In the end, it is these references, or rather the most central one of them, Chekhov’s The Seagull, that brings the book to a close, that serves as a catalyst for Axler’s final breakthrough, his final, almost, epiphany. Structurally, the book’s ending is a return to the beginning. The Humbling has three sections, two of which could be said to be Axler sections and one which one might call the Pegeen sections.

Generally speaking, Axler has a hard time relinquishing narrative control. The whole book is written in a third person personal narrative, telling us Axler’s story, through his own point of view, basically. Other people’s voices and stories are only allowed representation as quotes in his own unending monologue. At times, the only difference between the narrative voice and direct speech of Axler’s appears to consist of a change of pronouns, from ‘he’ to ‘I’. In what I called ‘Axler’s sections’, the protagonist, as so many of Roth’s creations, spends much of his time bouncing questions and propositions back and forth in his skull, getting lost both in self-pity and short-lived hopes. The visit of his agent in the first section, come to offer him a part in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, especially highlights the self-pity. In this part of the book we are made aware of the stasis that Axler has slipped into, the lack of options available to him due to his depression and the resulting self-deprecating act he puts on. This is important. Simon Axler isn’t truly self-deprecating, or humble, even. He is driven by self-pity and this means that he needs to act in a self-deprecating enough manner in order to convince himself. All of this is so transparent and pathetic that we have no problem believing him when he said that he lost his magic, his talent for acting.

Axler is one of the least perceptive characters in recent fiction. His constant self-absorption also means that other people only enter as a kind of censored and distorted side-show. These characters, as well as Axler himself, will remind the reader of other characters in Roth’s oeuvre, just less forcefully drawn, created in a considerably less inspired manner. If some of that material wasn’t so disappointingly thin, one could dismiss The Humbling as ‘more of the same’. Instead, it’s sort of ‘less of the same’, if you get my drift. Pegeen is an exception. A dominant, powerful character in her own right, she resists Axler’s greedy narrative grasp now and then, either insisting on telling a story as a third person personal narrator or even withdrawing the sought-after information from his narrative completely, leaving behind only the bare fact of having informed him. In Roth’s exceedingly well written novel, this is of course indicative of her character, of the role she is to play in their relationship and in the narrative and ideational structure of the book. In fact, the discourses on gender and sexuality that the book engages are almost all centered around Pegeen; she is the active force propelling the book forward, snapping it out of the meanderingly self-absorbed narrative of Axler’s, just as she snaps Axler out of his own depressions.

Although Pegeen and Axler do not really argue, there is, in fact, a struggle going on, behind the happy facade. Axler is used to being top dog, and I would argue that Pegeen’s homosexual history threatens him, even as her apparent relinquishment of the homosexual life style may tickle his self-image as a potent man. Axler’s and Pegeen’s relationship is almost exclusively sexual and it is in bed where Axler has to cede control first. An old man, with all the frailties that old age implies, he isn’t actually capable of being on top any more, which necessitates Pegeen’s taking over of that role. This may sound like an unimportant detail but as their relationship progresses, her climbing into the saddle, so to say, proves to be but the first step of many until, at the end, she completely controls the sexual part of the relationship. However, we might need to add a caveat here. Since all this is filtered through Axler, we should consider the whole story as being part of his incessant self-pity. With all his ailments, losing his sexual potency and dominance may be one of the most important fears preying on his mind, but there are actually no indicators of having an unreliable narrator on our hands, no contradictions, just his annoying and pompous voice leading the way through the story.

Axler is a misogynist, with a very low opinion of women and an even lower opinion of their capability of forming an opinion of their own. When Pegeen discusses her relationship with her father, Axler accuses her of being dependent upon his paternal opinion, of trying to get back in his good graces, an accusation that he will continue to level at her throughout their strange and dysfunctional relationship. He is also vaguely homophobic although I would suggest that the evidence for his homophobia may be an offshoot of his misogyny. There is a very revealing phrase in the book when a customer winkingly suggests that Axler, in the process of getting her an expensive haircut, is her ‘sugar daddy’. Axler, indignant, thinks

All he was doing was helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want. Together they were absorbed in making this happen.

The focus, correctly, is on what “he would want”, for instance losing that “mannish” haircut of hers. Everything that he has to say about her and her lesbian relationships is dismissive and, as I said, vaguely homophobic. Behind this, however, I’d argue, isn’t homophobia at all. Instead, Axler’s clearly confused by a woman who doesn’t need a man, who takes matters into her own hands; what more important to him is that, sexually, she is still more independent and even straps on a makeshift dick and gets to work. Arguably, this is what awakes a desire in him to sire children with her, as a means to tie her to the old roles he’s used to. As an actor he completely slipped into his character’s roles, living them, and so it is in real life as well, where he is, similarly, trapped in roles and subterfuges. He is so trapped in his roles that he need to will himself to enact a role from a play by Chekhov in order to have a certain freedom of actions. This conflict, between traditional and modern roles, as well as between the attractiveness of soft-spoken women and the danger that is posed by the possibility of them stepping out of the narrow lane that traditional roles accord them, this conflict is a topos that keeps resurfacing in the book, sometimes through the literary references, sometimes through minor characters that appear onstage and disappear again like Sybil van Buren, who is torn between killing herself and killing her husband.

It is interesting that a novel with such an arrogant protagonist would be called The Humbling. You’d expect him to get his comeuppance, wouldn’t you? But with an ego like that this can’t, of course, work. The book is not called ‘Humility’, it is not about someone being humbled and attaining humility. Rather, its title is focusing on the process of humbling. George Bosworth Burch, in his introduction to St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s The Steps of Humility, sums up the latter by focusing on three steps: “humility, love and contemplation. They lead respectively to knowledge of truth in yourself, knowledge of truth in your neighbor, and knowledge of Truth itself.” It’s not hard to see how St. Bernard’s scheme could well be the one Roth based his novel’s structure on, but with a twist. His protagonist is an actor, and he en-acts these steps, but the deeper level of recognition, of knowledge, is closed off to him, and the contrast between what is enacted and what lies below that informs much of the book’s tension.

In moments like these, we see why Roth is such a highly regarded writer, but his tricks and games and erudition don’t save the novel which never quite takes off. In many places it reads like a draft. Well written, but flaccid, out of shape. Roth doesn’t deliver the punch the way he used to. What’s worse, ever since Everyman he seems to draw mainly from his own work. Axler, the old actor, is less an original and vivid creation than an inside look at some of the old and cranky artists that have always populated his work. At times, he reads like the voice of Ghost Writer‘s E. I. Lonoff, but as an artist, Axler’s less exacting, less careful. Still, all said and done, The Humbling is certainly Philip Roth’s best and most readable novel since The Plot Against America. It’s certainly worth buying and reading if you enjoy Roth’s work in general. If you don’t like him, this book won’t sway you.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.