Werner Hamacher (1948 – 2017)


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.

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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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.

Jacob Arjouni died

I don’t know how much more to say at this point, but I might write something more comprehensive in February. The main point is, Jaconb Arjouni died a few days ago. I reviewed his debut novel here. I might say a few sentences about what an extraordinary writer he’s been, and how important his work has been in a largely xenophobic literary landscape, where narratives centered on non-Germans have to conform, adapt or go under, but this fine obituary in the Guardian touches on all the right points. Please read it. Sometimes, there are bright spots, and Arjouni’s unclassifiable work was definitely one of them. This is a heavy loss.

We all have to find our way.

My books are really books that are impressed and loved with the memory of comics, and how important they were to me as a child. You know, I did live across the street from the Baptistery; I didn’t live near any famous person; I didn’t see Michelangelo go to work in the morning I just lived in Brooklyn, where everything was ordinary, and yet enticing and exciting and bewildering. The magic of childhood is the strangeness of childhood; the uniqueness that makes us see things that other people don’t see.

We all have to find our way. If I can find a way through picture making, book illustration or whatever you want to call it, I’ll be OK.

from this short interview with the great, the amazing Maurice Sendak, who died today. I’m lost for words.

Its unique place

We get asked, ‘What do you think of the state of hip hop today?’ a lot. Maybe I’m being defensive, but it seems like people always look for us to come out and criticize hip hop. But hip hop is what we grew up on, and it continues to be one of the only forms of music left that strives on evolution and innovation. Yeah, we might be in a spell where we’re waiting for that next record to come out and change everything—but still, that’s what hip hop is and that’s what puts it in its unique place.

Mike D from the Beastie Boys on hip hop.

Below is a long (long!) video of the release party of Paul’s Boutique, one of the best records released in the past 30 years. Featured in it, as in the article I link above, is Adam Yauch, also known as MCA, who died this week of cancer. The world will be so much poorer without him. Enjoy the video below. Listen to their music.

Harry Crews died

According to the Georgia Review this morning, the amazing Harry Crews died yesterday. One of the first reviews I ever wrote was of Harry Crews’ extraordinary A Feast of Snakes, and I always meant to dive deeper into his work, but somehow never came round to it.

Below there’s a short trailer for an incredible film about Crews called Survival is Triumph Enough. I started posting videos exclusively on my tumblr, but this needs to be here:

Edit: here is the NY TImes obit

Still more work to do: RIP Adrienne Rich

Since I learned that the great poet Adrienne Rich died yesterday, I’ve been mulling over a response, but I don’t think I’m capable of putting my grief over this loss into words, nor am I likely qualified. A year ago I posted a poem that seems strangely fitting. But what I would do is point to her remarkable essay on Elizabeth Bishop, and especially to a passage near its end, because it always appeared to sum up the force driving Rich’s magnificent work through all these past decades, and it’s the first thing I thought of when the terrible news of her death reached me:

It is important to me to know that, through most of her life, Bishop was critically and consciously trying to explore marginality, power and powerlessness, often in poetry of great beauty and sensuous power. That not all these poems are fully realized or satisfying simply means that the living who care that art should embody these questions have still more work to do.

Read Rich. There are many editions of her work out there and you really can’t go wrong.

“It’s like you had two lives”. R.I.P. Arnošt Lustig

The great Czech writer Arnošt Lustig passed away, aged 84. I cherish what I read of his work, but I read too little. Below, a piece from an interview he gave to Central Europe Review (CER)

CER: It must be difficult to forget your experiences from Holocaust.

AL: No, not at all. I’m not thinking about it. I’m writing about it. It’s very different. It’s like you had two lives; one “literature…life as a writer” and one real, existential.

CER: So when you write about the Holocaust, it isn’t a process of coming to terms with your experiences?

AL: I’m not writing about it. I write about a lot of other things. It’s only set at that time. Look, every writer can write only about what he is familiar with, what’s under his skin. So I write about what I really know. I could write about anything. But why would I write about everything when I can write about something in-depth? Literature tries to discover something that is invisible in a man, something mysterious: his impulses, his incentives, the causes of his actions. Why he is acting the way he’s acting. Unexplained things. In that case it doesn’t matter if you write about a concentration camp.

A writer cannot cover the whole world; a writer is a small stone in a big mosaic that tries to reflect a panorama of life that is unusually broad. And so I have my small stone. For instance, Joseph Conrad writes only about a sea about people on the sea—you could also take it against him. There was a writer named Anderson and he wrote beautiful fairy tales and his friends told him stop writing fairy tales and write a novel. So he wrote six novels. Nobody knows about his novels but his fairy tales are still being read. So each writer needs to ask himself: “what is my best ‘track’ where do I run the fastest”…so this is my track.

Édouard Glissant R.I.P.

Édouard Glissant has died.

L’écrivain martiniquais Edouard Glissant s’est éteint ce matin jeudi 3 février, à Paris, à l’âge de 83 ans. Auteur d’une œuvre rhizome mêlant poétique et polémique, mythe et souvenir, roman et essai, il demeure célèbre pour avoir forgé le concept d’Antillanité, obtenu le prix Renaudot 1958 pour son premier roman La Lézarde, et, toute sa vie, défendu le métissage des cultures.

RIP Edwin Morgan

You may or may not have heard, but sadly, Edwin Morgan has died.

Edwin Morgan, who has died aged 90, was the last of a group of great Scottish poets, spanning two generations, sometimes referred to as “the seven poets”. Morgan was unrivalled in his formal invention, linguistic resourcefulness and – not the least of his qualities – his sense of fun.

I’ve posted a poem by Morgan elsewhere on this blog and will repeat my reverence for his work and my recommendation of the brick-sized Collected Poems as published by Carcanet. It is sad, but not unexpected news.


RIP Harvey Pekar!!

Oh no no no. Harvey Pekar died.

Harvey Pekar, 70, the graphic novelist whose autobiographical comic book “American Splendor” chronicled his life as a filing clerk, record collector, freelance jazz critic and one of life’s all around misfits, was found dead early today at his home in suburban Cleveland.

The AP reported that police were called to Mr. Pekar’s home by his wife about 1 a.m. and the artist was found between a bed and dresser. Mr. Pekar had been suffering from prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and depression, police said.

Below is a clip from one of several appearances on Letterman’s show in the 1980s.

RIP Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge died at 75. I’m in the process of discovering her work; so far I’ve only read and reviewed the excellent Harriet Said… . Given what I’ve read so far of hers, this is a deeply felt loss. This is from the BBC page:

Writing on micro-blogging site Twitter, author Margaret Atwood said: “Oldpal Dame Beryl Bainbridge dies – very sad. Wondrous original, great sport, loved her books. Hope she has champagne in heaven & a smoke…”

R.I.P. José Saramago

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

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

David Markson R.I.P

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

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

Here come the Painbirds. R.I.P. Mark Linkous

I’ll write more of this tomorrow or later, or something, but I can’t just now. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) killed himself. It’s not enough to say he will be missed. It’s impossible to say how much his art meant to me, and to others. Fuckin hell.

Chick Lit for Men

God. How’d I miss that? Earlier this month, Dick Francis died. He was 89 years old. In the Guardian, Alison Flood offers reminiscences of the great man’s work

I think I was about 12 when I started to get into them myself, and although I haven’t read one for years, Francis’s death yesterday reminded me just how much I used to love them. The thrill, the glamour, the sheer difference of the racing world to my own appealed immensely to me, as did the “lonely hero up against a host of more powerful enemies” theme which seemed to be part of them all. (…) I asked my father if he’d really enjoyed receiving a Francis every Christmas or if they were just grin-and-pretend-you-like-it presents, and he told me they were “always interesting, but a bit in one ear and out the other”. My mother, however, described them as “chick lit for men” and I think that’s a fair summing-up.

RIP J.D. Salinger

Oh. J.D. Salinger died.

J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose “The Catcher in the Rye” shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.

Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author’s son said in a statement from Salinger’s literary representative. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in the small, remote house in Cornish, N.H.

Here is a bit from Robert Giroux’ interview (interviewed by George Plimpton) in the Paris Review

A year later a messenger delivered the manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye to the office. It came from the Harold Ober Agency. I read it and, of course, I was absolutely riveted. I thought how lucky I was that this incredible book had come into my hands. I wrote a rave report and I turned it over to Eugene Reynal, my new boss. (…) So I left the Catcher in the Rye manuscript with Reynal. No reply for much too long, maybe two weeks. I finally went to see him. I said, “Gene, I’ve told you the story of Salinger visiting this office, and the fact that I shook hands with him. We have a gentleman’s contract at this point.”

He said, “Bob, I’m worried about that manuscript.” I said, “What are you worried about?” He said, “I think the guy’s crazy.”

Lord Jesus, please I’m ready.

Vic Chesnutt died today. He committed suicide. He was 45 years old when he died. Chesnutt makes you ashamed of even thinking of suicide. He crafted a dozen beautiful records, full of humor, sadness and gorgeousness. He’s what you’d call, I guess, a warrior, a beautiful, strong soul. On days like today it’s his music I turn to, so it was a shock to learn of his departure. Rest in Peace. We will miss you.

Brittany Murphy RIP

Brittany Murphy died yesterday.

Brittany Murphy, the perpetually perky and slightly quirky actress who worked her way up from supporting parts to romantic leads after her breakout role in the film “Clueless,” died Sunday in Los Angeles. She was 32. (…) The 1995 teen comedy “Clueless,” an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” set in southern California and starring Alicia Silverstone, was a surprise hit, and though Ms. Murphy was 15 when she played the supporting role of Tai, the airhead persona stuck with her. It was her 2003 stint as the romantic lead in the Eminem vehicle “8 Mile,” she told The A.P., that earned her more recognition. (…) A diverse set of credits accumulated in Ms. Murphy’s filmography, including the tough, abused waitress in the gritty “Sin City,” a concentration camp victim in the television film “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” and the voice of an animated penguin in “Happy Feet.” She also lent her voice to the character Luann on more the 200 episodes of Fox’s animated series “King of the Hill,” and collaborated on a song with the D.J. Paul Oakenfold. “I don’t really take myself very seriously,” Ms. Murphy told The San Jose Mercury News in 2003. “I’ve never formally trained in acting, so I’m very instinctual and visceral with decisions. It hasn’t really been a plot or scheme in any way, shape or form.”

Man what a shit year.

Milorad Pavic RIP

Oh no:

Serbian poet, novelist and historian Milorad Pavic died on Monday of heart failure at the age of 80.

Pavic, whose works have been translated into several languages, is known for his experiments with narrative form. Among his novels, one can be read back to front, and one has several alternative endings.

His most widely read work is The Dictionary of the Khazars, published in 1984.

Here’s what M. Werli of the Fric Frac Club and editor of the admirable Revue Cyclocosmia, had to say about his Dictionary of the Khazars in this post at the FFC:

Concernant le fond, le Dictionnaire Khazar est un roman historique, policier, d’aventures, fantastique et cabalistique. C’est l’histoire du peuple Khazar, de son déclin, de ses personnalités les plus éminentes. C’est une enquête policière et bibliophilique en quête de vérité. Ce sont des récits oniriques pleins d’inventions. C’est une très belle histoire, qui malgré l’étrangeté de sa mise en scène est absolument lisible et passionnante !


Unboring (JG Ballard died)

Sad day. JG Ballard has died on Sunday morning at the age of 78. He wrote once:

I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again… the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.

Luckily we have Ballard’s books as antidotes against this kind of future.

John Hope Franklin died

John Hope Franklin died today at 94. The dear live-in philosopher just looked over my shoulder and said: at his age, wasn’t it to be expected? Easy to say, but in my heart, the loss still feels gargantuan. This here is from the NYTimes obit (linked above):

As a scholar, his research helped Thurgood Marshall win Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that outlawed the doctrine of ”separate but equal” in the nation’s public schools.

”It was evident how much the lawyers appreciated what the historians could offer,” Franklin later wrote. ”For me, and I suspect the same was true for the others, it was exhilarating.”

Franklin broke numerous color barriers. He was the first black department chair at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College; the first black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke University; and the first black president of the American Historical Association.

Above all, he documented how blacks had lived and served alongside whites from the nation’s birth. Black patriots fought at Lexington and Concord, Franklin pointed out in ”From Slavery to Freedom,” published in 1947. They crossed the Delaware with Washington and explored with Lewis and Clark. The text sold million of copies and remains required reading in college classrooms.

Odetta died

The great, marvelous, amazing Odetta, whose songs I hear at least once a week, had died on December 2. Here is an obituary from the New York Times.

“What distinguished her from the start,” Time magazine wrote in 1960, “was the meticulous care with which she tried to recreate the feeling of her folk songs; to understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once tried breaking up rocks with a sledgehammer.”

"A Roger Federer Among Writers"

Still another DFW obit. I am still sad. Found this great paragraph in an obit at DeWitt’s capricious blog:

Well, this is the world we live in, brothers and sisters. It’s a rum old place. Oblivion doesn’t strike me as a difficult, never mind uncompromisingly difficult, book. Plato can be difficult; the speeches in Thucydides drive strong men to drink; Kant is difficult, Wittgenstein is difficult, David Lewis is not for the faint of heart. But Oblivion? DFW had a ravishingly lovely gift for voice; he took the sort of pleasure in variety that we see in (say) Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Preludes. Why would a reader labour grumpily through the stories in search of hidden meanings? Let alone blame the profligate author for lack of generosity? I’ve no idea, but one thing is certain: in this world, here, now, there is no place for a Roger Federer among writers.

David Foster Wallace went away.

David Foster Wallace is dead. The prodigiously talented writer, quite possibly the best American writer of his generation and one of the best American writers alive, hung himself on Friday. He has published two novels, of which the more famous is the massive Infinite Jest which I haven’t yet finished, but am enjoying every page of, he has also written numerous stories and essays. He is one of the writers whose new books you await impatiently, gobble them up avidly, a writer you reread many times. The mind one encounters in his writing is so wonderful, and the writing is so singularly brilliant, that this…
no, I won’t elaborate. I am full of grief, and getting drunk, and if I give in and write about it, that post will become even crappier than it already is and that would be infelicitous in an obit to the great Mr. Wallace. So, I will close with a quote from DFW’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon college.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

The speech, amazingly, ends with these words:

It is unimaginably hard to […] stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

edit: Here are some obits. Conversational Reading, Ron Silliman, Gawker, NYT, The Howling Fantoids, Suzannah, The LA Times blog.

Solzhenitsyn RIP

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, flawed and fabulous giant of Russian letters has died. Quoth the Associated Press:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose books chronicled the horrors of the Soviet gulag system, has died of heart failure, his son said Monday. He was 89.

Stepan Solzhenitsyn told The Associated Press his father died late Sunday, but declined further comment.

Solzhenitsyn’s unflinching accounts of torment and survival in the Soviet Union’s slave labor camps riveted his countrymen, whose secret history he exposed. They earned him 20 years of bitter exile, but international renown.

The following quote is from a ten-year-old review in the NYT book pages and I feel it can stand as an epitaph of sorts here

But for Vera Moseyeva, a retired clerk who remembers the first book by Mr. Solzhenitsyn that she ever laid her hands on (it was almost in rags by the time it had been carefully and secretly passed to her), it does not matter what he writes.

”Whatever he says is always interesting,” she said, after buying three copies of ”Russia in Collapse.” “[…] Does he scold too much? Given the way life is these days, how can one not be scolding?”

Scolding, inspiring, and, going by interviews, essays and the like, a writer eminently interested in his language and its riches. As a thinker he may be questionable, but he was a writer like few others, and looking at the desert that contemporary German literature is, I wish we had a writer as keen on language and as energetic and driven as Mr. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He will be sorely missed.

Thomas M. Disch RIP

From the last interview with one of the great masters of English-language SF

I mean, I never know what my divine powers are going to do often, until they’ve done it.

This comes via i09 and here’s a bit of what they wrote

I have been alternating between sadness and screaming FUCK! really loudly for the past 24 hours since hearing that brilliant, angry writer Thomas M. Disch killed himself on July 4. He was the author of some of the creepiest, most amazing SF-themed social satires I have ever read. […] It’s clear from his work that Disch had become mournful and fascinated with the afterlife (if still in a satirical way). Disch’s partner Charles had been very ill before he died, and that sickness wiped out his savings and Disch’s. Before he committed suicide, Disch had been struggling with his landlord to remain in his rent-controlled apartment, which the landlord claimed he couldn’t keep because it was in his dead partner’s name. Thomas M. Disch, you will be missed.

Ain’t that true. 😦

Albert Hofmann ist tot.

Die höchste Stufe des Sehens, der Beziehung ganz allgemein zu einem Objekt und zur Aussenwelt überhaupt, ist dann erreicht, wenn die Grenze zwischen Subjekt und Objekt, zwischen Betrachter und Betrachtetem, zwischen mir und der Aussenwelt bewusstseinsmäßig aufgehoben ist, wenn ich mit der Welt und ihrem geistigen Urgrund eins geworden bin. Das ist der Zustand der Liebe. Die höchste Stufe des Sehens ist Liebe. Umgekehrt kann Liebe definiert werden als die höchste Stufe des Sehens.

“Lob des Schauens”, Nachtschatten Verlag, 2002

Albert Hofmann ist gestern verstorben.

Aimé Césaire is dead

Obit in the NYT

Aimé Césaire, an anticolonialist poet and politician who was honored throughout the French-speaking world and who was an early proponent of black pride, died here on Thursday. He was 94.

A government spokeswoman, Marie Michèle Darsières, said he died at a hospital where he was being treated for heart problems and other ailments.

Mr. Césaire was one of the Caribbean’s most celebrated cultural figures. He was especially revered in his native Martinique, which sent him to the French parliament for nearly half a century and where he was repeatedly elected mayor of Fort-de-France, the capital city.

In Paris in the 1930s he helped found the journal Black Student, which gave birth to the idea of “negritude,” a call to blacks to cultivate pride in their heritage. His 1950 book “Discourse on Colonialism” was considered a classic of French political literature.

Mr. Césaire’s ideas were honored and his death mourned in Africa and France as well as the Caribbean. The office of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said Mr. Sarkozy would attend Mr. Césaire’s funeral, scheduled for Sunday in Fort-de-France. Students at Lycée Scoelcher, a Martinique high school where Mr. Césaire once taught, honored him in a spontaneous ceremony Thursday.

Mr. Césaire’s best-known works included the essay “Negro I Am, Negro I Will Remain” and the poem “Notes From a Return to the Native Land.”

Robert Jordan dies at age 58. Why do I care?

It’s truly astonishing the amount of sexism one is prepared to stomach sometimes when you want to be entertained. There’s Ally McBeal of course, which isn’t all that clear cut a case but I suspect she will come up again on this blog. And there’s the pain in the ass of High Fantasy. The lesser the writer the ranker his sexism. The Peakes, Miévilles, Delanys or LeGuins are few and far between. Most of the High Fantasy novelists write fiction like boys who don’t talk to girls or rarely. This includes (and why shouldn’t it) women writers. The best of this group of writers rise above the mediocre rest by mastering the art of crafting powerfully escapist novels. For example, in Robin Hobb’s oeuvre you won’t find complex structures, great ideas or multi-layered characters. But inevitably, by the second volume of her small cycles, you will be hooked. This Sunday, Robert Jordan died. Why do I care? Robert Jordan is the best bad writer of his genre. Stylistically, he’s clearly worse than many of his collegues, he only narrowly escapes being worse than Raymond Feist, stylistically. His storytelling has become increasingly tedious and increasingly sexist. However, the world he created was large, populated by an innumerable host of characters. It was, I’ll grant him that, addictive. Addictive enough for me to have read every single novel of the twelve (including that damn prequel) that he’s written. He was only one novel away from finishing. And then he died, that cheeky bastard. Looking at the long and colorful row of Jordan novels behind my shelves (no place for him ON them) I marvel at my boyish anger. And even more, I marvel at the fact that I have been reading his novels for over ten years now, and they have become more and more sexist at a steady rate and I have not destroyed them or given them away, I haven’t even stopped buying them, reading them, for Christ’s sake. Maybe this was an accomplishment of his, to make his novels -if not entertaining- addictive enough to keep me, hell, US, reading, for so many years, through so many bad books, up to the end, which -poof- suddenly disappeared. It feels as if he’d done it on purpose, inspired by the Sopranos maybe. Twelve books of teaser and then – blackout.
Maybe that’s genius.