Brecht on Horkheimer

I have one final post, even shorter, following up on my recent post of Brecht on Döblin. Brecht had quite a sharp tongue and the comments below regarding Horkheimer may not be nice, but they are interesting in terms of the social/financial pillars of the Frankfurt School. The source is a biography of Adorno that’s famously hostile and shallow and should not necessarily be read for substance (although I admit I am biased, as Adorno joins Wittgenstein, Bloch, Deleuze and Hume in my pantheon  of philosophical heroes). The quote, however, is a nice footnote, and it fits the Brecht who wrote such a damning poem about Döblin’s conversion. (h/t Georg Klauda)12933073_1135598086473062_7860959045320826236_n

Padgett Powell: The Interrogative Mood, a Novel?

Powell, Padgett (2009), The Interrogative Mood: a Novel?, Ecco
ISBN 978-0-06-185941-0

When I heard about this book in bookblogs, I was skeptical. See, American bookbloggers have a tendency to elevate stern genre distinctions to fetishes, creating such a strong image of what a genre is supposed to be like, that they happen to hail a surprising number of recent and not-so-recent publications as major breakthroughs in the genre in question. From an “Alternative History” of the novel to Lydia Davis’ work, the unexciting string of ‘shocking’ breaks with convention is long and dire. So when Padgett Powell’s most recent book, The Interrogative Mood, was received along similar lines, lines that the subtitle “a novel?”, with the pointed question mark, only served to deepen and emphasize, I almost regretted getting it. I wrote down a few remarks for this review concentrating on the ludicrous straw men of some reviewers, tying in this book, without having read it. Yeah, I do that sometimes. As I got into it, however, I became genuinely excited about the book and its writer. It’s quite astonishing that Powell really manages to pull this off: an experimental book that does play intelligently with genre notions and conventions, that’s an engaging read, quite moving, frankly, yet also challenging and consistently interesting. Pick up this book. You will not be disappointed. And while you’re at it, pick up also his debut novel, Edisto (review forthcoming). Padgett Powell is one of the most genuinely exciting writers I’ve discovered in a while.

The Interrogative Mood is an interesting kind of novel (and why not run with it and call it that). On the surface, there is no plot, there are no characters, there are just questions. 164 pages of unceasing, unflagging questions, one after another. When I heard that the book consisted solely of questions, a few ideas came into my head about how a plot might be constructed through questions, but I didn’t expect this. The endless stream of questions appears to be a barrage of non-sequitur inquiries, some humorous, some not, some political, some not, many very silly, many not. The second question of the book is “Are your nerves adjustable?”, third question “How do you stand in relation to the potatoe?”, fourth question “Should it still be Constantinople?”, sixth question “In your view, do children smell good?”. And so on. The wealth of questions is quite overwhelming, but in a good way. When Powell set out to write a book composed solely of questions, this is exactly what he did, unlike other writers, he didn’t cloak a cheaply traditional, sentimental book with experimental cloth. He really wrote an experimental book that is truly unlike any book I’ve read so far. What makes it so unique is the fact that these questions appear to form an incoherent stream of impromptu ideas, a rambling book with, at best, novelty factor, but that in Powell’s hands, they acquire a subtle coherence, a voice, direction and meaning. The book is both coherent and rambling at once, depending upon the degree of care which one applies to the text. It’s a text glittering with subtleties.

It’s also an addictively readable book. The flow of questions is exhilarating, challenging and fascinating. Some questions provoke you to raise objections, some ask you to dig into your memories, still others, and those are a large portion of the whole, are goofy and funny, some of those more like cheap comedy quips, and some as finely wrought as a Dr. Seuss book. There will be questions that surprise you, questions that will touch upon some memory that’ll move you, make you rev up your memory. It’s hard to imagine a reader not swayed by the titular ‘moods’ of Powell’s book (I’ll mention other meanings of the title in awhile), at least to some extent. These questions are well crafted and it’s admirable that Powell is able to use them as he does. But on the whole, as you turn the pages, the questions lose importance and you answer fewer and fewer of the, just coasting along on the wave of words, as the small units of questions coalesce into something larger. Something, yes, that I would call a novel.

Definitions of the novel abound, and since, to riff on a phrase of Jarrell, a definition is a short text that has something wrong with it, I won’t try to define the novel here, it’s been done, with varying levels of success. Try your local library. It’s difficult to come up with a list of “must” elements in such a comprehensive and fluid genre like the novel, which isn’t defined in a non-ambiguous way through any element. There are novels in verse, brief as well as long novels, expansive historical novels and dense, action-packed novels. Novels can feature any kind or amount of characters and are composed in all kinds of structures. While it’s easy to determine if a book is ‘clearly’ a novel, the borderline cases are far harder to pinpoint. One such case is Padgett Powell’s fine book, which explicitly asks the reader to consider whether it’s a novel, and indeed it shares enough properties with the mainstream novel to justify calling it one, or at least considering it as one as a valid mode of reading the book (among others). The first, most basic properties are these: The Interrogative Mood has two characters (a very basic requirement) and a narrative. One of the characters is the narrator, the interrogator, the one asking the questions. He definitely experiences a change of character as the book progresses, and as we hear to him ramble, we notice that some questions are more personal than others.

There is an urgency in some questions, and some explicit biographical background worked into others. The very nature of the questions used suggests a personal spin. The kind of questions, their sequence and recurrence, among other factors, help map out a kind of personality. It’s actually quite remarkable how precise a writer Powell proves to be in this regard. For example, there are quizzes, i.e. detailed questions that are about general knowledge. The vast majority of these have to do with nature, which suggests a preeminent importance of the topic for the asker of questions. This fact is firmly impressed upon the reader, as names and images of animals and plants are threaded through his head as he tries to follow the book, keep up with its dodges and feints. These quiz questions are fair and open, and only revealing in terms of sheer quantity and focus of topic. There are also other questions, less fair, but also still more revealing ones. In personal and political matters, Powell’s narrator has the tendency to ask leading questions. He confronts his counterpart with false dichotomies, or he asks what is at best a rhetorical question. It is with these questions that he’s really tipping his hand. These questions, whether it’s his use of false dichotomies or of rhetorical questions, they tell us what the narrator believes or at least what he wants to make his counterpart think he believes. There is, however, no indication of subterfuge in the book, despite the tricky surface. The unnamed narrator appears to be quite earnest and straightforward, within the limitations of the form he has chosen, of course.

So when he gives his opinions away they don’t develop into a new game, they lend resonance to the book, imbuing it with a voice that is singular and unmistakable. As you read on, engrossed by the entertaining surface, you enter into a kind of intimacy with the narrator, listening for his voice, for personal issues even in perfectly innocent questions. This is a work that the book expects you to do. It relies firmly upon our instincts to look for and draw connections even between seemingly unconnected events and statements. By looking closely at the text, listening to it, we find that, far from random, the book is composed, and structured. While one reading wasn’t enough for me to puzzle out that structure, it’s worth noting that the narrator has a few subjects he’s obsessing about, subjects that keep recurring, often in different contexts. It’s not, from a first reading, obvious how these subjects and themes work, in what way they are stacked and repeated, but the enormous amount of them assures that we are made aware of structure, and together with the changes in tone and direction that we see in the personal questions, we have an immediate sense of narrative. Make no mistake, there is not an overt plot, a story that we can follow and retell. To claim that would be absurd. Yet it would be equally absurd to deny the fact of structure, hidden though it is in the folds of this complex book, structure that, indeed, amounts to what can meaningfully be called a narrative.

As for the counterpart, the listener to questions, the answerer of them, little is known about him. The interrogator addresses him in the second person singular, an address that is purposefully fuzzy. The reader naturally assumes that he or she is meant by the questions, and immediately starts formulating answers, thinking about the questions. Not until quite a few questions in, the interrogator refers to answers that he has received. Not from the reader obviously. How we read these references and asides hinges mostly upon the question of whether we are prepared at all to read this as a novel. If we’re not, the putative answers will only be seen as a rhetorical device to further engage “you”, i.e. the reader (who would be the prime suspect for the role of the “you”), in the book’s discussion. If on the other hand, we are open to seeing The Interrogative Mood as fiction, a listener, a counterpart emerges that could (or not) motivate the speaker to ask more and more personal questions. Reading the book with a hypothetical listener/answerer in mind, questions that are pointed and focused, questions that we thought referred to the interrogator and his situatedness, could be his way of riffing upon his counterpart. All these, while they may seem like idle speculations, are legitimate questions, and I think that from the subtitle to some of the details, Powell fuels this kind of debate.

It’s hard not to think that Powell is very aware of how our thinking about genre conventions in the arts has changed, from Wayne Booth’s groundbreaking work on the novel (there is a point to make about Booth’s treatment of James’ narrators and the way Powell’s narrator is set up) to Nelson Goodman’s astonishing distillations in the 1970s and 1980s. This isn’t, by the way, the only theoretical consideration that underlies the book. The title refers us to another one which I can but briefly sketch. “Interrogative Mood” is a grammatical term, referring to a way to express interrogativity in some language, though not in English. That is remarkable for a book written in English and suggests that the book is concerned with the wider modes of interrogativity. In semantics, interrogativity holds a special place. It’s a repository for doubt, a marker of ambiguity (ambiguity of reference, for example. Interrogatives are often highly dependent upon context to be clarified, yet it is this context that Powell, slyly, denies us), of epistemological uncertainty. It is a mode that doesn’t just raise questions, it also puts things into question. But in the case of The Interrogative Mood, this isn’t a coldly calculating questioning, not an intellectually bracing search. Powell’s narrator is clearly calling not just aspects of his knowledge of the world, and his interlocutor’s, into question, he puts himself up for discussion. The very form and shape of the book is designed to be elusive, to allow the narrator to hide in a mirror cabinet of questions. Questions seem to be propelled outward, demanding answers of people elsewhere, but we can, as I said earlier, follow these questions back to their source, Powell’s narrator.

When you come down to it, The Interrogative Mood is a very small and personal book, yet through its engagement with the reader (the ambiguity of reference is a big part of that), it’s also a very open book, open to the world without. Many definitions of the novel, especially German ones, have stressed that the novel is the one genre that contains the fullness of life, the smörgåsbord of the everyday, containing often disparate elements, from human psychology, to public events and the richness of bodily experience, in short, “life in its allness”, to quote from Lucács’ classic Theory of the Novel. And in the stupendous amount of kinds of questions and sectors of knowledge that Powell’s book draws on and uses, it does just that. It’s a slim book, a simply written book that is teeming with life. Yes, the two characters’ lives, but also ours. Powell introduces the book with a quote from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Does the Daylight astonish?” Whitman asks. And the very first question that the book has for its reader is “Are your emotions pure?”. That wonderment, that tender sensitivity, the careful voice of the narrator expecting, no, hoping, for something beyond the fog that crawls all over us. Yes, the questions are a kind of fog themselves, but if we let them, they can clear some of the other fog away. Padgett Powell has written a wondrous book, a light, musical read, that is formally brave and beautiful in terms of its emotions. It’s not a generous book, but the heart of it is hardened by distress. Read The Interrogative Mood. You won’t be sorry.

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On Herman Melville’s “Omoo”

Melville, Herman (1982), Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Library of America
ISBN 0-940450-00-3

Herman Melville is among my very favorite writers. Everything about his work is subtle, fresh and interesting, whether we talk about the Great American Novel, Moby Dick, or the very early works: Typee or Omoo. I have spend quite some time thinking about Typee early in February, but as this blog shows, it didn’t amount to anything. After having had a few thoughts rumbling through my skull again after finishing my reread of Omoo today, and since I have nothing better to do, I’ll just bother you with them. As I said, Omoo was the second book Melville published. It was printed in 1947, a year after Typee. Within ten years he would go on to publish all of his other novels, among them marvels such as the aforementioned Moby Dick, The Confidence Man or the scintillating Pierre. One masterpiece per year. Since most of them are concerned with life at sea and since Moby Dick is the most famous novel about the sea and especially whaling, the preceding novels are seen as studies for the grand masterpiece.

It is, as many people have pointed out, a great injustice to read Typee and Omoo only as imperfect tryouts. They are both completely and utterly astonishing, and bear almost no direct resemblance to each other, since they treat different modes of travel. Omoo is the direct sequel to Typee, picking up the plot where Typee leaves off: the protagonist who has finally escaped Nukuhavi, which is one of the Marquesas Islands, has entered service on the ship that saved him, not that he had much of a choice there. That ship, the lovely Julia, is a breeding ground for unrest, which is a good indicator of many of the concerns in Omoo. Guy, the captain, is not a sailor, he is

in no wise competent. He was essentially a landsman, and though a man of education, no more meant for the sea than a hair-dresser.

He shows, time and again, that he does not understand the necessities of a sailor’s life. The captain is little more than a meek and weak figurehead, since he isn’t able to handle even the smallest technical decisions and the one he does handle leads to mutiny and him losing a large part of his crew.

The actual work of a captain is done by the chief mate, John Jermin. Jermin is a strong, smart and pugnacious man, able to make the crew obey his commands. As a member of the ruling caste, especially since he is the one who has to make tough decisions and has to ensure that the captain’s unpopular commands are carried out, he is constantly at odds with the crew. He looks and acts like one of the crew yet the mere fact of his being in power sets him apart. We encounter quite a different situation with the resident doctor, who only goes by the name of Doctor Long Ghost. He, who could be the third member of the ruling caste, is actually a jester of sorts. Although he is educated and could possibly wield power, he is too unruly, too much of a “wag”, for the captain to put up with him. In due course he has to set up camp amongst the sailors. As we all know, rulers and workers are clearly separated on a ship, so forcing Doctor Long John to literally change sides is highly significant. The physician, however, quickly accommodates himself to the new situation, becoming, in effect, one of the crew. As we see, the main difference here is not education: it’s both power and the line of work you’re in. This may seem uninteresting at this point, yet the novel dwells extensively upon the dynamics on board and rightly so, as we will see.

Upon coming to Tahiti, the captain gets off the ship, being friends with Consul Wilson, who is the British representative on the island. In the meantime, he expects the crew of the ship to stay on board. This, apparently, is viewed almost as an offense by the sailors, who subsequently contrive to get ashore despite the captain’s strict orders. The captain’s behavior is shown to be due to his not being a sailor, to his being a land man. A different captain, later on, is described as “a sailor, not a tyrant.” The contrast between sailors and people who live and work on land, is marked, and it’s not a simple difference either. The sailors show clear contempt for so-called “landlubbers”, as the character called “Rope Yarn” shows, who is not nearly as unlikeable as the captain, who is part of the crew, yet who is not suited to work on a ship; the crew is constantly making fun of him and harassing him at every turn. Among the crew, on the working-class end of the ship, there is a hierarchy as well, equally strict as the one I previously mentioned. The main difference, however, is that it is solely based upon merit.

In a way, although I referred to the sailors as “workers”, this word, with its modern connotations, is not quite fitting. The sailors are more like nomads, with a division of work as in a nomadic hunter-gatherer (and are whalers not, to an extent, hunter-gatherers?) society, which is usually based on merit and not entitlement or race or even gender. This strong focus upon the society aboard ship is a stark difference to Typee, which was largely concerned with a reflection upon a single village in a vale on Nukuhavi. I would argue that one of Omoo‘s main concerns is work, and, at that, work in different environments, and by people of different cultures. Our protagonist is going off board with the others, and due to a mishap, finds himself apprehended by the consul as one of the ring leaders.

This appellation is thoroughly undeserved, if we can trust the protagonist’s assurances, but he and we quickly see that it is due to his being an intellectual of sorts, who can write and reads books, that he is thought and assumed to be a ring leader. The captain expresses a deep dislike ans suspicion towards the readers/writers among the crew. Since the captain’s logic is not ship- but land logic, he thinks in terms of class. In his understanding of the world, a worker doesn’t read, he works. The dangers of being able to read and write are all too obvious: they lead to, or at least aid, mutiny, revolt, and similar distasteful incidents. In a way, it is hard to argue this point with the captain, since, after all, a mutiny has taken place and the two readers are involved. As readers we must never make the mistake of believing the protagonist’s testimony. He is the one whose voice has carried far enough for us to hear it, but must we not think of the sailors, too, as a silenced class, and of the protagonist’s narration as a colonization of sorts?

The concepts of speaking for someone else, of displacing a former way of reading and understanding the world with a new, alien form, is also a central concern of the novel, which dwells quite extensively upon the work of the missionaries. In Typee, which is a novelization of an ethnographer’s wet dreams, we found an almost untouched society, which dealt with the British and French intruders only at its borders. Tahiti and its surrounding islands, has been subjugated by the French and British and is accordingly much changed. Although the events take place at roughly the same time, a few weeks after Typee, the reader is under the impression of seeing the aftermath of aggression and proselytizing upon the society he came to know in Typee. And it has been a disaster which has led to a destruction of a culture and to the death of numerous individuals. Officially, the Tahitians are Christians now, although the narrator never tires of explaining why the Christian creed is ill fitted to the Polynesians:

An air of softness in their manners, great apparent ingenuousness and docility, at first misled; but these were the mere accompaniments of an indolence, bodily and mental; a constitutional voluptuousness; and an aversion to the least restraint; which, however fitted for the luxurious state of nature, in the tropics, are the greatest possible hindrances to the strict moralities of Christianity.

I will not go into details on the proselytizing of Tahiti, it’s an interesting topic in itself, but not the focus of these remarks.

However, the quote on the hindrances is interesting in other ways as well. Omoo expounds on the links between Christian religion and the Western economic system as evidenced by their interaction with the Tahitians. Both of these elements are not suited to the native culture in Tahiti, they are both built on an idea of discipline and sensual renunciation, whereas the Tahitians have parameters such as need, interest and passion. The re-invention of leisure time in the course of industrialization may be the Western countries’ valve to let off some of the steam generated by the need created by being so strict on the passions, but this has come from a state of oppression. The Tahitians are expected to give up their freedoms all at once and that they’re not prepared to do. They do not, however, resort to classical western ways of expressing their reluctance: when their interest abates, they just stop working, creating, to the uncomprehending Colonialists an impression of “sluggishness” or even plain laziness.

Several years ago, the cultivation of cotton was introduced; and, with their usual love of novelty, they went to work with great alacrity; but the interest excited quickly subsided, and now, not a pound of the article is raised.

I found this attitude to work and duty reminiscent of Melville’s slightly later short piece of greatness, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, and that story’s protagonist’s mantra “I’d prefer not to”. As Bartleby dies at the end, so the Tahitian civilization suffers from the fact that those who subjugated them failed to understand the culture of those they meant to rule. It is the old confusion of the man-made, culturally conditioned with the natural, that obfuscates issues to this day. This makes the progression from Typee to Omoo particularly salient: Typee focuses on seeing and reading a culture that is so very different from one’s own, while Omoo shows what happens when we actively rule a country without investing into our understanding what makes it what it is. We just assume, so often, that the basic reading of things is alright for everyone. The conditio humana is so often invoked in so idiotic contexts that it makes you, at times, despair. That’s just how we are? Please.

And Omoo, as most of Melville’s stupendous work, concentrates upon these issues. We find variations of people who live their lives according not to their individual creed (and isn’t, for example, the hypocritical celebration of the individual in American popular culture/criticism among the most depressingly inane ideologies?), but according as to how their culture understands life and work (take care: again, no false identifications: cultures do not equal nations, so don’t come complaining). The strongest characterization besides the British and the Tahitians are Zeke and his associate, the Yankees who believe in working hard and partying hard. After having been imprisoned and let free again, the protagonist and Doctor Long Ghost roam the island. The further they progress inland, the healthier and happier the natives become, at the same time, paradoxically, they are working more:

The next day we rambled about, and found a happy little community, comparatively free from many deplorable evils to which the rest of their countrymen are subject. Their time, too, was more occupied. To my surprise, the manufacture of tappa was going on in several buildings. European calicoes were seldom seen, and not many articles of foreign origin of any description.

Melville is all but shouting at his countrymen to stop calling the Tahitians lazy or deficient.

The most fascinating passage in Omoo, however, can be found in the last fifth, where he tells us about white travelers (“roving whites”) to the islands who are “generally domesticated in the family of the head chief or king” and become personal attendants, violinists, cupbearers or what Melville winking refers to as “commissioner of the arts and sciences”. These people are travelers, or rovers in more ways than one, the cultural contexts, the power relationships are shifting slightly, for these few individuals. I hope that the previous paragraphs have made it clear how magnificently Omoo shifts to and fro in terms of cultural preconceptions as related to work etc. and now we see how well Melville chose to pick the sailors as a ‘control group’. The sailors’ friction with the landlubber captain demonstrates their difference to the dominant culture on the islands; there are other, more obvious reasons why they don’t mesh with some of the other, the Polynesian cultures. On land, they have turned even more into hunterer-gatherers, hunting with Zeke and gathering food, shelter and goodwill from the Polynesians.

In the end, the protagonist returns to his own culture, signing on on a whaler once again. It is a completely different whaler from the two he’s been on before. In a way, experiencing that travel has changed something in both of the rovers. As I indicated earlier,these insipid remarks touch but upon one aspect, which is hard to separate from others, possibly more important ones, such as religion or race. Omoo, as any novel by Melville, is stacked with subtle and not so subtle ideas and criticism. Melville is always in need of being read. A grand, grand writer.

The Lizard of Oz: Rachel Ingalls’ “Mrs. Caliban”

Ingalls, Rachel (1983), Mrs. Caliban, Harvard Common
ISBN 0-87645-112-1

There is a risk to this: burdening a book or poem with the weight of a classic work of literature, especially if the work is as iconic as Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The shorter the book, the more frivolous, usually, the reference, in my experience. None of this is applicable to this novel, which wears the reference lightly and plays with it, with ease and joy. Rachel Ingalls is a writer unjustly neglected by the reading public, her work is largely out of print, including this novel, probably her most famous book. Mrs. Caliban was published in 1983, but not a single phrase or scene in it feels dated. Having just finished it, I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm, to put my pure and utter delight at reading this novel into words. Everything about this book fits, every word, every image seems perfectly calibrated. It’s intellectually rich, it’s use of intertextuality is fascinating and challenging, but above all else, it is a great read that races through a fantastic spiral of events, dragging the engrossed reader along. The book is frequently very funny, often rather sensual, but, au fond, as when we hear the protagonist say to her 6-foot lover, “Larry, you’re all I have”, it is a profoundly sad novel, a sadness that, lucky for us, never turns to bitterness.

As is to be expected, no one in the novel is actually called Mrs. Caliban. The protagonist is called Dorothy, which naturally recalls the Wizard of Oz. She is a housewife, whose life feels empty to her. Her husband, Fred, is frequently claiming to be working late, but Dorothy suspects him of actually having an affair; Fred has had affairs before and currently he is distancing himself again from his wife, not touching her more than necessary, moving the beds apart. This last distancing happened after, after an accident and a miscarriage, the pair suddenly found themselves childless. The accident had brought them together for a short period, but the miscarriage had driven them apart. As in so many cases, the husband, irrationally blamed the wife for what happened. Marriage is portrayed as an imbalanced relationship, where the wife is more of a servant than a sensual human being. It’s not just Fred. Estelle, Dorothy’s best friend, finds out that two men are proposing to her in order to acquire a housemaid, already seeking sexual satisfaction on the side with other, younger women. This strange piece of dialog illustrates Dorothy’s need well:

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Dot. You would go get some useless toy dog like that. Fat lot of good that would be if you turn the corner and bump into a gang of roughs who’d beat you up and rape you.”
“With my luck,” she had screamed, “they’d tie me to the railings and rape the dog instead.”

Up to now, Mrs. Caliban has intermittently shown signs of curiousness: the radio seems, for instance, at times to interact with Dorothy, when the radio program is interrupted by a speaker who imparts, sotto voce, soothing messages for her. One day, however, a strange (even stranger?) message, in a loud voice announces breaking news. A giant green sea monster, called “Aquarius the Monsterman”, has escaped from the “Jefferson Institute for Oceanographic Research”. Since her special messages so far had all been delivered in the same tone of voice, Dorothy decides that this has really happened. This broadcast starts off a novel which is preoccupied with a constant flickering of fantasy and reality, and Ingalls displays no interest in telling us what’s real and what isn’t. The fantastic events become more pronounced when “Aquarius the Monsterman” suddenly arrives on her doorstep, turns out to be called Larry and to speak English. Both name and language have been forced on him by the researchers at the Institute, who performed gruesome experiments on him, torturing the poor guy and even abusing him sexually. For the rest of the novel, however, we’ll only know him as Larry.

Larry is something of an antithesis to the world around Dorothy. In contrast to our pop-cultural expectations he does not have an unpronounceable foreign name, which the savvy researchers have shortened to Larry. He was given his name because in his home culture:

“We don’t give names… Everyone knows. We recognize each other.”

The whole culture seems far more intuitive, people do “the same things” and look the same., it seems less like a humanoid society and more like a tender, well-oiled machine, such as nature may appear to be at times. Larry is very tender, careful. Apart from webbed toes and frog eyes he appears to look like any (good looking) man. The fact that he is stark naked quickly awakens Dorothy’s desires, which lay dormant for a long time:

He sat down beside her. He said, looking at her, “I’ve never seen. Men, but not someone like you.”
“A woman,” she whispered, her throat beginning to close up.
He asked, “Are you frightened?”
“Of course.”
“I’m not. I feel good. But it’s very strange.”
A lot more than strange, she thought. And then: no, it’s just the same. They rolled backwards together on the bed.
“Wait. Not like that,” she said.
“Show me.”
“I’m a bit embarrassed.”
“What does that mean?”

She proceeds to have sex with him quite often, everywhere in the house. The novel never describes the sexual act, but shows its reflection in the changes in Dorothy, who becomes happy, relaxed, who suddenly starts to take an interest in life again. She learns what Larry is prepared to eat and what not, she learns about the way he was treated in the Institute. Automatically she assumes multiple roles. She is protective, as of a child, she caters to him as she caters to her husband and, most importantly, of course, she has taken him as her lover. At night he hides in the guest room or drives around town (she teaches him), and whenever her husband is gone, Larry comes out. Events spiral out of control when he kills five louts in self-defense, who attacked him with knives and broken bottles. The media immediately points to the dreaded monster; clearly, he’s no longer safe in her house, people will notice and tell on her. She must get him back to sea, which attempt leads to the cataclysmic finale.

Many of the references to “The Tempest” are obvious, I’d think, but there is a twist to it all. Larry is both Prospero, the man who comes over the sea and leaves again at the end, and Caliban, the native ‘alien’, who is taught the ‘civilized’ culture, who is perceived to be in need of teaching (incidentally, he does not only learn language. He watches a lot of TV and starts, suddenly, to imitate a dancer in a commercial. After learning the performance he asks Dorothy what it means. She replies that it’s just a dance performance and considers telling him about the cultural moorings of dance, but thinks better of it. After a while, twoscore pages later, Larry proclaims to have understood what it means. We are never told what Larry’s groundbreaking insight is, but clearly, using his limbs in the semiotically fraught way of dance is a language, as well, and Larry recognizes this immediately, and learns). Since Larry is, as I mentioned, a representative of the forces of nature (He seems, at times, as naïve and helpless as Prince Myshkin, but their naivety is rooted in completely different circumstances; indeed, it’s rather Dorothy who is a weathered, numbed descendant to the Prince, I think), one may see the world where humans built their cities as the island where Prospero’s rule has wrought many changes. Dorothy, the best candidate for ‘Mrs. Caliban’, supports such a reading. The very name “Mrs. Caliban” is ambiguous. Fred, her husband, is clearly in no shape to be the noble savage, but at the end, Larry and Fred, somehow, have merged in her racked mind: asked about her husband’s name, she produces the name “Larry”. This suggests that it is only at the end of the novel that she has become Mrs. Caliban.

This issue of naming and reference is fickle. Ingalls interrogates two large constructs, both concerned with power and disenfranchisement. There is gender and its intricacies, the relationships between men and women, the roles both automatically assume and the difficulties of breaking out of such a role. Both Dorothy and her best friend Estelle try, and both, in a way, fail at it and both are tragic failures, because we can see it coming. The depressing, claustrophobic domestic situation of Dorothy is emblematic for the world and society she lives in and it takes Larry for us to see that. I say: “for us”, because all the characters are restricted to their world, they are never afforded the opportunity to actually reflect upon their roles and relations. The second large construct is only hinted at, and it concerns the idea of enlightenment and progress. Larry and the Institute are two factors in this discourse, but the criticism does not only strike at blind belief in scientific progress: when a news report about the five dead teenagers moves Fred to rant about the ugly, giant monster, we get more than a whiff of the amount of prejudice and racism that is part of this society’s structure. The fact that the community appears to be completely ‘white’ only adds to the claustrophobia. In order to to this in the brevity she has chosen, however, Ingalls is forced to project very conventional, strangely unproblematic sense of corporeality. It questions many conventions, but bodies just exist and are all functional human bodies. I said ‘strangely unproblematic’ because, after all, we encounter a 6 foot sea monster which has never lived with humans, which doesn’t speak normally, which is irritated by the movements of dance, but this is all taken in stride. The strangest part about this is sexuality.

While emphasizing the needs of sexuality for Dorothy, the novel is less explicit about the effect this has on Larry, who has never had sexual intercourse before. In a way, Dorothy makes him into a man, but we never learn whether this effects any change in Larry. After all, we aren’t even sure Larry exists at all. The uncanny messages that we learn about on the very first page, introduce a sense of surreality. In the sense of Brian McHale’s excellent explication of postmodernism, this is a highly postmodern novel which at no point expresses an interest in finding out what’s real and what’s not. There are parts of the story that conform more to what we conventionally perceive to constitute ‘reality’ and parts that conform less to that, but Ingalls is constantly mixing up her elements. Certainty is not for us, and it’s neither for Dorothy who, in the final chapter, scrambles to hold everything together even as life and fantasy fall apart. In a way, Dorothy is caught up in a Cyclone but she can neither return to Kansas nor land in Oz, so she’s in a state of limbo. Thinking about this I was reminded of Salman Rushdie’s famous essay on the Wizard of Oz where he points out the difference between the Kansas of the book and the Kansas of the movie version. If I do not misremember him, he emphasizes the fact that the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz movie is not a realistic Kansas, as the one in L. Frank Baum’s book is. It is a curiously warped version. In Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy may be living in a country which is the dark twin of that Kansas.

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"Feminazi"

A debate at two blogs, among them Irene‘s wonderful blogeous ode to inebration, has centered on outrage against prescriptive modern feminists. What they, especially Sybarite (post one, post two), think of strident feminists is well described by the slur “Feminazi” that neither of them uses, but that people who take the exact same line, do use. And yes, it is no accident that their positions, especially Sybarite’s, can be summed up as using a slur coined by Rush Limbaugh. I started to write a comment at Sybarite’s blog but it became too convoluted so I thought I’d take it to my home turf.

Rereading their posts, I think they fail to see a major problem: what some feminists are saying is that you only THINK you are choosing for yourself, that your choice is, in fact, made for you, once you learn language, behavior and manners. The cultural imprint is so strong that it is an illusion to be able to chose for one’s self. And yes, it is a very dangerous balance, between liberating women and rhetorically restricting their behavior. A good case in point is judith butler’s work on feminist matters, which vacillates between severely pessimistic accounts and accounts of freedom. You can’t disprove Butler’s argument easily, especially not by saying: how can I not know myself and my own decisions? which makes it all a tightrope act. Where do you cross into tyranny, into paternalism? I especially feel extremely uncomfortable writing this because my kind have been silencing female voices for centuries, and am I not now engaging in a similar undertaking? That creeps me out, to be honest.

So I’ll keep things brief. One thing, neither of the two mentioned, is the sexualization of little girls, the Bratz dolls are a case in point (also, related, remember the recent scandal over the Sasha and Malia dolls?). The things some feminists are complaining about hurt our children first, there are issues such as bodily self-image, sexualization, plus, most recently, the American culture which has experienced a rollback in sexual morals (will post the study once I dig it out); to cut to pop culture: look at how girls describe their love and admiration for Stephenie Meyer’s inane Twilight books? To brush all this aside by a coquettish moue, saying: But I like it that way! is appalling, to me. The direction our societies are taking is clear, unmistakeable, and ugly.

To reiterate: your own decisions may not be your own decisions, especially since they reinforce cultural stereotypes, which are shown to be culturally specific, most certainly not biological, so if feminists point that out, i.e. the fact that you dress in what amounts to a garb of capitulation to the prevailing cultural misogyny, they may not be “replac[ing] a patriarchy with a matriarchy” (a misogynistic term if I ever saw one) but, on the contrary, point out the mire we’re all still in. still the same stereotypes, only this time we like ’em. the wide acceptance by the so-called “new feminism” of essentialist, hurtful images and ideas is frightening.

All this is rather vapid, empty blather, since I am reluctant to dish out. It is not my place to speak up here, it just isn’t. My position is best described by Katha Pollitt, an old-fashioned feminist, and an invigorating writer. IN her 2006 collection Virginity or Death! she writes the following:

Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about.”

The bitterness of her words and the trap that she sees there, are both important and noteworthy.

Feminism is a complex issue, not easily resolved. There are very smart feminists as well as utter idiots (Camilla Paglia, anyone?). Arguments such as Sybarite’s, which miss several important points, succeed, because they attack a position by attacking the dimwits among the supporters of such a position. That’s too easy. Take it up with the smart ones.

Shadows: Yasushi Inoue’s “Der Tod des Teemeisters” and “Das Jagdgewehr”

Inoue, Yasushi (2008), Der Tod des Teemeisters, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-46025-2
[honkaku bō ibun, translated by Ursula Gräfe, not yet translated into English]

Inoue, Yasushi (2006), Das Jagdgewehr, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-45845-0
[ryōjū, translated by Oskar Benl, translated into English as The Hunting Rifle]

Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro (1977), In Praise of Shadows, Leete’s Island Books
ISBN 978-0-918172-02-0
[Translated by T.J. Harper and E.G. Seidensticker]

These are two novellas by one of the most highly regarded Japanese prose writers in the second half of the 20th century. I am completely unread as far as critical writings on Japanese prose are concerned, which is not an understatement, so excuse all and any foolish comments that may be obvious and/or superfluous. The Hunting Rifle is Inoue’s first publication, published in 1949, the Death of a Tea Master’s one of his last publications, published in 1981.

Reading the first one puzzled me inordinately. The Hunting Rifle is a strangely seductive work of art. It is reduced to a few significant pieces of dialogue, a few episodes. I started to read it as a love story, but my expectations, schooled by reading countless works of genre literature, were soon disappointed by the way it was executed: it is not an actual love story, it’s a retelling of a love story at a distance, or rather: it is a story about love, if that makes any sense. The story which forms the framework is about a writer who turns an observation about a middle-aged man with a hunting rifle into a poem, published into a hunter’s magazine; the poem, which is extraordinarily beautiful, closes by saying that the rifle presses all its weight into the back and soul of the lonely man wearing it, and that it’s radiating a blood-specked beauty that never appears when the rifle’s targeting something living. Clearly, the poem is critical of hunting, and consequently the poet is astonished that a hunter’s magazine would print it. Shortly afterwards, a man writes him, sure of being the middle-aged man described in the poem, and sends him three letters, asking the narrator to read and then burn them.

The three letters, which the narrator then ‘presents’ to the reader, tell of a forbidden affair between Saiko and her cousin Joskuke, both of whom are married, an affair, which, as we learn soon, ends with Saiko’s suicide 13 years later. The letters are from Saiko’s daughter, who was handed a journal by her mother just before the mother kills herself, and writes a long letter to “Uncle Josuke”, which becomes more and more condemning. She condemns the affair as amoral and thus demonstrates the constraints of the society which led to the affair being covert and doomed; additionally, her righteous – and partly justified- indignation creates an atmosphere that helps the reader to better place the events which are more fully related by the two other letters. The second letter is from Josuke’s wife, Midori, who tells him, among other things, that she has long known about the affair and asks for a divorce. The third and final letter is written by Saiko, who thanks him for having loved her so much for 13 years, and expresses, at the same time, a deep and devastating loneliness; it is a passionate letter yet very composed and cold.

Between these three letters we find events described that have led to four people being lonely, cold, even when passionately in love. There is a deep yearning for love, for company, in each of these letters, although Saiko’s daughter’s in a different way. They are hunting, for love, for composure, for dignity. In an episode related in Midori’s letter, Josuke aims at her back while both sit on a porch. She says she noticed even though Josuke put the gun away quickly. The chaos and violence of life does not reach these characters, the things they do follow careful, pre-established lines. And Saiko’s suicide is an old, known way to end such an affair before it is troubled by violence; and yes, suicide is not violence, as in The Death of a Tea Master, suicide is shown to be an adult, well-considered decision to endow one’s life with a shape even to the end of it; or rather: especially at the end of it. That illicit affair brought disorder into their lives, even if it was just a little, and Saiko’s final action is shown as an attempt to-re-order it. Inoue finds beauty in the spare and in the darkness in people’s minds.

I was reminded of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s short but breathtakingly beautiful essay “In Praise of Shadows”, which praises traditional Japanese architecture, where simplicity rules. As he makes abundantly clear early on, this simplicity is a superficial one, it may and often does hide complexities, but the surface, inside and outside the houses, is clean and spare. It is not the cleanliness of modern glass-and-steel architecture, it’s an aesthetic that involves changing surfaces like wood, which glitter with age the older a house is. The shadows, which are praised, are those left in a room by the angle of the light falling in. Shadow and darkness are not the absence of light for Tanizaki, they are the most important element. It is in shadows that we can contemplate ourselves best, it is light that disturbs our inner order. Thinking and aesthetic meditation are described as almost incompatible with modern fixtures. This passage may illustrate what I mean:

On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall. I wonder if my readers know the color of that “darkness seen by candlelight.” It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night. It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.

Tanizaki mourns a style long gone, a style that cannot compete with the comfort central heating, electric lights and enamel toilets can provide. He feels an alienation of sorts towards that new world, he considers it a part of Western culture. If we Japanese, he says at one point, had invented these things, they would not be as corrosive to our culture as these Western objects are.

Maybe having read both of these books prepared me well for my second Inoue novella, “Death of a Tea Master”, maybe that’s why it did not irritate nor puzzle me at all. It is a beguiling, melancholy historical story retracing the mystery behind the self-inflicted death of a famous tea master, Sen no Rikyū, which soon turns out to be a meditation on the tea ceremony and those who take part in it. Maybe, however, it was different in the latter novella, since it wears its aesthetic heart on its sleeve, by following up both on the story as well as on the aesthetic background. When I closed its covers I found myself moved, entranced, and saddened. I felt the impulse to prepare a careful cup of tea, which is the strangest effect a book has ever had on me.

The Tea Master is a book that extends over a period of 32 years, from 1590 to 1622. It is a period of turmoil that sees the death of a generation of tea masters who appear to be the guardians of a certain culture, and their passing clearly signifies a change within that culture. The span of time encompasses the last throes of the Sengoku period, a time of upheavals and violent conflicts, which was ended by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful daimyo, as regional warlords were then called. Hideyoshi unified Japan by subjugating the other major clans or by entering into alliances with them. It was Hideyoshi who asked for Rikyū’s suicide by seppuku, the ritual suicide mostly undertaken by the retainers of defeated warlords, either voluntarily or not. This novel, which is supposed to be a modern edition of old, unedited journals of a 17th century monk by the name of Honkakubo, charts this monk’s attempts to find out why Rikyū killed himself. And surprisingly, ‘because Hideyoshi told him to’ is not the answer.

As the Hunting Rifle seemed to be a love story, the Death of the Tea Master appears to be a mystery yet applying our genre expectation to this novel would make for as disappointing a reading experience as did reading the Hunting Rifle as a love story for me. As the plot, which covers 32 years, extends over as little as 167 pages in my edition, there are huge gaps and jumps. Honkakubo does not search for the answer to the mystery, at least not in the world around him. His search does not necessarily involve an interrogation of people and evidence, what McHale, if I remember correctly, refers to as the epistemological quest, which distinguishes the modern from the postmodern. Honkakubo makes use of information if and when it comes and the use he makes of it is singular: as he is handed a document that belonged to the late tea master, asked for his expertise, he finds that the document contains thoughts on the tea ceremony and spends weeks, carefully copying it down, meditating. During the 32 years he is invited by a few other monks and tea masters because he used to be a student of the late Rikyū, and has a few elliptical talks with them about Rikyū and the tea ceremony in general. They are elliptical because Honkakubo is reticent, quiet, polite. Even when among people who may cast light upon the mystery, he does not pursue a line of questioning that may enlight him. These people he meets are far more inquisitive yet they must consider him a dissatisfying conversationalist, because he is reluctant to share his interpretations of events during the last years and months of Rikyū’s life.

Even as more and more facets of the great tea master’s life enter the picture, his death remains a mystery, because outside events cannot shed light on it. Only as Honkakubo immerses himself in meditation, praying at Rikyū’s shrine and contemplating the tea ceremony, he gains an idea of what happened. Generally, asking for someone’s suicide meant killing them as surely as would thrusting the tanto into their bowls with their own bare hands. There is, however, a major difference. It is, after all, a self-inflicted death; in this case, Honkakubo and others are additionally wondering why Rikyū did nothing to alter Hideyoshi’s opinion. As our rulers today, the daimyos of Rikyū’s time were prone to bouts of anger now and then. Asking for a retainer’s suicide apparently was often a rash act, and the retainer was expected to ask for forgiveness and mercy afterwards. Rikyū would, it transpires, almost certainly have been granted mercy. Instead, he went to his death without complaint.

The tea ceremony is offered as a possibility for understanding the reasons for this. Rikyū was one of the first important tea masters to practice the art of wabi-sabi, a philosophy of simplicity, intimacy and modesty. I briefly discussed Tanizaki’s essay on architectural aesthetics earlier and the culture the loss of which he laments, is basically one dominated by wabi-sabi. In one of the most intense scenes in the novella, the tea ceremony is described as an encounter with death, with the tea drinker submitting to the tea master’s power. Although the tea master, who grinds the tea leaves, boils the water, cooks and serves the tea, may seem like a servant, he is actually the one person who is in charge of a ceremony which is apparently of high spiritual importance, because drinking the tea is not important; one has to drink it in the right way. People bow their heads under the yoke of ceremony, of convention and their tea master’s actions. Seppuku, the ritual suicide, is, in a way, quite a similar procedure, only here the warlord or emperor calls the shots. It may be that by refusing to ask for mercy, Rykiyu is refusing his lord the power which seppuku usually grants him.

This, however is but a personal interpretation. The novella itself does not decide upon any single reading. Instead it tries to make the cultural and personal context, in which the novella’s characters move, as clear as possible. It is not asking the reader to follow up on its clues to find out who did it; on the contrary, it invites the reader to meditate upon death and power and may, in some perceptive readers, awake a sense of self which we may be alienated from by modern times. This corresponds to the Hunting Rifle in a curious way. Behind the sad and cold story that is offered to us, love, not necessarily reciprocal love, is presented as a way to awaken your self as well. The Death and the Tea Master never allows for us to construct dichotomies, oppositions, it asks for our thoughts on death and autonomy; similarly, The Hunting Rifle asks us to consider our attitude towards love. Saiko relates an episode from school, where girls in class distribute a sheet of paper with two questions on it: “do you want to be loved” and “do you want to love”. In a way, the book is about the characters’ own hypothetical answers to this question and about the effect this has on their lives. Both of the novellas seem very distant from us, culturally, yet that distance beckons us to step closer. Tanizaki writes, near the end of the essay, and he could well have been describing Inoue’s method:

I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.

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New it ain’t: Lydia Davis’ “Varieties of Disturbance”

Davis, Lydia (2007), Varieties of Disturbance, FSG
ISBN-13 978-0-374-28173-1
ISBN-10 0-374-28173-4

“Varieties of Disturbance” is Davis’ sixth collection of short prose. Davis is one of the most honored and praised writers of her generation and a certified genius. She is also known as an accomplished translator, having translated Michel Leiris, Maurice Blanchot, and Marcel Proust, among others. Praise for her work seems to be ubiquitous, something I’ve only found out, strangely enough, once I started my reading of the “Varieties”. This book is advertised and praised as innovative, “rule-breaking” (back cover), with some, like Charles Baxter, claiming that Davis “is reinventing the short story in our time”. Ahem. Baxter is, I believe, mistaken (but it’s not his fault, we’ll come to that), since this book is nothing of the sort.

I have to admit that I have never before read a book like this. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is a good book, although the qualities of its stories is not consistent. Sometimes Davis heads for short time effect instead of letting her prose work out the ideas she has set them on, for example in the story called “Tropical Storm”:

Like a tropical storm
I, too, may one day become “better organized”

Or in a story called “The Busy Road”

I am so used to it by now
that when the traffic falls silent,
I think a storm is coming.

I will say this: The book is highly enjoyable and I don’t regret having read it. This is one of its two main strengths: the writing. Davis is an assured writer. She changes seamlessly from register to register, is in full control of her phrases’ cadences. This book is mostly extraordinarily well made; what’s more, Lydia Davis is an extraordinarily well read writer. She has dipped her quill deep into the inkwell of literary history, evoking writers and imitating different texts and styles. There are a few explicit references, chief among them a cutup/reworking of Kafka’s letters and a lame but, again, well-executed story that follows a traveler’s reading of Beckett on a road trip, but most of them aren’t. Davis is an ironist, however, and a true ‘postmodernist’, she rarely uses these styles, most of these stories are about the style they are written in. Thus, even when she writes in iambs or adopts the impish yet sharp tone of Lewis Carroll or Dr.Seuss, she never ‘stoops’ to their level of play, she keeps her distance, basically retelling a style as one would a story. A good example for this is the story “Jane and the Cane”.

The aforementioned story involving Beckett is, in part, symptomatic of a certain weakness of that collection: its strength rests on the power of Beckett’s words, not on Davis’ words and the best result of reading it is being sent back to yr own shelves to explore the grand Irishman’s words again . It consists of a complex interweaving of, for example, the trajectory of travel on the one hand and the trajectory of reading on the other. The story tells us how words and events are processed, how reading a text and reading a trip can be similar and what the givens in these two instances are. Contrary to what many critics seem to believe, however, ‘complex’ does not equal ‘good’. Just because a reader may feel he’s in over his head, the book isn’t suddenly a success. This effect is well known from critical reactions to so-called obscure writers. I have read more than one defense of Derrida that showed how little the defender understood of his subject (and I believe Derrida’s actually right); also, there are other writers in the postmodern section that I have not yet read that are praised by people who clearly have trouble understanding basic arguments, among them, most recently Ward Churchill.

Don’t get me wrong, the book is often intellectually tingling, quite like a crossword puzzle or a philosopher’s digest, There are short pieces that sound extremely deep and intellectually charged, I’ll quote two of them to illustrate the point made in the previous paragraph. The first one’s called “Index Entry” and touches upon all sorts of things, among them language in general and naming in special:

Christian, I am not a

The other one’s called “Suddenly Afraid”:

Because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn

Again, it’s almost a waste of breath to sum up its concerns, it’s all so plainly there. On the other hand, the simplicity and clarity is a merit of Davis’ work, I am just not sure how highly I would weigh that merit.

To sum up, Davis achieves sounding complex not by being a good thinker or good reader but by having read a large amount of good thinkers and writers. Her work draws from a huge bulk of sources and never shies away from flaunting this. Critics may erroneously declare her innovative, but the writer in these texts never pretends to make it new. Davis is postmodern in the best sense of the word. A similar effect is aimed at in a consummate story about a walk which a male critic and a female translator of Proust undertake. The critic is, we learn, dismissive of her work, preferring an older, less faithful but more poetic version. An episode on the walk these two take reminds the translator of an episode in Proust. She proceeds to quote the passage in both translations. Again, a similar set of questions and problems is raised as in the Beckett story, again pretty unsubtle, in a way that does not allow the reader to read it in a different manner. That happens because these stories are very spare, Davis unerringly going straight for the philosophical jugular of her pieces. She is rather disinterested in what is usually referred to as plot, if each story is taken on its own. However, over the course of the collection, things happen, people are described, interiors and exteriors are evoked, the works. “The Varieties of Disturbance” covers a large terrain, yet still keeps within the enamel confines of domestic life, roughly speaking. We find epigrams on the small humdrum tragedies of everyday life, as well as longer faux-academic studies of, for example, the letters a class of schoolchildren send a sick, hospitalized classmate. Davis’ writing which, while always competent, sometimes even dazzling, actually works best in sober contexts, like said study, or, in one of my favorite pieces, an account of the procession of maids passing through the household of a writer by the name of “Mrs. D.”. This is one of my favorite pieces because so much that is characteristic about the book is gathered here. Sobriety, pastiche, and subject. What subject? The domestic space. The titular disturbance is the disturbance of the private order, of our daily patterns. The title story dwells a little on the issue, I’ll quote the last third:

When I describe this conversation to my husband, I cause in him feelings of disturbance also, stronger than mine and different in kind from those in my mother, in my father, and respectively claimed and anticipated by them. My husband is disturbed by my mother’s refusing my brother’s help and thus causing disturbance in me greater, he says, than I realize, but also more generally by the disturbance caused more generically not only in my brother by her but also in me by her greater than I realize, and more often than I realize, and when he points this out, it causes in me yet another disturbance, different in kind and in degree from that caused in me by what my mother has told me, for this disturbance is not only for myself and my brother, and not only for my father in his anticipated and his present disturbance, but also and most of all for my mother herself, who has now, and has generally, caused so much disturbance, as my husband rightly says, but is herself disturbed by only a small part of it.

Make of that what you want. I think this part illustrates the merits and demerits of Davis’ work very well, although the writing is not typical, and from your reaction to it you may gauge the possible reaction you may have to the whole book.

I did say earlier that this book does not break new ground yet I also said that I have not read a book quite like this before. Where similar books concentrate on one or two sorts of adaptions, this one crawls with influence, we mentioned this earlier. At every single point the reader hears other writers. The most significant reference are probably works like Lichtenberg’s enormous Sudelbücher, his collection of aphorisms, essays and other texts. I know that the word aphorism is these days connected to all sorts of weak writing. Lichtenberg’s work, on the other hand, contains narrative episodes, thoughts and finished essays on literature and science. Lichtenberg was a true polymath, another word that has been applied to too much less worthy books these days, much as I love David Foster Wallace, he is often like a fish out of water when tackling science in non-fiction. Other writers and texts that come to mind reading Davis include Thomas Bernhard and books of his like “Der Stimmenimitator”, or short prose like Kafka’s, Beckett’s, Barthelme’s or Barth’s, it’s really a long list, and this is off the top of my head. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is unlike any of these books, because it resembles all of them, in part, without the original fire or brilliance. It’s a weaker collage of others’ styles, a weaker collage of others’ ideas, written by a very good writer. So how does the mistaken idea of innovation enter the picture? The publisher or the author printed the word “stories” on the cover of this book of short prose. As short prose, this is nothing new, as stories, this book does indeed break new ground. If I change the title of my inane master’s thesis and add the words “a novel” to it, I promise a novel the kind of which you have never before read. Distinguishing modes of reading from kinds of texts is not the worst idea, sometimes.

“The Varieties of Disturbance” is written in one voice, even when being punny, alliterative, iambic, this is the voice of one person. The book explores what I have called the enamel confines of domestic life. How children, maids and mothers shape our lives’ rhythms. This is the interesting part, the affecting part, the part that sets this book apart from similar texts. This it what makes it re-readable, watching the prose explore the nooks of this voice’s life, watching how babies, dogs, brothers cause little and big disturbances in her life. All the ideas about language and theory, none of them are new, nor particularly riveting. Yes, it’s fun, but that part of the book is like “Kill Bill”. New it ain’t. Read the book if you’re up for a bit of intellectual fun, do not read it if you want something special or new. Although your time is better spent with any writer named in this review, it’s not badly spent with Lydia Davis. Did I make sense?

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