Embarking on Ammons

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Birthday Presents

Among my birthday presents, arriving through the mail as I am between homes and houses, was the enormous two volume edition of A.R. Ammons complete poems. The astonishment, first, that it exists. His name had slipped to the back rows, the less than notables, the – if not forgotten ones, then the ones, whose names start to slip our mind. Transcendentalism in American poetry, wasn’t there this guy, what was his name again…? And beyond this astonishment, a small surprise at the size of this, his hefty, large oeuvre, coming, of course, with a preface by Helen Vendler, who else, maybe this is mainly for her, maybe she lost track too, as books somehow started to accrue.

How do I read Ammons? We’ll see – I own some Ammons and have read all of that, but it is dwarfed by the reality of his output, the voluminous lack of restraint of a poetic masculinity that I am not sad to see leaving the stage. I will likely find the books I know and adore, and see what comes before and after, how much context and words and air surrounds the Ammons I know. I have gone straight to some of my favorite Ammons and already, I have changed while Ammons hasn’t, he hasn’t even left the protective awning of Helen Vendler’s critical support. In “Garbage,” Ammons derides an unnamed female poet, citing her words: “if I’m in / touch […] then I’ve got an edge: what / the hell kind of talk is that,” offering instead a calculated ethics of writing and rewriting, echoing the praxis of poets like Lowell, of whom his friend Kathleen Spivac remarked: “I’ve never […] seen a poet rewrite his poems so much.”

Looking at these volumes, over 900 pages each, at first I wondered whether this might not be the right poet for our searching, environmentally sensitive times, particularly poems like “Garbage” – but Ammons is difficult, he uses his voice not always to shine a light – often he uses it to hear himself proclaim. His Homeric gestures in “Tape for the New Year,” written to the background noise of drums and an imagined chorus, have echoes in the self-importance of some male Beat poets; they, too, are difficult to read today.

Reading my way through Ammons’s poetry is a daunting task, but the work’s voice, and the poet’s awareness of form and material, of the warp and woof of textures and melodies, is worth persevering, I think.

 

#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the  2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day three (of three) went. The writers who read today* were, in this order: Ines Birkhan, Leander Fischer, Lukas Meschik, Martin Beyer. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For my account of day one click here. For my account of day two click here. For a German summary of the whole thing, which I also wrote, for Faustkultur, click here.

If yesterday’s post was a bit on the long side, today*’s summary is likely to be more brief. That’s not just because the Saturday slate of writers, as every year, is one writer shorter than the other days, but also because in many ways, what’s notable about today’s writers is just a continuation of things I already noted. This is the first time that the selection and treatment of writers seems so cohesive – and not in a good way. Following along in real time is like looking at a thesis statement, of a thesis you do not particularly care about.

The big exception was Ines Birkhan, the first reader of the day. Now, to be entirely honest, I went into this, intrigued but not expecting a lot. I had read her debut novel before, which was entirely unique, but not necessarily in a good way. Chrysalis read like a quickly written piece of fan fiction, you know the kind – it’s always a bit too long because the writer does not have the mot juste, like, ever, but also lacks the literary training to have easy access to cliché. So yesterday we had two different kinds of exact descriptions in the Federer and Birnbacher text. Federer spread out the vast microscopic observable detail and had absolutely no wish or ability to cut to down to an exact, resonating image or phrase, and he used literary clichés judiciously. Birnbacher was extraordinarily good at the good, exact observation, and tough on cliché. Birkhan’s novel somehow turns up in a third space. There are no clichés in it, but every description, and half the accounts of what happens read like someone had to paraphrase a text in an extraordinary hurry. It seemed very bad, but at the same time very original. So, originality, but at what cost? The second book was better written, with a Jelinek-inspired use of sexuality and a very political surrealism, about contemporary events. The story she read on Saturday, an excerpt from a forthcoming third novel, was much better than each. Gone was the awkwardness of descriptions, everything was much better. She was on similar conceptual ground as the very first reader of the competition, Katharina Schultens. Both offered a spec fic that drew on human transformation, and both had a bit of a vague sense of place. But where Schultens missteps both linguistically and literarily in her treatment of plot and structure, Birkhan’s text is tight, moves the reader forward. She integrates the descriptions of animals and morphology much better, an absolutely solid text, one of the best of the competition. You’d think a jury that had been kind even to the crappiest of stories (Gerster, Heitzler) would reflect this, as well. Instead, what happened was that two thirds of the jury absolutely savaged the text, to the point where the person who had invited it, Nora Gomringer, was constantly forced into a corner. The leader of the pack, Insa Wilke rose to a spectacular furor that was so strong, she kept coming back to the text and her hatred of it even in later discussions. It’s an absolute mystery to me why the jury reacted like that, especially since they had been so kind in the previous days. It is my personal theory that the similarity (but obvious deficiencies, compared to Birkhan) of Schultens’s text which had been invited by Wilke, and some other kind of resentment had played a role in it. Who knows. What I can say is that the hostility was so overwhelming that the critics ended up forcing Birkhan to defend her text, something that had not happened in a long, long time. Birkhan’s reply was elegant and smart. She pointed to the literary influence of Konrad Bayer, and briefly sketched some details of how the text was made. What a spectacle, what an undignified treatment of a text and its author, and fellow members of the jury. And what a dignified author.

The rift in the jury was quickly mended with the second writer of the day. If my statement about Federer yesterday was that he appealed to the jury, especially biographically, the same applied tenfold to the second text. Leander Fischer’s story was Bachmannpreis-catnip. Clever, well written, playful. Entirely devoid of relevance, but at the same time extraordinarily well made in the exact way the jury likes. There is no way this text dents the top three of Wipauer, Othmann or Birnbacher, or at least it should not, but it reads and sounds like a text that should do well. I don’t have much more to say, as I was neither interested nor intrigued by the text, though I can at least appreciate and laud the skill involved.

That skill was, confusingly, absent with the third text. i say “confusingly” because Lukas Meschik, despite his young age, is already a seasoned novelist, who writes novels at a rapid clip, some of them quite ambitious and voluminous. So when he turned up with an autofiction about his father’s burial that was among the dullest texts ever presented in Klagenfurt, it did make my head turn. This text is a kind and generous text about a father that appears neither ambitious not ambiguous. It is entirely unclear why a prolific and seasoned writer would turn up with a text like this. Some in the jury were similarly puzzled, at least one of the judges suggested the same inversion they had all suggested applied to Daniel Heitzler. To be honest, i was surprised this opinion wasn’t more widely adopted since Meschik was more deserving of reasonable doubt than Heitzler – there is something to be said about routine and work ethic in writing. It produces, as we could see from Federer’s text, a certain consistency. This apparent break here, in favor of uncomplicated sentimentality is at least unexpected.

The final text of the day, however, was a real humdinger. If you thought that Silvia Tschui’s text from day one upset me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. For context, for day one’s anger and this, maybe you need to understand that what’s happening in many countries, the rise of the radical right to insitutional power or at least coming real darn close to it, is happening in Germany too. What we also have is a kind of revisionist overton window that keeps moving to the right. The wave of texts about Germany-as-victim, jumpstarted by Günter Grass’s very bad but very explicably very popular late-career novel about the sinking of the Gustloff, Crabwalk (for my take on Grass and his career go here), were the beginning, but once we look at Germans as victims of Soviet aggression and Allied bombing (ignoring why it happened, who and what the populace had supported for how long), then it’s not that much of a leap to also look at the German officers and soldiers and the straight Nazis and ask how bad they were, really. A TV movie event called Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter took this and ran with it, with the barely concealed subtext being “sure they all say we were bad, but look we were like you, but look at the Polish people, much worse!” It is quite something that there was so much room to move to the right, given the insane amount of former Nazis whitewashed after the war and leading the country. Baden Württemberg, one of Germany’s most properous and largest states had a former Nazi judge as governor, and Chancellor Kiesinger was an NSDAP member, not to mention all the writers and professors and judges and the vast majority of the new country’s Foreign Office, and much of the new party FDP and on and on and on. But there was always bit of shame, a bit of underhandedness. They weren’t really members, not really Nazis, etc. etc. This is slowly starting to fall away which should terrify everyone living in this country. It is in this atmosphere, then, that Martin Beyer presented his text, a short story about the execution of the Scholl siblings. The Scholl siblings were genuinely part of the resistance against Nazi Germany. Principled, generous, forthright young people though what they did would barely make a dent in the resistance stories of other countries. They, like the Edelweißpiraten, wrote leaflets to the population. There was no real, active, armed, broad resistance in Germany, compared to France, or Poland or most other countries (for reasons I do not need to spell out), so the actions of Hans and Sophie Scholl truly stood out. They are unquestioned heroes in German history and culture. A story dealing with their execution thus has to deal with an exceptional amount of weight, and requires an exceptional amount of moral clarity and literary skill and investment. NONE of which is found in Beyer’s story, which focuses, of all things, on the executioner. Now, the actual executioner is a fascinating figure. The Nazis had their special #1 executioner shipped in, Johann Reichhart. He is an infamous murderer, but also, after the war, he was employed by both the Allies and the Bavarian state. His son, burdened by the pressure of being Johann freakin Reichhart’s son, committed suicide, I mean there is clearly a story there, also setting him in opposition to these famously principled young people. None of which is exploited by Beyer in any way. He makes an unknown, one time assistant to Reichhart his focal point. Why does he do this unpleasant job? Oh, to make money. Oh, because he is a victim of the war. Oh, because he has lost a brother in the war. Oh, of course his family HATES Hitler. This claim to OF COURSE have hated Hitler is such a well trod path in the history of Germans lying to themselves. It is particularly interesting that it came up this time of year since a group of scholars have just found out that the supposedly authentic diary A Woman in Berlin, about a woman in Spring/Summer 1945, which focuses on rapes by Soviet soldiers. As it turns out numerous passages had been added by the author to the text, specifically focusing on her supposed resistance to or dislike for the Nazis. I mean it’s such a remarkable lie to include in a story – and not undercut it in any way. The text is written in the most unambitious 19th century style, with no contrasts, no critique. There are small inserts to make us realize the poor man’s war trauma (what a poor widdle Nazi!), which contain some odd misogyny. It’s not that Beyer calls his protagonist a hero, in fact, he suggests his protagonist may be a bit of a psychopath, but that, too works as a kind of defense. The Scholl siblings barely make a dent in this story, which has the primary function, intentional or not, to make the protagonist relateable. A bad text, in most ways, and for once, the jury largely let the writer have it. Although, to be fair, with nowhere near the hostility they treated Birkhan with earlier this morning, still a mystery to me.

So at the end of a mostly bad day, nothing changed in who I think should win the awards, i.e. Wipauer, Othmann, Birnbacker and Jost. But I would advocate for the fifth award, the public vote, to go to Birkhan.

 

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

*this post is about a week late, let’s pretend it IS “today”

 

Autobiography and Community

In what I am currently writing I have become quite interested in the way autobiographies and autobiographical work constructs an imagined community, obviously Benedict Anderson doesn’t quite apply here, but he also doesn’t NOT apply, you know? Instead of looking at the way autobiography explores the self, and applying various ideas of selfhood and truth etc. to it, I have become more interested in how reception theories shape what we understand of autobiography – if we shouldn’t read them in relationship to the self and ideas of the self, Freudian self-analysis and whatnot, and instead read them as texts written to be read by an audience. Written to interact with a specific literary field. Autobiography is a public act, and I think some interactions between writer and audience can be described by using Marcel Mauss and the gift. And now I have been thinking – and I’m sure this is not true for every autobiography. Say, Robert Lowell, a tall, white, straight man. But, say, you look at Mary McCarthy (because that’s my topic) and the situation turns. Or the tradition of Jewish autobiography. This is two steps. One, looking at the outside effect of autobiography and entirely excluding the self-exploratory aspect of it. Two, see in what way this works to construct a sense of (a) community, or a pole within a literary field. So that’s where I am. Any comments?

A note on Death

I have been working on fiction/memoir relating to my family – there are a lot of stories to be told, a lot of paths to followed. Most of my immediate family, two generations, one generation back, are some form of immigrant. But my grandfather is currently dying as I type this and everything is stopping in its tracks. I cannot properly explain what a loss this loss of my grandfather would be – would, mind you. He’s had an incredible life so far, and I’m visiting him across the country tomorrow, today, that is, later today, I suppose.

Death is strange. As a weird man who has been obsessed with death, largely my own death, but also that of others since childhood, a man who visits cemeteries, and is largely alone in this – it is not accompanied by a real fascination, or a gothic habit. It’s just – death.

But this is different. Today – yesterday, I suppose, I mean, dates get blurry when you write at night – my father, who lives far away from me, apparently locked himself in a room to cry after he had a phone conversation with my grandfather. I myself was stuck in a different room for an hour, similarly struggling. The image of my father in his bedroom, not able or willing to communicate with his family, bereft, even though nobody has died yet, feels like the fingers of death on our lives, a moment that we will all remember, even those, like me, who have not been there. Something has broken in him, in us, and there’s a feeling that it has also infected our memories.

How far back does death reach? Already, I find it difficult to call upon memories of my grandfather that are not touched by death, memories of my own life. At every important turn in my life, he was there, usually quiet, grumbling. A broad man of small stature who worked hard for everything in his life, who worked hard to survive. And my father, a much taller man, in his room, this moment which I have not witnessed myself, it pulsates in my imagination. I have not been able to shake it.

The first and last time I remember seeing my father cry was when his grandfather died. We all stood at his grave, my father cried, I couldn’t cry. I pinched myself – there must be a way to cry, but nothing happened. My father cried, standing in the cold on the slighly hilly cemetery in the little East German village. I stood there, pretending to cry, ashamed of failing some protocol. This time is different. i have been intermittently crying for two weeks. Maybe I am becoming a warped version of my father. Maybe that is what death does.

Herta Müller: Father’s on the Phone with the Flies

Müller, Herta (2018), Father’s on the Phone with the Flies, Seagull
Translated by Thomas Cooper
ISBN 9780857424723

I reviewed the first major translation of Herta Müller’s poetry for Full-Stop:

Internationally, Herta Müller is best known as a novelist, but since winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, Müller has not published a single novel or collection of short stories. Her publications since 2009 consist of essays, interviews and — poetry. Indeed, this is the first time since her earliest days as a writer that Müller does not use narrative prose as her main mode of writing. In the 1980s, Müller abandoned her youthful poetry in favor of writing short narrative prose — and eventually, novels. It is as a novelist that she became famous and critically acclaimed. Yet her beginnings as a poet — much like Thomas Bernhard’s — have shaped not just her early prose, but much of her subsequent writing. Regrettably, as with Bernhard’s poetry, her first translated poetry for an American audience is marred by a translation that does not rise to the challenge and promise of the text. A warm and vibrant poetry is turned into small, dour, humorless lumps, like a game of Chinese whispers among IRS employees.

You can read the rest here.

 

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When you start reading a book

in translation and as you pass through the first pages you realize with a sunken heart that you walk among the ghosts of the source language and the shuddering testimonials to the translator’s unwillingness or inability to invent an original English equivalent. Bummer.

(This post may or may not be related to my reading of Herbert Lomas’s translation of Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story.)

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Offill, Jenny, Dept. of Speculation, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-345-80687-1

If you think back on the final two pages of Michael Chabon’s sophomore novel Wonder Boys, you’ll remember it ends with the writer-protagonist jettisoning his monstrous manuscript, “the whole exploded clockwork” – he calibrates his “writerly perception of depth” and sets out to write a book that “sounds true,” written in the rhythms of daily domestic life and not the writerly obsessiveness of his previous alcohol fueled existence. This – the recalibration, the rejection of an unwieldy manuscript failure, it has a mirror in Chabon’s own life, who, after his jaunty little debut novel, spent some years on a large manuscript that he eventually abandoned. This is all to say that Jenny Offill’s own sophomore novel Dept. of Speculation has a similar sense. Offill’s narrator-protagonist, the nameless “wife,” works at a college, and is struggling to complete a second novel, constantly fielding requests by friends, colleagues and acquaintances to produce this difficult second book. At the same time, Dept. of Speculation is, in some sense, that second novel, published 14 years after Offill’s debut. And much as Chabon wove a fictional narrative around the personal struggle to produce a good second novel, Offill’s book tells a story of a disintegrating relationship.

It starts uneventfully, describing academic life, a lovely marriage and an “evil” but adorable child. Things go a bit off the rails when the husband turns out to be an adulterer, but Offill fills even the lovely charming early portions with shadow and doubt. Being a writer and being a teacher and being a wife and mother are three different kinds of being, and she never feels quite adequate to all of them. Offill’s style is flat, in the way many contemporary ‘experimental’ dullards are, but she rises above them by making the flatness a part of the narrative. The structure, full of short sentences and short paragraphs, seems fragmented, but it isn’t really. It’s sequential and coherent, but the paratactic perniciousness of the book creates a distance, makes us follow the narrator into her own stressed, unhappy, distracted mind. As, towards the end of the novel, things go bad, the narrator switches to talking about herself in the third person, further increasing an effect that has been part of the novel all along. This is a surprisingly rich novel, for all its straightforward elements, and the various detailed kinds of flatness in it. The first time I read it I read it in one sitting and it’s hard to imagine the book working when broken into multiple sittings. The book’s intense coherence would fall apart and all you’d be left with would be some angsty statements in short sentences and short paragraphs.

Dept. of Speculation is interesting in how it uses form without abandoning emotional significance. There’s the instrumentalized flatness of course, which the book uses well, in contrast to some other widely praised, intensely dull recent prose works. She also uses our narrative expectations in undermining our readings. As I said, the switch from first person to third person, with no accompanying stylistic change, seems to be done in line with the other attempts to create some distance in the book. At the same time, Offill fills her novel with doubt. There is the narrator’s side gig of being a ghost writer for a failed astronaut businessman (failed as astronaut, not as businessman). It’s a curious insertion into a book that doesn’t stray that far afield with other details. Offill’s narrator is economical with details. We don’t even get names for anybody involved, there’s not a lot of extraneous description, the book obsessively circles the same topics: writerly impotence, anxiety, love and some details of domestic life. Offill is exceptionally disciplined, so the ghost writing seems strange. One obvious effect is to show the difference between writing about one’s own life or follow one’s own inspiration on the one hand, and just lending your words to someone else’s life, someone else’s partially imagined experience. Another effect comes later. There’s a scene where her husband writes a short story and files it among her class work. The details remind her of her own life, but she assumes a female student who recently attempted suicide, is behind those words. This is a kind of ghostwriting too, but while in ghostwritten books, the real author spends their existence behind the curtain, in this case, the narrator becomes the audience.

Clearly the novel is preoccupied, outside of the details of the story of domestic bliss and upheaval, with the authenticity and directness of writing, and while we may assume that the narrator at some point starts talking about herself in the third person, which reflects her increasingly troubled state of mind, an equally plausible possibility asks us to question our assumptions regarding narrator/protagonist/writer. I will admit, this is the second time I started this book. First attempt, last year, I abandoned the book because I was bored. But I think I was wrong. This book is actually quite interesting, and it uses its limited palette, and its humdrum plot in order to do something with plot and narrative. In many ways it reads, once you resolve to read it this way, like a very classic postmodern work from the 70s, but without the now-boring irony and laid-back chuckle at life and people.

The story it tells, despite what I think is some intense postmodern tomfoolery, is still moving, still emotionally resonant. And that is no small feat. Overall, I think, Offill walks a very thin line here. It’s playful and interesting, but also written with substance and purpose (unlike, for example, the Luiselli novel which I didn’t find sustaining beyond its levels of playfulness). It’s emotional and direct without being drab and dull. What I most appreciate is how Offill pulls off this flat style without joining the ranks of all the bores like Blake Butler, who I think is a better editor than novelist. I’d like to repeat this: I think this book is fundamentally interesting, and I will likely return to it at some point to look at it from yet another angle. There’s other books I read this week and might review, like Brit Bennett’s debut novel, that I found so uninteresting, I considered getting rid of my copy. Bennett’s book is maudlin, clichéd, socially and formally conservative. It’s also much less of a tightrope walk. Whatever Bennett does, it does so forcefully, with all possible risks smashed out of the book by an MFA reading group. Offill takes a risk, I think. And for a slim book like that, it offers a bunch of angles to its readers, all of which involve rereading the whole book and its details. The student who attempted suicide, for example, is given quite a bit of space, and her inclusion raises questions of genre and representation, that I cannot go into here.

One interesting aspect of the book that I want to mention in closing is that in some ways the novel functions like a funhouse mirror of John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which took both book nerds and the wider reading public by storm when it was republished in 2008. I have some…issues? I guess, with that novel, but that’s maybe for a different post or a different venue. It’s curious though, that it’s always these kinds of books that do well upon being rediscovered. Stoner, and the work of, what’s that Hungarian called? Sándor Márai, that’s it, and who could forget Hans Fallada’s unfortunate resurrection, after he was correctly buried by German critics in the 1950s. But, again, that’s not the point here. What I did want to say is that Dept. of Speculation feels in so many ways like a companion piece to Stoner that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was partially intentional. I mean, obviously the campus novel has a long tradition, and one wishes that some novels in the genre would be reread more often, like Jarrell’s funny novel, but in many ways Offill’s book feels like a direct reply to Stoner. And I don’t merely mean in the way the two novels employ gender. Offill’s attitude towards realism and representation, which I think I sketched earlier, also feels like part of a communication with John Williams. Or maybe not. It’s a good book, is all.

 

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

Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life

Bhagat, Chetan (2008), The 3 Mistakes of my Life, Rupa
ISBN 978-81-291-1372-6

I don’t often read genuinely terrible, awful, no-good books. When I read a book I consider bad, it’s often “just” mediocre. It’s just – look, my reading habits often filter out the truly awful. So when I say that Chetan Bhagat’s novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life is a truly terrible book, I don’t mean: bad like Paul Auster, or bad like Daniel Goetsch. I mean bad like the essay you wrote in high school, bad like that movie you found on an old VHS in the ruins of an abandoned blockbuster starring Zachary Ty Brian. I mean bad. To be clear: Bhagat is, from what I can tell, a spectacularly successful Indian novelist (I recommend this post for an excellent analysis of his appeal), and this book is interesting for a variety of reasons. None of them are literary. This is not a good book. By comparison, Dan Brown is a genuinely competent novelist (he’s not) and Paulo Coelho erudite and clever (he’s not). If we exclude the thousands of pages of epic fantasy I’ve read in my life, Bhagat’s novel ranks among the worst books I have ever read. It’s a 250 page book structured into 210 pages of mind-numbing banalities and 40 pages of harrowing, grim, brutal action, which coalesce into a half baked strange political point and end in the writer’s autoerotic epilogue. This is bad. And yet…

And yet – I am so used to reading Indian literature in English, often by writers who do not live in India, like Rushdie or Mistry, or writers like Amitav Ghosh or Arundhati Roy, who are, at least partly, writing for a commonwealth audience, for readers who are not Indian. Bhagat’s novel is clearly directed at Indian readers, making small in-jokes about cultures, cities and communities, constantly relying on the reader’s sense of how certain things work and how certain historical backgrounds function. That makes for an extremely interesting reading experience. There’s room here to consider this book in connection with some postcolonial thinking, about the extent of colonialized speech. There are curious notes on religion and race, as well. If only the book’s core wasn’t the story of a couple ofi nsecure-but-boisterous boys, confused about and dismissive of women, and if the prose didn’t resemble that first draft you write at 4 in the morning after a bender just to get the idea out, maybe there would be something here? Following Gayatri Spivak’s essays on the archives (“The Rani of Simur” still holds up today) and on the subaltern, there was always a mildly disquieting element in the way Indian writers were received and perceived in the West, part of a traveling community of writers who Rushdie described well in essays collected in one of his best books, Imaginary Homelands.

Describing, speaking about India in English has always been an inherently tricky business, and the Western appetite for essentialist, dubiously fetishistic narratives of India has only fueled that. When Rushdie, after the stunning Grimus, recalibrated his writing under the influence of Grass, Desani, Marquez and others, his use of a specific tone, almost a genre of writing, a mode of how to speak about India in English to a Western audience, is clear and palpable. Particularly among the fêted but clearly weaker writers, like the inexplicably Booker winning Kiran Desai, the use of generic markers is obvious, and deserves interrogation within Spivak’s parameters. Chetan Bhagat is a completely different kind of writer, and I don’t just mean that he’s an incompetent boob. His book is written in English, but it makes no allowance for English readers by explaining, contextualizing, explicating terms, words or descriptions. His audience knows what he’s talking about, and the experience for me as a reader is fascinating. One encounters these things in translation, obviously, but there is a specific context for Indian literature in English, and within that context, reading Bhagat can be a puzzling experience.

Take Bhagat’s nationalism: there are people in the book who are non-Indian native speakers of English, specifically Australians here, and Bhagat’s descriptions of Australians and their language is very clearly that of someone who googled the words “typical Australian phrases” and copy and pasted them into the novel, with only very cursory care for whether the sentences around them syntactically supported the insertions. Bhagat’s characters are proud Indians, saying things like “I don’t want to be Australian in my next life. Even if I have a hundred next lives, I want to be Indian in all of them.” This unabashed, unchecked, clear nationalism, together with the essentialist and ignorant treatment of Australians is a curious fit for many conceptions of the discoursive structure of Indian literature in English. One of Bhagat’s most recent novels follows the foibles of an Indian who attends a British public school and thus invites, maybe, comparisons with books like Rushdie’s (very good) memoirs. But all of this has less to do with Bhagat’s novel, as it has to do with me as a reader and Western traditions of reading and how Indian writers, both those who live in India and those who made Canada, the US or the UK their permanent home respond to those tradtions.

Bhagat’s novel appears, at first, to be about cricket, and about some very odd ideas about love, sex and gender, but ends up making a serious point about politics. The background to the book are the Gujarat riots. As far as I can tell, Bhagat, a public intellectual in India, whose offensively low skill as a novelist appears to be equal to his skill as a public intellectual, is currently, more or less, a supporter of Modi’s government. In the novel, Bhagat strongly excoriates the Gujarati mobs, and offers a multi-cultural vision of India where all Indians are raising the national flag and beat Australians at cricket, because dammit how come that tiny nation keeps beating us! He doesn’t really offer an opinion on whether or not a Muslim mob was responsible for the Godhra train burning (they may not have been), and he strongly suggests that BJP leadership had a role in inflaming and steering the riots, indirectly implicating Modi, who indeed many people have considered complicit. The solution to these issues? Sticking together as a nation, with all resentment directed at foreigners, not Indians. History has turned out differently, and as it turns out, Nationalism is bad medicine. It’s like rubbing hot sauce into a wound. So the novel’s politics are at best naive. Fittingly, every person in the book shares the author’s naivete.

There is the main character, Govind Patel, an aspiring businessman in his twenties who has sex 9 times with a 17-18 year old girl who he’s supposed to tutor and who inexplicably falls for his geeky looks, seducing him on a rooftop, culminating in a sex scene that is both explicit and extremely prudish. Govind may be a big ol’ virgin, but Bhagat himself doesn’t appear to be quite on the up and up about the mechanics of sex, as he has Govind insist multiple times that they had sex with a condom, but then also feel bad for having “unprotected sex” – I’m not sure what kind of protection Bhagat envisions. Maybe it’s the same protection that kept his editor from touching the manuscript, because there is no way anyone edited this borderline random collection of letters and (completely mad) punctuation. There is his best friend Ish, whose sister had protected/unprotected sex with Govind, and who, while fleeing from an angry, murderous Hindu mob, takes a cricket bat to his best friend when he finds out Govind has been tutoring her in very naughty subjects. And then there’s Omi, whose father is a mad priest/BJP politician, who drinks two litres of milk per day and almost faints at the sight of breasts.

But the book’s worst, most unbearable character is a man called Chetan Bhagat. You see, the book is framed by the story of Bhagat receiving an email from Govind who is about to kill himself but uses the time while he waits for the pills to do their work to send off a weird fan email to Bhagat, whose books he loves so much and who, he feels, is the only person who can understand him. So Bhagat finds Govind who has survived his suicide attempt that was clearly as badly planned as everything else in Govind’s tiresome life, and Govind then tells him his story, culminating in murder, fear, and friendships breaking apart during the Gujarat riots. Of course, that’s when Bhagat adds TWO epilogues, because if there’s anything more important than a horrifying event in recent Indian history, it’s pointing out what a nice and helpful person this Chetan Bhagat is, who ends up reuniting old friends and lovers. He’s quite something, this Chetan guy. And so humble! In his introduction/acknowledgements, he explains: “I don’t want to be India’s most admired writer. I just want to be India’s most loved writer. Admiration passes, love endures.” I mean, cockroaches would survive a nuclear desaster, so God knows, Bhagat’s work might endure.

And I can see literary critics in a century reading these books, thinking “surely this is satire” and giving Bhagat a spot in the pantheon of satirical writers, as the master of satirizing bad prose. I had to read parts of this book to people, just to make them aware of the existence of observations like: “The great thing about girls is that even during pauses in the conversation you can look at them and not get bored.” I have never read a book like this, and God willing, I will never again. And yet, even as I go through these pages of terrible dialog, awful descriptions, and embarrassing thoughts, I can’t help but be fascinated by the book as a part of literary discourse. If only it were better.

*

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July Roundup

In July, for some reason, I ran a little experiment and posted something every day, sometimes twice a day. There are four distinct clumps of posts: reviews, #tddl posts, photos and brief personal essays, and then some additional stuff, plus one poem. If you missed the posts, here they are below, sorted by category:

1) Reviews (in alphabetical order)

Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes
Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart
Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand
Graham Greene: A Gun for Sale
Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept
Ben Mazer: February Poems
Denise Mina: Still Midnight
Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream
Luan Starova: My Father’s Books
Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth
Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole

2) #tddl-Summaries

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol
#tddl, Day One: the Wraypocalypse
#tddl, Day Two: The Jurypocalypse
#tddl, Day Three: The Nopocalypse
#tddl: the winner is…

3) Brief Essays

3a) Mostly personal
Translating for Writing
So what’s your poetry about?
On Liking Short Novels

3b) Less personal, mostly complainy posts
Walter Kaufmann and American readers of Nietzsche
#Translation and Heartbreak
Object Lessons
Male violence, God and the G20: Abraumhalde by Elfriede Jelinek

5) Photos

Balenciaga & Me
Me and My Grandmother
Dinner
A Jelinek Play in Bonn
Evenings
Cologne Pride

6) Additional Posts

Man Booker, man
Rummelplatz in English translation!
Plots of stories I’ve written or rewritten in the past year: a poem
Marcel Inhoff reading

 

Yours Truly in a Brussels bookshop

Notes from Boston (I)

I suppose this is true for many cities, but it is remarkable nonetheless: I am staying in a part of Boston that is roughly 30 minutes by bus away from downtown Boston. The area I live in is majority black. I say “majority” but I’ve looked at the clock: it usually takes ~25 minutes until I see the first white person on the bus or on the street, the first person, that is, that isn’t me. The difference to not just downtown but even just the parts that are more equally split is stunning. Just the way healthcare is delivered alone – and the astonishing frequency of churches, many of which are just inside regular houses. On the bus route I am taking there is on average one church per block. But also the poverty. Many of the bus stops are near clinics or “health centers,” and I see people entering and leaving. A disquieting visual, certainly, and it reminds me of how rarely truly open questions about economics are raised here. Someone once said that debates about racial justice, and policing are supplanting debates about economic equity in the US and sometimes, in Boston, it seems like those people are right. In the most affluent part of the center, just off Commonwealth Avenue and Boston Commons, on and around Newbury Street, there are a handful of churches, all of which have banners proclaiming (sometimes in arabic script) that refugees and Muslims are welcome. Two unitarian (I think?) churches even hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner in their window. And yet I wonder how concerned these same churches are about the lack of economic opportunities for the black people whose lives supposedly matter, how concerned they are with the fact that Boston is among the most segregated cities in the country. In an hour, I will get on that bus again, and will take a trip through a part of Boston that many Bostonians I talked to said they wouldn’t set foot in. They say it’s because it’s dangerous. What they mean is, it’s because it’s black.

Silence? Broke!

I’m sorry for the relative silence here. I’ve been finishing my PhD draft and several conference papers and am generally trying to find some financing for said conferences which isn’t looking great, so this is all a bit stressful. Too broke to blog, is, I suppose, the summary of this blog post. But I have a bunch of book reviews in the pipeline. June should be better. I’m giving a paper on Pasternak in Boston this week and I can see a review of Dr. Zhivago coming out of the whole stressful mess. 🙂 So, stick around, come by now and then and maybe you’ll be surprised. 🙂 Have a lovely week. PS. SHould I blog from Boston?

Happy New Year, Everyone

15780902_10211866012072810_2728734389601758620_nHave a great 2017 everyone. I’m listening to an Otis live records right now, drinking a lovely gin. Who knows how long I will be around, any of us really. Have a drink on me, on you and the new year.

Read poetry, write poetry, read books, punch a fascist, you know, you do you next year.

Love,

Marcel

My Year in Reviewing: 2016

dsc_3252So after posting 26 reviews last year, I happened to post the exact same number this year, despite some quiet months without reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with short commentary. I wrote about three very notable books that I didn’t get around to reviewing (but will probably review next year) here. If you feel like supporting this blog, why not click here. If you want to buy my book, why not click here? Incidentally, I have review copies of my book in pdf and (possibly) epub, if you feel like reviewing German poetry. Email me! Now, here’s the list of reviews.

Margaret Atwood et al.: Angel Catbird. Margaret Atwood is a genius novelist. Not a genius writer of comic books. Two more volumes coming early next year.

Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown. The less talented Dillon brother. The art is good. The overall impression is meh. His brother died this year. A genuine loss.

David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl. Terrible book. One of the top 3 worst books I read last year, overall. Dubious America-centric revisions to history that, given recent elections, seems somehow symptomatic

Brian Evenson: The Warren. Science fiction, I suppose? One of my three favorite books of the year.

Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me. Writing about depression while fetishizing the psychopharma industry.

Tomer Gardi: Broken German. One of the best German novels of the year, written by an Israeli citizen in his German language debut. Hilarious, sharp, brilliant.

Claire Gibson, Sloane Leong and Marian Churchland: From Under Mountains, Vol. 1 One of my favorite comics of the year. Art and writing perfectly complement each other.

Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night. Quiet little book. Not as good as I hoped, not as bad as I feared. Won’t be reading more of his stuff, I don’t think.

Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat. Excellently crafted little story/novel/novella about a cat, Japanese modernity and a marriage.

Line Hoven: Love Looks Away. I’ve read a couple of German comics this year and this is easily my favorite. Will post a review of the thoroughly mediocre Kinderland by Mawil next year. Hoven’s book is smart, poetic and the art is spectacular.

Paulette Jiles: News of the World. Award-winning piece of Americana drivel. Good for a present for your badly read relative. Solidly done, enough to dazzle some. One of the worst books I’ve reviewed (if not read) this year.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian. Genuine, absolute masterpiece. There’s an odd connection between Kang and Evenson in how they approach physicality.

Kolbeinn Karlsson: The Troll King. Swedish comic. Interesting, well made, a bit racist. Overall a recommendation.

Phil LaMarche: American Youth. Eh. So it’s MFA Americana fare with good ideas, but dull execution.

Fouad Laroui: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers. Laroui is a profoundly interesting writer. In this I introduce you a bit to his work. Not a very popular review with editors (sigh) but in a reduced form, it’s done well on this blog this year.

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda: Monstress. Very good comic book. Among my favorites this year. Doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Tom King’s Vision or Lemire’s Descender, but very good nonetheless.

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd. Overrated book. Overdetermined, too disinterested in the idea of making a story cohere.

Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity. Otoo won one of the most prestigious German awards this year and she’s one of the most interesting German writers (she’s not German).

Iain Reid: I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Overrated piece of crap. Genre fiction by the book. No surprise. Nothing interesting.

Fran Ross: Oreo. A forgotten American masterpiece. Read it. Now.

Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan. Excellent, slyly complex piece of horror fiction. Deservedly considered a classic.

Cecilia Ștefănescu: Sun Alley. Bad novel, translated badly. No point in mincing words. Shame on the publisher who did a disservice to the cause of translated literature in English. Shame.

Akimitsu Takagi: The Informer. Crime novel from Japan. Exceptionally well excecuted, but appeals strictly only to people interested in genre, I’d say.

lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for. A novel written in shorter segments about growing up foreign in the US. This is very good.

Yuko Tsushima: Child of Fortune. A masterpiece of Japanese fiction. Truly astounding.

Yvonne Vera: Butterfly Burning. African novelist of genius, sadly deceased. Novel is very good.

Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. This has languished on the occasional fantasy discussion list, while it, and its sequel/prequel A Taste of Honey are really among the best books published this year. Tor inexplicably marketed this to fantasy fans; this should be read by all fiction fans, period. I’ve never wished more that a book had landed with a different publisher. FSG Originals, for example. They’ve been doing amazing work. I’ve read Kristin Dombek on Narcissism this year, weird fiction by Amelia Gray, and science fiction by Jeff Vandermeer, all published by FSG Originals. Well designed, well pitched. Wilson should be on many of the lists summarizing this year’s best fiction, yet he’s not. It’s hard not to feel Tor is a bit at fault for that.

Paul Auster & Me

 

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A view behind the scenes of my blog

 

As a new novel by Paul Auster is about to hit the shelves, I noticed that I have reviewed a few of his books here. Enough apparently, to make my blog findable for people searching for a very specific/unflattering phrase (see picture). If you’re interested in my opinion, here are the links

Sunset Park: “These are the games of a tired old author, coasting on past successes, making use of the same characters and the same tools for the millionth time, with radically diminishing returns. Auster’s writing remains as unremarkable as ever, and his characters as flat as ever. […] It’s as if he’s given up on himself, given up on creating work that is at least up to his own standards.”

In the Country of Last Things: “Paul Auster’s novels are like black holes, and they should be read fleetingly, glancing, without looking overmuch at their details and implications.”

Invisible: “The staggeringly low quality of Auster’s prose, especially in his more recent work, has always been a surprise to me, especially considering the far more sophisticated nature of the constructions and ideas that populate his fiction.[..] This novel is like a clever movie, throwing all kinds of ideas and plots at you and you should enjoy the two hours, but be prepared for an immensely cold, impersonal work, utterly devoid of any commitment except to the author’s ego.”

The Brooklyn Follies: “This novel is a huge failure. As a movie it would have succeeded, and as a novel written by a different writer, it would also have succeeded. Auster has his strengths, and I still remember the novel’s characters vividly, but writing prose just is not one of them.”

Marcel Beyer wins award

büchnerMarcel Beyer, one of Germany’s 5 best poets, one of Germany’s 5 best novelists and a damn good nonfiction writer, has just won the Büchnerpreis, Germany’s most prestigious lifetime achievement award. I mean he should have won it a decade ago, especially if you look at some past winners (Arnold Stadler, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, FC Delius and Martin Mosebach all number among past winners of the award), but this is well deserved to say the least. All of his fiction has been translated into English, and it is uniformly excellent. I’ll try to have something new on him up one of these days but in the meantime, I’m a bit perturbed that the only thing on my blog I can link to is my very bad review of his very good novel Kaltenburg. I feel it should be mentioned again for readers who only know his novels that Beyer has always written poetry as well as fiction and he is one of the very very few writers who excel at both. I have read (despite not owning) his last collection multiple times and the constant excellence of Beyer’s writing through the years that never flagged, never got bad or complacent, is just stunning. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. This recognition by the German Academy for Language and Literature is long overdue.

Tournament of Books 2016 Winner?

I was a bit busy and forgot to check on the Tournament of Books. Here is my earlier post on it. So Villanova won March Madness and in the much more important Tournament of Books? Paul Beatty’s masterful novel The Sellout which I’ve read but haven’t gotten round to reviewing yet. So here is the link to the Finals matchup, which The Sellout won by a fairly wide margin.
Here is the brackets of this year’s ToB again:

Fates and Furies
v. Bats of the Republic
judge: Maria Bustillos

The Sympathizer
v. Oreo
judge: Brad Listi

The Turner House
v. Ban en Banlieue
judge: Miriam Tuliao

Our Souls at Night
v. The Whites
Judge: Syreeta McFadden

A Little Life
v. The New World
judge: Choire Sicha

The Book of Aron
v. The Tsar of Love and Techno
judge: Doree Shafrir

A Spool of Blue Thread
v. The Story of My Teeth
judge: Daniel Wallace

The Sellout
v. The Invaders
judge: Liz Lopatto

DADÖBLIN

[Somebody asked me to write a quick ~2000 characters on Döblin and Dada and then they didn’t need it any more, so fwiw, here it is]

whatisdada

DADA visionary Tristan Tzara famously called upon writers to do a negative, a destructive work, and within early 20th century avantgarde writing, a surprising amount of left-leaning writers followed his calling. The situation is particularly interesting with regards to Alfred Döblin, whose career both preceded and followed what anglosaxons view as the typical modernist prose. Döblin contributed to various expressionist journals and developed a poetics of expression and erasure, of memory on the one hand and suspicions towards what Lyotard later called ‘grand narratives’. The main reason we understand Döblin’s work in a DADA context today is Walter Benjamin’s famous defense of Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel which some critics viewed as a copy of preceding novels by Dos Passos and James Joyce. Benjamin reads Döblin’s early expressionism as influenced by and influential for DADA writing. The negative programme put forth by Tzara is one such example.

Whether it’s the dense collages of Berlin Alexanderplatz, created by literally cutting and pasting pieces of writing to create this untranslatable masterpiece, or the more fluent expressionalist epic Berge, Meere und Giganten, Döblin managed to bridge the gap between Marinetti’s nihilism, and the grand projects of fascist writers like Pound who “tried to write Paradise.” Döblin’s work that preceded WWII is interested in, and frequently electrified by questions of self and authorship. Döblin’s deep sense of tradition was a fractured, a doubtful sense of how modern narratives conspire to create individuals who are then stamped with the imprimatur of one of many grand narratives. It is Döblin’s compassionately negative work on tradition that shines most brightly among the writing of his contemporaries because he, a trained doctor and conscientious writer, managed a luminous exactness of political and personal expression.

Bits and pieces

The Special Period in Cuban history can be better understood by looking at the situation that directly preceeded it. Peter Gey has pointed out that the Cuban economic system is fairly unique among socialist countries, he also, again and again points to the problems that come up in the system. Shortages, inefficiencies and Castro’s own unwillingness “to take a more pragmatic approach to solving the island’s urgent economic problem” (Gey 104). The Soviet Union’s involvement was crucial in Cuba’s development.The Cuban revolution and the resulting situations of Cuba within the structure of international relations, especially in economic matters, can best be understood if Cuba is perceived as being fundamentally dependent on Soviet support. The Soviet Union was the main actor in keeping Cuba’s economy afloat and its citizens fed. Trade with the Soviet Union and with the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) was essential for balancing the economy. Even when the price for Cuba’s main export, sugar, became more volatile, Castro’s ties helped the country because Soviet Russia and other COMECON countries consistently paid above world market prices for Cuban sugar (cf. Staten 110). What is more, “the Soviet Union also provided Cuba with low-interest, long-term loans and a postponement on the payment of its immediate debts”. The combination of these measures buoyed Cuba’s economy, but at the same time, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Castro was ill prepared to take on the challenge of a rapidly changing world. The transitional time after 1989 that is generally referred to as “the special period”, in order to be fully understood, it is important to note that Cuba’s dependence on Russia was absolute. The Soviet Union supplied 63% of Cuba’s food imports, and 80% of the machinery Cuba imported (cf. Gott 287). All this went away in an instant. The impact on Cuba’s sugar exports was even more remarkable and the results were devastating. As Basosi points out, “Cuban GDP dropped by nearly 30% in three years, energy consumption was cut by half and by 1996 the Cuban calorie intake had fallen 27% below the level in 1990.” (Basosi 286). As a result, “most goods and services came once again to be severely rationed.” (Dominguez 148). To get a full picture of the situation in Cuba, it is vital to understand that the “special period” is not just a sign of economic deterioration so common in socialist countries at the end of the 1980s. In fact, as Dominguez’ essay makes perfectly clear, Cuba was on the mend. Living standards were increasing for two straight decades. Now, however, “fuel shortages, planned and unplanned electrical blackouts, factory shutdowns and transportation problems were common” (Staten 126). In fact, the devastation was so great, that “[t]he Cuban artist Tania Bruguera compared [its effects] to the aftershocks of a war.” (Fernandes 135). This led to increased emigration from Cuba (see especially Gott 298ff.) and a more general disillusionment with the Cuban revolution. Filmmakers were just as harshly affected as everyone else. This was especially problematic since movies occupied a special role in Cuban cultural discourse. Cuban cinema “retained its own voice” even under harsh ideological pressure (Chanan 358), but now, “home-based production without foreign participation would be drastically reduced” (Chanan 448). This also meant a change of markets and audience. While Michael Chanan points out that during earlier times, the movies were often tailored to give the audience a voice in the political process (cf. Chanan 358), now “[t]he Cuban film industry […] sought to secure funding through co-productions with foreign producers and Cuban films were marketed to international consumers.” (Fernandes 45).

Nobel Prize 2014: my picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back again (soon)

Hi everybody and thank you all who continue reading this blog for supporting it. As probably many of you know I went through a difficult personal stretch for almost the whole past year. I have just returned from a stay in a hospital and am looking to take up reviewing/writing again this week or the week after. If any of you want to support me in my work, there is a donation/paypal button in the column to the right of this blog.

I hope to talk to you all soon.

Bitching, Elizabeth Bishop and Mutants

Instead of posting three times, here are three different things wrapped up in one neat little post.

1. Charles Stross is being bitchy about my review. You can find said review here.

2. A new volume of Elizabeth Bishop’s letters is out. It’s called Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, and it’s edited by Joelle Biele. I ordered it last week. Here is a snippet from a review in the NY Times.

Over the next four decades, until her death in 1979, Bishop would publish nearly all of her best poems — fastidious, plainspoken, uniquely potent — in The New Yorker. She helped define what a New Yorker poem, in the best sense of that phrase, was. She was their gold standard. In turn the magazine helped define her. Bishop surely agreed with the poet Karl Shapiro, who viewed The New Yorker at midcentury as “one of the few places where a poet can be in the right company and get a proper reward and audience all at once.” But she also sniped at the magazine, which rejected her more intimate and experimental work and which vexed her in myriad other ways. One of the pleasures of “Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker,” a new collection of her correspondence with that magazine’s poetry editors, is snooping around in the excellent footnotes and front matter for the wicked comments she made behind the magazine’s back.

3. There’s a new X-Men movie about to be released. Below’s the trailer. Don’t ask me why they’re wearing New X-Men style uniforms. Don’t. With the X-Men movies it’s always better to not ask.

German Critics in Action

I’m German and I live in Germany and read German newspapers and German book reviews. I wish I didn’t. Reading reviews can be so much fun, like a silent conversation with vaguely like-minded people about books we like or even love. German reviews, however, are something else. Oh, German critics in action, what a sad spectacle. I’m not sure who allowed them to write and publish reviews and who pays these fools money hand over fist, but someone did and they should be punished. Generally speaking, German reviewers have no taste. None. And you can point to all sorts of evidence for this. You can point to truly atrocious writers like Pascal Mercier, whose day job is to be a mediocre Swiss philosopher who goes by the name of Peter Bieri. Mercier writes terribly sentimental books about Important issues and Big emotions and he does that with the language of a tired teenager. But his books never fail to garner praise in the German press. Or take Ingo Schulze, that curly haired hack. Ah, but we’ll return to Schulze.

Let me point out first that this sort of tastelessness is not just an unpleasant fact of German culture. There are a few unpleasant facts, why get all hot and bothered about this one? Well, it can be harmful. One instance are translations. Writers like Philip Roth who, like him or not, wield a deft and elegant pen, are translated into a German that Mercier would be embarrassed to use. Clunky, full of Americanisms and cheap idioms, the German Roth nary resembles the original. Complaints from the reviewers? Au contraire. They tend to praise all kinds of questionable decisions. Like Inés Koebel, who is probably the most celebrated German translator at the moment; she is currently translating the complete works, it seems, of Fernando Pessoa. I don’t speak Portuguese, but apparently, she takes great liberties in rendering his poetry. German reviewers recognized it and heaped praise on her for that, especially for clearing up passages that were obscure in the original. Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen! The German reviewer tells his readers that a translator has to produce a good text, clearly, he need not care much about the source text. German reviewers could do much to amend the sorry state of German translations but they won’t. Instead they praise a German translation of and English translation of a Bengal novel, because, apparently, it is a much better and lighter read than the original. There are countless examples like that. Nobody who has read a decent amount of books in translation can deny that in Germany, you can tell from the goddamn language what the original language was. Give me a page, purged of names, and I can tell you with 80% accuracy from which language it was translated. German translations resemble sloppy interlinear translations more than anything else. Unless critics are deaf and blind, they have noticed this. And this will never change. Unless reviewers, who have a certain clout, step up and complain about crap, nothing will change. Because the reading public sure as hell doesn’t care. The crap they buy, the crap that’s flying off the shelves, it’s beyond comprehension.

So, yes, on the negative side, reviewers could use their influence to clean up the mess that German translations (with a few notable exceptions!) are, but they don’t. On the other hand, they could use positive pushes to promote good literature. In Germany there are many literary prizes and some, like the Döblinpreis and the Büchnerpreis keep being awarded to worthy writers and exceptional books, maybe because the reviewers’ influence is not as strong as in other important prizes. One of those is the newly established Deutscher Buchpreis, an award which has consistently shown itself to be a joke. Julia Franck wins in the year that Köhlmeier, Menasse and Düffel are nominated? Really? Marcel Beyer may be one of the five most brilliant German novelists, but Schulze is a scourge. His language and characters are consistently flat and clichéd; he attempts by turn to be hip and pensive, he fails on both accounts. Schulze is awful in so many ways – but he’s a darling of German book sections. Why? Because German critics don’t care how a book is written: if they can empathize with it, it’s good. If it sounds Important, it’s good.

This was never as clear as when the other major prize was decided this year: the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. This one is awarded for short prose, either short stories or excerpts from novels; the nominees read their submissions publicly, not just before an audience but the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is televised, as well, and all the texts can be read online here; is remarkable in that not just the texts are public, but that the jury debates the text in question in public, too. We hear them discuss the merits and demerits of the text, and can see on what their final decision will be based, even though the final deliberations are not public. And it is revealing every time. When I heard this year’s winner, Jens Petersen, read his text, an excerpt from an upcoming novel, a Swiss, 33 year old writer who has already published a novel, Die Haushälterin, in 2005 (longlisted for the deutscher Buchpreis), I groaned. His text (read it here) is written solely for effect, he attempts to squeeze the utmost sentimental feeling from his material, bashing the reader over the head with faux-archaic vocabulary, overused, overly symbolic images, but without the verbal staying power that is needed to make these set pieces work as part of a larger whole, as part of a text that works as a text and not as a statement of intention. The text is about someone dying, and embeds its characters and events in a dire wasteland that makes McCarthy seem subtle. The protagonist’s voice was fittingly, predictably disaffected and jaded.

The jurors immediately praised the text, declared that it had lots of symbols and a landscape that expressed the inner landscape of the protagonist. They pointed out that the author was a doctor and surmised that he must have come into contact with lots of people in dire straits. One single critic resisted, Paul Jandl. He said that all this was well and good, but the actual writing was terrible, the actual writing was “kitschig”, i.e. cheesy, chintzy, corny, but his voice was drowned out by all the other critics who were so very moved by what evidently was a harsh life and a difficult situation. All of those fools could have been talking about a movie or a picture, even. These are the people our newspapers pay to review books. And when I heard, the next day, that Petersen won, I didn’t even get mad. It was just as expected, really. Business as usual. German critics in action.

A Man’s Gotta Have Values!

M. Majistral from the excellent lit blog tabula rasa interrupts his review to vent a frustration of his:

Mais voilà, pardonnez-moi une grossièreté : j’en ai plein le cul de jouer (et ce jeu dure depuis très exactement quatre ans et un jour) à faire la liste des bons et des mauvais points des livres lus. J’en ai plein le cul de résumer l’intrigue. Oubliez donc les trois paragraphes qui précèdent, virons les chapeaux et les chutes et passons, rapidement sans doute, trop rapidement peut-être, à ce qui fait, selon moi, tout l’intérêt du « Livre sacré du loup-garou ». Pas pourquoi il faudrait l’acheter. Même pas pourquoi il faudrait le lire (ça, finalement, vous l’avez vu plus haut ou ailleurs : amusant, blablabla). Non : ce que je veux brièvement mentionner ici, c’est ce que ce roman de Pelevine (et sans doute plus que certains de ses précédents textes) aura évoqué en moi.

As someone who had trouble starting to write reviews (and is still crappy at it), trying to slip out of his academic skin, trying to transmit his passions for literature and still make a point that could not be summed up by an emoticon, I can understand that. But I think these three things (“pourquoi il faudrait l’acheter”, “pourquoi il faudrait le lire” and “ce que ce roman de Pelevine … aura évoqué en moi”) cannot be easily separated, or at least I try not to separate them. WordPress’ blogcounter tells me this blog’s being read (not that I’d know from the comments) and I hope that people who read my reviews can see that my reviews are, first and foremost, accounts of what the books move in me, of how they move me; and since I am a missionary whose faith in God got lost in the mail, apparently, I then spent a lot of time trying to persuade people to read or not read a certain book. I’m not sure if I misread M. Majistral’s frustration here, but I think he thinks too little of the worth of the first two parts. I know my attempts to force him to read some great writers (Jahnn comes to mind) have been unsuccessful, so far, but you can always try. See, I’m hugely egocentric, and currently pummeled by an unholy headache, but when I think a book is great or important or just really worth reading or thinking about, then I tend to think: you, reader, you need to read this. your life will be better with the book than without it. Yes it’s myopic, but that’s me. The same goes for bad books, too. Why should someone read the Brooklyn Follies when he could read Shining at the Bottom of the Sea or Go tell it on the Mountain instead? Sorry. Have no idea where I’m going with this. Getting some aspirin. Bye.

How often I think about Sex

I have a list of articles on Language Log that I wanted to talk about concerning the stupidity of most pop science treatments on the so-called difference between man and woman. I may have voiced some disparaging comments of my own here and there and in other articles as well. The following excerpts are taken from an older Language Log article (please read the whole thing. It’s short and very readable).

On page 91 of The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine writes (emphasis added):

Males have double the brain space and processing power devoted to sex as females. Just as women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion while men have a small country road, men have O’Hare Airport as a hub of processing thoughts about sex whereas women have the airfield nearby that lands small and private planes. That probably explains why 85 percent of twenty- to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds and women think about it once a day — or up to three or four times on their most fertile days.

This striking different in rates of sexual thoughts is also one of the bullet points on the book’s jacket blurb — but there, female sex-thought frequency is downgraded from “once a day” to “once every couple of days”:

* Thoughts about sex enter a woman’s brain once every couple of days but enter a man’s brain about once every minute

Whatever the exact numbers, it’s an impressive-sounding difference — scientific validation for a widespread opinion about what men and women are like. And this is interesting stuff, right at the center of social and personal life, so you’re probably wondering about the details of the studies that produced these estimates.

in the following part of the article Liberman reviews her cited sources and, having done that, comes to these conclusions:

Adding up this study’s tally of undergraduate male sexual thoughts, we get 4.5 male urges + 2.5 male fantasies per day on average, for a total of 7 sexual thoughts, or one every (24*60*60/7 =) 12,342 seconds. Compare Dr. Brizendine’s figures: “85 percent of twenty- to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds”. That’s more than 237 times hornier — even if the other 15 percent never thought about sex at all, the average frequency would still be at least two orders of magnitude greater than Jones & Barlow report. (And they sampled male undergraduate psychology students, who must surely be near their life maximum of sexual consciousness.)

How about the female numbers? Jones and Barlow’s student diaries yielded 2 female urges + 2.5 female fantasies per day on average, for a total of 4.5 sexual thoughts per day. That’s 450% greater than the “once a day” that Brizendine cites in the book’s text, and 900% greater than the “once every couple of days” rate in the jacket blurb. Not that the average self-reports from the “47 female undergraduates” in Jones and Barlow’s 1990 American sample should be taken to stand for the nature of all women in all times and places — but this is still 47 more women than we’ve been able to connect with Brizendine’s estimates, at least so far.

Note also that the Jones and Barlow numbers for women amount to one sexual thought every (24*60*60/4.5 =) 19,200 seconds. But you’re not going to sell any books by writing that “Men think about sex every 12,300 seconds, while women only have a sexual thought every 19,200 seconds”.

It’s always somewhat irritating how easily people (i.e. readers) swallow the “hey I’m right, cuz see, it’s scientific” ‘argument’. Science. mainly because it’s such a heavily specialized field right now (not that this kind of misuse wasn’t common in earlier days as well, remember Edward Long?) , is easily misused and I as a reader have a strong mistrust against people who base outrageous claims on ‘science’. I am sometimes suprised that other people aren’t and that all these bad science books sell so well. And the funniest thing about it is that many natural scientists, who should know better, who can see their sciences being misused and trivialized on a daily basis, often do not behave in a better way whenever they write about, or make use of, fields like literature, philosophy or theology. Oh, well.
And how often do I think about sex? As they say: that’s for me to know and for you to find out. 😉

Broder über Barth

Da haben sich die zwei richtigen getroffen. Broder schreibt einen dämlichen Artikel über den dämlichen Barth. Gegen Ende schreibt er

Dennoch bleibt der Aufstieg von Mario Barth zum Superstar ein Mysterium. Die perfekte Vermarktungsmaschine, die hinter ihm mittlerweile brummt, kann die offenkundig bestehende Nachfrage ja nur bedienen oder allenfalls befeuern, aber nicht selbst schaffen.

Die Antwort liegt auf der Hand: wenige ‘Comedians’ bedienen so sehr und so ausschließlich das gleiche menschenfeindliche Klischee vom Mann und der Frau die vom Mars respektive der Venus kommen (eine Art Kommentar dazu schrieb ich hier). Und das hätte Broder doch auffallen können, schließlich verdankt er seinen ‘Erfolg’, in jüngster Zeit jedenfalls, ebenfalls nicht seiner Brillianz, sondern der Tatsache, daß er seit einigen Jahren unermüdlich ebenfalls immer wieder die gleichen menschenfeindlichenKlischees bedient. Gut, in seinem Fall sind es andere. Das ist aber auch schon alles.