#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich

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 two (of three) went. The writers who read today* were, in this order: Yannic Han Biao Federer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher, Daniel Heitzler, Tom Kummer. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For day one click here. For a German summary of the whole thing, which I also wrote, for Faustkultur, click here.

There was a strong sense on Tuesday of what the gatekeepers of culture want to be written and published and what they would rather wasn’t. Yesterday had two excellent texts, Sarah Wipauer’s story, which is clearly top of the class this year, and Julia Jost’s. There was one mediocre story by Andrea Gerster, as well as one badly executed, but interesting story by a very talented writer and then, there was a mess of historical revisionism, with a dose of literary cliché. There was no clear sense, as there often is during Bachmannpreis-competitions of texts that fit a mold and texts that don’t. Day two had it in spades.

The first text was written by Yannic Han Biao Federer, a writer with a perfect biography, who has won several literary awards, and has very quickly become part of the cultural gatekeepers himself with his work at the Literaturhaus Köln. Biographically, he appears to be straght from central casting: academical background. work in journalism, work in cultural institutions, awarded some key prizes, and debut novel with one of the leading literary publishers in Germany. No wonder his story, taking almost no risks, offers such a flat take on personal narrative. There are small metafictional twists, slow, detailed observations, and just enough relevance to save the story from utter blandness. It’s not that Federer’s text is bad – it is not. It reads like a chapter from his novel (review likely forthcoming here) – a consistency which points to strong literary control and skill. The blandness is not accidental: Federer’s story is carefully, and skillfully designed to be bland. One is tempted to read the story and the environment its read in in terms of Bourdieu’s theory of practice, in that the (sub-)field of Bachmannpreis is a very specific field. The judges, as well as the audience consists of people of varied background. Academics, successful writers, journalists, people who have or are working as gatekeepers in various cultural institutions. It’s a big field, but also narrow in that they all share a similar sense of references. They have all read this kind of text before. This is like New Yorker poetry, where, dependent on who is editor of the poetry section, the kind of poetry that gets published almost becomes its own genre which you then can see turn up in all kinds of other journals and places. Reading and rereading Federer’s story, it becomes clear that its very specific kind of dullness – it’s a kind of writing that develops when you write a lot of submissions for places, and have to be aware of word count. There is no description that is wrappped in one, two fitting phrases, it’s all extended to the point of maximum ennui. Despite the author’s Asian heritage, which is also mentioned in the story, there’s also a sense of whiteness about the whole thing – or rather: privilege. This was highlighted by two things: the enormous praise by the judges, and by the next story to be read.

Ronya Othmann was on the mound next and immediately hit us right between the eyes with a fastball. A story that couldn’t be more different. Not drowning in descriptions, she used the names of places and people to carry a lot of the descriptive weight, it is a story about how a young yazidic woman who lives in Germany comes to terms with the genocide committed against her people by the IS. Othmann, trained in an MFA, uses this training to make sharp observations about what temporal and geographic distance means. What language means. How do you speak about something that has never been widely or fairly represented in the media of the languages you use to speak or write. The violence against the Yazidis has often been framed in terms of a broader war against the IS – the complicity of the Turkish government, clearly stated by Othmann, never really plays a role in these narratives. What’s more, there is an obsession with particularized, sexualized violence in the media – what does this mean for a young woman, whose family is only alive due to a quirk of personal history. Without being able to migrate (or having a car), her family would have suffered the same fate as all teh murdered and raped people of her ethnicity who stayed behind. Witnessing survival has a long and harrowing literary history, and has perhaps been best described by Primo Levi. There are many survivors of the Shoah who did not really survive – they stayed alive, until they couldn’t any more. People have been writing about this for decades and it is remarkable and laudable that Othmann found new and fresh literary ways to examine this same issue. She discusses quite specifically the question of how to comprehend the fact that she and her family are alive. Are they alive or have they merely survived? Othmann struggles with the binary language between life and death. It is not an accident that one of the best and clearest books on suicide, which attacks the morally freighted binary of life and death has been written by a survivor of the Shoah, Jean Améry. Whereas Federer’s text turned on a metafictional chuckle of bourgeois life in Cologne, Othmann’s text turned on the question of identity. Othmann uses several layers of writing: there is the typing up of recorded conversations, journal entries, and of real actual travels. The story ends with the narrator seemingly shedding the ambiguity of language, coming up right against questions of reality and speech. A remarkable story – not without flaws, but executed with enormous skill. The first sign that Othmann might be in trouble was the Twitter commentary. The twitterati, among them people with some cultural influence, reacted – oddly. There was a worry (yes, worry) that one would be guilted into…what? praise? attention? I feel that if you read a story about genocide and your primary comment is – “Oh no, I’m being morally blackmailed” – I feel I cannot help you. What is this “blackmail” you speak of? Blackmailed into caring? That’s such a remarkably white statement – and it was sort of echoed by the judges. Hildegard Keller felt she couldn’t properly criticise the text’s deficient grammar with a Yazidi survivor sitting right there. I mean, how dare she just turn up and tell a story that is unpleasant. What happened to the long meandering descriptions of mint-colored walls? I mean, the nerve! Other judges decided to re-open the very well trod paths of debates on witnessing and fiction, on truth and literature. There are literally hundreds of thousands of books on the topic. Frankfurt, for example, has a whole frigging professorship dedicated to the topic. What’s the need to re-legislate the topic? I mean literally yesterday, for inexplicable reasons, a judge decided to use Imre Kertesz’s searing work as a comparison for Silvia Tschui’s German nonsense – Imre Kertesz addresses the topic in his work! To be honest, I am not sure it’s plausible NONE of them were aware of this. The longer this discussion went on, the more it seemed like they needed an excuse not to engage with the text. The unwillingness to have a literary discussion about a text, which is written with such excellent literary skill (if anything, one of its flaws is that you can see the MFA training a bit too clearly in it) struck an unpleasant note this fine Friday morning.

The final text this morning combined two things: being palatable to the judges and exquisitely written. A absurdist-but-relatable story about a woman who’s relatively poor, struggles with a life that is less than she and others hoped for. She takes smaller jobs to not preclude the possibility of writing A Novel, but what sounds like depression, family struggles and other issues prevent her from giving her life a shape that she would be satisfied with. It’s a ramshackle, unfinished, unformed life, like many people still lead it today. Suddenly, a cabinet appears mysteriously. Birgit Birnbacher, already one novel under her belt, writes this story with enormous skill – it is much funnier than I made it seem, it is cleverly structured, addressing racial, gender and other concerns, even metaphysical ones, without ever having to strain. It’s not quite as flawless as Wipauer’s tale, but that’s in part because where Wipauer sticks the landing perfectly, Birnbacher stumbles in the last sentence. If this was a poem, every reader would tell her to just strike it and be done with the whole thing. That seems like a minor flaw in a major, excellent story, and it is. Birnbacher joins Wipauer and Othmann among the favorites to win it all. The judges, meanwhile, agreed. Praise was unanimous and detailed. There was no sense of “we have a thirty-something woman in front of us, how can we discuss a story about a thirtysomething woman,” meanwhile. One wonders why.

Birnbacher’s story concluded the morning readings and the good portion of the event. The two afternoon readings – hoo boy. The first, a story by Daniel Heitzler, is hard to talk about. I mean you’ve all heard of Poe’s Law, right (definition here) – this was a perfect literary equivalent. On the surface, this is just a very bad story. A very bad story, structured badly, drowning in adjectives and adverbs, mindlessly run through a thesaurus, like that high school essay we’ve all seen (“Students: Stop. Halt. Discontinue. Terminate. Cut it out with all the thesaurused smart-person words in your essays.”). I remember, on a literary forum that I’m not entirely sure still exists, someone once explained to me that Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending wasn’t a cliché-riddled mess, but specifically invoked the clichés involved in talking about death. There was nothing in the text that suggested that, except that forum member’s goodwill. I mean, the books Barnes has published since have disproved that theory, but as an approach, it stuck with me. It’s a literary Poe’s Law: an awful literary text is indistinguishable from a very good parody of an awful literary text, if there’s no wink in the parody. Sometimes the sheer skill involved provides the wink: Robert Coover is probably the best example: his parody and homage to Louis L’Amour-style WEesterns, Ghost Town, or his homage to Noir novels in, uh, Noir, are written with enormous skill. On the “wink” side of things is maybe John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is hilarious. Not his best book, but Barth incorporates winks into the style he parodies. There is nothing, nothing of the sort in Daniel Heitzler’s story. The best we get is a comment in the intoductory video that he’s a fan of American postmodern literature, especially Beat and David Foster Wallace. Sure, nothing bad has happened with young devotees to DFW’s work. Sure. You know I was once at a meeting of the DFW society at a conference where they had a roundtable dedicated to salvaging the bad reputation of DFW’s work, created by his acolytes and the unsavory facts that had come out about DFW’s own misogyny. So faced with a young man, essentially subscribed to a problematic literary tradition, the judges decided that the text could not possibly be this bad – it had to have been done on purpose. i have thought long and hard on the fact that all the judges except one insisted on reading the text this way and I think this goes back to the assumption, shaken by Otoo’s nonchalant interview after her win: “we are smart and important people. A writer wouldn’t dare come here with a text this bad. Ergo, it has to be good.” That this judgment appears to be solely a creation of the subfield of Bachmannpreis thinking becomes clear once you look at the unanimous rejection of the text on Twitter.- there wasn’t a torn opinion. Nobody read the text and thought: oh this is intentional. Personally, I have limited patience for intentionally bad writing anyway. If you make me read ten pages of bad prose that you artfully and cleverly shaped to be this friggin bad, I still have to read ten pages of bad prose. There’s a masturbatory quality to this kind of writing, and let me tell you, I have never seen it practiced by female writers. I feel that says something right there.

I don’t know what to say about the final story that I didn’t already suggest even before he read. Read my original TDDL post for notes on who Tom Kummer is. Kummer is a kind of inverted mirror of Federer, the first guy to read today. Kummer is also a production of gatekeepers’ goodwill, but not by following all the rules and pleasing all the right people. He did it by projecting an image of being “the last Gonzo writer” (snort), a literal quote. The bad boy of literature. He turned up, and read a story in a kind of faux-Clint Eastwood drawl that sounded sleazy and unpleasant. His story, about a limousine driver was unpleasant and bad. For someone, who became infamous faking exciting interviews with celebrities, his dialogue was dragging and boring. The story was entirely without ambiguity or tension. Everything was stated plainly and then, for the people in the back, re-stated. The story is unpleasant start to finish, from some lazy racism to literary and explicit misogyny, as well as the weirdest description of a father caressing the naked body of his child i have ever seen. The protagonist’s dead wife re-appears as an octopus-like monster, the only other woman, an accomplished researcher, is, wait for it, an antifeminist who produces a drug to further male sexual enjoyment, because, no kidding, we have too long been interested only in female lust and pleasure – which, I mean, she has never seen any porn or TV or movies, I assume? Or commercials? I mean, what? And for some reason, this turns the protagonist on to the point of considering sexually assaulting his passenger, a thought that he discards after a long struggle. There are no, zero, zilch redeeming qualities in this story, but its invitation shines a light on what’s acceptable and what’s not. Writing a story about genocide gets the judges to equivocate and stay distant. Writing indirectly about rape, on the other hand, raises no red flags. Tom Kummer and Yannic Federer, each in their own way, offer a take on what privilege means in German-language literary culture.

So it’s a day where two of the competitions two best texts so far get sandwiched by an odd duo. At the end of the day, the four best texts are, in this order. Sarah Wipauer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher and Julia Jost.

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”

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#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space

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 one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Katharina Schultens, Sarah Wipauer, Silvia Tschui, Julia Jost, and Andrea Gerster. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

Ah, what a day, what a day! Five women, two science fiction stories, murder, Nazis, and divorce proceedings. I’m telling you, things were on fire! Well, maybe not so much on fire as occasionally slightly warm. Tepid maybe? Look, honest to God, a clear favorite emerged today, reading a story without any recognizable flaws, and a runner up turned up as well, also very well executed, mostly, and the rest, well, tbf, there are five slots to fill every day, not everyone can be a winner.

The first reader was Katharina Schultens. Schultens is an exquisite poet, and what’s more, a poet of the kind that should be easily transferable to prose – long, looping sentences, complex rhythms, all of that. What’s more, there is a strong vision behind the text she read. Not everything became clear – it is an excerpt from a novel, but it appears that the text is a Ballardesque vision of a future (it is set two hundred years after 1984) after some ecological collapse. Regrettably, one would have, given the very real ecological threats today, hoped for a more relevant kind of catastrophe, say, speaking of Ballard, something like The Drought; instead her vision veers towards the post-human, with Vandermeeresque landscapes threatening deformed or changed descendants of humanity. She’s not just somewhat apolitical regarding our very real ecological crisis, which is a bit problematic – but in addition, completely (apparently) randomly, she uses the heat of Africa as a metaphor, which seems a bit tone deaf given that any ecological disaster would hit countries in Africa harder than, say, Germany, so if you are steering clear of politics, maybe not lean into the Africa-as-metaphor too much, yes? I mean, it’s white blindness, I suppose. And then there is the confusion and dullness of some of the fiction. Speculative fiction that takes such a big leap needs a proper story telling backbone – which this text, very specifically, does not have. There are great, meaty descriptions of situations and things, and there are rail-thin, meandering sections of what you’d have to call plot? It is very odd, how strong talent and strong vision somehow leads to a mediocre text.

The second reader was Sarah Wipauer. Wipauer’s text, almost irritatingly, has no flaws that I can see. Last year, a hole was discovered in the ISS – seemingly drilled from the inside though it wasn’t clear who drilled it and why – it necessitated an unscheduled spacewalk to plug it from the outside. As far as I can tell, it is still entirely unclear what happened. As a writer, Wipauer is intrigued by space stories, and by the quirks and oddities of small news stories, and she took this event and turned it into a ghost story set in Austria. There’s everything in it that  you could possibly fit – provincial history, medical oddities, and Wipauer appears to be able to manipulate syntax at will to fit the story and the individual voices in it haunting these events. Towards the end the story tightens even further, including social pressures regarding class and gender. There is not one word too much, and the story wraps up beautifully. No matter what the rest of the days bring – this has to be one of the five best texts.

It is with text three that things started going off the rails. The author, Silvia Tschui, appeared to present at first a bucolic story (an excerpt from a novel), written with tight craftsmanship – oh how I was mistaken. It became clear real fast that #1, she pursued a kitsch kind of writing, offering a cliché depiction of a childhood on a farm, with mild doses of violence, lessons, and the kind of dialogues that someone who grew up in the city assumes are spoken in the countryside. So far so dull, but then the story took a bad turn. I mean, excuse me, for not immediately assuming the worst – but it’s true: bucolic clichés have a special function in literature, especially German literature. Farmers are often used to show a nation’s real backbone, and attacks on farmers are the way the political right tends to frame foreigner invasions. In Germany, the so-called conservative revolution was particularly enamored with that figure – the work of Hermann Löns – in particular the 1910 Wehrwolf – was used as inspiration (Löns died in 1914), and many books in the 20s, and particular 30s, repeated and enlarged these motifs. In the early-to-late oughts, German literature added another trope, that of Germans-as-victims. The Germans in today’s Poland and the Czech Republic and Hungary fled the approaching Soviet army and often lost everything. Tschui’s text connects the bucolic motif with those revisionist stories of victimization. They are all the rage in German TV shows and movies. In Tschui’s text there are German farm boys scared of an Enemy who is sudden, cruel, mean, and is connected, in the broader narrative of the novel, to a East European mythical figure, that the Germanic boys have been told to be afraid. The (post)colonial aspects of German/Prussian occupation of Poland have not been discussed as broadly as they should have, but this text reads exceptionally exploitative, with an almost archetypical and racialized sense of an Other. As a result, the text was both literarily bland and politically dubious. Did this come across in jury discussions? Except for Hubert Winkels’s fairly clear words, the other judges steered fairly clear of the text’s issues. Honestly, what would you expect?

The afternoon readings were less eventful overall – the first story, a story from the Austrian countryside by Julia Jost, was very well done – mostly. A story about an Austian childhood, with pedophile priests, knives, Nazi heritage and more. The story is written with enormous energy and humor, clearly, CLEARLY the second-best story of the day, magnificent in many ways – though the ending is a bit of a dud – the writer had to tie up all her plot points so it becomes plodding real fast.

And finally, the final story – a banal tale of child custody and motherhood – the story itself isn’t necessarily banal – we are quick to label women’s stories as banal because they don’t conform to masculine hero narratives. And indeed, there are issues in the story here and there that piqued my interest – but the story is told with no literary energy, no skill beyond the routine of a prolific novelist. She needs to get from one end of the story to the other – and by Jove, she will get there. Choice of words seemed almost random in its banality.

On Friday the readers will be

10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer

 

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

 

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.

If you follow me on twitter, you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain.

I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little book cave. Read on for Details on the event in general, what happened in the past years and what’s happening this year. CLICK here if you want to read a summary of Day One.

So what is happening?

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4-5 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are usually more or less young writers (but they don’t have to be).

So what happened in the past years?

The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you know what, the German judges were still slightly upset about it the following year, which explains why 2017’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst. The 2017 winner, Ferdinand Schmalz, was…solid. A good example of the performance based nature of the event – having one effective text can win you the pot. It was overall not, you know, ideal.

Given the issues with race in 2016 and 2017, it was interesting that the 2018 lineup skewed even whiter and much more German. It was thus no surprise that the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunification history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. But the overall winner, Tanja Maljartschuk, a Ukrainian novelist, produced a very good text, and was a very deserving winner. And Raphaela Edelbauer (whose brilliant book Entdecker I reviewed here) also won an award. Three out of five ain’t bad folks, particular with people like Michael Wiederstein in the jury.

So what’s happening this year?

Michael Wiederstein is a bit of a caricature, it seems to me. I noted his invitee Verena Dürr and the dubious discussion of her text back in 2017 (go read it here), and this year he really, REALLY brought his F game. In the most dubious field of writers since I started writing about the award, he made the…ah, just the most exquisitely bad choice of all. His invitee, Tom Kummer is famous. Now and then there’s a famous writer – John Wray is an example. Tom Kummer isn’t famous for being a good writer. Tom Kummer is famous for being a plagiarist. Caught not once, but multiple times. For falsifying interviews first. For cobbling together texts from his own and others’ older texts. For falsifying quotes and using incorrect details. He was given chance after chance after chance.

German and Swiss tastemakers have decreed: this man deserves more chances. He is precious. He is our gonzo hero. The usually very good Philip Theisohn called Kummer’s elegy to his deceased wife – like all of his work of questionable originality – “moving.” What it is, most of all, is fucking awfully written. There’s a bad tendency in German literature to look at some American writers – Thompson, Salter, Hemingway – and see their simplicity as simple. All of this is facilitated by translation, of course. I love Hunter Thompson’s work. Thompson was a fantastic writer. Not always, not in all of his texts, but his stylistic sharpness and moral clarity are rare in literature. Philip Theisohn cites Kummer’s admiration of Thompson in writing that “Kummer, the last real gonzo, was led by the conviction that a world of lies doesn’t deserve truth either, only more lies, which led to his infamous fake interviews in Hollywood.” – #1 there are still New Journalist writers out there, and the masculinist veneration of “Gonzo” has always been suspect to begin with. and #2, if you ever read Thompson with dedication and care – he primarily cares about the truth. Post 1974-Thompson is a bit complicated in his approach to the self in his work, but the use of fictionalized self, and using your own perspective as a distortion to better see the truth has a profoundly moral impetus with Thompson, whatever other faults he had (he had a lot) – there’s none of that in Kummer, and even Theisohn knows better than to claim otherwise. Kummer, his deceptions, his toying with truth and originality never had a goal beyond the celebration of one Tom Kummer. This navelgazing white masculinity is all too common in literature, and at least half of the TDDL field often suffers from that; and Michael Wiederstein, the juror, is the perfect embodiment of this white male navelgazing element in German literary culture. Da wächst zusammen was zusammen gehört.

The rest of the field is also a bit dubious. Among the writers I have read in preparation, Ines Birkhan is very original but very bad, Andrea Gerster and Yannic Han Biao Federer seem flat and dull. Lukas Meschik is prolific, somewhat interesting, but boring. And then there are the three writers I have the highest hopes for. Ronya Othmann and Katharina Schultens are very good poets – Othmann in particular writes exceedingly well and should be immediately seen as a favorite, based on potential. And there’s Sarah Wipauer, who has not published very widely, but she has a blog here which contains short, exquisite prose, and I have read texts unpublished on- or offline, which are similarly exquisite. Wipauer, Othmann and Schultens, in my opinion, lead the field here, by quite a solid margin.

I have misgivings about the field! And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list, which I posted below, sorted by reading days/slots. You’ll see the whole thing kicks off with two of my favorites on day one, in the two first slots.

Thursday
10.00 Katharina Schultens
11.00 Sarah Wipauer
12.00 Silvia Tschui
13.30 Julia Jost
14.30 Andrea Gerster

Friday
10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer

Saturday
10.00 Ines Birkhan
11.00 Leander Fischer
12.30 Lukas Meschik
13.30 Martin Beyer

 

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

 

On finding Frank Bidart

I had some collection by Frank Bidart on my shelf for what felt like almost a decade before I even looked at it. It was In the Western Night. I do not remember why or when I bought it. One night, desperate to find words to tide me over to the next day, I took it off the shelf. I was 23 and alone, marooned in a life I had not chosen and a body that had just appeared around me. Frank Bidart spoke of bodies, of fathers, of the unreality of one’s own face in the mirrors. In a new poem, Bidart speaks of learning American history from a Lowell poem. In these earlier Bidart poems that I found on my shelf, the Bostonian stateliness of Lowell is made to up a life that has more doubts, an a fuller body to deal with. There is no scaffolding in Bidart’s poems – it is Bidart’s breath, his rhythmic heart that pushes everything into its place. 25 years old, living in the ruins of an old, collapsed country, I touched these words and marveled. I found Bidart. And with every new book I found him again. In the more recent poems, even more of the scaffolding falls away, lines survive on the strength of Bidart’s invocation of an unsentimental sentimentality, an exploration of the body around one’s body, of the words in plain, exalted speech. Many years later, I sit in a crumbling apartment, in Germany’s former capital, touching the ruins of my lives with the words I have, exalted, plain. And still, when I am desperate to find words, I reach for Bidart on my shelf.

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?

Catherynne Valente: Space Opera

Valente, Caterynne, Space Opera, Saga Press
ISBN 978-1481497497

One of my favorite science fiction novels is The Killing Star by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski. The situation is simple: in the future, with humanity having colonialized the solar system and about to step outside, someone notices we exist and might be a threat, and, just to be safe, nukes the whole of humanity before coming in and mopping up what’s left. It is a dark novel that provides an unsettling answer to the Fermi paradoxon, and its logic is grounded in our history of colonialism and imperialism. Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera takes a very similar premise, and spins it into one of the funniest novels this side of Scalzi’s Redshirts (it’s funnier than Scalzi). Humanity has reached the brink of leaving for space, and now the sentient creatures of the universe are auditioning us for space adulthood. How you may ask? After a devastating civil war in the galaxy, a singing competition was instated to test sentience. You have to take part. If you are an applicant species, you can’t come last – if you come last, your planet is wiped clean and re-seeded. So one day, the universe is knocking on earth’s door and asks for humanity’s champion. That champion is a washed up British glam rocker: brown, queer and old. What comes next is hilarious – and smart.

The obvious comparison is Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its satirical phantasmagoria of space, but the most apt comparison to me is the work of Terry Pratchett. Like Pratchett, Valente suffuses her extremely funny writing with some ultimately serious thinking about who we are as a society and who we ought to be. Pratchett’s work is less about dwarves, wizards and inedible streetfood than it is about community and how we as humans – and more precisely, the English –struggle with and understand community and humanity. One wonders what Pratchett, who died in 2015, would have made of Farage and Brexit and Trump. Well this is an option: Catherynne Valente takes one of the big projects of post-WWII Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest (née Grand Prix Eurovision) and blows it up to galactic scale. She keeps the current rules (including the stupid stupid current vote split between popular and jury vote), and adapts them to a larger scale, with aliens of all shapes and sizes, and includes the genocide-for-losers option (though it only applies to applicant nations. Established nations who come last are merely shamed for it. Valente is an unexpectedly funny writer, the book’s joke density is extremely high, with standalone jokes, allusions to pop music, to Eurovision history, to books, and more wrestling for space, but even so, we’re always led by a clear political sense of what’s good and proper.

Racism, for example, isn’t, and Valente gets in multiple hits at it. This connects Space Opera to another novel that I can hear humming in the background: Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love. Gwyneth Jones is one of the most underrated and most brilliant writers of SF today, and her Bold as Love cycle focuses on a mixed-race British rock guitarist, connecting rock music with British politics, and for all the fantasy hijinks in Jones’s books, there is a serious contemplation behind it all, which Valente shares. Both Valente and Jones take contemporary culture, signifiers of identity and skew them away from assumptions of whiteness and “Britishness.” Valente gets explicit – once her protagonist, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes gets picked, the British public is upset: a brown immigrant from a Muslim background? Couldn’t they have picked someone….whiter? There is a tendency in some science fiction to externalize debates on racism to aliens and make it about purple beings discriminating against green beings – not so here. Like some versions of Doctor Who, Valente never disengages from actual racism, though she does use galactic racism as a canvas as well. In Space Opera, things are terrible on Earth, and things are terrible in the Galaxy, and one doesn’t replace the other.

In fact, Valente’s novel is a perfect example of the possibilities of science fiction. Yes, it is a endlessly hilarious take on Eurovision, but it also exemplifies what Samuel Delany has written about science fiction expanding literary language and possibilities. It takes a genre considered bad (Delany says “When far-future sf fails, we usually call its degenerate form “space opera”) and elevates it. Valente uses the camp and exaggeration inherent in the form to speak to a larger issue about violence and war and, most of all, community. If you have read any of her other books, in particular what I consider her masterpiece, the 2009 Palimpsest, you won’t be surprised at the precision and craftsmanship throughout the book. Jack Vance, one of the SF legends, had written a tongue-in-cheek take on space opera in his 1965 Space Opera, but somehow Valente’s book exceeds this and many other novels like it. There is no flab, no fat on the bones of this novel. Even her very prose is complex and dense with allusion and humor. Her humor is not harsh, not cheaply ironic. It is full of puns, verbal energy – it’s like a three ring circus act. What’s more (and important to understand) is that Valente (like me) unironically loves the ESC. The book comes with quotes from some favorite songs and a long dedication to its founder in the afterword. Irony is cheap. This book is not. The book demands to be re-read in delight, excitement and admiration. Space Opera is very funny, very serious and very, very good.

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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.