Feb 142017
 

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Irene Némirovsky is an odd choice for critics to attack and defend. Surely, in any political climate, let alone today’s, more obvious proponents of anti-Semitism exist than a woman who wore a yellow star and died at Auschwitz. But she asked uncomfortable questions in uncomfortable times that quickly became dangerous times. —Laura Michele Diener

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The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France
Susan Rubin Suleiman
Yale University Press, 2016
376 pages; $35.00

“It is impossible, as many liberals believe, to belong to two nations, the Jewish and the French,” –Robert Brasilac, 1938, Je suis partout, French newspaper

“What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself”
–Franz Kafka, Diary

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Exquisitely erudite and boundlessly empathetic, Susan Suleiman’s newest book, The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France, is far more than a literary biography of Irene Némirovsky but rather a study of twentieth-century Jewish identity with one writer’s life as the fulcrum. Irene Némirovsky, now most famous for the miraculous posthumous adventures of her novel Suite Francaise, was during her lifetime, a respected and successful writer on the French literary scene. Born to a wealthy Russian Jewish banking family in 1903, after the Russian Revolution, she moved to France as a teenager where she wholeheartedly embraced the language and culture of her adopted country. Classified as a foreign Jew under the Vichy regime, she was arrested by the French police in July 1942, and subsequently transported to Auschwitz where she died a month later. The unfinished draft of a novel (actually two novels, the first of a proposed five) survived with her two young daughters, Denise, age twelve, and Elisabeth, five, to be published to acclaim in 2004. That year, it won the prestigious literary Renaudot Prize in 2004, the first time the award was bestowed on a deceased author.

First French, and then English speakers have adored Suite Francaise, two beautifully executed studies of French civilians under German occupation, rife with tender relationships and written in real time by a sharply observant narrator. World War II has become part of the collective consciousness of many Americans and Europeans, and with its portrayals of the quiet upheavals and wartime romances of an occupied village, Suite Francaise fulfills many twenty-first century fantasies of vintage wartime. Publishers seized the opportunity to reissue her older books and translate them into English, but their portrayals of prewar immigrant Jewish characters—particularly the 2007 translation of David Golder—struck some readers as more archaic and even disturbing. Its original publication in 1929 was Némirovsky’s first big break in the literary world, but she also received criticisms from Jewish readers who questioned the value of a story about an unscrupulous banker.

In the article, “Scandale Francaise,” that appeared in the January 30, 2008, issue of the New Republic, critic Ruth Franklin boldly and uncompromisingly states that “Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew” who “made her name by trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes.” Although she admits that Suite Francaise “is a fine novel,” she questions the absence of Jewish characters, suggesting that “perhaps Némirovsky was incapable of creating sympathetic Jewish characters. Franklin’s article followed other condemnations, including a review of The Dogs and the Wolves in the Times Literary Supplement by Naomi Price, and an article Jewish Ideas Daily, by Dan Kagan-Kans, titled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Hating Jew.” In the end, the crux of these arguments rests on two points, the visibility of Jews and the invisibility of Jews in her fiction, neither of which critics find acceptable. Some of the reviews, like Kagan-Kans’, display an almost astounding blindness towards historical context (he writes scathingly of the absence of Jewish characters in All Our Worldly Goods, a novel Némirovsky published in 1941, when she was already wearing a yellow star and writing under a pseudonym, because Jewish authors were banned), and Susan Suleiman treats them with more politeness than they deserve. On the other hand, Ruth Franklin, herself the author of the recent well-received biography of Shirley Jackson (Shirley Jackson: A Haunted Life, Liveright, 2016) as well as a A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2011) presents a conundrum. She has done her homework, and Suleiman’s book is partially a continuation of an in-person conversation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, on December 12, 2008, which Suleiman describes as heated. Both women, like Némirovsky, are Jewish women writers deeply concerned about Jewish women as writers as well as women writing about Jewishness. The debate centers around Némirovsky’s views on Jewish assimilation into French society. As Franklin interprets them, assimilation in Némirovsky’s novels is doomed to fail because their inherently negative Jewish characteristics will inevitably surface. “Though the Golders [characters from the 1929 David Golder] have tried to assimilate into French society, Némirovsky makes it clear that Jews can never escape their identity.”

Suleiman carefully outlines the debate and rightly asks, “why reasonable readers can argue with such passion about the alleged self-hatred (or not) of a Jewish writer who has been dead for almost three-quarters of a century?” and why these reasonable readers have always been exclusively Jewish. Non-Jewish critics display little desire or interest to enter that inflammatory conversation. Much of Sulieman’s book examines Némirovsky’s writing as an exploration of deeply divisive questions about Jewish identities, a group as divided today by language, ritual, class, and politics in the 1930’s as they are today.

To do so, she delves into the thorny question of Jewish self-hatred, a concept dating back to the nineteenth century, when the political climate allowed a number of German, Austrian, and French Jews to escape the ghettos and enter mainstream society. The resulting identity crises among assimilated Jews contributed to the outpourings of Jewish artists and intellectuals. In every conceivable medium, Jews questioned who and what they were, and how they fit into the growing nationalisms of nineteenth-century Europe. Can a Jew be a good German? Or a good Frenchman? Or even entirely French?—the latter an incendiary question that burst into full-scale flame in 1894, with the Dreyfus Affair. In addition to questions of patriotism, for assimilated Jews, the even larger question loomed—What is a Jew? If a person distances themselves from language, ritual, and belief, what inalienable element continues to define them as Jewish, and somehow of a piece with other Jews? Suleiman explains:

It is this estrangement experienced by Jews themselves from other Jews that some people call self-hatred or Jewish anti-Semitism. But the fact is that it existed and continues to exist, not only among Jews but also among other devalued minorities, and not only in Europe.

Accusations of self-hatred have been leveled at a fairly respectable group of intellectuals and artists including Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, Isaac Babel—proving at least that Irene Némirovsky is in good company and perhaps that the definition of Jewish self-hatred, if such a thing exists, is so all-encompassing as to be meaningless. After all, anyone who explores their genetic and cultural inheritance with anything but the most unflagging enthusiasm could effectively be considered self-hating. Suleiman views the question of Némirovsky’s or anyone else’s Jewish self-hatred as insolvable, and certainly ahistorical, and argues that “rather than speak of Jewish self-hatred, it makes historical as well as philosophical sense to speak of the ambiguities and ambivalences regarding Jewish identity and self-definition during this period.”

The title of her book, The Némirovsky Question, plays on another nineteenth century concept, die Judenfrage, one that Suleiman proffers as “a useful alternative to Jewish self-hatred if one wants to think about dilemmas of Jewish identity in modern times.” Today, the Jewish Question possesses ominous connotations of cattle cars and concentration camps, but before the Nazis repackaged it as “how to get rid of the Jews,” Jewish intellectuals themselves, including Theodore Herzl, Oskar Jaszi, and Anna Lesznai interpreted the question as a series of inquiries into the place of Jews in mainstream society, Jewish group identity, and most acutely, how people characterized more by division than similarities related to each other.

As Suleiman argues, the Jewish question haunted Némirovsky, who lived out the complexities of interwar Jewish identity. Many of her Jewish characters were reflective of her own family members, eastern immigrants to France, wealthy, on the path to assimilation, but at most a generation away from the ghetto. Her father, Leon Némirovsky was from a poor Yiddish-speaking family near Odessa while her mother came from a wealthy Jewish family more assimilated. As in her family, so in her books, the choice of French, Russian, or Yiddish language declares affiliation. The family lived the elegant and fashionable life of the French upper class, and Némirovsky received her education first through a French governess and then the Sorbonne. She enjoyed close friendships with French Catholics, notably the siblings Rene and Madeleine Avot, who would care for her children after the war. But the husband she married at the age of twenty-three, Michael Epstein, was another Russian Jew from a banking family, and one more religious than her own. The couple converted in 1939 to Catholicism, sent their children to Catholic schools, and in their own words, considered themselves entirely French-Catholic. But waves of refugees from Nazi Germany as well as a growing antipathy to foreigners challenged their self-identification with their adopted country. Between 1920-1939, the number of Jews in France tripled, with many of the newcomers Yiddish speaking, religiously observant, and poor. In her novels David Golder (1929), The Dogs and the Wolves (1940), and The Wine of Solitude (1935), she considers the tensions between these groups ostensibly sharing an identity. In her short story, Fraternité, published in February 1937, these uneasy cousins literally confront each other in the encounter between a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker, brilliantly named Christian Rabinovitch, and a Jewish immigrant from Russia, also named Rabinovitch.

No character in Némirovsky is so successfully assimilated that they aren’t haunted by the specter of their poor religious antiquated Jewish selves. These internal tensions among French Jews play out against a context of French anti-Semitism, which in the end, renders issues of Jewish identity null. Ruth Franklin’s accusation becomes Suleiman’s explanation: “Though the Golder’s have tried to assimilate into French society, Némirovsky makes it clear that Jews can never escape their identity.” Sadly, her stories were prophetic, as she lived to experience. She moved through her life from exile to beloved and feted community member and, finally, to exile again, dying far from the home she had claimed. In 1942, she wrote chillingly, “I have written a lot lately. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but at least they make the time pass.”

The scope of Suleiman’s book extends beyond Némirovsky’s life and even her posthumous fame. She devotes the last third of the book to the story of Némirovsky’s daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, and along with them the collective stories of child survivors of the Holocaust. After the arrest of their parents, the girls spent the last two years in Occupied France living under false identities, constantly on the move, mainly under the care of their nurse Julie Dumot. They joined the more than ten thousand Jewish children who had lost one or both parents during the war, and Suleiman considers them as such, employing trauma theory and the literature on children with hidden identities to discuss their experiences. Through their own writing, particularly Elisabeth’s 1992 memoir, Le Mirador, and editing of their mother’s papers, Denise and Elisabeth, both raised and educated as Catholics, sort out their complicated legacies and memories. Suleiman’s own relationships with the family, especially Denise whom she interviewed extensively before her death in April 2013, form the heart of this section, which is entirely unique in terms of Némirovsky scholarship.

The Némirovsky Question represents the culmination (at least so far) of Suleiman’s prestigious academic career. A professor of comparative literature at Harvard, she has written seven books and edited three others on avant garde French literature, women writers, collective and individual memories of the Holocaust, and artistic expressions of trauma and exile. Suleiman portrays Némirovsky as a woman always writing from the middle, a place defined by difference, occasionally by unease, and like Némirovsky, although a generation younger, Sulieman shifted between the fluid identities in post-war Europe. As she reveals in her memoir, The Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook, she was born into a Hungarian Jewish family a few weeks into World War II, and spent her earliest years living under a variety of false identities before immigrating to America after the war. Her parents, with their varying degrees of faith, reflect the extremes of Jewish identities. Only as an adult with two children did she revisit the country of her birth and connect her fragmented memories of a disrupted past. Her familiarity with intercultural identities obviously predisposes her to empathize with Némirovsky’s Russian-Jewish-French-Catholics selves, and the book reads as a labor of love from writer on behalf of another.

Irene Némirovsky is an odd choice for critics to attack and defend. Surely, in any political climate, let alone today’s, more obvious proponents of anti-Semitism exist than a woman who wore a yellow star and died at Auschwitz. But she asked uncomfortable questions in uncomfortable times that quickly became dangerous times. As Suleiman writes about Christian Rabinovitch, which could well apply to Némirovsky’s other Jewish characters, as well as the author herself: “[He] may not be to everyone’s liking. But the questions his story raises continue to resonate.” Issues of identity predominate in the twenty-first century among Jews, for whom politics, particularly American-Israeli relations, even more so than faith, frequently become the dividing line. European Jews also grapple with renewed waves of anti-Semitism, particularly in France, where ultra-nationalists and terrorists make strange bedfellows. But Suleiman’s book reminds us that the Jewish question can become anyone’s question, whenever people struggle to define themselves against a majority society. In a 1934 radio interview, Némirovsky explained her choice of Jewish characters. “I contrive to depict the society I know best, which is made up of dislocated people who have left behind the milieu where they would normally have lived and whose adaptation to a new life is not without shocks and suffering.” Dislocated people, from a myriad of ethnic backgrounds, find themselves just as vulnerable in 2017. The surge of revolutions, occupations, genocides, and dictatorships doesn’t appear to be slowing down, and readers may find Némirovsky’s books increasingly relevant in a world that continues to yield refugees and exiles. One can only hope that they find a more welcoming society than she did.

—Laura Michele Diener

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Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

Feb 102017
 

Dan Green

When these pieces were isolated in space and time of publication they meant one set of things; placed alongside each other they assert themselves more pointedly. In the culture wars Green refers to throughout he is a combatant, if an unwilling one. —Jeff Bursey

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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism
Daniel Green
Cow Eye Press, 2017
$14.95; 150 pages

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Introduction


Many readers of critical writing and attendees of literary conferences will have been either treated or subjected to this or that paper where the literary tail of theory wags the dog of an abject author. The image is more apt when it’s changed to theory having between its slavering jaws the corpse of a work of art, or the corpus of an artist, that will be softened by Gallic or Slavic salivary glands, masticated by deconstruction, postcolonial or queer theory until it becomes digestible matter, followed by its voiding. It’s uncommon in books of criticism nowadays to not encounter references to some or all of the following: Adorno, Althusser, Bakhtin, Barthes, Benjamin, Blanchot, Cixous, Deleuze and/or Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, le Man, Shklovsky, and Wittgenstein. What these figures focus on, as do those who cite them, dispute with them, rely on them, and build upon their foundations, is theory, not literature, which has become a resource to provide examples that upholds the Weltanschauung of the theorist. “To the extent that the kind of focus on the ‘literary’ qualities of poetry and fiction, that is, on those qualities that make them first of all works of art,” says Daniel Green in Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, “for which I advocate has been dismissed as old-fashioned or superficial, new books are in danger of receiving only the most cursory notice, the most uncritical celebration or ‘takedown,’ otherwise left to fade into future obscurity.” Without dwelling on the experience of my own reviewing, I’ll simply say that I recognize his spirit as the mark of someone conscious he is writing outside the mainstream as embodied, for Green, in such venues as New York Times Book Review, The National Review, and New York Review of Books (regardless of their political leanings), but not in The Quarterly Conversation (or, I would add, The Review of Contemporary Fiction and Rain Taxi, each offering alternative points of view of little-discussed books or fields of study).

At times that first group of journals—one could include the TLS and the London Review of Books—“regard contemporary literature simply as material, sometimes ammunition, sometimes a target, to be employed in the ongoing culture war.” (66) A pirate navigating waterways ruled by this or that thalassocracy, Green nails his colours to the mast:

Readers and critics are perfectly entitled to regard literary works in any way they want, of course, but to deliberately avoid initially engaging with them for their artistic value—the value with which their creators presumably most resolutely attempted to invest them—seems hardly in keeping with the animating purpose of literature as a form of expression. Perhaps readers need not seek out what Nabokov insisted on calling “aesthetic bliss” (although why not?), but that a work of literature might in fact produce such bliss would seem to be a fact about it that a literary critic, at any rate, should need to account for.

The method Green has found that best brings out the literary aspect of a work, and what, in part, makes him think he may be “old-fashioned,” is New Criticism. Not a blind adherence to it, however, for he has the flexibility to modify it and allow other approaches, but as he says, “…I am inclined first of all to read fiction the way the New Critics read poetry, for the integrated effects of language, for the way the parts of the text make a whole and how the parts interrelate. Ultimately, of course, you can’t avoid discussing such things as characters and point of view, but those are themselves the textual artifacts of language.” That will appear untoward or restrictive, refreshing or niche, depending on how well Green defends and advocates for his position.

Beyond the Blurb is set out as follows: Introduction; Part 1: Critical Issues; Part 2: Critical Failures; Part 3: Critical Successes; Bibliography. (There isn’t an index). The Introduction is a concise explanation as to why Green has assembled this book, where the pieces have appeared, what its purpose is, and the rationale behind his thought. He offers six “core tenets” that emphasize that reading a book is the way to get to its meaning: “The experience of reading is the experience of language,” goes one tenet. Part 1 has essays on such topics as close reading, the authority of criticism and critics, and blogs. (Green has his own well-written blog.) Part 2 addresses those critics found wanting, such as James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, and academic criticism. Part 3 focuses on Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, and William Gass, among others. Each section is packed with argument, generous quotations, and fair-mindedness.

As usual in books of this type that offer up criticism that has appeared on blogs or in the Los Angeles Review of Books there is a certain strain of modesty: “While I do not argue explicitly in these essays that reflection on such issues might be especially important in the critical discussion of current/contemporary literature, nevertheless this is a necessary and underlying assumption.” Sometimes the implicit is much stronger than it appears. When these pieces were isolated in space and time of publication they meant one set of things; placed alongside each other they assert themselves more pointedly. In the culture wars Green refers to throughout, he is a combatant, if an unwilling one.

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I.

The essays comprising Critical Issues (as with the other parts) generally use one person to centre the argument. Daniel Mendelsohn, in “Close Reading,” comes under the gaze of Green for leaving out one vital feature of a critic: “the ability to pay attention.” This allows for an explanation as to how opinions are only that unless they are backed up by evidence taken from the text, not from such a thing as “taste,” which is a code word used by “guardians of literary culture.” Disliking or liking Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith is insufficient. Critics need to argue from the evidence of the work, not from a theory that embraces (or smothers) the work while speaking about anything but its language. This is a mild essay to lead off the book, to my mind, but things pick up with “The Authority of Criticism,” wherein Ron Silliman, whose views are rooted in Marxism, is praised for his “pragmatic perspective” on criticism, and for fitting himself along the Pound-Olson-Creeley axis, one that viewed New Criticism with caution. We are given a thumbnail sketch in literary history (which, like military history, has its own share of pointless wars), a grounding in the work of someone Green respects who challenges New Criticism from a learned perspective, and a rebuttal that takes on board Silliman’s negative comments on New Criticism with poise.

Johanna Drucker is the lightning rod in “Aesthetic Autonomy.” By quoting her right off Green gives readers a taste of her work: “Fine art, artists, and critics exist within a condition of complicity with the institutions and values of contemporary culture,” Drucker says in Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity. Green responds: “I am ultimately fine with this argument, although it’s unfortunate that a defense of aesthetic value in art has to in effect make common cause with mass culture in order to ensure that ‘art’ survives as a viable endeavor to begin with.” Here we have the commodity argument: a painter has truck with commerce (in the purchase or rent of supplies, studio space, models, and then on to labour and selling the finished product). Green’s well-reasoned objection is that this is not a new idea or particularly revelatory, for it is the interpretative framework that supplies the commodity argument, not the art work itself. Through Drucker, Green is able to address the notion of art in service to ideologies as weapons, when, for him, “their refusal to submit to the expectations of ordinary discourse” signifies the autonomy many would deny them.

“The Authority of Critics” is a title that should make us pause. We rarely think of our critical writing as authoritative, especially when it’s spread over a variety of journals that have specialized and small audiences. Yet we maintain the belief that opinions, interpretations, and eisegesis sway the hearts and minds of an unseen multitude. John Carey is the subject of this essay, and Green shows how confused his thinking is in What Good Are the Arts?, classifying it as “absurd in the extreme, essentially inane” after demolishing its principal ideas: that art doesn’t exist, but that it does and that it “does some people quite a lot of good.” It would, perhaps, have made the book stronger to leave Carey out and to focus instead on someone dismissed in the Introduction, Jonathan Franzen, due to his malign and lingering impact on how the literary world divided itself according to his Status and Contract notions. While no more valid than Carey’s, they were more pernicious and, since they drew in various figures, such as Ben Marcus, this could have widened Green’s consideration of classes of fiction.

“Blogs and Alternative Literary Criticism” sets out some arguments for and against this venue of art commentary. It begins with Richard Kostelanetz’s view, from The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America (1974), of the “‘New York Intellectuals’” of the 1960s and 1970s as “agenda-setters [who] influenced critical discourse to the extent that challenges to their critical principles (and to their liberal anti-communism) were summarily dismissed when not simply ignored.” From the journals discussed—Partisan and Commentary—it is a short step to academic criticism, which Green once thought would be a suitable place for him. “Academic journals were much more likely to feature experimental and unconventional writers… and gave them more than the cursory treatment afforded by most book reviews.” Times changed, however, and soon academic criticism cared more for “context—historical, culture, theoretical—than with the text, the latter serving only to illuminate the former.” The result is we must find less theory in the hodgepodge of book reviews found in a handful of newspapers that are all too eager to waste column space to the same top 10 titles per season.

Green misses those earlier days, and is dismayed, too, about the online contemporary scene. Once, literary weblogs offered the possibility of “a plausible alternative to print book reviewing,” but this promise never became widespread. It should be said that his blog is substantial and varied, with much long-form writing. But The Reading Experience, as well as Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space and Litlove’s Tales From the Reading Room, to name two others, are numerically swamped by other blogs that present “…book business gossip, pseudo-literary trivia, and the establishment perspective.” As with print journals, weblogs are haphazardly interested in books, but rarely those that are older than ten months to a year unless it’s an undisputed classic. There’s no hope on the Internet, then, for a renaissance of critical thought.

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II.

It is beneficial to Green to write against something or someone that irritates him. In Part 2 he targets James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, Morris Dickstein, Hershel Parker, and Joseph Conte for particular failings. Two essays stand out above the others.

I agree with Green, in “James Wood,” that the subject of this essay is “a particularly pernicious influence on contemporary criticism” whose “obvious biases” towards his favoured mode, realism, exclude most fiction that does something else, especially if such works “challenge orthodoxy…” Like Green, when reading Wood I’m conscious that he is reducing the world of literature down to one preferred method of approach, that this is ungenerous to those who think in alternate ways, and that the aim of making anything different conform to a critical perspective rather than choosing to learn something new is to limit oneself needlessly. Quoting Wood on how readers analyze characters, Green states the obvious: “Why would we want to regard characters in a novel as if they were actual people, people with minds and motives and a ‘consciousness’?” This is a common thought, not a special insight Wood has; many publishers still insist they want manuscripts with characters their readers can warm to. But the common reader invoked by Wood might find it unhelpful to use their interpretation of the characters in Bleak House or The Ambassadors to negotiate with colleagues at their workplace. Figures we encounter in books are solely marks on a page, not living beings. (How a champion of realism can’t distinguish between a book, just another object in the world, and the rest of the world is not a subject that troubles Wood much.) In Green’s judgment:

Wood’s account of “how fiction works” is prescriptive, not descriptive: he wants to convince his common readers that the way of reading he presents in his book [How Fiction Works] is the one proper way of reading and that the kind of fiction that most directly satisfies the specified readerly requirements is the only kind really worthy of our attention.

Essentially, Wood regards books primarily as instruments to understand the so-called real world and that therefore impact moral decisions.

In conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard in The Paris Review, Wood attempts to classify the Norwegian author’s six-volume My Struggle, a tremendous and deliberately unwieldy amalgam of confession, dialogue allegedly recalled from years and years ago, metaphysical conceits, realism, contradictions, airy pontifications, miserable muttering, self-lampoons, artistic manifestoes, wretchedness and hilarity, as realism of a newer kind:

I think it is a general problem. One of the interesting things that’s been happening—in Norwegian literature certainly, but also in British and American fiction—has been an insistence on breaking the forms, not because there’s a postmodern rule that one has to break the forms, but for almost the opposite reason, out of a desire to achieve greater verisimilitude, and a belief that the only way to get there is to break the grammar of realism precisely as you’re describing. In Book Two you say that you’re sick of fiction, you’re sick of the mass production of fictions that all look like the same. You write that the problem was “verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant.” I think this is well put, because it doesn’t rule out fiction-making. It just makes fiction-making harder.

You can sense the strain as Wood tries to squeeze Knausgaard’s epic into a box labeled Realism by appealing to some mythical “greater verisimilitude,” as if there are levels of reality. If there are, then there’s no need for the words greater and, by implication, lesser, but if reality isn’t the same all the way through, then Wood is in serious epistemological trouble. One could also make much of how he feels supremely at ease reading the minds of writers in three countries. That’s just breathtaking.

Green has much more to say about Wood in an essay that he worries might go on for too long, but such is the general obeisance to him and the value of his imprimatur that a considered, and well-mannered, close reading of his words is welcome.

For some reason, Christopher Hitchens was considered to be a worthwhile literary critic and commentator, a low-grade Orwell. In his examination of Hitchens, whose criticism is rarely “non-political,” Green summarizes his contribution to literary criticism this way:

The poets and novelists Hitchens writes about are important to him for what they represent, for the way in which they illustrate historical movements and political ideas, for their beliefs and their habits of mind. Presumably, from Hitchens’s perspective about the most praiseworthy thing that might be said about an author is that he “conducted himself ” as a writer particularly well, not that he (or she—although Hitchens considers very few if any women writers in any of his reviews and essays) actually wrote something especially admirable.

The remainder of this cast of failures, out of one motivation or another, obscure literary works with other matter, although Green finds things to appreciate and regret in the work of the academic Joseph Conte:

If Conte’s discussions of Barth and Sorrentino illuminate qualities of their work that have not previously been as clearly identified, his chapters on White Noise, The Universal Baseball Association and Gravity’s Rainbow to some extent retrod old ground in the critical consideration of these novels. Conte uses information theory, systems theory, complexity theory, and the ideas of the mathematician Benoir Mandelbrot to map the design and debris strategy at work in these iconic postmodern texts, and while the readings that result seem perfectly cogent in elucidating that strategy, nothing very fresh is really added to the commentary on the novels themselves beyond what has already been offered in the voluminous existing criticism of them.

Conte’s final remarks on a move from print to digital reading are briefly mentioned. Green believes in the possibility that “…academic criticism will turn to electronic forms as the subject of ‘advanced’ analysis,” and it’s odd he doesn’t mention that this kind of study is going on at Electronic Book Review.

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III.

Part 3: Critical Successes presents the literary aesthetics of Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, Richard Poirier, William Gass, Michael Gorra, David Winters, and S.D. Chrostowska. (It’s a Parallel Lives of the Ignoble and Noble Critics, you could say). Green repeats the well-known encapsulation that Bloom’s thoughts on Shakespeare, the canon, and much else emphasizes “the evidence of influence” over the “formal or stylistic features” of a work and downplays the use of language. “There is still much to be learned from Bloom’s provocations, but probably his kind of reading can’t really be done by anyone else,” Green concludes, and this remark applies equally to Gass, whose idiosyncratic essays will find appeal for anyone who is already a proponent of this very different writer. As for Poirier, an academic critic, Green praises him for his work on Emerson and on style: “…unfortunately there are now few critics like Richard Poirier around to return us to the significance implicit in the reading experience itself, where the reader’s struggle to make the most of the text mirrors the writer’s struggle to allow language to make what sense it can.”

Susan Sontag occupies the polar opposite position in this section from James Wood. Her words are quoted at length, especially from the essay “On Style” that appeared in Against Interpretation. Daniel Mendelsohn’s criticism of Sontag clashes with Green’s own views on her work in a fruitful way as Green examines her theory of writing as erotic and containing a “‘sensuous surface.’” From the following Sontag quotation, it’s easy to see why a current proponent of New Criticism would find her ideas compelling:

To treat works of art [as statements] is not wholly irrelevant. But it is, obviously, putting art to use—for such purposes as inquiring into the history of ideas, diagnosing contemporary culture, or creating social solidarity. Such a treatment has little to do with what actually happens when a person possessing some training and aesthetic sensibility looks at a work of art appropriately. A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world…

In keeping with his independent streak, Green is not wholly satisfied with Sontag either, for she “can’t finally unburden her argument of the criticisms of aestheticism made by the moralists she otherwise castigates.” By speaking of moral aspects to art she diminishes her own response. “‘Art is connected with morality,’” she says, and this is a needless connection in Green’s eyes. She also doesn’t spend enough time on style—linking her to Hitchens and others—which is another fault. As with Wood, he spends a great deal of time teasing out her thought, and these twin pieces are, to my mind, the best in the book when read in tandem.

Gorra and Winters come in for different types of praise, for their positions on the role criticism can play—paying attention to the art, as Winters does, through “meticulous description and analysis,” and less to the person behind it—while refraining (especially in Gorra’s case) from indulging in the personal:

Of course, very little that is actually offered to general readers in book reviews, magazines, or trade publishing could be called academic criticism. Via the latter, the only attention given to literature is through biographies of writers, which in turn become the prompt for what passes as literary criticism in periodicals such as the New York Review of Books, noodling essays in which the reviewer makes sweeping statements about a writer’s work, often simply repeating the conventional wisdom, while otherwise mostly recapitulating whatever biography is under review.

Both writers earn Green’s respect for devising refreshed approaches to literary works.

Concluding Beyond the Blurb with a sustained and enthusiastic review of S.D. Chrostowska’s Matches: A Light Book, Green takes comfort in how this collection of sharply worded and compact aphorisms is “less a specific model of what criticism might become in the digital age than simply a challenge to seriously reflect on what Matthew Arnold called ‘the function of criticism at the present time.’” It is certainly a way to bring attention to stale methods, yet to some extent I have to disagree. In the same review Green writes:

[C]ertainly readers expecting conventionally realized critical essays, close readings, or historical analyses, the kind of book Chrostowska describes in her introductory “Proem,” in which “the words, erect, line up in columns and salute from every page,” will have to adjust their assumptions about what “criticism” properly entails.

The language in “Proem,” and throughout Matches, comes from a poetic sensibility aligned with a finely tuned critical mind. Most works of literature that we consider personally important—our own canons, not a list of books we’re told we should read—contain revelations and social criticism. They can affirm what we believe in better language than we possess or upend our complacency, even if only temporarily. They undercut long-held beliefs in what can be talked about and what kind of language can be used to get across ideas. Matches is the agonized, at times wry, lament of a liberal mind watching as a general deterioration of the world is leading to a final darkness, and the liberal narrator’s mind becomes inflexible and grim. Without distortion, Green’s “conventionally realized critical essays” can be seen as a set of assays in story-telling forms: the dialogue, the homily, the lecture, the fantastic tale, the pensive meditation on the mundane, the humourous quip, and so on. While not wholly new, the form of Matches confidently includes academic criticism and novelization. “Indeed, it would not be wholly implausible to regard Matches as itself a novel of sorts,” Green admits. What is dispensed with is scenery, character (except for the persona), plot, and so on, and what is most prominent is the attention to form and language; these are hallmarks of much postmodern fiction. Matches is a Janus-faced work.

With this review we come to the abrupt end of Beyond the Blurb.

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Conclusion

There are some questions raised by the contents of Green’s book. I wonder why Steve Moore, a critic who has redefined what the novel is, and written on many current books, is not the subject of an essay instead of (or in addition to) Michael Gorra. The same goes for Stephen Mitchelmore, whose own excellent collection of essays, This Space of Writing, came out in late 2015. Green does review that book on his site, along with others, and in that review Green describes Mitchelmore’s book as follows:

After reading the entirety of This Space of Writing readers will likely have an adequately clear understanding of what Mitchelmore means by “silence” (and why it’s missing from most conventional literary fiction) and why its lack of “horizon” makes literature uniquely rewarding, but I confess to finding his critical language at times somewhat impalpable or cryptic, at least according to my own admittedly more buttoned-down approach to criticism.

There is a definitely a restraint in Green’s language—though certainly no hesitation to point fingers when required—and it’s only a minor quibble, a matter of taste (a word I use hesitantly here), that some might prefer a more free-wheeling style. The omission of essays on Moore and Mitchelmore strike me as a missed opportunity.

If it appears that I’ve gone on rather long about a book of criticism, it’s partly because in Beyond the Blurb Daniel Green has written an accessible and contrary-minded work that is at war or in agreement (mild or strong) with prevailing trends of critical writing, and the incorporation of so many strands of thought warrants due space. As he writes about a subject that some writers would be thought to have a vested interest in—how their works are received and, potentially of less significance, used—this book can be recommended to them, as well as to the general reader who may be less and less inclined, and with good reason, to rely on the book pages in their local papers (if such a section even exists) for guidance.

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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Feb 042017
 

Nancy, Jean-Luc

In this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure?     —Melissa Considine Beck

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Coming
Jean-Luc Nancy with Adele Van Reeth
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Fordham University Press, 2016
168 pages, $22.00

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In this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few.

Nancy made the suggestion of using the infinitive, “To Come” for the English title of this book but Charlotte Mandell thought that the gerund “Coming” would be a better choice to capture the continual nature of movement associated with jouissance. Included in the edition published by Fordham University Press is a beginning note that Nancy writes himself in which he explains the problem with rendering jouissance into an appropriate English title:

In English, sexual orgasm is expressed by the verb “to come.” This has no corresponding noun. What is shared by both lexical registers is an idea of accomplishment. In French, we say venir (to come) for “reaching jouissance,” but the word is mostly used between sexual partners (“viens!” for example.) In choosing the gerund “coming,” Charlotte Mandell aptly brings out action or movement, something that is in the process of occurring, which, in fact, is attached to jouissance and to jouir; that is, precisely, what remains irreducible either to a state or to an acquisition, to an accomplishment or to an appropriation.

It is interesting to note that throughout the text of Coming, jouissance is simply translated in brackets as “pleasure” or is not translated at all, a constant reminder of the elusive nature of this word that has no equivalent translation in English.

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Defining Jouissance: What the fuck does this French word mean?

Nancy is a master at speaking about the nuances of language and uncovers, unpacks and explains specific French words, with their etymological roots in Latin, that are closely related to jouissance. He begins the discussion with an examination of the French verb Jouir, which means “to enjoy” and “to have an orgasm,” and is derived from the Latin verb gaudere, “to rejoice,” and therefore has no etymological relationship to sex or sexuality. At some point there is a shift in meaning of jouissance from property to sexual pleasure and orgasm. Nancy speculates that this shift begins with the middle French use of joie (joy) which denotes the sensual or sexual feelings of the troubadour poets; these poets have a joy of love that is sensual but jouissance, in the sense of reaching orgasm, is avoided. Nancy exclaims, “One of the ordeals of courtly love even consisted of the knight sleeping with his lady without making love!”

He further explores this shift in meaning by comparing the French words jouissance [pleasure] and joy [joie] and how they are different. Nancy argues that jouisssance corresponds to what Kant called pleasant—when something is pleasant it is something that is felt inside of me because something suits me. Joy, however, is outside of me and carries me towards something else. Nancy goes one step further in the etymological connections of various words to jouissance and explains réjouissance (rejoicing), whose root and meaning are very close to jouissance. Nancy points out that réjouissance is not used very often today and when it is used it describes something that is public such as popular festivities. Nancy concludes about the etymological connection between réjouissance and jouissance:

The idea of festivities, réjouissances, refers to festive excess, to a certain suspension of everyday activities, but also to obligation and finality. That is where we find jouissance, in the sense of joyful acclamations greeting the arrival of an important person, like the jouissance of the people at the arrival of the king.

We can say, then, that joy and réjouissance are like jouissance in that they all denote an excess. The idea of excess and its association with jouissance will be a topic brought repeated throughout Coming. Jouissance is an experience of excessive sexual pleasure in the form of orgasm which experience we seek over and over again.

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Jouissance as a shared experience: Is it possible to fuck alone?

The style of interview works exceptionally well for Coming because not only does Van Reeth adeptly sum up Nancy’s complicated thoughts, but she also asks him precise questions which elicit more of his ideas; Van Reeth is able to challenge Nancy to expound on his positions and she keeps the dialogue moving forward rather fluidly. In this part of the interview that deals with the subject and the object in the context of jouissance, Van Reeth begins:

Jouissance as experience implies a dissolution of the subject as well as the impossibility of appropriating its object. How then can we define what makes us enjoy [jouir]? And above all, since the question of object goes back to that of the subject: Who is it that enjoys [jouit]?

Nancy insists that jouissance has no specific subject because I am not the owner of my jouissance. How can it be possible for a person to own an orgasm if his or her sexual climax involves another person, another body. What I take pleasure from is just as much my pleasure as it is the pleasure of the other with whom I am engaging in a sexual relationship. Nancy brilliantly anticipates his critics who would argue that masturbation disproves the nonexistence of subject and takes his argument a step further by stating that when pleasuring oneself the other is still present in the form of a fantasy. So when we fuck, we are never fucking alone even if there isn’t another physical body in the room.

It during this part of the discussion that Nancy brings up Lacan and his exploration of jouissance in relation to the pleasure principal. Lacan believes that a subject attempts to go beyond, to transgress the pleasure principal and this brings about pain. It is with this excess, with this reaching of pleasure beyond a limit that Lacan defines jouissance. Although Nancy has been critical of modern psychology throughout his career, he credits Lacan with his effort “to try to find the meaning of jouissance, beyond the fulfillment of satisfaction, into a sortie, outside oneself, into exuberance, ecstasy….”

Van Reeth’s importance in this philosophical exchange is underscored in this section as she further presses Nancy on Lacan’s examination of jouissance:

How do you understand Lacan’s phrase asserting there is no sexual relationship? If there is no sexual relationship, there is no sexual jouissance. But wouldn’t it be truer to understand not that jouissance is impossible, but that it is inconceivable? Just as the fact that there is no sexual relationship would signify that there is no thinkable relationship. It would be a way to preserve the space unique to jouissance as experience.

Nancy’s insight into Lacan is a starting point for his thoughts on jouissance as a shared experience and it will also serve as a prompt from which to discuss the links between aesthetic and sexual jouissance in the next section of the interview:

That is probably what Lacan means. ‘There is no sexual relationship’ can be understood in several ways: There is no proportion, no commensurability, no conclusion either. The sexual relationship cannot be written down. The implication is: there is no account of it, no ‘report’ [rapport, which also means ‘relationship]’ But it is precisely to that extent that there is a real rapport, which demands incommensurability and a form of non-conclusion. A relationship is maintained [s’entretient]. It is not completed. A completed, accomplishment is either a breakup, or a fusion. And in fusion there is no longer any relationship. It would be truer to say, then, that jouissance is inconceivable, not impossible.

In sum, pleasure comes down to a matter of shared meaning whether there is a sexual partner or not. At the end of this section dealing with subject and shared pleasure, Nancy makes one of the simplest, yet thought-provoking statements in this entire volume: Where does sexuality begin and where does it stop? He concludes, “Perhaps it begins very, very far from the sexual act itself.”

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Aesthetic and Sexual Jouissance: Fucking in motion

Even though Nancy argues that jouissance is never a solitary experience, he also explains that pleasure is unshareable, much in the same way that aesthetic pleasure is a singular experience, unique to each individual.  As he opens thoughts on the link between sexual jouissance and aesthetic jouissance, Nancy points out that it is Freud who first establishes the transfer of aesthetic jouissance to sexual jouissance. Nancy’s criticism of psychology becomes apparent as he disagrees with Freud on his speculation that there is a specific order in which seduction happens—gazing, hearing, touching, must happen first, Freud argues, and only at the end of this progression does Freud finally come to the genitalia through which the tension in the form of orgasm is released.

This part of the discussion in which Nancy brings his reader to understand the connection between sexual and aesthetic jouissance is typical of his very dense, erudite, and multifaceted writing. He references various texts of Freud, he dissects more Latin words via Spinoza, he mentions the young Chilean philosopher Juan Manuel Garrido, he quotes David Hume, and he reaches all the way back to the ancient texts of Plato to make a point about pleasure. As I carefully read his text which is thick with history, philosophy and literature, I take notes, I read or reread authors whose books are sitting on my shelf to whom Nancy has referenced, I search the Internet for authors unknown to me, which laborious activities sometimes feel like a feeble attempt to absorb the full scope of his genius. But all of a sudden, at the end of a complicated series of thoughts, Nancy composes a short, simple, beautiful, concise paragraph that grabs me so forcefully that I pause my frenzy of research:

What we enjoy in an aesthetic form is the movement of this form, even though it ends up being completed. What’s more, an aesthetic form is probably never exhausted and, on the contrary, does not stop enjoying itself (jouir d’elle-meme).

And a bit further on in the same discussion:

In jouissance, they [bodies] become almost formless. Which is radically opposed to that call to eroticism, in advertising or movies, always summoning beautiful, perfected forms. Whereas in eroticism, in eros, these forms become undone.

Nancy reveals in these two simple yet erudite statements that in art there is no formula for what is considered beautiful. Furthermore, we can carry this over to jouissance in which there is no formula to be followed; each person experiences beauty, art and sexual jouissance in his or her own unique way this experience is impossible to share. In a relationship there are no accepted forms or defined forms of beauty, these forms are uniquely decided by the persons within a relationship.

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The Creative Power of Jouissance: Is There an Art to Fucking?

Nancy’s discussion of the link between sexual and aesthetic jouissance, with a particular emphasis on the art of writing, is the most accessible and interesting piece of this interview. Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again. “The artist,” he argues, “is in action in his work, and he also takes pleasure [jouit] from being in the process of working. He suffers too, it’s always laborious.”

Nancy is a prominent and well-known contributor to the studies of art and his cultural writings have covered the topics of literature, poetry, theater, music and film. Nancy has written books on the subject of art and has also written pieces for international art journals and art catalogs. He has a text from a lecture given 1992 at the Louvre displayed with the painting ‘The death of the virgin’ by the Italian painter Caravaggio. It is fitting that Fordham University Press has used a Caravaggio painting for this edition of Coming thereby reminding us of Nancy’s interest in the Italian painter.

In order to lead Nancy into elaborating on the similarities between the pleasure of art, specifically the art of writing, and sex, Van Reeth reads a passage from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in which the author asserts that writing and sexuality bring about the same pleasure. In a letter dated April 13, 1903 from Viarregio, near Pisa, Rilke writes:

And in fact artistic experiences lies so incredibly close to that of sex, to its pain and its ecstasy, that the two manifestations are indeed but different forms of one and the same yearning and delight.

Nancy picks up on the idea that Rilke is speaking of writing as working toward the unknown, without a goal, which is also true for artists who work with music or paint. The art passes through the artist to the spectator who experiences the work of art through a plethora of senses. In the end the artist has no real understanding of how his or her work is received, of the various ways in which someone experiences pleasure through his or her art. The pleasure that is experienced by the spectator as a result of interacting with his work is unshareable just as the experience of sexual jouissance. When we speak about sexual pleasure and orgasm, is there really a word or phrase that captures a good fuck? How can we truly and accurately describe the best fuck we’ve ever had? The experience is unshareable when we make any attempt to put it in words.

The true brilliance of Nancy’s dissection of language comes with his elaboration on the verbal similarities of art and sex. Artistic media such as color and rhythm are used to describe both art and sex. Rhythm, for instance, is present in an art’s use of color and can also be applied to the lover’s caress of the body. The best sex is enjoyed when lovers find a rhythm and Rhythm is a coming-and-going, a constant movement a repetition. Nancy concludes about rhythm:

Rhythm in general is born from what is never definitively there, from what does not stay in place and causes us to return, what leads to jouissance. Rhythm is fundamental for humans, bur for nature as well; think of the rhythm of the stars.

Art and sex cannot exist without movement. It is the seduction, the process, the rhythm that leads to artistic and sexual jouissance

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Suffering and Fucking—Christianity’s Influence on jouissance

The fourth part of the book, dealing with Christianity and its influence on jouissance is the shortest and the least stimulating part of the dialogue. Nancy has been interested in and critical of Christianity throughout his career and we get a cursory survey of his thoughts in this section. Throughout their dialogue on pleasure, Nancy and Van Reeth both tangentially bring up the close relationship between pleasure and suffering. Nancy sites the works of de Sade as an example of jouisssance being the result of pain inflicted on another or on oneself. Pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful. Van Reeth uses the example of Proust’s narrator who, in the beginning of Sodome et Gomorrhe, describes the very noisy sexual encounter between Baron de Charlus and Julien as akin to the sound of a man having his throat split. The narrator concludes, “if there is one thing as loud as suffering, it’s pleasure.”

Nancy begins the section by arguing that Christianity was the calming solution to the disintegration of the theocratic regimes, the loss of which political system caused great anxiety and unrest. Christianity brings to mankind the idea that life is simply a passage to another spiritual side, a passage that is marked by suffering. It is the Passion of Christ that provides us with a redemptive kind of suffering and suffering is specifically attached to life on earth. One must pass through suffering in this life in order to attain salvation. As a result there is a definitive break and distinction between heavenly joy and human joy. Because of Christianity’s condemnation of the flesh, earthly pleasures such as human joy and jouissance become evil and separate from heavenly joy and jubilation. It is fitting that their discussion on Christianity and suffering, even in relation to jouissance, is the most somber part of Van Reeth and Nancy’s dialogue.

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From Consummation to Consumption: Do we give a fuck about anything anymore?

Nancy explains that Christianity was an attempt to organize people into one community, but the appearance of a modern state served to divide individuals until the invention of capitalism. “which would insert the individual subject into the circuit of a new jouissance: no longer the jouissance of excess, but that of accumulation and investment. It’s a jouissance that can no longer bear that name.” Van Reeth asks Nancy what, exactly, has changed to cause the meaning of jouissance to shift once again.

It was Communism, Nancy argues, that provided the connection between jouissance and profit, which political theory believed that everyone’s hard work will produce profits that can be equally shared by all –this sharing of profits would be a source of jouissance. But nowadays, people are working harder than ever and the profits are accumulated by a very small percentage of the upper classes. Nancy argues that jouissance has now come full circle to be associated with its legal meaning which is that of possession and acquisition.

Today, jouissance has become confused with and associated with profit as well as property.   Excess has now taken on a quantitative definition in that we must possess the greatest possible number of things that we can. Nancy concludes: “It has left heaven, joy, to land again on earth.” With the ubiquity of things that we consume that push us to the brink of addition—little blue pills, a plethora of opiates, internet pornography—jouissance today has evolved into a kind of greedy consumption in which excess has become the norm. With the disappearance of excess what is left that gives us pleasure? Have we landed in an epoch of post-pleasure?

In this final part of the dialogue when Nancy brings up modern ideas of consumption and their relation to jouissance he shows that he has continued to think about philosophical topics and how they can be applied to current social and political situations. Orgasm, masturbation, sexual pleasure, addiction, and jouissance itself are topics that seem more fitting for the field of psychology and have not been explored by philosophers. Despite his years of suffering through grave illnesses and his advanced age, Nancy proves in the publication of Coming that he is as relevant and progressive as ever in his field.

Although Coming is a short book, some might be intimidated by the breadth and depth of Nancy’s thought. It is, however, an excellent and thorough introduction to the wide range of ideas on which Nancy has expertly written and a scintillating discussion of pleasure, sex, orgasm, fucking, desire, pain, and how we experience these things with our bodies. The interview style of the text in which Van Reeth summarizes Nancy’s main points and propels the conversation forward with her questions makes Coming one of his most accessible and fucking enjoyable books.

—Melissa Considine Beck

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Melissa Beck has a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She also completed most of a Ph.D. in Classics for which her specialty was Seneca, Stoicism and Roman Tragedy. But she stopped writing her dissertation after the first chapter so she could live the life of wealth and prestige by teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to students at Woodstock Academy in Northeastern Connecticut. She now uses the copious amounts of money that she has earned as a teacher over the course of the past eighteen years to buy books for which she writes reviews on her website The Book Binder’s Daughter. Her reviews have also appeared in World Literature Today and The Portland Book Review. She has an essay on the nature of the soul forthcoming in the 2017 Seagull Books catalog and has contributed an essay about Epicureanism to the anthology Rush and Philosophy..

Jan 142017
 

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We all have secrets we would never divulge and secrets we wish had never been revealed. That we cannot fully know another is axiomatic, that we deny our own history and the histories of others, commonplace. Where, then, is the place for truth? —Frank Richardson

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Thus Bad Begins
Javier Marías
Knopf, 2016
$27.95; 448 pages

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We all have secrets. We all have secrets we would never divulge and secrets we wish had never been revealed. That we cannot fully know another is axiomatic, that we deny our own history and the histories of others, commonplace. Where, then, is the place for truth? We live in a time when the Oxford Dictionaries awarded “post-truth” word of year. Javier Marías’s new novel, Thus Bad Begins, tells the perfect story for an age of relativism, for it is filled with characters who deny their pasts, who conspire to create glowing public images despite their crimes, who distort the truth for their own agendas, and who flatly reject known facts to preserve their peace of mind and their illusion of a stable, happy present.

Born in Madrid in 1951, twelve years after the Spanish Civil War, Javier Marías grew up in a society of secrecy, a country where secrets meant life or death. Javier Marías published his first novel in 1971, at the precocious age of nineteen. Since then he has published thirteen novels, two short story collections, a book of literary biographies, and writes a regular column for the Madrid newspaper El País. His books, with sales in the millions, have been translated into over forty languages and have won numerous prizes. Quickly following the commercial and critical success of his 2013 novel The Infatuations (reviewed by Numéro Cinq’s Laura K. Warrell), in a brilliant translation by Margaret Jull Costa, Thus Bad Begins examines our relationships with those closest to us—our spouses, our lovers, our friends—and asks how much we can know about them and, more disturbingly, how much we want to know.

The Voyeur

Set in Madrid in 1980, Thus Bad Begins is the first-person recollection of Juan de Vere, now ostensibly a writer living in contemporary times. Covering about a year of his young life, when he was 23, Juan de Vere—a quintessential Marías narrator given to meditative digression—reflects on the time he spent working for the almost famous film director Eduardo Muriel, his intimacy with his employer’s family, and his mission to investigate the lecherous and enigmatic Dr. Jorge Van Vechten.

The 448-page novel is divided into eleven numbered chapters, each with between four and eight subchapters of approximately equal length. The first subchapter of chapter one begins like many others, with Juan’s contemplations, which serve as thematic passages. Juan’s style is discursive, speculative, analytical. He explores his past through his prose and often loses himself in extended, lyrical observations. Here especially Marías employs his signature complex sentences, some stretching to a page in length. For readers familiar with Marías’s fiction, this will come as little surprise, and in this novel he once again creates a dense psychological representation of the narrator through the intricate syntax of his long sentences.

“Young de Vere,” as his employer calls him, is hired as a personal assistant whose duties range from translation to taking dictation to organizing Muriel’s library. Juan has an almost eidetic memory and quotes people verbatim. An effective conceit, Juan’s quotes serve two purposes: first, they move conversations forward in unexpected ways, and second, the repetition helps link the chapters and serves as a thematic refrain.

Marías’s first-person narrators often sound like third-person objective observers, and Juan’s chronicle subtly switches point of view and tense as he segues between his thoughts in the present, what he imagines he thought in the past, and what he suspects were the thoughts and feelings of others. Juan’s tone, while earnest and sincere, tends to be conspiratorial and occasionally evasive. A self-effacing Marías protagonist, Juan claims “there is nothing original about me” on the first page and near the end he states “there is nothing original about my character,” by which he means, in a suspiciously metafictional sentence, his character in the novel. As much an epistemological mystery as a plotted mystery, the problem of truth is a major theme of the novel, and Marías’s blending of fact with fiction finds in Young de Vere a perfect narrator.

When Juan’s duties become so time consuming that he spends nights in the Muriels’ guest room, he soon gains his first insight into the couple’s marriage—one of the principal mysteries of the novel. Juan, a sensitive, compassionate young man who admires his employer, is unnerved by the jarring contrast between Muriel’s normally charming and ingenuous behavior and his inexplicably cruel verbal abuse of his wife, Beatriz, abuse which she appears to absorb with a calm, long-suffering resignation.

Muriel and Beatriz sleep in separate bedrooms and one night she comes to her husband’s bedroom door. In classic Marías fashion, the narrator becomes voyeur and Juan watches while Beatriz pleads with Muriel, declaring he is the only one she loves and reiterating what she must have said many times, that she can’t believe he has broken off their relationship “over some stupid thing that happened ages ago.” But what she calls a “stupid thing” Eduardo finds unforgivable, and he brutally rebukes her. After witnessing the exchange, Juan concludes:

There are some things about which it’s best just to have your suspicions, as long as these are not pressing or unbearable, rather than pursue some disappointing or painful certainty that, as Muriel had more or less said, would oblige you to go on living, meanwhile having to tell yourself a different story from the one you had lived with up until then, always supposing it was possible to cancel out or replace what you had already lived. Or even cancel out or replace what you had believed, if you had believed it for a long time.

And so Juan begins to explore the idea of denying the truth, of avoiding reality and hiding in the comfort of ignorance.

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The Directive

Paralleling the mystery of the Muriel’s relationship, a second mystery grounds the primary plot: Juan’s investigation of his boss’s good friend, Dr. Jorge Van Vechten. Soon after he hires Juan, Muriel informs him that he has been told a disquieting story about his friend, a story that, if true, would mean the doctor had “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” Deeply troubled by the hearsay, at first Muriel denies the possibility of it being true, but eventually his curiosity wins out and he charges his young assistant with an unusual directive. He asks Juan to invite Van Vechten when he and his friends go nightclubbing. Muriel wants Juan to gain Van Vechten’s confidence, to “draw him out” by boasting of his sexual exploits, and if Juan doesn’t have any, no problem, he should invent some. Muriel knows his friend well enough that such company and conversation might, coupled with a generous amount of alcohol, loosen his tongue enough for him to divulge his secrets.

Although Juan’s morals are at odds with his assignment—he finds it odious to pretend to be someone he’s not with the deliberate aim of betrayal—he doesn’t want to disappoint Muriel, and in an ironic twist, a voyeur becomes a reluctant hired spy. As Muriel predicted, it doesn’t take long for Juan to confirm his suspicions about Van Vechten’s true nature.

Juan’s description of the doctor, however, is not confined to reporting his words and actions. Marías exquisite portraits are a distinguishing quality of all his novels. Muriel, Beatriz, and Van Vechten are all drawn in the finest, most purposeful detail. Marías’s portraits begin with physical features (coupled with commentary) and then broaden to include the character’s character:

Van Vechten did indeed have very blue eyes and the kind of blond hair which is still memorable in a country where such hair color is much more common than people think and admit . . . . [his] features suggested a triumphant, expansive nature, as did the way he behaved in public: with enormous confidence, perennial good humor, too perennial not to seem somewhat false . . . . Alongside that good humor, one sensed something voracious and troubling, as if nothing ever entirely pleased him, as if he were one of those people for whom nothing is ever enough, who always want more . . .

The portrait moves from the concrete to the abstract to the general. Once he has shifted to describing “one of those people,” Marías’s narrator now tangentially reflects on who “those people” are, generalizing the particular and extending the theme beyond the story and the specific details of character and plot.

Fact and Fiction

From the first page, Marías blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, and one device he uses is having his narrator address the reader. Juan isn’t a passive observer, a disinterested narrator; his fate becomes entwined with those he observes. Midway through the novel, Juan confesses he has his own secret, one he promises to reveal later: “And when I tell that secret here (except that here is not reality), you will all have to keep my secret . . .” Such coy pronouncements about the reality of his text are not uncommon for Juan, and his reticence evokes the impression of a man riddled with guilt who, although he wants to confess, cannot bring himself to accept the truth.

Like Shakespeare’s use of a play within a play in Hamlet (from which the title Thus Bad Begins is derived) Marías employs the literary device of a story within a story as another means to blend fiction and reality, and he does so using real people. During the scene where Juan delivers his first Van Vechten report to Muriel, the actor Herbert Lom is present. Lom is perhaps best remembered for playing the insane Dreyfus opposite Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther films. Inspired by Juan’s report, Lom tells the true story of producer Harry Alan Towers (with whom Muriel is also working), principal culprit in a sex-scandal in the 1960s involving Mariella Novotny and John F. Kennedy (before he was elected President). And Lom and Towers aren’t the only real people in the novel: Marías’s own uncle, the B-movie director Jesús (Jess) Franco is important to the plot and actor Jack Palance is featured in a scene. While Lom’s story may appear extravagantly digressive, the details cleverly parallel plot elements and expand image patterns; furthermore, the use of real people and historical details adds verisimilitude and is another way Marías generalizes the particular. Marías weaves fact with fiction so seamlessly it is impossible to tell them apart; indeed, this is thematically important since the narrator is often reflecting on the nature of reality verses fiction; thus, this intersection of the real with fiction becomes a thematic mimesis.

The story Lom tells is reminiscent of the anecdotes that W. G. Sebald used in his narratives. Marías admires Sebald’s writing and corresponded with the late author. Another thing they have in common is their use of photos. Thus Bad Begins contains two photos, one of Mariella Novotny and one of a painting by Francesco Casanova (brother of the infamous Giacomo). The latter is significant for the dominant image pattern of observation, particularly with a single eye. The painting features a mounted cavalryman looking over his right shoulder; you can only see one of his eyes. Muriel, blinded in one eye, wears an eyepatch. Being a film director, he is always looking through a camera, a single lens. And Juan, as if calling upon a muse, makes numerous references to the “sentinel moon” observing “with just one eye open.”

cavalryman-2Francesco Casanova, Cavalryman, n.d

Making Time

Laurence Sterne, one of Marías’s influences, wrote in Tristram Shandy “Now there is nothing in this world I abominate worse, than to be interrupted in a story.” How ironic, considering Marías has been criticized for his discursive style. His famous tangents might indeed appear, upon cursory reading, to interrupt the momentum and create suspense artificially through simple postponement. However, Marías continues in a long tradition—including Sterne and Proust—in his use of such digressions; he said in an interview “I’m going to make time that doesn’t have the time to exist, exist” (The White Review). Marías endeavors to create time as we experience it in memory, slowed to the speed of dwelling on signature moments, the ones we return to obsessively—as Juan does. Marías does use scene and summary in a conventional sense—scene for a slower pace with critical detail and summary for skipping quickly over moments of less importance—but he creates the Proustian time he spoke about through Juan’s meditations.

Part of Marías’s secret to creating time is his exceptional use of thematic passages. Ranging from a paragraph to several pages, the thematic passages are Juan’s attempts to understand his past; through his reflections he explores his thoughts and actions and seeks to make sense of the world. For example, when remembering an afternoon he spied on Beatriz, Juan muses:

“Hers is such a woeful bed,” I thought, “that she has to visit other beds . . . she looks for substitutes, as almost everyone does, very few of us ever find what we yearn for, or if we do, we don’t hang on to it for very long, and who knows how long she managed to hang on to her happiness.” We strive to conquer things, never thinking, in our eagerness, that they will never definitely be ours, that they rarely last and are always susceptible to loss, nothing is ever for ever [sic] . . .

Marías often uses such shifts from direct internal monologue of Juan’s thoughts of the moment to a timeless present rich in aphorism when Juan’s voice is subsumed by a broader, universal voice. The shift in voice is often paired with shifts in point of view, as here where he shifts from first-person singular to first-person plural. Adding depth of these thematic passages, Juan asks many rhetorical questions, as in this example where he ponders about love:

Why should we be loved by the person we have chosen with our tremulous finger? Why that one person, as if he were obliged to obey us? Why should the person who troubles or arouses us and for whose flesh and bones we yearn, why should he desire us? Why should we believe in such coincidences? And when they do happen, why should they last?

Juan’s rhetorical questions not only generalize the themes, but they link scenes in image patterns and serve as prompts that propel the narrative forward.

Another dimension of the thematic passages is that they often contain long, lyrical sentences, another Marías hallmark. He strives to create a musicality with his sentences, to carry readers as if they were “on the top of a wave” (Literary Hub). In his excellent introduction to A Heart So White, Jonathan Coe notes Marías’s spare use of punctuation, often relying solely on commas to separate independent clauses. However, unlike that novel from 1992, in Thus Bad Begins Marías uses a variety of punctuation to create the musical cadence he desires. For example, here Juan’s speculations about himself segue into second-person aphoristic generalization and then third person supposition in a stream of consciousness:

Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it now that I’m no longer young and am more or less the same age as Muriel was then or perhaps older; it’s impossible to recover the inexperience of your inexperienced youth once you’ve moved on considerably; once you’ve understood something, it’s impossible to not understand what you once didn’t understand, ignorance doesn’t return, not even when you want to describe a time during which you either basked in or were the victim of ignorance, and never trust anyone who tells you something with a falsely innocent look on his face, feigning the lost innocence of childhood or adolescence or youth, or who adopts the gaze—the icy, frozen gaze—of the child he no longer is, and the same is true of the old man who speaks out of the years of his maturity rather than out of the old age that now dominates his entire vision of the world . . .

Although he does use semicolons, without the full stop of a period this sentence mimics thought in so far as our thoughts are also an uninterrupted stream.

Thus Bad Begins offers a new perspective on the expanding universe of Javier Marías’s Madrid, his own Yoknapatawpha County, where familiar but always fresh characters struggle with the vagaries of life.

Marías describes his writing process as working without a map, but with a compass, a talisman Muriel carries and rubs between his fingers whenever he is “filled by doubts.” In the last major scene, Muriel worries the compass as he explains to Juan his behavior toward Beatriz in exchange for Juan keeping silent about Van Vechten. Muriel tells Juan:

We lose far too many people in a lifetime, they either drift away or die, and it doesn’t make sense to get rid of those who are left. So what if he committed some vile deed in the past or took advantage of someone or other? Here, during a very long dictatorship, almost everyone did at some point. So what?

We all have secrets, but Muriel’s denial raises difficult questions. Which secrets can be kept and which must be told? Should we always admit the truth, or only when it is convenient, when it won’t be painful? Juan, replete with his own secrets, learns caution, for his experience shows him the price of denial and the price of honesty. Marías’s novel doesn’t offer easy solutions but reminds us that one of the most perilous decisions we can make is to practice deceit, for thus bad begins.

—Frank Richardson

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Frank

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.

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Jan 122017
 

Seiji Ozawa, left, and Haruki Murakami. Credit Nobuyoshi Araki (NY Times)

Absolutely on Music is the kind of book that makes you want to go find the music for yourself… These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening. —Carolyn Ogburn

Absolute Music
Haruki Murakami & Seigi Ozawa
Knopf, 2016
352 pages; $27.95

“…all I want to say is that Mahler’s music looks hard at first sight, and it really is hard, but if you read it closely and deeply with feeling, it’s not such confusing and inscrutable music after all. It’s got all these layers piled one on top of another, and lots of different elements emerging at the same time, so in effect it sounds complicated.” —Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music

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Absolutely on Music, by novelist and music aficionado Haruki Murakami and legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa (translated by Jay Rubin) is the best kind of eavesdropping. Although the book is (not inaccurately) described as series of “conversations,” the topic throughout is music, and the conversations appropriately become Murakami’s interviews of Ozawa regarding his long and storied career in the aftermath of diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Ozawa explains that “until my surgery, I was too busy making music every day to think about the past, but once I started remembering, I couldn’t stop, and the memories came back to me with a nostalgic urge. This was a new experience for me. Not all things connected with major surgery are bad. Thanks to Haruki, I was able to recall Maestro Karajan, Lenny, Carnegie Hall, the Manhattan Center, one after another…”

Murakami (b. 1949) is best known as a novelist, including Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (1994) and 1Q84 (2009-2010). He has received many awards for his work, including the Franz Kafka Prize and the Jerusalem Prize. He has published several collections of short stories and many works of nonfiction, including Underground, about the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Music often plays a strong role in Murakami’s writing. Scholars have long been drawn to exploring the musical worlds evoked in Murakami’s novels; they’ve created playlists  and written dissertations (and created more playlists. There is even a special resource on Murakami’s website that provides references to the musicians, songs, and albums mentioned in his writing. The biography of Murakami written by his long-time translator, Jay Rubin, is titled Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words.

“How did I learn to write?” Murakami asks. “By listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.”

Murakami’s and Ozawa’s daughters were friends, but the two artists only knew one another casually. They never spoke of their work to one another until Ozawa became ill with esophageal cancer in December, 2009. Because Ozawa had to limit his work, Murakami noted a new eagerness when they met to turn conversations to the topic of music, noting that it might have been the fact that he was not talking to a fellow musician that “set him at ease.” The task of publishing these conversations came from a story Ozawa told Murakami about Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein’s 1962 performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Murakami writes, “’What a shame it would be to let such a fascinating story just evaporate,’ I thought. ‘Somebody ought to record it and put it on paper.’ And, brazen as it may seem, the only ‘somebody’ that happened to cross my mind at the moment was me.”

Seiki Ozawa (b. 1935) began conducting as a boy in Japan when a rugby injury sprained his hand too badly for him to continue his piano studies. His skill soon brought him to the United States, where in 1960 he won first prize for student conducting at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood festival. The young Ozawa studied conducting under legendary conductors such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, who both figure prominently in these conversations. He went on to serve as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years, and as the principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera. He has received many honors and awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor and two Grammy Awards.

It’s interesting to note that the collection opens with a discussion of who is really in control during a performance of a concerto: the soloist or the orchestra’s conductor? Murakami initiates these interviews not with Ozawa’s own recordings, but with a discussion of Bernstein’s well-known disavowal of the interpretation of the Brahms First Piano Concerto as performed by Glenn Gould and the New York Philharmonic in 1964. Bernstein spoke to the audience prior to the performance, saying:

I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception, and this raises the interesting question: “What am I doing conducting it?” [Audience murmurs, tittering.] I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it too.

Gould often performed with tempi so eccentric that it was difficult to regulate his interpretation together with that of the orchestra. It was this that prompted a discussion between Murakami and Ozawa as to which artist, conductor or soloist, was really in charge of a performance. But in this dialogue of two renowned artists, Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami, who is in charge?

Though it is Ozawa’s history, the book ultimately belongs to Murakami. The comparison to Glenn Gould is an apt one, I feel, for Murakami’s prosody is, like Gould’s musical syntax, both engaging and strongly idiosyncratic. The language is unmistakably Murakami’s throughout. The syntax and rhythm of the words (at least as translated by long-time Murakami translator Jay Rubin) could be lifted straight from the page of any Murakami novel. I kept feeling as if a cat were gazing silently from the other room. If you are a fan of Murakami’s prose, then you will enjoy this book as well.

The conversational settings (the book consists of six conversations, separated by shorter “interludes”) are described only in the loosest terms. The first conversation, for example, takes place in Murakami’s home “in Kanagawa Prefecture, to the west of Tokyo.” Albums and CDs are pulled off the shelf to play as they talk, but the shelves themselves are never described; it’s as if they are being pulled from thin air. There’s something of the animated drawing about these conversations, the way that the suggestion of a particular recording prompts an immediate search for music. In the example here, the search is immediate. Though we haven’t any idea where the two are seated (or if they are seated), no sense of the room, or the light, the time of day or night, the mention of Lalo’s piece for orchestra and solo violin initiates a small flurry of activity:

Ozawa: “We [the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ozawa] Lalo’s Spanish something-or-another. She was barely twenty years old at the time.

Murakami: Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espanole. I’m sure I’ve got a copy of that somewhere.

Rustling sounds as I hunt for the record, which finally turns up.

Ozawa: This is it! This is it! Wow, I haven’t seen this thing for years.

Here, too, you get a sense of the way in which Murakami, the first-person author, enters the page as himself rather than via the transcriptionist of his own words. He’s “Murakami” except when making “rustling sounds” as he searches for the record he has in mind, which “finally turns up.” Those details—unexplained rustling, the “finally turns up,” which insists on being read with a kind of drama whose merit is uncertain—is classic Murakami.

There’s no doubt, however, that Murakami knows his stuff. As Ozawa himself puts it in the book’s afterward, “I have lots of friends who love music, but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity. Jazz, classics: he doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of this dialogue comes through the two very different ways in which they’ve each come to know the music that they love. For Murakami, his knowledge of music comes through avid and detailed listening to recorded music, supplemented by live performances when possible. As he admits, “a piece of music and the material thing on which it was recorded often comprised an indivisible unit.”

Ozawa, on the other hand, is far less familiar with recorded works, even his own. His knowledge of music comes from his study of it. His first encounter with Mahler was through reading a score: “I had never heard them on records. I didn’t have the money to buy records then, and I didn’t even have a machine to play them on.” The music itself was revelatory, “a huge shock for me—until then I never even knew that music like that existed…I could feel the blood draining from my face. I had to order my own copies right then and there. After that, I started reading Mahler like crazy—the First, the Second, the Fifth.” The first time he ever heard Mahler performed was as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic. Because of the way in which he learned the repertoire, Ozawa, unlike Murakami, was less familiar with the range of recorded performances of any given piece. Murakami is struck by what he calls “the fundamental difference that separates the way we understand music.” He finds that difference between a music-maker and a music lover to be an almost-literal wall, “especially high and thick when that music maker is a world class professional. But still, that doesn’t have to hamper our ability to have an honest, direct conversation. At least, that’s how I feel about it, because music is a thing of such breadth and generosity.”

The first conversation revolves around a variety of recordings of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. A 1957 performance with Glenn Gould and the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan is compared with Gould’s recording with Leonard Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (composed of members of the NY Philharmonic) in 1959. The two then listen to Rudolf Serkin’s recording of the same concerto with Bernstein in 1964, which is taken at such a rapid tempo that Ozawa exclaims in astonishment, “It’s kind of an inconceivable performance.” They listen to another recording on period instruments, or the actual instruments for which Beethoven would have been writing: Jos van Immerseel performing on the fortepiano, rather than the modern-day piano, for instance. (Oddly, neither the orchestra nor the conductor is named.) This performance provokes the kind of observation that will delight the serious student of music, or anyone who enjoys thinking about sound: Ozawa says, almost as an aside, that in this period-instrument recording that “you can’t hear the consonants.”

Ozawa: The leading edge of each sound.

Murakami: I still don’t get it.

Ozawa: Hmm, how can I put it? If you sing a-a-a, it’s all vowel. But if you add consonants to each of the a’s, you get something like ta-ka-ka, or ha-sa-sa. It’s a question of which consonants you add. It’s easy enough to make the first ta or ha, but the hard part is what follows. If it’s all consonant—ta-t-t—the melody falls apart. But the expression of the notes changes depending on whether you go ta-raa-raa or ta-waa-waa. To have a good musical ear means having control over the consonants and the vowels. When the instruments of this orchestra talk to each other, the consonants don’t come out.

Murakami next brings out the 1982 recording of the piece with Rudolph Serkin again at the piano, and Ozawa himself conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Here, we’re privy to Ozawa’s self-critique—“Now, this is ‘direction.’ Hear those four notes? Tahn-tahn-tahn-tahn….I should have done more of that.”—and his suggestion that Serkin, who was now late in life, realized that it was probably “his last performance of this piece, that he won’t have another chance to record it while he’s alive, and so he’s going to play it the way he wants to. Period.”

Finally, they listen to Mitsuko Uchida’s 1994 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Kurt Sanderling. Earlier, the two have discussed the use of silence (the Japanese use the word ma to describe this quality) and the way in which Gould uses ma so naturally in his interpretation. Now they find a similar quality in Uchida’s playing, the silent intervals, her “free spacing of the notes.”

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3 / Mitsuko Uchida, Seiji Ozawa. Saito Kinen Orchestra

This concept of ma comes back as Ozawa describes to Murakami the conductor’s role in bringing the orchestra in following a break in the sound:

Murakami: When you’ve got an empty moment and you have to glide into it, the musicians all watch the conductor, I suppose?

Ozawa: That’s right. I’m the one responsible for putting it all together in the end, so they’re all looking at me. In that passage we just heard, the piano goes tee…and then there’s an empty space [ma] and the orchestra glides in, right? It makes a huge difference whether you play tee-yataa or tee…yataa. Or there are some people who add expression by coming in without a break: teeyantee. So if you do it by kind of “sneaking in” as they say in English, the way we heard, it can go wrong. It’s tremendously difficult to make the orchestra all breathe together at exactly the same point. You have all these different instruments in different positions on the stage, so each of them hears the piano differently, and that tends to throw off the breath of each player by a little. So to avoid that kind of slip-up, the conductor should come in with a big expression on his face like this—teeyantee.

Murakami: So you indicate the empty interval [ma] with your face and body language.

Ozawa: Right, right. You show with your face and the movement of your hands whether they should take a long breath or a short breath. That little bit makes a big difference….it’s not so much a matter of calculation as it is the conductor’s coming to understand, through experience, how to breathe.

Each conversation focuses very loosely on a topic, but the strength of this book is found in its soaring, tangential details. The second conversation revolves around Ozawa’s performances of the Four Brahms Symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the manner of organization within orchestral groups today, particulars of instrumentation in the horn section of Brahms’ First Symphony; Brahms evokes Ozawa’s mentor, Hideo Saito. Ozawa’s Saito Kinen Orchestra was formed to mark the 10th anniversary of the great conductor’s death. The third conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences during the 1960s as he moves from New York Philharmonic, where he was assistant to Leonard Bernstein, to working with the Chicago Symphony, to three recordings Ozawa made with the Toronto Symphony of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.

Seiji Ozawa conducts Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Toronto Symphony Orchestra 1967. 1st Movement: Rêveries – Passions.

In the fourth conversation, the two discuss the works of Gustav Mahler, a composer who’s work wasn’t widely performed until Leonard Bernstein championed his works in the 1960s. Of course, Murakami explains, one of the reasons Mahler wasn’t performed was that his work, like the works of all Jews, was “quite literally wiped out over the twelve long years following 1933, when the Nazis took power, to the end of the war in 1945.”

This is a fascinating dissection of both the composition and orchestration of Mahler’s nine symphonies and a history of the performance styles that were used over the decades that Ozawa has been conducting them. The emerging prevalence of recordings actually changed the performance styles; as recording moved away from recording the overall sound, focusing instead on individual instruments, so too did the tendency of orchestras to aim for a more transparent, detailed performance. The whole chapter on Mahler is one of the richest in the book. Yet, here’s Murakami, breaking in again to note Ozawa “eats a piece of fruit.”

Ozawa: Mmm, this is good. Mango?

Murakami: No, it’s a papaya.

Other times, Murakami’s interruptions are to provide poetic interpretation that comes in surprising passages, however lovely his descriptions may be. For example, while listening to the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, Murakami notes that “the clarinet adds an indefinably mysterious touch to the melody, the strange tones of a bird crying out a prophecy deep in the forest.” The line here, not unlike the mysterious touch of the clarinet, is surprising only because it is so rare; it’s a language from another time. In this book, the magic comes from two skilled craftsmen talking about their work with curiosity and affection.

The fifth conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences conducting opera, both staged and in concert performances. He recalls being “booed in Milan” at La Scala. Murakami presses him, asking twice, “Do you think there was some resistance to the idea of an Asian conducting Italian opera at La Scala?”

Osawa replies, “The sound I gave Tosca was not the Tosca they were used to.”

“Back then, weren’t you the only Asian conducting at a first-class European opera house?”

“Yes,” says Ozawa. “I suppose I was.”

That the two men are both Japanese, conversing in Japanese, is an issue that glides just below the surface of the conversation. Many times, Ozawa credits his lack of English fluency to explain why he simply didn’t notice the political waters in which he swam as a young conductor in New York and Europe. When he recalls the days in which Ravinia, the prestigious music festival outside of Chicago, was an all-white establishment (in the context of bringing Louis Armstrong to the festival), neither acknowledge that his very presence contradicts the memory of “all white”.

The final conversation centers on the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland. It’s a summer chamber music program that works with promising young musicians in small ensembles and extraordinary master instructors such as violinist Pamela Frank, cellist Sadao Harada, violist Nobuku Imai, and violinist Robert Mann. It’s a program designed around the very principles Ozawa learned from his first teacher, Hideo Saito.

Reading Conversations on the subway, or a cafeteria, or a picnic table in the late autumn sun, I could usually call to mind some of the music under discussion from memory, down to the scratchy sound of cracks in the vinyl, the thick humidity of the needle tracing silence between movements, as if it were playing just a the limit of earshot. But when I sat down to write about the book, I felt compelled to search out the actual recordings. I found many of them on Murakami’s website, which (as I mentioned earlier) contains playlists of works referenced in his other books. Other pieces, though not all, can be found online. These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening.

—Carolyn Ogburn

 Carollyn Ogburn

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Carollyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

Jan 092017
 

gary

So, summarize Lutz? Put forth tweet-worthy versions of the four stories in Assisted Living? Nope, no such luck. Experience on your own the sentential event for which Lutz has become known. —Jason Lucarelli

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Assisted Living
Gary Lutz
Future Tense Books, 2017
32 pages, $5.00

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People really make a fuss over Gary Lutz. Google his name. Read through the results. Read Justin Taylor’s interview at Bookslut, Derek White’s interview at BOMB, Kevin Sampsell’s mini interview at The Rumpus. Read one or two positive and critical Amazon reviews (do the same at Goodreads too). Maybe appreciate a more astute, more literary review (here’s one, two). In reading you might find, panned or loved, Lutz produces no subtle response in anyone. But Lutz is anything but subtle. His every story seems like a dare.

Sample the stuff: “She was the glummer of the two of us, more out of sorts with herself and the harangue of our heartbeats. She bulled into her sleep and came out of it with unperfected follies of feeling.”

These sentences from Vasovagal would wind up piecemeal in the stories inside Assisted Living, Lutz’s chapbook of new fiction out now from Future Tense Press. It’s his fifth collection of stories and his second for Future Tense editor and publisher Kevin Sampsell, who also published Partial List of People to Bleach as a chapbook at 56 pages. Assisted Living amounts to a mere 36 pages, yet the four stories inside are as fractured and syntactically textured as anything in previous collections (Stories in the Worst Way (1996), I Looked Alive (2003), Partial List of People to Bleach (2007), and divorcer (2011). These stories are less stories and more “concentrations of verbal matter.” Each highly wrought instance of inked language showcase a sick obsession with the sentence. His commitment to the form has been admired by authors from Amy Hempel to George Saunders. Ben Marcus has called Lutz “a sentence writer from another planet, deploying language with unmatched invention,” and Diane Williams has said, “His authentic language conquers any habit of speech.” In his own words, Lutz says readers encounter in his stories “instigated language, language dishabituated from its ordinary doings, language startled by itself.” He says, “To me, language is matter—it’s a substance to be fingered and disturbed… I like to see what happens.”

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and currently residing in Pittsburgh, Gary Lutz is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He was the visiting writer at Syracuse University in the spring of 2003 and at the University of Kansas in the spring of 2007. In 2008, he delivered a pivotal lecture to Columbia University students titled “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place,” which was published by The Believer in 2009. In this instructive essay on the act of sentence-making, Lutz describes the kind sentences he wants to write: “the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.” Such sentences have “the force and feel of a climax,” and the “acoustical elegance of the aphorism,” where each word bears “physical and sonic resemblance to each other.” The essay introduces specimen sentences through the context of a set of poetics Lutz learned from his teacher Gordon Lish. These poetics involve a handful of maneuvers, one of which is called “consecution…a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows.” In a sequel of sorts, “The Poetry of the Paragraph: Some Notes,” appearing in 3:AM Magazine, Lutz discusses the “acoustical symmetry” and “verbal pressure” achievable by certain successions of sentences inside paragraphs. The essay looked at how paragraphs emerge from sentences by means of another maneuver Lutz learned from Lish called “the swerve.” The process of moving from sentence to sentence is “not one of addition or accretion but instead a revisionary process” so that each “new sentence breaks away from, or reconstitutes, its predecessor.” Such a paragraph resembles a “sequence of declarations, each of which is crying out for eternal visibility and audibility, and seeking preeminence.” Instead of “building to a climax,” this kind of paragraph “delivers a series of climaxes.”

While these essays reveal a few of Lish’s important workshop teachings, they also help to make sense of Lutz’s unique method of composition. Because the truest satisfaction from reading Lutz comes from considering how the text was made, these essays—like essays by Stein, Sarraute, or Robbe-Grillet—may be used by readers to read the work against and examine the merits of of the text. His sentences, their “forms and contours,” their “organizations of sound,” are so strange they should be studied for their selection.

So, summarize Lutz? Put forth tweet-worthy versions of the four stories in Assisted Living? Nope, no such luck. Experience on your own the sentential event for which Lutz has become known. Here is the title story’s opening paragraph:

Whether she came on to me or just came at me testily, without much sleep to her name, should make no bit of difference to anybody now. I tried to be a father to her, and she wanted to try being a daughter—that was to be the understanding, effective whenever.

The first sentence is held together by an “intra-sentence intimacy,” the “physical and sonic resemblance” of its words: the assonantal relations between “came” (2x), “name,” and “make”; and “me” (2x), “testily,” and “sleep.” (Note the musical flourish of “testily” before the prepositional phrase.) As for the content of the sentence, conflict is created between the story’s supposed characters of “she” and “me” in the first fifteen beats. Readers wonder what the nature of the relationship is between these characters. The verbal pressure of consonants in “no bit of difference to anybody now” emphasizes this conflict. The second sentence attempts to add context to the relationship (“I tried to be a father to her, and she wanted to try being a daughter”), but the infinitive of “to be” reaches meaningfully, distancing the “I” of the sentence from “father,” while “wanted to try” similarly implies a failure to subscribe to these rules of engagement: a kind of paternal relationship. The phrase post em dash (“that was to be the understanding, effective whenever”) reinforces halfhearted resolve. (Note the verbal symmetry of syllables and shared e’s in “effective whenever.”) In each sentence, the drama of content, the “subject matter” of these sentences—the relationship between the narrator and the girl—“is supplemented or deepened by the drama of the letters within the words.” These sentences contain what Stanley Fish calls “an angle of lean” and create motion by promising “content in prospect.” Lutz reveals content on one hand while concealing it with the other.

Instead of examining the relationship, in a kind of swerve, the next few sentences hover over the girl herself (“she was already sinking in a life of mild peril, of shortages sought out”). Sentences and paragraphs bat back and forth the content of their lives and the content of their relationship, the context of which is indeterminable. The narrator riffs about the girl’s siblings, her mother, the shape of the girl’s hair (“sketched onto the skull, then scumbled”), and her two jobs. Sentences centering on the narrator and the girl tend to point both backward and forward in the story: “She wanted to report to me. That was my importance to her,” or “There wasn’t enough testing of affections on each other.” These kinds of sentences may be deciphered over and over without getting any closer to conclusive certainty. In a Gary Lutz story, acoustics and ambiguity are dramatized at every turn.

At one point Lutz launches a “scene” from a turn of phrase: “Everything, I repeat, was on the level. It was so level we could set things out on it, the whole of whatever it was, with its jumpiness and discomposures, without anything of hers ever having to touch anything of mine.” The stickiness of their relationship, their situation, is simply implied. Yet the story seems to reach a climax when the narrator bumps into the girl after not seeing her for some time:

Nine, ten months later, I bumped into her at a bus terminal. Or maybe it was at a car service. She was wearing old-looking clothes that were new to me. She had a handbag—a first. She was applying to veterinary schools, she said. (We shook hands over it.) I said that at my age, you start to realize you might have loved only once, if that. This came out sounding newsy and impatient.

She said, “It’s been years.”

The semantic character of earlier sentences is evident, but here the narrator actually reveals himself through actions and language. The handshake resembles a fatherly gesture. The sentence right after undermines the handshake by putting forth thoughts on love. The narrator’s implied speech seems to rush forth (a humdrum phrase might be built with “blurt,” but here Lutz chooses “newsy and impatient”). Heartbreaking is the girl’s response, if you fuss with it, and you must because meaning-making is up to you. Has it been years since she loved only once? This is as funny as it is sad. Her phrase widens the gap that has been there from the beginning. She shows her age, her lack of experience. The narrator’s hurts turn out to be worse than hers.

While sometimes the lengths Lutz goes to when manipulating and arranging language in such cryptic chronicles are comical, it pays to seriously wonder where his language comes from. When all else fails, it’s this wonder that keeps you pinned to the page.

Each subsequent story in Assisted Living conveys a similarly disjointed “motion of moments” within collapsing marriages and fragmenting relationships. These are stories of lonely, sexually ambivalent characters never “lacking for a loss” interacting depressedly in the “physical hooey” that goes with being human. In “You Are Logged In As Marie,” the narrator describes his marriage to an ex-wife, “an ex if ex, just this once, is allowably abbreviative of expeller, or excluder, or exiler—take your pick,” and dolls out a line through which the entire collection might be viewed: “To wit: Wherever there are two people, people even anything like us, one is forever the casualty of the other.” In “This Is Not A Bill,” the narrator confronts the truth of “I was either a bad reflection on my parents or their one true likeness” by looking at his own children. But, by the end of the narrative, he doesn’t seem to get anywhere, and the final sentence responds to the very first: “I go into a day saying, “I won’t let myself know.”’ In “Nothing Clarion Came Of Her, Either,” a woman comes between two married women in an account of “an open marriage, leaking from both ends.” The narrative concludes with an epiphany (“when it finally just comes to you”) about the wife and their relationship, though this epiphany occurs, in effect, off the page.

Once, in an interview with David Winters, when asked where his writing fits into his life, Lutz replied, “My writing isn’t a career or a craft or a hobby or anything like that. It is more like a tiny annex to my life, a little crawl space in which I occasionally end up by accident in the dark.” That statement makes Assisted Living seem like a surprise, even mirage-like. Yet these stories are strikingly real, demand devotional attention, and make reading anything in their aftermath seem a little light, a little less the show.

—Jason Lucarelli

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Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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Jan 042017
 

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Ligon never lets the intellectual energy flag; he keeps the collisions coming from every direction. — Dawn Raffel

amongthedeadcbsd

Among the Dead and Dreaming
Samuel Ligon
Leapfrog Press, 2016
233 pages; $16.95

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Samuel Ligon’s exquisitely risky new novel begins with a collision. A woman named Cynthia narrates the first page, recalling her ride through a treacherous mist on the back of a motorcycle. The driver is Kyle, her lifelong friend and covert lover. Complicating matters, Cynthia is secretly pregnant—just barely—with a child whose father is her on-and-off boyfriend, Mark. The moment of impact sparks a kind of omniscient ecstasy: “I was weightless, flying, the anticipation of landing lifting me into this bright, raw awareness,” Cynthia says. In that moment she flashes on the name of her unborn child: “the beautiful baby I wrapped myself around as we flew.”

On the second page, Kyle recalls those same few instants:

“One minute we’re grounded in this gauzy white mist, the next minute we’re weightless, up, coming down…I became aware of my heartbeat in my ears, muddy and monotonous, and then I was outside of myself and frantic, listening as hard as I could—to paramedics shouting, to tires hissing and the sound of the ocean over the berm, to a train’s whistle across South Oyster Bay. But I couldn’t hear Cynthia anymore, anywhere.”

Cynthia and Kyle (along with the unborn baby, Isabelle) are dead. Turns out that what we’ve been reading are crystalline memories of the deceased. As an opening, it’s a high-wire act without a net, fraught with emotional, philosophical, and artistic jeopardy. One false move could plunge the narrative into mawkish pop sentimentality (characters looking down from heaven, anyone?) while playing it affectlessly safe would be fatally arid. Ligon maintains superb control, a feat that begs a second million-dollar question: Where does one go from here? How to evade the graveyard of novels that open astonishingly and then, the author having exhausted himself, descend into amateur psychology and other hallmarks of predictable lit (you know, that moment when everything could’ve gone right….).

Ligon never lets the intellectual energy flag; he keeps the collisions coming from every direction. The first-person narrative races between a dozen or so characters, living and dead, each speaking for only a page or two, as we start to understand not only what led up to the motorcycle accident but also how it reverberates into the future. In an extraordinary act of creative empathy, Ligon breathes life into Cynthia (privileged and lost), Mark (idealistic and emotionally bruised), Kyle (an artist with a generous, conflicted heart) and his cheated-on girlfriend Nikki (a beautiful young woman with a teenage daughter and a violent past). But oh, how the reviewer’s parentheticals reduce these label-resistant characters. Parents and exes have their say—even poor, doomed Isabelle has a word—creating a verbal kaleidoscope, a jagged and fluid illumination of death and misconnection.

The yearnings and compulsions leading to Cynthia, Kyle, and Isabelle’s deaths could, of their own, sustain a novel. Ligon renders the betrayed survivors’ rage and confusion with eerie intimacy. When Mark goes back to Cynthia’s apartment, he can’t bear to listen to the messages blinking on her answering machine “because checking them would mean she was never coming back.” Later, he forces himself to hear Kyle’s recorded voice (“Hey, baby….”), then continues to listen to the tape after slamming a potted plant to the floor:

“Another message came on the machine and for a minute I couldn’t tell if it was me or the caller breathing so hard, and then I knew it was him again—his ragged, raspy breathing—maybe dead now, somehow calling from deathland,” Mark says. “But as I made my way to the kitchen, I heard myself saying her name on the machine, my electronic voice so muted and small, as if a pallet of bricks was sitting on my chest.” This was the call he had made right after her death, longing to hear her voice on tape, leaving a message consisting only of her name. “Or maybe,” Mark says, “it was me from the future, somehow calling from deathland.”

The nervy juxtaposition of the living, the dead, and the living past, accrues to the sense that everything happens—at least on some level—simultaneously, and part of what’s here is a deep meditation on ever-present loss. After Mark understands that Cynthia was pregnant, he says, “I sat in traffic surrounded by people going to work, imagining Cynthia and Kyle and the baby ghost floating through space, weightless, holding hands, never growing older, and I wondered what age would be ideal for death if that’s how you’d spend eternity—floating through space like an amoeba on the ocean.” But Ligon’s genius is to rip us away from moody brooding by layering in a page-turning plot, giving the trio who died an endangered counterpoint in Mark and Nikki, and Nikki’s daughter, Alina.

Unlike the manicured company in which she finds herself, Nikki has a bloody past. As a pregnant teenage runaway, she accidentally killed Alina’s rapacious, drug-fueled father, Cash, in drunken self-defense. Nikki fled Texas, and no one suspected her. More than a dozen years later, Kyle had become a father-figure to her daughter. But just before the crash that killed Kyle, Nikki began receiving harrowing phone calls from someone who sounded alarmingly like dead lover #1.

Burke is Cash’s brother. We learn, through his fevered narration, that he’d taken the fall for his sibling in a drug bust and was stewing in prison for the entire duration of Cash and Nikki’s relationship. Upon his release, having sacrificed fifteen years of his life for his little brother, only to have that brother snuffed out, he fixated on long-ago photos of Nikki. She had to be dead, he reckoned, killed by whoever murdered Cash (bumbling drug thugs, likely). When he discovers that she is still alive, with a home on Long Island, New York, his thoughts turn poisonous.

Burke is crazy and canny, with nothing to lose, which makes him a perfect, malevolent storm. From his first phone call to a startled Nikki, he knows she is lying about a few things—for instance, her improvised statement that she had already moved and was living in Oak Bluff, Illinois, the night Cash died. “I didn’t want to believe she done it and didn’t believe it,” Burke says, “but the suspicion would creep up on me, the guiding hand turning my head to something I didn’t want to look at, things she said or how she said them, like the fact that there wasn’t no Oak Bluff, Illinois, at least not according to Rand McNally, though maybe I heard it wrong, because I knew she loved him and would love me too, especially with him gone and me the person most like him in the world. But then it seemed like she just wanted to push me away—maybe because she was still so hurt, I couldn’t tell. And I didn’t know how to test it without pushing her further, which I didn’t want to do. She was all I had and wanted in the world.”

In subsequent phone calls, a panicked Nikki offers $10,000, then $20,000 she doesn’t have in order to get Burke to leave her alone; he ups the ante to $50,000. Convinced by now of her guilt, he schemes to retrieve the payout and then exact fantastic revenge. Soon Nikki has grief-addled Mark enmeshed in her desperate quest for the blackmail money. Most urgently, she wants to protect Alina, who knows nothing about her father or her mother’s past.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say the story turns brutal, as Burke, Mark, and Nikki converge at the edge of madness, and Alina becomes a target. But Ligon keeps twisting events in unexpected ways. It’s rare to find a hair-trigger plot in a novel this elegant; you could call it a literary thriller, if that term hadn’t lost credibility by being slapped all over books that are neither literary nor thrilling.

Ligon, it’s worth noting, is equally gifted as a short story writer, with a formally inventive collection, Wonderland, also out this year. He is also the author of a well-received previous novel, Safe in Heaven Dead, and first collection, Drift and Swerve. A writer’s obsessions are portable—beyond that, inescapable—and his are desire and peril, tinted noir. Ligon teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University, edits the journal Willow Springs and is the creative director of the Port Townsend Writers Conference—a literary hyphenate whose bio lists him as “writer, editor, talk show host, teacher, goat and donkey enthusiast.” He just can’t help but flip you a trippy wildcard, as if to say, whatever you were thinking, think again.

Among the Dead and Dreaming is a book to read and re-read—once because you need to know what happens, a second time because you want to linger over particular passages, and then perhaps a third time, to try to figure out how he pulled the whole thing off. As with any book worth studying, you’ll never fully know.

In Ligon’s world, every emotion and impulse shimmers with its opposite, every moment is saturated with the consciousness of others, and every boundary is subject to erasure—as when Mark says of Cynthia, “Her presence was everywhere and then her absence, and then her presence again, so that her presence and absence felt like the same thing.”

Perhaps it’s nascent Isabelle, never to be born, who says it best in the one word ever allotted to her: Oh.

—Dawn Raffel

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Dawn Raffel

Dawn Raffel’s previous books are two story collections — Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division — and a novel, Carrying the Body. She is the books editor at Reader’s Digest and the editor of The Literarian, the online journal of the Center for Fiction in New York.

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Dec 132016
 

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The Book of Things enters the agonistics of English language poetry not as a Berkian, but rather a Messoan text, an English text on the scene of English language poetry. —D. M. Spitzer

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The Book of Things[1]
Ilhan Berk
Translated by Georg Messo
Shearsman Books, 2016
310 pages, $23.00

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Where ends, where begins The Book of Things? The straw and russet ground of its cover, the obverse where dark lines like shadows render in positive the title, in contour a tilted figure—recumbent, off-center, nude? The reverse, where dark lines form letters, sentences, text about—here, with emphatic prepositionality—the text? If the latter, the action works centrifugally: which text? The publisher’s statements at the top address Ilhan Berk’s work as “Unparalleled in the English language.” In the third paragraph, the endorsement by Talat S. Halman, the poet is identified as Turkish; Halman declares that those who delight in Turkish poetry—already as slick a category as the the mud and slug mentioned in the publisher’s description (poetry written by people identifying as Turks? Written in Turkey? In Turkish? In Roman or Arabic script, or both? With pre- or post- Atatürkic reform conventions?)—are thankful to George Messo for “faithful and artful renditions.” The reverse seems to indicate a text by Ilhan Berk that defies parallel with English language poetry, establishing an agonistic context for the work, but also a notion of the involvement of Ilhan Berk’s text within that context. However, the book does not present a text by Ilhan Berk. It presents a translation by George Messo; the obverse so testifies in a font absorbed by the palette of the ground—a painting by Ilhan Berk, as the reverse establishes—and by the much larger font for the “author’s” name, uppermost and greatest on the author’s poluchrysaic field. The centrifugal action of the reverse hurls attention from the translation presented in the book and towards another book, one written by Ilhan Berk. The Book of Things is not that book.

The Book of Things enters the agonistics of English language poetry not as a Berkian, but rather a Messoan text, an English text on the scene of English language poetry. The agonistics occur reflexively, upon the book itself, its outwardness, where translator and author, English and Turkish collide and grapple for identity. The only identity available to them, however, is that of non-identity. The play of resistance strives upon the face of the book, where the production, the book design, occludes this non-identity of the translation and a text by Ilhan Berk, a shadow text, a spectral text, elsewhere, immaterial, nevertheless haunting this text: the first leaf bears the lasting haunt of the spectral text in the title beneath—as if grounding—The Book of Things, Şeyler kitabi. Testimony of the inseparability of the two texts that constitute translation. Testimony to the separateness of those two texts: “While 1 pioneers its darkness / 2, as if slashing with a knife, divides 1 in half”; “2’s hardheartedness comes, for sure, from 1 wanting to bind everything / to itself” (Messo 168). The Book of Things comes forward as a thing, reified by its design and attempting to assert its unified identity, yet the fact of its having-been-translated resists, recoils. On the edges the identity frays: where the uppermost entry on the contents page is “Interview with the Author” (Messo 8-11), the final entry is “A Guide to Turkish Pronunciation” (Messo 309), all in English, all in translation.

Rather than project Messo’s text, as if it were a mere simulacrum of, or even further, identical to Berk’s text, into relationships with poetries of the historical moment in which Berk activated and released a Turkish language into poems—with modernist poetries, late 19th century French poetries, for example, as Peter Riley has done in his review of The Book of Things in The Fortnightly Review[2]—Messo’s translation might converse better with of those figures and their poetries seen to be of importance in a reading of Berk’s work. The work under review is, after all, not Şeyler kitabi by Ilhan Berk, but rather, Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things, by George Messo. How, then, does Messo’s text comport itself with recent English translations of these poetries? To advance such a project would make use of a stereoscopics that suspends in view each author’s (Messo and Berk) context and the language matrices where their voices develop, cycle, and gestate. This question will not be pursued here, but it may provide an illuminating way to position a review or critical reading of Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things that would bring into focus the translation, its context(s) and significances.

Within and between the paratextual material, the text’s three-part architecture moves from “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T” through “LONG LIVE NUMBERS” to “HOUSE.” Of these, the first spreads out over one hundred thirty-five pages, nearly half the pages of the book; the second, over ninety-two pages; the third, fifty-three pages. Each previous section exceeds its sequel by approximately forty pages; the sections diminish in a regular fashion through the book’s unfoldings. The poetry takes place as and within this architecture, in the same sense that the house is (or can be) a home, though the two are not identical. In Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things, multiple ways of articulating the book’s architecture come into play, pulling at the non-identity of the house|home relation. Here are two ways of reckoning the inner-architecture:

1)    within part one, “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T,” are nine sections, most or all of which could be considered poetic sequences

2)    part two, “LONG LIVE NUMBERS,” has four sections that are not sequences

3)    part three, “HOUSE,”

1.    a.  is composed of twenty-four sections, some of which could be construed as poetic sequences
2.    b. is composed of five sections, some of which could be construed as poetic sequences.

Just as with the poems whose “meaning is seldom grasped” (Messo 22), the very organization waivers in its function as organon. Several meanings might become available, and this diversification at every level of the book may be one way of the overcoming of meaning, raised in the poem “Lyre,” which forms a condition for poetry or, at least, for talking about poetry (Messo 21); another possibility is that no meanings become available, only the bruta facta of the book. If option “a” is followed for describing the organization of “HOUSE,” the overall organization disrupts a consistency or self-similarity between parts and sections: against the reduction of parts’ lengths works the dual motion of a reduction in the number of sections from part one to part two, ending with a vast dispersal of particulars in “HOUSE.” Developing option “b,” on the other hand, would let the book engage in some of the arithmetics found throughout, but particularly in its final moment “WINDOW,” where subtraction of leaf from house gives window (Messo 282). Subtraction: take part one (9 sections), subtract the sections of part two (4 sections), and the five sections of part three remain: 9-4=5. The book both authorizes this type of scrutiny and derides it as the work of the eye:

Partitioning, encoding, freezing still.
An image predator.
Where in the house, it says, is better to see outside?
(Window believes the view is there for itself.)
Its presence too is indebted to absence.
It has grabbed the world before it.
(The window faces forward.)

Is it a child passing by?

‘A child’s passing!’ it will say. (Messo 282)

Predatory, an optics that brings things to a standstill, is the eye; the poem levels charges against the eye immediately following the subtraction of leaf from house, the book’s final arithmetic statement. Messo’s text will summon and resist this kind of operation by which the book’s organization moves along and out of the numbers. And note that the child’s passing (‘A child’s passing!’) both figures the disfiguration of the book-as-house by the overdetermining subject and prefigures the book’s own end—“Balcony, / the house’s alcoholic child” (Messo 306; underlining added), sounding “child” into the demise of paratext, the chaos of a pronunciation guide to a Turkish that isn’t there, the absence constituting, giving rise to, behind and motivating (presumably), the whole book.

The book’s organization itself animates an interrogation of its title and its section titles. An ambiguity sways across the grammatical regions of a genitive construction not fiercely determined by a context: the things’s book, a book belonging to things; the book pertaining to things, where things are the objects towards which the book is related. An undecideability hovers in the title even as the terms of a relationship stand firm: things and book, primarily; then also, a dynamics between plurality (things) and singularity (book); of generality (things) and specificity (book); lastly (but likely not finally), in an even more rarefied sense, concept (things) and object (book). In its non-linguistic moments, The Book of Things offers a figuration of this dynamics from a Christian illustration showing the modes of relation among the persons of the holy trinity (Messo 219). The possibility of the triune deity depends on both the non-identity of its elements as they relate to one another and the identity of its elements with the central term, deus. So the image composes the nexus of relations in circles for each member of the trinity (pater, filius, spiritus sanctus) triangulated around a smaller, central circle in which deus is inscribed. Each circle is an angle of the triangle, with channels connecting them with the words non est, while the channels linking each circle to the inner circle say est. The book, itself triune, finds itself reflected in and reflecting, in its own organization, the imago dei and its entanglements of being and non-being.

Within each of the three sections circulates a variety of poems and things, images of things. Early in the volume appear re-imaged objects—images of images of things such as a paint roller, a pin, jewelry, garden shears (Messo 16-17). The representations defy a single scale of reference apart from the reader|viewer’s experience of them and the near-legislated mapping of that experience onto the images as given, such that, although the reproduced image of a hairpin exceeds in size that of the paint-roller, a scale drawn from experience of those items operates against what is given and produces a dissonance. Each page contains what appears to be a collection of four separate images of things placed upon a single ground then re-imaged—photocopied, scanned, photographed—as a composition. The volume thus opens the ancient three-part distancing of mimetic art from reality.[3]

How does a viewer|reader engage such pages? Are they read? Does their arrangement address something, mean something? Turning on itself as reflexion, the following page inquires “—If objects had language, what would you want them to say for you? / —I would want every object to say, all together, ‘He’s one of us’. / I have abided by the untouchability of things” (Messo 18). And again, poem turns on itself, thing reflecting thing: “The poem is where the word disappears, the place where it is /  almost impossible to fix meaning” (Messo 24). In the book’s opening through images the word disappears and meaning is, from the outset, suspended, entered into the chaos “where reality reaches its / furthest limits in language, where that relationship between language / and reality’s other side comes to a halt, and how it comes to a halt”(Messo 21).

The more attention falls on these pages of images near the book’s opening the more evident become the different tonalities of the dissonance: the jarring and hectic strain energized by this collision of given and thought, to borrow from Immanuel Kant modes of subjective encounters with objects.[4] The collages stage an insurrection against “the subject’s sovereignty” by, in concert with the objects of language, becoming somehow object-centered and thoroughly resistant to the rulership of the “I”: the work seeks “To draw near to the subject from all / sides; but never fully grasp it; only to circle it; to start going round again / just when you draw near…” (p. 21). This dizzying cycle rattles the presumptive subject-oriented relation to things, where the subject subjects objects to the grasp and threat of its conceptual epistemics.

This relation the book seeks to undo, problematize, or at times invert. In a dialectical reversal spoken in the alternation of the title of part one from all capitals to all miniscules, the reader|viewer takes a position early in the book as a thing among and opposed to other things: “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T” becomes “things that count things that don’t” (Messo 13, 15). Undoing the line-break shifts the whole phrase. Count moves from intransitive in the all-capitals instantiation to transitive in the miniscule, implicating human beings as those who count things that do not count other things, i.e. that are do not perform the cognitive operation of enumerating. But it does not seem to be an indictment. The book asks to be counted even as it cancels parts of itself, as in pages of text overlaid with “X” as if destined to be excised (Messo 221-223). So Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things reaches through and beyond itself: “Anyway, to reach out and grab the outer edges of things is to be in / the world” (Messo 255). Here—at this very moment in the book’s work, in the alphabetized three-columned (triune!) list that opens the sequence “house I” (255), the translation ruptures the spell of identity.

—D. M. Spitzer

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D. M. Spitzer is currently a doctoral student at Binghamton University in the Philosophy, Literature, and Theory of Criticism Program within the Department of Comparative Literature. He  works primarily on early Greek thinking and its modern and contemporary reception and on translation theory. In August, 2016, Etruscan Press published his book of poems, A Heaven Wrought of Iron: Poems from the Odyssey. Recent work has taken the form of collaborations with his wife, Sara Shiva Spitzer, a visual artist. He live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with his family: Sara and three children Maya, Ani, and Luna.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Special thanks to Sevinç Türkkan for bringing this book to my attention & for motivating me to write this review.
  2. Riley, Peter. “Poetry Notes.” The Fortnightly Review. http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2016/06/ilhan-berk/, 28 June, 2016. Accessed 29 October, 2016.
  3. Plato. Res Publica. Platonis Opera, Vol. 4, edited by John Burnet, Clarendon, 1902.
  4. Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Könemann, 1995.
Dec 122016
 

john_kaag

To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine. —Melissa Considine Beck

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

American Philosophy: A Love Story
John Kaag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016
272 pages; $26.00

 

O Wild West Wood, thou breath of Autumn’s being.
Thou, from those unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed.

—“Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Shelley

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Holden Chapel, at first glance, is a small, unassuming, forty-foot, Georgian style, brick building on the campus of Harvard University. But it has a rich and interesting history as the third oldest building at Harvard and as one of the oldest college buildings in America. In December of 1741, Harvard accepted a generous donation of 400 pounds sterling from Mrs. Holden, widow of Samuel Holden, and her daughters to build a chapel on campus. The building was erected in 1744 and from that year until 1772 morning and even prayers were held for students in the quaint building and it also served as a place for intimate and engaging lectures. On April 15th, 1895 the American Philosopher William James delivered his famous “Is Life Worth Living?” essay to a group of young men from the Harvard YMCA.

William James, known as the Father of American Psychology, was the son of Henry James, Sr., the Swedenborgian theologian, and the brother of the famous American novelist Henry James. William James contemplated becoming an artist, but in 1861 he enrolled in medical school at Harvard where he eventually graduated with an MD. But James never practiced medicine and was instead drawn to psychology and philosophy and became a pioneer in both of these fields. During his young adulthood James suffered from long bouts of depression which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia. His depression and anxiety, which he calls his “soul-sickness” led him to contemplate suicide and he even overdosed on chloral hydrate in the 1870’s just to see how close he could come to death without actually crossing that threshold. It was the exploration of philosophy and his attempt to answer the question “Is Life Worth Living” that brings him out of his malaise and inspires him to compose some of the most important philosophical pieces that make up the American school of pragmatic philosophy.

John Kaag’s philosophical and literary memoir American Philosophy: A Love Story, begins with the young philosopher’s own “soul-sickness” and his frequent visits to the site of James’s famous lecture, Holden Chapel, in the Spring of 2008. Kaag is on a postdoc at The American Academy of Arts and Sciences when his crumbling marriage, the death of his alcoholic father and the stagnation of his research push him to contemplate what he believes to be William James’s most important philosophical question: “Is Life Worth Living?”

I was supposed to be writing on the confluence of eighteen century German idealism and American Pragmatism. Things were progressing, albeit very slowly.

But then, on an evening in the Spring of 2008 I gave up. Abandoning the research had nothing to do with the work itself and everything to do with the sense that it, along with everything else in my life, couldn’t possibly matter. For the rest of my year at Harvard I assiduously avoided its libraries. I avoided my wife, my family, my friends. When I came to the university at all I went only to Holden Chapel. I walked past it, sat next to it, read against it, lunched near it, sneaked into it when I could—became obsessed with it. James had, as far as I was concerned, asked the only question that really mattered. Is life worth living? I couldn’t shake it and I couldn’t answer it.

Kaag’s clipped and pithy sentences which employ asyndeton for maximum dramatic effect make this book about so much more than philosophy and literature. He is not afraid to reveal his darkest thoughts or lowest moments and he is also not above using profanity or embarrassing stories about himself to get his point across.   The style of deep, private reflection mixed with philosophical dialogue is reminiscent of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But, unlike Pirsig, who wrote computer manuals for a living, Kaag’s book is a great personal and professional risk for a philosopher whose two previous books are for a very specific, academic, Ivory Tower audience: Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition and Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism: The Philosophy of Ella Lyman Cabot.

holden_chapel_harvard_universityHolden Chapel, Harvard University

American Philosophy is aptly and cleverly divided into three main parts which recall the journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory and Redemption. Kaag’s journey starts in Part I, in “Hell,” on his way to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for a philosophy conference on William James at the Chocorua Public Library, but he gets sidetracked for the first of many times throughout the book. There is a sense of wandering and loneliness that punctuates American Philosophy and in this instance, the first real instance of meandering, Kaag can’t even bring himself to his end point which is a professional conference. Instead of going to meet his colleagues at the Chocorua Library, he stops at a German bakery where he meets Bunn Nickerson.   This kind, ninety-three-year old, local gentleman tells Kaag that William Ernest Hocking, the prominent 20th century American philosophy professor from Harvard, has an estate which is nearby and contains a unique library. Bunn offers to take Kaag there to have a look around.

The family still used the Hocking estate, which was named West Wood, in the summer, but in the fall of 2008 all of the buildings were empty of any human inhabitants and the library appeared to be utterly neglected and abandoned. A copy of The Century Dictionary from 1889, a first edition encyclopedic dictionary with more than seven thousand pages and ten-thousand wood engraved illustrations, catches his eye through the window and his decision to enter this library, even though it was trespassing, completely alters the course of Kaag’s life for the better.

Kaag stumbles upon an opportunity to heal his soul in the form of West Wood’s stone library which, upon entering, he discovers is home to more than 10,000 books. The books that Kaag finds inside this unlocked and unheated building, especially the number of first editions, are the stuff of dreams for any bibliophile. Among the rodent droppings, porcupines, termites, various other bugs and dust Kaag finds Descartes’ Discourse on Method–first edition from 1649, Thomas Hobbes’s Levithan-first edition from 1651, the complete, leather-bound volumes of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, John Locke’s Two Treatise on Government from 1690, Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft from 1781, Emerson’s Letters and Social Aims–first edition, 1875 and on and on. To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine.

William Ernest Hocking, the owner of this vast personal library was, like his teacher William James, also a pragmatist who believed that philosophy could have an effect on real life. His personal library was a collection of not only European thinkers and philosophers, but he also amassed books that contained the thoughts of Eastern philosophy. Hocking studied with James at Harvard as well as other American thinkers such as Royce, Palmer and Santayana. In 1908, Hocking moved from his home on the West Coast to accept a teaching position at Yale and in 1916 when his mentor, Josiah Royce died, Hocking took over his chair in philosophy at Harvard. Hocking would go on to spend the next forty years at Harvard making a name for himself as one of the prominent scholars of American pragmatism. Kaag discovers that many of the books in Hocking’s library were once owned by Hocking’s famous teachers and colleagues at Harvard and some of their signatures, notations and inscriptions inside the books were just as valuable as the leather bound books themselves.

hockingWilliam Ernest Hocking

Throughout the course of Part I, Kaag’s “Hell,” he comes to the painful decision that his marriage is a mess and not capable of being saved. He leaves his wife in Boston and spends more and more time at West Wind where he becomes acquainted with Hocking’s granddaughters, Jennifer, Jill and Penny. The sisters are “surprised and releived” that someone is interested in the books and Kaag begins to catalog the massive collection and attempts to save the oldest, most vulnerable books by moving them to dry storage. As he works his way through the books he continues on his deeply personal and lonely struggle with his own purpose and existence. He writes:

In the following months I started cheating on my wife with a room full of books. I made the trip to New Hampshire repeatedly. My wife and mother—in a unison that always infuriated me—demanded to know where I was going. I could have told the truth but instead I chose to lie, making up conferences that needed to be attended and friends I wanted to visit. Up until that point my life had been so routine, so scripted, so normal, so good—but my brief encounter with my dead father the previous year had brought that life to an unceremonious end. Nothing about life is normal. And nothing about life has to be good. It’s completely up to the liver. The question—Is life worth living?—doesn’t have a scripted, public answer. Each answer is excruciatingly personal, and therefore, I thought, private.

One of the greatest strengths of Kaag’s narrative is that he is not afraid to show that his attempt to escape his wretched existence by means of the library at West Wind was not always noble or dignified or pretty. He skips meals, he neglects his hygiene, he drinks excessively, he begins to prematurely age and he sleeps out in the woods behind West Wind where he catches a nasty case of Lyme Disease. Who among us hasn’t hit a low point in our lives to which we can look back and trace our gradual ascent out of the abyss? The stark honesty of Kaag’s narrative is brave, especially for someone who is an academic philosopher, because he includes all of the ugliness of his journey from Hell to Redemption which details he could have just as easily skimmed over or avoided altogether.

The ideas and themes of American philosophy and literature which are unfolded within the pages of Kaag’s book mimic the philosophers own process of discovery as he unpacks and unfolds the wonders of Hocking’s library. One encounters James, Emerson, Thoreau, Coleridge, Camus, Royce, Whitman, Peirce, Frost and Dante just to name a few. Many readers never give much thought to American philosophers, or as Kaag notes, American philosophy is regarded as “provincial” and “narrow in its focus.” Kaag, however, delves into the pages of American philosophical writings with unbridled enthusiasm that is enhanced by his literary ability to tell interesting and engaging stories about the real lives of these great American thinkers. As one example of this, Kaag summarizes the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s struggle with the idea of freedom and the impact chance has on our choices. Peirce took issue with the emphasis of orderly design over chance and freedom that Darwin and the evolutionists promoted. The philosophical theories of Peirce’s Design and Chance are discussed by Kaag in the context of Peirce’s struggle in his personal life with romantic love. The anecdotes and stories about Peirce’s real life struggles makes what could be a dry recounting of Peirce’s philosophical pragmatism into a gripping story about a great thinker who is attempting to make sense out of his confusing and chaotic world.

Kaag spends the next year in the woods at West Wood with Hocking’s books and continues to contemplate James’s important question. As he works his way through the library he reads countless volumes of American philosophy and literature, with a few Europeans mixed in, that help him through the different stages of his emotional and spiritual journey. The most significant turning point in Kaag’s Hell is when he begins reading Thoreau and reflecting on that writer’s own retreat to the woods. Kaag becomes frustrated with Emerson’s idea of self-reliance which he feels is unattainable and unrealistic. Instead he embraces Thoreau’s example of simplicity, cultivating the earth, and turning off and tuning out all of the modern amenities that distract us from searching for real meaning in our lives.

At one point Kaag takes a break from sifting through books in the library asks Hocking’s granddaughter, Jennifer, the least “intellectual” of the sisters, if he can help her clear a field by scything. As he takes in the simplicity of the landscape at West Wood and tries to deal with this very physical task, Kaag comes to realize through this experience of scything that the process of self-discovery needs to happen for him outside of the walls of the stone library and that this process would be slow and couldn’t be forced; he learns to stop and look around him and be mindful of his surroundings and this becomes his first, significant step from Hell to Purgatory.

william-jamesWilliam James

In Kaag’s Purgatory, the subtitle of “A Love Story” is further explained through the first glimpses and descriptions of Carol whom the author confesses he should, by all accounts, have hated. By this point in the book he is divorced and his ex-wife is remarried and moving out west, but Kaag’s loneliness and isolation linger. He continues to spend hours and days and weeks at West Wind and to catalogue Hocking’s library and to save the most precious volumes from the elements. One weekend he invites Carol, a colleague of his from UMass Lowell, a Kantian feminist, who is also his rival for a tenure track academic job, to join him in sifting through the library at West Wood. Carol is married, but her husband lives in Canada so their long distance relationship gives her plenty of freedom and independence to travel with Kaag to New Hampshire on this as well as many occasions.

While sifting through the pages of Hocking’s library and taking hikes through the White Mountains together, it is evident that Kaag’s feelings for Carol become more than friendly. There is a hint in the text that Kaag, in the tradition of Dante, wants to find his inspiration, his Beatrice and he has found just such a companion in Carol. But her marriage and his general uncertainty about the direction of his life makes for an unexpected element of suspense in the midst of the book as he debates how or when he should reveal his true affections for her. Thoughts of American philosophy and James run through his mind as he is mulling over his decisions:

Shall I profess my love? Shall I be moral? Shall I live? These are the most important questions of modern life, but are also questions that do not have factually verifiable answers. For James such answers will be, at best, provisional. There are no physical signs that one is emotionally ready to become a lover or husband, auguries that suggest one will be any good at any of it. In fact, there is often a disturbing amount of countervailing evidence. But human beings still have to choose, to make significant decisions in the face of uncertainty. Love is what James would have called a “forced option”—you either choose to love or you don’t. There is no middle ground.

Kaag deliberately chooses to exclude the details of his development of an intimate relationship with Carol. The decision to keep this part of his personal life between himself and Carol is worthy of great admiration and respect—he knows that an author can cross the threshold into the type of salacious writing that is meant to sell books and Kaag stops just shy of veering into the realm of romance. Kaag simply remarks about their decision to choose love and to choose one another: “Some things are better left unsaid, and others can’t be said at all.”

But we do get a glimpse of their life together in the final part of American Philosophy which has the hopeful title of “Redemption.” Kaag finds happiness, true love and companionship and Hocking’s books find a safe haven in the library at UMass Lowell. But despite the happy ending for all persons and things involved in his journey, Kaag is still all too aware of the ephemeral nature of our existence and he acknowledges that we are responsible for making our own meaning in life with what we are given.

Kaag concludes with a reflection of his time at West Wood and how far he has come from those lonely days in 2008 when he was obsessed with Holden Chapel. In 1780 religious services ceased to be held in Holden Chapel and in 1800 it was converted into a chemistry and dissection lab for the students of Harvard medical school. Bones that were the remains of medical dissections were discovered in the walls of the chapel when it was renovated in 1990. Nowadays Holden Chapel reverberates with the sweets sounds of music as it is used by the Harvard Glee Club for practice. Kaag notes that in the Middle Ages it was not uncommon to bury the bones of the dead in buildings for apotropaic purposes but also because they were good for the acoustics. This strange mix of the sounds of the living occupying the same space as the bones of the dead in this small, historical chapel is reminiscent of the opening lines of Yves Bonnefoy’s Ursa Major:

What’s that noise?

     I didn’t hear anything….

     You must have! That rumbling. As if a train had roared
through the cellar.

     We don’t have a cellar.

     Or the walls.

     But they’re so thick! And packed so hard by so many

centuries…

—Melissa Considine Beck

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m-beck-bio-pic

Melissa Beck has a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She also completed most of a Ph.D. in Classics for which her specialty was Seneca, Stoicism and Roman Tragedy. But she stopped writing her dissertation after the first chapter so she could live the life of wealth and prestige by teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to students at Woodstock Academy in Northeastern Connecticut. She now uses the copious amounts of money that she has earned as a teacher over the course of the past eighteen years to buy books for which she writes reviews on her website The Book Binder’s Daughter. Her reviews have also appeared in World Literature Today and The Portland Book Review. She has an essay on the nature of the soul forthcoming in the 2017 Seagull Books catalog and has contributed an essay about Epicureanism to the anthology Rush and Philosophy.

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Dec 092016
 

ratika-kapur

Traditional values and modern manners continue to clash throughout the pages of this engrossing book, leading to a shocking yet thoroughly appropriate finale. —Natalia Sarkissian

private-life

The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma
Ratika Kapur
Bloomsbury, 2016
192 pages; $16.00

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India Gate, Hauz Khas, Gurgaon, Barista in SDA, Shefali Sweets, Greater Noida, Shoppers Stop—these are the signposts that pepper the opening pages of The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, Ratika Kapur’s brilliant and darkly comic novel about globalization and womanhood in 21st century India.

The names of these places speak of an ever-modernizing century New Delhi. The India Gate, the country’s memorial to the 82,000 fallen soldiers of WWI, was inaugurated in 1931 and sits astride the 19th century Rajpath. It is where today’s residents flock on Sundays, buying balloons or toy helicopters for their children and eating ice cream. The Hauz Khas neighborhood, one of the most affluent in South Delhi, is built around a medieval core. In addition to a 14th-century mosque, madrasa and royal tombs, it boasts art galleries, bistros and designer boutiques. Gurgaon, a satellite located thirty-two kilometers southwest of New Delhi, is witnessing rapid urbanization. Offices of many Fortune 500 companies now occupy the area’s mushrooming glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Likewise, cities like Greater Noida have grown rapidly to accommodate the vast inflow of newcomers with apartment buildings, some even with 24-hour-a-day water and electricity. Meanwhile, Barista in SDA (a café in South Delhi) sells Italian espresso, Shefali Sweets sells fine chocolate, while Shoppers Stop (an Indian chain akin to Zara and H&M) sells department store merchandise.

It is against this backdrop of the old versus the new, of tradition pitted against modernity, that the first person narrator, the thirty-seven-year-old receptionist in a posh Gurgaon gynecologist’s office, Mrs. Renuka Sharma, meets a stranger and her life takes a series of unexpected turns.

As befitting the global age and the theme of the novel, Mrs. Sharma’s husband is an absentee physiotherapist who has gone to Abu Dhabi to work and provide for his family. Gone for seventeen months when the novel opens, he earns a good salary that is totally tax-free. Frugal, he saves his money and then wire-transfers it to Mrs. Sharma’s bank account. Meanwhile, she lives with their fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. Since she is a traditionally dutiful wife and daughter-in-law, she has shifted to an apartment where she can also live with her in-laws during her husband’s absence, keeping watch over her father-in-law’s diabetes. But the sari-clad Mrs. Sharma is also technologically savvy; on Fridays and Sundays she Skypes with her husband on her Dell computer. Likewise, she is also contemporary in her ambitions:

One day when my husband and I save enough money, I will start a training academy for Office Management, Computer Proficiency, Personality Development and Grooming, Business English, everything

She therefore willingly makes the sacrifice to live apart from him, choosing to ignore the voices of those who would pity her.

People are always saying to me, Oh ho, you poor woman, your husband is so far away! Oh ho, you poor woman, you must be missing him such a lot! Oh ho, you poor woman! and what not. It is true that he is far away [….] And it is true that I miss him. But what can I say? We have duties. As parents, as children, we have duties. I could keep my husband sitting in my lap all day, but when my in-laws grow older and get sick, who will pay for the hospital bills? The government? […] And what about my son’s education? […] Bobby has to do his MBA because he is going to work in a multinational company or an international bank.

She knows that in order to realize her dreams she can’t afford to take a wrong step. “Watch your step. Watch each and every step you take,” she says. But fatally, she doesn’t heed her own advice.

Although she claims she never talks to strangers, one day, after a young man at the Hauz Khas Metro station does her a small kindness, she quickly decides there’s no harm in thanking him. After all, his shirt is wrinkle-free, his pants have a very nice crease up the center of each leg and he wears a nice, striped tie—the kind she buys for Bobby. And days later, when the man, Vineet, asks her to go for a coffee at Barista, she agrees because it’s just an innocent outing. There is nothing wrong with later riding in his company’s limo and helping him choose an apartment to buy in Greater Noida. Nor is there anything amiss about accepting an invitation to go for an ice-cream on a motorcycle to India Gate.

But even if she claims there is nothing wrong with meeting Vineet, Mrs. Sharma lies to her in-laws, telling them she is going out with girlfriends or is working late. At the same time, she also lies to Vineet by omission: “I am a wife and a mother of a fifteen-year-old boy. This he does not know. And he does not have to.”

But most importantly, Mrs. Sharma lies to herself:

Who is he to me? He is just some man who I saw on the Metro, and I don’t know how, but we started talking to each other, and I don’t know how, but we have become something that is a little bit like friends, and that is all. We go on short outings together. That is all. And he has not even bothered to ask me anything about myself. If he does ask me, which I don’t think will happen because he seems to be the type of person who does not care about such things as your father’s name, your husband’s name, your address, your work and what not, but if suddenly for some reason he does ask me I will tell him.

Yet Vineet doesn’t ask her. As time goes by, Mrs. Sharma still keeps quiet. She doesn’t volunteer information about her troubles with her adolescent son who is misbehaving and needs his father. Nor does she tell him about her longing for physical closeness that the magazines in the gynecologist’s office where she works say is legitimate—even for women. She continues to see Vineet, keeping her secrets until events force them from her, rationalizing that she is merely following her husband’s advice to take a break from the pressures of “holding up the ceiling” of their home and nurturing their family.

…[M]y husband is probably right. From time to time everybody has to take a little holiday from this life, from all the big and small everyday things […] Maybe that is why I enjoy meeting Vineet. During those times, all the small, little difficulties of everyday seem far away

For the most part, she manages to avoid introspection, however, she does briefly reflect on how she has broken with tradition and done something unusual. But she soon closes the door on guilt and the skeletons that are fast accumulating in the closet: “I have become a bold woman. Still, what does it actually mean? What is a bold woman? What does she do? Isn’t she just a person who, like the men around her, does certain things without feeling scared?”

And thus, Mrs. Sharma continues forward along the course she has charted, not watching her step, not holding up the ceiling. Traditional values and modern manners continue to clash throughout the pages of this engrossing book, leading to a shocking yet thoroughly appropriate finale.

The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma is Ratika Kapur’s second novel; her first, Overwinter, which investigated the upper class of South Delhi, was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Kapur, who originally worked in publishing as a fiction editor, has said in a recent interview with The Hindu that she found inspiration for The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma while riding the Metro. Sitting in the ladies’ car, she began wondering about the middle-class women she was observing. Reflecting on the state of writing in English in India, she also realized that none of it addressed this ordinary urban population. Instead, it was, she says, all about the exotic or the elite, including her own work.

One of this novel’s biggest challenges was posed by the language itself. Kapur wanted to use English in such a way that it was flavored by the urban Indian middle class, but without turning it into a parody—a challenge faced by all those who write in English about non-English realities. As she eloquently explains in the interview:

Wondering what this Hindi-speaking middle class [was] thinking is how I got started. The problem was the prose. […] I spent probably two years trying to get the voice right. I was basically trying to create a specific kind of prose aesthetics that would give voice to lives whose intimacies are coloured in Hindi, but whose ambitions are articulated in English. […] I didn’t want to do that quaint, cutesy […] patronizing prose. I wanted to collapse that distance between the English writer and her Hindi-speaking subjects. The idiom of this book doesn’t actually exist. Ever since Raja Rao, we have been grappling with that question: how do you capture in English an experience that has been lived in another language?

That the author succeeds admirably attests to her acute sensibility. One of her tools toward creating Mrs. Sharma’s particular, vivid voice, is to flavor Mrs. Sharma’s speech with genteel titles—bhaisahib, mummyji, papaji, Vineetji—drawing the reader into an intimate space. Another is to refer to places and things with acronyms without giving explanations—SDA, IIT, BeD—treating the reader as an insider, a friend, a confessor. But it is the style of the sentences themselves—the breathy, delicious sentences, the declarations that the reader knows are rationalizations—that render Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma with its unreliable narrator truly memorable.

In today’s global world, with significant others frequently posted across the globe, many of Mrs. Sharma’s experiences and dilemmas are not unusual. Traditional values all over the world are increasingly under fire. The sympathetic reader shakes her head, sighing, sometimes wryly smiling, but not condemning. Kapur deftly shows that separation and loneliness are the 21st century’s hard rows to hoe and she does it with grace.

—Natalia Sarkissian

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Natalia Sarkissian-001

Natalia Sarkissian holds a BA and MA in art history, an MBA in international finance and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Corriere della Sera, The Huffington Post, Numéro Cinq and other publications. She divides her time between Italy and the United States.

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Dec 062016
 

henry-green

I would argue that we should understand Green as a writer who suspends the literary categories of his time.—Dorian Stuber

green_loving_2048x2048

Loving
Henry Green
New York Review of Books, 2016
224 pages; $14.00

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The English novelist Henry Green wrote nine beautiful and elliptical novels, all worth reading, but Loving (1945) is the best of them, indeed, one of the best English novels of the 20th century. This new edition—part of a welcome plan to reissue his works in the US—is cause for celebration.

Loving is set during WWII at a sprawling estate in Ireland called Kinalty Castle. Kinalty is owned by the ironically named Tennant family; fittingly, the Tennants are newcomers who have purchased rather than inherited the property. Mr. Tennant is dead; his son is fighting in the war. Mrs. Tennant lives with her daughter-in-law, Violet, Violet’s two small children, and a large group of servants.

In classic upstairs-downstairs fashion, the masters are not particularly important in the book (indeed, they are off in England for much of the time). Instead the servants are front and center, and we follow their sometimes rancorous, sometimes affectionate relationships. There’s Charley Raunce, recently ascended from the position of footman to butler, full of bluster and fear and the occasional kindness who finds himself out of his depth when a flirtation becomes something more. There’s Agatha Burch, the much put upon head housemaid, who oversees Edith and Kate, the two lovelorn under-housemaids. There’s Mrs. Welch, the alcoholic and suspicious cook. There’s old Nanny Swift, who took care of Violet as a girl and now looks after her girls. There’s Albert, the pantry boy, naïve, kind, and touchy. And there’s Paddy, the Irish lampman (the house has no electricity), who only Kate troubles herself to understand.

Much of the material for Loving came from Green’s childhood; servants had always been part of his life. Born Henry Vincent Yorke in 1905—he took his deliberately banal pseudonym as a way to separate his writing and business lives—Green grew up at Forthampton, the family seat in Gloucestershire.

In his memoir Pack my Bag, Green claims, “Most things boil down to people, or at least most houses to those who live in them, so Forthampton boils down to Poole, who did not live in but was gardener about the place for years.” Young Henry was fascinated by Poole, even though the man did not like Green’s mother and spoke badly about her to the boy. (The family legend is that he never forgave her for making him bowl sugar beets across the lawn for her to shoot at.) Green, who adored his mother though he seldom saw her, was torn apart by these calumnies yet unwilling to repudiate the one who made them.

It seems that Green knew already at a young age what he would explore in this novel in particular: that loving is a messy business, bound to lead to hurt feelings. In his life and writing alike Green was at home with complexity, especially in terms of social class. Green, who memorably described himself as “a mouthbreather with a silver spoon,” at one stroke both acknowledging and ironizing privilege, said that his childhood taught him “the half-tones of class”. It’s fair to say that Green knew the family servants, to whom he devotes the first pages of his memoir, better than either his mother, whose primary interests were shooting and riding and with whom the boy spent only one precious hour a day, or his father, a formidable Victorian polymath who pursued an interest in archaeology while running a company that cleverly manufactured both beer-bottling equipment and bathroom plumbing.

Young Henry was sent to Eton, where his contemporaries included Eric Arthur Blair, who would himself take a pseudonym and publish under the name George Orwell. Later he went up to Oxford, where he befriended Evelyn Waugh and shared rooms with Anthony Powell. He hated both schools. At Oxford he drank a lot, went to the movies twice a day, and wrote his first novel, Blindness, before leaving without a degree. He went to work the floor of the family factory in Birmingham, an experience he fictionalized in his second novel, Living. Later Green moved from the factory floor to the office, rising to become managing director.

Green published his memoir in 1940, when he was only thirty-five, because he was convinced he would be killed in the coming war: “surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.” Happily he did live, and even thrived. He published five books during the war years and during the Blitz served courageously and happily in the Auxiliary Fire Service. But Green’s production slowed markedly after the war. He wrote three more, increasingly laconic books (the last two composed almost entirely in dialogue). Then, after 1952, silence, even though he lived for another twenty-one years. Jeremy Treglown, Green’s excellent biographer, vividly describes him in his last years as a vagrant in his own home, drinking because he couldn’t write and unable to write because of his drinking.

The downward trajectory of Green’s life is at odds with the sly pleasures and enlivening strangeness of his prose. The first thing readers of Loving will notice is its vivid dialogue. Here’s Edith revealing to Kate her feelings for Raunce:

‘All right then I’ll learn you something, Edith said and she panted and panted. ‘I love Charley Raunce I love ‘im I love ‘im I love ‘im so there. I could open the veins of my right arm for that man.

And here’s Miss Burch responding to Kate’s half-fearful, half-longing speculation about what would happen to them should the Germans invade:

‘Mercy on us you don’t want to talk like that,’ Miss Burch said. ‘You think of nothing but men, there’s the trouble. Though if it did happen it would naturally be the same for the older women. They’re famished like a lion out in the desert them fighting men,’ she announced.

These examples are moving and funny and a little alarming—characteristic of the emotional roller coaster the book puts us through. The absence of punctuation paradoxically makes the pauses and emphases clearer. Green delights in the clichés and hackneyed images (“I could open the veins,” “They’re famished like a lion out in the desert”) of speech without looking down on the speakers.

But the novel’s narrative voice is even more memorable than its representation of speech. To be sure, narration is simply opposed to speech in the novel. Sometimes narration apes the agrammatical or idiomatic qualities of speech, such as when it uses adjectives as adverbs: “He picked it up off the floor quick”; “He stood face averted then hurried smooth and his quietest to the roll-top desk.” Sometimes it takes on the rhythms of speech, its unpunctuated flow: “Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives.”

But sometimes the narration is stranger than anything we find in its speech. Whereas the latter aims at clarity, the former finds meaning in obscurity. Such uncertainty is especially true of its unsettling of traditional English-language syntax. In this example from early in the book, Kate and Edith come across Paddy asleep in the old stables. The windows of this room are covered in cobwebs. As, it seems, is Paddy himself:

Over a corn bin on which he had packed last autumn’s ferns lay Paddy snoring between these windows, a web strung from one lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed.

Note the excess of qualifiers in the first half of the sentence: Paddy snores “over a corn bin” and “between these windows”; the placement of that last modifier emphasizes the phrase “snoring between these windows,” which highlights in a peculiar, excessive way the specificity of an action. “Snoring,” after all, is hardly dependent on place. (In fact, the verb here is not “snoring” but “lies snoring”: the inversion of subject and verb—“Over a corn bin… lay Paddy snoring” is odd, almost archaic.) Also typical, and related to this ambivalent specificity, is the demonstrative “these” rather than the definite article “the,” a tendency the critic Frank Kermode once described as Green’s way of hinting that the text is singular, not easily reducible to something else.

Certainly the most singular quality here—though it is in fact typical of Green’s style—is the sentence’s unstable grammar. The sentence pivots (or collapses, as the case may be) on the comma after “windows.” What comes after it—“a web strung from one lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed”—seems at first to be a subordinate clause, but on re-reading proves to be something else, something agrammatical. Adding that ungainly phrase “and which” turns this subordinate clause into the dominant clause for the sentence’s final bit of information. Bewilderingly, “web” is both a predicate referring to Paddy (it is strung from a lock of his hair to the sill above) and a subject in its own right (it rises and falls as he breathes). On a first reading we expect the final “and” to connect “above” to another preposition (so that it would read something like: “the sill above and beyond him”). When this expectation is foiled, we stumble over what comes next, the adjective clause “which rose and fell as he breathed.”

Green’s prose disguises its strangeness as ordinariness. He’s not an overtly ostentatious writer. Yet his ostensibly straightforward prose is profoundly unsettling and unusually hard to parse. The longer we pause over a sentence like this one the weirder it seems. In this way, he reveals himself to be one of the most genuinely experimental writers in the English tradition, writing prose that both demands and resists interpretation. (Webs being a conventional figure for interpretation, we could read the spider webs in this scene as a joke about our felt need to make sense even of things that resist sense.)

What is true of Loving’s syntax is true of its use of plot and character as well. Neither of these attributes is as straightforward as it seems. In general, Loving is not much concerned with plot. Even the question of whether Raunce will get together with Edith—the event that most approximates a conventional plot arc—is supplanted by the more intriguing but more difficult to answer question of what the two even want from each other. Several subplots are braided around the Raunce-Edith relationship, each of which rises to a crescendo of antic complexity that would be more at home in a P. G. Wodehouse novel but each of which fizzles out before coming to any resolution.

Take, for example, the business with the peacocks. The castle’s extensive grounds are ornamented by some two hundred of the birds. When they suddenly disappear, Mrs. Tennant summons Raunce for an explanation. Raunce, new at his job and insecure, as well as constitutionally shifty, does not want to tell her what has really happened: namely, that the nephew of the cook, a belligerent nine-year-old recently evacuated to Kinalty from London to escape the bombing, has strangled a peacock that had the temerity to peck at him, and that Paddy, the Irish lampman, has locked the rest of the birds up for safekeeping.

In his interview with Mrs. Tennant, Raunce equivocates about the convoluted, variously incriminating event. Unsatisfied, Mrs. Tennant continues to mull over the matter. She confides to her daughter-in-law that Raunce seemed afraid of something, adding:

“Frightened of what I’d like to know? I put it to Raunce. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t say.”

“Which is just like the man,” the younger woman interrupted. “Always hinting.”

Violet’s insistence here reflects her unshakable belief that everyone is always talking in code about her affair with a neighbouring landowner. The exchange between Mrs. Tennant and Violet is typical: Loving’s characters repeatedly talk at cross-purposes. But the passage is unusual in that by explicitly referencing hinting it talks openly what is otherwise hidden: that Loving challenges our interpretive abilities. Everything is a hint, nothing is a clue.

The novel’s distinctive narrative voice is particularly vexing. Unlike many writers of the period, Green doesn’t have much use for free indirect discourse: his third-person narration doesn’t slip into and out of the perspective of particular characters. We rarely have access to what characters are thinking or feeling. Consider a passage in which Raunce studies the notebooks left behind by the previous butler, Eldon, and learns that Eldon has been systematically cheating his employer, for example about her whisky:

Not only had Mr. Eldon never credited her with the empties, that was straightforward enough, but he had left whole pages of calculations on the probable loss of the volatile spirit arising from evaporation in a confined space from which the outside atmosphere was excluded. He had gone into it thoroughly, had probably been prepared for almost any query. Charley appeared to find it suggestive because he whistled.

Admittedly, we could read this material as coming from Raunce’s perspective: the aside “that was straightforward enough” could certainly be his. Yet the passage’s use of names is puzzling: we might expect Raunce to call Eldon “Mr.” but he in fact is anything but deferential to his predecessor’s memory. Something like “the old man” would have fit better. And why Charley, rather than Raunce, which is what the text usually uses? Moreover, the description of the evaporation—“the probable loss of volatile spirits”—doesn’t sound like Raunce at all, he’s nowhere near that articulate. Are we supposed to think Eldon has written something like this in the notebooks that Raunce is parroting, as if reading aloud? Impossible to say: we know almost nothing about Eldon.

But the strangest thing here is the passage’s final sentence. Just when we would expect the prose to inhabit Raunce’s consciousness most clearly so as to tell us what he makes of the situation, we’re left with nothing but uncertainty: Raunce “appeared to find it suggestive.” Why doesn’t the text know?

Green answered this question in a radio interview from the 1950s:

And do we know, in life, what other people are really like? I very much doubt it. We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure? … We get experience, which is as much knowledge as we shall ever have, by watching the way people around us behave after they have spoken.

For Green, art follows life. All a narrator can do is to observe what people say and how they behave and then make guesses about the relationship between them. Loving is littered with such expressions of narrative uncertainty:

“Well now if it isn’t Arthur,” this man said hearty and also it appeared with distaste.

“And that reminds me,” he went on seeming to forget he had just given another reason for his presence.

Then she added as though unable to help herself, “It should do you a mort of good.”

Miss Burch fixed a stern eye on Kate so much as to say a minute or so ago just now you were about to be actually coarse.

“Ah Mrs Jack,” Miss Burch put in as though sorrowing,

“It was Edith,” he answered at random and probably forgot at once whom he had named.

On the one hand, these narrative amplifications tell us much more than a simple “he said” or she replied.” Moving down our list of examples, we learn that one man dislikes someone called Arthur, though he pretends he doesn’t; another man can’t keep his stories straight; a woman is at the mercy of her (at least ostensible) concern for another person; and so on down the list.

And yet on the other hand they tell us much less. We learn only that characters seem to say things in a particular way, with particular consequences or implications. “Seems” and its variants “Seeming” and “seemingly” appear regularly; they are accompanied by similar expressions of doubt: “it appeared,” “so much as to say,” “as though,” “probably.” We always have to choose between the specificity of these descriptions and the hesitant manner in which they’re offered. Whenever the narrative tells us something it casts doubt on that telling.

This is, to say the least, disorienting for the reader. When Edith and Raunce argue over whether to give back a missing ring they’ve stumbled upon, Edith throws the ring into the fire before hastily rescuing it:

“Ouch it’s hot,” she said, dropping the thing on the rug. They stood looking down and from the droop of her shoulders it could be assumed that her rage had subsided.

Are we able to ignore the suggestion that Edith is no longer angry? Once the hint’s been made, aren’t we forced to take it? But hints can’t be hints if they’re really just disguised orders. We have to hear the “it could be assumed” as much as the “her rage had subsided.” Loving doesn’t let us naturalize its repeated qualifications. We have to take them seriously, for the book’s aim is to force us not just to read about but also to experience the uncertainty that its characters feel towards each other and in relation to their historical moment, in which it is by no means clear how the war will end.

This uncertainty is mirrored in Green’s title. Whether we take it as a gerund or as a progressive verb, “loving” is hard to pinpoint. The noun would refer to an abstraction that doesn’t just apply in a single case. The verb would describe a continuous action nullified or completed were it ever to stop and therefore without beginning or end. Words like “loving”—Green titled several of his novels in similar fashion: Living, Party Going, Concluding—suspend meaning. Like Raunce in Violet’s description, they are “always hinting” but never resolving.

I would argue in similar fashion that we should understand Green as a writer who suspends the literary categories of his time. True, he was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and possessed like many modernist writers a brilliant, inimitable style. And yes, he had gone to school with or traveled in the same social circles as many of the leading writers of the 1930s and wrote social comedies that sympathize with the working class. Yet Green is neither a modernist nor a social realist. He wriggles free of categories, the true strangeness of his prose not always evident until we slow down to see it has been hiding in plain sight.

Yet it wouldn’t be right to say, as earlier readers have done, that Green is like no one else. (The American novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern, for example, famously called him not a writer’s writer but a writer’s-writer’s writer.) Instead, Green is like a handful of other English writers from the middle part of the century who don’t fit into prevailing narratives of twentieth century literature, writers who subtly distort realism without abandoning it, writers like Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, and Barbara Comyns. Like them, Green hints that there is still much to be discovered in a literary tradition too often thought of as timid and unadventurous.

—Dorian Stuber

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Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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Nov 142016
 

laura-thompson Picture: Roger Wyman

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. —Laura Michele Diener

the-six

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Laura Thompson
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
$29.99, 400 pages

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I.
Thanks to Tolstoy, we know all about happy and unhappy families, and why unhappy families are by far the most interesting. Few families experienced quite such unique interesting incarnations of unhappiness as the Mad Mad Mitfords, the six sisters and one brother whose fates spanned the ideological spectrum of the twentieth century, and whose lives read like great English novels, except they actually wrote the novels, or they were friends with the novelists. Unity Valkyrie, the sister who adored Hitler, was conceived in the town of Swastika, South Africa. What writer could have invented a more perfect irony? As Laura Thompson, author of The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, declares, “Never again will there be six such girls, raised in such a way, at such a time.” And what times they were, those bright young years between the wars, before the world caught wholly afire. Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the sisters, although by no means the only authoress, wrote about the fictional Radlett family in her bestselling novel The Pursuit of Love, that, “they lived in a world of superlatives.” And rarely was it more clear that she found inspiration in her blood kin.

Their charm was collective as well as singular. Men from John Betjeman to Winston Churchill fell in love with one or the other of them or more likely, the whole lot of them, brother Tom included. After reading Brideshead Revisited, Nancy wrote to Evelyn Waugh: “So true to life being in love with a whole family, it has happened in mine.” Waugh himself was a lifelong devotee of the Mitfordian charm. He fell in love with Diana for a time but admired Nancy far more. Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love were both published in 1945, the year the war ended, and when great families like the fictional Flytes and the real Mitfords wondered where they fit into the new order. Both novels contain a melancholic nostalgia, but Nancy approaches her’s with out-and-out humor and what Thompson terms “a will to joy” that delighted a war-weary English audience.

Thompson identifies herself as a longtime admirer of Nancy Mitford. She has written a biography of her alone, Life in a Cold Climate (2003). “When I first read her, aged about thirteen, I could scarcely believe (so weighted down was I with Eliot and Hardy) that one was actually allowed this kind of pleasure, that literature could be souffle-light as well as monolithic, and still hold monolithic truths.” It is this tone of truth, delivered with a light and gracious hand that Thompson strives to imitate in The Six. She sparkles, delights, and barbs in the voice of Nancy. In Nancy’s classic style, Thompson peppers her book with epigrammatic gems:

“Feminism notwithstanding—female cleverness is still most acceptable when it spouts orthodoxies, or in some way conforms to a type.”

And then there’s that sharp Mitford prickle: “Few are the women who do not relish Nancy (her sisters were among the exceptions, but that’s another story).”

And a choice amount of dry observations:

“She [Nancy] was not especially good at men. In truth all her sisters (but especially Diana and Deborah) were better at handling men than Nancy. When the men in question include Adolf Hitler, one might justifiably say that this was not a gift worth having.”

And just as Nancy could unexpectedly lapse towards the lyrical, Thompson trills out a lovely turn of phrase. She describes the fortune of Diana’s first husband, Brian Guinness (of the brewery), as “the kind of wealth that shrugs off slumps and depressions, like coats falling from one’s shoulders.” Later she refers to “the strange echoing poetry of the Times social pages.”

Nancy Mitford in 1931Nancy Mitford, 1931

In addition to Life in a Cold Climate, Thompson has previously written a biography of Agatha Christie—Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (2007)—and a biography of the infamous Lord Lucan, who in 1974 may or may not have attempted to murder his wife before he may or may not have committed suicide—A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan (2014). Her first book, the history of greyhound racing in England, won the Somerset Maugham Award. She is clearly fascinated with the eccentric, the wealthy, and the lovely (and, why wouldn’t one be? one of her genteel subjects might easily declaim). And while being healthily critical of class, she waxes nostalgic for the confident cleverness that sustained the Mitfords as they sailed through the grimmest years of the last century, writing, fighting, and speaking exactly as they pleased without apology.

Thompson attempts to describe the particularly Mitfordian way of stringing words together as “part-childish, part-posh, part-1920’s exaggeration . . . yet what makes it durable is the edge of perceptiveness, the nail on the head quality.” Not to mention an insistent British cheerfulness coupled with a blithe self-confidence. As Nancy wrote reassuringly to Jessica, worried about her daughter on holiday in Mexico, “People like us are never killed in earthquakes.”

Although Nancy’s writing became the most celebrated, all the siblings practiced wordsmithery. As children, they remoulded the English language into something quite thoroughly Mitfordian. Like the Brontës, the sibling pairs invented their own languages—“Boudledidge” and ”“Honnish”—and created an increasingly ludicrous string of nicknames: “Muv and Farve” (Mother and Father), “Boud” (Unity and Jessica), “Honk (Diana), and Stubby (Deborah).

II.

Without doubt the Mitford girls were born into immense privilege. Their family was of fine Saxon stock, dating back to pre-Conquest days. Although Nancy famously described their childhood home as unheated and uncomfortable, the girls occupied a cozy space right in the center of England’s interconnected maze of peerage. They possessed all the connections they would ever need to marry men like their father, David, Lord Redesdale, the first cousin of Clementine Churchill’s cousin (and if rumor was to be believed, potentially her half-brother.) Like other men of his class, he exercised his noblesse oblige in the classic manner, chairing charity committees and decrying the Labour Party in Parliament. In his spare time, he mismanaged his dwindling fortune and prospected for gold whenever he needed spare cash. His daughters later insisted they never had any money, and Nancy “came out” as a debutante wearing a homemade dress at a ball in her living room, with her aging uncles as dancing partners. But of course, Thompson remarks, “as poverty went, it was relative.”

Over the next ten years, three more sisters debuted into society, and the world darkened significantly. When the rumbling currents of Fascism and Communism exploded, the sisters gravitated to all ends of the political spectrum. Thompson pinpoints 1932, the year of Unity’s debut, as the moment when the charmed lives of the Mitfords all went to pieces, the year when Diana, sedately married to the charming if somewhat mousey Lord Brian Guinness, met the odious Lord Oswald, and for better or for worse (the reader can decide, but it’s pretty obvious where Thompson’s sympathies lie) hitched her glorious fortunes to his Fascist wagon. In 1932, Mosley was apparently walking sex, Flynn and Fairbanks combined, and had mesmerized a group of disenfranchised working-class men into believing that Fascism was the cure for a Depression-era Britain. An admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, he had begun the New Party, which then became the British Union of Fascists. His appeal to the unemployed working class was somewhat inexplicable: he dripped money, having married one of the daughters of the immensely wealthy Lord Curzon, all the while blithely sleeping with the other two, their step-mother, along with a dizzy array of chorus girls and peeresses. Despite, or perhaps because of his supreme self-confidence, Diana left her incredibly nice husband and his immense fortune, and set herself up in a little Eaton Square house near Oswald, faster than you could whistle “Lili Marlene.” “From that moment the Mitford family began to fall apart,” Thompson writes, “Unity and Jessica’s actions would be influenced by Diana’s nonpareil act of rebellion.” By the following year, the Black Shirts were promising change and threatening violence, and Diana’s adoration of Mosley led her to Berlin. After the unexpected death of his first wife, Diana and Oswald married in Berlin in 1936, with a begrudging Adolf Hitler by their side (apparently he too nursed a crush on the ethereal Diana.)

Diana Mitford, 1932

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. She struggles to reconcile that utterly gracious soul of her acquaintance with the same Lady Mosley who elegantly heiled Hitler in old photographs. There must have been something to this woman who counted Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington among her closest friends, and it must have been more than beauty (although golly gosh, she was beautiful, with a glamor that only existed between the wars, the kind only captured by black-and-white celluloid. On aesthetic grounds alone, it’s not hard to see why Nancy’s great friend Evelyn Waugh defected to Diana’s side for a few pre-Mosley years, dedicating Vile Bodies to her and adding in her husband Brian Guinness for form’s sake. “She seems to me the one encouraging figure in this generation,” Waugh wrote besottedly in 1929. Like the rest of his Bright Young generation, he was in line for a great deal of disillusionment.

Diana is a little too clearly Thompson’s favorite Mitford sister, and the number of comparisons she makes between Diana and fine sculpture verges on the excessive, (well-defined cheekbones don’t exactly outweigh a vacuum of human compassion), but Thompson does sincerely investigate her moral complexity. In fact, it is a credit to her biographical endeavor that she doesn’t dismiss Diana out of hand, but rather tries to sift through her paradoxes and view them in the context of her age. For generations, the English upper classes had admired all things Teutonic. Their paternal grandfather had been on intimate terms with Wagner, just as their father had been fast friends with his son Siegfried, hence Unity’s middle name of Valkyrie. Others wanted to simply avoid war at all costs. Even Nancy, the staunch patriot of the family, wrote after the war that everyone had gone to the German embassy in London. “They deny it now, of course.” Yet Thompson returns to the same question: “How, one wonders, did the Mitford love of laughter not cause her to fall about at the sight of Mosley in his black and his boots? Similarly—how could she have watched Hitler, screaming his nonsense at full volume, without the family sense of the ridiculous kicking in?”

In discussions of the sisters, Diana and her younger sister Unity get lumped together as the two who were pals with Hitler, but whereas Diana flirted with evil, Unity muddled merrily into its center. Thompson tackles the unexplainable Unity Valkryie, the artless, clumsy, Mitford giantess, who trounced guilelessly into Hitler’s affections, such as they were. At the very least her milkmaid good looks and childish prattling entertained him, so that before 1939, they met about 140 times, at tea parties, opera boxes, embassy balls, and other extraordinarily civilized settings. For all their Germanophilia, her family was baffled by increasingly unstable behavior and responded in their characteristically unhelpful ways. Her vile brother-in-law Lord Mosley referred to her as “stage-struck.” Nancy sent her mocking poems: “Call me early Goering dear/For I’m to be the Queen of the May.” Her alarmed mother tried to distract her with a cruise. Nothing changed, and Unity attended the Olympic games in Berlin alongside the Goebbelses, with whom she had become fast friends.

Thompson refers to her as an innocent, unstable, and generally mad young woman who fell in with the wrong (really the most absolutely wrong possible) crowd. “Perhaps they found the evil in her, as well as the madness.” Had she been born today would no doubt have been diagnosed on one or the other end of a spectrum and heavily medicated. When England declared war with Germany, she shot herself with a Walthur pistol. To her family’s guilty regret, the bullet left her alive but also incontinent and even more childlike (she was said to have the mental age of ten). With “something resembling human emotion,” Hitler returned her to the care of her mother in England, where she chattered away to kindly bewildered strangers about how Adolf would be the perfect name for the eldest of the ten children she knew she would have one day, and bestowed all the lively affection she used to reserve for Hitler on farm animals. “Oh, Boud, I have a Goat!” she wrote ecstatically to her Communist sister Jessica living in America. “In a strange way she had been the happiest of the sisters,” Thompson surmised. “Yet she had not a clue as to how to live.” She died in 1948 at the age of thirty-four from meningitis caused from the bullet wound.

unity-hitlerUnity Mitford and Adolf Hitler, 1936

Unity and Diana defy easy explanation. It’s too easy to dismiss them as monstrous, without plumbing why they chose to spend their days among monsters. “The times in which this pair lived were terrifying: most people crossed their fingers, shut their eyes and prayed for it all to be over. For reasons that can never quite be explained, these aristocratic young women embraced it instead.” Perhaps with the cushions of youth, family, beauty, and money, they thought they had nothing to lose. Unity may never have understood what was at stake, and Diana (no one could call her cowardly) was always willing to risk it. “I can’t regret it,” she freely admitted in 1989. She was referring to her friendship with Hitler but could have meant the rest of it too—the love affair with Mosley, the break with propriety, and even the vitriol that awaited her in her home country.

After Britain declared war on German, the family fortunes shifted to a new set of extremes. Back in England, Diana and Oswald Moseley spent the war in prison as collaborators. Serves her right. She recalled it as an incredibly happy interlude, as for the first and only time in their marriage her husband was entirely faithful. And for a moment, you feel sympathy for this extraordinary woman and the cost of her choices. Family feeling was running high against her, as the other Mitfords did their bit for the war effort and then some. Tom, the inglorious but beloved Mitford brother, fought first on the North African front and then in Burma, where he died from a bullet wound in 1945. Pamela’s first husband, Esmond Romilly, serving as a pilot in the Canadian Air Force, was shot down somewhere over the North Sea in 1941. Nancy, experiencing the terror of the Blitz firsthand in London, went so far as to suggest to her friends in the Foreign Office that Diana was “an extremely dangerous person.” She had been throwing herself into war work since 1939, when she traveled to France to help Spanish refugees, and then back in England, where she operated a first aid post, drove an ambulance, and opened her home to Polish Jewish refugees, to the outrage of her mother (Hitler was her favorite son-in-law, Nancy always quipped). She also informed on her sister Pamela, whom she suspected of Fascist tendencies. Intriguingly, neither Jessica nor Nancy ever blamed Unity for her bizarre adulation of the Führer and the three shared gossipy loving letters throughout the war years.

III.

With their vastly different politics and their lifelong rivalry, Nancy and Diana act as the twin poles of The Six. Yet, as Mitford sisters go, it’s hard to resist the obviously spunky Jessica, who ran off during her debutante season to fight with the Spanish Guerrillas, and then married a Jewish lawyer in San Francisco, while her sisters were enjoying tea in Munich with Hitler. She later became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Congress, campaigned to legalize abortion, and basically fell on the right side of every modern feminist cauJese. She makes Lady Sybil Grantham look like a Tory living comfortably in Sloane Square. Yet Thompson cuts Jessica no breaks, portraying her as an extremist, just “more acceptable to history than that of her sisters. Such is the luck of the left.” She spends almost no time on Jessica’s acclaimed investigative journalism, including The American Way of Death, an expose of the money-grubbing funeral industry.

Jessica MitfordJessica Mitford

Poor old Pamela gets the least amount of space, but she appears less mysterious and controversial than her colorful sisters, spending the bulk of her adult life raising chickens and dairy cows, although apparently she innovated legendary technologies in the field of animal husbandry. Of Pamela, Thompson writes, “She had the unignorable presence of one of her grandfather’s shire horses.” Her rebellion may have been quieter. After her divorce from scientist Derek Jackson (himself a Fascist, but with the good grace to keep his beliefs to himself), she lived discreetly with a Giuditta Tommasi, and according to Jessica, “became a you-know-what-bian.” Like all her siblings except for Nancy and Jessica, she lunched with Hitler before the war, but was chiefly impressed by the chicken served.

The youngest sister, Deborah, came of age while her sisters were already making headlines on either side of the Atlantic. She rebelled against her mad mad family by embracing utter normalcy, at least for her rarified context. Two weeks into her successful debut season, she met her husband, a good Cambridge man, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire. When fate kindly swept him aside and made her Duchess, she resolutely managed her estates, holding up under the impositions of death duties and Labour politics. Despite her sex appeal, “the divine Debo,” as the press nicknamed her, stuck by her first sweetheart till death did them part. Very unMitfdorian, according to the sisters’ general self-assessment. “Debo’s absolutely pure,” Nancy reminded Diana, who had proclaimed, “We’re all adulterers and adulteresses.” While she spent literally three days at school, which she later recalled with self-deprecating horror (“no dog, no pony, no Nanny!”), she clearly inherited her fair share of family wit, publishing her own well-received chatty memoir, Wait for Me! (2010). Her death in 2014 was received with the kind of national outpouring of nostalgia reserved for the Queen Mum.

IV.

What with Unity’s antics, Diana and Lord Mosley’s unrepentant Fascism, and Lady Redesdale’s cheerful Teutonism, the Mitford’s were no one’s favorite family by the end of the war, and a prime example of why the average Brit wanted to chuck the class system down the chute along with the rationed coal. Hence the importance Thompson ascribes to the The Pursuit of Love in the creation of the Mitford myth: “Just as Diana led the troops into the darkness of battle by her defection to the Fascist cause in 1932, so Nancy did the same with her shift into the sunlight of public adoration.” The Pursuit of Love was not Nancy’s first book—she had been a successful novelist since 1931—but it was and would remain her most beloved. The delightfully eccentric Radletts are obviously the Mitfords refracted with affectionate nostalgia through Nancy’s effervescent voice. Their story is narrated by kind sensible cousin Fanny, who experienced life at her cousins’ estates at Aconleigh (based on Asthall Manor) during holidays, and later witnessed their multiple marriages and madcap escapades.

mitford-sistersMitford Sisters

Nancy crisply layers the poignant and the hilarious together with a social observation worthy of Austen. On meeting her aunt’s new betrothed Fanny states: “My immediate impression was that he did not seem at all like a husband. He looked kind and gentle.” Her characters deliver social cuttings, devastating in the innocence of their delivery: “Oh the horror of important people—you are lucky not to know any.” All the elopements and scandals of the Mitfords are played for laughs, as when Linda Radlett leaves her banker husband for a Communist (a playful nod to both Jessica’s elopement and Diana’s affair, although neither appreciated the gesture). Linda innocently laments her new social life:

But I’m always saying to Christian how much I wish his buddies would either brighten up their parties a bit or else stop giving them, because I don’t see the point of sad parties, do you? And Left-wing people are always sad because they mind so dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.

Despite the ingenuousness of its characters, The Pursuit of Love contains a fair amount of darkness as the war threatens and then explodes around the Radlett children. But like Nancy herself, they cheerfully plunge forward into the new world that awaits them.

After the war, flush with the commercial success of her novels, Nancy moved to Paris, from whence she wrote fantastically funny letters to her family in that same tone of wide-eyed knowingness. She was always on, always entertaining. And even though Nancy was the intellectual of the bunch, the sisters were all clever and witty. As Diana wrote, referring to Jessica’s second marriage: “When all was said and done, Jessica was the only Mitford to ever harm a Jew.”

To be honest, it’s difficult to read Thompson’s book and not fall just a little in love with the intelligent, mysterious, and utterly original Mitford girls. Despite having only about two terms of school between them, they produced over twenty-five books, many of them award-winners and bestsellers, suggesting that childhoods full of animals, reading, and prodigious free time are highly underrated. Somewhere between riding to hounds and debuting, they must have learned something besides not putting the milk in first. They were funny enough and joyful enough that people still read their letters, and not just for the references to famous people who clustered around them. And their upper-class mannerisms, while out of fashion, are laced with just enough self-deprecation to read as charmingly ironic rather than insufferable. “After agricultural shows, Marks & Spencer is the place to go shopping, and then Paris,” Deborah declared definitively. “Nothing in between seems to be much good.”

“These girls are prize exhibits in a museum of Englishness,” Thompson insists. “And whatever one’s opinion of what they represent, it is impossible, in truth, to find them boring.” Rather.

—Laura Michele Diener

N5

Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage, and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

Nov 142016
 

babysitter

George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. — Benjamin Woodard

The Babysitter at Rest
Jen George
Dorothy, a publishing project, 2016
168 pages, $16.00

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Late every semester, as attention spans wane and final project deadlines loom, I treat my Composition students to a day of stress relief by cobbling together Exquisite Corpse stories as a class. I usually write the openings ahead of time and then pass them to one student, who adds his or her own lines, and then carefully folds the paper, accordion style, so that the next writer can only see the most recent sentence of the growing story. This continues until the pieces have circulated around the room and the pages look like tiny venetian blinds. Then I unfold the stories and read the results aloud. The students get a kick out of hearing me say some pretty bizarre things—once they realize I’m going to perform each story, they take it upon themselves to add in a naughty word or two—but what always impresses me is the coherence of these tales. Without seeing anything but a few words written by their tablemates, my students somehow create these Frankensteinish narratives that abide by perfect dream logic, where characters bounce from scene to scene, yet never lose sight of a singular goal. Ideas lost between students sometimes reappear five lines later, as if the air itself whispered a clue to a writer further down the table. The cheesiest way of describing these stories is to say they’re like catching lightning in a bottle, but there’s something true to employing that phrase. The room feels electric as my students and I realize the consistency that threads our crazy tales together, and that electricity vanishes the moment the class is over.

Jen George’s wild, funny debut collection, The Babysitter at Rest, gives me that same electric jolt only the feeling doesn’t fade. Perhaps this is partially due to the form the volume’s five stories take, as they—like an Exquisite Corpse exercise—often contain dreamlike swerves. Yet there’s also a vivid realness at the core of each piece. George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. For example, the following sequence, from “Take Care of Me Forever,” sees George’s protagonist, a sick woman waiting to die in a hospital bed, deciding to walk to the bathroom:

“In the bathroom, I notice a large hole in the wall. An opening. I enter the opening with my mobile IV. I make my way through pipes, drywall, and rotten wood into what seems to be a strip mall dentist’s office hallway. All of the office doors are locked and the snack vending machine at the hallway’s end is empty.”

From here, the character finds both a bucket of teeth and another passageway inside a janitor’s closet. The passageway leads her outside the hospital and into a football stadium, where a naked painter with a small penis sits on a stool at the fifty-yard line, surrounded by bookcases and a television. The characters know each other and talk about their past love affair—“The great love of my life with whom I wanted to have children left me because of the penis,” the painter admits—and the woman takes a look at the man’s artwork, conveniently displayed nearby, before returning to her hospital room. The progression, one of many found in “Take Care of Me Forever,” is surreal, certainly, and its non sequitur unraveling resembles a language game like Exquisite Corpse, but the unpredictability of the events here keeps the narrative consistently lively. A thousand questions flood the reader: Is this really happening? When were these two characters lovers? And, most importantly, what the hell is going to happen next? This liveliness creates curiosity, and it helps drive George’s stories, shuttling the reader into unique worlds where just about anything is possible. But within these worlds, characters confess their dark thoughts alongside jokes, and the author anchors her stories with just enough reality to never lose her audience.

In addition, George peppers her collection with a brilliant series of inventories and lists that maintain audience interest while also setting rhythm. “Guidance / The Party” relies heavily on this technique while telling the two-part tale of a woman learning how to throw a party from a drunken “Guide” and then following through with its—The Guide is genderless—instruction. When learning how to present herself, The Guide rambles off a series of lists to the woman, including:

“Wear makeup, jewelry, and something you cannot afford, in order to ensure you will not feel like a chubby street urchin halfway through the party. Refer to the manual for information on weight loss via dieting/cleansing prior to the party, taking saunas, eating cotton balls soaked in castor oil, ephedrine use, Epsom salt baths, and salt flushes.”

Then, as she hosts her party, the woman is faced with the revelation that her female guests are pregnant, which results in the following passage regarding the pregnancy-adverse foods the host planned to serve:

“All of the French cheeses are unpasteurized, then there’s the matter of the raw oyster bar, which was the second main spectacular food item, and also the raw egg, the mercury, the shaved mad-cow boar hoof, the tuna, the tonsil stone, and the lorazapam in the 10,101-ingredient mole.”

The baby-related lists continue in “Futures in Child Rearing,” where a woman, hoping to get pregnant, states all of the traits she expects from her child:

“She will look good in clothing and without. She will be adored but respected. She will follow a clear life path, free of too many obstructions, full of loving and successful friends who wear beautiful dresses, have lovely parties in the desert or at the beach, and who have about them an airy lightness. She’ll know how to go about getting what she wants. She will be capable. She will not have crying jags.”

These lists and inventories are equal parts funny and peculiar. They establish a rhythm within the text, yet they also jolt the stories with a sudden burst of prose, adding a new layer of captivation to each story. Like the rambling, zigzag narrative paths already mentioned, George’s lists keep the text active, create charming juxtapositions, and root the reader to the page.

In early press and reviews for The Babysitter at Rest, George’s writing has been compared to the playfulness of Donald Barthelme and Chris Kraus, but the collection’s title story, both in subject matter and structure, also brings to mind Robert Coover. Though George shies away from giving the story a metafictional shade, she does, like Coover, capitalize on the classic Penthouse Forum fantasy of an affair between a man and his child’s babysitter. Also like Coover, the relations between these characters are highly sexual and graphic, broken into short fragments, and it’s here that George ratchets the strangeness of her story to comment on gender inequality. The husband saunters through life wearing cool guy sunglasses, acting as a generic vessel of affluence and depravity, while the babysitter, who lives in a group home with a slew of degenerates, spends nearly all of the narrative prancing about in a bikini—she loses her other clothes—valued solely for her sexuality and youth. This exploration of primal and stereotypical instinct is frequently hilarious—more than once, the babysitter says she’s, “Seventeen. But I might be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two,” a clever quip commenting on men’s justification of the well-worn fantasy of the sexy schoolgirl—but it also provides the collection with a universal thread of female exploitation, which comes up again and again. “Take Care of Me Forever” contains a sexual relationship between the dying hospital patient and her doctor, as well as a crudely worded help wanted ad that seeks applicants willing to “listen to problems and musings of (all male) staff,” be “flirtatious with all,” and who must “not have boyfriend,” and hopefully live with “cute roommates A+.” And in “Instruction,” the collection’s final story, a young female pupil becomes both the star student and sexual plaything of her professor, known as “The Teacher/older man with large hands.” In his conquest, he feigns interest in her ideas (“‘Welp, cool idea. Really neat.’ He succeeds in stifling laughter.”) to get in her pants, and the explicit results draw the ire of the student’s peers.

What is Jen George trying to say by including so many examples of older man/younger woman exploitation in her collection? It’s easy to argue that the answer is up to the reader, but the author offers up several hints as to her potential mission. The student artist in “Instruction” eventually breaks away from her instructor and wanders the country, sparking artist revolutions and turning “The Teacher/older man with large hands” into a lost soul, who eventually begs the student to explain to him why she abandoned their relationship. Meanwhile, “The Babysitter at Rest” sees the title character, after all of her adventures, holding her charge, a “forever baby” who will never age, in her arms and deciding that he is fortunate to never grow up into his father’s good looks or fortune, that remaining a baby is far more advantageous. If he never grows up, he can never become a predator.

In a way, these two women gain an upper hand in their situations, and while their moments of clarity may be short-lived, this evolution speaks volumes. And maybe this is what George wants her readers to notice. Then again, perhaps the ultimate goal for The Babysitter at Rest is to provoke the reader into considering the ways we all use one another to our own advantage. In any case, the collection is a wonderful experiment, full of electric twists that linger.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in HobartCorium Magazine, and Storychord. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia ReviewElectric Literature, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Nov 112016
 

nell-zink

Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. —Carolyn Ogburn

nicotine

Nicotine
Nell Zink
Ecco Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.99

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It’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems, one character tells another in Nell Zink’s new novel, Nicotine. “That was something your dad used to say, about how it’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems. If you look reality straight in the eye, you end up a lot less confused. It’s a matter of signal-to-noise ratio. Any story you tell has to be all signal. Any distraction is noise. Anything extraneous is noise. Now try to define extraneous. In life, nothing’s extraneous. There’s no noise. It’s all signal.”

In Nicotine, Zink returns to areas she’s taken on in her previous novels: identity and identity politics, class, race, and sex. Lots of sex. But it’s really the stories surrounding these rather than any particular issue itself that seems to interest Zink, and she’s not writing to convince anyone of anything. In fact, she doesn’t seem to care what the reader believes, or doesn’t believe. Zink’s writing is immersive, demanding the reader’s trust. You’re either on board, or you’ve missed the boat, with Zink.

Every aspiring midlife novelist will likely be familiar already with the oft-recounted biography of Nell Zink, but her story seems to remain somehow blurred, evocative, just enough like every one of us to be any one of us but also distinctly, markedly unique. It doesn’t dull with repetition. Zink, like many of us, missed the “5 Under 35,” and the “20 Under 40,” mailed off her first manuscript in her late 40s to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, with whom, in a twist of fate that only real life can contrive, she’d begun exchanging emails about the songbirds of the Balkans. Her emails (which he would describe using words like feisty and presumptuous) were both remarkable and relentless; Franzen assumed she was a writer he’d met already, and playing some sort of a joke. When he finally understood she was not, he actively encouraged her to try writing fiction. Zink is said to have replied: “Oh, I’ve already done that.”

Nell Zink was born in Corona, California in 1964; she and her two brothers were raised in rural King George County, Virginia. She finished high school at Stuart Hall School in Staunton, VA, then majored in philosophy at the College of William and Mary. After undergrad, she moved to Philadelphia where she lived in anarchist coops (not unlike the ones she describes in Nicotine) and where, from 1993-1997, she published Animal Review, a ‘zine that interviewed punk musicians about their pets. She moved to Tel Aviv, then Berlin. She earned a doctorate in media studies at the University of Tübingen. She got married, and unmarried, and married again. She’s worked as a secretary, a technical writer, a translator; she’s waited tables and worked construction. She worked for four years as a bricklayer in the Tidewater area of Virginia, a job, she told Kathryn Shultz in the New Yorker, that was “more valuable for my intellectual life than my entire college career. In college, they allow you to be entertained and let your mind wander, which is not good training to do anything difficult.”

In other words, she lived the kind of private life of many people who, not being famous, do not have to explain their lives. As Zink says, “there’s a very clear distinction between taking your career seriously and taking your writing seriously.”

Because Zink was taking her writing seriously. For over fifteen years, she wrote fiction that she showed no one but the Israeli writer Avner Shats, to whom she’d been introduced by her second husband, the Israeli poet Zohar Eitan. (Two of the novellas Zink wrote for Shats have been published this month under the title Private Novelist.)

At the age of 50, Zink’s first published novel, Wallcreeper, was named as one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2014. Wallcreeper explores the topic of marriage through bird watching and eco-terrorism. Her second, Mislaid, takes on racial and sexual identity; it was long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award.

§

Nicotine is the story of Penny Baker, a young woman in her 20s. Her father, Norm, is a self-help guru with massive real-estate holdings and a following of self-actualization groupies. His second wife, Amalia, is Penny’s mother; Amalia was a child of 13 when Norm first met her in the Colombian town of Cartagena. He adopts Amalia in order to bring her back to the United States after his first wife disappears, leaving her two sons, Penny’s half-brothers behind. In this free-wheeling familial structure, one that echoes the anarchist households in which the adult Penny will live, the boys’ mother’s absence is barely noticed.

Here’s what’s Zink writes about those self-help groupies who seek the promise of a better life, a description which again harkens forward to those communities Penny will find herself in as an adult:

There is tacit agreement among Norm’s followers that they make the world a better place by loving in it. They don’t change it. They redeem it, through the searching way they live their lives. The cult is populated by realist aesthetes. A cult of personality for those cultivating personalities. Expecting nothing more from life than self-actualization, accepting nothing less. Willing to settle for others’ self-actualization if their own turns balky.

Amalia is first shown at the age of thirteen; Penny is first shown at the age of twelve, naked and smoking and, shortly thereafter, accusing her decades-older half-brother Matt of attempting to rape her. The accusation is quickly dismissed both by her father and even Penny herself, but incest hovers like a palimpsest throughout.

The story proper opens in April 2016, exactly a year from the novel’s actual date of completion in April 2015. She tells us Penny, now in her 20s, is a graduate of an unnamed business school; her half-brothers, Patrick and Matt, and her mother, Amalia, are in their mid-40s. Her father, Norm, dies within the first pages of the book, and it’s his death that triggers a series of dissolutions that frames the narrator’s existence, if not the plot of the book itself. Zink’s book describes as closely as I’ve ever seen the transient nature of a certain variety of intimate relationship.

The first dissolution is Penny’s first encounter with death. She loves her father, seemingly the only one who does. She stays by his side as he enters Hospice care, whose dictate to do nothing to either prolong life or speed death means that he doesn’t get pain relief, and it’s up to Penny to swab out the crust from his throat. It’s not every novelist who would take on Hospice care in a satirical manner, but Zink’s attention is a serrated knife that takes no prisoners.

Once Norm dies, the family enters the well-known stages of estate management, another form of dissolution. In Norm’s case, this means primarily real estate holdings, some of which have already been sold, and others claimed. But, Penny is told, there is Norm’s parents’ home in Jersey City, which had been abandoned for years. When Penny is evicted from her father’s rent-controlled apartment upon news of his death, her step-brother offers her the abandoned house, advising her to evict the squatters living there. Instead, she falls in love, and moves in as a squatter herself.

As it turns out, the home, called Nicotine, is one of many semi-organized illegally occupied group houses throughout Jersey City. Though Zink describes only one of her many characters as “ageless and about thirty-five,” this breezy description could apply to just about everyone living in these collectives. There’s Stayfree, a feminist collective (“of both men and women”); Tranquility, whose residents protest for indigenous peoples’ rights; the DJD, the environmental collective that’s named for the enormous and enormously expensive couch that resides in the house. Nicotine’s ostensible purpose is to advocate for tobacco users’ rights, but most of the residents’ abundant free time is spent in the kinds of discussion familiar to anyone who’s ever spent any time with the rootless, international community of artists, grad students, armchair philosophers, and trustifarians who, while drawn from a diverse cross-section of racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identities, share the same attitude, both cynical and speculative, toward identity as they do towards property in general. That’s globalization; that’s modern life, Zink seems to be hinting. The reader quickly loses track of residents who come for discussions of, say, class or gender privilege, only to disappear, never to be heard from again. The dissolution of identity, whether politics, gender, sexuality or any other belief system also plays a major role in the novel. Forget the regional distinctions of nationalism; forget the myth that some people are indigenous and others aren’t. When a character (Sunshine) tells Penny, “It’s just context-dependent! That’s how identity works,” the reader, like Penny, starts to feel a little queasy. There’s a vague feeling that we’re being led on: a lot of this is satire, after all. But where the lines of satire are drawn is far from clear.

Aphorism may be Zink’s most natural setting. “Smoking is like moving to Fukushima for the privacy,” she writes. Or, “You can’t understand the modern world if you can’t imagine selling what you love best.” Zink’s cultural references are drawn with journalistic precision: she briefly references Donald Trump’s campaign, and a fictive President Hilary Clinton; includes 2016 state-of-the-art Virtual Reality sex toys, and describes a character retreating to her bedroom where she eats an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s and watches two episodes of Nurse Jackie. But the most contemporary element in Nicotine may be Zink’s slightly manic level of attention which offers what it needs to in two or three sentences before moving on. Almost everything is said via dialogue, in this style of writing, the ideas expressed more important than the character expressing them. This is literature styled by Twitter-feed, hashtagged by topic. Facebook is for old people.

Like Twitter, Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. It’s a kind of self-actualization of a narrative arc, pushing the reader into stasis, to rest in whatever is already known in the moment rather than pulling the reader towards what isn’t yet revealed. There’s a reason thrillers and mystery novels aren’t typically written in the present tense, but in the past. “And then I saw the gun, there, on the bed,” is inherently more suspenseful than, “I see the gun, there, on the bed.” (In fact, both a gun and a bed, make appearances in Nicotine; though both are used as guns and beds are often used, and occasionally in ways they’re not, there’s little in the way of suspense, which I place squarely on the use of the present tense.)

Zink herself refers to her choice, in a playful tongue-in-cheek way that’s characteristic of her writing. The rally against the TTIP (no one can quite remember what it stands for, but it’s clearly referencing the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership) is coming up and two Nicotine residents (Rob and Anka) are brainstorming slogans which can be converted to hashtags for their protest signs:

“How about TTIP SUX?” he suggests.
“Present tense is a tactical error,” she says. “Makes it sound like we already lost.”

And maybe we have, in fact, already lost. We, westerners of whatever background or belief, live in a time of global dissolution and climate collapse that none of us understand. There is a despair that pervades this seemingly light-hearted novel. When Zink writes, “A cigarette fights intense humidity in utter darkness. Its dim firefly of tobacco flies upward and brightens with an intake of breath. It falls and comes close to dying,” the reader almost feels the deep, smoky intake of breath herself, can almost see that breath drift across the warm night air. It’s one of the few passages that’s written to slow down attention, to welcome reflection.

The novel’s end finds the residents of Nicotine scattered—another form of dissolution—and the home itself transformed into a different kind of community center. Penny takes a job at her mother’s bank and shacks up with the no-longer-asexual Rob. The ending seems to belie the premise of the book’s title: nicotine, after all, is the addictive portion of tobacco. Nicotine isn’t what kills the smoker, not directly. Nicotine is what makes smoking so difficult to quit.

At one point, the novel’s sexy siren Jazz looks up from reading Jean Cocteau’s memoirs, sighing “He’s got that breezy, casual sophistication I’m always aiming for and never hitting.” Zink surely aims for breezy, casual sophistication, and in Nicotine, she almost hits it.

—Carolyn Ogburn

N5

Carollyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numéro Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.

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Nov 082016
 

I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. —Lawrence Sutin

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My Private Property
Mary Ruefle
Wave Books, 2016
128 pages, $25.00

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As I am a friend of Mary Ruefle, I will not pretend to be an objective reviewer, if there is such a thing. But as I loved her writing before I ever knew her, I am no mere shill. I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. Ruefle kneads imagination and thought together into a delicate yet chewy dough that rises into brilliant little lyric rolls and pastries. The kicker is that, after eating your fill with delight, you may find yourself unsettled. Nothing you think makes sense any more because Ruefle’s language has untamed your mind.

In the two longest pieces in the book, “Pause” and the eponymous “My Private Property,” Ruefle makes use of diametrically different forms. “Pause” is made up of multiple short sections that are sometimes only a single sentence. “My Private Property” is one long paragraph that goes on for fifteen pages. “Pause” is about menopause of which Ruefle writes in bile-filled warnings as one who has moved on to “happy old age” with its “grace and gentle words, and ways that grim youth has never known.” The essay thus encompasses the lifespan of woman, as viewed by Ruefle, with menopause serving as the liminal passage out of the past of human ties, procreative ties, that have inhibited one’s creative evolution—“there are no longer any persons on earth who can stop you from being yourself.” “My Private Property” is about shrunken heads in all senses, not only the fearful physical shrinkings but also the bejeweled, bedaubed and photographed miniatures favored by every human culture as a form of remembrance. Ruefle takes in colonialism at its worst, the sketchy consolations of her own psyche, and the tenderness of loss and death. Having seen the Congo Museum in Brussels as a teenaged student abroad, she recounts in vividly accurate prose the shock of waking up, as an adult, to the history behind the museum’s sanctimonious cultural acquisitions—“wealth acquired by force of so filthy an unspeakable an evil our heads cannot fathom it and have no single word for it, but must resort to endless corridors of words, each corridor turning into another corridor a thousand miles longer than the last in our hopeless search for some inner chamber of understanding that does not exist.”

The inadequacies, the pliabilities, the mutabilities of language are frequent points of exploration for Ruefle, who well knows the roles of both writer and reader in language games. In “Lullaby,” Ruefle sketches in a Daoistic manner the pleasures of succumbing to somnolence, an oft-overlooked effect of artistic receptivity, be it to music, the visual arts, or writing. The examples Ruefle employs are the classical composer Brahms (his Lullabies), the Swiss sculptor Giacometti (his supple elongated figures) and—the surprise choice—the American writer Henry Miller. Ruefle’s portrayal of her hypnagogic psyche taking in Miller is a model of how, languidly and hilariously, to disarm a male language harangue without disturbing one’s composure: “I often fall asleep while reading him. When he uses that hard word cunt again and again, it finally becomes something soft, so very soft, which is startling because a cunt really is soft, it’s a warm, soft, wet-while-young place, a spot really, given the size of the universe, the way a star is a spot, but there are so many of them—I mean cunts—who can keep track?”

Scattered throughout the book (untitled on the pages themselves, though single-word color labels—Blue; Purple; Black; and so forth—are given in the table of contents) are a sequence of eleven short takes on sadness keyed by color—the other shades being gray, red, green, pink, orange, yellow, white, brown. These allow Ruefle to display her gift for imagistic writing as emotionally compelling as Expressionist paintings. Ruefle does not stray into psychological judgments of the natures of her sadnesses. By using precise details that are not strictly tied to color scheme (so as to avoid becoming too matchy-matchy), she rivets the reader by revealing the prismatic secrets of her sadness spectrum. Take, for example, green sadness, which is, among other moments in Ruefle’s imagination, “the funeral silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy.” Because vivid, specific details inherently (given the nature of human consciousness) contain multiple emotional valences, Ruefle’s pieces take on a trans quality. Ruefle’s note at the back of the book is astonishingly accurate: “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.”

To be fair, something does change. With the substitution, each piece remains subtle, vivid, and true. But the reader discovers that happiness and sadness happen in the same colors, which we can paint howsoever our minds allow. My one complaint about the design of the book is that I think the color-sadness pieces should have been given a sequential section of their own so as to foster their cumulative impact, rather than be scattered here and there between other writings.

My single favorite piece in My Private Property is a short work entitled “The Sublime.” In it Ruefle employs a trick often employed by poets though relatively seldom by prose writers. One chooses a title that serves, as it were, as the answer to the riddle of the ‘secret’ meaning of the piece. In this case, Ruefle describes a literally hair-raising drive over hair-pin mountain roads. The closing line: “Could see from the corner of my eye that there was an incredible view, but couldn’t look.” Again, as in the color-sadness pieces, Ruefle allows us to see that first-rate writing reveals more than we can possibly expect, which is why we read.

—Lawrence Sutin

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Larry Sutin

Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West. In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com. In 2014, he and his wife Mab Nulty founded See Double Press, devoted to unique interfusions of text and image.  Its first two titles are Mary Ruefle’s An Incarnation of the Now and his own The Seeming Unreality of Entomology.  An essay written and illustrated by Lia Purpura is coming out in Fall 2016.  For more, check out seedouble.press. Sutin teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Nov 052016
 

fullsizerender

Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes. —Jeff Bursey

novel-explosives

Novel Explosives
Jim Gauer
Zerogram Press, 2016
722 pages, $15.95

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Introduction

For a long time, writers have been advised to be economical in their speech; to exercise restraint in the use of adverbs and adjectives (if they were compelled to use them at all); to show, not tell; to keep in mind that consumers want (or can only handle) friendly texts that are easy to grasp, mentally and physically; and to not mix genres overmuch for fear of sowing confusion. Exceptions to these rules include the works of Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, Richard Powers, and Joseph McElroy, living exponents of the encyclopedic novel. (Past members range from Gustave Flaubert through James Joyce and Robert Musil to William Gaddis, Roberto Bolaño, and David Foster Wallace.) After reading Novel Explosives, with its rich vocabulary owing much to philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Marx, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and others, to armaments manuals, to oenology, and to the inner workings of Mexico as well as the geography of Ciuldad Juárez, among many other apparently unrelated groups and sub-groups of knowledge, I consider Jim Gauer of the United States a member of that select group. I also feel, foolishly and falsely, that, at various times in my reading of his long, but never too long, first novel, I would be able to identify guns despite never seeing or touching them in real life, to know the purpose of different scalpels, and to slow down the world so as to notice everything, from the perspective of a turkey buzzard or a child astride a garbage heap.

What I mean to say is that in his novel Gauer, self-described on the back cover as “a mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist Venture Capitalist,” gathers together facts and data, transforms them into knowledge about systems that are then distributed among his main characters, and through this understanding of how things work, the author creates a narrative that indicts his home country for, at best, and only in some instances, willful blindness, but more often for serious and long-standing morally criminal activity concerning drug use and commerce in weaponry. It is also a performance that expresses deep anger, and possibly loathing, for his country, authority, and human behaviour. Those emotions are not plentiful enough in our better-known contemporary novelists, and may be considered impolite, unseemly, undisciplined, and not easily aestheticized. Yet this book is not a rant or screed. Alongside the anger, and not contrarily, it is playful, replete with narrative ingenuity and a command of form. It has a middle finger unflaggingly raised against the rules described in this review’s opening sentence. Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes (“Even characters in books deserve an evening now and then… [to] laugh at the creations they’d somehow been ensnared in, and the mind-numbing narratives they’d been forced to adhere to…”), and the threat or use of violence, though for anyone who’s seen The Counselor or Sicario (let alone the Saw movies) this novel is sedate, in its way.

I.

Set out in three parts, the action takes place from 13-20 April 2009, mostly in cars, hotels, houses, and buildings in El Paso and, primarily, Juárez and Guanajuato, Mexico. The book begins with an amnesiac trying to figure out who and where he is. A “United Kingdom driver’s license, with an address in Scotland,” identifies him as Alvaro de Campos, one of the many heteronyms[1] created by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), with an 80-year-old photo of Pessoa to match. The amnesiac isn’t taken in, and later on becomes Probably-Not Alvaro for a short while. Underlying the surface calm in the presentation of his situation is an edginess of mood when faced with no idea who he is, how he came to occupy his hotel room with a crude photo card, an ATM card with no PIN, and a large bump on the back of his head, or why a FedEx package with clippings showing mass graves relates to his life.  The second narrator is the nameless capitalist who provides a brief summary of his early life, mostly from the business angle, leaving out the identities of his first and second wives, but eager to discuss his financial successes, aside from a venture involving Dacha Wireless. The third narrative thread follows two gunmen, Raymond and Eugene, as they search for the venture capitalist whose financial gain from Dacha bothers their Mexican cartel drug lord boss, the Shakespeare-quoting Gomez. There are a few ancillary men and women whose lives intersect, briefly or longer, with these figures.

Despite Alvaro’s understandable bewilderment as to his own identity, he has a great deal of knowledge about money, poetry, and a host of other things; the nameless venture capitalist, who comes to be called Douchebag, understands computers, the stock market, wines, resorts in other countries, and more; while Raymond, whose thoughts we are privy to more than Eugene’s, is a veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore equipped with combat experience. Alvaro and VC narrate their (partial) lives; an omniscient third-person narrator describes the gunmen’s adventures and misadventures.

What will strike a reader early on in this book, apart from the fact that no one really goes by his or her name (in addition to Alvaro and Douchebag/VC, Raymond and Eugene are often called Ray and Gene), is the vocabulary each character has. Alvaro is aware his alleged name is a Pessoan invention, and that he can explain “how Riemannian geometry laid the foundations for General Relativity…” As well, his “meditation on wealth and irregularity, while seated on the Cathedral steps, personifying the streets, viewing them as sentient beings, reminded me once again that I still had a tendency toward poeticizing reality.” VC speaks in the language of hedge fund managers:

We’ve structured the deal as a Redeemable Preferred, with a 40% slug of cheap Common, with $4 million going in at $2 million pre; assuming the company cashflows on plan, we’ll get our Redeemable bait back in 36 months, and own 40% of the company with nothing at risk. If the company sells before the redemption, we’ll be holding a standard Participating Preferred, with a 4X liquidation preference, so even a real fire sale, at $20 million, leaves us with just under $18.7 million of the proceeds…. We set the Protective Provisions at a two-thirds supermajority, and have dragalong rights on the 28% of common held by the Founders, so we can block a sale even if we’re holding common, or force a sale under either scenario.

Ray and Gene, while negotiating a drug deal, think in their own terms:

The Russians, or Montenegrins, or Bulgarians, or whatever, were waving around oh shit not-this-again Micro Uzi’s, apparently intent on speeding up the process, a use for which the Uzi is an excellent selection: not only does it fire at 1,200 rounds per minute, but its grip-mounted 50-shot sheet-metal magazine gives it a highly distinctive and memorable profile, while the telescoping overhung bolt, wrapping as it does around the breech end of the barrel, makes for a nice clean compact well-balanced weapon, ideal for clearing bunkers in a timely fashion; the only real drawback, out here in the open desert, was that the Uzi has the exact same open-bolt blowback-operated who-gives-a-shit design that made the TEC-9’s prone to firing parabellum rounds almost anywhere in the world but where they were intended.

It might be concluded, from the second and third examples, that the usual language of the novel form has been abandoned in favour of prospectuses and Jane’s military publications, as if Guar had pasted in dry chunks of inert technical prose to pad out a long novel. (Anticipating objections to the length of this book and/or charges of logorrhea, Gauer has Alvaro say early on: “To make a long story short, before once again beginning the process of making a short story longer…”) The unfamiliarity of the terms can slow the reading down, but if the language is allowed to wash over one then a general sense of what’s going on gradually becomes clear.

For some, these may remain as serious obstacles to enjoyment, and bring up the questions: Why? And how is this literary prose? Years ago, someone I once knew came up with a handy triad (or else appropriated it from goodness knows where) that can be applied in diverse situations: esoteric—knowledge of which you approve; arcane—knowledge of which you are afraid; anachronistic—knowledge of which you are ignorant. It is no less intrinsically worthy to read about “Redeemable bait” than a description of a park or a character’s haircut. What matters most is that these distinct vocabularies assist in presenting and thickening the milieux the characters’ thoughts spring from. What at first look to be unwieldy fragments of language are entirely germane to the worlds inhabited by VC and Ray. As Ludwig Wittgenstein—a definite touchstone for Gauer—says in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922): “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Of course, nothing says those defining limits are claustrophobically confining.

II.

Novel Explosives itself is not restricted in theme and import simply because it is set in the United States and Mexico. Life in this novel, like life in any society—for example, a camp in Calais, pre-Brexit Great Britain, US cities where at any moment a uniformed individual will shoot a citizen, a leaking boat in the Mediterranean—is filled with terrifying precarity. There’ll be more blood, decapitated corpses, and gruesome backyard and desert graves due to cartels fighting over turf and riches than most of are likely to see, but that’s a matter of scale. Many people—to use shorthand, the 99%—are one blow (to the head, or wallet, or from snorting cocaine or partaking of another drug) away from losing their livelihoods, memories, and identities. This novel—an aspect not hidden by random and premeditated acts of mayhem or the specialized language—is built on connections: VC and Alvaro need each other, Ray and Gene are friends, the drug leaders feed off each other as well as their customers; one world crosses over into other worlds, not so much disregarding Wittgensteinian limits as never having heard that theory.

Very near the end the narrator speaks to us: “We warned you all along to stay out of Juárez… What were your [sic] even doing in Juárez in the first place? What’s that you say? That wasn’t you? You had nothing to do with any of this? We should leave you out of it? It’s a little late now to be protesting your innocence. It’s as if you think the world is somewhere else, somewhere far away, without you in it.” The connections are drawn more sharply a little later:

…fortunately for all of us, this [mass and indiscriminate killing] is a Mexican problem, the Mexicans, while lovely, are evidently quite a violent people, and through it has nothing at all to do with us, and the $30 billion in drug profits we lend to the cause, much of it repaid in armaments purchases, we are, let’s say, concerned for their health, which is why we read these stories with such avidity, since the moment the last true Mexican dies, we’ll feel totally bereft of violence pornography…. You’ve been wandering around Juárez like a zombie in a thought experiment, an experiment in collective guilt, where the zombie is shown the morgue-slab photos, and responds by saying I’m truly sorry, and making out a check to Amnesty International…

III.

Almost 700 pages in, an extraction or confession that rings a change on E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” is demanded of us, a charge that we should accept that our participation in the world’s ways—through drug use, support of governments that deal in arms, passivity, short-sightedness, and greed, however we might like to describe it—have led to the condition of present-day Juárez, as it has before to the detriment of countless other places. The omniscient narrator refers to Germany before the Second World War: “How, after Auschwitz, is beauty even possible?… Brecht’s warning to the world, and those born later, about the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and we, those born later, having already been warned, why do we act as if we haven’t heard the news?” (Yet in a puzzling omission, at no point does the omniscient narrator refer to the famines, purges, dispossessions and mass population movements in the USSR that killed many and destroyed in other ways the lives of others; or even to Mao or Pol Pot.) What is our response to another story about bodies spread across the Mexican landscape? The narrative calls on us to be aware of our actions and to take on the burden—not the guilt, Jim Gauer isn’t Graham Greene—of the ramifications of those actions.

Novel Explosives ends twice, in two registers, but it would go against the skillfully wrought architecture of this fizzy, fierce, maximalist, encyclopedic, allusive and word-drunk book to give away the conclusion. It deserves to be read and connected with.

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A heteronym is something like an alter ego to which Pessoa, the originator of this device, gives characteristics that set it apart from his or her creator, and it lives an independent existence.
Nov 042016
 

dusan-sarotar

The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. —Joseph Schreiber

panorama-cover[larger image requested]

Panorama
Dušan Šarotar
Translated by Rawley Grau
Peter Owen World Series,  2016
208 pages, £9.99

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Some literature defies simple description. Case in point, Panorama, by Slovenian poet and writer Dušan Šarotar. One might be inclined to define it as a meditation within a travelogue within a novel. Or perhaps you would prefer to rearrange those terms, it probably wouldn’t matter, because in spite of its subtitle: A Narrative about the Course of Events, Panorama stands at a curious angle to space and time. It is a novel of remembering, of telling and retelling, narratives within narratives, bound together by a coarse thread of repeating themes that are at once timeless and timely.

One of three Slovenian novels to be released this fall as part of the Peter Owen World Series, a new collaboration between Peter Owen Publishing and Istros Books, Panorama is Sarotar’s fourth novel, and his first to be translated into English. Born in Murska Sobota in northeastern Slovenia in 1968, he studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. In addition to his novels, he has published collections of short stories, poetry, and essays; and has written numerous screenplays. His prose, as exemplified in Panorama, has a poetic and richly cinematic feel.

So, maybe we could start with a short piece of film. This novel is narrated by an unnamed man who resembles Šarotar—a Slovene writer, of approximately the same age, who travels to various locales, either to work on a manuscript or give a reading. Here then, is a glimpse of the author himself. The setting is the Ljubljana Railway Station. A light snow is falling, and the trains come and go. This video is part of an online documentary project entitled Gathered: The Secret Side of Things We Share in which a number of prominent Slovenian writers, artists, philosophers and other academics were invited to offer their reflections—to muse out loud—about the state of modern society and the impact of technology on our relationships with nature and each other. It dates from 2013, the year before Panorama was originally published and presents, perhaps, a broad context for some of ideas he was exploring at the time.

Šarotar admits that when he sits at the railway station (an activity that will ground several important encounters in the latter part of his novel) he always thinks about time and space: “We are basically determined by time,” he says, “and by the fact that we are mortal, that we come from silence and we are returning to silence.” He goes on to consider that although we have very efficient modern means of transporting people, information and money; the most basic and fragile things, those that capture the essence of our humanity, are always the most difficult to transport through space:

A change in human society always followed a radical change in transport. At first, humans were conquering the steppes, then came the next generation braving the oceans and now we live in a time when mankind has conquered the entire globe and reached the limit. There are no ships, trains or aeroplanes that can take us beyond. We have reached what I call the limit of the universe. Today’s man is ready to head for the universe. It’s an imaginary limit of space and time. Poets, however, would say that the universe is a space within us. So I think it is no longer a question about communication or logistics, it is more about correspondences between the visible and invisible, between what’s the deepest inside us and everything that is furthest outside.

Panorama opens in Galway. The narrator has come to this Irish county, set at the very edge of Europe, to find a quiet place to work on an unfinished manuscript. Upon his arrival, he meets Gjini, an Albanian immigrant who will serve as his occasional driver and tour guide during his stay. Much of his time will be spent exploring the windswept mountainous landscapes and rugged coastline of the Connemara region. Here, and back in Galway City, he is haunted by thoughts of the thousands of starving refugees who set sail from these shores to face a dangerous and uncertain journey across the Atlantic during the years of the Great Famine. The crumbling abandoned houses and the solemn monuments stand as silent testament to these desperate souls. Migrants and refugees will be a recurring motif throughout the book, as will the related connections between landscape, memory, language, and loss.

As Gjini, who is also a writer, accompanies the narrator on sight-seeing adventures—hikes though the hills, a rough trip out to an outlying island by hydrofoil, a visit Kylemore Abbey—he shares his experiences as a newcomer, arriving eleven years earlier without a word of English, his wife left waiting behind until he can find his footing. Woven into his story, is an account of his friendship with Jane, a woman who had come from North America, to make sense of her own roots and identity. Her father was born in Connemara area. After the Second World War, some good-hearted nuns had put him on a ship bound for Canada, along with other war orphans and immigrants. Her research and journeys had taken her, he said, to Belgium and France and on into Central Europe as far as Sarajevo. As two outsiders, with a connection, however loose, to an area of the world close to the home he was missing, he was happy to have her company and offer his services as a driver. Gjini, and through him Jane’s story, become part of a key thread that will be picked up again, as the narrative progresses.

Shortly after his Irish visit, the narrator travels by train from his home in Slovenia to Brussels. This time, the main purpose of his visit is to give a reading in Ghent. The landscapes that attract his eye here, are urban—gothic structures played against inner-city decay and ruin. While in Belgium he will meet or re-connect with colleagues who have some tie with the states of the former Yugoslavia; individuals who articulate, in their own ways, the complex interrelationship between language and identity, and how it becomes distorted through time. And he will meet up again with Gjini who now, in his role as a freelance journalist, is intent on tracing yet another line of Irish-related migration, that of the Benedictine nuns who abandoned their destroyed convent in Ypres and made their way to Connemara after the First World War. Finally, chronologically speaking at least, the peace the narrator has been seeking for his work on his manuscript is found in Sarajevo where he stays with some friends.

On a superficial level, given this rather rough outline, Panorama might sound like a travel diary. The grainy black-and-white photographs that illustrate the text reinforce this impression. However, the narrator’s travels do not delineate the narrative, as much as they offer a framework against which the voices of his characters can be woven into a larger multi-layered meditation. He allows those he meets and spends time with a space to articulate the tensions they feel between their inner experiences and their relationships to the borders they have crossed in the course of their lives—whether those are lines marking identity, nationality, or even the policed barriers of a city under siege. The disorientation caused by the loss of one’s language, or the lack of contact with others who share one’s native tongue, is a persistent theme. Gjini describes it well on one of their early outings:

When you are far from your language, you are also far from your home, more and more each day, and the distance increases and deepens with every new word; the lost word is usurped, seemingly replaced, by the other, more convincing, better word, which everyone can understand but which is still foreign; the immigrant, this eternal guardian but also suppresser of his own language, knows that the loss, the void, the dissolved malt of forgetting within it, which he tenaciously envelops and fills with learning, which is the only vaccine against loneliness, despair and madness, is nevertheless irreplaceable, painful and incurable, like love, Gjini said and noticeably slowed the speed at which we were driving.

While in Brussels, he reconnects with Caroline, a fellow writer whom he had met on his first trip to Belgium a few months earlier. At that time, she had told him, “I don’t have my own landscape, I search for and invent the spaces of my language,” explaining that although she was born in Belgium she lost her mother tongue growing up in Spain before she went on to study Romance languages and work in Paris and Nigeria.

…I think, Caroline had said, that the idea of some inner bond between language and place is still alive for most people, it’s still a given, something eternal and immutable; I would say that it was their only tangible identity, but for many this bond has been broken, or lost, or seemingly transcended – many people, painfully and sometimes tragically, are forced, or for pragmatic reasons desire and are able, to transcend and break this bond; consider, she had said, people who are immigrants, refugees, the various diasporas, and so I ask myself what is still left to the writer’s experience.

The act of writing, the nature of tangible memory, and the complex relationship between language and landscape are the questions that ground this richly textured novel. Šarotar’s long, winding sentences evoke the meandering flow of reminisces while his narrative effectively compresses time—the encounters the narrator describes are not locked in the moment, they are broken and retrieved, guided by his remembrances of previous meetings, the memories recounted by these friends and colleagues, or even the tale of a complete stranger who buttonholes him after a reading in Ghent, to share—or perhaps confess—a family secret. The absence of chronological consistency creates an ebb and flow of recollections—some directly experienced, some reported and some imagined. In the beginning, the absence of quotation marks within paragraphs that extend for pages on end, can make it difficult to tell exactly who is speaking. Yet, with surrender to the movement between speakers and accounts, the reader will find the confusion falls away as the narrative repeatedly returns to pick up earlier threads and move forward.

The influence of W. G. Sebald is unmistakable, witnessed in the unnamed narrator with a curious similarity to the author, the long sentences, and even longer paragraphs, and by the employment of imbedded photographs. Šarotar has read and been inspired by Sebald’s work. Toward the end of Panorama, he even offers a direct allusion to Austerlitz as the narrator waits to meet a friend at the iconic Antwerp Station. However, Šarotar’s style is not strictly imitative. If Sebald acquired some of his narrative energies from Thomas Bernhard (seen, for example, in the repetitive occurrences of “Austerlitz said” in the secondhand accounts that form the basis that eponymous novel), Šarotar’s work maintains an even stronger Bernhardian sensibility at times, especially in the nesting of Jane’s story within Gjini’s accounts:

… a few times I remember when, after we’d been driving around all day in the car or just walking in the countryside, usually by the sea – she loved the bluffs, the high cliffs with the waves crashing far below; yes, that’s something you still have to see, he said, I’ll definitely try and organize it – yes, so, late at night, when we got back and had already said our goodbyes, he said, Jane would say, I’m going for a swim. I was surprised, of course, and tried to talk her out of it – not now, Jane, it’s late, it’s raining and the waves are rough, I’d tell her, and it’s night, there’s nothing you can see now, Gjini said; the lighthouse, Mutton Light, is shining there in the distance, Jane said; I can see its beam in the darkness, so you go on now, I’m going to have a swim; I’ll meet you here in the morning – good night, Gjini, Jane said; good night, Jane, Gjini said.

As well, with respect to the use of photographs, Šarotar, himself a photographer, is—or at least appears to be—using his images more intentionally. Sebald was a great collector of flea market finds around which he crafted his narratives. The portraits included in this text seem to stand in for characters who may or may not actually exist, but another significant influence on Šarotar’s photography is the work of German photographer and painter, Gerhard Richter. In fact, it is Richter’s retrospective show, “Panorama,” that gives this novel its name. The dramatic stormy cloudscapes that feature in so many photos are especially reminiscent of Richter’s well-known images of clouds.

cloudGerhard Richter, “Cloud Study”

In tone, Šarotar’s prose maintains a distinctly rhythmic poetic feel, captured beautifully in the translation by Rawley Grau. His narrator, a writer, imagines himself in line with the traditions of other Balkan literary heroes, especially Slovenian poet and songwriter, Gregor Strniša, and Bosnian writer, Ivo Andrić. The latter’s poignant short story “Letter from 1920” figures toward the end of this novel, as yet another echo of the endless trend of leaving one’s homeland when a viable future can no longer be imagined. This piece is one of a number of Andrić’s stories that could be said to be of questionable autobiographical authenticity, as if truth and imagination are somehow incompatible. Panorama raises the same questions about where the line between fiction and nonfiction lies. But why is that an issue at all?

For Šarotar, it comes down to the way that literature is understood in Central Europe. If asked to draw a distinction between literature and journalism, he says that, for him, literature deals with the soul, that is, it begins with memory; journalism, by contrast, starts with “facts.” He claims to be writing from memories—writing about what it was, not how it was.[1] To enhance that sense of memory, small intentionally misremembered facts are left uncorrected in the text. As a more specific example, he offers an interview with Amos Oz from the Paris Review. When asked about the very serious way Hebrew writers seem to be taken in Israel, in contrast to the way they are seen in the west, Oz responds:

We have a somewhat different tradition. In the West, at least in English-speaking countries, writers, even great writers and poets, are usually regarded primarily as entertainers. They can be fine, subtle, deep, but still they are entertainers. Even Shakespeare is regarded as a magnificent, perhaps the greatest, entertainer. By contrast, in the Judeo-Slavic tradition, writers are regarded as prophets. This can be a terrible burden, for unlike the prophets I don’t hear voices from above, and I don’t think I’m any more equipped to be a prophet—to foresee the future or serve as the people’s conscience—than an American or a British writer. Yet there is a huge expectation here, and so it is also in Russia or Poland.

The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. Whether any of the characters, even the narrator, bear more than superficial resemblance to “real” people does not matter. This is a work that gets at the heart of important truths that couldn’t, at this moment, be more relevant. As the human flood pouring into Europe reaches crisis proportions it is more important than ever to remember that this is not a new phenomenon. The forces driving the desperate movement of men, women and children—conflict, violence and poverty—have similarly forced individuals, families, and communities to cross waters and borders for millennia. This meditation on memory, time, identity, language and loss circles continually back to the price that migrants and refugees pay and the wounds that never completely heal.

—Joseph Schreiber

 

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jschreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and Literary Hub. He tweets @roughghosts

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. D. Šarotar, (personal communication, Sept. 28, 2016)
Oct 092016
 

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Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. —Frank Richardson

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The Angel of History
Rabih Alameddine
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.00

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What if you were Satan’s chief delight? How chilling, how disturbing, how psychosis-inducing would it be to discover Satan—yes, the actual devil, Mephistopheles, the Morning Star, Lucifer—said that you rejuvenated his jaded heart? Who would want to know that? In The Angel of History, Rabih Alameddine’s newest novel, we learn the answer to this question, for Jacob, a Yemeni-born poet and survivor of the AIDS epidemic, is Satan’s delight, and the fallen angel makes it his mission to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past.

The Angel of History is Rabih Alameddine’s sixth book and fifth novel. Born in Amman, Jordan, he spent his youth in Kuwait and Lebanon. After moving to the United States, he first pursued an engineering career, but gave that up for painting, and then writing. In 1998 he published his first novel, the critically acclaimed Koolaids, a blistering indictment of war and a harrowing examination of the ravages of AIDS. His other novels include the experimental I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters (2001), The Hakawati (2008), which draws on the tradition of Arabian fables, and the bibliophile’s delight, the sublime An Unnecessary Woman (2014), which won the California Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Now fifty-six, Alameddine spends his time between San Francisco and Beirut. Once again exploring the subjects of AIDS and war in the Middle East, with The Angel of History, Alameddine gives us provocative storytelling at its finest, a fabulist tale that explores how we grieve and how we succeed and fail in confronting our most painful memories.

Jacob’s Elegy

Ya‘qub, the protagonist and narrator of two-thirds of The Angel of History, arrives one rainy night at a crisis psychiatric clinic in San Francisco determined to be admitted. The fifty-something Ya‘qub has used the Americanized ‘Jacob’ since moving to San Francisco in the 1980s as a young man. Jacob explains to the triage nurse that he has been suffering from hallucinations again and is depressed. His employer had suggested he seek counseling, but it wasn’t until Jacob saw a report of another U.S. drone-strike on a Yemeni village, this time his mother’s hometown, perhaps the one where he was born, that he finally broke down. He needs an emotional holiday, and his ideal version would be three days in the psychiatric unit of Saint Francis Hospital with a nice Haldol-Ativan cocktail served with a chaser of Lexapro—after all, drugs had helped before—something to quiet the voices, something to deaden the pain, something to turn out the light of memory.

The majority of the 300-page novel is arranged in three titled sections—“Satan’s Interviews,” “Jacob’s Journals,” and “At the Clinic”—each of which is divided into twelve chapters, many with titled subchapters. Alternating in sequence, the three major sections present three parallel plots from multiple points of view providing a nonlinear reconstruction of Jacob’s history.

A poet who earns a living as a word processor for a law firm, Jacob lives alone in his San Francisco apartment except for his large black cat, Behemoth, whom he named specifically after the infernal feline in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita—another novel featuring a well-tailored Satan. Jacob suffers survivor’s guilt. All of his friends, including his beloved partner Doc, died from AIDS-related diseases twenty years ago during the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s. Overcome with anguish for his lost friends, Jacob hasn’t been able to write poetry for some time, but his old muse, his “angel of remembrance,” Satan, has returned.

The primary plot of the novel, set in the notional present and narrated by Jacob in the “At the Clinic” chapters, covers his breakdown the night he seeks admission to the hospital. Jacob’s narration is often in a stream of consciousness style, mimicking thought, as in this example where he explains the reappearance of Satan in his life:

It has been getting worse, Doc, I don’t seem to be able to cut him off, I am all wound with adders who with cloven tongues do hiss me into madness, it wasn’t always this bad, I went along for years doing rather well, didn’t hear his voice, but then one day he reappeared, and he’s been getting more demanding, more irksome, hissing, hissing, and I get headaches, I fear the return of the great migraine storms, I need a break, Doc, I need a break.

Devastated when his friends died, Jacob spent time as an inpatient in the same hospital to which he is once again applying. He had thought he was stable, he had thought he had escaped the trauma of history: of losing his friends and his mother and the memories of his childhood. As he writes in his journal, always addressing Doc:

While my mind processed the chaos that passes for thought in the early morning, I had cracked five eggs by the time I realized I was about to make you an omelet as well. Decades may have passed and sometimes it feels like only yesterday that we had our breakfast together. . . . I’d had a life since you left . . . I did yoga . . . I went to art openings . . . I watched bad television shows . . . I was living, I thought I was content, I was told I was happy. I did a marvelous impression of a man not crushed by dread.

Moments such as these reveal Jacob’s deep grief and give the impression of a hollowed out life. Jacob’s tender admission evokes the tone of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, another novel that addresses living day-to-day with heartache for a lost partner.

“Jacob’s Journal” is part requiem, part confession, and it is also where we learn what Jacob remembers about his mother, a teenage Yemeni maid who became pregnant by the equally young son of her wealthy employers in Beirut. Kicked out, she becomes a homeless wanderer through squalid desert villages where she is forced into prostitution. Mother and child finally settle in a Cairo whorehouse for the most stable and in many ways happiest time of Jacob’s childhood. But these memories have been repressed, or lost, or ignored for too long. Jacob writes about his childhood:

You, Doc, wait, I need someone to hear this, listen to me. . . . I don’t know why I tell you all this about me, I need to, I guess, but with this need to tell comes the concomitant desire to forget everything . . .

An assiduous Satan has been working against Jacob’s “desire to forget,” and Jacob’s journal and ensuing breakdown have been the result. In an allusion to Walter Benjamin’s commentary on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, Jacob tells a bartender, “I am your angel of history”; namely, a being who sees the past as a single, unalterable catastrophe.

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920

Angels and Ministers of Grace

The most significant subplot of The Angel of History unfolds in “Satan’s Interviews” and involves Satan’s attempt to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past. One of the most entertaining, often hilarious, and clever parts of the novel, “Satan’s Interviews” features third-person omniscient narration, usually limited to Satan’s locus of perception.

Being supernatural, Satan simultaneously coaxes Jacob to leave the clinic and hosts interviews with his son, Death, and a group of Catholic saints at Jacob’s apartment. The devil has a long tradition in literature, with some of the most memorable and most human versions found in Milton, Goethe, and Bulgakov. Alameddine’s Satan is eerily human with a voice as beguiling as one might expect from the personification of temptation. Jacob does a fine job describing Alameddine’s Satan (in a sly metafictional stroke) when he writes in his journal how Doc “endowed the devil with wickedness and perseverance, you made him fun, witty, intelligent, frisky, lively, ironic, and above all, petty, all too human, like us.” But for Jacob Satan is Iblis, Islam’s whispering jinn, a sulking, lonely creature with nothing better to do than torment him.

Satan is a fully realized character, complete with his own conflicts and a clear desire: he wants Jacob back. During Jacob’s first hospitalization he was drugged to near catatonia, and after leaving the hospital he spent many years on antidepressants and a variety of pharmaceuticals, both legal and otherwise. Satan doesn’t want his favorite whipping boy tumbling down that rabbit hole again.

In the first of “Satan’s Interviews” Death—whimsical, mocking, irreverent—asks his father why he is intervening in Jacob’s life now; Satan replies: “Because he has been sleepwalking through life since his friends died, because he has been so lonely without me, because his poems were getting more and more boring, his dreams more banal, and worst of all, he began to write stories.” However, it could be worse, Satan concludes, horror of horrors, Jacob “could write a novel.” Satan’s motivation, ostensibly for the benefit of Jacob’s art, is, not surprisingly, purely selfish: Jacob “rejuvenates my jaded heart” Satan confesses to Saint Blaise. Furthermore, Satan tells Jacob that it was him, not the saints, who saved Jacob from AIDS:

funny you should credit the silly saints with healing you, and not me, Death came for you and I intervened . . . I sat him down, told him your soul was mine, a long time ago I claimed you, you child of pestilence, you squashable worm . . .

And this is part of Satan’s interest in Jacob, namely Jacob’s squashability—most clearly reflected in his sexual history. Jacob’s experience with sex begins violently when a customer of the Cairo whorehouse demands that the ten-year-old paint henna on his penis. In his Lebanese boarding school Jacob is beaten and repeatedly humiliated by bullies. As an adult in San Francisco, jealous of Doc picking up another man, Jacob visits an S&M club where he is whipped—and it will not be his last indulgence in masochism.

Death asks Satan if he is going to interview “the others”—meaning the saints that Jacob prayed to as a child and as an adult until AIDS took everyone from him. In a Catholic tradition dating to the Black Plague, there are a group of fourteen saints—known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers—who are prayed to for specific maladies. Satan doesn’t interview all fourteen, but he does call upon them, remarkably, for assistance. It seems that Satan has done his job all too well in helping Jacob remember and now he needs help in keeping Jacob sane and off memory-impairing medication. Death, whose job is to offer the cup of forgetting, the waters of Lethe, expects Jacob will choose him, and so the dance between remembrance and oblivion begins.

In his depiction of the saints, Alameddine shows us compassionate but weary caregivers, for eternity is long and people exasperating. The interviews also offer humorous, welcomed breaks from Jacob’s somber memories. For example, Satan is unnerved by Saint Denis holding his decapitated head in his lap and insists he return it atop his neck, and Saint Margaret mocks Satan by holding a balloon of a baby dragon, for according to legend, Satan, in the form of a dragon, swallowed her but then choked on her cross. It is Saint Margaret who asks Satan to bring Jacob back to poetry: “A poet is tormented by the horrors of this world, as well as its beauty, but he can be refreshed, reborn even; he can take to the sky once more.” Saint Catherine sympathizes with Jacob’s past choices, she feels he only “did what he had to do during the time of sunder, he girded himself against the dirge,” but in the present she agrees with Satan’s assessment: “We must wake him and hazard the consequence. We must offer the apple.”

14-helpersTilman Riemenschneider workshop, The Fourteen Holy Helpers, c. 1520

War All the Time

In addition to the three major divisions of the novel, there are three sections labeled “Jacob’s Stories,” each containing a single short story independent of (but harmonizing with) the novel’s plot. The elegiac tone of Jacob’s journal changes to bitter resentment when he thinks of the humiliating final stages of his friends’ suffering, and his anger, inflamed by the interminable carnage he witnesses in the land of his birth, is vented in his stories.

Alameddine displays a formidable gift for satire in “Drone” and “A Cage in the Penthouse.” The latter, reminiscent of George Saunders’s equally acerbic “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” features a wealthy couple who keep a caged Arab as a pet in their Manhattan penthouse. In “Drone” we see U.S. drone strikes through the point of view of a sentient, self-righteous attack drone named Ezekiel.

 Through Jacob’s thoughts and his stories, Alameddine reminds us how easily wars are forgotten. Indeed, one of the epigraphs is from Milan Kundera (a writer who has had much to say about war and memory): “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” War tears through the countries of the Middle East daily, and for Alameddine—who grew up in Lebanon and spends much of his time there—this subject runs through his fiction like a scar.

Finding Time Again

The Angel of History shares more than a few characteristics with that paragon of memory novels, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Jacob’s past is what Satan and the saints are there to help him find and keep. Alameddine’s talent for nonlinear narrative—evident in Koolaids where the Lebanese civil war is starkly juxtaposed with the AIDS epidemic—shines brightest in The Angel of History with its exquisitely interlaced chronology, multiple plots, and points of view.

“Jacob’s Journals” presents a conventional memoir: Jacob thinking about his past. “At the Clinic” is more complex; here Jacob is thinking about his present, past, and future, but the narration feels like an extension of his journal, as if the events of his night at the clinic are added to his journal in the future. Satan’s interviews take place concurrently with Jacob’s night at the clinic but tell the story of Jacob’s mother and his childhood through the saints’ recollections. Satan’s imperative to the Fourteen Holy Helpers is clear: “What I hear he remembers . . . Remind him of himself.” Each interviewee recalls different parts of Jacob’s history which Satan then channels to Jacob. The ingenious conceit of the interview chapters is that, given the supernatural nature of the interlocutors, time is irrelevant and all the interviews can be simultaneous in an eternal moment. Furthermore, in these chapters Alameddine uses third-person, taking advantage of a wider range of point of view. These shifting times and points of view reveal Jacob’s memories in manner much like the actual process of remembering, a process during which we often take two steps back for every step forward.

Alameddine leaves little doubt about his admiration for Proust’s fiction in An Unnecessary Woman. Here as well, Proust informs Alameddine’s novel, from the simple homage—naming Jacob’s roommate Odette—to more direct references. For example, Jacob has moments of involuntary memory, such as in a grocery store where “the mephitic aroma of disinfectant assaulted my senses, and you jumped the levee of my memory. Proust had his mnemonic madeleine, but bleach was all ours, Doc, all ours.” Note, Alameddine doesn’t miss an opportunity to layer his images, here alluding to Mephistopheles. But to emphasize such references, as fun as they are, would be to neglect the genuine beauty of how Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them.

§

In An Unnecessary Woman, Aaliya pleads with writers to “Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” Rabih Alameddine is not a fan of epiphanic endings, and you won’t find one here. The Angel of History asks questions and raising issues for which there are no simple answers. Is ignorance bliss? Can we deny our past? Should we try? The Angel of History tasks us with the necessity of facing our memories, even the most painful ones, for to neglect them is to surrender to Death, to drink from the river Lethe, to become complacent drones (pun intended). Alameddine’s book is a statement on memory, on surviving loss, on war and disease and how we cope with them, and finally on art; and that poetry, or any art, cannot exist in a memoryless (and thus painless) vacuum.

On his walk home from the clinic through the nighttime streets of San Francisco, Jacob stops to write impromptu poems and statements on storefronts he remembers from happier times; on a No Parking sign he writes:

You all dead
I still walk
Therefore I am
I know it is so
For I long
I long for solace
How does one find such
Among so many ashes?

Jacob’s question cannot be resolved in a single moment of enlightenment, and like him, we too must confront our losses, for there is no solution to grief other than learning how to live with a shadow of hell.

—Frank Richarson

N5

Frank

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.

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Oct 072016
 

mel-headshot

It is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take a standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally. –Mark Sampson

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The Gloaming
Melanie Finn
Two Dollar Radio, 2016
318 pages, $16.99

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Stop me if you’ve heard this premise before. A sensitive but troubled character, at or near the threshold of middle age, suffers some major or minor tragedy in his or her life, and, looking for a fresh start, or reboot, or whatever, decides to travel to a far-off and “exotic” land, which, through the sheer scope of its exoticness, its novelty, provides the precise experiences or perspectives that our intrepid protagonist needs to learn something important about him or herself, or life in general, or whatever.

Yes, from Heart of Darkness and The Quiet American to Eat Pray Love, there are many works whereby the allure of foreign landscapes, of exotic adventures, supplies the writer with fecund and fruitful narrative soil. I myself have admired many novels that follow the general template described above, and, yes, even published one myself a couple of years ago. So it is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take this standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally, in her new novel, The Gloaming. If you yourself are a writer and thinking about forging your own “going aboard to learn something about yourself” kind of story, you would do no harm to it by reading this small masterpiece. It’s good to know what you’re up against.

Finn certainly holds some serious “foreign land” credentials. Having lived in Kenya until age eleven, she was educated in the United States and engaged in a busy journalism and screenwriting career while living in no fewer than six countries. Beyond her well-received debut novel, Away from You, published in 2004, she is also known for working alongside her filmmaker husband, Matt Aeberhard, to create the acclaimed 2008 documentary film, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, in Tanzania. Reading The Gloaming, one gets the sense that this is a writer who knows Africa intimately, who understands the rich panoply of its cultures, its histories, its contradictions. To say this novel offers an unvarnished view of Tanzania would be an understatement, and yet there is a raw and terrifying beauty to the abject privation and misery that Finn unpacks in these pages.

The particulars of The Gloaming’s plot do not do justice to the emotional journey it takes the reader on. Our hero, a young, attractive, thirtysomething woman named Pilgrim Lankester (née Jones) is the wife of a successful human rights lawyer named Tom, whose work takes them to various countries around the world. When they end up in Switzerland, Tom meets, falls in love with, and leaves Pilgrim for a younger woman named Elise. Pilgrim, now stranded in a bland Geneva suburb called Arnau, is devastated by both the suddenness of her husband’s betrayal and its sudden flourishing (Tom and Elise have a child together very soon after pairing up). But the real tragedy of Pilgrim’s life is yet to come: while out on a drive, she loses control of her car and slams into a bus shelter, killing three young children on their way to school.

This horrific accident would be bad enough if it had occurred as a result of negligence on Pilgrim’s part and she was declared a Kindermörderin (“child murderer” in Swiss German). But it’s almost worse when the investigation and subsequent court judgment rule that what happened was, in fact, a “no fault” accident. Pilgrim becomes a pariah on the streets of Arnau, receiving regular insults and death threats from the locals, so she decides to flee Switzerland and her divorce and travel to Tanzania. After a guided tour takes an unexpected turn, she disembarks in the impoverished town of Magulu and decides to stay.

Now going by her maiden name, Pilgrim begins to meet a curious swath of characters who are in Tanzania for a variety of noble or ignoble reasons. There is the diminutive doctor, Dorothea, who tries to provide health services to Magulu despite a lack of supplies and a surfeit of superstition. There is the ruthless mercenary from eastern Europe, Martin Martins (his name conjures an allusion to Lolitia’s Humbert Humbert) who spends the early part of the novel referring to Pilgrim as “Princess” and trying to get her into bed. Later, we meet the character of Gloria, an “ugly American” stereotype who has much more going on than what first appears: she is in Africa on humanitarian work after the death of her son, and we soon learn that her grief may hold a key to Pilgrim dealing with her own guilt over the children she killed back in Switzerland.

An air of the damned soon descends over Pilgrim’s journey into the chthonic heart of Africa when a mysterious package arrives in Magulu. The box holds the remains of an African albino – the telltale curse of a witch doctor – and Pilgrim offers to get the box out of town and to its proper recipient. Yet this action prompts a journey that will reveal just how closely associated Pilgrim’s accident back in Switzerland is to the life she is now trying to live in Africa. She will eventually learn that the figurative distance between these two worlds is not as wide as she first thought, and certainly not wide enough for her to escape what she has done.

Indeed, the narrative structure of The Gloaming shows just how tightly linked the place Pilgrim has fled from is to the place she has fled to. For the first sixty per cent of the novel, Finn alternates chapters between what happened in Arnau the previous winter/spring and what is happening to Pilgrim in Africa now. This flipping back and forth is expertly rendered, and in the process we meet two Swiss men who have the largest impact on Pilgrim’s pilgrimage to Tanzania. The first is Paul Strebel, the Geneva detective assigned to investigate the accident that killed the children. Trapped in a loveless marriage to his well-meaning wife, Ingrid, Strebel develops a brief but intimate relationship with Pilgrim during the investigation, and he soon finds himself obsessed with her. The other is Ernst Koppler, the father of one of the dead children. Koppler is a deeply tragic figure – he lost his wife to cancer not long before his daughter is killed in the accident – and he too becomes obsessed with Pilgrim. Strebel eventually learns that Koppler, in his grief, has tracked Pilgrim to Tanzania and is travelling there with perhaps the idea of causing her harm. Lying to his wife about attending a police conference in Iceland, Strebel follows Koppler to Africa in the hopes of intervening in whatever plan he has in store for Pilgrim.

This additional thread is what sets The Gloaming apart from other stories that use the well-worn trope of travelling abroad to escape an unseemly event at home. Most novels, if they tie in the tragedies of the past, do so lightly, symbolically, allowing the present action in the foreign locale to dominate the narrative. Finn has opted for the opposite approach. Instead of having Pilgrim be figuratively unable to escape what happened back in Switzerland, Finn literally makes those events an integral part of her character’s journey. This creates a tightness, an intimacy between the past and the present that is often absent in books with a similar structure. Instead of relying on an “emotional” inability to let go of the past, The Gloaming makes the past an actual character in the present action, affecting events in a very literal sense.

Along the way, Finn shows an adept hand at balancing all the characters she has created, the two landscapes that dominate her book, and the themes that weave their way through it. Every aspect of The Gloaming’s complex structure reveals a clear-eyed vision and a near-perfect execution. The shame and threat of violence hanging over Pilgrim’s appearance in Magulu is almost immediate (there is a scene not long after she arrives when she is briefly terrorized by a gang of children) and reminds us of the atmosphere captured in another great African novel, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Through just a handful of short descriptions, we get a sense of Pilgrim’s stilted, stunted life as “Tom’s wife,” the way she tried to remain an anonymous cipher so that he could build a successful career: “For hours at any given dinner table I was able to deflect to reveal not a single thing about myself while giving the impression of participating in the conversation.”

There are other resonant flourishes. Finn captures the jingoism and xenophobic paranoia that seems to grip a lot of Swiss culture; her creation of Pilgrim’s mettlesome Arnau landlady is a wonderful view into that. She also does a great job of showing what it’s like to be an itinerant global citizen, the way you can feel at once like a worldly, urbane ladder-climber while at the same time be completely alienated from the succession of adopted homes where your (or, in this case, your spouse’s) career takes you. Yet, in the end, The Gloaming’s penetrating insights into Africa is where it shines best. The vividness, the poverty, the fear that Finn is able to exact upon the page is palpable. One scene stands out in particular. Pilgrim and Gloria are travelling through Tanga in May, looking to visit the Amboni Caves just north of the city. These dark, complex caverns, so reminiscent of the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, hold a deadly legacy: a husband and wife got lost in them while chasing after their errant dog and were not able to find their way out. Pilgrim’s discovery of this from a tour guide becomes full of ominous portent:

The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

This episode is rich in symbolic foreshadowing of what is about to happen to Pilgrim in Africa, what the continent itself is threatening to do to her.

And then a curious thing happens around page 175 of this 310-page novel. Finn diverts from Pilgrim as her protagonist and dedicates each of the remaining chapters to one of the secondary characters we have already met. It’s a daring narrative risk, but one that succeeds by the sheer luminosity of The Gloaming’s prose and character insight. By ditching Pilgrim’s singular, centralized viewpoint, Finn is able to flare out the wider aspects of this story like a fan, giving us much more access the book’s narrative arc. The strongest of these chapters is the ones focused on Strebel. We get a profound sense of his struggling marriage, the dangers and inanities of being a police detective, and just how deeply he falls in love with Pilgrim during their one, brief sexual liaison. By the time we are finished with his sections of the book, we feel as if we know Strebel just as well as we have come to know Pilgrim herself. Dorothea, Gloria, and even Martin Martins get their own chapters of varying length, and with each switch in the point of view we realize just how immersed Finn is in the lives of all these characters, and how close to the surface each of them remain in her story.

The Gloaming, in the end, defies convention and carves a new and innovative path for itself in the canon of expat literature. Finn has fashioned a book that is rich, dark, engrossing and infinitely complex – much like the continent it spends many of its wonderful pages portraying.

—Mark Sampson

N5

Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His new novel, The Slip, is forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2017. Mark’s stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Oct 032016
 

olzmann

Olzmann relies on a prosaic first-person style, rhyme-less, rhythm-less, too indifferent to metre to even be properly considered free verse. Many, many poets today employ a similar style. —Patrick O’Reilly

contradictions_cover

Contradictions in the Design
Matthew Olzmann
Alice James Books, 2016
100 pages, $15.95

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Early in Matthew Olzmann’s latest collection of poetry, Contradictions in the Design, we are introduced to a young boy. For his birthday, the boy has been given a box of hand-me-down tools. “Immediately, he sets out to discover / how the world was made / by unmaking everything the world has made” (“Consider All The Things You’ve Known But Now Know Differently”, 9). The boy may serve as a stand-in for Olzmann himself, who excels at finding connections between the broken, the incomplete, and the obsolete, and who eyes every artificial thing with skepticism. As he claims in one interview, he is “the type of writer who understands the dark only by flicking the lights on and off a couple dozen times. I understand the deep end of the pool by splashing through the shallow side.”

With his award-winning debut Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013), the Michigan-born poet earned a reputation for his humour and accessibility, and his talent for juxtaposing seemingly incongruous images. Now residing in North Carolina, and armed with the confidence a well-received debut brings, Olzmann continues to explore his sometimes-jarring narrative style in Contradictions in the Design.

One stand-out poem is “The Millihelen”, named for “the amount of beauty that will launch exactly one ship.” Olzmann discovers such overlooked poetic sources with ease, and elaborates them masterfully. “The Millihelen” revisits the Trojan War, and considers a single ship leaving the entire fleet. Is this a ship carrying a disillusioned soldier away from the beachhead of Troy to a love he left behind? That’s not entirely clear, though it certainly seems that way. In any case, this ship is given more importance than the thousand Greek frigates sailing towards battle, a part bigger than the sum.

In “The Millihelen,” beauty is a destination. But that raises a possibility: perhaps this ship is the one which carries Paris and Helen away to Troy. That would be more consistent with the rest of the collection, where beauty and art are positioned as false virtues, traps which an audience could fall prey to. Certainly Paris’s own overly-enthusiastic pursuit of beauty had disastrous consequences.

The idea of beauty presents challenges for the artist as well. “Femur by mandible, I know what it means / to watch your good fortune change its mind,” Olzmann writes in “The Skull of an Unidentified Dinosaur”. That’s every poet’s pain, no doubt. But the poem itself depicts a dinosaur skeleton made up of mislabeled and mismanaged parts, the product of misguided creative labour, and exposes the blind faith and false assumptions required to not only appreciate, but to create art.

How Olzmann himself struggles for or against this artificial beauty is not always clear. There is little to suggest the kind of painstaking editing necessary to more intricate or experimental verse. Throughout, Olzmann relies on a prosaic first-person style, rhyme-less, rhythm-less, too indifferent to metre to even be properly considered free verse. Many, many poets today employ a similar style. What recommends Olzmann above them is the sense of cohesion in these poems: while most poets of a similar style still go in fear of literalness and overstatement, often to the point that their poems devolve into non-sequitur, Olzmann spares no effort to ensure that the reader follows every step of his associative process.

Olzmann’s talent lies not in his simple situational observations, but his observation of the whole metaphor, his observation of actors in a metaphor. He pursues the metaphor from its superficial meaning down to its pulp, showing the reader just where and why that metaphor is so poetically resonant. Think of him as a miner with a silver hammer, tapping the vein all the way to the motherlode. Oddly, Olzmann’s gift for drawing connections does not extend to other forms of comparative language. His similes, for instance, are usually duds: houses go “dark / like condemned buildings”, hair unfurls “like a flag”. These suit Olzmann’s unfussy, conversational style, but add nothing.

Olzmann is a noticer, rather than a craftsman. Coincidences and contradictions occur to him, and he draws them into the right perspective, but he never shapes them. This usually works. While not “formal poetry” in any traditional sense, nearly every poem in Contradictions in the Design operates under a particular formal apparatus wherein the poem is set up as a meditation on some single object or situation, then veers off in a completely unforeseeable direction, before returning to its thesis. This strategy, which I’m calling the “Olzmannian diversion,” makes it nearly impossible to quote from one of these poems and do justice to the whole poem, but it allows Olzmann to consider his subject from every angle, as though walking around a statue rather than merely looking at one face-on. As such, most poems in Contradictions in the Design have a satisfying sense of completeness.

Take, for example, “The Man Who Was Mistaken”, about a man who reconnects with his own sincerity thanks to a drug-addled roommate. The poem begins by mentioning the speaker is often mistaken for another professor at his university, who in turn is often mistaken for Moby, the electronica artist beloved by the speaker’s roommate. Then the turn:

Once he thought our furnace was talking to him.

Which is when I said, Why don’t you tell me
what the furnace was trying to say?

Which is when he said, It said
that me and it would always be enemies.

Which is when I said, Son, that’s a fight you can never win.

Which is when he said, Okay, and then went outside
to dance on the hood of his car.

Which is when the cops came.

Perhaps he was right. Jesus was inside the music.
And that music was inside my roommate.

And the state could not tolerate it.

I should note that this is just one small part of a long chain of events; “The Man Who Was Mistaken” follows Olzmann’s typical form: an opening gambit, a turn into shaggy dog territory, and then a return to the original theme in the third act, sort of like a sitcom. And the poem, already a page and a half long when this anecdote begins, goes on for another fifteen lines. The final line in the excerpt serves as that second turn, bringing the poem back to its original line of thought. While it acts as a punchline, dripping with false indignation toward “the Man,” it is also filled with genuine dismay that such harmless enthusiasm should lead to police intervention. The line rests precisely between the cynical and the sincere, which is where much of Olzmann’s best work happens.

But Olzmann’s competence can be its own trap. This is not a book one should read cover to cover. Taken at random, and with few exceptions, any one poem in this collection would be considered very good. The imagery is evocative, the humour charmingly ironic. But this one jarring, book-ended form would be more effective if used more sparingly. Reading Contradictions in the Design comes with a sense of degradation: inevitably some poems don’t seem to hit as hard as those which came before, and add nothing that earlier poems didn’t imply to greater effect. The Olzmannian diversion can lend a poem a sense of efficiency that it does not usually deserve.

This is a limitation to Olzmann’s style, as well. While the hyper-colloquial first-person narration affords him a degree of freedom not found in other poetry, it can also lead him to strain for importance. Such is the case with “Still Life With Heart Extracted From The Body Of A Horse” (16), a clearly personal, pointed poem, which devolves into bromides and clichés and eventually ends with a thud. When Olzmann gets political, as he does with this poem or “Imaginary Shotguns” (14), his politics are unthreateningly liberal[1], more bumper sticker than rallying cry.

What does one look for in a poetry? How can one define it? Olzmann himself might view even the question with suspicion. The poems which make up Contradictions in the Design are not challenging in any sense, but some might assert that “not challenging” is not necessarily the same as “not good.” I find myself, admittedly to my own surprise, in this camp. Olzmann draws insightful, even profound, connections between object and meaning. An artful poem, where several components work together in harmonious efficiency, such that you cannot replace a single mark for fear of breaking it, offers a kind of wonder. Here is a thing that shouldn’t exist, yet can’t possibly exist any other way, a made thing that feels innate. Olzmann’s poems are robbed of this wonder. But if the poems are without wonder, they still provide something like relief: that thing you noticed about the photocopier? Matthew Olzmann noticed, too, and he’s found some meaning in it that you hadn’t. Sometimes that’s enough.

—Patrick O’Reilly

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Patrick OReilly

Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Be advised: this is the opinion a Canadian critic. Issues like gun control and same-sex marriage, more or less settled here, may demand a less daring or incisive take in the United States.