I’ve been a bit neglectful of this blog lately — thank you for noticing — but I am catching up. I posted something today on the Litblog Co-op site, which may tide you over until I’m back in the groove over here. It’s about GRJ fave, Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint.
Archive for May, 2006
A little bird — cute little thing, it was — passed along news that Marilynne Robinson will be speaking down in Hyde Park tomorrow:
The Committee on Social Thought
announces a public lecture
in its John U. Nef Lecture Series
Professor, Creative Writing, University of Iowa
Author of the novel Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitizer Prize; & of the modern classic Housekeeping, which won the PEN/Ernest Hemmingway Award for First Fiction
“Myth and Meaning: Bad Scholarship and the Decline of American Religion”
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Social Science 302 (SS 302)
1126 E. 59th Street
Has any literary blog been more consistently enjoyable recently than Anecdotal Evidence? Today’s post on letters, Beckett, and eulogies was great. But I really appreciated Kurp’s post on a recent experience with a book by Virginia Woolf:
What ambushed me in The Common Reader, before I could get to the Swift essay, was Woolf’s page-and-a-half, two-paragraph introduction, which I can’t remember having read in many years. She acknowledges the source of her title as Johnson, and proceeds to make good, solid sense:
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s “Life of Gray” which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” It defines their qualities; it defines their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.
The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.
Thinking lately about Spicer. That’s how I found the poets and writers photos I shared yesterday: looking for Spicer. Check out all the different galleries on that site. Wasn’t that a great photograph of Booker Ervin and Kenneth Patchen? I was very excited a while ago to discover I still had my copy of The Journal of Albion Moonlight after 30 years. Hiding on my bookshelf.
But Spicer. From “Six Poems for Poetry Chicago”:
The rind (also called the skin) of the lemon is difficult to
It goes around itself in an oval quite unlike the orange which, as
anyone can tell, is a fruit easily to be eaten.
It can be crushed into all sorts of extracts which are
still not lemons. Oranges have no such fate. They’re pretty
much the same as they were. Culls become frozen orange
juice. The best oranges are eaten.
It’s the shape of the lemon, I guess that causes trouble. It’s
ovalness, it’s rind. This is where my love, somehow, stops.
I was going to read this for Verse by Voice, but I didn’t.
Check out the Kenneth Patchen home page.
As I’ve mentioned before, I like George Saunders’s non-fiction. Turns out he has a piece in the most recent GQ, entitled “The Incredible Buddha Boy.” In it, Saunders investigates the mystery behind a 15-year-old boy in Nepal who was reported to have been meditating for the seven months without any food or water.
Only the beginning is available online for free, but it will show you that he’s his usual self:
Austrian Airlines is big on hot rolls. Red-clad flight attendants continually tout their hot rolls in the accents of many nations, including, one feels, nations that haven’t actually been founded yet. (Hod roolz? Hat rahls? Hoot rowls?) The in-flight safety video is troubling: It’s animated and features a Sims-like guy with what looks like a skinless, skeletal death’s-head who keeps turning to leer at a slim Sims lady who keeps looking away, alarmed, while trying to get her long legs tucked away somewhere so Death can’t see them. Later she slides down the emergency slide, holding a Sims baby, Death still pursuing her.
Ancient Mariner-style, my seatmate, a Kosovar, tells me about a Serbian paramilitary group called the Black Hand that left a childhood friend of his on a hillside, “cut into tiny pieces.” During the occupation, he says, the Serbs often killed babies in front of their parents. He is kindly, polite, awed by the horrible things he’s seen, grateful that, as an American citizen, he no longer has to worry about murdered babies or hacked-up friends, except, it would appear, in memory, constantly.
Story told, he goes off to sleep.
But I can’t. I’m too uncomfortable. I’m mad at myself for eating two roolz during the last Round of Roolz, roolz that seem to have instantaneously made my pants tighter. I’ve already read all my books and magazines, already stood looking out the little window in the flight-attendant area, already complimented a severe blond flight attendant on Austrian Airlines’ excellent service, which elicited an oddly Austrian reaction: She immediately seemed to find me reprehensible and weak.
There’s also an interview with Saunders and the photographer about how they got the story.
Some links from last week …
- Sean’s post on Empson led me to Paddy Fraser’s memoir of post-war London, a New Criterion’s review of the ODNB, and the I. A. Richard’s Web Resource.
- Robert Archambeau’s mention of Christian Bök’s Eunoia in the April Harper’s led me to Now What, a collective blog by alternative prose writers.
- Birnbaum’s conversation with David Mitchell led me to The Blues and the Abstract Truth, and Affinity.
- Steve’s post on This Space on David Lodge led me to this great excerpt from Lodge’s new book, and reminded me of this 2004 profile of Lodge in the Telegraph, and this 2004Â post on my blog.
- Thinking about author readings recent and upcoming led me to brief mentions of Zadie Smith, Peter Carey, Eduardo Galeano, and Jocelyn Benoist.
- Not sure what led me to these cool poet and writer photos, or these works by Sandra Fisher, or the simultaneous exhibitions in Chicago and San Francisco of the work of French artist Jacques Villegle, plus reviews of those exhibitions (Chi and SF).
Champion v. Tanenhaus, at Book Expo America:
I stood up and pointed out to Tanenhaus that the list of judges was mostly male and that this reflected a continuing trend by the NYTBR as a whole to give the majority of its reviews to men over women. I also asked how a weekly book review section that continued to prioritize nonfiction over fiction could legitimately put out a “Best Contemporary Fiction” list. I then revealed myself to be the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch guy and playfully asked why I hadn’t received a single thank you note for the brownies. “Is this a New York thing?” I asked.
Tanenhaus took considerable ire at this, booming into the microphone with all the joie de vivre of a stale jelly bean, “Where do we begin?” On the judges list question, he pointed out that the original list of 200 had a more equitable balance between men and women. But that women writers declined to be involved with the project more than men. He was again defensive about the NYTBR, suggesting that “we don’t fill quotas” and, instead of responding to my points, declared the NYTBR the best book review section in the nation. (Of course, had I been permitted to interject on the fiction coverage in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle or even the Baltimore Sun, I would have. But Tanenhaus clearly wanted to evade the issue.)
As to the question of the brownies, Tanenhaus boomed into the mike:
“I DON’T HAVE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE BROWNIES!”
Am I the only one who didn’t realize Ed was actually sending brownies to the New York Times? I thought it was figurative.
Maybe you heard the news: the New York Times asked 125 writers, critics, editors, etc., to name the single best work of fiction published in the last 25 years. Surprisingly, out of the 22 works that received the most votes, 23 were by Philip Roth. Or something like that. I may have the numbers wrong.
But forget that. Scott Esposito recently conducted a survey of literary bloggers and other readerly types to determine the best works of fiction published since 1990. He asked each individual for their top ten, and will publish a ranked list of the 50 highest vote-getters in the next issue of the Quarterly Conversation.
I had a lot of fun putting together my top ten, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the final list. In the meantime, here are some hints about the authors in my top ten:
- Seven out of ten are from outside the U.S.
- Four write in languages other than English.
- Three won the Nobel Prize.
- One is a film-maker as well as a novelist.
- One ran for public office in 2004.
- One writes in a language that is not his native language.
- One fashions himself as an expert on military strategy.
- One used to be a computer programmer at IBM.
- One has a predilection for the f-word.
That’s it. I’ll add more hints as I think of them.
According to Boyd, Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales is the starting point; in Melville the modern short story “comes of age.” Perfectly plausible, except that I think Washington Irving really kicked it off. Hawthorne’s first book of stories, the unpublished Seven Tales of My Native Land, was modeled on Irving’s Sketch Book, which was a huge hit both in the U.S. and England. Irving is all over Twice-Told too.
Melville felt Irving’s stories were “too British.” He told Hawthorne that Irving was a “grasshopper” in talent compared to Hawthorne. But Irving influenced Melville nonetheless. The lawyer-narrator of “Bartleby,” for example, might have stepped right out of an Irving story, as Delbanco notes.
Read some Irving. More there than “Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” for sure.
I’ve always had a soft spot for old Wash. I like his response when Walter Scott offered him the editorship of a new literary magazine: “My whole course of life has been desultory, and I am unfitted for any periodically recurring task, or any stipulated labor of body or mind. I have no command of my talents, such as they are, and have to watch the varyings of my mind as I would those of a weathercock. Practice and training may bring me more into rule, but at present I am useless for regular service.”
Read Boyd as well. Including the previous piece, in which he introduces his classification system. He’s usually on the money. Although, now that I think about it, he did have Waugh completely upside down.
In the comments thread on a previous post, the proprietor of Texts & Pretexts points me to Julian Barnes’s article on Flaubert in the most recent New York Review of Books. In said article, Barnes reviews the new Flaubert bio along with Polizzotti’s new translation of Bouvard and Pecuchet.
I’ve been meaning to write about B&P since I read it at Christmastime but, you know, the eggnog, the stuff you put in the eggnog, the minor household accidents — things come up. Others have stepped forward since then. Some even before then.
To all this I can add only a single observation. In his letters, Flaubert goes on and on about B&P’s heroes much in the attitude of Moe Howard talking about Larry and Curley. (”I am planning a thing in which I give vent to my anger… I shall vomit over my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me… It will be big and violent,” etc.) However, reading the book I formed an entirely different impression. Flaubert loves these knuckleheads.
Barnes, perhaps, explains why:
When he was fifteen, Flaubert won a school prize for a twenty-five-page essay on the history of mushrooms — all of which he had conscientiously copied out from another source. Bouvard and Pecuchet’s driven encyclopedism was his; and what they come ploddingly to doubt during the course of the novel — ”the probity of men, the virtue of women, the intelligence of governments, the good sense of the people, the innocence of children, the reliability of history, the progress of science — was what Flaubert himself doubted. As Rabbit is to Updike, a clownish, dimmer alter ego, so Bouvard and Pecuchet were to Flaubert; which is why, though they start the novel looking as if they are to be its butts, they end as deranged comic heroes, sub-Quixotic failures in their own heroic if absurd quest.