“When you write a novel with a classical structure, you’re writing horizontally. [In Happy Are The Happy, I can] speak as a character, and the character is also somewhere in the spirit of another. It allows you to see the characters in many ways that naturalism would not allow.”
Playwright and author Yasmina Reza joins the show to talk about her new book, Happy are the Happy (Other Press). We also discuss the confluence and divergence of love and happiness, her surprise when “Art” was produced in Iran and Afghanistan, the appeal of Sarkozy as a literary character, her love of The Wire, and why she let James Gandolfini transpose The God of Carnage from Paris to Brooklyn. We also get to talking about writing a novel like a constellation, being unapologetic for writing intelligent plays that are accessible, the playwrights in her theater pantheon, and why she’s French first, Jewish second, and nothing third. Give it a listen!
“A play is good if it can be seen in different cultures, in different languages, different actors. That’s the strength of a play. Just to be played in Paris would have been for me a kind of failure.”
About our Guest
Yasmina Reza is a playwright and novelist whose works have been translated into more than 30 languages and include Art and God of Carnage, both winners of the Tony Award for Best Play. The film adaptation of the latter, Carnage, was directed by Roman Polanski in 2011. She has written six books, including Dawn Dusk or Night: A Year with Nicolas Sarkozy (Knopf, 2008). Her newest book is Happy are the Happy. She lives in Paris.
Credits: This episode’s music is The Paris Match by Style Council. The conversation was recorded on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Ms. Reza by Pascal Victor.
Today’s episode of The Virtual Memories Show is a little offbeat, but I have faith in you, dear listener!
I take something that seems obscure, and it leads you to somewhere that is not where you expect.
First, philosopher, musicologist, clarinetist and author David Rothenberg joins us to talk about his new book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, and its accompanying CD. It’s a fun conversation about rhythms and meta-rhythms, 17-year cicadas, David’s lifetime of music, the joy of bringing different people’s worlds together, how aesthetic preference sorta trumps survival of the fittest. the development of bugstep, and the secret to finding a rewarding job teaching the humanities. (And, really, you should listen just to find out that secret.)
These points in your life, you often wonder what would have happened if you’d taken the other course. I could’ve gone into theology or some bloody thing. Instead I wound up in science and I’m atheist now.
Then (around the 43:00 mark), we have a conversation with Clive Bennett, the CEO of Halo Pharma, a pharmaceutical contract manufacturing organization. I met Clive through my day job, and found him so delightfully literate, discursive and thoughtful that I asked him to record a segment on the podcast. Once I had him cornered, I asked him why he’d gone into the sciences, given his artistic, historical, musical and literary interests. (Really, I think it was just a condemnation of myself for not doing more with my time.) He decided to bring his Kindle along to reveal what he’s reading and why (and reveal himself in the process). It’s two men talking about the choices we make and those that are made for us.
About our Guests
Philosopher and jazz musician David Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of Bug Music, Survival of the Beautiful, Why Birds Sing, and Thousand-Mile Song. He is also a composer and jazz clarinetist, and he has nine CDs out under his own name, including On the Cliffs of the Heart, named one of the top ten CDs by Jazziz Magazine in 1995. He lives in the Hudson Valley, New York.
Clive Bennett has been CEO and president of Halo Pharma since 2008. He’s spent 40 years in the pharma industry, including 23 years at Hoechst Marion Roussel (now sanofi), as well as Fisons Limited, Evolutec, and Patheon. He’s also a voracious reader, history buff, opera-goer, and a lot of other things that don’t go on a CV.
Credits: This episode’s music is Katydid Prehistory by David Rothenberg. The conversation with David Rothenberg was recorded at his childhood home in Westport, CT on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Clive Bennett was recorded at his office in Whippany, NJ on the same equipment. The intro and outdo were recorded in my home office on a Blue Yeti USB microphone. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of David playing with cicadas by Charles Lindsay. Photo of Clive & me by Sally Langa.
“One of the pleasures of middle age — there aren’t many — lies in a growing appreciation for art that is urbane and refined. To be a man of the world is, in my mind, to be a courtly, music-loving intellectual living in Vienna or Prague during the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is the last glimmering of a now vanished era . . .”
Click on the pic above to embiggen
It was another wonderful reading year for me, even if I sometimes feel like I’m an ape who’s trying to mimic the behavior of a cultured gentlereader. I know this isn’t the mode for everyone (esp. those of you who have social lives), but I’m awfully happy I get to live this way. Last year, I chronicled all the books I finished, but used a separate post to discuss 2011’s big reading project, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement. I didn’t have a major project this year, so you’re going to get some commentary on everydarnbook on The List. (Speaking of . . .)
As with last year, this writeup doesn’t include comics that I finished. I should note that, while I’ve had Chris Ware’s Building Stories on my desk since late September, I’ve been too . . . intimidated? something else? . . . to start it. Maybe that’ll be the next big read.
Meanwhile, there are more than 50 to discuss, so let’s get started!
The Sun Also Rises: I had the thought last January of reading a lot of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. I may’ve been a little influenced by that meh Woody Allen flick, Midnight in Paris. Clearly, not as effective as the way Another Woman turned me on to Rilke, but hey. This time around, I found Hemingway’s prose flatter and less effective than I recalled. Nowadays, we’d chalk it up to writing for a screenplay rather than the printed word, but I guess that wasn’t a consideration back then.
The Learners: A day after that, I was wiped out with the flu. I stayed home from work and started reading The Learners, the sequel to book designer extraordinaire Chip Kidd’s first novel, The Cheese Monkeys. The book follows our lead character, Happy, out of art school and into his first design job in 1961. Bizarrely enough, considering how out-of-it I must have been, I managed to read this book in a few hours. I enjoyed it, mainly for the depiction of Happy’s worklife as a designer in that era (not exactly Mad Men). I wasn’t as interested in the plot, centering on Stanley Milgram‘s authority experiments, but I’m hoping to see a third book from Kidd as Happy finds his way in the world (and figures out his sexuality, the suppression of which is a key component of this and The Cheese Monkeys).
Money: A Suicide Note: A week later, I read Martin Amis’ Money, which I’d heard referred to as his greatest novel. I think London Fields trumps it, but they’re both awfully good. They’re also very difficult for me to recommend to people; Amis’ language is like lightning (at his peak, I think his prose is up there with Nabokov’s), but his characters are almost uniformly unlikeable and normal people seem to care about that. In my podcast conversation with Michael Dirda, we talked about the pleasure principle in reading and criticism. He praised Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, but said it so unremitting and humorless that no one could finish it, and contrasted that with the evil wit of William Gass’ The Tunnel. He made a comment about writing a book in which none of the characters were likable, and I said, “We should ask Martin Amis for tips on that.” That said, it’s an amazing novel, capturing the money-hungry ’80s in New York and London. And it was fun to read the brothel scene that Amis researched with Christopher Hitchens (whose Hitch-22: A Memoir was the close-out to last year’s post). Also, it seems like Alan Moore was cribbing from this when he wrote A Small Killing, a comic illustrated by Oscar Zarate.
Brideshead Revisited: Reading at tangents, I went from Martin Amis to Evelyn Waugh, an influence on his dad Kingsley. I read Waugh’s Scoop in late 2011 (following Hitchens’ recommendation) before moving on to his best-known novel, Brideshead Revisited. I had absolutely no idea what this book was about. For some reason, I thought it was going to be a very staid, mannered book. I really wasn’t expecting the ebullience of Sebastian Flyte and, once introduced to him, I wasn’t expecting the Catholic-Anglican conflict between the narrator and Sebastian’s sister, Julia. I was happy to have so much of Anthony Powell under my belt before reading this, even though Powell’s prose and story were far less unified than Waugh’s.
Stories of Anton Chekhov: My first great discovery of 2012 was Chekhov’s short fiction (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation). I’d apparently read Three Sisters back in my freshman year of college, probably for an acting class, but never got to Chekhov otherwise. I have so many lacunae in my reading, it’s embarrassing. I devoured this collection and will likely get around to his short novels and his plays in 2013. I was floored by the intensity and vividness of his short sketches, like The Huntsman and the seriously creepy Sleepy, while the longest piece in the book, A Boring Story, is an utter masterpiece. I’m in awe of Chekhov.
Tropic of Cancer: Looking back over my list, I honestly don’t remember reading this book for the bajillionth time. I’m guessing I thought it would be a good palate-cleanser, some familiarly gorgeous prose for me to fall back into after being swept up in Chekhov for 3 weeks. It’s also possible I just read too darned quickly sometime. I try not to read for volume, but it happens to the best of us sometimes.
Travesties: I read Tom Stoppard’s play in anticipation of seeing it performed in Princeton. We never got down there, because of work travel or some other excuse, but I was glad to read it. It’s a toughie to characterize, because of the Leninist stuff, the Wildean mode, the slapstick, the dead-end of Dadaism, and more, but I was wowed by the ambition of it, and I’m a sucker for “all these famous figures happened to live in the same place at the same time, so who’s to say they never overlapped?”
Metropole: I read this one on a recommendation in Bookslut. It’s a forgotten novel about a linguistics professor from Hungary on his way to a conference who falls asleep, misses a connection, gets on a wrong airplane, and winds up in a strange city where he can’t understand the language. I had high hopes for this novel, but it draws out the drudgery of the professor’s life in a way that ground my interest into a nub. Going into it, my assumption was that the professor’s experience mirrors that of everyone who travels to Hungary from the west, since their language has virtually no connection to the Indo-European language groups. I spent a full week in Hungary a few years ago and managed to pick up only 5 or 6 words in that time. Anyway, I was hoping for more of the Kafkaesque out of this novel, I suppose, but I can understand how the time in which it was written (1970, during the endless days of the Cold War) dictated the sense of hopelessness that pervades it.
Inherent Vice: A Novel: I bailed on Thomas Pynchon’s last giganto-novel, Against the Day, a year or two ago. I was 50-60 pages into it and concluded that I wasn’t enjoying it and would never get around to finishing it. On a whim, I picked up this shorter novel last spring at a nearbyish new/used bookstore, Well Read. I figured this would be more Crying of Lot 49 than Gravity’s Rainbow. Little did I know it would be most similar to The Big Lebowski. I mean that in a good way. It’s a stoner detective novel set in LA in the ’60s, and the plot doesn’t quite add up, but the atmosphere is what it’s all about. While I was reading it, it struck me that Pynchon generally alternates his novels between “big” and “SoCal”: V. (big), Crying of Lot 49 (SoCal), Gravity’s Rainbow (big), Vineland (SoCal), Mason & Dixon (big), Against the Day (big), Inherent Vice (SoCal). The fact that those last two are out of sequence is clearly the sign that They’re up to something . . .
Coriolanus: Two reasons to take up this one: to prepare to catch the Ralph Fiennes movie version (which I haven’t seen yet), and because I was going to take a trip to Phoenix for a trade show that month and planned to see a Diamondbacks game. See, I try to keep a decent gap between the number of Shakespeare plays I’ve read and the number of MLB ballparks I’ve visited. You know how weird I am, so don’t act like this surprises you. Anyway, the play was minor on the Shakespeare scale, but does help illustrate why military men don’t tend to make good statesmen.
“Family Happiness“: I read Tolstoy’s novella in anticipation of a St. John’s College alumni seminar in NYC. Sadly, I could only attend the pre-seminar coffee hour and not the conversation itself, due to a sick dog at home, but I did get to talk with the tutor who was running the show, and she followed up afterward to tell me how it went. It’s Tolstoy and it’s not religious, so you know it’s good. It’s about the ways in which one’s notions of love and romance change the longer one’s in a relationship. In this case, it’s a sad, 19th century version with a younger woman discovering the loss of romance as her marriage progresses. It’s a recurring theme, esp. with great European writers of that era, but it’s so artfully told, even in its inevitabilities, that Tolstoy makes it fresh.
The Living End: This was probably on an off-the-cuff recommendation from Harold Bloom, and was probably the book I least enjoyed in 2012. I stuck with it, violating my maxim, “life is too short for shitty novels,” because it was only 130 pages of large type, but I could’ve given this one a pass. It starts off well, depicting the comic life of a Jewish liquor store owner before he’s murdered in a hold-up. From there, it transforms into a story of how grotesquely unfair the afterlife is, how vengeful God (the scriptural God) is, and why the end of the world can’t come soon enough. It was pretty relentless in its sections in hell, which is the point, I get it, but I just found it an unworthy book, especially after starting off so well. I’ll try one of Stanley Elkin’s other books sometime to see which part was the aberration.
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness: William Styron’s memoir about depression and suicidal ideation was probably not what I should’ve been reading in a generic hotel room in Arizona during a business trip. Turns out he was having a bad reaction to Halcion. I understand how terrible that is, but when I was having an ugly CNS reaction to an antibiotic I’d been prescribed, it only took 3-4 days for me to realize that that’s what was happening and that my wife and coworkers were NOT actually trying to poison me. Either I’m more self-aware than Styron, or I spent a lot more time than he did reading about adverse events from prescription drugs.
Uncle Vanya: I thought the movie Cold Souls was terrible, but it led me to read Uncle Vanya, so I guess that’s not too bad. More Chekhov, again revolving around the country life and the sense of wasting one’s life in that setting. The only good scene in that Giamatti movie was when he rehearses a scene from the play after having his soul extracted, and attacks it with a joie de vivre totally inappropriate to the tragic setting. Seriously, avoid that movie, but read this play.
Solaris: This was the first Stanislaw Lem book I’ve read. I’d seen the Steven Soderbergh film version, and it was interesting to see how some of the book’s “rules” for the mysterious apparitions were removed or softened for the sake of the drama. Ultimately, I found it a bit too frustrating, in terms of the Macguffin, but it’s a beautiful piece of writing about the ineffability of experience. Just as we can’t understand what Solaris is “thinking,” we also fail to understand those closest to us.
Meditations: I bought Marcus Aurelius’ book after seeing The Silence of the Lambs back in 1992 or thereabouts, and only got around to reading it 20 years later. There were moments when I thought, “Well, it’s kinda easy to adopt Stoicism when you’re the emperor of Rome and not one of its subjects or slaves,” but I figured that was sour grapes. It’s written as self-advice (not self-help), and not all of us are going to address the Roman senate or lead an army, but his lessons, and his general vibe about leading a good life, are pretty useful. I need to reconsider him in relation to all that Montaigne I was reading a few years ago.
Austerlitz: The only W.G. Sebald I read before this year were a few essays in On the Natural History of Destruction. I don’t recall much of that reading, beyond the issue of trying to reconcile the desire for revenge against Germany after the war with leaving children to suffer. Austerlitz is the first of two Sebald novels I read in 2012. I was unprepared for his curious method of writing, that combination of compelling first-person travelogue and not-quite-documentary images, his peculiar mingling of the real and unreal. The story within the novel, which Jacques Austerlitz relates to the narrator, is haunting, in the same way that both characters haunt the Continent in the decades following the war. I bought the rest of Sebald’s novels after this, but his premature death (car accident in 2001) may be the greatest literary loss of our time.
Selected Stories of Flannery O’Connor / Wise Blood (re-read): That brings me to the life-changing moment I had at the beginning of summer. I read a number of O’Connor’s short stories for the 4-day Piraeus seminar at St. John’s College. I wrote about the Piraeus in last year’s write-up, in my entry on Wise Blood (which I re-read before the seminar). O’Connor’s fiction was a grotesque revelation, and would’ve been reward enough, now that I can see her threads weaving through modern American fiction and storytelling, but the long weekend in Annapolis re-energized me, brought a new focus to my reading, introduced me to new friends, and reminded me of the value of The Conversation. (The stories we read for the seminar were Good Country People, A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Artificial N*****, Everything That Rises Must Converge, The Lame Shall Enter First, and Parker’s Back. I oughtta read The Violent Bear It Away in 2013.) Check out the podcasts I recorded during that trip with David Townsend and Tom May!
Rabbit, Run: My first Updike. As I wrote on Facebook, “My big hangup was the sheer poetic beauty of the prose and how it didn’t really fit with any of the characters’ perspectives. That is, Rabbit wouldn’t have seen the world as beautifully as the narrative describes it, but the narrative often lapses into the limited perspectives of its characters. It’ll drop into the more immediate tones of Rabbit’s wife, Ruth, or Rabbit himself, and all the gorgeous prose drops away. It felt like Updike was showing off with those more poetic passages, or he didn’t yet know how to integrate that with his characters’ limited visions.” I later expanded on that in a note to a pal of mine, “There are some beautiful sentences in there, but the narrative voice makes little to no sense. Sometimes it’s immediately in the characters’ heads, but it begins making poetic descriptions of phenomena that the characters themselves couldn’t possibly formulate. So it felt like cheating/showing off: ‘I’m going to get inside these characters’ heads, but then I’m going to make intensely beautiful observations because I’ve got a bunch of them in my notebook and want to get them out.’ Presumably, he got better as a writer, but I was shocked by the clumsiness of that first book.” So now you know where I stand. I have the whole Rabbit Angstrom 4-book omnibus, but will I ever get around to those when there are so many other books with more promise?
Housekeeping: I may be the only person who read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead without having read her first novel. Enough people have praised it over the years (including my first podcast guest, Ann Rivera) that I decided to give it a read. They’re right. It’s fantastic. Robinson’s beautiful prose evokes the fragility of home life, the disintegration of family. It also has its roots in Flannery O’Connor, although I’m sure a smarter writer than I could explain how Robinson’s Calvinism leads to a different style than O’Connor’s (southern) Catholicism.
O, How the Wheel Becomes it!: This was another one-day read (“one-evening,” to be precise). It was Anthony Powell’s first novel after he finished A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s slight, but it parodies/slags the literary fiction and academia scenes in the UK. And I was happy to see the guy who created X. Trapnel return to goofing on the publishing world.
Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games: Americans and Their Games: I don’t read a lot of nonfiction books; I prefer long-form articles instead. I guess you could count Darkness Visible and Meditations as nonfiction, but this is the first one on the list to deal with a non-memoir subject. One of my fellow Piraeus members suggested I read this book by the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. It’s about the nature of sport, what it says about America and Americans, and, um, numerology. That part only comes up in the final section, but Giamatti sorta ascribes a kabbalistic significance to some of the numbers in baseball. As a whole, the book was a bit dry, in an Aristotelian way, but I enjoyed his reminiscences about playing baseball with his family, as well as the seriousness with which he could approach play.
The Aeneid (tr. Fagles): And this is where I went into overdrive. After that Piraeus weekend at St. John’s, I asked one of my tutors for a mini-curriculum of the Romans. I’d given them short shrift, deriding them as pastiches of the Greeks. Within a few minutes of my return to Annapolis, I realized what an unfair characterization this was. So I started educating myself in Roman literature and history, beginning with Virgil. Y’know what? The Aeneid IS a pastiche of Homer’s two epic poems, but Virgil’s a great enough artist to create something new out of that. The comparison that came to me after finishing the poem was Homer::Virgil as Jordan::Kobe. I don’t think Kobe could have been so successful without having MJ’s history behind him, but he managed to reach some pretty lofty heights once he incorporated that example.
Yeah, the Aeneid is propaganda for the Roman Empire, but Dido’s suicide left me breathless (the retroactive justification for the war with Carthage), Camilla’s Final Hour had one of the funniest images I’ve ever come across (her father, when she was an infant, sent her to safety by tying her to his spear and throwing her across the Amasenus river so he could pick her up after escaping the Volscians), and everybody needs a creation epic, right?
The Stranger (re): I re-read this after finishing the Sartre chapter in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia (coming up soon). I gave Camus’ fiction pretty short shrift over the years, too, ever since making a dumb comment about him back in college. Reading him now, and trying to get an understanding of Algeria, I find him much more compelling. I’m always glad to find out how dumb I’ve been.
I Totally Meant to Do That: This is the first book I read specifically for my podcast, as I was interviewing the author, Jane Borden. It’s an enjoyable memoir about a North Carolina debutante, her transformation into a Brooklyn hipster, and how she came to understand home. Check out the podcast!
The Early History of Rome (Books I-V) / Rome and Italy (Books VI-X): After Virgil, I took up the first 10 books of Livy’s history of Rome. Seriously, I knew very little about this, so it was both informative and ridiculously entertaining. Livy covers Rome’s founding through 293 b.c. in these books (2 volumes from Penguin). It’s a cliche to say that knowledge of history informs the present, but the transition from kingdom to republic, driven by the growth in inequality between the high-born and the “peasants,” is awfully pertinent. As with all good histories, it’s replete with examples of our unchanging nature, demonstrated by our politics and (including the original story of the aforementioned Coriolanus). I’d put this in my must-read list (and I plan to read the subsequent surviving books in 2013).
Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts: It took me four years to work my way through this collection of biographical sketches/essays by Clive James. Finishing this book made me happier/prouder than any other book on the list. It’s about 800 pages long, and here’s the structure: biographical sketch, quotation from the subject, essay by James that may or may not be about the subject. The book focuses on the culture that was destroyed by the great wars and dictatorships of the 20th century, with Vienna as its locus point. James strives to remind us of all that we once had, and was lost. But to describe it like that is to miss the point. This book is an encyclopedia of one of the last cultured men, and its biographical subjects range from Viennese Jews like Stefan Zweig to Coco Chanel to Miles Davis. I read the book sequentially — which means, alphabetically — but it’s really intended to be dipped into anywhere that catches your fancy. My problem is that I’m sure I would have glossed over some interesting sketches/essays had I read it that way. And in fact, the piece that I think provides a key to the whole book is the essay about Paul Muratov, a Russian art historian who is (almost) utterly forgotten. If there’s any one book I’d recommend above all others in this post, it’s Cultural Amnesia. Treat yourself.
The Sense of an Ending: This short Julian Barnes novel was a Kindle loan from my public library. It relies on some really obtuse behavior by a couple of characters in order to keep its mystery going and deliver on its main themes, that memory is unreliable and people can be real pricks in college.
Sea, Swallow Me And Other Stories: This is a short story collection by a guy I knew in college, Craig Gidney. I enjoyed some of them far more than I wanted to, because I am of course jealous of any of my contemporaries who have been able to finish writing anything, much less achieved publication. The book’s firmly in the fantasy genre, and many of the stories come from a gay black male perspective. Having published Samuel R. Delany’s books once upon a time, I didn’t have any squeamishness about that, but I thought you’d like to know. Her Spirit Hovering, about a man who can’t get over his mother, is a blast. (But I really didn’t like the final story, Catch Him By the Toe, which felt like a Twilight Zone / comic book origin story.)
An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland: I read Michael Dirda’s 2003 memoir in preparation for our podcast interview. Having (his version of) the details of his early life under my belt helped to keep me from falling into any “I’m not worthy!” moments during our talk. Not that Mr. Dirda’s intimidating in person, by any means, but I’ve enjoyed his book reviews and columns for decades and feared I would ask him something like, “Why are you so awesome?” a la Chris Farley with Paul McCartney in that SNL skit. The book was pretty enchanting, even though I hoped for a bit more of the “how I became so awesome” material about his time at the Washington Post, rather than “this was the girl I liked in college,” but I was happy to learn more about someone whose work I’ve dug for so long. Check out the podcast!
The Metamorphoses of Ovid (tr. Mandelbaum): Then it was back to the Romans! As I wrote earlier, there are awful, gaping holes in my reading. It’s one of the main reasons why I read so little contemporary fiction; there are too many great works of the past for me to catch up on. As I look over the list, it seems that, of the 51 books I finished in 2012, only 14 of them (27%) were published from 2000 on, and only 7 came out since 2009. I’m kicking myself for not getting around to Ovid until now. It’s like a kaleidoscope viewing of the Greek and Roman myths, with transformation as the common thread running through them. Does it, like the Aeneid, become propaganda when Julius Caesar gets woven into the end of the poem? Sure, but it’s forgivable, when so many of the other myths are of tribal self-identification. Anyway, it’s a glorious work, and I wish I had read it in my teens, rather than the pulp science fiction and comics I was raised on.
The Good Soldier: Michael Dirda praised the living heck out of this Ford Madox Ford novel from 1915, so I gave it a read soon after our conversation. The narrator, an who was seemingly unaware of the affair going on between his wife and a British captain, tells the story of passion and suicide in a very disjointed manner. It’s not right to say he’s an unreliable narrator, but his elliptical way of getting to the heart of the story and his willful blindness to what’s going on around him never seem like cheap plot devices; rather, they’re both essential his character and indicative of a certain sense of propriety in that era. The narrator’s casualness and disjointedness are actually intensely worked out by Ford, so that mere asides turn into harbingers of what the narrator calls “the saddest story I have ever heard.” It’s a wonderful novel, which I’ll likely return to in a year or two to catch the significance in all the seemingly insignificant details.
King Lear (re-read): It was a re-read for seminar at St. John’s homecoming weekend. And if you haven’t read King Lear yet, then why are you wasting time reading my bazillion-word blog-post? Most of the seminar group was from the same class, so I was an outsider, but we had a good conversation about the nature(s) of madness, the impossibility of retirement, and where there’s any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts.
Capital: I’m a fan of John Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure, and the financial writing he’s been doing since the crash, so I gave his mega-novel from 2011 a shot during a business trip to Madrid. It tells the story of a number of people living on a street in London where property values have been skyrocketing. There are multi-generational long-timers, executives from the City, Pakistani shopkeepers, a rising star soccer player, and the various people with whom their lives intersect, including a Banksy-like artist, an illegal immigrant working as a meter maid, a Polish handyman, and more. It’s ambitious in its attempt at showing how insane money has gotten in our financial centers, and how it warps the lives of the rich and poor. The need to drive the plot over 600 or so pages means that the prose isn’t as gorgeous as in Debt to Pleasure, and it may not reach Bonfire of the Vanities-level zeitgeist-ery, but it’s still a good read.
Chess Story: And that brings me to Stefan Zweig. I first read about Zweig at the end (naturally) of Cultural Amnesia. Clive James largely dismissed Zweig’s fiction and instead focused on his biographical essays and his memoir, The World of Yesterday. As with many artists in James’ book, I made a note to get to him “later on.” Then I read an appreciation of Zweig in the New Yorker by Leo Carey that focused on his fiction (both writers also focus on Zweig’s 1942 suicide in Petropolis, Brazil) and decided to give his last novella a shot before the flight home from Madrid.
I sat in the airport terminal completely riveted by this slim book (80 pages). As with The Leopard in 2011, I began re-reading the book almost immediately, in awe of the storytelling, the ease of language and symbols, the utter tension of the work. I must have given out half a dozen copies of this to friends to read. The story is about a veritable idiot savant of a chess master who travels on a steamer from New York to Argentina. Our narrator wants to see him play, and contrives to get him into a match with a high-stakes amateur on the ship. A mysterious passenger offers some help during a match, and that’s when things really take off.
It’s so mind-blowingly good and compact, that I found myself buying up a number of Zweig’s other works (he only wrote one novel, otherwise sticking to the novella for his fiction) to see how they measured up. (Keep reading; you’ll find out.) But if you’re looking for a great (and quick) read, go buy Chess Story right away. Skip the introduction, because it gives away some things that it’s better to uncover in the novella itself.
I have a million more things to say about Zweig, but this isn’t the place for them, because I’ll never finish otherwise.
Bartleby & Co.: The New Yorker also tipped me off to this book by Enrique Vila-Matas. It’s ostensibly a novel about “Writers of the No,” authors who quit writing or never finished their work. I thought that would be right up my alley, never having started, but the book was disappointing. The concept was fine, but there’s not enough novel-ing going on in it. The scenes from the narrator’s life, the hints at the bigger world around him, just drop away and the book we’re left with isn’t substantial enough to make up for not knowing “what happened.”
Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness: I read this book by Willard Spiegelman in preparation for a pending podcast interview. (There’s a story about that, of course.) On the face of it — a book with the chapters, Reading, Walking, Looking, Dancing, Listening, Swimming, and Writing — I thought I was getting a literary self-help book. It turns out to be a Montaigne-esque series of essays: more meditation than memoir, and certainly not self-help. I enjoyed it a great deal, perhaps because I could relate to so many of Mr. Spiegelman’s experiences, even if I’m too chicken to learn to dance.
The Emigrants : I read this W.G. Sebald book over the course of the first day of the Hurricane Sandy blackout. It’s written in the same mode as Austerlitz; a first-person narrative (with photos) about the lives of four people driven away from Germany. It’s like a precursor to Austerlitz, but I found it a little less haunting, if only because one of the titular emigrants traveled to America and some of the narrator’s travels overlapped with highways I’ve traveled.
Fifth Business / The Manticore / World of Wonders: The blackout was 8 days long, and I managed to read much of Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy in that time. It was pretty great to have no power, no way of getting in touch with the office, and nothing to do but read and sit by the fire. I read Fifth Business more than 20 years ago, but remembered almost none of it. It’s hard to describe the story without sounding prosaic. In a sense, it’s a melodrama about the magic behind our lives. See? The first book is the best of the series, but the whole trilogy is a joy, even the weird Jungian analysis of The Manticore. It’s about life in a provincial Canadian town, and saints, and magicians, and stage-craft, and childhood guilt, and a million other things. Based on my experience with it, I recommend this as a great wintertime read by a fire.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym: I can only hope that Poe’s one novel was intended as a parody of sea-faring fantastic tales, because I couldn’t make heads nor tails of this.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: Awesomely entertaining. Max Brooks’ novel about a zombie apocalypse and the living’s response to it is told as an oral history, 10 years after major hostilities have ceased. The history is told by survivors from around the world, and the International Relations aspect of it is part of why it’s so great. The story telescopes from the personal to the international/global. Some of the chapters are heartbreaking, others are terrifically creepy, and it all adds up to a really good book. Sadly, it’ll be a movie next year, and that’ll ruin everything; it’s a slow zombie menace, not a fast zombie one as the movie trailer seems to show, and that runs counter to what makes the book so darned creepy. If we’re still dividing literature into genres, then this is my zombie/thriller/horror recommendation of the year.
Journey Into the Past (New York Review Books Classics): My second Stefan Zweig novella wasn’t as good as my first, but that’s okay. This one’s more of a romantic melodrama, while Chess Story was a heavy-duty psychological crucible built around a chessboard. This one’s about the impossibility of fixing love in time, or of recapturing love we once had. While the emotional states are convincing, the story itself simply wasn’t compelling to me. Also, no zombies.
How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III: I read this in preparation for a podcast with one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ron Rosenbaum. (That’ll post shortly.) Ron’s written great articles over the years, and his previous books, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil and The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, are both worth reading. This one focuses on The Bomb and just how close we are to deliberate or accidental nuclear destruction. It’s a bit policy heavy, but Ron makes it readable and pretty darned engaging. He brings some literary meditation to the topic, but this one’s first and foremost about the threat of nuclear war, not Ron’s usual approach, which is (he said, reductively) to analyze our interpretations of a phenomenon and see what they say about us, rather than go after the heart of the phenomenon itself. It’s an important book, but given the head-in-the-sand nature of our civilization, we’ll likely ignore it until it’s too late.
Selected Stories: A bunch of these cleaned the meh taste of Journey Into the Past. They’re all novellas, almost all told to our narrator by another party, and several of them will break your heart. I nearly plotzed over the story of Buchmendel, the Galician Jewish book dealer who gets into trouble during WWI by not having any idea that WWI is going on. The romantic melodramas of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Fantastic Night and Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman show that Zweig can employ pitched emotional states while still delivering a devastating story. After Chess Story, pick this one up.
The Silence of Trees: I read the debut novel by Valya Dudycz Lupescu in preparation for another podcast interview. We tried recording in mid-December, but she had just done the planes, trains and automobiles circuit to get from Chicago to Philadelphia and wasn’t at her most coherent. We’ve rescheduled for my next Chicago trip. It’s a novel about a Ukrainian-American matriarch who has suppressed her pre-American life from her family, and how she deals with that as she grows old. It opened my eyes to some of the non-Jewish victims of WWII, and how terrible the conditions were after it ended. There’s a certain lack of psychology to the narrator, which I THINK is a symptom of the character’s suppression; I’ll ask Valya about it in April when we record.
Night Train: Martin Amis tries to tell a police procedural about a suspicious suicide. The narrator, a boxy female detective, has to have a literary background in order to accommodate some of Amis’ prose, but he reins it in somewhat. It’s . . . not great. I mean, “great” is London Fields and Money. This one has some interesting observations in it, and the cloud of unknowing around the suicide/murder is a neat literary device, but I assume he was trying to make some sorta gender statement by naming his female narrator Mike Hoolihan. Give this one a pass, unless you’re on a serious Amis binge.
1984: I ended the year with Orwell’s final novel, which I’d last read 20 years earlier. It’s a lot more vivid to me now, but that’s the nature of re-reading as a grown-up, I suppose. I don’t think I really got the perils of Communism/Totalitarianism when I was younger. Reading it now, I think the real horror isn’t the Thought Police or Room 101, but the crumbling cigarettes, the artificial gin, the dull razors and all the other minutiae of colorless life on Airstrip One. (I was also struck this time by the awkwardness with which Orwell introduced some of the concepts of the book, but I think that’s typical of a non-science-fiction writer trying to work in that genre.)
So there we are: 52 weeks, 51 books! I’m in the midst of Bleak House right now, and am putting together a selection of stuff I’d like to get to in 2013. Most of those pulls are longer works, so don’t expect another giganto-post like this one next year!
In case you want a ranking, here are my top 10 of new reads I finished in 2012:
- Chess Story – Stefan Zweig
- Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
- Short Stories – Anton Chekhov (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
- The Aeneid – Virgil (tr. Fagles)
- A whole ton of Flannery O’Connor
- Austerlitz – WG Sebald
- History of Rome, books I-X – Livy
- Selected Stories – Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press ed.)
- World War Z – Max Brooks
- Money – Martin Amis
The year began with a novel about a dying newspaper and (just about) ended with a novel about the eternal sleaziness of newspapers.
According to the list of All The Books I’ve Read, I finished 32 books in 2011; several were re-reads, one was a Kindle Single, one was a play and another was a novella. I’ve decided that my year-end post should be a look back at those books, what I made of them, how I came across them, and any other recollections or observations I can make about ’em.
First, I oughtta note that 32 books isn’t that much. I mean, all told, the Great List shows that I’ve finished around 600 books since I began keeping the list in the fall of 1989, when I started college. That puts me a little above the “average” of 27 books a year, and it sure makes me regret that 2-year run in 1997-98 when I couldn’t finished a goddamned thing. But with math like this, even if I up the pace to an even 30 books a year, there’s still no chance I’ll ever work my way through my library.
Which is why I’m glad I came across this page in Kevin Huizenga’s latest issue of Ganges last week; shows I’m not alone in thinking about The Math:
The year’s big reading project, as I wrote about earlier, was Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time. I’d rather not write about those books individually in this post, since I’m still a bit muddled about the first half of the series. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Powell’s writing, and I think the three WWII novels (books 7-9), plus their immediate successor (Books Do Furnish a Room), mark the high point of the cycle. But, like I said, I’m going to leave off writing about them, except in terms of where they fall in sequence, and focus on the other 20 books for this post.
Also, because of my prose-bias, I won’t go into the comics that I read over the year. However, there’s one comic I read in 2011 that trumps this entire list: Jaime Hernandez’s conclusion to The Love Bunglers, in Love & Rockets #4. I wrote about this a little during my heart scare in October, and I want to reiterate: what Jaime achieves by the end of that comic, capping off 30 years of stories of Maggie and her world, is a perfect piece of art.
On with the show:
The Imperfectionists – The year began with Tom Rachman’s 2010 novel about a dying, Rome-based newspaper patterned after the International Herald Tribune. Each chapter follows a different character in or around the paper, and it does a great job of delineating the various occupations and beats of that workplace. However, the only people I knew who’d appreciate that backdrop would also be terribly depressed by the newspaper’s demise, so I didn’t pass it on to anyone. I think it was recommended via Amazon, and the Kindle edition was only $5.00, so hey.
Shortly after finishing that book, I turned 40. I also began A Question of Upbringing, the first book in Powell’s series. I read one each month, so just mentally slot those in between the other titles listed here. I’ll put the full list & chronology at the end of the post.
The Age of Innocence – I decided to read this after New York magazine ran a “Greatest New York Ever” feature, and Sam Anderson selected Wharton’s book as the greatest New York novel. I was intrigued and gave it a shot (free on my Kindle). I had no idea Wharton was this good. Scorsese’s decision to adapt it made perfect sense to me, although I couldn’t bear more than 10 minutes of his adaptation, since it relied so heavily on voice-over of Wharton’s prose, rather than, y’know, adapting it into a visual medium.
Anyway, I loved it, thought it did a wonderful job working through the social mores of post-Civil War New York, and felt it would’ve been more awesome if Archer, at that pivotal moment, went hardcore, killed May and went on the lam with Countess Olenska in Europe. But then the book would’ve had a much different reputation. I got at least one other person to read this, and she enjoyed the heck out of it, too.
1959: The Year Everything Changed – I met the author, Fred Kaplan, at a book party in NYC, and told him how much I enjoyed his columns on Slate. I mentioned that I hadn’t read his 1959 book yet, and he was much less angry about that than Greill Marcus was when I once told him that I hadn’t finished reading Lipstick Traces. (I still haven’t.) After that evening, I picked up his book on the Kindle. I enjoyed his version of that history, even if it did trick me into giving On The Road another shot. (It still sucks.)
A lot of this literary year was spent trying to get out of my own historical moment. The Powell books, of course, cover a chunk of the 20th century, and Kaplan tries to get at the ways in which 1959 shaped who we became in the succeeding decades.
Arcadia – The next couple of books play fast and loose with the notion of time and history. In March, I read Tom Stoppard’s play for the bazillionth time. This reading was preparation for seeing it performed on Broadway (which I wrote about here). It’s such a beautifully constructed work, I can’t begin to do it justice.
Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis’ story of a Nazi war criminal who doesn’t realize that his life is unspooling backwards. It’s narrated by a nascent consciousness in the head of a man who is coming to life and being delivered to his house by an ambulance. It’s a sick experiment in how to write about atrocities and innocence, and Amis, of course, is up to the job. It’s a difficult feat, clueing the reader into what’s going on while the narrator itself has no idea. I can’t say I recommend it, but it kept me enthralled. I assume he wrote it after someone offhandedly remarked that you can’t write in a sympathetic voice about a doctor who worked the concentration camps.
(I once passed on Amis’ London Fields to a coworker who generally likes my pass-alongs. She gave it back to me unfinished and said that she hated all the characters and didn’t want to read about them anymore. I can understand that entirely. I think I’m going to read Amis’ Money sometime in 2012, and I’m beginning to wonder if he’s ever had any likeable characters.)
Slaughterhouse-Five – I figured Time’s Arrow‘s not-so-Bloomian precursor was Vonnegut’s novel about the bombing of Dresden, in which the reality of the war is so horrible that the lead character retreats into nonlinear time and a science-fiction world of alien abductions. I hadn’t read this in years, and didn’t enjoy it too much, this time around. I’m betting it falls into my category of Lowest College Denominator.
The Leopard – Then I read the book that I would trade all the other books on this list for. I bought Lampedusa’s novel around 10 years ago on God knows who’s recommendation. It was the reverse of a wine cellar; while the book stayed the same, I matured enough to read it. I read a lovely recommendation of Lampedusa’s work in The Wall Street Journal and decided it was time to give it a shot. When I finished the novel, after wiping away some tears, I thought, “I’m so glad I got to read this book before I died.” Perhaps I’m just mistaking literary achievement to my growing sensitivity to stories of men watching their lives pass by, but I think The Leopard has some eternal qualities to it. I reread it 3 months later and keep it on my nightstand as a fallback for when I’m not interested in reading my current book.
It’s “about” a prince in Palermo in the 1860s, when Italy is in the process of unification and the merchant class is on the rise. The prince understands that the nobility’s days are numbered, but must negotiate his family’s wellbeing as long as he can, while he comes to grips with the younger generation’s ascent. And he’s SO so human. Lampedusa evokes this entire world, with its nobility, its clergy, its militia, its tradesman, its upstarts, its cosmos. I hope you get to read it sometime.
Here’s what I read from it last night, before turning in:
Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike brow, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.
A River Runs Through It – Maybe I spoke too soon about trading all the other books for The Leopard. I’d probably keep Arcadia and I think I’d also keep this one. This is another countless reread for me. I don’t remember why I decided to read it this past summer. It had just been made available on the Kindle, so perhaps that prompted it. More likely, I wanted to read something beautiful and familiar and see if it, too, affected me differently at 40.
(I don’t think any book changed for me so dramatically as my 2010 reread of the Iliad. It’s a little embarrassing that it took me four journeys to Troy before I finally developed a sympathy/understanding for Achilles, but there it is. This time around, I was transfixed by that notion of the epic hero, caught in the fate of being the center of the poem, giving up family, future and love to become the world’s first great literary subject. I wish I’d kept up with my idea of writing about Achilles & the Iliad throughout the past year, but I always let myself get sidetracked. Like now.)
Weirdly, Maclean’s novella about fly-fishing and grace didn’t change too much for me this time around. In some respects, it’s the book that helped shepherd me along into my “boring old fart” mode. Which isn’t to say that it’s a boring book; rather, its assuredness of voice and lovely-yet-stark depictions of the lives of the two brothers and their family helped me appreciate silence and the absence of literary pyrotechnics.
(It also helped me form some sorta background for trying to understand Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Emphasis on “trying”.)
Nemesis – A short Philip Roth novel about a polio outbreak in Newark in the 1940s. Roth belatedly tied this one to his recent short books and called them The Nemesis Quartet. I’m a huge mark for the first book in that run (which we’ll get to shortly), but the other 3 all feel like sketches more than real novels. But then, Roth’s nearly 80 and has achieved enough over the years that he’s earned the right to perform some minor variations.
What’s most interesting about this one is the narrator, who starts off as a first-plural “we,” but eventually shows up and plays a role in unspooling the later aspects of the tale. He also undercuts a lot of the simplistic thinking of the earlier pages, in a conscious reflection of the lead character’s mental limitations. It’s a neat trick, demolishing the lead’s earnestness and self-seriousness like that.
Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed – I read this memoir of Savile Row tailor Richard Anderson in one day. It was the first time I’ve read a book that quickly in years, and sure, it wasn’t Proust, but it was pretty fascinating. I’ve become interested in menswear in the last year or two, and one of the blogs I follows recommended this one. Anderson does a great job of conjuring up his apprentice days, while lamenting the lack of training in the contemporary scene. The best parts, as with many of the UK memoirs and novels I read this past year, involved the strange characters he worked with, and the oddball initiations he underwent.
One of my resolutions for 2012 is to have some shirts made for me by a tailor. I have the cash to do this, but I also have a bit of anxiety about sitting down and talking about fabrics, cuts and styles with someone who knows a bazillion times more about them than I do. Of course, that’s preferable to working with a tailor who doesn’t know that stuff better than I do, but I have Novice’s Worry. I’ll tell you how it works out.
The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive – I wrote about this one earlier in the year, and my thoughts about it haven’t changed, so just check out that post. As noted there, I discovered it via an author interview on the Monocle Weekly Podcast. Sadly, Monocle changed its format a few months ago, as part of a move to 24/7 audio broadcasting, and I found the weekly podcast unlistenable. I’ll try to get back to it next year, since it did turn me on to some neat books and music, including the incomparable sound of W&Whale.
Everyman – Last summer, the dad of one of my best friends died suddenly, so I felt the need to return to this short Philip Roth novel about an old Jew and his illnesses. I wrote about it pretty extensively in my Man Out Of Time piece about my favorite books from the previous decade. I fear I’ll return to this one again and again, as death grows in stature around me. I only have it on my Kindle, but should probably get a print copy. You know, for the permanence.
Zero History – I saved William Gibson’s oddball new novel for my first trip to his stomping grounds in Vancouver. It was enjoyable enough, but seemed to eschew any real plot or stakes until maybe 25% from the end. It’s gotta be tough to integrate a plot with the sorts of observations and atmospheres that Gibson’s so good at making/evoking, but this one really felt like he forgot about the plot until he came up with a big synchronized set piece of a caper, then perfunctorily snapped it into place. Vancouver sure was pretty.
The Junket – This was a Kindle Single, a short e-only piece. It was written by Mike Albo, who co-wrote The Underminer, a kinda black comedy novel I read a few years back. This single was hyped by The Awl, a blog I follow, so I gave it a shot. In it, Albo chronicles the bizarre circumstances by which he was fired from the New York Times, where he was a freelancer writing the Critical Shopper column. The incident highlighted the Times’ self-serving, contradictory, disposable treatment of freelancers, and Albo’s relative poverty reminds me that I made a good decision to stick with trade magazine editing all these years.
I like the idea of Kindle Singles, in terms of being able to publish long-form (but not book-length) work at a lower price point. Non-fiction books often feel to me as though they’re padded to reach a certain page count, so I’m in favor of writers knowing when to stop.
The Leopard – I read it again, 3 months later. Still on my night-stand.
The Finkler Question – I’m dismissive of conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with another reason for this book to have won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. I mentioned in an earlier post about the circumstances in which I bought this one for my mom. It was only $5 on the Kindle, so I got it for myself. I know I’ve told people — and you, dear reader — on numerous occasions that “life’s too short for crappy novels,” but I really did think this was going to improve. It’s sad that I was so wrong.
Wise Blood – Who knew that droll comic Norm MacDonald and St. John’s College would have an overlap? Thanks to Twitter, I discovered that Norm is a voracious reader who holds contemporary fiction in even greater disdain than I do. For the book club that he hosts in the 140-character medium, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood was a recent selection. I’d never read her, and didn’t think I’d have time to read that one before the club started its discussion. Still, I filed her away with hopes of getting to her sometime in 2012.
Then I got a mailer from St. John’s about next year’s Piraeus continuing education program. Here’s the opening page:
The ancient port of Athens, the Piraeus, is a lively juncture of departures and homecomings. As in the days of Socrates, it represents the pulse-point of the community. A reunion, a chance encounter, a new beginning, an opportunity to reinvent one’s self — all these possibilities exist at the Piraeus.
St. John’s College, in cooperation with the Alumni Association, is pleased to offer Piraeus 2012, a continuing education program for alumni. We invite your participation, and we strive to awaken the curiosity that stirred Socrate to venture down to that port and led to journeys that shape our thoughts and lives today.
Among this year’s offerings? A four-day course in Annapolis on Wise Blood and six of O’Connor’s short stories, led by two of my favorite tutors (no professors at SJC) from the school. The brochure read
Flannery O’Connor’s southern gothic stories and novels have the power, character, and plot of Greek tragedy. In Wise Blood, her first novel, and these six stories, which are poignant, often hilarious, and always disturbing, her characters have life-changing experiences that raise profound questions about grace, trust and the nature of the good. O’Connor is sensitive to the appearance of spirit in the world as she pursues the meaning of life, love, and destiny. [And serial commas.] Join us in reading this singular writer, as she searches the recesses of the human heart.
Yes, that’s my idea of a great mini-vacation. (There’s also a six-day course in Santa Fe in August on Thucydides, but I doubt I could get away long enough for that.) I stopped at that new & used bookstore where bought The Finkler Question and ordered the Library of America hardcover of The Works of Flannery O’Connor. I’m trying to be nice to that store and order a book every so often. I see it like this: if they’re brave/stupid enough to open a bookstore in this retail environment (it recently celebrated its first anniversary), then they deserve some sorta patronage from me.
That said, it’s like shopping with one hand tied behind my back, compared to using Amazon. I get to pay full price, wait several days for the book to arrive at the shop, and then drive 15 miles each way to pick it up.
So what did I make of Wise Blood? Well, I liked it more than Norm did, and think it was a much more accurate approach to life-with-religiosity-and-without-God than The Finkler Question. Can’t wait to talk about it next May/June!
This took me into December. After I finished the last book in the Dance, I thought I’d take it easy for the rest of the year. Then Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel died, and I got drawn right back into devouring books.
Scoop – Hitchens had praised Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel of muckraking London tabloids several times, so I gave this a read shortly after CH’s death. I’ve long regretted that I had no journalistic background before I became an editor. I think it would’ve helped my news/feature writing immeasurably, instead of the nondescript style I’ve employed for years. It probably also would’ve helped me to ask the right/tough questions during interviews. But here I am, a 17-year vet of the trade rag biz, so I must be doing something right.
In Waugh’s book, a “country life” columnist who lives in quiet seclusion (in a typically demented old money mansion) accidentally gets sent on assignment to darkest Africa to cover a civil war. When I write “darkest Africa,” I mean that Waugh comes off racist as fuck. If you can see past that, it’s a very funny novel, and Hitchens maintained that the behavior of reporters hadn’t changed in the decades since Scoop was published. Given the phone-hacking scandals embroiling Murdoch’s newspapers, we can see that the behavior just adapted for new technologies.
The Trial – I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of Kafka’s novels before this, just some of his shorter stuff. I cribbed some of my knowledge of his work from Introducing Kafka, a primer written by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Robert Crumb. Crumb’s adaptations of Kafka were gorgeous, but Mairowitz’s interpretations were a bit . . . pedestrian, I think.
I was prompted to start The Trial after I read this quote from Vaclav Havel in a New Yorker writeup:
“I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry to break rocks,” he told a startled audience at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, less than six months after taking office. “Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow-prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake.”
As someone who’s always considered himself a fraud and is so convinced that he’s going to be ground down by larger forces that he’s saved them the trouble by grinding himself down, I appreciated Havel’s position. What I didn’t get from past readings of shorter Kafka (A Hunger Artist, The Metamorphosis, et al.) was the sheer humor of his writing. Midway through The Trial, I thought, “Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays make so much more sense now.”
Sure, The Trial is an “unfinished” novel, just like The Castle, but their very nature shows that no conclusion is possible. These all-encompassing bureaucracies perpetuate an unknowable notion of power, because knowledge would strip it of its authority. So, instead of rooting for a persecuted character to triumph, the reader is left to laugh uncomfortably at the increasingly bizarre tableaux in which he’s placed.
Hitch-22 – Which brings us to the end of the of the year. I’m glad I wrapped up with this one. Hitchens’ memoir came out shortly before he was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that would lead to his death. Like many of the other books I read this year (including Keith Richards’ memoirs, which I have to get back to), it details post-war British life. Given that my mom was born in London during the war, I suppose there’s something meaningful about my interest in this period.
The book is written more loosely than Hitchens’ columns and book reviews. There’s more personal flair, more impression, more “I guess you had to be there”, less argumentation and less circumspection to the prose. It’s a refreshing style for the man who’s final essay collection is entitled Arguably.
The exception is the Iraq chapter, in which he brings his journalistic instincts to bear, likely to try to counter the impression that he was wrong about the invasion. He admits to not even thinking that the logistics of the post-war planning parameters, implications and possibilities would be so bungled by the Bush administration, and stands by his notion that it was correct to take Saddam Hussein out of power.
What I wonder about, and what I don’t think he wanted to address, was whether it would have been possible for this to be done “cleanly.” Just as he came around to understand that Stalinism was not an accident but a necessary result of Communism, is it true that any “regime change” operation by an outside power is necessarily going to become a godawful mess like we have in Iraq and Afghanistan? (The latter being more justifiable, since there wasn’t a real regime to change anyway.) Was it in the nature of Hitchens’ Trotskyism to believe in the viability of “imperialism for democracy”? I wish he’d have gone into this, because I do believe that the “Arab Spring” doesn’t happen without people seeing Hussein dragged out of a spider-hole and brought to “justice.” (Hitch-22 was written before aforementioned “Arab Spring,” of course.) But I also believe that other dictators saw that and doubled down on their own repressive forces, to try to keep such a thing from ever happening to them.
ANYWAY: outside of that chapter, I thought the book was fantastic. I enjoyed the literary scenesterism, the parlor games with Amis, Rushdie, Fenton and the like. The chapter about his late (1988) discovery of his Jewish roots was fascinating, inasmuch as he found himself somehow adopting Jewishness as a tenacious culture while remaining atheist and contending that Israel is essentially an outlaw state. (Which returns to those issues of religiosity, God/godlessness, and ethics, via Wise Blood and The Finkler Question, but in yet another direction.) I’m simplifying, but he doesn’t exactly get into the question of where Jews were supposed to go after the war. Except for the part about how Jews were co-opted into the ethnic cleansing practices of post-war Poland.
I found myself quite sad by the time I finished Hitch-22 (and this year), rent by the fragility of life, the voices that are stilled, the books left unwritten, the books left unread. I haven’t made any firm reading plans for 2012, certainly not on the scale of that Powell project, but I’m confident I’ll come up with something.
I hope you enjoyed this rambling recap, dear reader. I have a mild interest in other fields (sports, menswear, technology) but really, the only question I can ask to show that I care is, “What are you reading?”
[This was intended as a podcast, but I’ve been suffering from a headcold all week, and my voice is even worse than usual, so I decided to try to write instead.]
Virtual Memories is not exactly a model of search engine optimization. This is the blog where I spent around two years writing a recurring feature about Montaigne’s essays: not exactly a bikini-babe traffic-generator. (Although I’d say the majority of my google-linked visits seem to come from .edu addresses seeking out particular Montaigne essays; I think it’s awesome that my “insights” may have made their way into college kids’ papers.) I concluded a long time ago that my tastes just don’t jibe with that of a mainstream audience.
But I’ve been thinking a bit about audiences lately. I spent the previous week in NYC for a pharma conference. Several people I met told me that they receive my magazine at work and that my From the Editor column is the first thing they read. I’ve gotten this a bunch over the years, and it always makes me happy; I put some work into writing my editorials, trying my best not to do a “[topictopictopicblather], and on page 44, you’ll find [contributor]’s take on [topic]” recapitulation of the table of contents. So it’s nice to get recognized for that. I’m happy to have an audience. (And I’m happy to have you guys.)
Last Saturday, I had brunch with Samuel R. Delany (Chip), whom I used to publish back in my small-press-night-job days. Chip turned 69 on April Fool’s Day, so I tried to put a group together to celebrate. Various cancellations and illness (my wife) left it at me, Chip, his partner, Dennis, and our pal Vince, who introduced me to Chip almost 15 years ago.
I hadn’t seen any of them in a year, and we had a fun, rambling conversation. At one point, Chip mentioned that he has a new novel coming out next year, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. I asked if it was along the lines of The Mad Man, the book of his I reissued in 2002, which I describe as “a scatological queer porno literary theory murder mystery thriller,” and which an alumni of my grad school once called, “The War & Peace of s***-eating.” (I told him that I consider it “The Anna Karenina of p***-drinking BJ scenes,” and he agreed that was a better comparison.)
The new book, almost 700 pages long, will have plenty of scenes in the same vein, he said.
Sitting across the table from the Creole Santa, I asked, “Chip, who do you consider to be the audience for this book?”
Just so you know, I wasn’t passing a moral judgement on his sexual tastes nor his literary depictions thereof. I was just curious as to why, after writing The Mad Man and scads of other fiction along these lines, he was doing it again, and at such length. (I pre-emptively declared that I was not about to launch into the argument that commercial success is the arbitrator of art.)
He answered that these are the books that he wants to write and, more importantly, to read. He figures that there’s a decent-sized market for these interests of his (as well as people who aren’t as interested in the sex but still love to read work by him), and that it’s simply a matter of reaching them. I admitted that, of the five books I published during my run, The Mad Man was the best seller.
He has the freedom to write what he wants, having built an audience over the decades. And it’s not like he makes a living off his books; the bulk of his income derives from his professorship at Temple.
The other author at the table mentioned that his agent had recently sent out word to the other reps at her agency (and to authors) that editors at the major publishing houses were dismissing repped manuscripts unseen now, unless they were either movie- or TV-sellable, or the author had a sizeable internet following. Navel-gazing “literary fiction” was a non-seller and thus a non-starter.
Inwardly, I cheered.
It’s an audience I once belonged to, but seem to have grown out of. Having fallen out of my literary circles, I don’t know who does read that sorta thing anymore. There are audiences I’m just not a part of, and can’t identify with.
Which just means I live in relative isolation, not that these audiences have or have not withered away. It also doesn’t mean that it’s an either/or. The Venn diagrams can be pretty entertaining. As I wrote in 7 Rooms of Bloom:
I reflected on [Harold] Bloomâ€™s lifelong support of the New York Yankees. I told myself, â€œWhen you were drunk on Colt 45 in a Dallas hotel room, jumping up and down and cheering as Charlie Hayes caught the final out of the 1996 World Series, Harold Bloom was also cheering and . . . well, maybe not jumping up and down, drunk on Colt 45, but definitely celebrating.â€
After brunch, I took a walk through the city, bought some coffee beans, a bottle of Ethereal Gin, cheap clothes at Uniqlo, and a few remaindered copies of Clive James’ wonderful book, Cultural Amnesia, at St. Mark’s Books. There was a small rack of DVDs by the counter for impulse purchases. There, I noticed my brunch-mate gazing back at me. The Polymath, a 2007 documentary about Chip Delany, was in prominent position at the cashier. I thought, “The guy’s got an audience.”
A few days before brunch with Chip, I took Amy to see the revival of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia at the Barrymore Theater on Broadway. Arcadia is one of my favorite pieces of writing; I’ve read the play six or seven times since discovering it in 1995, but had never seen it staged. So, yes, this was a bucket-list item for me.
Among the hustle of ticket-holders entering the theater, I was glad that producers (read: people with money) felt that there’d be an audience for a challenging play (comedy? mystery? Stoppard calls it “a tragedy with jokes”) about Romanticism, British landscape gardening, Latin, fractal geometry, literary scholarship, and Byron. And I was even more gratified that the thousand-seat theater was packed. (I splurged on orchestra seats a few rows from the stage; they were almost as good as at the Tom Jones show I attended in Vegas in 2004.)
Watching the play that night (I’d re-read the weekend before, after giving up on Kerouac) I found myself wondering just how many of the references â€” the poetry and the maths, particularly â€” were out of the reach of some of the audience members. I’ve grown so accustomed to being around “normal” people that I had no idea how much of the play would zoom by the rest of the audience. Were they devotees like me? Were they there because it was “smart” Broadway? What did it mean to be part of that audience? Who pays Broadway prices to see Arcadia in 2011?
(You want a review? Billy Crudup was great, taking up the role of literary sleuth Bernard 15 years after he played the role of the tutor, Septimus Hodge. (I only wish I could have seen Billy Nighy play Bernard as he did in the first London run.) Lia Williams did a great job as Hannah, but missed the cue where she was supposed to slap Bernard, and tried to make up for it later, confusing Crudup for a moment. Grace Gummer was pretty entertaining and OHMYGODLOOKSEXACTLYLIKEHERMOTHER. Raul Esparza ran through some of his lines too quickly, which maybe he was supposed to do because his character’s a theoretical mathematician, but still. And I wanted to punch out the girl who played Thomasina from the moment she opened her mouth. Seriously, she almost wrecked the whole play for me, with her shrill, impatient delivery and frantic hand-gestures. I know she’s playing a precocious 13-year-old student in 1809, but the role has to be quieter. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve had the script silently playing in my head for 15 years now, and it wasn’t shrill there.)
To get back to my point, I’ve been thinking about audiences. The big news story here has been about Charlie Sheen’s disaster of a theater show, and whether anyone who pays money to see Charlie Sheen’s theater show has a right to expect, um, anything worthwhile.
I have my audience, both here and at my day job, where I’ve got 20,000 subscribers. Chip has his, and some of them stick with him through some unfriendly territory. Arcadia has its audience, and I belong to it.Â How do we find a voice, in all the cacophony? How do we dare presume that we’re worth listening to? It’s been 8+ years for me & this site, and that question’s arisen again and again.
Which brings me back here. The biggest surge this site ever got was when Instapundit linked to my post about Proust, Love, and That Damned Hegel Quote. (If you’d like a semi-podcast angle to this, here’s an audio recording of it from a few days ago. It’s about 6 minutes long, and 4.8mb.) It was only a few thousand visitors, since he posted the link on a New Year’s day, but I was amazed to see those numbers of people checking out something that’s ultimately a pretty personal post.
So thanks for reading, and thanks for coming back for more.