Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Books at Hand": James Wood, The "True Scholastic Stink," and the Common Reader

In my post on Zadie Smith's essay on essays and the novel, I complained that Smith confines her analysis of the history and current state of fiction to the titles and authors that come "off the top of her head," even to the extent that this breezy shallowness causes her to ignore the highly relevant arguments from a much more deeply considered essay that she herself had written only one year earlier (one which received a great deal of notice). I speculated that Smith might have been influenced or inspired by James Wood's "A Note on Footnotes and Dates" which prefaces his How Fiction Works, where he says,
As a teenager I was very taken by the rather fancy note to Ford Madox Ford's The English Novel: "This book was written in New York, aboard the S.S. Patria, and in the port and neighbourhood of Marseilles during July and August 1927." I cannot claim any proximate glamour, nor a similar feat of library-less memory, but in the spirit of Ford, I can say that I have used only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study—to produce this little volume.
I read this as a rather absurd brag, a chest-thumping assertion of authority and erudition. Daniel Pritchard pointed out in a comment that another (quite reasonable) way of reading it is to focus not on the author but on the audience—Wood may be not so much making a claim about what he can do as what his intended audience would like, or what they're willing to tolerate. Or, as he says, "Mindful of the common reader, I have tried to reduce what Joyce called the 'true scholastic stink' to bearable levels." (The link is to the page in Portrait where the phrase is used. Stephen and his friends are in fact referring to a more specific form of Aristotelian/Thomistic scholasticism and not to scholarly activity in general, but nevermind.)

So evidently, Wood's disciplined confinement of his texts to those "at hand in my study" is a sort of favor to the common reader, but what kind of favor is it? If this is an attempt to address a preference on the part of the common reader, what preference is being assumed?

One way to read this is  as simply a bit of populist posturing: "I, James Wood, may be pedantic, but I'm not an egghead." Yet tucking footnotes and other more formal scholarly apparatuses away when producing a work aimed at a general audience is a fairly common practice even among eggheads, even to the extent that some (e.g., John Boswell, the Time on the Cross folks) have been sorely taken to task for doing so, as their popularizing comes more to look like trying to bury shoddy scholarship. At any rate, I'm not sure that we can completely chalk up Wood's fear that footnotes and other things might scare the common reader away to an anti-academic populism; the idea that footnotes might derail the common reader is itself too common to be sufficient evidence against Wood.

More particularly, then: perhaps what is being dispensed with in his self-confinement to his "books at hand" is not so much footnotes as it is archival research, stuff that obligates you to walk out of your personal library and to somebody else's (his employer Harvard's, maybe) much bigger library. Now, the attitude that extensive, fastidious, and highly inefficient archival research might annoy or overwhelm the common reader might seem to be a natural extension or corollary of the Fear of Footnotes principle, but I am skeptical. For one thing, two genres which seem to be very popular among common readers—the biography and the historical novel—are not only praised for their depth of research, but an attitude of indifference or aversion to archival work seems almost alien to these genres—one expects that if a writer takes up one of these projects, they are also taking up (gladly, one hopes) the obligation of extensive, fastidious, and highly inefficient research.

Perhaps it is not research itself that Wood is saving the common reader from, but the natural consequence of a lot of boring research: a boring style. He could be saying something like, "I didn't spend all my time in a dusty library, so I can actually talk to you in language you'll understand and enjoy." However, for reasons similar to those I gave to undermine the supposition of some natural antipathy to the inclusion of research, I'm not sure that this connection between dusty libraries and graceless styles is quite so immediately made, as there are ample and popular cases of erudition worn lightly—again, biographies and historical novels, but also technothrillers and hard sci-fi and even, to some lesser extent, spy thrillers are highly visible examples of research being embedded in highly captivating narratives and a variety of styles.

If not scholarly apparatuses or research or dull style that Wood is saving us from, maybe it's simply the books that he has saved himself from: the books he has kept out of his personal library are the books he assumes the common reader also wishes to avoid. But then what books are these? Defined negatively, it is not just (as one might initially assume) aridly theoretical monographs and journals that Wood eschews, but also the vast majority of actual literature: not only does his book leave untouched many major authors, but also most of the secondary (and even some primary) works of the authors he does cover: one might quite reasonably question why As I Lay Dying is the only Faulkner novel he finds useful to his project, or why Mrs. Dalloway is not part of his consideration of Virginia Woolf (or of fiction in general).

I do not mean to imply that Wood's personal library likely does not contain Dalloway or Sound and the Fury; all I mean to imply is what was probably obvious at the outset, that Wood's self-restriction to the "books at hand" is a sort of material synechdoche for "books I think about," which is itself a way of saying "books I think are worth thinking about." In other words, rather than being a proper treatise on the mechanics of fiction, How Fiction Works is written largely for the same reasons an 800-word review is: to share, exercise, develop, and test taste and literary judgment publicly. The book's utility is not so much predicated on what it says about the work of fiction as it is on which fictional works it says anything about at all. The "favor" Wood is doing the common reader is, as we may have suspected, necessarily not a function of research but of taste—informed taste, but not over-informed.

But why is taste so important here? It is important because it sets what look like natural boundaries around what needs to be learned, what needs to be read, what needs to be known. The blather about "true scholastic stink" is, I think, a screen for this fairly utilitarian purpose—it's a backwards way of asserting that there is some finite set of "books at hand" which will make you a sufficiently educated or erudite person, that education is a process with a terminus, and that you can reach it. (Previous versions of this include the Adlerian Great Books program, the St. Johns College curriculum, and the Harvard Classics.) The "common reader" is, for some (though certainly not for all—other people, like Woolf obviously, have other definitions), basically a person who wants to believe that they can reach a point of either completion or satisfaction in their learning about literature. As such, I don't have much use for the concept, but clearly a lot of other people, including James Wood, do.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Zadie Smith's Essay on Essays: Off with the Top of Her Head

Zadie Smith suffers from "novel-nausea."
A response in the form of cantankerism:
A new book by the American novelist-essayist David Shields (to be published here by Hamish Hamilton early next year) makes the case for irregularity. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call "truthiness" – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an "unbearably artificial world". He recommends instead that artists break "ever larger chunks of 'reality' into their work", via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It's a tribute to Shields's skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect "built" rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement.
I guess we're unfamiliar with Walter Benjamin
Generally speaking, there are few things more exciting to a certain kind of writing student than the news that the imaginative novel is dead (with all its vulgar, sentimental, "bourgeois" – and hard to think up – plots, characters and dialogue). When your imagination fails you it's a relief to hear that it need no longer be part of a novelist's job description.
Generally speaking, there are few things less exciting to me than speaking with one of these people.
A bad novel is both an aesthetic and ethical affront to its readers, because it traduces reality, and does indeed make you hunger for a kind of writing that seems to speak truth directly. But I also feel, as someone who just finished a book of more or less lyrical essays, that underneath some of these high-minded objections, and complementary to them, there is another, deeper, psychological motivation, about which it is more difficult to be honest. In "The Modern Essay" Virginia Woolf is more astute on the subject, and far more frank. "There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay," she writes. "The essay must be pure – pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter." Well, yes, that's just it. An essay, she writes, "can be polished till every atom of its surface shines" – yes, that's it, again.
This paragraph-shard is the finest imitation of James Wood I have yet seen. Smith's internalization of Wood's voice has become surreal.

Okay, enough of that. More seriously, it is extraordinary that Smith seems to have basically forgotten the entirety of her argument in the essay from almost exactly one year ago on the "Two Paths for the Novel" (which I responded to here). The idea that novels aren't just one thing (the well-made novel) re-surfaces in this essay, but rather than the astringent certitude of the earlier essay's emphasis on two highly developed lines of descent (with rare but highly fruitful cross-pollination), she takes refuge in high generality: "the 'well-made novel' seems to me to be a kind of Platonic bogeyman."  She seems to have misplaced the whole "path"—what she referred to as "that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard"—which she traced to Tom McCarthy's Remainder. Or rather, it is nearly wholly absent—Ballard (and later Perec) makes a re-appearance, but look at how she introduces him:
Every now and then a writer renews your faith. I'm looking around my desk at this moment for books that have had this effect on me in the not-too-distant past: Bathroom and Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, Number9Dream by David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel's An Experiment in Love, Dennis Cooper's My Loose Thread, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, the collected short stories of JG Ballard.
Emphasis added, but not really too necessary: the whole essay reeks of this breeziness. This informal catalogue is echoed in the penultimate paragraph by another one: "Off the top of my head: David Markson's Reader's Block, Peter Handke's The Weight of the World, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, Georges Perec's Species of Spaces and Other Pieces and Kafka's own Blue Octavo Notebooks . . ."

This is, in fact, the problem: the whole essay reads as if it were written completely off the top of her head to the extent that it doesn't even take into consideration what she has written about before that might plausibly illuminate, substantiate, add depth to, or at the very least extend the points she is trying to make now. The current essay is so jittery and shallow that I can't even tell if it might actually be subtly trying to back away from the "Two Paths" essay—I suspect it is, but there isn't enough there to tell.

It is of course ironic on a meta-level that this all is occurring in a piece which asserts that what defines the essay is its perfectibility (cf. the V. Woolf quotes above). And Smith can write much better, more thoughtful essays, like the one on E. M. Forster. Again, I detect the influence of James Wood and his by-now-infamous self-trumpeting from the "Note on Footnotes and Dates" in How Fiction Works:
As a teenager I was very taken by the rather fancy note to Ford Madox Ford's The English Novel: "This book was written in New York, aboard the S.S. Patria, and in the port and neighbourhood of Marseilles during July and August 1927." I cannot claim any proximate glamour, nor a similar feat of library-less memory, but in the spirit of Ford, I can say that I have used only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study—to produce this little volume.
I'd like to point out that the bit quoted doesn't actually deny that Ford might have consulted a book or two in preparing the study (unfortunately, The English Novel cannot be searched satisfactorily through Google Books, so I can't at the moment check the full reference).  But the larger point is that this kind of pointless braggadocio might be catching: "let me just pontificate about the historical development or current situation of the novel using what flies from the top of my head" might be heard coming from more and more supposed experts on literature.

Before someone points it out for me, let me address the obvious hypocrisy of a blogger (particularly this blogger, and particularly given the flippancy of my first few comments on her essay) calling out someone for off-the-cuff grand theorizing. Obviously, this activity is pursued frequently and, in some cases, fruitfully, particularly so in the already quite informal arena of blogging, where shorthand and generalizations may be (and should be) spurs to more sustained work or thought elsewhere. But there is an understanding—at least in how I try to think of it—that this off-the-cuffery is not a substitute for that later work and thought, nor that it is to be valorized in its own right. Writing a book about capital-F Fiction without making use of the bounty of the library that Wood's employer maintains (that would be Harvard, for those keeping score at home) is not some He-Man-of-Letters feat of prodigious intellect, it's a damn shame.

Maybe we could consider Smith's effort a blog post; maybe she delivers, as she did with the Forster essay, in the collection of essays she's publishing soon. I hope so, not just because I want to see writers like her resisting this pull toward dilettantism that Wood may have established but also because I think Smith, as with her fiction, is extraordinarily good when she concentrates. When it's "off the top of her head"—not so much.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reprise, Joachim Trier (2006)


The experience of watching coming of age films as one is actually coming of age is well-suited for embarrassment. E.g., I own (somewhere—I hope I lost it) a copy of Zach Braff's Garden State. I had a better than tepid reaction to The Rules of Attraction. I had a Rushmore poster for years.

And so by the time I watched Reprise, I had learned not to trust my instincts, a condition which made watching the film both sort of pleasantly difficult and unpleasantly easy. Reprise seemed (and probably was) tailor-made for me or for people (or let's be honest, for young men—like other sadyoungliterarymen tales, this one is shameless about its gender exclusivity) like me, even though it also initiated a quiet burst of self-evaluation and more than a little self-doubt—I knew I could not entirely trust my instincts regarding it, but how little could I trust them?

The film is about the triumphs and travails of two aspirant authors—young, handsome, privileged and not uncomfortable about it—as they effectively live out Keats's sonnet:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piléd books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
Love and fame—absolutely.

The ambivalence and self-doubt of the poem is well reflected in the film: there is—on both the characters' and the director's part— a constant wavering between assertions of true brilliance and tremulous acknowledgments that what looked at first to be brilliant may be merely clever. Bids for virtuosity, as in the opening scene, get reined abruptly in, only to be loosed once more on different, maybe only slightly less ambitious grounds. Let's take a look at the opening scenes (skip to the 0:45 mark—you'll bypass the corporate logos):
The way the collaborative reverie of the two writers is cut off abruptly into the title card will likely induce a laugh, especially as it cuts short the increasingly ludicrous ambitions of the swelling fantasy (a revolution in East Africa?). Then we are back (a reprise!) at the post-box, waiting for the young men to drop their manuscripts in, and the rest of the film is, effectively, the "reality" that replaces their reverie.

Yet the film itself—and the characters' actual lives themselves—is unsubtly ambitious, not so much a retraction as a very slight chastening of the initial, boundless dream. While the film depicts disillusionment, the film itself is not a disillusioning experience or process; it never retreats into irony and only mutters a terse apology for its earnestness. The bulk of the film—the lives as the characters live them—is a reprise of the opening sequence, and that can be winked at but need not be disavowed.

So this all is far from Braffian "The Shins will save your life" shallow oh-so-meaningfulness, but the question that haunts the film—or haunted this viewer at any rate—is how far—is the distance a clever distance, a knowingness that folds over into self-knowingness, a knowledge of the self-indulgence and self-absorption that prompts these very questions? Or is it far enough away—above maybe—to be brilliant, a distance at which self-indulgence and self-absorption are, if not fully justified, then at least suitable to the material?

What the film depicts so well—and what makes it both uncomfortable and pleasantly familiar—is the instability and recursiveness of these two questions—clever? brilliant? It is almost impossible to watch the film without asking these questions about oneself, and about one's relation to the film—is the distance from me to the film a clever distance, or am I far enough away to be brilliant?

I suppose these questions are not very polite, or gracious, or very wise to be explicit about. But the posing of them is, I hope, a part of maturation, rather than a defense against it. One could not really imagine a young man's realm more antipodal to the world of Reprise than Seth Rogen's collected works. Taking one's measure against the facts and products of the world and of other minds in some manner, though it may devolve into occasional petty posturing or occasional complete lapses of judgment, seems like the only way one can ever finally measure up, can figure out how to interact with those other minds, moving not beyond them but into their conversations. The objective, it seems to me (although what do I know?), is to obviate the felt necessity of "clever-or-brilliant?" calibrations of the self in and to the world and to actually engage with it. Reprise does not, I think, quite imagine that, but it points the way.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"The Choosing," by Liz Lochhead

From Memo for Spring, 1972:
"The Choosing"

We were first equal Mary and I
with the same coloured ribbons in mouse-coloured hair
and with equal shyness
we curtseyed to the lady councillor
for copies of Collins’s Children Classics.
First equal, equally proud.

Best friends too Mary and I
a common bond in being cleverest (equal)
in our small school’s small class.
I remember
the competition for top desk
or to read aloud the lesson
at school service.
And my terrible fear
of her superiority at sums.

I remember the housing scheme
Where we both stayed.
The same house, different homes,
where the choices were made.

I don’t know exactly why they moved,
but anyway they went.
Something about a three-apartment
and a cheaper rent.
But from the top deck of the high school bus
I’d glimpse among the others on the corner
Mary’s father, mufflered, contrasting strangely
with the elegant greyhounds by his side.
He didn’t believe in high school education,
especially for girls,
or in forking out for uniforms.

Ten years later on a Saturday —
I am coming home from the library —
sitting near me on the bus,
Mary
with a husband who is tall,
curly haired, has eyes
for no one else but Mary.
Her arms are round the full-shaped vase
that is her body.
Oh, you can see where the attraction lies
in Mary’s life —
not that I envy her, really.

And I am coming from the library
with my arms full of books.
I think of the prizes that were ours for the taking
and wonder when the choices got made
we don’t remember making.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Housekeeping


Well, it looks like this blog has hit the big time: the spambots have decided Blographia Literaria is worth commenting on. So now enjoy word verification. Sorry for any inconvenience, &c.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More from Three Lives, by Gertrude Stein


One of the best lyrical passages in the book:
The languor and the stir, the warmth and weight and the strong feel of life from the deep centers of the earth that comes always with the early, soaking spring, when it is not answered with an active fervent joy, gives always anger, irritation and unrest.
One of the persistent themes of Three Lives is the shifting power dynamics of an intimate relationship between two people. The following highly acute passage traces one such shift:
Of course Anna gave the money for this thing though she could not believe that it was best. No, it was very bad. Mrs. Lehntman could never make it pay and it would cost so much to keep. But what could our poor Anna do? Remember Mrs. Lehntman was the only romance Anna ever knew. 

Anna’s strength in her control of what was done in Mrs. Lehntman’s house, was not now what it had been before that Lily’s little Johnny came. That thing had been for Anna a defeat. There had been no fighting to a finish but Mrs. Lehntman had very surely won.

Mrs. Lehntman needed Anna just as much as Anna needed Mrs. Lehntman, but Mrs. Lehntman was more ready to risk Anna’s loss, and so the good Anna grew always weaker in her power to control.

In friendship, power always has its downward curve. One’s strength to manage rises always higher until there comes a time one does not win, and though one may not really lose, still from the time that victory is not sure, one’s power slowly ceases to be strong. It is only in a close tie such as marriage, that influence can mount and grow always stronger with the years and never meet with a decline. It can only happen so when there is no way to escape.

Friendship goes by favor. There is always danger of a break or of a stronger power coming in between. Influence can only be a steady march when one can surely never break away.
[Image is Romare Bearden, Morning of Red Bird, 1975]

Friday, November 13, 2009

Updating "Melodramas of Beset Manhood," by Nina Baym

Aaron has brought up Nina Baym's canonical essay "Melodramas of Beset Manhood" twice recently—once w/r/t Mark Greif's essay on the struggle for gay marriage and then again in discussing the Publishers Weekly epic fail of coming up with a male-only shortlist for 2009. Not having read the essay (despite its presence in the embarrassingly mostly-unread anthology I own called Locating American Studies), I decided I better get down to it.

Having done so, I certainly share in Aaron's enthusiasm for the essay—some 28 years later (that sounds like a zombie film), it's still a bracing rush of argument and still feels largely on target, perhaps because its targets are still mostly at large. It has also, however, been frequently criticized in the intervening years for being largely blind to race—its feminism is very white—and for still not really finding any place in American fiction for the gay writer or for gay themes.

But because it still has such capacity for generating enthusiasm and a feeling of recognition ("yep, guess we still do that"), I would like to see if I can think through its major claims here in light of the American fiction of the past ten year and the general position of the woman writer in America today. My objective is not so much to read Baym's essay freshly as to read the past decade's American fiction using a(n arguably) still serviceable model.

A very short essay commenting on "Melodramas" in the aforementioned Locating American Studies anthology summarizes Baym's main argument succinctly:
She argues that male literary critics' theories about what constitutes the best of American literature—and thus what characterizes the writing worthy of inclusion in the Ameican literary canon—have been hopelessly gender-biased. Influential critics have defined the central myth of American culture as the struggle of an (implicitly male) individual against the natural world of the wilderness and the constraints of society, both of which are coded as female. The "best" American literature, according to these critics, exemplifies this myth.
A couple of supporting points need to be added from the essay itself to flesh this out: first, Baym's focus is on the themes present in American literary criticism; her argument is not so much that American novelists have written books that inevitably feature men as protagonists and women as either representative of the "entrammeling" forces of society or the landscape, but that this is the only way that American literary critics have thought of books which they consider great, and that any book which absolutely cannot be re-shaped to fit this narrative (the majority of which will be by women, and constituting the vast majority of women's fiction) will be rejected as inferior or will simply be ignored. A good example of this is The Scarlet Letter, which she points out has often been re-imagined by critics as if Dimmesdale is the true protagonist, not Hester; that he is the one with the human drama and she is merely caught in an allegorical or mythic drama. Thus and only thus, does the novel fit the American myth, and because The Scarlet Letter is a demonstrable masterpiece, it must be.

Second, American literary critics have tended to emphasize that the "best" or "greatest" American literature is also the "most American" literature—the literature which best expresses the "American ideal" or the "American mind" or spirit or character or what-have-you. So the project of canon-formation is identical with the project of defining a unified "American character" or a universally underlying "American mind," categories which these literary critics (D. H. Lawrence, Lionel Trilling, the myth and symbol school, F. O. Matthiessen, et al.) have basically assembled themselves to give a sense of impermeable continuity among the American writers they consider "great." If that sounds circular, it's because it is: theories of what constitutes great American literature proceed from a set of writers already selected for various reasons, and then those theories are used to judge whether writers not at first considered fit the narrative. You start out, say, with Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Whitman, imagine not only the real historical connections between them but a spiritual-artistic unity floating through each, and then you try it on others: does Theodore Dreiser share in this unity? No, throw him out. Edith Wharton? No, throw her out. Scott Fitzgerald? Maybe yes!

So, taking as our quarry literary criticism that has attempted to identify not only the best novels but the "most American" novels (even if they're not always labeled such explicitly), let's glance over the last decade. The point is to see if the novels that have been acclaimed as the decade's "great" literature are still being so acclaimed because they fit the myth Baym critiques. Let me say before things get out of hand, though, that I am not attacking these novels; in fact, many of them are among my unambiguous and unconflicted favorites of the decade. Others aren't, and I bet you can tell which ones, but my dislike for them isn't comprehensively premised on the ease with which they can be assimilated to the American myth Baym describes. Okay, first stop, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.

The fact that there can be said to be multiple protagonists (one of whom is a woman) seems to mitigate against fitting the novel in perfectly. But then let's remember that the focus usually rests on Chip Lambert's narrative, one which absolutely lives up to the myth: Are women seen as the entrammeling forces of society? Major check: he's screwed a female student and is in trouble; his mom nags him persistently. Does the protagonist make an effort to shed these woman-forged manacles and light out for the territory? Check! He scampers away to Lithuania. And while he does re-enter the domestic sphere willingly at the end of the novel, it is clear to all that his new-found stability is due entirely to his completion of the American myth: if he hadn't gone through the whole experience of screwing his student and fleeing to Vilnius, he couldn't be happy now. Most reviews gravitated to this storyline: I expect that if Franzen had not written it, but instead had written a novel "just" about a lesbian chef (Chip's sister Denise), it wouldn't be called the most characteristic novel of the Bush years.

Next up (this will not necessarily go in chronological order): The Human Stain, by Philip Roth. Is there a book published this decade which features a more vicious portrayal of an "encroaching, constricting, destroying" woman than Roth's Delphine Roux, the French professor who does, in this morality play, in fact represent the forces of a psychotically politically correct society? The fact that this novel wasn't laughed off the pages of every book review in the country but was instead taken as some sort of reasonable parable of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and the resulting legal proceedings (which were prosecuted almost entirely by Congressmen, by a male special prosecutor, and by conservative male pundits) is, I think, a pretty strong example of the way that great American novels are just expected to conform to the American myth and transmute any messy facts into its timeless tropes: woman as society, men as beset but struggling to break free.

Netherland: In a slight twist, the male protagonist doesn't leave his wife (she leaves him), but her absence allows him to go out and look for America. Netherland, perhaps more than any other novel published this decade, was cheered and welcomed by American critics for being an American Novel, so close to The Great Gatsby that it is necessary to mention its resemblance in nearly every review. In fact we find we even have to (in fact we're glad to!) shrug off the fact that other countries might have a slightly stronger claim to it: that it is as more of a British novel or a European novel than it is an American novel. Nope, our critics say, it's ours because it fits our myth, and Europe can't have it back.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union: Besides the fact that Chabon's most recent book is called Manhood for Amateurs, we have in this novel a male protagonist with a threatening ex-wife, a plot angle that serves as a constant obstacle to Landsmann's attempt to solve the mystery at the heart of the novel. In the reviews I've read, this spousal conflict tends to get more play than the (arguably) much bigger threat of American policy and the weight of a tragic history and the messianic promise: The Yiddish Policeman's Union just doesn't work as well as an American Novel if the main antagonist is the American government, but it works great if the protagonist is struggling with marital problems. For instance, read Michiko Kakutani's review: she dismisses the stuff about "the highest levels of the United States government" as "too far-fetched to be plausible," but she takes extra care to describe the particulars of Landsmann's conflict with his wife—evidently, Bina is the bigger and more credible threat, the more effective nemesis.

The Road: Like many another American classic, women are entirely banished from the space of the novel (except in memory, which the film plays up—an interesting tangent is the way the American myth changes when it is put on film). The absence of women is the obvious pre-condition for the particular action of the novel: if the child were a girl (or the father were replaced by a mother), the story probably would not even work.

The Lazarus Project: There are two storylines and both have elements of the American myth, but the stronger is definitely the present-day one, where we find a crumbling marriage which the protagonist flees from with a male companion. Self-discovery (including the discovery that the marriage is definitively over) and personal growth ensue, now that the protagonist is unencumbered by women/American society.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Here, Oscar's virginity is the vehicle of the woman-as-entrammeling society motif. While there are luminous passages in the novel describing the actions, emotions, and consciousnesses of the female characters, Oscar becomes a sort of American Hero—and earns his place in the title of the book—by overcoming the massed forces of femininity by finally getting laid. Oh, and reading comic books. If Oscar didn't exist in this novel, and exist as a character so assimilable to the American myth, would it be so acclaimed?

And I don't even really want to talk about Indecision (which features a threatening woman-as-society subplot in the form of the protagonist's incestuous attraction to his sister) and All the Sad Young Literary Men: while not exactly considered by anyone as the greatest novels of the past decade, they were produced by two men who have basically revived the project of Trilling-like (or Partisan Review-like) criticism in America and who have received significant amounts of attention for doing so. At any rate, there may be no two books of the past ten years more intentionally constructed to fit into the American myth than these two; reading them, I often had the feeling that the point of writing them seemed to be to create a literature which would support a rebirth of Trillingian criticism.

There are others, I'm sure, which could be similarly glossed, but I imagine I've made my point, or made enough of a point that we can argue over some particulars. Add some titles to the list, tell me I've read these wrong, but it seems to me that the literary critical project of reading American fiction according to this American myth still sets the table for what we will be served as the "best American fiction."

The Devil Wears Prada, David Frankel (2006)


(In selecting this still from the film I realized I am posting on two Emily Blunt films in a row, which was not intentional. Oh well.)

I don't really have much to say about the film as a whole—it's competent—but I do want to dig out one brief interchange in the film which was frankly one of the most thought-provoking I had in a movie theater during the past few years. Here's the video:



And here's the text:
Miranda: This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
Walking into the film, I was most certainly of the general opinion which Anne Hathaway's character (appropriately named Andy) expresses with her little derisive snort: the fashion industry is completely disconnected from the rather mundane but serviceable wardrobe I have—I exist completely untouched by it, am exempt from it. It is not even so much a question of my taste differing from, say, Tom Ford—differing assumes the possibility of co-existence, and as far as I was concerned, Ford and I dress ourselves on different planets.

I wouldn't say that this little interchange—or rather Streep's extremely cogent declamation—exactly opened my eyes to my intricate imbrication in the fashion industry, but the line about the millions of dollars and countless jobs was a nice little meta-comment about the experience of watching a movie that I was also thinking was completely unrelated not only to the demographics to which I belong but, more particularly and more narcissistically, to me. The fact of the capital and labor power expended in producing this film placed me in a relationship to it that in a very real sense trumped taste: the desire to separate myself on the grounds of taste from this specific film (or to believe myself already separated from it) is a rather embarrassingly empty gesture in comparison with the sheer fact that I was watching a film, and thus participating in the more general order of production and consumption which has made this particular film possible.

In other words, no matter how picky I am about what films I watch (just the flip side of "no matter how casual I am about selecting my clothes"), which films I watch are of lesser importance to how many films I watch or how I watch them (at home or in theaters) or the fact that I watch films at all, rather than reading only books, or watching only television. The scrabble for individual taste is always an ant's-eye-view of one's real participation in a much larger ecosystem. Smirking at my non-belonging or atypicality relative to the rest of the movie theater crowd of Devil Wears Prada is as pointless and self-delusive as Andy's smug assumption that her sartorial blandness is an effective means of separating herself from the world of haute couture. The workers and the money that stand in between her "lumpy blue sweater" and Oscar de la Renta are a stronger link than can ever be severed by taste, or the lack thereof.

My point is not that you cannot avoid or get outside "the system" but rather that we quite often focus on the (largely imagined) ways we try to cordon off a pure corner of the system ("I only watch independently produced films; I only read books published by small presses"). Obviously there is a strategic (and sometimes real) value to things like boycotts, but I am more thinking about how our positive decisions—what we do buy, what we do watch or read—weigh in our mind as something efficacious and even virtuous without thinking about how connected any form of consumption may still be to a larger system, to those "millions of dollars and countless jobs" Anne Hathaway's character thinks disappeared or never existed, which connect her and Miranda.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

From Three Lives, by Gertrude Stein


Melanctha liked to wander, and to stand by the rail-road yard, and watch the men and the engines and the switches and everything that was busy there, working. Railroad yards are a ceaseless fascination. They satisfy every kind of nature. For the lazy man whose blood flows very slowly, it is a steady soothing world of motion which supplies him with the sense of a strong moving power. He need not work and yet he has it very deeply; he has it even better than the man who works in it or owns it. Then for natures that like to feel emotion without the trouble of having any suffering, it is very nice to get the swelling in the throat, and the fullness, and the heart beats, and all the flutter of excitement that comes as one watches the people come and go, and hears the engine pound and give a long drawn whistle. For a child watching through a hole in the fence above the yard, it is a wonder world of mystery and movement. The child loves all the noise, and then it loves the silence of the wind that comes before the full rush of the pounding train, that bursts out from the tunnel where it lost itself and all its noise in darkness, and the child loves all the smoke, that sometimes comes in rings, and always puffs with fire and blue color.

For Melanctha the yard was full of the excitement of many men, and perhaps a free and whirling future.
 [The painting is by Palmer Hayden—it's a railroad project, not a railroad yard, I know, but I really liked it. The title is "The Big Bend Tunnel" and the date completed was 1944.]

Friday, November 6, 2009

Some More on The Golden Notebook

I cross-posted my entry on The Golden Notebook over at The Valve, and the comments there have led me to (hopefully) a better definition of what I meant by a "pure novel" and what I find problematic about Lessing's 1971 introduction.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Metaphysics of Yankee-Hating


For awhile there (ca. Oct. 20, 2004 - Nov. 1, 2009), I honestly thought that the New York Yankees might never win another World Series in my lifetime. It was irrational and fairly dumb, but something during that time about how the internal logic of baseball seemed to be working allowed me to believe that the Yankees simply could not win a World Series under contemporary conditions. The shape of the broader narrative of baseball in this time—the integration of sabermetrics into all facets of the game (particularly fandom) and the consequent general devaluation of image—led me to believe that a team that still seemed to be playing the game and building their roster as if cameras and headlines were what decided titles—such a team could not triumph.

By the general devaluation of image I mean the paradigm shift that has taken place in the understanding of how to assess production and, to maybe a lesser extent, talent. The intuitive language of the scout's eye has been replaced by the almost humorously arcane jargon of the sabermetrician, the guy who can not watch the game but can with the aid of increasingly sophisticated instruments for recording pitch-by-pitch data tell you who's not swinging at the right pitches, who's throwing too many off-speed pitches, whose slump is temporary, and who needs to be benched.

Or maybe it's not image that has been rejected, but the idea of fluidity as the unit of analysis. Motions—pitching, batting, throwing, even watching the pitch—are disaggregated into discrete, precise elements to a fetishistic degree, rationalizing or even Taylorizing processes which for a long time seemed like they were at their best when they were at their most poetic, least mechanical (Charlie Gehringer to the contrary).

Either way, the Yankees assumed a position of not just villainy but almost blasphemy, of satanism: this was an organization that, no matter whether it ever adopted sabermetrics and other related studies, did so still under the banner of the image, of fluidity (capital and labor moving in and out lubriciously), of what they looked like in the camera's eye or underneath the headline. Victories on the field were to be produced by victories in the press—boffo free agent signings, prima donna players, inter-family power struggles—in short, by dominating the attention of the media. It is of absolutely no relevance if the Yankees only differ in degree from the Red Sox or other big spenders in terms of how they ran their club; they always seem to wish to differ in kind, as if being a baseball team in a baseball league isn't all they are, as if what happens in the media has a reality beyond what happens on the field.

This attitude isn't supposed to produce championships. This strategy isn't supposed to win. Not now, not knowing what we know about how much of what defines and produces success isn't what the headlines cover. Baseball is a game about solid, unassuming middle relief, and the Yankees are Joba fucking Chamberlain. How can that possibly work out?

There are terabytes worth of reasons for hating the New York Yankees—historical, personal, ethical, spiritual, aesthetic, maybe sexual—but now there's one more: the metaphysical. Winning the World Series is a gash in the fabric of both justice and reality. This simply shouldn't have happened.

Later (11/6): Let's hear it for the 'Nays!' 17 Congressional Representatives voted against House Resolution 893, "[c]ongratulating the 2009 Major League Baseball World Series Champions, the New York Yankees." I now have 17 new favorite politicians. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing

Before I begin my griping on what some may find to be a point unrelated to the novel itself, let me say that The Golden Notebook is astonishing on every level; I have read few novels which strike me both emotionally and intellectually with equal force. Which is not to say that it is a "novel of ideas" or a "novel of emotions"—if I were to think of a book I would feel almost comfortable calling "a pure novel" (a term which I inveterately distrust), this would be it. I certainly don't guarantee its appeal to all audiences—I imagine the repetitious dilations on the nature of activity within the Communist Party or among socialists will seem merely repetitious to some, and the swirling cast of deficient men provoked more than a few sighs of frustration from me—but I imagine there will be some readers who, like me, will like it a lot.

Onto the gripe.

In her 1971 introduction, Lessing says [I'm going to skip around a bit in the introduction, but it will be better, I think, just to get all the quotes I want together now rather than spread them out over a number of paragraphs]:
[T]he book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war… But this novel was not a trumpet for Women's Liberation… Some books are not read in the right way because they have skipped a stage of opinion, assume a crystallisation of information in society which has not yet taken place. This book was written as if the attitudes that have been created by the Women's Liberation movements already existed… I was so immersed in writing this book, that I didn't think about how it might be received… Emerging from this crystallising process [of intense focus purely on the writing of the novel], handing the manuscript to publisher and friends, I learned that I had written a tract about the sex war, and fast discovered that nothing I said then could change that diagnosis.
I naturally chafe at the sound of an author asserting her sole and sovereign ability to interpret her book, but I think this particular instance (the introduction as a whole and these lines specifically) is a fairly egregious example. Lessing's book is, after all, about the condition that was called the sex war in the media and in the popular imagination of the time—it is about the ethical and rhetorical conflict of whether or not women could define themselves in ways not controlled or determined by men. What her disavowal of that theme (or its centrality) performs is not so much an effort to redefine the novel's content as it is an assertion of its unrelatedness to the other events, persons, and statements that created the context of the "sex war." That is, Lessing is trying less to deny that the novel is about a conflict between men and women than she is trying to say that her depiction of that conflict has nothing whatsoever to do with, for instance, Billie Jean King playing and beating Bobby Riggs. Her novel is, in other words, about what the "sex war" was about, but it is not "a novel about the sex war." It is a novel about the same object, but emphatically not the same context.

That denial of context is placed in time in an interesting (if rather clichéd) way: it has "skipped a stage of opinion," a notion which has a strong and doubtlessly intentional Marxian undertone to it. Lessing's novel can have no context because it is not a novel that is produced within the current stage; it is thus inevitably misread, since no one (evidently) can read as if they existed in the next stage—one can only skip a stage by writing. This elevation of the author carries a blunt force of intimidation: arguing against it makes you automatically retrograde, reactionary, blinkered and provincial.

Lessing therefore allows herself to resent the novel's use as a "weapon in the sex war" (a locution which again recalls Marxism's "art as a weapon in the class struggle") without thinking of herself as breaking solidarity with women because her novel simply isn't of the same time, and therefore any use of it for any purpose—no matter how noble or correct—is inappropriate as long as it remains locked within the stage which the novel already skipped. It is not a question of politics or even of art, but a question of time: it was simply not time for the novel to be used.

I think, as you might imagine, that this is kind of bullshit. For one thing, I question the whole idea that a political use of a book absolutely negates its aesthetic value (the basic fear which necessitates Lessing's removal of her book into another time). This view probably has everything to do with her immersion in the doctrines of socialist realism, but what is obvious about her cutting observations of the products of that genre is that aesthetics is never truly suspended by politics, no matter how firm one's commitments are. Politicized novels may be evaluated publicly on extra-aesthetic grounds, but few if any are ever able to evaluate any work of art privately in the total absence of aesthetic considerations; in private, I feel, we are able to marry politics and aesthetics in our readings in a way impossible in public. Keeping trust in that private fusion of aesthetics and politics should have assured her that many (obviously not all, but many) would in fact appreciate it in its moment for its aesthetic qualities. And since private considerations and evaluations of novels play a large—if nebulous—role in their survival past their social or political moment, Lessing should have been more confident that if her novel was in fact "good," the political uses to which it was put were not an ultimate threat to its future appreciation.

Second, I am deeply suspicious of Lessing's implicit idea that the use of her book as a "weapon" was the prime conditioning or even determining factor in its reception. Lessing seems to have thought that if the novel weren't immediately politicized and put to use for Women's Lib then it might have gotten a more positive or more sensitive reception among the men who found themselves being criticized by its female (and some male—John Leonard was a big proponent) readers, but I sincerely doubt this would have been the case, or that any such case is likely. Being brandished by feminists didn't send any messages that the patriarchy couldn't have read by itself. The themes which she preferred the book to be known for—the themes of the artist, of breakdowns and healing, of the experience of intellectual life in socialist circles at mid-century—would have been buried no matter to what use others put it by the very fact that its author was a woman. Lessing even admits as much when she says, "Of course this attempt on my part assumed that that filter which is a woman's way of looking at life has the same validity as the filter which is a man's way… setting that problem aside, or rather, not even considering it…" (my emphasis).


As I said, though, it is very tempting to read the novel on Lessing's terms—as a sort of "pure novel," much more so than many another novel of its scope or ambition. I have referenced Thomas Mann a number of times recently on this blog I think, and perhaps it is just that Mann's novels (The Magic Mountain, especially) exist for me as a sort of ur-text of intellectual novel-making (biographically speaking, Mann's novels were among the first I read in college), but not only are his novels also the closest to what I would feel almost comfortable calling "pure," but Lessing herself uses him in this way: "Thomas Mann, the last of the writers in the old sense, who used the novel for philosophical statements about life." Why not stand with Lessing (and Mann) and assert the artist's inviolability to politics? Why can't we, at the very least, have a few novels which we don't fight over politically? There are already quite enough which are given over wholly to politics anyway; why can't we keep a special preserve for the novels which we just want to read and love and re-read and re-love, a sort of arboretum for pure art?

I have to go back to my first objection to Lessing to answer that: politics does not harm aesthetics—not finally. In discrete public moments when the novel is used as a whipping-boy or as a bludgeon for one partisan cause or another, yes, maybe it does, but I am confident that these blows are never mortal. That is why, I feel, I can both ultimately disagree with Lessing's political quietude at the close of the novel and ultimately appreciate its place in the whole.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

My Summer of Love, by Pawel Pawlikowski (2004)

Although I have been able to get some reading done over the past month, clearly I've had some trouble allotting sufficient time to this blog, and it's languished somewhat. In the interest of keeping some fresh content going (and out of a desire to do a bit of personal curating), I'm going to try to put up a few posts on some films from the past decade. That is not to say that these form a canon of bests or favorites, but just are films about which I think I might have something interesting to say. Some are favorites, however, and some contain favorite moments; others connected to something I was trying to define or understand about the times.



The films "My Summer of Love" (Pawlikowski 2004) and "The Dreamers" (Bertolucci 2003) work fairly well, I think, as conversation pieces. Both foreground the Blakean dialectic of innocence and experience, but whereas Bertolucci conceives of innocence as a form of maturity that can overcome or surmount experience (such a French idea, appropriate to its setting and subject), Pawlikowski takes the more conventional view of experience as profoundly threatening to the self, though he nevertheless comes off as the far less clichéd and in fact much more radical auteur.

Both films are very well-shot, though in vastly different ways: Bertolucci's understanding of filmmaking seems to be that it is about making shots (not merely "composing" them and certainly not "lensing" them), and if he succeeds a good deal of the time, the effect is antithetical to the spontaneity and freshness of the New Wave, ostensibly the object of Bertolucci's nostalgia. Pawlikowski, on the other hand, seems minutely concerned with burying the choreography and composition of his filmmaking in the "natural" movements of his characters and the organic contours of his landscape. Consider this scene:



The scene is perfectly choreographed, but on two levels—Tamsin (Emily Blunt)'s choreography of the physical space of the scene and Pawlikowski's choreography of its emotional space. Tamsin plays with Mona (Natalie Press), orchestrating the interchange as perfectly as the improvised dance steps which land her on the opposite end of the couch, able to finish off Mona's wine after she had already knocked back her own. Tamsin takes, then she moves you around and takes again.

The camerawork is very slight for most of the scene, although if you look closely there is a pendulum-like swaying in near-harmony with the girls' conversation. Then they begin dancing and suddenly we have a close-up of their faces as they dance. Up to this moment, Mona has been trying to keep herself at a distance, her attention not entirely fixed on Tamsin, but when we snap to this closer shot, we know Tamsin has won. And when they part and the camera now shows them at medium distance, not only has Tamsin switched seats with Mona in order to drink her glass of wine, but the camera settles with her; the swaying of the camera's attention between the two girls has been resolved, and in Tamsin's favor.

"My Summer of Love" is full of small moments like this; all three of its principal actors are superb (Emily Blunt has obviously done very well after this film, but Natalie Press and Paddie Considine are probably even better in it), the script is terse but very effective, and the scenery (and set dressing) is gorgeous. I actually haven't watched it since it was in theaters (the cinematography was so good I'm honestly a little scared that my rather small television would spoil it), but if I had a chance to watch it on a larger screen, it would be among the first films of the past decade I would re-watch.